by Anj
(a.k.a. Azurenon)


All disclaimers in Chapter One


        "Um-hmm..." I murmured.
        "I just wanted to say goodbye." She kissed my cheek.
        "Never goodbye," I admonished. "See you later maybe, but never goodbye." I pulled her close for a kiss. "Hurry back."
        "I will." She eased away slowly. "You look so lovely laying there like that."
        I glanced down to see what she was talking about. I was naked, lying with one leg bent at the knee and one laid straight out. I didn't see what the big deal was, but I was glad she liked it.
        "Damn, I hate to leave," she said, her finger tracing a path from the middle of my chest downward.
        "Then don't. Let the detective do all the work."
        "That's tempting, but..."
        "Whaddaya think you'll find there, anyway?" I asked, rubbing sleep out of my eyes.
        "That's just it, I don't know. Maybe... something... maybe nothing. But, I can't just sit around here waiting. I have to do something. And besides, Brandon will want you all to himself most of the weekend, as usual."
        "We've got nights."
        "Uh-huh and then how do we explain why we aren't getting any sleep?" She ran her finger around my lips. "Look pretty suspicious if we're both tired all the time, wouldn't it?"
        "I guess," I sighed heavily. "Frankly, though, I don't care who knows. But, obviously you do, so... you better get going and pray that no one sees you leave."
        "Why? I told Brandon I was going. I'm not keeping this trip a secret."
        "No, but you might wanna keep that big red spot on your neck a secret, or someone might figure out where you got it."
        "What? What did you do?"
        "I got carried away." I pulled her down for another kiss. “So sue me,” I mumbled against her lips.

        "Jesus, Faith, look at that sucker," she said, as she stared at her reflection in the vanity mirror.
        "Like I said, sue me."
        "Did you have to put it so... high... in plain sight?"
        "Well, I didn't actually think about where I was or how it would look later, at the time I was doing it, Sara. It just... kinda happened. I mean, it's your fault, too, you know. If you hadn't done what you did… I wouldn't have done what I did."
        Sara merely shook her head and grinned. "First time meeting these people in Columbus, and I have a great big hickey on my neck. Oh, I bet that goes over real well."
        "Stay here, then."
        "Oh-ho, no. And try to explain this, sucker. No-o sister," she said, as she looked back at her reflection. "Wonder if it would be too hot for a turtleneck?"
        "I'm sorry, Sara. I didn't mean to..."
        "Oh, come off it. You know I'm not mad. Why should I be, hmm? It's only a reminder that I musta been pretty damn good last night, wouldn't you say?"
        "I think I already did."
        She chuckled. "Yes I believe you did. In big, bold, red print too, sweetheart."

        The first day of her absence drug by. I knew better than to expect to see her on Saturday, but I hoped she'd be back Sunday, even though she wasn't scheduled to return until late Monday. Meanwhile, on Saturday afternoon, while Brandon was out doing something, I took it upon myself to have a little adventure. My plans went array, however, when I found the door to Ashley's room locked. I went around to the entrance from the hall and found it locked, too. I went back to my room and sat down on the bed.
        Now, why would Celia tell me to be careful and not let Brandon see me, if she knew both doors were locked? Maybe she thought I was going to pick the lock. But what did I know about picking locks? Nothing. But I might be able to find where they kept the keys. Celia had said Brandon was particular about who went in there. Just like he was particular about who cleaned up his office, which was one particular maid. And I knew who she was.
        "Celia?" I began, as she placed my dinner tray on the table. "I have another favor to ask of you?"
        "Yes... 'mum," she said, hesitantly, as if she knew what was coming.
        "You have 'em, don'chu?"
        "Have what, 'mum?"
        "Jingle, jingle, jingle," I said, holding my index finger and thumb together, as if holding a key ring and dangling it back and forth.
        A sly grin formed on her face, as she pushed the table over to me. "Yes, 'mum," she said, very softly. She glanced around behind herself, then slipped her hand in her pocket and slid a key underneath the side of the plate. "I'll be back for your tray later."
        "Make it much later," I said, with a smile. "And Celia, thanks."
        "For what, 'mum?" she said, with a sly grin. “Just doing me job.”
        As soon as she closed the door, I pushed the table back, grabbed my cane and got up. Within a few minutes I was in Ashley's room.
        The room looked like someone still occupied it; free of the dust and cobwebs you'd expect to find after five years. There were toiletries, hairbrushes, a few bobby pins and even an open jewelry box on the vanity, as if the occupant would be back at any moment. A small closet door, across the room, was standing open. Inside were many neatly arranged dresses, which surely must be musty. There were also several pairs of jeans, a sweatshirt or two and lots of blouses and skirts. I felt like I was treading on a living person's private space. Brandon had seemingly kept everything the way Ashley had left it. But why? Did he really think there was any hope of her coming back? I shook my head to clear it, I needed to get down to the business at hand: finding a picture of my cousin.
        I scanned the room and came across what I was searching for on a dresser over by the window. I ambled over there. The first picture was of Vivian. I could see the resemblance to the snapshot Sara possessed. Vivian had been rather pretty, her blonde hair pulled back in a French twist. This reminded me of Sara, herself. I wondered if Tom had told Sara that Vivian wore her hair like this, since in the picture he'd given her, Vivian's hair was long and flowing. I also wondered if Tom had a crush on Vivian all those years ago. He'd obviously kept the photograph for some reason. And tried to pawn Vivian off as Sara's mother. Perhaps, he even wished she had been. The Vivian Leigh was the name of one of his properties, after all.
        I shrugged this thought away, and admired the woman's features. She had finely arched light brown eyebrows, a small petite nose, full lips and an oval shaped face. I didn't see why she would be jealous of my mother, because she was very pretty, in her own right. But, seldom are we ever satisfied with ourselves, I thought.
        I then turned my attention to the picture on the other end of the dresser, which I assumed was Ashley, in her late teens. The dark hair got my attention first, then the face that was so much like her mother's. Yet, instead of Vivian's sweet smile, Ashley had a hard look, as if she wasn't a happy young woman. I glanced between the two pictures, back and forth, as if my mind were searching for some connection that was just out of reach.
        I moved closer to the picture of Ashley. I could see now why Celia had mistaken Sara for her, because there were definite similarities. I glanced back at the picture of Vivian: blue eyes. Then back to Ashley: green eyes. Familiar green eyes! I backed up rapidly, stumbled over my own feet and sat down hard on the edge of the bed behind me. My hand went to my mouth, just as Celia's had that day on the porch. I didn't cross myself, however. I hadn't seen a ghost. I'd seen the real thing! The eyes staring back at me from the photograph were… Sara's! But, how could that be? It couldn't! And yet, the similarities were too striking to ignore. The resemblance was clear, in the set of Ashley's jaw and especially in the depths of those green eyes. I had seen this overall expression on Sara's face many times. Usually when Brandon was around.
        "Oh my God," I said aloud, my mind struggling to make sense of the myriad of thoughts careening around in my brain. But, it can't be! It just can't be!! Sara was in a car accident with her mother. The article was in the newspaper. We both read it!
        Just then the door to Ashley's room squeaked open. My heart jumped up in my throat. Brandon or Celia? I was swiftly preparing myself for the proverbial “shit to hit the fan”, when Sara peeked around the door. "I knew you couldn't resist coming in here," she said with a big grin on her face.
        "Wh-What... are you doing back so soon?" I asked, knowing I had a look of shock on my face and groping for a way to change it.
        "So soon?” she questioned, one eyebrow arching skyward, the grin slowly sliding off her face. “I couldn't wait to get back here to you," she explained, walking towards me. “Aren't you glad to see me?”
“Uh, yes… yes, of course I am,” I stammered, thinking how much I wanted to get her out of here and fast. “Wh-what happened?” I started struggling to my feet.
"Oh, I decided to let the detective handle things like you said. He'd probably have better luck than me. And besides, I've got something I couldn't wait to tell you." The smile was back. “There's no big rush,” she added, when I nearly lost my balance.
        "Well, Brandon might find us here and he doesn't..."
        "He's not here."
        "How do you know that?" I asked, steady on my feet now.
        "I saw Celia on the way in. She said to tell you she'd be up when he came home. Whatever that means."
        "She... she gave me the key to this room. He doesn't like anyone coming in here. So, let's go."
        "Wait, don't I get at least a hug, first?" she inquired, as she reached out for me.
        "A'course." I wrapped one arm around her neck. "I missed you terribly. Now, let's go."
        "Jesus, you're as jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof," she noted, as I pulled back. Her gaze then shifted to our surroundings and her expression changed quite dramatically.
        "What's wrong?" I asked, my heart racing, wondering what she might be thinking.
        "I… I don't know. I…” She glanced around at the walls. There were just a few pastoral scenes strategically placed here and there. “This was a young girl's room?” she questioned, frowning.
“College age, I believe.”
“Something's missing,” she stated, her gaze sweeping the room again. “It doesn't feel right. No posters, no… individual touches.” She shrugged. “So Celia keeps things just like this?" she asked, reaching out and rubbing her finger over the bedpost, obviously checking for dust.
        "Guess so.” She had a point about the room. Now that I looked around, without an agenda, I realized it didn't feel like a place where a young girl had come of age. But, I didn't have the luxury of delving into that right now. “Come on, I'm getting hungry. I left my dinner and I wanna hear about your trip."
        "Okay, but hold on a minute. As long as I'm here…” She'd obviously noticed the dresser behind me, for she moved in that direction. “So did Ashley look anything like me or is Celia's eyesight…?” She paused, her gaze landing on the picture of Vivian.
        "Come on, Sara," I prodded, touching her arm.
        She wouldn't budge. "Look at this, Faith. She… she could be... my mother."
        "Oh no, there's not much resemblance,” I lied. “Your father probably just had a crush on her or something and... had a picture of her, so he gave it to you and..."
        “Yes, there is,” she interrupted my babbling. She glanced up into the mirror, then back at the picture. “Look at the eyebrows, Faith. I don't arch 'em to make 'em look like this, ya know.” She stared at the photo. “Her lips are a bit fuller, but that could be because of the surgery. Her nose is a little larger, but..." She paused, as her eyes drifted to the other photograph on the dresser. She moved behind me and towards it so slowly, I felt like I was watching her on videotape, in slow motion. "Ho-o-ly shi-it!" she gasped, her lips starting to tremble. "Oh God, Faith!"
        I took hold of her arm. "Come on, let's get outta here. It's not what you think, it... it can't be."
        "But, you saw it, didn'chu?" she asked, turning to face me. "That's me. Faith! And… and you know it, don'chu?" Her eyes darted back and forth seemingly beseeching mine.
        "I know no such a thing. For all we know the plastic surgery could have changed your features dramatically and it's… it's just a coincidence you resemble her... a little."
        "Bullshit!" she exclaimed, as she wrenched away from me. "That's me. I know it. I can feel it… in here," she said, tapping her chest. "That means... I'm not… Sara Bennington.” She paused, her mind obviously running wild. “I'm not Leon Bennington's daughter nor… Amy Jackson's or… even Tom Randall's." She picked up the photograph. "I'm... Ashley Neilson,” she whispered. “Jason… is my brother and Brandon... is my father." She spun around on her heels and faced me. “And that means you're my… Oh God, Faith, what have I done?" The look of horror on her face cut me to the core. The photograph slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor, the glass shattering. She glanced down at it then up at me, her mouth agape. "I'm... so sorry!" she screeched and bolted from the room.
        I knew the implication of her statement. I'd already been considering that same thing only moments before. If it were true, we each had fallen in love with and made love to our own cousin. It hit Sara harder, however. All these revelations were almost too much for me to bear, much less her, because it was her life, her past, we might have unearthed here. It appeared the skeleton in the closet was one we hadn't even considered. One perhaps, we didn't want to. At least I didn't. Not even now.
        I took off out the door, as fast as my legs would carry me. I didn't want her to leave, in her present state of mind. We met in the hall and I noticed her purse slung over her shoulder, her keys in her hand. "Where are you going?" I asked, as she brushed past me.
        She stopped abruptly; the look in her eyes was disturbing, to say the least. It reminded me of a deer caught in a car's headlights. She offered no response, but merely stared at me for several all too brief moments; her eyes changing color, from green to light brown.
As abruptly as it started, the spell was broken and she was walking away at a rapid pace. "Sara... Sara..." I called my voice seemingly echoing down the long hallway after her.
        She stopped at the stairs momentarily and glanced back. I didn't know what to say. No words would come out. She turned quickly and disappeared down the stairs. And I had the sinking, all too real feeling in the pit of my stomach that she wouldn't be returning anytime soon.
        I ambled back into Ashley's room. I felt like I was on automatic pilot. Reaching down and picking up the broken picture frame, Sara's eyes stared back at me. There was no mistaking this. The nose was a bit different; Sara's a bit smaller now. The lips were a fraction smaller, without so much of the previous pouty expression. The cheekbones were more pronounced now, probably from losing the baby fat. But, the eyes hadn't changed. They were the same sad green eyes that I had come to love.
        I sat down on the floor and picked up all the broken pieces of glass, placing them back in the frame bit-by-bit. After getting to my feet, I unhurriedly carried them over to a trashcan by the small desk. Leisurely turning the frame over, the shards of glass shifted, making a tinkling sound as they rubbed against one another. Larger pieces splintered into smaller shards when they toppled into the empty trashcan together. I couldn't help but wonder if I was listening to the sounds of broken dreams and shattered realities. If she truly was my cousin, what did that mean for us? I cringed at the thought of how horrified she had looked when she said, "Oh God Faith, what have I done?"
        "Miss Faith," Celia called from my room.
        I ambled out the door with the photograph in its frame still in my hand. "I'm sorry, Celia, but... I dropped this picture and... I'll try to get a frame to replace it."
        Celia stared at the object. "It's alright, 'mum. I… I'll say I did it."
        "No, Celia, I can't..."
        "It would be better that way," she said, as I handed her the key. "Want I should put it back for ya, 'mum?"
        I hesitantly handed the picture to her. "I'm truly sorry… I…"
        "Think nuthin' of it, 'mum. It can be replaced."
        "Thank you, Celia."

        She took the tray with her when she left. I hadn't even touched my meal and didn't feel like eating anymore. I merely crawled into bed and turned on the television to help silence the endless chatter going on in my head. Chatter that was trying to make sense of all the implications this newfound knowledge presented. And at the same time, desperately seeking to justify our relationship.
Oh, Sara, I thought. No, no, she's Ashley now. Or rather again. NO! She can't be Ashley, I argued with myself. She just… looks like her. But the photograph Tom had given Sara with Vivian and my mother in it… Why would he do that unless…? No… Sara was in a car accident with her mother. We saw the article. Ashley was in a car accident… her body never found in the river... Sara can't be Ashley! It's impossible!! Isn't it? Sara just happens to look like Ashley. A coincidence, that's all. Just a coincidence! Yes, there's no other rational explanation! And Sara will realize this when she's had time to sit down and think things over clearly. At least I hope she will! My god what thoughts must be running through her mind? I couldn't imagine not knowing about my past and then having something like this happen to confuse things further. God what a mess!! A mess I had caused with my incessant curiosity!
I went on and on like this for the rest of the afternoon. I was deeply worried about Sara. Guilt became my constant companion!

        Brandon came up as usual, this time talking about some new undertaking he was involved in. My mind was elsewhere, however. Denial had effortlessly edged into “what if it's true”, by this time. And my mind was spinning its wheels with the questions this perplexing conundrum would pose.
If Sara is Ashley then why didn't Brandon recognize her? I wondered. Or Jason, even? But, then Sara's hair had been blonde, her eyes blue from the contact lenses, which she hardly ever took off until late in the evening. That is, until recently. Celia hadn't made mention of the resemblance until Sara dyed her hair. And Brandon hadn't been around Sara much lately. Nor did they make eye contact, often. Theirs was always a quick glance or nod, whenever dealing with each other in my presence. Most of the time Brandon seemed to ignore her, as if she weren't even in the room.
        Could this be why they didn't like being around each other? Did they have some type of affect on each other? Is that why Brandon didn't look at her? Had she reminded him of Ashley, therefore making it painful for him to be around her?
        He finally noticed my inattentiveness, interrupting my thoughts when he inquired about it. I lied; saying I was tired and not feeling well. Of course the latter, in itself, wasn't far from the truth, because I was sick. Heartsick!!!
        I sat up in bed until the wee hours of the morning waiting for Sara. Even though my mind maintained she would not return anytime soon, my heart still clung to that thin hope.

        The next morning, Celia woke me and inquired about Sara, I pretended I didn't know. I could only hope she would return soon. I desperately needed to talk to her; for, I felt I would surely lose her otherwise.
        Afternoon came and went; still no Sara. As the hours slipped past, my heart sank lower and lower. I sat in her chair and gazed out the window overlooking the patio. I remembered all the times we had spent together, especially our first night in bed. Would it be ruined now? If we were really cousins, then what we had shared was very wrong, wasn't it? But, how could love be wrong?
        I sat right there until midnight, refusing my dinner and suffering through Brandon's chatter from across the small table between our chairs. I accepted the glass of milk, as usual. And this time I drank it.
        The next morning, my head felt heavy. I assumed it was from not eating and worrying so much. I asked about Sara, but Celia hadn't seen her, either. After breakfast, Brandon was back again. He was taking the day off, because he said he was worried about me. He wanted to escort me outside and I finally agreed. I took his arm as we walked around, but all I could think about was the first time Sara and I did this. I suppose, in my reverie I acted too close to him, for he remarked about it, as he put his arm around me. Comfort of any kind, felt better than none at all, at that moment. I readily accepted it.
        When we finished our walk, we had lunch at the dining room table, which Brandon thought should be a treat for me. I tried to show enthusiasm for his sake, but inside I was filled with pain and agony. He escorted me to my room after lunch and I ended up falling asleep in Sara's chair.
        I awoke later and was headed for the bathroom, when I caught a glimpse of taillights moving slowly down the driveway. I only saw the rear bumper for a moment or two, but I knew by the spacing of the lights the car belonged to Sara. I walked as fast as I could to the stairs and began descending them. My thought was to commandeer Charles and have him drive me to her apartment. But, Brandon met me at the bottom of the stairs.
        "Good news, Princess," he said cheerfully, as he placed his arm around my waist. "You have been officially released from the doctor's care."
        "Officially released?" I asked, puzzled.
        "Yes, I spoke with Dr. Rosemund this afternoon and he said that you're well enough to be released from his care."
        Great, I thought. This meant I could now set the date with a plastic surgeon. But who cared about that at the moment? I didn't.
        "Was Sara here?" I asked, ignoring his enthusiasm.
        "Oh yes... just now. I informed her of the doctor's decision and she agreed that you no longer require her services."
        "What?!" I exclaimed.
        "Why, Princess, I thought you'd be happy. You're free now from anyone watching your every move. I thought that's what you wanted. You've been talking about having more freedom and...."
        Brandon's voice droned on, but I was no longer listening. I felt weak inside. This couldn't be happening. She couldn't do this to me, could she?
        I turned away from him, as quickly as I could and headed for her room. She'd have to come back for her things, I thought. And I'd be waiting for her.
        My heart sank all the way to my toes as I entered her bedroom. She'd already removed her things. Tears welled up in my eyes, as I slowly scanned the area, looking for something, anything that she might return for. There was nothing.
        I slowly ambled back to my room and shut the door. Then I went over to the bed and sat down. I could not believe she had left without even a word to me. Didn't she care? I fell over on my pillow and something crackled underneath my head. I pulled back the pillowcase and found an envelope. My heart pounded, as I tore into it. Perhaps she wants me to go with her, I thought. Perhaps she'll be back to get me and then we'll...
Dear Faith...
    I love you with all my heart. And I'm very sorry, but I can't stay here any longer. I intended to come back and say goodbye, but I just can't bring myself to face you. Perhaps, it's better this way, anyway. I'm sorry for what I led you into. Surely, you must feel the utter shame of our relationship, now. I won't subject you to that further. I wish you all the luck in the world. I know you'll do well. And despite the shame of what I've done, I wouldn't change any of the memories I carry with me. Not even one little bit. Please forgive me, Faith. I truly had no idea. Perhaps one day I'll read about my famous psychologist patient and smile. Maybe, by then, you can smile, too.
        I knew she had written the letter hastily, for the handwriting was not her usual careful style. There was even a small round spot on the paper, which hadn't completely dried, smearing the ink on the word "further". I suspected a teardrop caused it.
        I burst into tears myself, clutching the letter to my chest. My heart was breaking into a million tiny pieces and each one was cutting away at my insides. I cried so hard, I didn't even notice Brandon was in the room, until he spoke.
        "Why are you crying, Princess?" he asked. "This should be a happy day. Now we can have that scar taken care of and.... What's this?" He pulled the letter from my hands, before I had time to object. I started to voice a protest, but nothing came out. What did it matter anyway? He could no longer fire her. She was already gone. And I really didn't care what happened anymore. My world was in utter shambles!
        "Damn her!" he exclaimed, as he ripped the letter in half. "She… she seduced you, that... that perverted whore! I'll... I'll kill the bitch! I knew she was no damn good! But, you liked her so much... and now I understand why! Oh, great God in heaven, tell me you didn't lay down with her!" he demanded.
        "I… did," I blubbered, though not ashamed in the least.
        "Goddammit!" He roared. "And I never suspected! But, I should have. Yes, I should have. I saw her making you hang all over her and... Oh, Princess, it was my fault. Yes, all my fault, for not making her leave sooner. I should have seen through her." His tone was softening. "Oh, you poor child… poor, poor helpless child. Seduced by such a vile creature. But, it's not your fault, Princess," he added, as he knelt down beside me. "I know you're innocent."
        "No, I'm... not," I corrected.
        "Of course you are. You've never done this before, have you? Why, of course not, you're just a child. A sweet virgin," he said, as he touched my face. "Don't worry about this, at all. It will be our secret. No one ever need know of this. And we'll speak of it no more."
        "But... I love her," I blubbered.
        "Oh great God in heaven!" he exclaimed. "She has turned your head completely!" He raised up quickly and stormed over to the window. "Damn that pervert! I wish I'd known before..." He slammed his fist down on the windowsill, rattling the widow pane. "I'll have her name smeared from here to... Timbuktu. She'll never work again!"
        "No, Brandon!" I shouted, as I raised up. "She's not to blame. I am! Leave her alone, please!"
        "Princess, she has... defiled you," he said, disgust in his tone. "Not only has she spoiled your body, she has turned your head and… completely muddled your thinking."
        "Just leave her be!" I demanded.
        He wheeled around and glared at me. I suddenly felt afraid. I'd never seen such a nasty, hateful expression on his face before. Out of habit, I quickly searched for a way to appeal to his better judgment, because anger seemed to be getting me nowhere. "You said no one else need know," I began, dropping my head and looking ashamed. "If you do this, you'll surely... shame me. Please, Brandon," I pleaded. "Don't do this to me!"
        "Princess, you know I wouldn't hurt you for the world, but... she must pay for this."
        "At what price to me?" I prodded. "I think she's paying a price now.... a heavy one. Let her be, Brandon, please… just let her be. Promise me, you will." I broke down again.
        He shoved his hands in his pockets, as if he were stuffing his anger inside them. He turned back to the window and stared out into the night. "I... I suppose you're right," he said, after several moments, his tone calmer. "No one need ever know. Time will heal all. I... I was going to throw a lavish party this weekend to celebrate… what I thought would be good news, but...." He paused for quite a long time. I was relieved that the angry storm had past. "Perhaps... it's still a good idea. We'll celebrate, despite this. Yes, indeed we will. Perhaps that was my mistake leaving you in the hands of a woman. Time with a man would do you good."
        "Brandon, please I don't…"
        "All you need is male company. You'll soon forget all this disgusting nonsense she's filled your head with," he said, as if he hadn't even heard my protest. "I'll arrange a date for you."
        "No, Brandon, please I don't wanna be..."
        "I know what's best, Princess. You'll see that a man can offer you far more than she ever could. All you need is a good man," he maintained, as he quickly turned and left the room.
        I fell back on the bed. I knew he was going to complicate the issue further, but I had no strength left to protest. I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained. I curled up in a ball on the bed feeling like a child: a helpless, angry and most of all brokenhearted little girl. Fate had played a cruel joke on both of us. It wasn't fair! Now, I truly had lost everyone I dearly loved!
        Feeling lost and alone, like a child without a home, I cried myself to sleep.

Part 16

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