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Up From the Ashes
[completed - PG13]

Chapter Twenty-one

"Elana, what's with you today?" asked Sam. "You're completely distracted."

"What?" Elana paused as she made an indentation in the soil and reached for a plant.

"You're putting petunias in the shade baskets instead of impatiens," said Sam with a grin.

Elana threw her hands up in the air in disgust. "I don't believe it!"

"You gave that lady from Campbell River six flats of pansies when she'd asked for marigolds."

"Did I?"

"Don't worry, I got it all straightened out for her, and she bought some of the pansies too because they looked so nice."

"I'm sorry, Sam, I've got a lot on my mind."

"Care to tell me about it?"

"It's about Cody and his dad. I'm so confused - I don't know what the right thing to do is. I'm so worried he's going to get hurt."

"Hold on there a minute - Cody's dad? When did he get back in the picture?"

"Justie's new boyfriend is my ex-husband. I need to tell Justie about it too." She took off her gloves and threw them on the potting bench. "Everything's such a mess! Greg is Cody's father - there's no escaping that - but does he deserve to be his dad? If I turn Cody against his father am I being unfair?"

Sam sat down and rubbed Elana's shoulder. "It depends if you are doing it out of bitterness and spite, or if there are legitimate things Cody needs to know about his dad. Honesty is important, but some truths are best left unsaid."

"I've never really told him much about his dad. He's always seemed content with only me, but lately I've noticed that he wants a male figure in his life. But I don't want to share him with Greg. Am I being selfish? I've got to do what's right for Cody - not think about myself and what I want."

Sam had begun removing all the petunias from the hanging baskets. "Elana, I don't know if I'm the right person to ask about this. I'd probably just tell this Greg guy to go to hell - anyone who's treated you badly can't be worth the bother. Look, why don't you take the rest of the day off. I think Joy and Chandra are home. Talk it over with them. I'll fix these baskets and deal with all the customers."

"But there's so much work to do, and you covered for me yesterday too!"

"The work's not going anywhere, Elana. It'll still be here tomorrow. One day more or less won't make much of a difference. Anyway - in your present headspace you're more of a detriment out here than anything else."

Elana smiled ruefully and gave Sam a quick hug. "Thanks. I owe you one."

"And I won't let you forget it," Sam called after her as she left the greenhouse.

~ * ~

Elana, Joy and Chandra sat around the kitchen table nursing mugs of tea. Elana had just given them a detailed summary of her marriage and Greg's reappearance in her life.

"Damn!" said Chandra. "I'd like to tie that guy up and drop him down a waterfall."

"But isn't it possible that he's truly changed, like he said?" asked Joy.

"The guy's a two-bit slimy reptile," said Chandra. "I feel like such an idiot. When I met him I thought he was the cat's ass. He had me eating out of his hand."

"If it's any consolation, I married him," said Elana bitterly.

"Oh honey," said Joy. "I'm sure he really loved you at the time. How were you to know he was . . . that he had problems?"

"Joy - he's a top rate con artist - stop trying to make excuses for him." Chandra put her cup down with a bang. "He used Elana and now he's trying to use Cody and Justie. He should be shot out of a cannon into the middle of a shark infested ocean with lead weights tied around his ankles."

"It's easy to say that, Chandra," said Elana, "and if it only involved me, I'd feel the same way, but I have to think of Cody."

"I am thinking of Cody," said Chandra.

"But is it fair to tell a kid that his father is such a total loser? That those are the genes he carries? That his father never cared the least little bit for him? I don't want to devastate him. And he really wants a dad. Look how he gravitates towards Colin and . . . Darien."

"In my opinion he'd be much better off with Darien as a dad," said Chandra, looking directly at Elana.

She flushed. "I wasn't suggesting anything like that."

"I was," said Chandra. "Just because Greg is Cody's biological father it doesn't mean he's the right dad for him. Anyway, I think he lost all his parental rights years ago."

"He did give up custody," said Elana. "But now he's here and playing at being the prodigal father. It's very confusing for Cody."

"I'm sure he loves Cody and doesn't want to hurt him," said Joy. "Maybe if you talk to him and explain how you feel . . ."

"I don't think Greg wants to hurt him either, Joy," said Elana. "But he's not thinking about Cody at all. He only wants to do what will make him look best in Justie's eyes. And at this point that means he will act like a devoted and caring father. Even so, I can't help but feel worried about letting Cody go out with him today. And I don't know how he'll react once I tell Justie the truth. If she believes me and dumps him, will he still want to build his relationship with Cody, or will he drop him and shatter his illusions?"

"It's so hard to believe someone can be so . . . heartless," said Joy. "Poor Justie - she's so happy right now. If only she'd never met him."

"I know it won't be easy to tell Justie," said Chandra, "but she's a good kid. She'll listen to you."

"I can't be so sure about that," said Elana. "Greg is incredibly good at blinding people. She'll probably think I'm acting out of jealousy and spite. It's going to be like a scene from a soap opera."

Chandra and Joy both reached their hands across the table and took Elana's. The warmth in their eyes almost brought her to tears, but their encouragement gave her the resolution to face whatever she had to do protect both Justie and Cody. Greg might think he held all the good cards in a stacked deck, but she had something worth more than all his aces.

~ * ~

Elana walked over to Stewart Stables with Cody and stayed while he had his lesson. Despite the resolve she had felt earlier, one look at Justie showed her that it would be futile and possibly even detrimental to attempt to tell her anything about the travesty of her marriage to Greg. Justie's look of sympathy that bordered on pity, and the soft understanding in her voice when she spoke to her, showed Elana that anything that she said to the girl would be humoured and dismissed as the ravings of a disheartened soul. The last thing she wanted to do was act in such a way as to feed that belief. There had to be some way to get through to Justie. Someone who could tell her the truth who she would believe implicitly, regardless of any brainwashing she'd had from Greg.

Elana leaned against the fence and stared out into the riding ring, trying to focus on Cody and the paces he was putting the horse through. He looked happy and confident up on the saddle. She didn't want to be the one to dim that expression in his eyes. Sam was right - there were some truths that didn't need to be voiced. The best thing to do about his outing with Greg was to keep her attitude casual and not make it look like a big thing in Cody's eyes. He suddenly smiled and waved to a point beyond her, and she knew her respite was at an end.

She didn't turn to look at Greg when he joined her at the fence. "I guess by now Justie thinks I'm pretty pathetic."

"She found it quite easy to understand that you hadn't gotten over me yet. Seems to explain why you haven't fallen for her brother - that was something she'd had trouble accepting. Now it's all crystal clear." He looked over at her. "So, why haven't you fallen for dearest Darien's brooding charms?"

Elana felt the blood rush from her face. Why were people always coupling her name with Darien's? First Chandra and now Justie and Greg. "It's certainly nothing to do with any undying devotion for you."

"He looks like a stuck up prig to me. Not your type."

"He has a girlfriend anyway," she said, and then wished she hadn't. That was a comment that Greg might easily misinterpret. "And I'm not looking for a relationship with anyone."

"The devoted mother!" he said with a grin. "So self-sacrificing. I'm proud of you." He watched the riding lesson for a moment and then continued. "So, who's the girl standing in your way?"

"I told you I'm not interested."

"No, really. I'd love to help you out. It would be fun to be related again. Just think - if you married him we could be brother and sister. I'd be Cody's uncle as well as his dad. One big happy family!"

"You make me sick," said Elana, turning her back to him.

"Aw - don't give me the cold shoulder. There's not much likelihood of it anyway. The guy's got too big of an opinion of himself to even look at you. No offence or anything."

Elana kept her eyes trained on Cody and tried to pretend that the conversation wasn't even happening. It was exactly what she had previously thought about Darien - that he wouldn't ever have considered someone like her, and yet . . . . She didn't want to think about that night when he'd told her he loved her. There was no point to it - Darien didn't feel anything for her anymore - how could he?

"So - who's the chick?" Greg persisted. "Justie never told me about anyone."

"Lina," said Elana, hoping it would shut him up.

Greg laughed. "Lina? You mean that hot piece that was all over me at the New Year's party? I think she regretted introducing me to Justie. Darien had better watch out - girls like her need attention."

Elana wanted nothing more than to end the conversation. "So where are you taking Cody?"

"I thought I'd take him for a burger and then go bowling, just the two of us. I'll have him back by seven."

"You know this is very hard for me. Don't try to impress him by driving fast or you'll never get to take him anywhere again."

"I'm sure speeding wouldn't impress a son of yours anyway. Don't worry mama, I'll go slow."

"And he can't sit in the front passenger seat unless the airbag is disconnected."

"Justie already thought about that so it's all taken care of."

"I hate this."

"Elana - I'm his dad - all I want to do is show him a good time."

"And buy his love."

"Might be the only way I can get it, so it's worth a try."

"If you hurt him I'll kill you."

"You play your part right and I'll play mine. If he gets hurt it'll be because of your actions, not something I've done."

"You can't use that kind of blackmail on me. Just be a human being for a change and think about someone other than yourself."

Greg smirked. "That's quite an alien concept - don't know if I can get my head around it."

With relief, Elana noticed that the lesson was over and Cody was walking his horse back to its box. She left Greg and went into the barn to talk to Cody as he rubbed the horse down. She tried to act as naturally as possible and not show her apprehension when she outlined Greg's plans for the evening. She stayed with him until they were ready to go and then hugged him before he got into the car. She watched the yellow Mustang all the way down the driveway and as it drove along Haven Road, even as it was only a flicker of brightness between the trees. Justie had smilingly excused herself earlier and gone back up to the house to cook supper.

Elana felt at a complete loss. She knew she would be uneasy until Cody was returned to her. She couldn't face going back to an empty house. Both Joy and Chandra were at work, and she didn't want to disturb Sam out in his cosy shed. She wandered past the paddocks, not really thinking about where she was going, but wondering how she would get up the courage to approach Darien and ask him to warn Justie about Greg. He was the only person who could help her now, but the very thought of exposing herself to him filled her with dismay. The things she would have to admit about her marriage and herself were things she had shut from her mind until Greg had returned and harshly rekindled the memories. Telling Joy and Chandra had been difficult enough. Watching herself sink lower and lower in Darien's eyes would be beyond anything she wished to experience.

The five o'clock sun was still bright in the sky. Feathery hemlocks threw long, jade-green swathes across the sloping path. Further along, sharp-voiced redwings sang high in the poplars that bordered the field in soft curves. As she neared the trees, Darien came out from a narrow trail, and stood in half shadow, coins of light dancing through the leaves upon his face. Elana faltered.

"Were you looking for me?" he asked as she hesitantly drew closer.

"No . . . yes . . . I mean, I need to talk to you. It's very important."

"Is everything all right?" He reached out a hand to her. Let it fall. "You're shaking."

"I'm fine - just a bit upset. Cody went out with Greg and I find it all so difficult to handle."

His eyes were unreadable in the muted light, but his voice was soft when he spoke. Elana was grateful that it didn't hold that note of pity she'd heard in Justie's. "I know that Greg is Cody's father. Justie told me a little bit about it."

"But . . ." Elana took a deep breath and then looked up into Darien's face. He stared back at her expectantly. "I don't know exactly what Greg told her but he distorted the truth."

"I'm not surprised."

"You're not? Did you know from the start that . . . he's a phoney?"

"That's not it. At first I thought he was an okay guy. But the few things she told me didn't make sense because I know you."

Elana found it hard to keep up the eye contact. She ducked her head. When he'd said, I know you with such conviction, she wished it were true. But he'd soon find out how weak she really was. "I'd have thought that reports of my unbalanced mind would only have been corroborated by my actions."

"It was a picture of someone who is weak. You are one of the strongest, most determined people I know." He was quiet for a moment and then added. "I've never thought of you as unbalanced."

She felt the colour creeping up her face and blessed the shadows that they stood in. In a small voice she said, "Is that supposed to make me feel better? After all, I've accused you of being insane."

He laughed lightly. "We don't need to get into all that again. Look, if you want to talk, why don't we walk down to the Tsolum River? It's just at the end of this path."

Elana nodded and let him lead the way - the path was too narrow to walk side by side. The river was shallow with rocks scattered throughout that caused the water to swirl and eddy around them in little rapids. They sat on two large rocks that sloped down from the banks. The sound of the running water was soothing, the evening sun mellow.

"Is the water cold?" Elana felt a little overwhelmed. It was nothing like she had expected. She'd thought she would have to convince Darien to take the time to listen to her, but instead he'd been open and willing to talk. He seemed to understand the urgency without having it explained. She had no idea why he was being so nice to her.

"Yes, but it feels very fresh. I had my shoes and socks off and was wading in it just before I came up the path."

"But, wait. Is there something I'm keeping you from?"

"This is more important than anything I had to do. I know how difficult it must be for you to let Cody go out somewhere with Greg when you haven't seen him for years. He's a very special kid. I'd worry too, if he were mine. Actually I do worry, even though . . ." He let the thought hang.

"But, I can't not let him have a relationship with his father, can I? Not if he wants one?"

"It depends what Greg has done. I know he hasn't been in the picture for a long time. I'm not prying - you don't have to tell me anything - it's just that I know my information is faulty, considering the source."

While they had been talking Elana had removed her shoes and socks. Now she threw them onto the twisted roots of a tree and dipped her feet into the water. The bite of the cold cleared her head and helped her organise her thoughts. Finally she looked up at Darien and faced his grey eyes again. It wasn't as difficult as she had expected - there was a light in them that invited her to speak. "Yes I do. I have to tell you everything. And not because of Cody. I have to tell you everything because of Justie."

"Because of Justie?"

"Be prepared to revise anything you've ever thought of me, because I let myself get used completely. I was silly, weak, and pathetic. But Greg hasn't changed one bit since I met him and I know he's going to try to do the exact same thing to Justie that he did to me, and I can't let him - even if it does mean that Cody gets hurt in the process."

Darien sat and listened without interrupting. Elana's voice broke and she stumbled over her words at times, but the susurration of the leaves in the light breeze echoed by the flow of the water calmed her. She couldn't look at him as she spoke. Instead she focused on the play of light and shadow in the movement of the river. She felt disengaged from the pain of her memories. She was able to admit to having been duped, used, and abandoned dispassionately, without tears or resentment. It was as if it was no longer her own life but someone else's. She focused on Greg's manipulations and duplicity but didn't downplay the way she had allowed him to take control of her finances to the point that she had no involvement at all and so could not prove whether that money had been embezzled slowly and carefully with intent or simply lost through bad investments as Greg claimed. Finally she told him how Greg had wanted to hide the fact that they had ever been married and not acknowledge Cody as his son.

"He only told Justie that we had been married because I refused to keep it a secret and let him use her in exchange for not telling Cody he was his father."

"Thank you." It was the first thing Darien had said throughout the long confession.

Elana climbed off her rock and went over to the tree where she'd thrown her shoes and socks. Darien came and waited beside her while she put them on, then they started walking slowly back up the trail.

"I would have told Justie myself, but I could see that he'd made her believe that anything I said would be due to jealousy and bitterness, and some kind of mental instability. But if you tell her, I know she'll believe you."

"I'm glad you came to me instead." His voice was very strained. "Justie had a relationship in Victoria that ended badly, so Greg caught her on the rebound. She's very vulnerable right now. If I tell her in the wrong way, I could lose her. The way you described him gaining your confidence, I believe he's done just the same with her. He's discovered her greatest weakness and used it to his benefit. She'll cling to the belief that he loves her just the way you did. I hope you don't mind, but I want to wait a week or so before I tell her."

Elana stood still and stared at him. "Wait - why?"

"I need a bit more time to figure out the best way to go about it."

"But if he has more time he'll get a stronger hold over her. And what about Cody?"

"I think . . ." Darien hesitated, and then continued reluctantly, "I think someone should always be there when he's with Cody, so he has less chance to manipulate him."

Elana understood his reluctance. A few short months ago she would have resented his comment and exploded. But she realised his advice was well meant, not interfering. It showed his concern for Cody and she was touched. "I'm so unsure about what to do. I haven't told Cody all about Greg yet. Do you think I'm making a big mistake?"

"No. I think you were right not to do that for now. When I can convince Justie that Greg is only using her, and she stops seeing him, he'll have no reason to impress Cody any longer. He'll be out of his life as quickly as he came into it."

"I hope you're right."

"Don't worry Elana. Cody is a smart kid. He'll see through Greg."

"I was married to him for years and never saw through him until he abandoned us. What kind of idiot does that make me?"

"I didn't mean that, Elana. I don't think any less of you for being taken in by him. He's a handsome man. He has tons of charm. He bombarded you with love when that was what you most wanted. Cody has never lacked love, and he's not going to be exposed to Greg long enough for him to do any lasting damage."

~ * ~

Darien hoped that what he'd said was true. Elana's admissions had struck him deeply. Not only what she had said but being with her and hearing her voice. The fact that she'd come to him in the first place. That she now trusted him enough to confide in him. That her concern for his sister had overridden her dislike. And now, after she'd finished unburdening herself, despite anything she may have thought to the contrary, he knew he loved her more deeply than ever. Even though his concern for Justie and Cody should have been uppermost in his thoughts, she was. He'd had to withhold the urge to reach out to her from the moment he'd first seen her walking down the path, her face creased with worry. He'd wanted to smooth away those lines with his hands - instead he'd had to use his voice to ease her concerns.

She stood and looked at him and her eyes suddenly began to fill with tears in reaction to his words. This time Darien didn't think. He just put his arms around her and held her close. Whispered into her hair that everything would be all right as her tears wetted his shoulder. Stroked her back. And her arms came around him too, and clung as she wept silently. He knew it meant no more than a release of all her pent up emotion, the need for comfort in a stressful situation. He knew that if he were Sam or Colin she would have done the very same thing, but that knowledge didn't diminish the sweet feeling of holding her in his arms.

After a few minutes she pushed herself away, wiped her eyes, and apologised.

"Your shirt is all wet now," she said, her earlier awkwardness returning.

"That's okay, as long as you feel better."

"Thanks. I do, a bit."

They walked back in silence and Elana didn't protest as he went all the way down his driveway by her side, and up her driveway right to her door.

"If you need anything, call me," he said. "Do you have my number?"

"I've got the one for the stables."

"I'll give you my cell."

"Okay, just a minute - I'll go into the house and get a pen and paper."

She was back in a moment and he took the pen and notepad from her and deftly printed the number. As he handed them back to her their fingers touched momentarily.

"Take care," he said. It wasn't much more than a whisper, but it was all he could manage.

"Thanks." She smiled, flicked her hazel eyes up to his face, and then closed the door.

As he walked back to his house he had no more coherent thought than that in all the times he had described the colour while writing his story about Lanea, he had never got it quite right. But when he entered his office he was all business. He sat at his desk, picked up his phone, and dialled Carl's number.

Chapter Twenty-two

Elana heard the Mustang come up the drive a few minutes after Darien had left. She ran outside to get Cody before Greg could even open his door.

"No need to get out," she said to Greg as she took Cody's hand. "Thanks for bringing him home on time."

"Hey! How could you doubt me? Did you know this kid of ours is a bowling pro? Tell your mom how many strikes you had, Codester!"

"Four," said Cody with a smile as he looked up at his mom.

"So, I'll see ya in a couple of days, hey Sport? I'll take you to the park to play catch."

"Sure, okay, thanks um, er, Greg."

"Dad, son. Call me dad." Greg grinned and then turned to Elana. "I'll give you a ring and set it up."

Elana didn't answer him, just pulled Cody closer as Greg waved goodbye and backed down the driveway.

"You okay, mom?" asked Cody.

"I'm fine, now that you're back," she said as she hugged him. "How was it?"

"We had fun, but it's sorta weird. It's hard to think of him as my dad when I don't really know him." He looked up at Elana and then added. "You don't like him very much, do you?"

"I don't have much reason to, honey. Come on, let's go inside."

"Well, he said that he made some mistakes before that got you mad at him. He told me to tell you how sorry he is for everything. He said he hopes you both can be friends again."

"He shouldn't be using you as a messenger," said Elana. "It's not fair. He should talk to me about it." She took his face in her hands and looked into his eyes. "I'm sorry, hon. I'm sorry you're caught in the middle of this."

"It's not so bad. We had fun, honest. It's just . . . he's so . . . friendly - like he's known me forever. And he hasn't. And he wants me to call him dad, but . . . it doesn't sound right yet."

"Don't worry about it, bud. Just call him Greg if it feels more natural to you. You don't have to do or say anything you don't want to."

~ * ~

The week passed quite uneventfully. The weather was changeable; a few sunny hours were soon taken over by dismal, grey skies and sudden showers. The end of April was fast approaching and Elana felt overwhelmed by the work involved in keeping up the supply of bedding plants and gearing for what would be her biggest sales day in the year - the Saturday before Mothers' Day. And on top of it all she had to deal with her concern for Cody and her worries about Greg and his insidious charm. They had gone out together twice more, but both times Elana's friends had ensured that they were not alone.

After Greg had rung Elana to set up the next outing, Chandra had called Colin immediately. When Greg came up to the house to pick Cody up, Colin was sitting on the front stairs beside him.

"Hey Greg," he said with a grin, "I was going to do some shopping with Chandra, but playing catch with you and Cody sounded like much more fun, so I let her take my car and she left me here. Hope you don't mind me inviting myself."

There was nothing for Greg to do but accept it as Cody ran over to the Mustang and scrambled into the back seat and Colin took the front. The smug expression on his face turned Greg's eyes rock hard.

Two days later, Joy accompanied them to the movies. "I've wanted to see Robots for a long time, but no one would go with me. Carl thinks he's too old for animated movies and poor Elana is just too busy. I know you won't mind me tagging along."

Greg complained later to Elana about sending her watchdogs but she just gave him a hard glare and told him to expect someone to turn up every time they went out together.

"Hey, babe, I'm getting the feeling that you still don't trust me," said Greg. "I'm the kid's dad, or don't you remember? All I want's to show him a good time. I think I should have the right to do that on my own."

"You'll see him on my terms or not at all," said Elana. "I'm the one with custody."

"Fine! All your over-protective friends can come next time. I'll rent a minivan." Greg slammed his car door and drove off spraying gravel. When he called her to organise taking Cody up Mount Washington on the coming weekend, he made a slick apology for his outburst, and then followed it with, "Justie is coming too, but anyone you care to send with Cody will be welcome. The more the merrier - we'll have a picnic. Why don't you come? It'll be just like old times."

Elana curbed her urge to slam the phone down. "If Justie's going too, I don't have a problem with it," she said and then rang off as soon as she was able to get him to stop talking. She threw herself onto her bed and hugged her pillow tightly to her chest. She wanted nothing more than to call Darien and hear his voice instead of having Greg's resounding in her ears. She thought back to the day down by the river when Darien had listened to her with such understanding and compassion. She had felt so safe in his arms. But it did no good to remember the warmth of his body, its comforting strength, the touch of his hands on her back, the smell of ginger and salt as her tears wetted his shirt. Calling him would be a mistake. It was enough to know that he believed in her. That he thought she was strong. And she was. She had always managed on her own before, and this time it would be no different. She wiped her eyes, punched her pillow back into place at the headboard, and then ran her fingers over the carving that centred it. The one winged bird. Only one wing, but it was still flying. They were much alike.

~ * ~

Darien grabbed the sheaf of papers that had come through on his fax in the last few days and headed downstairs to the kitchen. Justie was rummaging around in the cupboards and the kettle was on.

"Have you seen the Earl Grey?" she asked without taking her head out of the cupboard. "Mrs. R. always moves things when she cleans."

"I think we're out of it. Why don't we have green?"

"Okay," said Justie, putting the packet on the counter. "I drove out to Cumberland this morning and got us some doughnuts from Old Country Bakery."

Darien couldn't help but think that what with all he had to say to her, they'd need even more than the best doughnuts on the island. "You're wonderful! Amazing!"

She grinned. "I only bought half a dozen, so you can go easy on the flattery. And I promised Greg I'd save him two. I've been bragging about them to him for weeks now."

Darien sat in his chair and threw the faxes on the table. "About Greg - we have to talk."

Justie grabbed the kettle just as it began to sing and filled the teapot. She set them each two cups, placed the plate of doughnuts between them, and then sat, leaning on her elbows and staring at him intently. "I've noticed that your attitude towards him has changed. And he has too - he tries not to show it, but he's hurt by it." She stretched out her hand and touched his. "Please, Darien, be fair. I know what I told you about Elana hit you hard. I can see you're still hooked on her. But don't hold it against him - he's the best thing that ever happened to me. Don't you want me to be happy?"

"Yes. That's exactly what I want. But he won't make you happy in the long run, honey. I've talked to Elana. She told me everything about her marriage to Greg."

"He told me she would try something," said Justie, pouring the tea. "Darien, don't let your feelings for her blind you to the truth. She has problems. She needs help. You told me yourself about how unstable she was that time you helped with the greenhouses. She attacked you! Greg says she's stopped taking her meds. He's trying to do what he can - he's more concerned about Cody than anything else. I think she's overworked herself and ready for a breakdown. Instead of lecturing me about Greg you should help him convince her to see her doctor."

"Justie, Elana is the sanest person I know. That whole thing at the greenhouses was my fault. It was a misunderstanding - that's all. It's got nothing to do with this. Listen to me please."

"Why should I if you are just going to feed me her lies about Greg?"

"Greg's the one who's lying."

"Darien, I know you care about her. I know you want to believe her, and I know this is even harder for you because she still wants him."

"If she wants him, then why did she leave him in the first place?"

Justie took a sip of her tea and then placed her cup down gently. "I expected you to say that. It's complicated. He screwed up some investments when Cody was a baby and lost a lot of money, and she was furious. She took Cody and ran, just to hurt him. To pay him back. He couldn't trace her - her family didn't even know where she was. So he concentrated on building back their investments so that he could prove himself to her when he found her. So he could provide his son with a stable home. And in his spare time he followed all the leads he could, but she kept moving. He was devastated when he discovered that she'd managed to divorce him on the grounds of desertion. But that made him give up his dream of their ever being a family again. And now, suddenly by accident, he's been reunited with Cody."

"That's a heart wrenching story, but quite different from the one I've been told."

"Of course she'll have told you something different. She wants to break Greg and me up. She wants him back now, Darien. I'm sorry - I know it hurts - but she still loves him. And . . . well . . . he's rich now. She won't have to slave in those greenhouses anymore if he goes back to her. She's really putting the pressure on, using Cody as a pawn."

Darien put his cup down and tried to keep his voice in control when he answered; his anger at Greg was rising. "Listen to yourself, Justie! Don't you know anything about her? If all she cared about was money, why would she have told me to shove it?"

"It's not just the money. She never stopped loving him - it's her sickness that makes her behave so erratically. That's what stopped her from going back to him." She gave him a look of deep sympathy, and added gently. "If she didn't have such strong feelings for him, she'd have fallen for you."

Darien shook his head. "Let's leave me out of this for now." His voice softened as he continued. "Are you ready to hear her side now? You owe her that."

Justie crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. "I'm listening, but that doesn't mean I'll believe it. Greg's told me what a good liar she is."

"She only told me this for one reason - because she didn't want to see you hurt like she was. Greg swept her off her feet when she met him. She fell in love with him easily and she was convinced he loved her. Without her realising it, he managed to separate her from her family and friends during the early years of their marriage. She had a legacy from her grandmother, and he supervised the investments. He was an investment banker, after all, and she trusted him. From what she said it sounds like they were happy and that she didn't suspect anything was wrong with their marriage. Then, just after Cody's first birthday, he left, supposedly on a business trip, but that was the last she heard from him until that day she saw him in our tack room."

"According to her, she's blameless," said Justie. "At least Greg admits to having made mistakes. Nothing you've said has changed my mind about him."

"I'm not finished," said Darien. His tea was cold but he took a sip of it just the same. The doughnuts still lay untouched on the plate. "He left her with nothing. Every cent she'd ever had was embezzled. She didn't even have enough to pay the rent. All her jewellery that was of any value was gone. She sold most of her furniture and moved into a basement suite and she's had to scrimp and save and work her butt off ever since then just to support herself and Cody. After her divorce was finalised her father gave her the greenhouse property, so she came here to start over. She's shown nothing but courage and determination since I've known her. I see no reason not to believe her over a chance-met guy whose only attribute is that he can charm the socks off of everyone he meets."

"It can't be true, Darien. Don't you see? Greg made some mistakes in his past but he's learned from them. He's grown as a person. And he's worked hard to go from nothing and make a success of his life. His one regret was that he'd lost his child and now that he's found him, he couldn't be happier. He told me, even before he knew about Cody, that there was a big empty hole in his life because his ex-wife had stolen his boy. He feels things deeply. He loves Cody, and he loves me, and I love him. She can't spoil this for me with her bitterness and her envy and her greed."

"Justie - please - he's only using you. He wants to marry you, take control of your money, and bleed you dry, like he did to Elana. Like he did to his other ex-wives. And he doesn't care how much he hurts you, or Cody. The only person he cares about is himself."

"What are you talking about? What other ex-wives? You are so in love with Elana that you'll believe anything she tells you."

"I knew if it was only a case of her word against Greg's that I'd have a tough time convincing you of anything. Elana doesn't know about his other marriages, but it's all right here." He slid the documents across the table to her. "Take a look. By my calculations his second marriage wasn't even legal. He was married and divorced before Elana's divorce to him came through. The third wife caught him trying to clean her out and charged him with fraud. There's a warrant out for his arrest in Manitoba. We've notified the authorities that he's here."

Justie looked through the papers, her face ashen. "You and Elana?"

"Carl and me. I called him and he set me up with a private investigator. This is all true, Justie. I'm sorry."

"But . . . it can't be!" She looked up at him, pleading, tears slipping out of her eyes.

Darien got up from his chair and crouched by her side, circling his arms around her. "He's a very talented confidence trickster. You aren't the first person he's tried to con, but if I have anything to do with it, you'll be the last."

"But . . . I love . . . I thought I loved him. It was all so real. So sincere."

Darien stroked her hair. "I know, I know sweetie. But none of it meant anything to him."

"But . . . couldn't he really have loved me, anyway?"

"You were only a mark, Justie. Would it make it any better to think that he cared about you too, but was willing to use you?"

"But maybe, this time . . ."

"I don't think so, Justie. A guy like him loves no one but himself."

"Darien it hurts so much!"

"I know," he said, as she crawled off her chair and into his arms. They sat together on the floor, and she alternated between crying and saying, "It's not true, not true." After a long while Justie got up and sat at the table again. Darien brought her a box of tissues and she blew her nose.

"Part of me wishes you never told me," she said as she read the faxes one more time. "I was so happy, and now I'm numb. Completely numb."

"I wish he was the nice guy we all thought. But wishing something won't change reality. It's good that we found out now, before your feelings became more established. Before he married you and separated us."

"What do you mean?"

"He never would have been able to steal from you with me around. He would have tried his best to poison your mind against me."

"No one could do that." Justie picked up a doughnut and took a bite. "He never would have succeeded, but he would have made my life hell." She put the doughnut down and cried, "The best doughnuts in the world and I can't taste them, all because of stupid Greg!"

"That's more like it," said Darien.

"And to think I was going to save him two. Instead I'll eat them all and make myself sick doing it!" She burst out crying again and laid her head down on the table. "Oh, God, Darien! What am I going to do?"

"I'm going to make some more tea, and we're going to sit here and drink it, and then, when you're ready to face it, you're going to break up with him and never look back."

"I don't know if I can do that."

"I'll come with you, if you like."

"No. I'll do it. Only I'm afraid that the moment he smiles at me I'll cave. He's so gorgeous."

"And slick. And fake."

Justie read the papers again, this time taking in more of what was documented there. Darien brought her fresh tea, and she drank it. She finished her doughnut slowly and then pushed away the plate. Her eyes were red and swollen, but dry.

"Why can't I ever find the right kind of guy?"

Darien rubbed her arm. "You will."

"You know - I have no idea if I love him or hate him. All I know is that I hurt like hell. But he's going to be here soon, so now's as good a time as any to tell him to take a hike. I'm going to wash my face and get some makeup on. I'd like to say thanks, Darien, but I don't think I can yet."

Darien watched her leave the room. He felt drained and saddened. He could only imagine how much worse it was for her. He bit in to his doughnut and agreed that it was a wretched waste of a trip to Cumberland especially to get them. He might as well have been eating Styrofoam.

~ * ~

Elana came in from the greenhouses at 1:30 and washed her hands. She still had a lot of work to do, but she'd forgotten to take something out of the freezer for supper. The message light was blinking on her phone, so she picked it up and dialled *98. One new message. Greg's voice came across the line, loud and clear.

"Well, I hope you're happy. I don't know how you did it, but you've screwed me royally. You went crying to Darien and now he's brainwashed his sister and everything's over. Justie was going to be my biggest con. And my last. Now, thanks to you, my plans have changed. You're going to regret messing with me."

Elana stood in shock as the voice mail asked her to press seven to save the message, nine to delete it. Then she hung up and grabbed the phonebook. She soon found the number for the school and dialled, tapping her fingers impatiently on the counter as she waited for someone to pick up.

"Miracle Beach School, how may I help you?"

"Hi. It's Elana Barnes. I'd like to speak to my son, Cody - it's an emergency. He's in Miss Halburton's class."

"Hold on a moment, I'll put you through."

Elana waited, wishing she wasn't tied to the phone line, but at the school right now, herself, with Cody's hand safely in hers. Every moment she waited seemed like an hour.

"Hello?"

"Miss Halburton, it's Cody's mom. Could I talk to him please?"

"Are you calling about his appointment? He forgot but it's okay - his dad picked him up about ten minutes ago."

"His dad?"

"Yes, is anything wrong?"

Elana clattered the phone down onto the cradle without even saying goodbye. When she picked it up again her hands were shaking uncontrollably. She reached into her pocket and took out a wrinkled piece of paper, smoothed it, and carefully dialled the number that was written there.

Chapter Twenty-three

Elana hadn't waited. Once she'd got off the phone with Darien she grabbed a leather case from her dresser drawer and ran down her driveway to meet his black truck as it emerged onto Haven Road. As soon as she was seated inside she unzipped the case and started shuffling through the pockets.

"It's not here," she said, pulling out all the cards and papers and spreading them on the seat.

"Looks like he's got Cody's birth certificate," said Darien into his cell phone. "I don't care how fast you drive. It'll be tight with either ferry - just get there!"

Darien put his phone down to negotiate the right turn onto Headquarters road and, ignoring the 60km speed limit, drove as fast as possible along the route to the Inland Island Highway. "Just hope no one is on the one-lane bridge if we hit the red light," he said. "Don't worry Elana - he can't get off this island with Cody."

Elana held onto the door handle as the truck swung wildly around the curve before the bridge. The light was red but there was no one in front of them and the bridge was empty. A car was coming towards the green light in the opposite direction. Darien accelerated and his truck surged forward, rattling across the Bailey bridge as the oncoming car swerved and braked, horn blaring.

"How do you know which ferry he'll be trying to catch?" asked Elana. "There are so many of them."

"Most of them just go to smaller islands. I'd say he's either heading for Departure Bay or Duke Point. It doesn't make any sense to go to Victoria - the drive is twice as long and he'll end up in the same place as if he went by Duke Point."

"But what about the Victoria ferry to Port Angeles? Don't you think he wants to take Cody out of the country?"

"That's not a car ferry, Elana. No - I think that if he's planning on crossing the border he'll go to Duke Point. Blaine's only a half hour drive from the Tsawwassen terminal. If he's intending to head across Canada he'll take the ferry from Departure Bay. One leaves at 3:00, the other at 3:15. I figured we should go to Duke Point. Colin's on his way to Departure Bay and Carl's calling the police. After he tells them everything I'm sure they'll put an APB out on Greg and his car. By the time we get to the ferry, he'll be in custody and you'll get Cody right back. Promise. Nothing bad will happen to him."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. The speed I'm going we could beat Greg to the ferry even though he's got at least a fifteen minute head start on us."

"He's probably driving this fast too," said Elana, cringing at the idea of Cody being hurtled down the highway at 130kmh.

"He doesn't need to." Darien put as much reassurance in his voice as he could.

"Oh God! Why didn't I tell the school Greg wasn't allowed to pick him up? Why did I even let Cody think it was okay to do stuff with Greg? Why didn't I tell him all about the bastard?"

"You had no idea this would happen, Elana. It's my fault."

She stared at him. "How on earth is it your fault?"

"This morning I told Justie everything you told me. And more. I found out things about Greg that convinced her and she broke up with him. I should have known he wouldn't just cut his losses and leave. I should have known he'd retaliate. I should have called you right away and warned you."

"Both of us blaming ourselves won't change what's happening," said Elana, holding her arms tightly around herself. "All I can think of right now is Cody and what he's going through. He's alone with Greg and I feel so powerless. And my biggest fear is I'll never see him again."

"Greg reacted out of anger, Elana, but he never thought this thing through at all. Leaving you that message was the stupidest thing he could have ever done if he had a hope of getting to the mainland with Cody. There'll be cops swarming all over him at the terminal. It'll be a scary couple of hours for Cody, but you'll be together with him soon." He looked at his watch. "We'll be there in just under an hour."

The scenery flashed past as Darien's truck ate up the highway. Elana looked out the window without seeing the blurred trees. Her chest was tight, her throat dry. Her face felt white-hot. Darien passed her a bottle of water and she forced herself to take sips from it, almost choked trying to remember how to swallow. He said things to her in a soft voice and spoke quietly on his cell phone. She was barely aware of any of it. It was as if she was in a separate space and the only thing in there with her was the thought-obliterating worry that consumed her.

They were going through Nanaimo when Darien's phone rang. The words he spoke as he answered it didn't register with Elana, but the change in the tenor of his voice did. She stirred and looked at him. His face was no longer sombre. Light shone in his eyes as he flipped his phone shut. "They've got him!" he shouted. "He's at Duke Point. We'll be there in ten minutes."

"Cody?" asked Elana.

"He's fine, Elana," Darien grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "He's fine."

Darien was back on the phone again as he headed towards the terminal. He skirted the ferry line-up and made for a gate that was manned by two RCMP officers. Beyond them, in the lot, three police cars with lights flashing surrounded a yellow Mustang. Darien spoke quickly with one of the officers and was waved through. Elana's door was opened as the truck stopped, and a policewoman helped her out.

"Elana Barnes? There's someone here who really wants to see you."

The door of the closest police cruiser opened and Cody ran into Elana's arms. She hugged him close and kissed him and repeated over and over, "I was afraid I'd never see you again."

"I knew you'd come and get me mom. I told him that the whole time. 'My mom won't ever let you take me from her,' I said. He just laughed and said that you told him he could. But I never believed him. Never."

"Oh honey!" Elana laughed through her tears. "Are you okay? He didn't hurt you did he?"

"Nope. He told me we were going on a little holiday, and he had a backpack with some of my clothes. But I thought that was weird because you never told me about it, and because he told the school I had a dentist appointment. But we were already driving by that time so I couldn't try to get out of the car or anything."

Elana stroked his head and held him even closer. "It's all over now, sweetie."

Darien had been speaking with the officers. He came over to Elana and Cody and said, "They're taking him to the station now. They want us to go over there and make statements. It shouldn't take too long."

Elana looked over at the other police cars as Darien crouched down on one knee and talked to Cody. Greg was sitting in the back seat of one of the cars. He grinned at her. She turned away, not wanting to see his face, disgusted that he could sit there and smile at her after all that he had done. "You are never, ever going to see Cody again," she said under her breath as the car pulled away.

"Hop in," said Darien to Cody. "They said it was okay for you to come with us now."

~ * ~

Not too long at the police station had turned out to be a few hours. Elana drank the coffee they gave her and stayed with Cody while they questioned him. Afterwards Darien sat with him while she went in to make her statement and then Darien was questioned too. When they were finally free to go they found a quiet place for dinner before heading back out on the highway to Courtenay.

"I'm so stuffed," said Cody as he sat in between Elana and Darien in the truck.

"It's amazing there's still room up here for you," said Darien.

Elana just laughed and hugged him to her. She looked over to Darien and said, "This ride is going to be so much better than the one to Nanaimo. I wasn't good company at all."

"I was happy to drive you."

"I wasn't good company either," said Cody. "I kept telling Greg to turn around and take me home."

"I'm sorry, honey. I should have looked out for you better."

Cody looked up at her, his face crinkling in concern. "Do I have to like Greg just 'cause he's my dad?"

"I know it sounds cold to say you don't have to like him, even though he's your father, but it's true. He hasn't done anything to deserve it and you have nothing to feel guilty about if you can't like him."

"He's going to go to jail now isn't he?"

"Yes, not only for trying to kidnap you, but for some other stuff he did in Manitoba."

"Will I have to visit him in jail?"

"Of course not. You don't even have to see him ever again. I'm sorry that . . . that you don't have the kind of father you deserve."

"That's okay mom. I've got you, and you're the best mom ever," Cody said, snuggling sleepily against her.

"I'll second that," said Darien.

~ * ~

The drive home was very relaxed. Darien drove slightly under the speed limit. Everyone concerned had been called from the police station in Nanaimo, so his cell phone was now silent. He slipped a Nick Drake CD into the player and leaned back comfortably in his seat as the soft tones flowed over him. From time to time he looked over at Elana whose head had fallen to rest upon Cody's. Her face, which had been so pinched and drawn on the way down, was now serene. He longed to reach over and touch the soft curve of her cheek, but contented himself with a feather touch to the back of her hand that lay gently upon Cody's waist. The sun was slipping slowly behind the mountainous backbone of the island and the sky was fading and blushed with pink.

Darien almost wished the trip wouldn't end, but soon he was turning off onto Piercy Road, and then he was stopping at the light for the one-lane bridge. Elana awoke at that moment and looked around her.

"That was the scariest moment of all, when you crossed this bridge on the red light," she said.

"I'm afraid I was a little more worried for Cody than I let on," he admitted.

She flashed him a smile that made something turn over inside of him. "You were so reassuring. I don't think I've even thanked you yet, but you dropped everything you were doing and spent your whole day helping me. It was so wonderful of you."

"I'd do anything for you and Cody."

Before she turned her head away, Darien noticed an almost wary flicker in her eyes.

"Thanks," she whispered. When she looked back at him her face was open once again.

"I'm glad it all ended so well. Cody handled it amazingly."

"He did," she agreed. "I can't believe he said it was cool when the cop cars surrounded them with their lights flashing. I would have been so freaked out."

"Kids like those flashing lights! Anyway - he knew he was safe and that it meant he'd be reunited with you. What could be more cool than that?"

Elana smiled again, warmly. He turned up her driveway and concentrated on avoiding the ruts and potholes, just to steady the surge of feeling the smile had induced. He stopped close to her front door. She undid her seatbelt and then went to unfasten Cody's.

"I don't want to wake him," she said in a low voice. "Even though he won't admit it, he's had a very tough day."

"I'll carry him in for you."

"He's not too heavy for me."

"I know that," said Darien with a grin. "I've seen what you can lug around. But I want to. You open the doors and pull his blankets back and I'll do the carrying for a change."

"I'm getting déj vu," said Elana as she opened the front door. "You did this for me once before."

"Only Cody's a lot lighter than that damned trunk," said Darien with a laugh.

"Well, it's almost the same place you are taking him to - through here into my room, and then through this door and here's his bed."

Darien lay Cody down on his mattress and slipped off his shoes.

"He's okay like that," said Elana as Darien looked up at her questioningly, then she pulled the blankets up around Cody's chin and gave him a hug and a kiss on his forehead.

Darien felt a rush of feeling for the two of them, and turned quickly away and went back through the door into Elana's bedroom. He walked over to the dresser and ran his hands along the carving. As he stood there, looking at the furniture he remembered so well, he heard her close the door to Cody's little room and come up behind him.

"You remember the other time I was here?" he asked.

"Yes." Her voice wavered.

"You were upset with me. I thought it was just because you'd hurt your back, but now . . . anyway - do you know why I stayed in your room for a bit after I put down that trunk?"

"No," she said, hesitant.

"It's nothing bad," Darien said, the corners of his mouth curving up. "I was looking at your bedroom furniture. Where did you get it?"

"The lady from that curio shop in town found it for me in a farmer's barn. Isn't it beautiful? I'd never seen anything like it."

"I have. My mother had a set just like this. After she died my dad sold it and bought an expensive new bedroom suite. He didn't want to be reminded, but I wished he'd never sold it. I wanted him to give it to me back then. I've looked in antique shops for something similar for years, so you can imagine my surprise that day when I found it here, in your house."

"Do you think it's the same furniture?"

"It's a little more worn than I remember - the bird on the headboard had both its wings back then, but it's too much of a coincidence for it not to be, isn't it?"

~ * ~

Elana was looking up at Darien as he spoke about the furniture and coincidences. The only thing she could think about was what the strange old lady had said. The daughter she had foreseen. Was that really a vision from the future, or something from the bed's past? He had stopped speaking and was waiting expectantly for an answer of some sort. She had lost her train of thought. His eyes were a very light grey and seemed to be coming closer to hers. She could see glints of silver radiating from his pupils. His finger came up, traced a satin line down her cheek. She leaned towards him, and suddenly, in that split second, remembered Lina. As she turned her face away his lips grazed her ear, her hair. She ran from the room.

He followed her quickly. She turned to face him, her back against the fireplace.

"What's the matter?" he asked. "I thought . . . I mean, I know we were in your bedroom, but I wasn't . . . I wasn't thinking of that. I only wanted to kiss you. I thought you wanted to kiss me too. Did I get it wrong again?"

"You are forgetting someone."

"I know Cody is sleeping in the other room. I'm sorry. I was only going to kiss you."

"I'm not talking about Cody," said Elana, turning her back to him and leaning her head against the mantelpiece.

"Who then?"

Elana could hear the confusion in his voice. What kind of morals did he have? Why didn't he think she would mind? "Your girlfriend. I can see it doesn't seem to bother you, but I don't kiss guys who have girlfriends."

"My girlfriend? Who . . . oh God! I'd forgotten all about that."

"That's convenient! Maybe it's easy for you to forget about Lina, but I can't. Go - please - go. You've spoiled a perfect evening."

"Elana." Darien came up behind her and touched her tentatively on the shoulder. "Turn around and look at me, please?"

"I can't."

"I didn't forget about my girlfriend. I don't have a girlfriend. I just forgot that you said that about Lina and me. I had a lot of other things on my mind back then. Lina has never been my girlfriend."

"Then why didn't you deny it?"

"I didn't see any point to it. You hated me so what difference would it make if I had a girlfriend or not?"

"But . . . what about the way Lina acts all the time? Like she owns you?" Elana finally turned around. She had to see his face to see if she could tell that what he was saying was really true.

He blushed. "She would like to be my girlfriend, I admit. But I've never encouraged her. Can you honestly say you've seen me treat her like . . . like I was into her? She's Carl's sister and she's good at the job she does for the stables. I put up with her because of that."

Elana considered what he'd said. It was true that she'd never seen anything overt on his part when he was with Lina.

"I just thought you were reserved," she said, her hazel eyes challenging.

Darien grabbed her by the arms and pulled her close to him until their faces were touching. He kissed her hard and long with a depth and intensity that surprised both of them. "Was that reserved?" he asked, his sudden anger abated.

"No." Elana stood staring at him, her whole body shaking.

He loosened his hold of her arms and stroked them gently where he had grabbed her. "How could you ever think I'd go out with someone like Lina?"

"What was I supposed to think?"

"That I have better taste than that. Elana - I told you that I loved you. You. And I meant it. I still mean it, but I don't want to rush you, so I won't bring it up again until you're ready. Just tell me that you like me a little bit and that you're willing to give me a chance - that's all I ask." He looked at her steadily.

Elana matched his gaze. She wanted to feel his lips on hers again, but this time softer and slower, and for ever so much longer. But she had to answer him first. Talking wasn't as easy as letting the body take over. "If I said I like you a little bit I'd be lying."

Darien's expression changed. "The first time I kissed you, I thought you responded, but you said you didn't. This time I know you responded."

She placed her fingers on his lips. "Hush. Let me speak. I have a confession to make. My feelings have changed quite a bit since that night out by the greenhouse. You've done things and said things that have totally altered my way of thinking about you. Before I didn't know you at all, but since then I've seen into your soul. I didn't think I had any chance with you anymore, after the way I'd treated you - the things I'd said, what I'd thought. And it amazes me that after all that you still love me. I think . . . I think I've fallen in love with you."

Elana could see the silver rays in Darien's eyes again. The room was very warm and not warm enough. She brought herself closer to him as his hands slipped from her shoulders and around her back. Bergamot and ginger mingled. Their lips met again - tender, unresisting. Moonlight slipped through the window and gilded them with opalescent light.

The front door opened. Carl and Joy stopped in the doorway and backed out slowly, closing it gently behind them.

"There's no way we're interrupting that, now it's finally happened," Joy whispered as they tiptoed around to the back of the house.

Chapter Twenty-four

Elana gazed about herself and struggled to remember what the greenhouse had looked like less than a year before. Torn plastic had flapped in the wind - there had been a gaping hole in the arch of the greenhouse wall. The smell of decaying vegetation had filled her nostrils. The only things lush and green were the weeds that had forced their way through almost everything and flourished in a wild tangle. That had been last September when she had arrived from her three thousand mile trip across the country to the dilapidated greenhouses and the new beginning of her life. Now it was July. Rain did not slash against mottled and torn plastic. The lush green around her was augmented with red and yellow and cerulean blue. The air was redolent with perfume and the humming of bees. The plastic on the sides of the greenhouse was neatly rolled up to allow a light breeze to flow through, but still it was warm and humid inside in the summer sun. It was no longer just Cody and herself against the world. She had Sam who had been her rock, Joy and Chandra who filled her home with friendship and laughter, and Darien who had taken her completely by surprise with his love. Darien who had taught her to trust, to whom she had opened her heart, who walked up behind her as she watered the final row of hanging baskets. He pulled her against him with one arm and kissed the back of her neck.

"I won't feel safe until you put that hose down," he whispered in her ear.

"With good reason," she said, trying to squirm around as his arm clamped tighter.

"I have something for you I don't think you want to get wet," he said.

She turned the valve at the nozzle and put the hose down before he allowed her to slip around in the curve of his arm and face him. He stretched the hand that held the bag away from her.

"Not yet. Not here. Can you come with me to the river?"

She nodded. "I'm all done for today. I just have to tell . . ."

Running feet alerted them to Cody's approach. He entered the doorway and rushed up the centre path, his eyes shining.

"Mom, mom! I found pumpkins." He threw himself into her arms. "Little baby pumpkins in my very own garden. Already! Even Sam doesn't have any yet."

"That's just great," she said, rumpling his hair.

"I expect a pie from your pumpkins," said Darien.

"I'll make it for you myself," said Cody. "Well, with mom's help, anyway."

"I'll hold you to it, buster." Darien took Cody by the arm and the three of them began to walk out of the greenhouse. "I've got some news that might interest you."

"News?"

"I've decided not to sell the yearling."

"You're not selling Legolas?" Cody's eyes were shining.

"Nope. He's smart and spunky but he's gentle too. He'll make a good horse for a boy. If you want to keep helping me to train him, I'd really like it. And then, when he's ready, you could ride him for me in shows."

"Me? Almost like he's my horse?"

"Almost."

"Darien," said Elana, looking at Cody's excited face and not wanting to burst his bubble. "You can't give Cody a horse. It's too much."

"I'm not," he said. "He'll just be my rider. I don't always sell all the horses I raise."

"But . . ."

"No buts, Elana. Cody'll be doing me a favour. Really."

"Can I mom?" Cody was almost exploding with excitement. "Please?"

"Yes honey, but remember, it's a big responsibility, helping to train a horse. You do a good job for Darien."

"I will," said Cody, and then he turned to Darien. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! Can we go and see Legolas now? Can we?"

"Your mom and I are going for a walk to the river, but Justie's at the barn. You could go with her, if that's okay." He looked to Elana for approval.

"Okay, as long as he's not disrupting her work or anything."

"She loves having him around," said Darien. "And she'll be sure to put him to work."

Elana grinned. "Yeah, she's a regular slave driver."

They left Cody at the barn and continued on past the paddocks to the river trail.

"Thanks, Darien. This means so much to him. He's been bugging me for the last two and a half months to buy that horse. You've made it too easy for me, doing it this way."

Darien put his arm around her shoulders. "I knew you'd think something was fishy if I offered to sell him to you for ten bucks, so I thought up a better plan."

"And saved me a lot of money in feed and board," said Elana. "But what happens if they get too attached to each other? Cody has to always remember that Legolas is yours and not his."

"I don't think that'll be an issue."

Elana looked at him questioningly, but Darien just smiled. They didn't say much the rest of the way to the river. The afternoon sun was warm on their backs and the shade, when they reached the trees, was welcoming and cool. They took off their shoes and socks at the edge of the water and then Darien led Elana out to a large, flat boulder in midstream. They sat facing each other, legs crossed, knees touching. Darien reached out a hand, placed his fingers on Elana's eyelids, and brought them down to close.

"There's something I need to tell you," he said as he took an object out of the bag he'd brought and placed it in her hands. "Open your eyes."

Elana looked down at the book she held. Reverently ran her fingers over the dark green word that crossed the cover and the brightly coloured bird that rose up from a tapestry background of intersecting branches and leaves. Phoenix. "You've written a new book!"

"I was about to tell you that I write. How did you know about my books - that FD Austen is me? Even Justie doesn't . . ."

"Sam told me about your books. He gave me one to read a long time ago, but I didn't read it until after . . . after I found out I was all wrong about you. Since then I've read everything you've written, Darien."

"Sam? How did he know I'd written them?"

"He knows your name. Freedom Darien Austen Stewart. He used to be a very close friend of your parents - he's your godfather."

"My godfather? Why did he never tell me?"

"I told him he should, but he said that you wouldn't want to know about an old hippie like him. You know, he was living there, looking after that property so that he could be close to you - make sure that you were all right."

"I'm glad you told me, Elana." Darien idly traced a design upon the warm stone beside him with his index finger. "I admit that at first I just thought of him like that - as an old hippie - but I've got to know him in the past few months too, and I have a lot of respect for him. The way he works so hard. The way he looks after you. The way he's like a grandpa to Cody."

Elana smiled. "I'd never have made it without Sam." She uncrossed her legs, placed her feet flat on the rock, and rested the book against her raised knees. She was about to open it when Darien reached out and stilled her hand.

"So," said Darien, "why didn't you tell me that you knew I was a writer?"

"I was waiting for you to tell me." Elana looked down at the hand that held hers and then back up to Darien's face. "Are there any more secrets we need to share before I open this book?"

Darien stroked the back of her hand with his thumb and smiled. "Do you have any?"

Elana pretended to think hard for a moment. "Nope."

Darien put his legs on either side of hers and pulled himself closer. He reached his other hand up and tucked her hair behind her ear. "I've got one," he whispered.

Elana regarded him expectantly.

He ran his finger down the curve of her jaw, from ear to chin. "I gave you a Christmas present."

"The raku bowl."

"Yes. I bought it for myself during the week at the craft fair, but when I saw you that day when I came with Carl to help load up Joy's stuff, I overheard you talking about the bowl you had wanted to buy. Dark green glaze with pink crackling - flashes of gold and charcoal - the feel of it - the balance - the serenity. I knew it was the same bowl. I wondered whose bowl it really was, mine or yours, and where it really belonged, and by Christmas I knew I had to give it to you. I wasn't ready to admit to myself why, and I wasn't ready to open myself to you by giving it outright, so I took the easy way out and left it on your doorstep."

"It's a good thing you did," said Elana as she leaned forward and pulled him closer to her so she could kiss his lips. "I wouldn't have kept it if I'd known you'd given it to me. And I love that bowl."

"And I love you," he said, returning her kiss. "Where did you think it had come from?"

"Even though they denied it, I thought Joy and Carl had bought it for me. What else could I think?"

"I was such a coward. The main reason I didn't give it to you directly was that I was afraid of Justie's teasing - she didn't believe me when I said I was indifferent to you. But I had already been far from indifferent to you for a long time. And foolishly fighting it. I think it's time to open the book now. Turn to the dedication page."

Elana opened the book in the warm little cave made by their touching bodies. The pages were crisp, creamy vellum. She turned one, two, three, and then there it was.

For Elana I could not extricate you from this book Nor my mind, nor my heart, nor my soul I wouldn't want it any other way

She stared at the words for some time and then looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears.

"You are the book," he whispered. "Every image, every thought, every word is because of you."

"I don't know what to say," she finally said. "It's overwhelming. You have no idea what your writing does to me. I fell in love with you while reading it. Your phrasing, the way you use words, the emotions you evoke - I felt I could see into your soul. And now . . ."

He stopped her words with a kiss. It was some time before either of them spoke again.

"Elana, I want to join my life with yours. To live with you, to be your husband, to be Cody's dad. For always. Forever. I can't imagine living any other way."

Elana touched his face and looked into his eyes. Words evaded her as she leaned forward and kissed the tip of his nose, his eyebrows, the arch of his cheek. She had never known love could be so liberating. So rewarding. She laughed and threw her arms around him; twined her legs about his waist. The book fell onto the rock and they almost toppled into the water themselves as they grabbed for it.

"You've wanted to get me wet all day, haven't you?" Darien said.

"Yes." Making sure the book was safely on the centre of the rock, Elana rolled him off, down into the river with her. The water was icy at first, but they lay on the gravel bed and held onto each other as it flowed around them. "I want to spend my life with you forever, just like this." She tasted the river water on his lips.

"I think we'd get hypothermia after a few hours."

"You know what I mean."

"I want you to say it."

"You make me happier than I ever thought possible, you wet, wonderful man, you." She kissed him again. Softly. Slowly. Their heads went under water and they both came up spluttering. Elana brushed his hair back from his face and looked at him tenderly. "I love you, Darien Stewart. I think you are going to make Cody the best dad ever. Now, let's get out of this river - it's cold."

He lifted her out and carried her to the bank. "What about the book? We're both soaked."

Elana looked around. "Luckily the bag is still on the rock. I think if you dry your hands on our socks and then put the book in the bag, it'll survive."

"Me?" he said. "Who got us wet?" But he dried his hands on the tops of the socks, then rolled them up in a ball and threw them at her before going back into the river and rescuing her book.

They slipped their wet feet into their shoes and walked arm in arm up along the path.

"How are we going to explain our wet clothes to Cody?" asked Elana.

"We'll just have to tell him the truth," Darien said. "I don't think he'll be surprised."

Birds sang in the trees. Daisies, foxgloves, and a few belated lupines swayed in the long summer grass. The late afternoon sun drenched everything in honey. Ahead were paddocks and barns, house and gardens; behind the river washed over pebbles and around boulders. Lanea watched them walk up the slope and then turned down the river path and followed it as it wound deeper and deeper, away from laughing voices, verdant fields and sun-sparkled water into a world of filtered shadow, illusive memories and intangible dreams.

Epilogue

Sam pulled off his gardening gloves and slid his feet out of his boots before going into the back door of the house which had been his home since Elana had married Darien two years before. He was still getting used to having so much space all to himself after having lived in the back shed for so many years. Most of Elana's furniture had been left for his use, all except the small rug, the oak bookcase, and the bedroom suite.

In the greenhouses he was still growing bedding plants and hanging baskets but he had added herbs and vegetable plants to his inventory. Elana had not completely abandoned the nursery; she used one of the greenhouses for growing an assortment of more rarely propagated and exotic perennials. Her time there was quite limited now, however.

Sam put on the kettle and smiled as he thought contentedly about how things had developed since the day he had met Elana and Cody in his pumpkin patch.

~ * ~

Elana sat back in bed, her thoughts echoing those of Sam. She turned to look at the headboard, running her hand over the smooth honey-coloured oak. Darien had refinished the furniture, lovingly sanding and oiling it. He had searched second hand shops and antique auctions to match the drawer pulls and had meticulously carved a new wing for the bird and attached it. The duvet cover and pillow shams were a warm gold, green, and cinnamon. Evening sun streamed through the low dormer windows. On a gate-legged table in front of one window was the raku bowl, glowing in the soft light. Elana smiled and looked towards the door in anticipation as she heard footsteps in the hallway.

"Here she is, all changed and washed and ready to be fed," said Darien, holding a plump and squirming child out to Elana.

"Ma!" the little one gurgled, reaching towards her mother.

"Come here my sweet honey," she said, and cuddled the baby in her arms as she pulled up her top. "Talia Rose you are such a glutton!"

Darien settled himself on the bed beside Elana and stroked Talia's cheek as she nursed. "She's nine months old and I'm still amazed ever time I look at her," he said.

Elana leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Me too . . . and I'm amazed every time I look at you. Is Cody home yet?"

"No," Darien grinned. "Whenever Justie picks him up from guitar lessons they're always a little late."

"I think that has something to do with a certain Liam Andrews."

"From the way she blushes ever time I tease her about it, I'd say he's the reason."

"He's so quiet and shy - someone needs to give those two a shove."

"I'll tell you what - we'll have him over for dinner and then take them for a walk to the river. I expect you to push them both in - it's your forte."

Elana stuck her tongue out at him. "You know you like it."

That earned Elana a kiss that set Talia protesting when she got a little squished. Darien made it up to her by helping her latch on again and then lightly kissing her soft little cheek.

"What should I make for the potluck Joy's having for Chandra and Colin?" asked Elana, changing the subject.

"Well, they're going to Kathmandu - how about tzatziki made with yak's milk and goat kebabs?"

"And I suppose I'll find all those ingredients at Superstore?"

"You could milk the yak that Carl bought Joy for the wool."

"It's an alpaca, silly. I'll just make lamb souvlaki, but I do expect you to milk that alpaca for the tzatziki."

"I'm not going within an inch of it - it spits."

They heard a door slam downstairs and running feet. A moment later Cody burst into the room, his hands carefully held behind his back. "I thought I'd find you guys in here. She's not asleep yet, is she? We stopped by Joy's craft store on the way home."

Elana grinned. "Oh, we thought you were late because Justie was talking with Liam."

"No, he came with us." Cody couldn't contain himself any longer. He pulled his arms from behind his back and held a blanket out. "Joy made this for Talia - isn't it cool?"

"It's lovely," said Elana, fingering the soft wool. "She's just dropped off, but you can cover her with it when I put her in her crib."

Darien sat back and watched as Elana and Cody went to the corner of the room where the crib stood and Elana gently placed the sleeping baby on her mattress. Cody tucked the blanket around Talia with care and then leaned over and kissed her forehead. 'This is what it's all about,' Darien thought, and he felt his heart well up with happiness as he gazed at the three people he loved the most.

The End


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