by:

 

 

Disclaimers:  I think the characters are still mine (and Bertha's, of course). You may continue to borrow them for your own personal use (I won't ask) just as long as you return them fully bathed and with a pretty purple ribbon on their heads. Cause I like purple.

 

Sequel Alert:  Well, this isn't really a sequel. It's more of a continuation of the same story but from a different perspective. So if you haven't read Alix then you probably won't have the slightest clue what's going on. Actually, even if you read Alix you might still have no clue what's going on.  *points to Bertha* It was all her ... I had nothing to do with it ... unless, of course, you like it ...

 

Sex/Naughty Words/Violence: Yes there will most likely be sex, between two (or three or four .. no, just two) consenting adult women. If you're not 18 or live in a place where this sort of thing is illegal, or just have a problem with chicks getting it on .. well then ... away with you .. away, I say. Shoo. There will be some naughty words getting thrown around here and there, so if this offends you in any way, please forgive me. There might be some violence in this one. Nothing graphic or bloody or anything, because as always, I bring you loooooove ... 

 

Content Warning:  Valerie, the character as well as the story by extension, is a lot darker than Alix ever was ... but I'm trying to keep her/it as light as humanly possible giving the circumstances. Let me know if I succeeded. Also, fasten your seatbelts cause this is about to become a very bumpy ride.

 

Dedication: To Cindy, for helping me create Valerie, always supporting my insanity, giving me flat-out honest advice, and for threatening not to send me the hair buzzer if I didn't write more. Did you send it yet, huh??  And to Amber, for helping me sort through all of this madness. I would've had to be committed by now if it wasn't for you. Always remember ... the monkeys are listening 

 

Joke Request: Send me jokes... pleeeeeeeeeease :) 

 

Feedback: You can send all comments, questions, e-Cards, gifts, marriage proposals, voodoo curses,  and/or threatening letters to amazonkiwi@aol.com. Please be kind ... rewind. And please don't kill me .. ::cries::


Chapter 5

 

Loneliness will drive the sanest person over the brink of madness. Take loneliness and combine it with desperation and you might as well mix Potassium and water together; the result is the same.

 

The next morning, I found my pathetic self on the grounds of Baldwin University, feeling like a stalker on the loose and not particularly caring. I stood against a tree, my back glued to the trunk as I struggled to maintain a casual stance. My gaze was fixed upon Turner Hall and the window Id calculated to be Alixs. I wondered if she was inside. I wondered if shed seen me. I wondered what I could possibly say to this woman once I was standing in front of her. Im sorry. Im sorry. Im sorry. If I could do it all over again ... Such bullshit. There was nothing I could say.

 

Blue eyes concealed behind a pair of dark sunglasses, I scanned the area around Alixs dormitory building. Fragments of conversations floated by me, each one seemingly increasingly absurd in relation to the soliloquy in my head. What I wouldnt give for simplicity.

 

I fixed my gaze on the entrance door of Turner, half-hoping and half-fearing that the next person to exit would be her. But it never was. From my jeans pocket I withdrew a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I looked down at both objects as if they were the embodiment of something important. Without a second glance I threw them aside. The lighter hit the concrete and bounced away, ending up at some college kid's feet. He cast a confused glance in my direction, then continued on his way. I have no idea where the cigarettes landed.

 

Sighing inaudibly, I leaned my head back against the tree trunk and returned to the task of staring up at Alixs building. The red-bricked structure stared back at me, patient and mocking, as though somehow knowing that it possessed within its walls the very thing I was searching for.

 

The front door opened and my heart sped up. Once again, it was a false alarm. Out of impatience, I did something I hadnt planned on doing. Excuse me! I called, half-jogging to meet up with the blonde. Catching up to her, I put on my sweetest smile and said, Do you know Alix Morris?

 

She looked me up and down for a moment as though attempting to assess any potential damage her answer could evoke. Yeah... she responded after a moment, dragging it out as though unsure of her answer. She lives across from me, she added.

 

Do you know if she's home?

 

Blonde curls bounced side to side as the girl shook her head. Shes got a directing workshop right now.

 

You wouldn't happen to know where that is...?

 

The blonde proceeded to give me directions and I thanked her a few times before heading off in the direction shed instructed. I figured a directing workshop would house a lot of students and so sneaking into the auditorium shouldnt present much of a problem. Truthfully, I just wanted to see her. To sit in the back and scope her out among the crowd and just stare at her for however long her class lasted. This plan however, was short-lived.

 

Finding the building didnt prove difficult. I knew my way around Baldwin University pretty well, and so I had a fairly good idea where Atkins Theater was located. Once I spotted the large building with its prominent columns announcing its superiority over the less intimidating structures on campus, I proceeded to cross through the doors in search of Auditorium B.  This, too, was not difficult. What I wasnt expecting, however, was what lied at the other end of the double doors of the room.

 

Opening the door quietly, as to not disturb the professor, I set a foot inside the room. As expected it was large and full of students whose attention was fixed solely on the figure standing atop the gray-carpeted stage. Nobody looked my way as I entered. In fact, they were all so transfixed with whatever was going on onstage that my gaze darted in that direction. Thats when my breath caught in my throat.

 

Okay, Melanie, Alix was saying, her body half-turned to the audience. In one hand she carried a script, and with her free hand she was pointing at something on the paper. A short girl with purple-dyed hair and gothic-looking clothes looked at her intently as if Alix contained the answers to the worlds best-kept secrets. Why dont you try to block this scene? At this point, she turned to the audience and I ducked down to find the nearest seat. I was thankful for the sunglasses. I need a couple of volunteers.

 

Hands shot up in the air simultaneously and I did my best to hide behind the people in the row in front of me.

 

Alix picked two random people from the audience, a girl and a boy, who quickly made their way up onto the stage. Once there, they were handed each a script and told to read over the parts they were going to portray.

 

Okay, Alix said, standing off to the side so that the three other people had center stage. Melanie, I want you to block this scene to the best of your ability, taking into consideration that this stage is a lot smaller than the one you would be performing on.

 

The girl started telling the two volunteers where to stand on stage and on what lines to cross from one side of the room to the other. From time to time, Alix would interrupt to make suggestions, but for the most part she stood to the side quietly, paying intent attention to the actions unfolding a few feet before her. Id never seen her this focused on anything before and it took my breath away. She appeared so much older. I was so used to her shyness and awkwardness that this was a side of her I never imagined existed.

 

Im not entirely sure how long it all lasted. It couldve been an hour or fifteen minutes, but before I knew it, everyone around me was packing up their notebooks and Alix was wishing them all a good week.

 

My plan of escape was a simple one, simply merge in with the exiting crowd and make myself scarce. For some reason, however, this proved more difficult than I had otherwise expected and five minutes later I found myself still sitting at the same spot.

 

Alix still hadnt noticed me, or if she had she was doing an excellent job of pretending she hadnt. Instead of leaving, I managed to move up toward the stage while her back was turned to the audience so that I could hide to the side of her. I felt like such a fool. I wondered if there were security cameras installed in the room and I could almost imagine a bunch of guards bursting through the doors yelling, Freeze. That wouldve made a nice embarrassing story for Seventeen.  And there I was, stalking my crush, when through the doors burst campus security. I rolled my eyes at myself, feeling even sillier than I already did.

 

On the stage, Alix was having a conversation with that girl Melanie and I figured that since I was already stalking, eavesdropping was only the next logical step.

 

I was really hoping you could help me out with this monologue I have to do for my audition tomorrow, Melanie was saying, in such a way that made it clear to me that practicing the monologue was not at all what this girl was after.

 

What are you auditioning for? came Alixs response, and I could tell by her tone that whatever force of strength had kept her lively just minutes before while she was teaching, was gone now.

 

Its for Little Women. Im auditioning for Jo in Miami tomorrow and Im really nervous about it. I could really use your help.

 

Say no. Say no. Say no.

 

Sensing Alixs hesitation, Melanie continued. Ill buy you dinner as a thank you.

 

My eyes narrowed in reaction to this latest development.

 

You dont have to do that, Alix answered, and I could tell she was about to give in. Apparently I wasnt doing a very good job of implanting my thoughts into her brain. When are you free tonight?

 

It was all I could do not to jump out of my hiding spot. Somehow I managed to stay still. I dont own her. She can go out with this girl if she wants to.  I told myself these things, but they werent sinking in. Mostly because I didnt want them to.

 

Oh whenever! Melanie sounded a little too content for my personal comfort and I felt a growl escape my lips. Whenever youre free, since youre doing me the favor.

 

I have a class in about twenty minutes, Alix responded, sounding thoughtful. How about afterwards, around six? Meet in my room?

 

My ears perked up at the mention of the word room. Did this girl know where Alixs room was? Had she been there before? 

 

Perfect, Melanie was saying. See you then.

 

I didnt have enough time to be annoyed with the entire situation because it occurred to me at that moment that Alix was about to leave the auditorium and if she chose to exit through the doors next to me, I was going to have a lot of explaining to do. So before I had much of a chance to rethink my plan, I flew out the doors to the open air outside. I jogged to the nearest building and hid out of sight.

 

A few moments later I watched Alix walk out of the doors Id just passed through and I breathed a sigh of relief that Id thought to get out of there instead of leaving it up to chance.

 

Leaning against the nearest wall, I banged the back of my head against it a few times. What the hell was I doing? I stood there for a few minutes, and then walked back outside. The intelligent thing to do was to go home and take a long, hot shower and get away from Alix for the rest of the day. Obviously, sanity was a fleeting entity whenever she was around.

 

Of course, if I just went home Id inevitably spend the rest of the night thinking about how I really needed to talk to her. This had, of course, nothing at all to do with the fact that I knew shed be spending the rest of the afternoon with that she-demon, Melanie.

 

Not even a little bit.

 

 

 

Needless to say, I didnt go home. I spent the next couple of hours walking around campus and buying crappy coffee from the student center. I found it amusing when random students would stop me to ask for directions. In the mood that I was in, the only rational thing to do was point them in the wrong direction. Which I did.

 

At around six oclock, I planted myself on the lawn across from Alixs building, leaning against the same tree Id befriended earlier in the day. I sat there, nursing a cup of coffee, and feeling extremely creepy. I hoped the coffee at least made me look semi-normal, though I doubted it.  I should have brought my text books with me. Of course, I hadn't entirely planned out this particular adventure. In fact, I hadnt planned to visit Baldwin University at all. I was going to do what any normal, sane, twenty-one year old girl would do after a night like the one Id had: lay around the apartment and mope.

 

So how I got from A to B is beyond me, but there I was, sitting on the lawn across from my girlfriends (ex-girlfriends?) dormitory building, sipping lukewarm coffee and waiting patiently for who knew what.

 

The 'what' in question crossed in front of me promptly at six o'clock. I watched as her purple head with its black-clad body firmly attached made its way up to the entrance. The door opened on cue and she stepped inside, while a tall guy wearing a Marlins' cap walked out.

 

Sighing to myself, I took a sip from my caffeinated companion. Frankly, I hadnt yet decided what I was going to say to Alix once I knocked on the door.  I was quite aware that following her around campus and planting myself in front of her building for hours at a time was probably not the best way of going about getting to talk to her. But its not like Id been scoring any points with her recently.

 

Forty-five minutes later, I disengaged myself from the tree and threw away the empty coffee cup in the nearest trashcan. Then I stood by the entrance to Turner Hall and waited for someone to either enter or leave the building so that I could sneak in. It took about five minutes of standing there like a loon, but finally a guy opened the door for me and I walked inside. Alixs room was on the third floor and I passed by several open doors, which reeked of stale smoke and incense. Loud, unidentifiable music drifted down the corridor, muffling the sound of random conversations.

 

Despite the fact that I took my sweet time getting there, I soon found myself standing before room 335. I stared at the door for a few minutes, as though captivated by the decorations adorning the wooden surface. Half the door was occupied by a large bulletin board which housed a dry-erase board. Someone had written the message: Alix, Jade called @ noon in red ink. I could feel my bravado weakening with each passing second, so I forced myself to knock on the door before it disappeared all together. The first knock was soft and received no acknowledgement. So I knocked harder the second time, putting as much will power and determination as I could muster into each stroke of my knuckles.

 

As the door opened, I held my breath.

 

Confused green eyes stared up at me from the crack in the door. What are you doing here? If she was angry with me she didnt sound it.

 

It was my turn to respond, to say something so ingenious that she would have no choice but to kick the other girl out of the room and invite me in. Is this a bad time? I asked her, giving myself more time to think of why exactly I was there. I was also giving her an opportunity to turn me away ... but I had to give her that option. She deserved that much. She deserves a lot more than that, you jerk, my conscience promptly supplied. My brain nodded in silent admission.

 

Alix glanced warily behind her shoulder. I was kind of in the middle of something, she responded, turning her attention back to me. I could tell by her tone that whatever it was shed been in the middle of doing, she wasnt particularly thrilled about it.

 

Feeling a burst of confidence, I said, Well I kind of wanted to talk to you about something. Not knowing if that was enough to convince her, I quickly added, Its important.

 

She hesitated a second longer, then opened the door widely and walked away. I took the gesture as an invitation to step inside. I closed the door behind me and stood awkwardly for a moment before taking note of Melanie sitting Indian style on Alixs bed. She did not look at all happy that Id shown up. Quietly, I studied the area around the dorm room, not because I didnt remember what it looked like, but because I had no idea what to say.

 

Alixs side of the bedroom remained wallpapered in posters in much the same manner that her room at home had been. I particularly loved the solo shot of Steven Tyler hanging vicariously over her bed. I wondered if that was whom she prayed to instead of God ... Or maybe she just found comfort in not having to stare up at a blank ceiling all the time. Who knew? She was certainly still a mystery to me.

 

Her desk, which rested directly to the right as one walked through the door, was kept neat. There wasnt much on it, except for a gray Toshiba laptop and accompanying printer. A copy of Stone Butch Blues rested over the computer.  Interesting choice in literature. I would've never taken her for a Fienberg fan. Next to the desk was her bed, neatly made for a change, and covered in black sheets. Her roommates bed served to form an L against the adjoining wall. Next to that bed was her roommates desk, which was currently stacked with books. There were a couple of dressers standing side by side against the other wall, and a Persian rug on the floor.

 

Once my inspection had ended, I returned my gaze to Alix who was standing with her hands in her pocket in the center of the room. Melanie was still sitting on the bed, looking suddenly confused and out-of-place. Ignoring her presence completely, I said, You didnt call me last night.

 

Alix glanced at Melanie quickly, then sharply at me as though wondering why I was starting this while her guest was in the room. I never said that I would.

 

I pulled the desk chair out from under the table and took a seat. I couldnt believe my own nerve. Had I been Alix I wouldve taken a bat to my head eons ago. I nodded in Melanies direction. Would you mind giving us some privacy? That's right. Be all the bitch that you can be. That's the way to her heart.

 

Melanie turned her head toward Alix, as if hoping that Alix would come to her defense by kicking me out of the room. When Alix didnt say anything, she rolled her eyes and picked up her books. "Later, Alix."

 

Awkward silence lingered between us even after the door slammed shut. There was so much I wanted to say but no words with which to say them, so I said nothing.

 

Alix sighed, crossing the room to sit down on the bed. I cant decide whether Im more annoyed that you showed up here like this or more grateful. She ran a hand through her hair, letting it fall back around her eyes. I couldnt help but stare at her.

 

I suppose both would be equally valid, I responded, tearing my gaze away. Her beautiful eyes always managed to wreak havoc on my senses. I sat back on the chair, wishing Id rehearsed some kind of speech before barging in here. Im not entirely sure why Im here," I found myself admitting.

 

I thought you said it was important?

 

I forced myself to look at her, attempting to read her mind. "It is." Shrugging slightly, I added, "I just haven't figured out what it is yet." Feeling frustrated, I rose to my feet with no particular destination in mind. I just couldn't sit. I avoided her gaze at all costs as I proceeded to pace around the room. Her eyes followed me for a moment, then she lied back on the bed and stared up at the picture of Steven Tyler. I wondered what she was telling him. Feeling foolish, I sat back down on the chair and stared down at the rug. After a few minutes I cast a glance in her direction, surprised to find her staring at me. She quickly looked away. "What?" I ventured to ask.

 

Green eyes darted back to meet mine. "Nothing," she responded, and the lead singer of Aerosmith reclaimed her attention once again.

 

Why did women have to be so complicated? "What are you thinking?" I asked, and subconsciously cringed, half-expecting her to repeat her earlier response.

 

She seemed to hesitate, her gaze still glued to the ceiling. "Did you figure out why you're here?" she asked, instead of answering.

 

I know why I'm here ... I just don't know how to make you understand ...

 

"I talked to Jessica."

 

Already? Hiding my surprise, I said, "Oh?"

 

"She wants to talk to you personally." She paused, then added, "I didn't tell her anything. Just that you were in trouble and needed her help."

 

Shit. "Thanks."

 

"So, if that's what you wanted to talk about ..."

 

"It's not," I added quickly. Not even close. "I'm not entirely sure that what I want to talk about is really ... something we can talk about."

 

Alix stared at me expectantly.

 

So, I searched my mind for the right words; for a way to explain everything that I wanted to say. In the end, I just went with the truth. "I couldn't let things end with last night..."

 

She regarded me, her face impassive. "Isn't that why you told me? So you could end things?"

 

"Not with you." Never with you ...

 

She sat up, running a hand through her hair again. "What with me, then?"

 

I stared silently at the Metallica logo on her tee shirt. "I dont know. I just didn't want to lie to you anymore."  She fell silent, her gaze dropping down to study the intricate patterns on the solid black comforter. I sat back in the chair, wondering if I'd ever get myself out of this mess.

 

My eyes wandered to where she was sitting, taking the opportunity to study her now that she wasn't looking. I took note of the black Joe Boxers that had replaced the baggy jeans I was so used to seeing on her. I tried not to frown at the thought of Alix dressing so casually for Melanie and a pang of something I vaguely recognized as jealousy shot through my heart. What are you thinking now? I asked softly.

 

She lifted her head slowly to look at me, and it was then I noticed the tears trailing down her cheek. Id never felt so helpless. What do you want from me, Valerie?

 

My brows furrowed in silent surprise. What do you mean?

 

You dont want things to end with last night. How do you want them to end then?

 

My mouth opened to respond, then shut again.

 

What do you want me to do? she continued, her voice rising with desperation. Tell you I forgive you so that you can feel better? Pretend that nothing happened? I cant do that, she said, softly. I cant forgive you for this ...

 

Every nerve in my body felt numb. The pain so intense I felt my body shut down. I didnt expect you to forgive me, I whispered, but I had. Some deep part of me had hoped that shed do just that. That shed understand why Id done what Id done and be able to look past all the lies and the deceit. But no one was that forgiving. I knew that now.  The numbness dissipated into anger; rage. Without a word, I rose to my feet and walked out of the room, hearing the door slam shut behind me. In a daze, I walked past decorated doors, down the blue-carpeted floors, down the stairs, through the front doors to the world outside.

 

Fuck it all, I thought, as I jumped into my Bronco II and drove off into the night. The broken-heart tattoo gleamed proudly on my breast, reminding me of my promise. Never fall in love. Never fall in love ...

 

 

Chapter Six

 

I want to see him.

 

Chris eyes darted up from the paperback novel in her hands. If she was surprised to see me, she hid it well. With a flick of the hand, the book landed on the wooden surface of the coffee table in front of her, making a sound that reminded me of my first grade teachers ruler hitting my desk. I did my best not to flinch at the memory.

 

Chris rose from the black leather couch in the living room of her expansive estate. Howd you get through security? Her question bordered on rhetorical. She walked across the white carpet on her way to the mini bar and poured herself a drink.

 

You should get better security, I responded. Any idiot could get in here.

 

Chris smiled and sipped from her glass, her eyes fixed on me. Youre hardly an idiot, she said finally. Although your behavior recently has been a tad questionable. She returned to her spot on the couch.

 

Let me see Aaron.

 

Dark brown eyes narrowed for an instance then relaxed. Sit.

 

I hesitated briefly, but complied.

 

Chris studied me silently for a long moment, taking occasional sips from the amber liquid in her hand. You look like shit, Val. Wanna talk about it?

 

My brow rose. Youre not my friend.

 

Im not your enemy either.

 

Arent you?

 

Her mouth creased into a smile. No. An enemy would not have allowed you such liberty in this matter.

 

I acknowledged the truth of her words silently. Why then?

 

She shrugged. You saved my life. It is not something ones bound to forget.  She leaned forward placing the now empty glass on the coffee table. Its really a shame that this had to happen, Valerie. You and I were close once.

 

Too close, I responded.

 

Chris glanced at me, a smile playing at her lips. Is that how you look at it now?

 

I'm starting to see things differently.

 

She studied me again then shrugged away whatever thought shed had. They were fun times.

 

Fun. I wasnt entirely sure Id grasped the concept of fun in my lifetime. I guess.

 

So what sparked this sudden need to see Aaron? Need to be reminded of why it is youre putting yourself through this?

 

Maybe.

 

Chris seemed to hesitate. She sighed. Hes in the basement. She nodded to a door in the far right side of the room. Make it quick.

 

I nodded my appreciation and headed off in the direction shed instructed. I opened the door and was immediately bathed in darkness. I almost regretted this decision. There was an incline of steps leading down to a corridor dressed in fluorescent lighting.

 

Aaron?

 

Val?

 

I hurried in the direction of his voice and found him a moment later, sitting on a mattress on the floor, his back against the wall. He jumped to his feet as he saw me. Did you get the money?

 

No, I responded simply, glancing around my brothers confinement. Flickering blue light on the ceiling, mattress on the floor, toilet, and a tray of half-eaten food. He might as well have been in jail. Nice place.

 

Aaron snorted, sitting back down. He no longer seemed excited to see me. "What's with the hair?"

 

"Plan A."

 

He nodded, running a hand through his own hair. It bordered on black but not quite. "What plan are we on now?"

 

"No plan."

 

His face paled slightly. "Are you giving up?"

 

I just shrugged. Truth of the matter was, I had no idea where to go from here. "There have been some complications."

 

"Fall in love?"

 

I glanced at him sharply. "What?"

 

"Chris said something about you falling in love with some girl. Great timing."

 

His sudden sarcasm grated at my nerves. "I'm not in love with anyone," I responded and I felt a sinking feeling in my heart as the words left my mouth.

 

"So what are the complications then? Can't you just show up at what's-her-face's door and demand that she give you the money? She doesn't deserve it any more than we do. We might as well prosper from her good fortune."

 

"I don't want her to know," I answered sternly.

 

"Well fuck that!" he yelled suddenly, his voice echoing down the desolate corridor. "It's my life on the line here. Who cares if she knows or doesn't know? I'm sick of protecting her feelings. It's about time the little princess got a shot of reality."

 

Sighing, I took a seat against the opposite wall. I understood my brother's frustration and empathized with his anger, for it mirrored my own at one point in time. "Calm down, you got yourself into this. If it weren't for me, you'd be fingerless and dickless at the bottom of the Atlantic."

 

"What do you want me to do, kiss your feet in endless appreciation?"

 

"Just giving you a shot of reality."

 

He let out a long breath. "Why are you here?"

 

"Just checking up on you."

 

"And what do you think?"

 

"Could be worse."

 

Blue eyes focused on my own for a long moment. "When are you gonna get me out of here?"

 

When ... not 'how'. The 'how' was up to me. I sighed. "I don't know." Then I added, "But I will. I promise."

 

He nodded, closing his eyes. "I know you will. There's nothing you can't do."

 

My heart ached in my chest. I stood, unable to bear this scene any longer. "Be good."

 

He didn't respond so I started walking in the direction I'd come. I was almost at the stairs when I heard, "Val?"

 

"Yeah?" I called back, not turning around.

 

"Be careful."

 

I fought back the tears the sentiment caused, and climbed the stairs.

 

 

 

My decision to meet with Jessica sprung out from a moment of complete boldness and determination that seemed to pass as the Heart Mansion rolled into view. The exaggerated pace at which my heart was beating washed away my last remaining traces of courage. Unconsciously, I eased up on the gas, attempting to earn a few extra minutes.

 

The Jeep came to a complete stop before the tall iron gates that sported a strange design circling a large 'H' in the center. Security at the mansion was a series of contradictions that served to perplex me further on the subject of my older sister. The gates were nothing if not intimidating and they were guarded in part by a police officer, in uniform, sitting leisurely in his booth.  I wondered why Jessica didn't invest in an intercom system so that visitors could just phone themselves in? What was the point of paying someone to sit there all day?

 

The guard rose from his prone position as he caught sight of me. "Your name?" he asked, his manner friendly but professional. His eyes darted down to the clipboard in his hand and all I could see was the top of his sandy blonde head.

 

"Valerie Skye," I told him, wondering if I'd have to show ID. The first time I'd been here things had gone slightly different and I attributed that to the fact that it had been Jessica's wedding. I'd had to go through a series of questions asked by Secret Service-type men who in part checked and double checked their clipboards, then my ID. I had been shocked as anything when they said my name was on the list and I could pass through.

 

The young-looking guard looked up and nodded briefly before stepping back into the booth. I expected him to press a button to open the gates but instead, he picked up a phone and spoke in a series of codes that I could neither hear nor comprehend.

 

I was momentarily distracted from the exchange as the large iron gate workings began to move outwardly, parting in the center. "Thank you," I said politely, then threw the Bronco forward through the opening. I watched the gates close behind me in the rearview mirror and I knew now that there was no turning back. I shifted my gaze to the road ahead and proceeded down the long road leading to the mansion.

 

The road, which I'd once expected to be paved in gold, was lined at both sides by a series of trees that made it appear as though one was driving through the middle of nowhere. You couldn't see the mansion for the first couple of minutes, but eventually the trees cleared, giving way to the large expanses of property. The pavement turned to gravel and I could hear the crunching of rocks as they were disturbed by my tires. The gravel road began to curve as it formed a circular driveway around a breathtaking structure.

 

In the center of the circle stood a rather beautiful fountain that caught my eye. It appeared to be made of glass and glowed neon blue from lights that were perfectly hidden from view. The glass was shaped into a dolphin which appeared to be flying over the circular pool below it. Water sprayed straight upward and then curved, forming an arc, haloing the mammal in its flight. I stared at it in awe for a few moments until I finally regained my senses and killed the engine.

 

I sat back, staring straight ahead, still procrastinating but unable to set foot outside the car. Five minutes later, I unbuckled my seatbelt, withdrew the keys from the ignition, and threw the door open, jumping down into a pool of noisy rocks. Progress, I thought dryly, shutting the door so I could lean back against it.

 

I caught the mansion's reflection on the side mirror. Part of it anyway. My body twisted around so I could look up behind me. I was instantly reminded of one of those castles in those Disney movies. Beauty and the Beast maybe. I wasn't sure how many floors it housed.  The mansion seemed to stretch out forever. Windowshundreds of thempeered at me like judgmental eyes; watching, waiting. I took a step backward, then looked to my left. A series of courts stretched out about a hundred yards away from me, all ranging from tennis to basketball to racquetball.

 

Turning back to the mission at hand, I abandoned my survey and forced my unwilling legs toward the front doors. The gravel ended as a couple of concrete steps began and I quickly ascended and stopped and stared up at the imposing doors before me. The same "H" symbol was printed on both doors. I don't know why, but it annoyed me.

 

Before I had a chance to ring the bell, the door on the right began to open toward me. The butler appeared in the doorway and gave me a curt bow before stepping to the side. He motioned me in. The entire butler concept seemed a bit surreal to me but I played along, feeling extremely out of place.

 

I had often entertained fantasiesmostly in my younger yearsof switching places with Jessica Heart. If I'd been born first, all of this would be mine, I thought, looking around the foyer.

 

A bright chandelier hung over my head, illuminating the entrance in a way that seemed smug to me, mocking even. I made a mental note to seek therapy once all of this was over.

 

A long and expensive-looking rug welcomed my feet, then ended a few steps later as black and white marble tiling was revealed along the floor.

 

The butlerMaurice was it?closed the door and stretched his arm in a pointing motion. "Ms. JeMrs. Collins is in the study," he informed me, obviously embarrassed by his slip of the tongue. I hid my smile as I followed him.

 

The only place I'd visited in the mansion was Jessica's bedroom and to get there one had to take the red-carpeted staircase a couple of yards from where I currently walked. We were veering away from it, to the right, down a corridor I hadn't noticed existed. It was darker there and the wood-paneled walls disturbed me. They were decorated with paintings that reminded me of the ones I'd seen in my art books from school.

 

Maurice stopped in front of a set of double-doors, identical to the ones I'd passed along the way. He knocked and waited for permission to enter. Then he stepped forward and announced my arrival.

 

I somehow kept myself from rolling my eyes and entered the room. He shut the door quickly, leaving me alone with my sister.

 

She was sitting behind a large oak desk which was scattered with papers. The room was lit by a couple of lamps that stood at each side of the large window behind her. I could see my Bronco II from where I was standing and I wondered if she'd watched me as I'd arrived.

 

Jessica stood to greet me and I invariably swallowed as I stepped forward. She was breathtakingly beautiful, no doubt about it. Her now short hair lay atop her head in a fashionably messy style, partly spiked in the back and held at each side by a couple of miniature butterfly clips. She was dressed casually, as I'd come to realize was her style, in a pair of faded light blue jeans that hugged her curves quite perfectly. A small white shirt with an oceanic print in the center completed her look.  Her face was unnervingly expressionless as she took me in.

 

I wasn't sure what kind of impression I was making. I hadn't been entirely sure what kind of attire was appropriate for this kind of meeting (Cosmopolitan didn't have any fashion tips for meeting your long lost sister who didn't know she was your sister). So I'd opted for my usual Levi 501's and a black tank top that reached just above my belly-button, allowing a clear view of the ring therein. My blond hair was loose as usual, framing my face and cascading down my back.

 

We stared at each other. I had the oddest feeling that I was staring into a mirror, its reflection a jaded image of myself. A strange look passed across Jessica's face but she masked it before I had a chance to interpret its meaning.

 

"Take a seat," she instructed neutrally, reclaiming her chair.

 

As I settled into the soft cushions of the proffered chair, I felt a strange sense of sadness wash over me and I struggled to repress it with little success. What would it have been like to grow up with her as a sister? How much different from me was she? How alike? My heart ached and I begged my mind not to go there.

 

"Would you like anything to drink?"

 

"No, thank you," I replied, though I could've used a shot of something. I kept my gaze far away from the intensity of my sister's. I wanted so badly to hate her. Hating her made everything easier. I'd expected her to be different. I'd expected her to be snobby. I'd expected her to be a bitch. I'd expected her to be someone deserving of my actions. But she wasn't. And all I could do was wonder what she thought of me.

 

"Alix told me you needed my help." Her blue eyes fought to meet mine and I lost the battle. Her face remained as impassive as I imagined mine to be.

 

Inwardly, I cringed at the mention of the word 'help'. Help was something I'd never asked for, regardless of necessity. I felt my pride deflating. Here I was, groveling at the feet of a sister who didn't know she was my blood. Resigned to begging for the life of a brother who didn't know the value of his own worth. And where did I fit into all of this? "I do," I finally replied, my voice empty, as if I'd said those same words so many times that they were void of emotional meaning.

 

"What do you need?" she asked.

 

I locked our gazes together. "Two hundred million."

 

She sat back in her chair and I attempted to read her mind. She continued to hold my gaze. "Why should I help you?"

 

Her tone wasn't threatening and I suspected that she was testing me. "I doubt even you could put a price on a human life."

 

Her features darkened for an instance and I wondered if she knew the specifics of how she came to be at the other side of that desk. Twenty million for my sister, two-hundred for my brother. And me? How much was I worth?

 

Jessica took a deep breath.  "I'll give it to you. On one condition."

 

My eyebrow arched in silent question, my heart speeding up in excitement, my mind racing to figure out what she could possible ask of me.

 

"You stay away from Alix." I felt the sting of each word upon my heart.

 

"Is that how you operate? My brother for your best friend? That's blackmail."

 

"Not blackmail." She shook her head slightly. "It's my right to be concerned for Alix's  well-being, after everything you've done to her." She shrugged. "I don't think it's an unfair request, considering what I'm giving you."

 

Bribery. That's what it was. I began to reconsider all the nice thoughts I'd had about Jessica Heart. "I won't agree to that."

 

Jessica contemplated this for a long time. Then said, "You'd really give up your brother's life for the off-chance that Alix may someday forgive you?"

 

"I will not let my future or Alix's be determined by your bank account."

 

"Just your brother's life?"

 

Our brother!  I was dying to scream. I felt so cornered and frightened and helpless. If that was her request, I couldn't turn it down. But I couldn't agree to something like that for money. Alix deserved better than that. If I was going to stay away from her then it had to be for a reason. "I'll stay away from her but not because you told me to. I have no intention of causing her anymore pain."

 

"How awfully noble of you," she replied.

 

I bit my tongue to keep from lashing out at her. Of course she hated me. I'd betrayed and used and lied to her best friend and now I was politely asking for money. 

 

Money that doesn't belong to her.

 

But she doesn't know that.

 

Money to save her own brother.

 

But she doesn't know that.

 

The mixed emotions surging through my soul were overwhelming. This was too much. I blinked back tears I couldn't share. I wouldn't break down. Not here, after all of this.

 

"I'll transfer the money to whatever account you instruct me to do so. It's yours, no questions asked. Just get the hell out of Alix's life and never come back."

 

I swallowed hard. Was this it? All of the lying and pretending and worrying ... it all ended with this meeting? Just like that? I rose, feeling completely void of emotion. "Thanks," I said softly in a voice not of my own.

Jessica didn't respond, so I turned and kept on walking, unaware of my surroundings. Looking back, I don't remember how I managed to make it home. All I remember is walking through the threshold of my apartment and feeling all of the tension I'd so carefully packed away burst open. I slumped down against the door, leaning my head back against it and felt the tears streaming down my cheek, mirroring the notion that my world was collapsing all around me. My heart burned in my chest, wishing for a release I knew would never come.

 

Pain. That's all I knew. That's all I'd ever know.

 

I pulled myself together and picked up the phone. It was time to set my brother free.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chris had been cynical about my call. Yes I had the money. Yes I could have it transferred within a few days. Yes. Yes. Yes. Just let Aaron go... 

 

Of course she refused to do so until the money was in her account. She didn't ask how I got Jessica Heart to give me the money. But blackmail would've been my answer, had she inquired. Either way, I kept feeling restless.

 

I decided that getting out of Florida was probably for the best. I'd go pick up my brother and then I'd get the hell out of the Sunshine State. Maybe I would head up to New York City or L.A. Somewhere interesting but far away. I had enough money in the bank. College could wait.

 

Jessica set about transferring the money to some bank account Chris had set up for special business transactions. I didn't ask. I certainly didn't want to know.

 

Chris had promised that on Friday, I could have Aaron back. By Saturday morning, I planned to be gone. I'd decide where to end up on the way. I had always been one to throw caution to the wind and my adventurous side kept calling. I could never sit still for very long.

 

But it was still Thursday and that meant that I had endless hours of waiting until I could breathe again. Besides... there was something I had to do before I left. Something that couldn't wait another minute.

 

So I drove up to the University that afternoon, feeling the lump in my throat escalate in proportion with every stop sign.  I just wantedno, I neededto set everything straight before I disappeared from her life forever.  I ignored the pain that surged through me whenever I tried to picture the rest of my life without her. How emotional pain could manifest itself into physical pain so easily was beyond me. But somehow it was happening.

 

I didn't notice the red Camaro in the spot next to mine, and even if I had, I wouldn't have known whom it belonged to.  Casually, I strolled down the sidewalk to Alix's building, enjoying the feel of the warm sun on my skin, as I struggled to maintain the small amount of valor that had somehow pulled me out of bed that morning and gotten me all the way there.  Please don't let me chicken out, I pleaded to whomever was listening.

 

I found Alix's door slightly ajar and I was about to knock but suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks.

 

Jessica.

 

I felt my heart speed up as something that resembled fear welled up in my being until suddenly, I couldn't move. I had to get away from there. I had to leave. But I felt compelled to listen, if only for a moment.

 

"So you gave it to her," Alix was saying. "Just like that?"

 

"Isn't that what you wanted?" Jessica inquired gently.

 

"No. I mean, yes! Yes, of course." Alix sounded unsure and I could almost hear her pacing around the room.

 

"I haven't transferred the money yet," Jessica began. "You've still got time to change your mind."

 

"No!" Alix replied quickly. "She needs it."

 

Jessica paused for a beat. "Do you really believe the story about her brother?"

 

"Don't you?"

 

From the crack in the door I could see Jessica shrug. She was seated patiently on Alix's bed. Alix was standing nervously in the center of the room, hands delved deep into the pockets of her black Jncos.

 

Finally, Jessica responded, "Quite frankly, I don't see how you can believe anything she says."

 

Alix sat down. "I have to believe her."

 

"Why?"

 

"Just because."

 

"Are you okay?" Jessica asked after a moment. Her back was to me, but I could see Alix pretty clearly.

 

"How can I be?" Alix wiped away at a tear before it got all the way down her cheek.

 

Jessica reached out to hug her. "She can't hurt you anymore."

 

Alix rested her head on Jessica's shoulder and sighed sadly. "I'm never gonna see her again."

 

"Explain to me how that's a bad thing."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

Jessica pulled away to stare at her. "What do you mean what do I mean? Alix, don't you see she used you? Lied to you? Betrayed you! For crying out loud, she even slept with you!" Jessica's anger soared with each syllable, her voice rising. I couldn't see her face but I could almost picture her dark blue eyes glazing over in rage. "I shouldn't give her that money. She's gonna run off to Europe with it and use it to seduce young girls."

 

"She's not like that!"

 

"How do you know what she's like?" Jessica demanded. "Don't you see you were just an added bonus in her little scheme to get to my money? She doesn't care about you!"

 

I was so close to bursting through that door and setting Jessica Heart straight on a few things, but somehow, I remained glued to my spot.

 

"What I don't understand," Jessica continued, "is why you care whether or not she ever walks through that door."

 

At the mention of the door, I drew away from it, fearful that I'd been spotted.

 

"Because..." Alix started and I could hear the frustration in her voice.

 

"Because why?"

 

"Because I'm in love with her!" Alix snapped.

 

And as those words reached my ears, a gasp escaped my lips and I sank back against the wall, feeling the impact of each word as it all slowly sank in. She's in love with me?!

 

"You're in love with her?!" Jessica bellowed and I could hear the mattress adjust to the missing weight of her body. "How can you possibly be in love with her after all she did to you? She's a crazed bitch!"

 

"Don't call her that. You don't understand."

 

"What could I possibly not understand? She knew you were my best friend, probably read about it in People magazine or something. Stalked you down, seduced you to get to me and then got you all emotional over her so that you'd convince me to give her the money. It's a genius plan and you fell for it hook, line and sinker!"

 

"It wasn't like that! You don't understand!"

 

"Then make me understand!"

 

Alix was quiet.

 

"I should just call the police and have her thrown in jail. Why did I let you talk me into giving her the money..."

 

"Please dont..."

 

"Why? Just give me one good reason why I shouldn't call my lawyers and have her ass thrown in prison."

 

"Because she's your sister..."

 

Continued


 

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