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Up From the Ashes
[completed - PG13]

Chapter Sixteen

By the time Elana reached the house the clouds had completely covered the moon and soft, light snowflakes had begun to fall. She was shaking - not with cold but with anger that had been growing steadily since she had watched Darien Stewart walk off into the trees. Elana slammed the door hard and kicked off her boots into a corner of the laundry room. She was just struggling with her jacket zipper when Chandra walked in.

"What's with the noise?" she asked, then she did a double take when she saw Elana's face. "What's wrong? Is there a problem with the greenhouses?"

"The greenhouses are fine." Elana couldn't keep a tremor out of her voice.

"Well, something's up. You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Wish it had been a ghost!"

"What happened out there?"

"Don't ask! I don't want to talk about it."

Chandra reached out and pulled down the zipper that Elana's shaking hands hadn't been able to budge. "I'm just making cocoa. Want some?"

"Oh yes, please." Elana took a few deep breaths to calm herself as she hung up her jacket, then she followed Chandra into the kitchen. "It's starting to snow - that wasn't on the forecast."

"Weathermen!" Chandra said with scorn. "Do they ever get it right? Don't worry about it. There'll probably only be a few flurries and then it'll stop."

"I don't mind if it snows - I like snow."

"Not the kind we get - it's a real pain. It's wet and mushy and no one knows how to drive in it."

The hot cocoa only soothed Elana for a short time. She lay in her bed unable to sleep as the scene in the forest played over and over again in her mind. Was the man insane? She shuddered. How could she have let him kiss her like that and then just stand there and do nothing? The worst thing was that the kiss should have been awful, but it wasn't awful. What was wrong with her? Had it been so long since she had been kissed that some crazed guy could come up and kiss her and her and her body would respond? She hated Darien. Hated! And yet she'd just stood there and let him do it. She wiped the back of her hand against her mouth for about the hundredth time but it did nothing to erase the sensation that still remained there.

And then there was all that stuff he had said. He loved her? What kind of BS was that? They'd barely ever spoken to each other. And he sure had a low opinion of her. What did he mean by someone like you? He knew nothing about her. So what if she was divorced. So what if she had a kid. Did that make her some kind of leper? How on earth did the house she lived in define her as a person, especially as she had nothing to do with the terrible shape it had been in before she had moved in?

Anyway, what was he doing kissing her when he had a girlfriend? Did he think because she was such a low class person that he could just screw around with her on the side? She ought to have slapped his arrogant face, or kicked him right in the . . . instead she'd just let him kiss her again. He probably thought . . . that she'd liked it. That she'd wanted it. Well, she'd straighten that out next time she saw him.

Her blankets were all tangled from her restless twisting about. Elana got out of bed and tried to remake it. She needed to forget about that creep and get some sleep. She heard Cody's door open and close as he went to the bathroom, and then the padding of his footsteps as he came up beside her.

"Mom! Look out the window. It's snowing!" His eyes were glowing in the dim light. "It's finally snowing!"

Elana looked out the window for the first time that night. The light flurries had turned into large, steadily falling flakes. The trees were transformed, their layered branches white and drooping. The ground was covered but for some bare patches under the trees.

"Can I stay in your bed with you for a bit and watch it?"

"Sure thing. Let's both get in under the blankets before we start shivering."

Elana finally fell into a deep sleep with Cody snuggled up against her as the snow continued to fall, the sky white with such a profusion of flakes it seemed they were joined in an almost solid sheet before ever touching the ground.

~ * ~

She was in a dark wood. Weird shadows swooped and fell as light beams arced across the sky, breaking against the trees. Irregular pounding noises echoed through the night. And distant animals called to each other in the depths of the blackness. Fear gripped her. The sounds were coming nearer, the lights more distracting. She started pulling herself up through the trees - higher, higher. Branches closed in. The air was fetid. Unbearable. She was gasping, her throat almost raw.

And suddenly she was awake, her blankets tight around her and Cody sleeping heavily on her chest. But the sounds persisted - distant voices and banging - and careening shadows cast from swinging lights. Elana shook her head to try to clear it and carefully slipped out from underneath Cody. He mumbled and turned in his sleep but did not wake. With her mind still full of the terror of her dream she looked out the window to try to make sense of the noise and the light.

The snow was incredibly deep and still falling - but now it was heavy, wet snow. She could only see formless shapes - nothing that made sense. Trees broke her view and the flashing lights obscured her vision, but something was happening out by her greenhouses.

She ran to the laundry room and threw on her jacket, dug around in the far corner of the room for the snow boots she'd kicked off just a few hours before. She stuck her bare feet into them, stuffed her pyjama pants firmly in, and tied the laces. Hoping there were gloves in her pockets she ran out the door and down the trail. Eerie figures were silhouetted against a greenhouse glowing with opaque light. She was about to run over to them when the sound of plastic rending and a dull crash made her turn her head. Darien Stewart was standing a few feet from her, knife raised in the act of slashing the plastic of one of the greenhouses. Beyond him, great gaping holes made the three other greenhouses look like skeletal frames rising out of the snow.

"What the heck are you doing?" she cried as she ran towards him and grabbed at the arm that was wielding the knife. "Have you completely lost your senses? Why are you wrecking my place?"

"Elana - it's the snow. It's too . . ."

Elana didn't want to hear what he had to say. She'd had a terrible night because of him, and now . . . this senseless, wilful destruction of her property? Everything that had been going through her head for the greater part of the evening suddenly exploded from her.

"I know you don't like me living here - you made that perfectly clear the first time we met. What do you think you'll gain by sabotaging my business? You should know by now that nothing will induce me to move. You knock it down and I'll build it all back up! You know I can - I won't let you or anything you do stand in my way."

The figures, voices and lights beyond the other greenhouse, the one that was now behind her, no longer made any impression upon her senses. All that concerned her was Darien and the knife that was in his hand.

He wrested his arm from her grasp. "You don't understand. I'm trying to . . ."

"You're right! I don't understand anything about you. Here you are tearing my place apart and a few hours ago you were coming on to me. And don't think . . . and don't think I liked it!" Elana stopped for a breath. Darien had been on the point of moving, but he froze in a half turn, his eyes focused on her face.

"I'm listening," he said.

The snow was coming down wet upon them, but his voice was colder than the lashing sleet, colder than the air that caught in her throat. Elana was beyond feeling the cold. She was driven by the need to tell Darien exactly what she thought of him before she ordered him off her property forever.

"You are so arrogant, coming here and kissing me like that and then telling me how I'm totally wrong for you but you can't control your feelings. Your feelings! What about my feelings? Did you even consider them? What have I ever done that would make you think I could possibly want you to kiss me? Or does every girl that you deign to kiss fall at your feet in ecstasy at the privilege? And what about your girlfriend Lina? Is she not giving it out, so you figured why not try the tart next door? After all, someone like me, with my background, divorced, with a child, living in what you consider a hovel, is sure to be dying to get into bed with you! What do you even know about me anyway? And you have the amazing nerve to say that you love me and expect me to believe it?"

Darien hadn't moved. Melting snow dripped through his hair and down his face but he made no attempt to brush it off. "I do love you." His words were fragile, like the first paper-thin ice on a pond.

Elana felt compelled say whatever she could to make his admission untrue. The very idea made her sick to the stomach. "How can you stand there and say that to me? You've still got the knife in your hand that you're trashing my greenhouses with. What kind of weird, perverted love is that? Why am I even talking to you? You're obviously deranged. Look - I'm going to say this very clearly so you'll understand. I don't like you. I've never liked you. You've never done anything that would make me like you. You're rude, arrogant, conceited, romantically inept, and certifiable. I want you off my property now!" Her voice and her fury had risen together as she spoke, and when she was done she stood, breathing heavily, ready to face whatever confrontation was in store for her.

Darien finally turned his body away, as if they had been playing statues and he had just been allowed to move again, and walked quickly from her to the side of the greenhouse, ripping his knife through the snow and the plastic viciously. She ran after him and grabbed at his arm but he shook her off and kept going until the roof had caved in all the way along and the snow that had covered it was lying in heaps inside the tattered greenhouse.

"Stop! Please damn you, stop! Are you completely insane?" Elana beat on his back with her fists. Her anger was giving way to tears. She felt impotent and helpless against his rampage.

"Let me do this and then I'll go."

"Let you slash my greenhouses to shreds? Let you . . ."

Sam came around the other greenhouse, a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other. "Darien, leave that. We've got to get the other heated house cleared before it caves. Here's a shovel."

"I'm all done here anyway, Sam, and I've already got one," he said as he picked up a shovel that was leaning against the end of the greenhouse. "Get Colin and Carl in there to buttress it with those two by eights we brought. That should stop it from collapsing before we get all the snow off." He turned back to Elana and said, so quietly that she almost didn't hear him, "I get it. You hate me. Just forget I ever said I love you, if that'll make you feel better. I'm going to finish this then I'll get out of your life."

Elana watched as Darien, Sam, and Dennis began shovelling the snow off the greenhouse roof. It was as if, since she had woken from her dream, this was the first time she could see clearly. Before that she'd had tunnel vision. There was almost two feet of snow on the greenhouse and it was creaking under the weight. The light, fluffy snow she and Cody had watched with such pleasure was made heavier by the sleet that was still steadily falling. Colin and Carl dragged unwieldy posts into the greenhouse. She could see their dim shadows propping them under the arches of the roof. She turned and looked at the other greenhouses, the cold frames that were still empty, waiting for warmer weather to have the young plants moved into them. The snow was falling harmlessly through the great holes torn in their roofs.

She looked down at herself. Her jacket was open. Her pyjamas clung wetly to her legs. But she was still impervious to the cold. All except for her hands, which had started shaking. She put them in her jacket pockets and found gloves, put them on, and then went in search of a shovel.

Dawn was weakly erasing the darkness when they finished clearing the greenhouse roof. But now that there was no more mindless shovelling, the enormity of what had happened hit Elana in wave after shocking wave. She was no longer resistant to the cold. It seeped through her legs, her hands and her face right into her bones, compounding the misery she already felt in her soul.

She couldn't face the men, even to offer her thanks. She put her shovel in the shed and went into the house through the laundry room door. For some reason Joy was there, helping her out of her wet things and wrapping her up in a blanket. She was led to the living room where a fire was burning, giving off more warmth and comfort then she thought existed in the world. She crumpled onto the carpet and clung to Joy who stroked her hair and whispered consolingly.

"It's all right. You've saved them. All of you - together. Isn't it wonderful how the men came?"

"I was sleeping," said Elana into Joy's shoulder. "Where did they come from? How did they know? I could have lost everything."

"Chandra told me that Darien Stewart came over and woke Sam up and called the others, I guess they didn't want to disturb us." Joy hugged Elana closer as she suddenly broke into sobs. "Hush. Everything's fine. Chandra and I have been up for a couple of hours. I even made this fire. Aren't you proud of me?" Elana nodded her head. Her sobs turned to ragged whimpers as Joy continued to speak in her soft reassuring voice. "Chandra's taken cocoa and sandwiches over to Darien's place with the guys. She invited them in here but they decided to go there and give you some peace and quiet. They were right - you're completely worn out."

"He wouldn't want to come in here anyway, not after . . ." Elana broke off as she remembered Darien's last words to her. How had he managed to speak so calmly after all the things she had said to him?

"What's that, Honey?" said Joy, leaning her head closer to Elana's in an attempt to hear her muffled words.

"Oh Joy! I'm such a blind fool! I've done something so very terrible - I don't know how I can face anybody ever again."

Elana began crying once more and refused to say anything else when Joy asked her what she meant. So Joy just held her, rocking back and forth and rubbing her back until she quietened. They sat like that until Joy had to get up and stoke the waning fire. Then Elana just lay on the carpet and stared into the flames.

What had she done? She had accused Darien of destroying her property when all the time he'd been trying to save it. He'd woken Sam - organised everything. Without him her greenhouses would surely have collapsed and she'd have lost everything she'd worked so hard for all fall and winter. Her livelihood was saved because of him. If he hadn't have been such a jerk earlier in the night would she have realised what was going on when she'd gone outside to check? Would she have listened to him when he'd tried to explain what he was doing there? Or would she still have made a complete and utter fool of herself?

It was hard for her to believe that he had done what he had, even though the evidence was right before her eyes, even though she'd worked alongside him to clear the snow off the last house. Darien Stewart - the guy who despised the very existence of her greenhouse business. He'd come to her rescue. Was he nicer than she'd realised? Or had he done it out of love? She had no idea how she felt about his love now. A few hours ago the concept had filled her with nausea, but now she didn't know what to think. It didn't matter anyway because by now he hated her just as much as she hated him. Only she couldn't feel that same depth of animosity anymore. Not after what he'd done to help her. She had to face the fact that she had totally misjudged him. And as she tried to come to terms with her shame about the things she'd said to him, she attempted to equate the man who went out of his way in the middle of the night to help a neighbour with the one who had told her that he loved her against his will and despite what a terrible sort of person he thought she was.

Joy finally managed to get Elana to sit in the armchair, which she had moved close to the fire. She tucked another blanket around her and then went to the kitchen to fetch her a hot drink and a sandwich. Elana sipped the cocoa absently but didn't even touch the food. The flames danced and flickered before her eyes. She watched the patterns they made, studied the variations of colour - from white to blue to yellow to orange - and followed the sparks as they broke off and rose to disappear up the chimney. Eventually she fell asleep. Joy removed the cup from her limp fingers before the cold chocolate spilled all over her lap.

Chapter Seventeen

Darien slumped in his chair after everyone had gone. There was a cold cup of coffee in front of him and a plate with a partially eaten sandwich. After the sleepless night, the realisation of the danger from the snow, the frenetic work in the dark and bitter cold, and Elana's sudden angry and accusatory outburst, his mind was only capable of focusing on one thing. She hated him.

Justie came through the doorway into the kitchen and looked around. "That must have been some party."

Darien barely moved his head to acknowledge her presence.

"Who was here? What happened? You look terrible." She began picking up the mugs and plates that were scattered over the table and putting them in the dishwasher.

Darien rubbed his eyes and took a sip of his coffee, and then pushed it away with a shudder. "Is there any left in the pot?" he asked.

Justie went over to the coffeemaker. "It looks like sludge. Do you want me to make a fresh pot?"

"Don't bother," he said as he leaned his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. "I'd probably let it go cold again. I'm not capable of anything right now."

"Are you going to tell me about it or should I hunt for clues?" She picked up a plate and motioned with it. "Colin always leaves his crust." Then she looked inside a mug and poured what was left in it down the drain. "Extra cream. Carl was here."

"We were out saving the greenhouses."

"Elana's greenhouses?"

Darien nodded. "It snowed like crazy last night - they would have collapsed."

"She called you to help her?"

"No. I - I got up in the night and saw all the snow and got worried so I went out to check on them, then I woke up Sam and called the others on my cell."

"What about Elana?"

"We decided not to disturb her . . . but she woke up anyway."

"She must have been glad to see you guys out there."

Darien gave a hollow laugh. "Glad doesn't quite describe it."

Justie looked at him enquiringly. "What else . . . I mean you guys were out there in the middle of the night shovelling snow so her greenhouses wouldn't cave in."

"When she came outside I was slashing plastic. She thought I was some kind of psycho saboteur and she blew up at me."

Justie almost laughed but thought better of it. From the expression on her brother's face she could tell he wasn't joking. "But once she figured out what was going on . . ."

"Once she figured out what was going on she grabbed a shovel and worked just as hard as the rest of us. But that doesn't change the fact that she hates me."

Justie sat down and stared at him. "I don't understand."

Darien pushed back his chair and began walking around the room. "It's pretty simple. She can't stand me. I'm rude, I'm arrogant, I'm conceited, I'm certifiable. . . why am I telling you all this? Forget it - it's nothing - I need to get some sleep." He walked through the doorway without a backward glance at Justie who watched him go, a bewildered expression on her face.

As he climbed the stairs to his room the words Elana had thrown at him revolved around in his head. Especially the ones he hadn't mentioned to his sister. Romantically inept. Obviously she had been referring to that interlude in the woods. But she hadn't put up any resistance at the time. Her lips had been soft, and warm and not completely unresponsive. Or so it had seemed to him. He had left her there in the moonlight with such a feeling of euphoria and contentment running through him. He would never feel that way again. Thinking about the kiss only made everything worse. He had to get her out of his mind if he hoped to ever dull the pain because, despite all her unkind words, her misconceptions and the unshakable fact that she hated him, he loved her and he knew that would not change.

~ * ~

When Elana awoke she wondered why she was sleeping in the living room in the armchair, wearing nothing but the blankets she was wrapped in, then the ordeal of the night before came back to her. She turned to the window and saw that wet flakes of snow were still falling. Holding the blankets tightly, she got up and trudged into the kitchen. Every part of her body was aching. Chandra was at the sink, washing dishes.

"Feeling better?"

"I can't tell yet. What time is it?"

"Ten."

"What? Is Cody up? What about school?"

"Relax - school's cancelled today because of the snow. Cody's outside playing in it. He's pretty excited but I told him not to disturb you. Want some breakfast?"

Elana shook her head. "I think I'd better put some clothes on."

Chandra looked out the window and giggled. "Better get cracking. Sam's on his way - don't want to embarrass the poor guy."

Elana hurried to her bedroom. After a hot shower and with warm, dry clothes on she felt a bit better, but none of those things could rid her of the oppressive feelings that were weighting her down. She returned to the kitchen where Sam was sitting drinking tea and eating a piece of pie.

"I never thanked you," she said as she sat down opposite him. "I feel so terrible. After everything you guys did to save my greenhouses I didn't thank a single one of you."

"Darien Stewart's the one you really need to thank," said Sam.

"I know - and I need to apologise to him. I sort of exploded - I didn't know what was going on."

"Yeah, well, I noticed you two were having a bit of an argument."

"I don't think I'll be able to look him in the eye again," said Elana with a long sigh. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and she did her best to hold them back. There was no way she was going to cry in front of Sam.

"He's a reasonable man - I don't think he'll hold anything against you."

"I guess I should have listened to you before when you told me he wasn't as bad as I thought. Some of the things I said to him were justified, but I accused him of being insane and of destroying my greenhouses on purpose when he was only trying to help me. How did he know the greenhouses were in danger? I was sleeping and you were sleeping - I shudder to think what would have happened if he didn't wake you up and call the other guys."

Sam put his teacup down. "Green Valley Farms lost three houses, and Arboflora in Merville lost all eight of theirs. Even Village Gardens in town had one that half-way collapsed and they were out half the night like us, clearing the snow off."

"Oh my God!" said Elana.

"I've been out checking your houses. There's a few bent arches, but no real structural damage to any of them. If the plastic hadn't been cut you would've lost a couple - there's no way we could've shovelled all that snow off in time."

Elana couldn't speak. All she could do was think of all those terrible things she had said to Darien. Even if some of them were true, it was awful that she had thrown them at him while he was out in the freezing sleet saving her livelihood.

"Don't look so shocked, Elana. Everything's fine - there's no point in worrying about what might have happened because it didn't happen. Just thank your lucky stars."

"I'm completely indebted to Darien Stewart," said Elana in a shaky voice.

"Is that so very terrible?" Sam asked.

"And the rest of you guys too. You were all so wonderful coming out in the middle of the night like that and working so hard."

"That's what friends are for," said Sam with a smile.

Elana heard an engine outside, and a rumbling, scraping noise. "What's that?"

Sam cocked his head. "Must be Dennis on the snow plough. Darien asked him to do your driveway after he finished ploughing his."

This latest act of kindness was more than her feelings could bear. She laid her upper body on the table, her head on her crossed arms, and cried.

Sam shuffled over to her and patted her on the shoulder. "I think you need to go back to bed and get some more sleep, Elana." He helped her out of her chair and guided her to her room. "See you tomorrow," he said as he hugged her shoulders and then pushed her gently through her doorway.

~ * ~

Cody wasn't pleased about the snowploughing because it meant that he was able to get to school the next day. Elana drove him through the light drizzle and then went to her insurance office to see if she could make a claim for any damages. She could not. The broker told her that even if her greenhouses had collapsed there would have been no compensation unless they were under warranty. After that she priced the cost of replacing the plastic and returned home in a troubled state of mind. She needed to have money coming in before that amount of money could go out.

In the next few days she saw Carl, Colin, and Dennis and was able to thank them properly, but she still hadn't got up the nerve to go to Stewart Stables and thank Darien. All she could remember was that look on his face when he had told her to forget that he had said he loved her. She was afraid to witness that pain again, and she was filled with shame about so much of what she had said to him. She contemplated writing him a note, but that was a coward's way out.

By Friday the snow had been washed away and the ground was saturated with water. The soccer fields in town looked like a lake. Elana came back from a trip to Superstore to find a truck in her driveway and a team of workers stripping the shredded plastic from her greenhouses.

"What's going on here?' she asked. "I didn't hire anyone."

The foreman came over to speak to her. "Are you Elana Barnes?"

"Yes."

"Sorry to start the job without speaking to you. I did talk to Sam Jardin, though."

"Did he call you?" asked Elana, surprised that Sam would do something like this without consulting her. He knew how tight the money was.

"No. We were hired by Darien Stewart, of Stewart Stables. He's covering all the costs. Is there a problem?"

"No . . . I just wasn't aware," said Elana. "You go ahead and do the job - I'll speak to Mr Stewart. I should be paying for it - not him."

"Well, you settle that between you," said the foreman jovially. "I'll just do what I'm told."

Elana contemplated charging through the bush and climbing the fence, but instead walked quickly down the length of her driveway and then up Darien's even longer one. The first person she saw when she arrived at the stables was Lina, who was just about to get into her silver BMW.

"Do you know where Darien is?" Elana asked her breathlessly.

Lina studied the polish on her fingernails. "Yes," was all she said.

After waiting a few moments Elana lost her patience. "I asked because I'm looking for him."

"What do you want him for?"

"It's really none of your business," said Elana.

"The stable business is my business, so's Darien."

"It has nothing to do with the stables."

"I don't see what you could possibly have to discuss with him," said Lina, "but he's busy at this moment." She got into her car and started the engine, and then she opened her window and stuck her head out. "I suggest you phone and leave a message on the answering machine. I'm sure that someone will get back to you when they find the time."

As Lina drove away, Elana looked about. There were too many choices - the barns, the stables, the riding ring, the house. She had been hoping to find him outside somewhere; she didn't want to go up to his house. She felt that there she would be on too uneven a footing. Sighing, she walked towards the closest building and looked inside. There were tractors and wagons and other farm implements but nobody was around. Next she went into the small stable off the paddock where Cody usually had his lesson. She was greeted by the snorts of one or two of the horses that had broken off munching their hay, but other than that the building was empty. She began walking to the larger stable that was further back in the property when she noticed a rider in a far field. There was no mistaking who it was. She walked up to the fence and stood there, hoping he would notice her and come in.

She was leaning up against the fence for about five minutes before the rider became aware of her presence. She saw the sudden balk as he stopped the horse mid stride, and then turned it in her direction. The closer he got the more apprehensive she became. He seemed at the same time to be coming towards her too quickly and too slowly. When he was close enough for her to see his face she looked at the horse instead. He brought the animal right up to the fence before he dismounted. He looped the reins around the fence post a couple of times and then came over to stand across from her. Neither of them spoke at first. All Elana could do was concentrate on the rings on the bridle by the horse's cheek.

Darien shifted his feet, put his hands in his pockets, took them out again. "I guess they've started, eh?"

Elana's head shot up to look at him. His face was as blank and expressionless as his voice. She had been going to thank him first, and then apologise, and then tell him that she would pay for the plastic. Instead she blurted out, "Why did you do it? How do you know I already haven't ordered new plastic?"

"You can cancel the order."

"I didn't order any yet . . . I can't afford to."

"So there's no problem then." Darien reached for the reins.

"Wait!" said Elana. "You can't pay for replacing the plastic."

"Why not? I'm the one who slashed it."

"But . . . but the greenhouses would have collapsed if you hadn't done it." Elana was looking at the horse's head again.

"Maybe, maybe not. I'm the one who took that risk without consulting you. It's my responsibility."

"Don't be crazy!" cried Elana. And then she turned red when she realised what she had just said.

"I am perfectly sane." Darien's voice was colder than ever.

Elana looked back at him again. "I didn't mean . . . that was a stupid thing to say . . . after what you did for me . . . I know . . . I know . . ."

Darien cut her off. "What I did is no big deal - anyone would have done the same."

"You can't pay for my plastic!"

"I already have," said Darien, taking the reins from the post and mounting his horse, "so just accept it. Nothing you can say will change my mind."

"But - but don't ride away yet. I need to thank you for saving everything I've worked so hard for."

"I didn't do it for thanks," he said as he turned the horse and walked it back up the field.

Elana kicked the fence. "Don't go yet, I still have to apologise," she said, but Darien was already too far away to hear her. She thought of yelling it after him, but she was close to tears and too angry to apologise. And now he expected her to let him pay for the plastic. She stared after him watching his back, erect as his body swayed gently with the horse's natural rhythm. He didn't turn around. She could add pride to his list of faults at the same time as she grudgingly added generosity to his list of virtues.

~ * ~

It had been one of the hardest things he'd ever done. He had known she would come. There was no way she would have let him pay for the plastic without a word. But he hadn't been prepared for the way his heart lurched when he had seen her waiting for him beside the fence. He'd felt a sudden thrill as if she'd come because she wanted to see him. But he knew it was only about the plastic. When he got to the fence she'd done her best not to even look at him, and when she did, though he'd longed to see her eyes, he wished he hadn't. There was no spark in their depths for him. Only anger. And it had caused him to fall back behind a defence of reserve, but rather than stop the pain it had only made him distant and cold.

He had meant it when he'd said that he hadn't helped her for thanks. He'd helped her because he'd watched all the work and determination that had gone into restoring the greenhouses and planting all her cuttings and seedlings. He'd have done anything not to see her spirit shattered and destroyed. When he'd woken and seen the snow, the first thing he had thought of was her - and when he'd looked out his window and seen how deeply her greenhouses were covered he knew immediately what he had to do. He'd slashed that plastic with such frenzy not for praise or thanks but because he wanted to spare her any suffering. And he'd done it all with love. But he should have extended that love to allowing her to thank him.

As he walked the horse away from her he did not permit himself to turn his head. If he had done so he would have ridden back to her and given way to his barely suppressible urge to hold her and comfort her. But he knew that comfort from him wasn't what she wanted. She'd accused him before of not giving any thought to her feelings. Considering her feelings was now foremost in his mind.

Chapter Eighteen

Elana was grateful that she had her work to lose herself in and escape the memory of that night, but in all her quiet moments she could think of nothing else. Sometimes it was just the image of Darien slashing at her greenhouses with such intensity that it was frightening, even though she now understood and appreciated his actions. Sometimes it was their earlier meeting when he had kissed her. She found her thoughts on the kiss confusing, muddled with outrage and longing. But his insulting confession of how he had let his feelings for her overcome his reason - that still hurt and angered her as much as ever. At least she didn't have to worry about his loving her any longer - no love could have withstood the blast she had given him.

February came to an end with a week of grey drizzle that made her wish for the freezing temperatures and blue skies of her old home but the weather changed in March to blustery days of sun and cloud that at times were almost as warm as summer. Elana was able to move her hardier seedlings out into the cold frames and begin planting up her hanging baskets. When not working she spent as much time as possible with Cody, taking him to all his practices and games. The season was winding down and they were in playoffs and on a very solid winning streak.

She had seen Darien across the field at a couple of the games but he hadn't come over to her side. His presence affected her differently now than it had before. Now she appreciated that he was there to support Cody, and she was glad that the increased distance between herself and Darien hadn't affected that friendship.

The morning before his semi-final Cody was checking his cleats in the kitchen, his excitement barely contained.

"We're facing the first place team!" he said as he replaced a worn-down cleat. "If we beat them we're in the final."

"Didn't you tie them last time you played?"

"They're the team we beat in the shoot out. I know we can beat them again!"

"I like your attitude buddy," said Elana, hugging him. "Are you ready? It's time to hit the road."

As they were driving, Elana let Cody's excited jabbering slide over her as her mind went back to that other game. Darien Stewart had been there - he'd bought her a hot chocolate, and now she realised he'd bought it for her because she was cold and hadn't just given it to her absently because Justie wasn't around. She always had looked for the worst interpretation to his actions just because he'd annoyed her the first day they'd seen each other. What had he said then that was so terrible, really? He hadn't known who she was. He wasn't even speaking to her. She could now understand how he must have felt to have such an unkempt property beside his own for so many years. Sam had told her stories about how it had been a hangout for punks and losers, and how the tenants had always trashed it. She knew what a pigsty it was when she had moved in. Had Darien said anything terrible about it since then? His anger about the fire had been justified - and she had reacted badly again. Since then he'd made no complaints at all - he'd been quiet and kept to himself. Until that cold, cold night when he'd said all those awful things to her after he had kissed her.

After he'd kissed her. She wondered what had brought that on. How had he supposedly fallen in love with her when they'd barely been in each other's company? She recalled the game again, how he'd stayed by her side, how he'd grabbed her hand comfortingly before Cody had taken his shot. And then there was that dinner at The Old House before the play. He'd been looking at her across the table all through the meal even though he was with his girlfriend, and then they'd driven to the play alone together, although they hadn't even spoken to each other. Maybe if she hadn't been so caught up in her dislike of him she'd have noticed that those occasions had meant more to him than they had to her. But still, there was Lina. No matter how she looked at it, it didn't add up.

When she drove into the parking lot Elana was still as confused as ever and she told herself off for being so preoccupied when she should have been paying more attention to Cody. He didn't seem to be affected in the least, though. He gave her a hug and then ran out onto the playing field to join his team mates for the warm-up. Elana walked slowly out to the sidelines. She pulled her sweater tightly around herself. In the open the breeze was brisker than it had been at her house. She decided to keep moving and walked over to the river to kill time before the game started. As she looked down from the bridge at the dark eddying water, she watched her reflection form and break, form and break. 'Nothing is permanent,' she thought. 'What I'm going through right now will pass - it's best not to dwell on it too much.' She turned around and walked back to the soccer field, the wind blowing strongly through her hair.

Cody had a large fan base on the sidelines by game time. Joy and Carl, Sam, and Chandra were all high fiving him as the team ran onto the field. He looked off in the distance and waved as he took his spot in left mid. Elana turned to see whom he was waving at. Justie and Darien were walking up from the parking lot.

"You guys almost missed the starting whistle," called Carl.

"It's Darien's fault," said Justie.

"Yeah," Darien said. "I insisted on going back to get Justie a warmer jacket. And don't say you're not glad I did, Justie."

"I'm all cosy and warm," she said, snuggling her furry collar around her neck.

Justie gave Elana a friendly greeting and settled in beside her and began chatting. Darien nodded in her direction, his smile barely perceptible, and stood beside Carl. Elana smiled tentatively at him and then turned her attention to Justie.

"I'm glad I could finally make another game," said Justie. "I usually give a private lesson on Saturday mornings but it was cancelled. Cody was really eager for us to come."

"He loves it when his friends are here."

"And his games are so much fun!" Justie said. "I remember the last one I went to - he scored the winning goal in a shoot out."

The play started and all the conversation reverted to the action at hand. The teams were well matched and the competition fierce. And though Elana was fully intent on the game, in the back of her mind she was always aware of where Darien was standing. His voice stood out amid all the other cheering. During the game he gravitated closer to her until only Justie was between them. She told herself that it was because of his sister and nothing to do with her but once or twice she had caught him looking at her.

At half time Cody came running off the field and was surrounded by everyone as they patted his back and congratulated him on his solid performance. Elana stood back and watched in pleasure after giving the first hug. The wind tossed her hair in and out of her eyes and she wished she'd brought an elastic. She held her hair back with one hand and blew on the other to try to warm it, regretting the fact that her sweater had no pockets. She saw Darien say something in Justie's ear and then he walked away towards the concession stand. Justie left the group and came up by Elana's side. She dug about in her jacket pocket and pulled out a scrunchie.

"Here, will this help?" she asked.

"Thanks," said Elana, taking it and tying her hair back. "My hands are freezing from holding it out of my eyes." She stuffed her hands under her arms. "That's better."

"Are you warm enough?"

"I'll be just fine. It's my own silly fault for not wearing a jacket."

"I'm so glad Darien went back for mine," confided Justie. "I didn't think it'd be this cold either - the weather's been so nice lately."

"I know, sometimes it's hard to remember it's only March."

"But it's not letting us forget today!"

The whistle blew again and the kids ran onto the pitch for the second half. Elana turned towards the field and just about bumped into an arm holding a hot chocolate out towards her.

"This should warm up your hands," Darien said, and he handed a cup to his sister as well.

"Th - thanks," said Elana, circling her fingers around the hot cup.

"Good game," he said. "They'll score soon - it's only a matter of time." And then he wandered away to where Carl and Joy were standing.

"Ooh! Sir Galahad to the rescue," said Chandra as she joined Elana and Justie.

"What're you talking about?" asked Elana.

"I should have stood around shivering and maybe someone would have brought me a hot chocolate."

"My brother is the sweetest guy," said Justie, "anyway, you were snuggling up so close to Colin you didn't have a chance to be cold."

"But now he's running up and down the sidelines and I'm freezing my butt off."

"Concession stand is right over there." Justie motioned behind them and laughed.

"You think I'd dare miss any of the game to get a drink now? Cody would have my hide. The kid's got eyes on the back of his head. He's watching all of us."

"Would you like a sip of mine?" asked Elana, holding out her cup.

"Forget about it. That's from your knight in shining armour. I'll get mine to warm me up again after the game."

"I don't have a . . . he's not . . ."

"Sure could've fooled me, sugar," said Chandra as she sauntered off to join Sam.

Elana focused back on the game, hoping that her cheeks weren't as flushed as they felt.

Darien had been right in his prediction. Cody's team finally broke down the other's defences fifteen minutes into the half and scored. In the dying seconds Cody added a second goal that was icing on the cake. When the final whistle blew and the two teams had shaken hands the boys ran a victory lap and then Cody did cartwheels all the way off the field.

"We're going to the finals," he cried with joy as he ran into Elana's arms.

"I know honey! And you were awesome. That was an amazing goal."

"The goalie had given up by that time," said Cody.

"Not true. Your shot was too strong for him to handle."

"Pizza!" yelled Colin. "Coach Jerry's treat!" Chandra gave him a push and he grabbed her in a hug, but she started tickling him. "Okay, I relent. My treat, everybody."

"That's better," said Chandra. She turned to the others, "You guys all coming?"

"If Colin's paying, we're coming," said Carl, his arm around Joy's waist. "I'm not missing out on a chance like this. He usually sticks me with the bill."

Chandra looked over at the rest of them. Elana and Sam both nodded and Cody jumped up and down with glee. Darien looked hesitant but Justie spoke up.

"I'm with Carl," she said. "I'm not missing this for the world."

~ * ~

Justie looked over at Darien as he drove out of the lot at the pizza place. "When are you going to let it go?"

"Let what go?"

"When are you going to stop being mad at Elana?"

"I'm not mad at her. I couldn't possibly be mad at her."

"Well that's how it appears, buster. You sat about as far away from her as possible."

"We're a big group - we couldn't all sit beside each other."

"I was saving a place for you and you know it."

"I know Justie, but . . . you don't understand."

"Of course I don't," she said in exasperation. "You never tell me anything."

Darien drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Just leave it . . . please?"

"I hate seeing you like this. I mean, I know you like her - don't even try to tell me different. You're the one who asked if I had a hair elastic for her. You're the one who bought her a hot chocolate because you noticed she was cold. But you barely said two words to her. You're so . . . aloof."

"You remember what I told you that morning. She doesn't like me. The last thing I'm going to do is force myself on her. I know how it feels to have someone hanging all over me who I've got no interest in. I'm not going to do that to her." He flicked his turn signal on a little too aggressively, did a quick check in his mirror, and changed lanes.

Justie grabbed hold of her door handle as the car jerked over. "This isn't the same as you and Lina. Just show Elana how nice you are - she can't help but like you."

"Thanks for the commendation, Justie, but I know what she thinks of me. I'm conceited, rude . . ."

"I've heard the list before, but I don't understand why she'd ever think that about you."

"She thinks that way about me because of things I've said and the way I've acted. And she's right," he said with resignation.

"What are you talking about?"

"Where she's concerned I've been nothing but a jerk."

"And saving her greenhouses and replacing the plastic were jerky things to do?"

"The way I went about them, yes."

"Well if you ask me, you're still acting like a jerk."

"Justie - I'm not going to make a fool of myself going after someone who doesn't like me. I'm sure we'll be able to become good neighbours and treat each other pleasantly, but she's never going to feel the same way about me as I do about her. You can't make someone like you, either it's there or it's not. In this case it's not." He looked away from the road and stared directly at her for a moment. His face was pale and drawn, his eyes strained.

Justie reached out and stroked his arm. "I'm sorry, Darien. Love's a bitch, eh?"

He smiled ruefully and reached for the knob of the car stereo. "We need some music."

~ * ~

That night as she lay in her bed, it didn't matter how cosily Elana snuggled under her blankets she couldn't get to sleep. She didn't understand Darien at all. He'd bought her that hot chocolate and she was almost certain that he'd asked Justie to give her the scrunchie for her hair, but aside from those kind gestures he had completely ignored her. And she wondered why that bothered her so much. Why looking at his harsh expression should make her feel bad because she had put it there. Why she wanted to see him smile, his eyes all lit up, when he looked at her, just like when he was talking to Cody. She tried to combat those feelings by remembering the words he'd said after he'd kissed her. But she kept remembering the kiss, before she could get to the words.

She cleared her mind and tried again . . . I've struggled against my feelings for a long time now . . . I thought I could control them. Why - why did he need to control them? What was wrong with having feelings for her? I couldn't admit that I had fallen for someone like you. What was wrong with who she was? Sure, she wasn't rich, but she was intelligent and hard working, and a good mother, and not completely unattractive. With your background. He knew absolutely nothing about her background - she was sure of it . . . unless he'd hired private investigators, or something. Divorced. Not such a great stigma, these days. With a child. She couldn't understand this one at all. She knew he liked Cody - so why would it bother him that she had a child? In that broken down house next door that I wanted gone. This one made the most sense of the lot - he was too proud to want a relationship with someone who lived on a scale so much lower than his. But I have. I can't do anything about it . . . I love you. And unreasonably, she remembered the almost bemused expression on his face and softness of his voice when he had said all those words, and then the later conviction when he repeated, I love you. The dislike and anger she had been building up dissipated. Why did that phrase touch her so deeply, especially now when it no longer meant anything? Why was she left with the feeling that she might have lost something of value?

She sat up, completely frustrated with the way her brain was behaving so treacherously, and turned on the light. She might as well accept that she was not going to fall asleep, and she desperately needed to change the tangent that her mind was on. She tiptoed to the living room, and in the light cast from her open door, searched the bookshelf for something to read. It was lying where she had placed it almost two months before. She'd forgotten all about it, but now it was the only thing she was aware of. Greenday Shadow.s The dark green font burned into her eyes. She knew that if she closed them she would still see the words emblazoned on the insides of her lids. She picked up the book and carried it back to bed with her. At worst she would discover that she liked it - at best it would put her to sleep.

Chapter Nineteen

Elana reached out to turn her alarm clock off, wondering why her bedroom light was on and what was poking into her cheek so uncomfortably. It was an open book, upside down on her pillow. She remembered reading for most of the night - she had no recollection of falling asleep; the transition from story to dreams had been seamless. She was still having trouble shaking those dreams - images of filtered light, spangled leaves, and tapestry clothing filled her head. She almost thought she should understand the birds singing outside her window until she realised that it was only in her dreams that she spoke their language.

She picked up the book and straightened the creased pages while she looked around for something to use as a bookmark. She read a bit to see if she could find the spot where she had dropped off to sleep and was surprised when Cody came into the room, rubbing his eyes.

"You forgot to wake me up."

"No, I just woke up myself," said Elana, and then she looked at her clock. It was an hour since the alarm had gone off. "Oops! I guess I got caught up in this book."

She put the book aside and they made breakfast together. All during the day Elana felt the restless pull of the book. After supper she could no longer resist the urge; she picked up Greenday Shadows, cuddled amongst a pile of pillows, and lost herself once again.

The book was amazing. At first she kept pausing, having trouble processing the fact that it was a creation of Darien Stewart's mind; and then she became so involved in the story nothing else mattered. She had stopped reading to give Cody a kiss and a cuddle when he was on his way to bed and though she knew she ought to wash up and clean her teeth as well, she kept reading until all the disparate strands of magic wove themselves together in an ending that left her filled with strange wonder.

She was consumed with a need to read more of his books. The next day she searched in the library, found one on the shelves, and requested an additional two, and she began a journey of discovery. More than being wrapped up in story, evocative phrasing, and creative imagery, she was working her way through the maze of conflicting impressions that she had of Darien.

When she saw him the next weekend at the playing field it was as if all the layers of his writing were screening out her preconceived ideas of him. He stood there, outwardly tall, attractive and confident, but at the same time she was aware of his inner complexity, sensitivity, and the elusive fragility that he kept so well hidden. She longed to touch his hand, look up into his face and say she was sorry. But she was held back by the aura of remoteness he was wrapped in, like a protective ward. When someone said something that made him smile, she wished she had been the one to cause it - that he was smiling for her. And she deeply felt the irony that now, after she had made her dislike of him all too clear, her feelings had done a complete one-eighty; after she had given him cause to hate her, she now wanted him to care. Elana pulled her jacket tightly around herself, trying her best to put Darien out of her mind and concentrate on Cody's game.

Cody's team played valiantly in the final match, but the odds were against them. They normally played nine a side, but three of their players were sick with the flu and another had sprained his ankle during the week skateboarding. They had to play the game one man short with no subs. At the end their team was flagging and the opposition managed to breach their defences and put in an easy goal to win the game two to one. They left the field dejected but knowing they had done their best. They were cheered so much by their fans and commended so highly by their coaches that when the time came to be presented with their silver medals they were all grinning proudly and talking about how they would win the gold next year.

They went to Coach Jerry's house after the game for a season-ending party and barbeque. While the kids played ping pong and bounced on the trampoline, the parents all chatted together and set out the food. Elana put her potato salad on a table and then wandered about the garden and watched the kids running around, amazed at their irrepressible energy. She felt drained, but knew it was because she had stayed up late reading every night that week, and then worked just as hard as ever each day. Jerry's wife came over to tell her the food was ready and brought her back to join in on conversations with the other parents. At first she had been hesitant to do so, but it was just what she needed to shift focus. She ended up having a much better time than she had ever expected, especially when, just before the party broke up, the coaches presented Cody with a rookie of the year award.

"I'm so proud of you, hon," she said as he held it up over his head, beaming. Then she gave him a huge hug. That night he slept with it clutched tightly against his chest.

~ * ~

"I don't care what you say or how you feel about it, Darien," said Justie, "but I'm inviting Elana and Cody for Easter dinner."

Darien looked up at her from his breakfast plate. Since Cody's last soccer game he'd only seen Elana from a distance, and the desire to be close enough to see her face, hear her voice, and smell the faint fragrance of bergamot that lingered about her was strong within him. "Don't," he said softly, beseeching.

"I like her too, you know, and I want to get to know her better. Anyway, Carl is bringing Joy and Colin's bringing Chandra, and Cody's coming to the student Easter egg hunt in the afternoon, so it would be impolite not to invite them for dinner."

"You're right." His heart began to pound at the idea of Elana being there, in his house, at his dinner table, her eyes shining in the candlelight, in a little less than a week's time.

"Admit that you want her to come," Justie said as she sat down beside him.

"What I want doesn't even come into it," he said as he pushed his plate away.

~ * ~

"Hurry up mom, or all the other kids will get the eggs," said Cody as they walked up the driveway past the stables.

"They wouldn't start without you," said Elana, laughing at his impatience, "but maybe they should. You've had more than enough chocolate today already."

When they arrived at the front steps there were signs with arrows directing them around to the back yard. It was the first time Elana had seen the house without a screening of trees blocking most of it from her view. It was large but in no way imposing. Most of the size was due to the wide porch that wrapped around it. She could see wicker furniture and a cedar porch swing. The upper story had a gabled roof and dormer windows. The creamy white walls and rich green trim blended well with the backdrop of hemlock, cedar, and pine, and the sloping garden was a rich collection of ornamental shrubs and spring flowers.

The first person Elana saw as they rounded the far corner of the house was Darien, standing a little away from the children and other adults who were thronging around Justie. He was wearing a loose white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and crisp, dark jeans. He was looking cool and relaxed and completely at ease, until he turned and saw her. The smile on his face stiffened and his eyes took on that strained look she was becoming accustomed to seeing.

Elana's courage almost failed her but she walked up to him and said, "Thanks for inviting us."

"I'm glad you could come," he said, but Elana was left with the feeling it was an obligatory response and there was no real pleasure in having her there.

After saying hi to Darien, Cody ran off to join the other children. Darien looked to a point somewhere beyond Elana's head and said, "I should go and get things started."

"Can I just have a minute, first?" she asked, afraid that she'd not get another opportunity to be alone with him.

His expression turned wary. "Certainly." He stood, waiting, looking about as approachable as the sheer face of a cliff.

"I've been wanting to apologise ever since I realised what you were doing that night. I'm . . . I'm sorry for all those things I said to you . . . I - I wasn't thinking straight."

"I wasn't either . . . I said things that I'm sorry for too."

Elana stared up into his grey eyes.

"It all came out wrong," he whispered.

She was back in the moonlit woods hearing those stumbling words again. The confusion and awe in his voice were evident. They were disconnected thoughts, half formed, and open to interpretation. She had chosen to interpret them in the worst way possible. Elana felt her own thoughts slipping and realised she was losing track of her intended purpose. She was the one who was supposed to be apologizing.

"It made me so angry," she said slowly, "and then when I saw all the lights, and saw you with that knife raised and your long shadow, like some horror movie, I just exploded. And later I jumped on your back and began hitting you, and you must have thought I was as crazy as I thought you were. I know you're not crazy . . . and I'm completely indebted to you for what you did."

"Don't . . . it's fine . . . I understand . . ."

"Darien! What are you doing ignoring all your guests? I've been looking for you everywhere." Lina sauntered up and grabbed his arm, then she looked over to Elana and smiled at her with artificial sweetness. "Elaine, Justie wants you."

"I'd better go," said Elana, unable to meet Darien's eyes anymore. "I shouldn't have kept you from your guests."

She walked away quickly before he could see that she had started shaking. The last few weeks she had been filling her head with him, reading and rereading his books. She'd even ordered his latest one from the bookstore because it wasn't available at the library. But she'd forgotten all about Lina. She knew she'd hoped more would come from the apology than simply arriving at a truce. Just standing next to him had affected her so deeply that trying to make an effective apology had been extremely difficult. And now here she was, half way in love with someone who wasn't available, even if he could forgive her. What he saw in Lina, Elana had no idea, but the fact remained that she was his girlfriend. And there was no way that Elana was about to attempt to develop a relationship with a man who was going out with someone else.

~ * ~

Darien shook his arm loose. "You just don't quit do you?"

"What?" asked Lina, grabbing his hand and playing with his fingers.

"You know her name's not Elaine."

"Whatever. I don't really care about her, pretentious upstart. Why did Justie invite her to dinner anyway? And get that dress she's wearing - it's got to be at least five years old. She looks so worn out in it."

"I see nothing wrong with the way she's dressed."

"Well, it's better than her usual jeans and t-shirt, I guess, but that's not saying much. The thing I can't understand is why everyone thinks she's pretty - you don't think she's pretty, do you?"

"There was a time I did," he said, and Lina smirked. "But for quite a while I've thought her the most amazingly attractive woman I've ever met. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got an Easter egg hunt to start."

~ * ~

All through dinner, Darien found it increasingly difficult to stop himself from looking at Elana. She was sitting on the far side of the table, exactly where he had told his sister to place her, but he wished she were beside him instead of Lina. The candlelight lit up her face just as he'd anticipated. She was a little subdued, and he wondered if his apology had disturbed her. It had been obvious that her own apology had been difficult for her to make. Was that because of her dislike of him, or some other factor? It had been almost as if they had made a connection and he wondered what would have happened if Lina hadn't interrupted them.

He didn't get a chance to speak to Elana privately during the rest of the evening, and if he had he knew he wouldn't have been able to broach the subject again. They did take part in the same conversations, though, and he could see that she was now treating him with cool politeness - not unfriendly but certainly not welcoming either. Whatever closeness had almost started between them before Lina had come along was no longer in evidence. Maybe it had only been a manifestation of his wishful thinking, after all.

When everyone had left, he and Justie puttered around the kitchen, filling the dishwasher and putting the pots to soak.

"That went pretty well, don't you think?" asked Justie.

"Yes," Darien replied, noncommittally.

"I saw you and Elana talking when she arrived - it looked pretty intense."

"We apologised to each other."

"Good - now maybe the two of you can get on with it," Justie responded with a grin. "Too bad you insisted on her sitting so far from you at dinner."

"We're not going to be getting on with anything," said Darien, giving his sister a whack with his dishcloth, "but at least we have cleared the air and can meet and talk politely like two disinterested neighbours."

"Disinterested! That's a good one," said Justie, giggling at him. "Both of you kept sneaking peeks at the other all night."

"You're imagining things," Darien said as he surveyed the kitchen. "I think we can leave the rest of this till morning. Let's get to bed - I don't know about you, but I'm beat."

~ * ~

In April Elana could see daily differences in growth in her greenhouses. By the middle of the month she was able to start selling her first crop of bedding plants and the majority of her hanging baskets were on target to be ready for Mothers' day. Half of them were already pre-ordered. She enjoyed her work more than ever. The greenhouses were warm and welcoming and the happy little faces of the pansies that were opening everywhere took her mind away from its preoccupation with Darien Stewart.

She hadn't been able to stop reading his books, or stop thinking of him with increased intensity. Now that soccer season was over Cody was having riding lessons three times a week and Elana looked forward to picking him up just for the chance of seeing Darien, despite the fact that she knew it was foolish to think of him. She couldn't help herself. He fascinated her. When they did see each other they would smile and say hi in a neighbourly way and she would comment on the weather while Darien asked her how her flowers were growing. It was silly that she looked forward to such commonplace exchanges, but it was all she could allow herself and all she could really expect.

She had longer conversations with Justie who had a new boyfriend and was bursting with happiness.

"I can't wait for you to meet him, Elana. I know you'll like him."

Cody had met him when he'd dropped by during lessons once or twice and confirmed that he was a fun guy. "But I like Colin and Carl and Darien better," he confided when he was alone with his mom.

The next time Elana went to pick up Cody, there was a flashy yellow Mustang parked outside the stables. 'So I finally get to meet the boyfriend,' Elana thought as she walked into the tack room.

Colin was putting the currycombs away and Justie was handing harnesses to someone who was half in a closet. The door closed and the man turned to face her just as Justie grinned and said, "Elana, meet Greg."

He came forward with his hand stretched out, a phoney smile plastered on his face. "Hi there. Elana, is it? Nice to meet you."

Elana could barely raise her arm. She pulled her hand out of his warm grasp as soon as possible. Words were impossible. She was glad that she was standing half in shadow, hoping that it hid the look of shock on her face from Justie. She hadn't seen him in almost eight years. He'd hardly changed at all - still as heart-stoppingly gorgeous as he had been only now Elana knew the man who hid so well behind those abundant charms. She looked from Greg to Cody and back again and wondered how she was going to escape from that little room with her son without giving everything away. But she knew it was going to be impossible to keep the truth from either of them.

"So," said Greg, as he watched Elana's frightened eyes dart back and forth between himself and Cody, "is this your little boy? He's a great kid. Great kid." And he stood there, seemingly relaxed and casual, but his smile was cocksure and challenging. There was no doubt he was enjoying the adrenaline rush every gambler must feel when he rides the fine line between walking off with all the spoils and having his bluff called.

Chapter Twenty

Walking home from Stewart Stables without telling Cody the real identity of Justie's new boyfriend was one of the most difficult things Elana had ever done. She knew that no matter how much she didn't want Cody to know, and no matter how much Greg didn't want her to tell him, he had to be told. Only not yet. She needed time. Time to get the words right. Time to know how to do it without totally screwing the thing up. So they walked home in silence and for some reason Cody didn't question her about her impressions of Justie's boyfriend. There was something on Cody's mind too, and it had nothing to do with Greg and everything to do with a yearling he had taken a fancy to.

That evening she longed to talk to someone, but Joy was working the late shift at Superstore and Chandra was out with Colin. Instead Elana lay in bed as conflicting memories ran through her mind. Things she had not thought about in years came to her clearly and vividly. Greg as she had first met him. Charming. Considerate. Carefree. Even now, with all she knew of him, he could almost work his deceptions. But she had other memories that wiped those out. She could rationalise him leaving her, no matter how callous his action, but how did a father leave his son without a word or a backward look? And how would Greg act towards him now that they were thrown face to face again? It appeared that he wanted to hide the relationship from everybody, and as much as Elana knew she would prefer Cody never knowing Greg was his father, she was appalled at Greg for his heartlessness.

And that was not the only issue. Somehow, along with telling Cody who Greg was, she was going to have to talk to Justie and warn her about Greg. It was impossible to believe that he could have changed; besides, even if he truly cared for Justie and was not only out to use her, she deserved to know about his past and what depth of deceit he was actually capable of. There was no way he would tell her a remotely true story.

With so much to dwell upon Elana did not sleep well. She woke up throughout the night, the discordance and apprehension of her dreams staying with her even as the scenarios remained elusive. In the morning she let the water run cold and icy as she washed her face repeatedly, but it did little to dispel the dissonance inside her head. When Cody was ready to rush out the door to his bus she surprised him with the strength of her hug.

"Mom, what's up?"

"I'll talk to you when you get home," she whispered, her smile fragile. "I love you so much."

Cody gave her confused a look. "I love you too mom, but I gotta run. If I miss my bus you'll have to drive me."

"Don't mind me -you scoot on outta here," she said and gave him a swat on the butt as she sent him down the stairs.

There was no time for Elana to do much thinking as she worked. Her mobile was ringing constantly with orders, customers were dropping in to buy flats of assorted bedding plants, and she barely had time to do the watering and transplanting that needed to get done. At two-thirty it had slowed down a bit and she looked over to Sam who was loading flats on a cart.

"Can you take care of things for the rest of the afternoon? I've got something important I have to do with Cody when he gets home from school."

"No problem," said Sam with a grin. "Get out of here - you haven't even taken your lunch break yet."

Elana thanked him and ran up to the house, kicking her boots off quickly as she scrubbed her hands in the laundry sink. She was just drying them when she felt a shadow cross the open door. She looked up to see Greg standing in the doorway, a confident grin on his face, and she knew that this was the moment she had been anticipating with misgiving all day.

"Aren't you going to invite me in?" He walked towards her, his arms outstretched.

She slipped out of his embrace and through the kitchen door. "Keep your distance."

"Is that any way to greet your long lost husband?" he asked, following her in and sitting at the table as if it was something he did every single day.

"You're not my husband anymore."

"It wasn't my idea to get a divorce," he said.

Elana looked at him in amazement. "You deserted me!"

Greg's face changed. He looked contrite and hurt and vulnerable. "I couldn't face you after I'd lost everything. I felt that I'd let you down and I swore that I'd get all the money back for us, for the three of us. That's what I was doing. That's why I left. But you lost your faith in me, and I don't blame you - really I don't. I know it looked bad - like I'd betrayed you. But that's not the way it was. All I cared about was trying to make everything right again."

"You do that so well," said Elana. "Do you practice in front of a mirror, or does it just come naturally to you?"

"I never stopped loving you, Elana."

"That's why you never called, never wrote, and didn't contest the divorce?"

"I was a total mess. I was depressed. I didn't think I deserved you. I couldn't come back before I'd regained what I'd lost. I was waiting for my new investments to come through."

"If that were really the case - if you'd really lost all the money - you know I wouldn't have cared a bit. You know I would have stood by you. But I know the truth. You used me. You cheated me out of everything I ever had, you left me with nothing, and what is the worst thing of all, you turned your back on Cody. You couldn't even be bothered to try to be a father to him."

"It worked out for the best, didn't it? He looks like a pretty together kid - I'd say you did a great job without me. I got the feeling you didn't want me in his life. You guys disappeared - it was damned hard to find you."

Elana laughed. "So now you're going to pretend you were looking for us all those years? That's rich! You were just as surprised as I was when we met yesterday."

Greg shrugged, and with the shrug he seemed to throw off all dissimulation. "He looks so much like you - I don't know why I didn't recognise him at once."

"Because meeting your son at your new victim's house was the last thing you expected."

"You've turned into quite a little wildcat in the last few years," said Greg, not bothering with the charm anymore. "Justie's my girlfriend - you'd do well to remember that."

"I remember too much to change my opinion."

"So . . . what're you planning to do about it?"

"What do you think I'm planning to do about it?" asked Elana bitterly. "As soon as Cody gets home from school I'm telling him who you are, then I'm going over to see Justie and I'm going to tell her all about you and our wonderful marriage.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Greg. He got up and walked over to Elana, backing her into a corner against the kitchen counter. "I'll strike a deal with you. You don't tell Justie about me and Cody never needs to know who I am."

"He's your son!"

"And he's better off without me in his life. We both know that's true."

"And I'm supposed to just turn a blind eye while you do the same thing to Justie that you did to me?"

"Honey, I've changed. Justie's a sweet kid - I like her for herself; the money's just a bonus."

"Yeah, right you've changed. That's why you came over here to try and con me. If you'd really changed you'd be all too happy to have everything out in the open."

"I don't know if Justie's ready for that yet - the truth still might be a little much for her."

"And Darien would eat you alive.

"Darien, yeah. She's a little too attached to that brother of hers. Give me time, though, give me time."

"I'm not giving you anything," said Elana, pushing him away and going over to the table. "I'm going through with telling them and there's nothing you can say or do to stop me."

"I was afraid you were going to be difficult," said Greg. He leaned against the counter and gave her a smug look. "I guess I have to go with plan B. It's a bigger gamble, but you know me - I'm a gambling kinda guy."

Elana looked over at the clock nervously. It was a little after three. Cody would be home at any minute. "Just get out of here."

Greg looked up at the clock too and then sat down at the table again. "Not a chance. How about some tea?" He smiled sweetly. "Just to let you know, I prepared for this outcome while you were busy in your greenhouses. I've got an ace up my sleeve."

"Get out!"

"I guess I'll just have to make the tea myself," he said as he got up and sauntered over to the stove. "I filled the kettle earlier. I love the way no one locks their doors in the country."

"You creep!"

"Creep? Elana, surely you can do better than that, after all I've meant to you."

"I haven't wasted my time even thinking of you for years."

Greg just laughed and busied himself with getting cups out of the cupboard. "You having some too, honey? I think sitting and drinking tea together adds such a homey touch."

Elana barely resisted the urge to spit at him. Instead she sat stonily and refused to speak.

"I'll just take that as a yes," he said, setting a cup down in front of her. "I'm making camomile. I find it so soothing, don't you?"

They sat in silence as the kettle boiled. Greg poured the water into the teapot and then set it down between them, flashing her a smile brimming with confidence. "Just like old times," he smirked and then he filled their cups and lifted his to her in a toast.

Running feet were heard clattering up the front steps and then the door burst open.

"Hey mom! Are you home?" Cody yelled.

"We're in here," called Greg before Elana could say anything.

Cody came into the kitchen. "Hi there," he said as he looked at his mom questioningly.

Suddenly Greg was holding Cody in his arms, tears streaming down his face, "Son!" he cried, as he stroked Cody's hair back from his forehead and looked into his eyes. "I don't believe it! I thought I'd never see this day. I'm your father, Cody. Your father!"

Elana sat in horrified shock. All her plans of how she would break it gently to Cody had been sabotaged in one quick motion.

"Is it true, mom?" asked Cody, as soon as he could speak.

"Yes," she sighed. "Greg is your father. Remember how I told you this morning that we'd talk when you got home?"

Greg got back into action again. He released Cody from his hug and stood back to look at him, wiping the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand as he did so. "I've been searching for so long," he whispered. "I'd almost given up. When I first met you, I thought there was something familiar about you, but I couldn't quite place it, and then yesterday, when I saw your mom at the stables, I went into shock. I'm sorry I didn't say anything then, but discovering you were you was just so totally unexpected."

"You didn't say anything either, mom."

"I know honey, but I was surprised too, and then I didn't know how to tell you. I wanted to do it right." She couldn't help but glare accusingly at Greg.

"I did too," said Greg, "so I came over today and your mom and I talked it out. We decided it would be nice like this, over tea, more like a family."

Cody looked from one to the other. "Are you going to . . . get married again?"

"No Cody," said Elana quickly.

"Your mom doesn't want me back," said Greg with a bit of a mournful look. "Anyway, I'm dating Justie now. But I want to be part of your life and make up for all those years I wasn't there. All those birthdays I missed. Those soccer games I didn't see. I'll teach you to play baseball, I'll . . . I'll just be the best darned father you could ever want and hope that you will grow to love me almost as much as you love your mom."

"I . . . I'd like to play baseball," said Cody, not really sure how to react to all that Greg was saying.

"I know this is pretty overwhelming," said Greg understandingly. "I won't stay much longer today, but we'll do something together tomorrow after school, okay?"

"I have riding lessons tomorrow," said Cody.

"Perfect," said Greg. "I'll come and watch and then maybe take you out to McDonald's or something."

Cody looked at Elana. "Is that okay, mom?"

"If it's what you want, hon," she said, blinking back the welling tears.

Greg squatted down beside Cody and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. "I've got something in here I want to show you, son." He rifled about until he pulled out a dog-eared picture. "This is all I had of you for all that time," he said, and he held it out to him.

Cody took it and stared. "We have this same picture in our album," he said. He looked over at Greg. "You look different now."

"Time does that to people," said Greg, shaking his head. "Show it to your mom."

Elana took the picture from Cody's outstretched hand. It was a picture of Greg holding Cody on his first birthday, showing him how to blow out the candles. She stared at Greg. Where had he got it? She hadn't developed the film until a week after he had left, and she'd never communicated with him since.

Greg just smiled at her blandly, and then held his hand out for it. "If it wasn't for this picture I think I would have gone out of my mind," he said softly. "Look how creased it is - I used to sleep with it under my pillow." Then he reached out and rumpled Cody's hair. "Sorry for being so sentimental, Codester." He tucked the photo back into his wallet and returned it to his pocket. "I think I'd better be going and give you and your mom a chance to talk. See you tomorrow." He raised his head up and caught Elana's eyes. "Walk me to the door?"

She only nodded to him. "I'll be back in a moment," she said to Cody.

"That was so unfair," she said as soon as they were out of earshot. "You can't play with a child's emotions like that."

"All's fair in this game," Greg answered back. "Anyway I think I'll like being a dad."

"It's not a game."

"Relax, honey, everything's cool," he said as he stopped in the doorway. "You're so worried about his emotional state that you won't bad-mouth me to him, will you?" He laughed at her expression. "I knew I'd be safe. And just be warned - the story I tell Justie is going to be very different from the one you plan on telling - I doubt once I'm through with her she'll believe a word you say. I can be very persuasive, or have you forgotten?"

Before she could stop him he leaned over and kissed her lips, and then grinned his devastating grin at her as he waved goodbye, taking the steps two at a time and jogging leisurely up the driveway. Elana wiped her mouth and stared after him. He'd really enjoyed himself and she was sure he was going to enjoy spinning his lies and crying his crocodile tears for Justie just as much, if not more. She walked slowly back to the kitchen, trying to figure out the best way to talk it over with Cody. When she got there she held her arms out to Cody and he snuggled in for the hug.

"Sorry, hon. That's not how I wanted to tell you."

"It's okay, mom. I don't mind. It's weird finally meeting my dad, but kinda cool too. I mean, I never really thought about him much, but now he's here, maybe it'll be like doing things with Colin Fox or Darien Stewart, you know?"

Elana made a snack and they talked a little more, and then Cody broke down and told her what was really on his mind. He wanted a horse, and not just any horse, a young horse from Stewart Stables that Darien had let him help groom during its training. He talked of nothing else until supper and Elana decided that maybe everything would be all right after all. Kids were so resilient. Though she did wonder where she could possibly get the thousands of dollars that a yearling from Stewart Stables would cost.

That night after Cody went to bed, Elana took out the photo album from the bottom shelf of her bookcase. Sure enough the picture was missing. Greg must have spent some time bending it back and forth to make it look like it had been carried around in his wallet for years. She glanced around the room to see if anything else had been moved. It was a violating feeling knowing that he had been in her house, going through her private things, when she was out working in the back. She shivered and made sure that her curtains were drawn tightly closed before she changed into her pyjamas.

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