by Anj
(a.k.a. Azurenon)


All disclaimers in Chapter One


        I wandered around the library, taking my time scanning the titles, hoping he'd get bored and leave. He did seem to get bored, but didn't leave. No, he pulled out a photo album and sat down on the sofa with it. A few seconds later, he chuckled to himself, which I presumed was supposed to make me curious. It did, of course, but I didn't rush over to him to see what was so amusing, as I believed he wanted me to.
        "Princess, come over here. Let me show you something."
        Reluctantly, I ambled over; it appeared I was stuck here for the duration. Might as well make the best of it. He showed me an old snapshot of my mother and father; obviously clowning around: she had her eyes crossed and he had his fingers in his mouth, pulling the sides apart in a grotesque manner. I had never seen any pictures from this time period in their lives. All of their photos or snapshots were made after they left Shady Grove. And by then my mother was three years older and pregnant with me.
        We spent quite a long time looking at one photograph album after another. There were lots of pictures of my mother in the first two. Some of which appeared to have been taken without her knowledge. Or at least, she wasn't looking at the camera. I could only guess at who the photographer had been.
        There were no pictures of Ashley or Vivian. But in one album, there were several sheets of blank pages. He explained that he found it too painful and difficult to look at their pictures, so he'd removed them.
        There were also pictures of my ancestors, at least those who had lived after the invention of the camera. Brandon named off each and everyone, putting names to some of the faces I had seen in the attic, as well as, offering a short narrative on each. I learned from this, that there were some members of the family -down the line- who had moved away, which meant I had other distant relatives in various places. It also seemed that the family, especially our particular branch, which had stayed with the old homestead, had a knack for dying, by various means, before the age of fifty. To which, Brandon added that he must be doing something right, because he was fifty-two already.
        I also learned something else no one had made mention of: Brandon and my father had different mothers. He showed me the only picture he had of his biological mother, which was a very faded snapshot. Then he explained how she had died during childbirth. The latter seemingly being something he felt a tinge of guilt over; for, he moved on rather quickly, showing me my grandmother, who was the only mother he had ever truly known. And of course, my grandfather, which he resembled a lot, as did my own father. It appeared the Neilson genes were strong and very dominant. Except when they tangled with my mother's, I thought.
        When he came to a picture of Jason, he started bragging and repeating the plans he had for his son's education and life.
Then without preamble, he closed the last album and looked up at me. "As soon as you have your surgery, I'll arrange a sitting with the best photographer and the best artist, so that your beauty can be preserved for future generations."
I offered no objections, because I knew it would be futile. Besides, all I could think to say was, I don't wanna be preserved like a jar of peaches. And I didn't think that would go over well. When he started on my future, however, talking about changing my major to “business” and extending my class load from two thirds of a day to a full one -which had been my choice, so that I could work and help pay for my miscellaneous expenses, instead of my parents shelling out for everything- I had to say something.
"I think that should be my decision," I asserted.
        "Oh, of course, of course. I was merely suggesting this because... a lot of things have changed for you."
        "Indeed," I agreed. "And speaking of change... I know you mean well and... I don't propose to handle all my inheritance, at least not my father's share of the business, but... I'd like to handle my own finances from now on."
        He merely stared down at his hands, intertwined on top of the photo album.
        "I appreciate all you've done for me,” I continued, “but... I've depended on you far too long. I can get around better now and I think I should start taking on more responsibility." I was trying to ease into saying what I wanted, in terms he would understand and offer little objection to. "As you've pointed out, I am a Neilson and I have the same pride you do. I'd like to be... more independent. You can understand that, can't you?"
        He sighed heavily and slowly got up from the sofa. He then turned to me and smiled slyly. "Yes, you are a Neilson, through and through. Your father taught you well. Raymond always told us never to depend on anyone but ourselves. So, yes, I do understand." He shoved his hands in his pockets, as he walked over to the fireplace.
        "Your inheritance from your father has been placed in a savings account and a small checking account for you. It hasn't been touched. I... I was waiting for you to... inquire about it. I didn't realize it would be so soon, however. But, as you say, you have your pride. And I can sure see that. I'll... I'll bring your passbook and checkbook up tonight, if you like. Just promise me one thing?"
        "That depends on what the promise is."
        "That's your mother talking," he said, as he turned to face me. "She was always careful about what kind of promises she made. You're quite a unique combination of the two." He smiled and his voice softened. "Promise me... that you won't spend it on trivial things."
        "What's trivial to you?"
        "Perhaps you could handle business affairs," he commented, with a wry smile. "Don't agree to anything, until you have all the facts, right?" I nodded. "Well, trivial is expensive clothes you don't need. Lending to people you don't know and… some you do. And buying an outrageously expensive car, for its looks."
        "Anything else?"
        "Just... don't throw the money away. My advice is to invest it. Let it work for you."
        "Well, I can tell you now that I won't be buying a lot of expensive things, because I want what little there is to last. And I assume from what you said that my allowance came from you, not from my own money, but why?"
        "It was all left to you in his will, I couldn't touch it."
        "Oh, well then... I'll reimburse you for my allowance and then I'll pay you back in installments for all the other expenses you had to incur because of me." He chuckled, as if I had said something quite funny. I didn't get it. "I'm sorry if paying in installments seems funny to you, but I'd like to keep some for a rainy day. I mean, I know there's not much, but...."
        "Oh quite the contrary," he said, interrupting me. "Your father was more cunning than either of us realized. There's over a hundred thousand dollars in your savings account and a few thousand in checking. Plus, your father invested in stocks. Computer stocks. All total, including life insurance policies, excluding the house of course, your inheritance was over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
        "Yes, Princess, your father was rather successful with his writing. Although, he shunned the limelight, and why, I'll never understand. He had the most beautiful woman in the world to share it with," he remarked, as he turned back to the fire. "He had everything and yet, he chose to live in that small town in Tennessee."
        "He probably had his reasons," I said, thinking of how he labored over each novel.
        Perhaps that small town was his inspiration, I thought. Its quiet streets and friendly people; a place he could retreat to and let his imagination run wild. Although he wrote adventure novels, I knew he penned these from his heart, as well as the lives of some of the people around him. Many times had I watched, as he listened to some of the old men in town, while they told about some of the adventures they'd had and some they would like to have had. This, compiled with his imagination, would turn into a novel. He created worlds for those who craved adventure to escape into for a while. A tear came to my eye, as I thought about him and his wonderful talent that so many people would surely miss.
        "'Scuse me, sir," said Celia, interrupting my quiet thoughts. "Dinner is served. Will ya be dining at the table, 'mum or shall…?"
        "Yes," Brandon answered, before Celia even finished her question, which had not been directed at him.
        I didn't object to eating with him, though; for, I hoped he'd eventually become bored with me. Yet, this didn't happen until around ten o'clock. And then I knew a glass of milk would soon bring him back. I undressed and got ready for bed, then waited for the good night ritual. He returned a while later with the milk, my passbook and checkbook. Then he gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek, telling me how much like my mother I was, in a rather soft sensual voice.
        After he left, I lay in bed pondering the question of how I was going to get Sara to talk to me. I didn't want to force the issue by blundering around the house looking for her. At least not yet. I knew it could prove fruitless and might make her presence known to the rest of the household. No, I had to be subtle and cunning and lure her to me. But how? She was no moth and I certainly wasn't a flame. But, somehow I had to let her know that I knew she was here and I wanted to talk to her.
        I stared up at the ceiling wondering where she was at this moment? Was she sitting on her makeshift bed up there? Or was she close by... in the closet, perhaps? My eyes strayed over to the secret door and I longed to go over there and throw it open. But, that wouldn't be wise. I then remembered the apple I had left inside and was quite curious at to whether it was still there. But, alas, that could wait until morning. If she was there, she obviously didn't want me to know about it.
        "Goodnight, Sara," I said aloud, as I turned off the lamp. I wished more than anything at that moment I would hear a response.

        The first thing I did the next morning -after cutting off the alarm on my recently purchased bedside clock- was open the secret door. The apple was there, just as I had left it. I sadly closed the door and went into the bathroom.
        Celia brought me breakfast, as usual, eyeing me rather curiously, as if inquiring as to whether I'd had contact with Sara. "She's a stubborn woman," I finally said.
        Celia quickly glanced back at me. "Persistence has its rewards, 'mum."
        "Perhaps, but... I don't think so in this case. I don't think she came back because of me. I think I'm what's keeping her hidden."
        "Begging pardon, 'mum, but… I disagree," she said, pushing the table over to the bed.
        "Why is that?"
        "I... I didn't know ya wuz in the library yesterday, so... I came up here, 'cuz I'd forgotten ta ask if ya had any request for dinner and…"
        "You saw her?" I inquired, excitedly.
        She glanced down at the floor, as she backed away. "Yes, 'mum, that I did."
        "Where was she? In here? What was she doing?"
        "She wuz... standing 'bout here and..." She paused, as she moved over to the end of the bed.
        She shook her head. "Just... looking, 'mum," she replied, as if a bit embarrassed.
        "Looking at what?" She had me on pins and needles now. What had Sara been looking at?
        She dropped her eyes. "At the bed."
        "I don't understand. Why do you act embarrassed about this?" I inquired. I couldn't understand the big deal about looking at the bed.
        "I... I felt I wuz... watching a private moment, 'mum," she replied, her cheeks flushing red.
        "Oh... oh, I see. Um... thank you... thanks for everything, Celia."
        "Yes, 'mum," she said, as she turned and exited the room.
        So, according to Celia, Sara must still feel something. But, Celia also could have been mistaken about the reason she was looking at the bed. Was she remembering with longing? Or with regret? Then again, I couldn't take the chance that the former wasn't so. There had to be someway to get to her.
        I sighed heavily and turned on the stereo via the remote, setting it to “Tuner” and the radio station that played easy listening music. As I nibbled on my breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast, juice and grits, the morning disc jockey joked with his cohort and I pondered what I should do. Several ideas ran through my head, but none seemed plausible. Either that, or I ran the risk of exposing her.
        A few seconds later, the chatter of the disc jockeys ended and a slow love song -one she and I had liked- began to play. "Oh great," I said aloud. "Just what I need to start the day off right. Tears in my grits."
        I picked up the remote to change the station when I heard a faint bump overhead. I looked up at the ceiling. Not rats, this time, I thought. Then it suddenly hit me that if I could hear her, she could hear me. Well, perhaps not me, but something I wanted her to hear, something to bait my trap with. At least I hoped and prayed it would be bait and not a repellent.
        Instead of changing stations, I turned up the volume. Having yet another flash of inspiration, I turned on the CD player, knowing there was a soundtrack album from a movie inside. I'd seen the video for the song and wanted to see the movie, which Sara had promised to rent for me, as soon as it came out. In the meantime, however, she had bought the CD and I had fallen in love with two of the songs. I programmed these two into the CD player, set it to "repeat disc" and as soon as the song ended on the radio, I flicked to the CD.
        The two songs I had chosen -the first in essence said, “without you in my life, I have nothing to live for”, and the other about the woman's desire to run into her lover's arms, and asking the question, if she did would her lover run away- repeated three times before Brandon showed up.
        He didn't knock, or if he did, I didn't hear him. He came in, with an angry look on his face and went straight to the stereo. "Princess, why is this so loud?" he shouted, as he turned the volume down. "I can hear this downstairs."
        "Sorry," I apologized. "I didn't realize."
        He looked at me curiously. "Are you alright? You aren't even dressed yet."
        "I'm fine," I replied. I was just miffed at his intrusion. "I was about to do just that. So, if you'll excuse me."
        "Of course. Then, we'll take our morning walk," he said, glancing down at his watch. "Shall we say eleven-fifteen, then?"
        I glanced over at the clock. "Fine," I answered. Anything to get rid of him.
        From eleven fifteen onwards, however, I could not get rid of him. He stuck to me like glue, following me around and lavishing me with attention, as if he were a suitor. Or at least, I felt like the pursued. His caresses made me quite nervous and I was constantly forced to shy away from him, as best I could.
After dinner that evening I suggested putting a puzzle together, thinking this would surely bore him. But, no, he stayed until after ten. And as usual, he was back a few minutes later, with a glass of milk. Then as he bent down to kiss me goodnight, his lips touched so close to my own, I nearly gasped. He merely pulled back, smiled and turned to exit the room, as if nothing was amiss. I tried to pass it off as just a mistake. Perhaps I had flinched and caused this? But I didn't think so.
These thoughts were soon relegated to the back burner; for, I had more important things to think about. Namely Sara. The next day was Monday, so Brandon would go back to work, or at least I hoped he wouldn't take any unscheduled time off. In the morning I would bait my trap once again and if she didn't take it this time, I was going to flush her out, personally!

I played the CD from the day before, over and over again the next morning, until I was sick and tired of hearing it. After lunch I was on my way to the attic.
As I slipped inside the door, I glanced back to make sure no one was nearby – Brandon hired an outside maid to come in and clean the unused rooms once a month and I couldn't remember when they were due. I nearly tripped over the flashlight I'd left here on my last visit. I reached down, picked it up before it fell over, then turned it on, and as quietly as I could, ascended the stairs.
        Once I made it to the rear section of the west wing, I proceeded down the small path slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible, just in case anyone was below. Along the way, I kept the flashlight trained ahead of me, on my destination of the dresser where I suspected she was surely hidden. As I neared it, my heartbeat increased, drowning out any other sounds. I swung the flashlight over behind the dresser, spotlighting the mattress. To my utter dismay it was empty.
        "Damn, Sara," I said, quietly, as I leaned up against the dresser.
        "You shouldn't be here," said a voice from behind me. Naturally, I gasped and quickly swung the flashlight around, the beam of light catching Sara in the face. She put her hand up to shield her eyes. "Please, Faith."
        I swiftly lowered it, holding it by my side while perusing her attire. I had half expected her to be disheveled and dirty, after hiding up here for at least two days, but she was neither. Wearing a clean white sweatshirt and a pair of tight blue jeans, her hair recently brushed, she smelled wonderful.
        "Go back to your room, Faith," she said, as she turned to walk away.
        "No, Sara. You can't get rid of me that easily." I reached out and grabbed her arm.
        "Faith, don't... please," she muttered, looking down at my hand on her arm. "Go back downstairs, you shouldn't be up here."
        "Why are you here?" I obligingly let go of her. "Don't tell me you didn't want me to find you. You provided this flashlight."
        "I didn't want you to find me, but... I couldn't have you blundering around up here in the dark, now could I? Because I know you woulda."
        It had been a guess that she'd provided the flashlight, since Celia didn't seem to know anything about it. "What are you doing here?" I scrutinized.
        "Looking for answers, I suppose. Someone put this..." She paused, as she reached over to one of the dresser drawers and opened it, withdrawing a book with a flowered cover, "…in with my things. I found it when I got back that day." She was obviously referring to the Saturday when my curiosity caused all this misery.
        "What is it?"
        "Ashley's... My diary," she corrected herself.
        "Well… what did it say that brought you back, because obviously you didn't come back because of me?" I braced myself against the dresser, feeling disappointed.
        She lowered her eyes and stared at the diary in her hands. "I don't really know. It's odd. I'm writing about things that make no sense. Trees… walls… animals with ugly faces. I don't know what it's about. I came back hoping I'd remember something."
        I bit my lip. She had ignored my reference about her obviously not coming back for me. I could only conclude it was a true statement -her silence signifying agreement. "How long… have you been here?" I asked, trying not to let my damaged feelings show.
        "Several days," she replied, as she glanced up at me.
        "You've obviously been doing well for yourself," I remarked, looking her up and down.
        She nodded. "I found some clothes. And... I got into one of the bedrooms. I'm afraid I used some of your soap and... shampoo."
        Who gives a shit about soap and shampoo? I thought. "Why didn't you come to me? Maybe I can help." I sighed heavily, knowing she'd turn me down.
        "I... No, it…" She glanced up at me and her eyes held that oh so soft expression I had come to love. "No, I need to do this alone." She looked away.
        This expression suggested Celia had been right. Sara was trying to hide her feelings, just as she'd been trying to hide her presence. I was onto her now. I took a step forward. "I don't care if we are cousins, Sara."
        "I do, Faith," she said, quickly, as she held up the index finger of her right hand and backed away. "Don't do this to me. I feel dirty and... and disgusting."
        "I don't. I don't know why I don't, but I don't. Perhaps because I don't believe we are cousins, Sara. At least not by blood."
        "It's Ashley," she corrected.
        "No," I said, taking another step forward. "You will always be Sara to me. Ashley died in that car crash five years ago. You are Sara."
        "No, Faith. Sara Bennington died the day after her car crash."
        "How did you...?"
"The detective. He checked out the hospital where she was admitted,” she explained. “I was listed as a transfer at the last hospital I was in. Transferred from a smaller place north of Atlanta, where I'd been listed as a 'Jane Doe', apparent victim of a 'hit and run'. Brought in by a Good Samaritan, who conveniently vanished in the E.R. I vaguely remember regaining consciousness in the other hospital and not knowing who I was or what had happened.” She let that sink in before continuing, “Once stabilized, I was moved to a larger hospital, with better facilities for reconstructive surgery and physical therapy. That's when Tom showed up, claiming to be my father and… that I was Sara.” She scratched her head and sighed heavily. “I still don't know how he pulled it all off. I suppose the hospital was just glad someone showed up to foot the bill. The detective's still checking on the police reports about the 'hit and run'. There's no telling what cock and bull story he fed them. I'm sure it wasn't the same story he spoon-fed me.”
We both fell silent. There could be no more denial. She was Ashley.
“I'm Brandon's daughter, Faith and we both know it," she stated, finally breaking the silence.
        "If so, then why did Tom… do all that? Why leave you everything in his will?"
        "He was probably crazy. Who knows?"
        "I don't think so. What if you are Tom's daughter? It's possible ya know."
        "But, there's no proof, Faith. No proof at all. The only person who could've answered that question died over fourteen years ago,” she said, referring to Vivian. “At best it would be wishful thinking. And, I'd never be sure… I'd always have that doubt."
        So, she was admitting she still cared. The only thing standing in her way was the thought that we were cousins. "If we could prove you're Tom's daughter...." I paused, as I took another step forward. "…would you come back to me?"
        "Don't do this to me, Faith," she uttered, turning away.
        "Alright, I won't pressure you." I stepped back. "Ya know… I half expected to come up here and find... you missed me as much as I missed you. And then I'd… tell you it didn't matter to me and... we'd ride off into the sunset together."
        "I'm sorry, this ain't a movie," she responded, ruefully. "But, even in the movies, sweetheart, the princess doesn't ride off into the sunset with the female heroine."
        "In this one she will. Just as soon as we can prove you're not my cousin. Which I hope we'll do soon. Because… I don't know how much longer I can stay here."
        "Why?" she inquired.
        "Brandon knows. He read your letter."
        "Oh, good God!" she hissed and ran her fingers through her hair. "What did he say?"
        "What didn't he say is more like it? And... he's acting strange."
        "How?" She sounded concerned now.
        I told her an edited version of the incident in the pool, while making myself at home on the mattress. Then I passed on Celia's warning to be careful, and even what she'd claimed happened to her sister. When I finished Sara came closer and propped herself up on the dresser. She stared into the darkness of the attic, seemingly contemplating all this new information.
        "Perhaps it would be better if you left," she said calmly. "I've never trusted him, wholly, where you're concerned. And don't ask me why because… I don't know. I just believe... you should leave."
        She didn't know how bad these words wounded me. Still I managed to say, "Not until you come with me."
        "I can't, Faith. I have to find out who I am. I have to remember. This book was given to me for a reason."
        "I can only imagine who'd do that.” She glanced up at me. “Celia knows who you are and she's the one who sent me up here to begin with."
        "She knows everything?"
        "Yes. And... I think she knows more than she's letting on about all this stuff. You know how she is… never comes out and directly tells you anything, just offers vague hints. But, I don't believe you're Brandon's daughter, because I asked her and she said she 'couldn't rightly say'. She did admit Tom and Vivian were close."
        "That still doesn't prove..."
        "Yes, but Sara he must've thought you were his. He left you everything he had in this world. He has a stable named the Vivian Leigh, not after a movie star, but after your mother. And what was the other one… Marie's what?"
        "Marie's... Pride," she said, slowly, as if considering this could possibly be named after her: Ashley Marie. "But, why lie to me? Why not tell me the truth?"
        "That... I don't know. Perhaps he was afraid you'd wanna come back here and... he'd lose you or something, I dunno. Seems he sure went to a helluva lot of trouble to give you another identity. You're sure he didn't leave you anything in writing?"
        "If he did, it wasn't where I would find it, right off. I did find some more old photographs of a little girl on horseback, like the other one. But, it could be anyone… a niece... a neighbor's kid…"
        "Or you," I interrupted. "You were a cute little girl. Who grew into a beautiful woman.”
        She shook her head and turned away, nibbling at her lip. "I think he wanted to get even with Brandon for firing him, by taking his daughter away or... maybe he just needed an heir to leave his things to, instead of letting the state get it. Ah, who the hell knows." She ran her fingers through her hair again in apparent exasperation.
        "Pretty expensive and complicated revenge, wouldn't you say? As for an heir… there was always the possibility you'd regain your memory. Besides if he wanted revenge against Brandon, why leave everything he had to Brandon's daughter?" She glanced over at me and continued nibbling on her bottom lip. Her eyes said she knew what the truth was, she was just afraid to accept it. "If you really believe you're Brandon's daughter, why not tell him who you are instead of hiding up here?"
        "I dunno, I just… don't know." She ran her fingers through her hair. "He... he gives me the… creeps to be honest,” she said at length. “When he's around, I... I feel trapped. I wanna get away from him before I… suffocate or somethin'."
        I wanted to ask: So why come back to his house? Yet, listening to her and seeing the look in her eyes, I thought she might be on the verge of remembering something. Something that obviously wasn't pleasant. And she was fighting it, because she didn't want to know. I could only hope the answer to my unvoiced question would have been: because I wanted to be near you.
        Not wanting to risk pouring salt in my own open wound, however, I changed the subject. "Let me see the book," I said, afraid she'd soon ask me to leave again and this time, I'd feel obligated to comply.
        She hesitantly handed it to me. It was not a cheap diary, but one of the expensive kind you find in bookstores: unlined pages, gilded around the edges. I opened it and began reading. The handwriting on the first couple of pages was far from neat. In places nearly illegible. Yet, I could make out that the rather short story recorded here was about a baby bird: one who had been orphaned by its mother's death. A death the baby bird felt responsible for, because its mother was trying to remove it from harms way, when she was attacked, herself. In the baby bird's panic, it somehow caused itself and its mother to be thrown from the nest. After sensing the mother's death, the unnamed attacker then flew away. The baby bird was left alone in a hostile environment she knew nothing about. She wandered aimlessly through the dark, silent forest. Unable to fly, she knew she was easy prey for other animals like the unnamed attacker.
        The next entry was in a different handwriting, much more legible and neater in appearance, as if written by someone older. The passage started with a bricklayer and a structure he was building. He labored carefully on the walls, laying each brick cautiously and with great care, so it would be impenetrable. He wanted to be sure the walls would stand up against the storm he knew would soon come. He worried whether it would hold back the torrential winds he foresaw with this storm. Finally, when he was finished, he sat back and marveled at his magnificent accomplishment. It was a fine structure that he knew would stand up against any onslaught.
        When the storm finally came, however, and the rain began to fall, he realized he'd forgotten one important part of his structure: a roof. He'd been so concerned with his walls surviving the wind he had overlooked the factor of rain. Now, it was too late. The rain was pouring into his structure. Another fatal mistake soon made itself apparent: he'd left himself no means of escape, except climbing over the walls. And yet, as he tried to scale them, he fell back down; his walls were so neatly and carefully arranged that there was no purchase, by which to ascend them. They had become slippery as ice in the rain. He was now trapped in a prison of his own making. His structure against the coming storm was a double-edged sword. Not only did it keep things out, it kept things in. His safe haven had become his tomb.
        After reading this, I got the impression this wasn't just a story she had made up. It was much more than that. "You don't understand any of this?" I asked, as I closed the book.
        "No. Why would I write about birds and… making walls? It's just stories. I don't understand why Celia put it with my things. Maybe… she grabbed the wrong book or something."
        "They're stories for your eyes only,” I offered. “You wrote these, I assume, in case anyone else found the book, so they wouldn't understand what you were saying."
        "Well, I did a good job, because I sure don't understand it."
        "I'm assuming you wrote them as metaphors, so to speak."
        "Metaphors? Whaddaya mean?"
        "Okay, for instance, let's say I wanted to write about... what happened yesterday in the pool. But, I was afraid of someone else finding it. I would disguise the characters in the real drama, so that only I knew what it meant." She frowned. "Hmm, well, perhaps I'd use an... Octopus say, to represent Brandon, and... a crab to represent me, ya following me?" She nodded. "Alright, let's see... I might write something like… the little crab felt defenseless and helpless within the octopus's strong grasp."
        Her eyes narrowed. I'd forgotten I hadn't told her about him grabbing me around the waist and holding me. I'd merely told her what he'd said and that he followed me around the pool. "He had his arms around you?" she questioned. "You didn't mention that before."
        "I... uh… I didn't feel, well... it was nothing."
        "The crab felt helpless and defenseless... sounds like something to me," she said, dropping to her haunches in front of me. "He didn't... try anything, did he, Faith?"
        "Oh, of course not," I answered. "He... Well, you know how I am. You had to hold me down to get me to listen." The words had just slipped out, I couldn't take them back, so I held my breath waiting for her reaction.
        "Yes, I... I remember that well," she said softly, as she reached out towards me. Oh, how I had been waiting for this moment. I reached up towards her face and she pulled back. "No, Faith, don't... I... I only wanted the book," she explained.
        My heart sank to my toes. I quickly lowered my eyes and then handed over the book. I turned away and bit my lower lip. I wanted to feel her touch so badly and she was turning me away again.
        "I'm sorry," she muttered, as she got to her feet. "I... You should be getting back. And..." She paused, extending her hand to me. I gazed up at her, tears welling up in my eyes. She stared down at me for several moments. I slowly offered her my hand. She swallowed audibly and shut her eyes, releasing a heavy sigh. "You should leave here, Faith," she added, grasping my hand and pulling me to my feet.
        "I'm not leaving without you."
        Her eyes darted back and forth searching mine. "Don't come here again. It's... it's too dangerous for you."
        "The world is a dangerous place, Sara.” I held onto her hand, not letting her pull away. “For crabs… baby birds… their mothers and… even those who think themselves hidden away and protected from all of life's storms."
        "Damn you, Faith. Why can't you just... just do as I say?" She made a rather lame attempt to pull away from me.
        "Because I love you too damn much! And… I don't wanna lose you." I took a step forward, which put me mere inches from her face. "I... I set you free, Sara, like the saying: Set something free and if it comes back it's yours forever. If it doesn't, it never was to begin with or… something like that.” She looked at me. “Well... you did come back.” Of course she'd made it plain she hadn't come back for me, but I didn't want to think about that, right now. “And... I know you love me,” I babbled on, knowing I was throwing caution to the wind, yet feeling this was the truth. “I can see it in your eyes.” I still held her gaze. That was a good sign. “It's written all over your beautiful face, right this very moment."
        "Faith, please…" she said, turning away.
        "I love you, Sara," I whispered, as I let go and started by her.
        She touched my arm and then cleared her throat. "I'll... see you safely down the stairs."
        I started to object, but feeling the warmth of her touch caused me to rethink this and swallow my pride. "Thank you," I said, instead.
        We walked slowly over to the stairs as quietly as possible. Then she went down the first couple and motioned for me to follow. I started down them, with her watching each step I took. She even steadied me once, by putting her hands on my behind. No one, not even Sara, herself, could make me believe this woman did not care for me. I felt it would only be a matter of time before she came back around to her old self again. And no matter which name she chose to go by, she'd always be Sara to me.
        When we got to the bottom, she stepped back against the stairwell so I could get past her. We stared at each other for a moment and then she motioned with her head. "Go on, Faith," she murmured.
        "I'll go back to my room, Sara, but I'm not going anywhere without you."
        She ran her fingers through her hair. "Why do you have to make this so difficult?" she grumbled.
        I reached out and touched her face this time, for she couldn't run from me any longer; she was trapped between my body and the stairs. I wanted to kiss her so badly I could almost taste her sweet lips against mine. I quelled this urge, however, and merely brushed her hair out of her eyes. Then I turned and exited the stairwell quietly.
        The afternoon was dreary and cool; the temperature dropping rapidly towards evening, or so I surmised from my seat by the window. The puzzle, on the table before me, was filling in at an excruciatingly slow pace. My mind wandered off at every opportunity. Until time for Brandon to come home I held out hope that she would show up, saying she'd had a change of heart, change of mind. Disappointment seeped into my bones like a damp chill. After dinner I was forced to break out sweat pants, sweat shirt and fuzzy booties. Winter was definitely just around the corner.
        Needless to say, Brandon was not impressed with my cozy, warm attire. He didn't say this, but his expressions told the tale. I could have cared less, however. Despite being an eye sore to his impeccable sensibilities, he sat with me, searching for piece after piece in the quest to solve the picture puzzle. He left only long enough to bring me a “special treat”: hot cocoa.
I never had been especially fond of hot chocolate -or “cocoa” as he corrected me- but I was not so ungrateful as to refuse his “special treat”. Besides, it was tasty, quite sweet, and most of all hot. It seemed to warm my emotional and weather chilled insides. At times like these, it was all too easy to feel an almost fatherly affection towards him. I had to remind myself this was the same man who had held me and rubbed himself against me in the pool, not so long ago. Remembering Celia's warning about men and their egos, I found myself wondering if I had somehow prompted that sort of behavior from him just by virtue of my “preferences” alone, much less saying so to his face. It had always seemed somehow easier when making an attempt at forgiveness, if I shared at least some of the blame.
Soon, I was too sleepy to concentrate on the puzzle. And obviously sensing my somnolent condition, Brandon called it an evening, kissed me goodnight and graciously left without hesitation. I could only assume the hot chocolate had an effect on him, as well.
        My last thought before my head touched the pillow was of Sara: Tomorrow… she'll come to me. I just know she will

Part 18

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