A love that risks nothing is worth nothing - (unknown)


Heart’s Choice

Chapter 18


Lois Kay

With trembling fingers, Goran Markovic tried to open the backdoor, using his house key that was attached to a brass ring. When his unsteady hands dropped the heavy key ring for the second time, he cursed softly. He didn't want his parents to know he had come home way after midnight. If his father found out, he would probably be grounded for at least a week. Goran didn't mind if he couldn't hang out with his friends in the evening, but missing his baby brother's weekly soccer match was something he dreaded. Jarek would never forgive him if he missed the annual Easter soccer tournament.

With a sigh, Goran picked up the brass ring and this time he managed to open the backdoor without any problem. He winced when the old door produced a squeaking sound and he quickly closed it, hoping his father had not noticed.

After he locked the door, Goran turned around and he let out a small gasp, when the light from the streetlights outlined the small, sturdy figure of his mother.

" You' re home late, sweetie," her voice sounded tired, but not unfriendly and Goran noticed the use of the term of endearment, which made him hope his mother would not be too upset with him.

"I'm sorry, mother. I...I forgot about the time, and..."

"Don't lie to me, Goran," Natasha Markovic interrupted her son. "Please, don't underestimate my intelligence by lying to me. Don't betray me like that. Haven't we suffered enough in our lives already?"

Goran sucked in his bottom lip and hung his head in shame. His mother was right, as always. In 1992, when he was six years old, his parents had fled Croatia, managing to save their own lives, as well as that of their son. But not before they had witnessed the cruel and violent death of many family members and friends. And even though the fighting had been over for years already, the war was still inside of them, gnawing at Goran's father and causing sleepless nights for his mother. His parents had shielded him against the violent bloodshed as much as they had been able to, but Goran still sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, bathing in sweat, because the horrific scenes he had been witness to invaded his dreams... filling him with fear.

He knew his parents suffered even more.

"I'm sorry, mom, I really am," he whispered.

Natasha Markovic switched on the light and pointed towards the kitchen table, wordlessly requesting her son to sit down, which he obediently did.

" Where have you been, Goran?" she asked when she took a seat across from him.

His dark eyes didn't look up, but studied the checkered pattern of the table cloth, until they started to water.

"I had a debt to pay," he finally answered.

Deep lines surrounded a pair of soulful brown eyes and Natasha Markovic exhaled slowly, while she clenched her hands into fists. Her blunt nails dug into her skin, but she welcomed the slight sting of pain, because it helped her to focus.

"Are you involved with those drugs runners again?" she asked, her voice thick with emotion. She couldn't hide the fear in her eyes when she looked at her eldest son. He had always been such a good boy... obedient and respectful. He worked hard in school and his grades were impressive. But then he had started to hang around with the wrong crowd and the problems had started. He had become aggressive and disrespectful. He had come home late almost every night and his grades had gone down rapidly. His parents had tried to talk to him, his mother had pleaded tearfully, but to no avail. Until, one afternoon, Goran had come home to find his five year old brother in his bedroom, playing with a few bags of marihuana and ecstasy pills. The little boy was just about to taste one of the small, white pills, thinking it had to be candy, when Goran had grabbed his little hand and had stopped him, realizing that if he had come home a little later, he could have found his brother's lifeless body.

It had been an eye opening experience and the teenager had immediately picked up his little brother and carried him downstairs, while the tears had been streaming down his face.

Heartbroken, he had confessed to his mother that he had not been using marihuana, but that he played a role in distributing the soft drug and the ecstasy pills. He had not been able to withstand the pressure of his friends and had caved in, becoming a member of their little, criminal circuit.

The feelings of guilt and shame, combined with the pain in the eyes of his parents and the danger he had put his younger brother in, had been enough for him to turn his back on his comrades. His father had taken him to the police station, where he had turned himself in. There, he had learned that his group of friends had been under scrutiny from the law already, but because he had showed the courage to turn himself in, and because he was still a minor, the police had let him off the hook with a stern warning.

Two months later, his former, so called ' friends', were arrested and charged with possession and distributing drugs.

"What debt did you have to pay? Goran, did it involve drugs?"

"No, mom, it didn't. I...," Goran's dark brown eyes lifted and he finally looked at his mother. "When...I was involved with that...drug trafficking...I once...helped, when two others broke into a car. I was the lookout and...and, I was just as guilty as they were," he stammered in a sad voice. "Just as Mike and Carl finished and got out of the car, I...ran into this... lady, who already had her cell phone in her hand to call the police. She...she recognized me from my job at the gas station. I...I was afraid she'd tell my boss and he would tell you and dad, so...I begged her not to say anything."

Natasha Markovic let out a deep sigh and slowly shook her head. She had hoped her son's recent past was just that, history. She had never expected him to be confronted again with the poor choices he had made a few years ago.

"Your debt was with her," she concluded.

Goran nodded and nervously nibbled on his bottom lip. He was so ashamed of himself and dreaded telling his mother the rest of the story, but he had to. It was the only way to come clean.

"Back then, she told me I wouldn't get into trouble, if I would give her my name, address and phone number. She said that as soon as she would see me being involved with...anything criminal again, she'd tell the police, and you and dad. She said they would surely send me to a reform school, or something."

"What was the debt?" Natasha sighed. Seeing the way her son clenched his hands into fists, suddenly made her nauseous and she closed her eyes while she softly moaned.

"Goran! She didn't...did she force you to...have...did she make you sleep with her?" she croaked, hardly capable of uttering the words.

Goran's eyes widened and he quickly shook his head.

"No! No, mom! She didn't," he answered and he heard the loud sigh of relief.

"Then what did she want you to do in the middle of the night?"

In a soft voice, Goran told his mother about the burglary, not leaving out one, single detail. He knew it was another blow for his parents, but telling his mother what he had done made him feel a lot better.

After he had related his story, there was a long silence.

"Did you take anything out of that place?" Natasha finally asked, with a hoarse voice.

"I...I...No. She wanted me to find pictures, letters or anything else that could be used to compromise this person. She especially wanted me to look for something that would show she is in debt, or letters from lawyers and stuff that had to do with her being fired from a former job."

"Did you? Find anything like that?"

"No," Goran simply answered.

"Good," Natasha sighed, rubbing her tired eyes and trying to figure out the best way to deal with the situation. "What made you decide not to go through with her...request?"

" A picture in the bedroom," Goran softly answered. "It was a picture of Simon Hartman and his mom."

Natasha's eyebrows rose into her hairline when she cast her son an astonished look.

"Simon, Jarek's friend? That cute, little boy with the dark curls?"

"Yes, him. I saw the photo and it just...I felt so ashamed. I...suddenly things just fell into place, mom. I mean, Jarek often talks about his teacher; Miss Emma, but I'd never heard her last name. I knew from Simon, that his mom and his teacher were...good friends...and when I saw that picture, I just knew whose house it was I was in and I just had to leave. I couldn't do it. So, I left," he finished in a whisper.

"You need to tell her, Goran. You know that, don't you?"

"Emma Altena?"

"Yes, Emma Altena. You need to contact her, tell her what you did and why and leave it up to her to see if she wants to press charges. You do realize this was a serious crime, Goran. You broke into a house."

"I know, mom," Goran answered, swallowing hard. He knew he had made a mess of things. It had been his fear and misplaced sense of honor, that had made him agree to break into the apartment. But he was realistic enough to know he couldn't change what he had done, he could only take responsibility and accept the consequences of his actions, whatever they might be.

"She's away on vacation, but I did see some letters with the addresses of family members. I...maybe they know where she is. Maybe I should...call them," he said with obvious hesitancy.

"No, not maybe. You will call them, Goran. First thing in the morning."

"So, we' ll drive down to Amsterdam, visit with your dads, then take a detour through Breda, so you can pick up some clothes and check in with Sandy at the office, we' ll stay the night at your place and drive back up to Friesland tomorrow morning. Wow, honey, those are two busy days. Are you sure you're up to that?" Emma asked with concern, glancing at her lover over the rim of her coffee cup.

Kyra nodded and took a sip of her coffee, enjoying the rich taste of the hot beverage. Her green eyes were full of affection when they focused on the auburn-haired woman, who was sitting next to her.

"I'm up to it, but if you don't want to...."

"No, no, no, I want," Emma interrupted with a smile. "As long as I'm with you, I'm happy. Even if that means running all over the place," she added with a wink.

Kyra chuckled and playfully nudged Emma with her shoulder.

"You're so easy to please," she teased.

"Don't let Hester hear that," Emma mumbled, with a warning glance at her sister, who was standing in the doorway, chatting to her mother.

"If she starts giving you a hard time, you can always use the barn story," Kyra grinned. "She really seems to appreciate that."

"Don't let her hear you say that either," Emma chuckled. "Or she'll be giving you a hard time."

Emma shot a look at her mother and sister and smiled when they both turned their heads and returned the glance, then the phone started ringing.

"Oh, sweetheart, will you get that please?" Ann Altena asked her daughter, holding up her flour-stained hands to Emma.

"Sure, mom," Emma answered, immediately jumping up and walking to the phone that was mounted on the wall.

"Altena residence."

"Um...g...good morning,"a slightly accented voice stammered and Emma frowned, trying to remember where she had heard that voice before. It did sound vaguely familiar.

"I...um...can I speak to...to...Miss Emma...please?"

Emma bit her lip and the frown in her forehead deepened. Except for the children in her class, and the occasional nervous parent, nobody called her ' Miss Emma'. Ever.

"You' re speaking with her," she answered. "May I help you?"

"Miss Emma, it's...I'm Goran. Goran Markovic. Jarek, my brother, is in your class."

Emma nodded and she let out a small sigh of relief. Now she remembered where she had heard that voice before. Goran was Jarek's brother. She had met him on different occasions when he came to pick up his little brother. But why would he be calling her at her parents' home? During her vacation? Her blue eyes widened in alarm and unconsciously she tightened her grip on the phone.

"Goran, yes, I remember you. Is...is everything all right? Jarek, is he...?"

"Jarek is fine, Miss Emma," Goran hastened to reassure the teacher. "But there's something you should know. I...I...this is very hard to do on the phone. I'm sorry to call you during your vacation, but I felt it couldn't wait."

"What is it, Goran?" Emma asked, trying not to lose her patience. The unexpected phone call had made her a little nervous and for some reason, she knew Goran was trying to tell her something important.

"I broke into your apartment," Goran suddenly blurted out the words and Emma's body went rigid. For a brief moment she was stunned, but then her brain kicked back into gear, going through dozens of different scenarios with the speed of light, only to add to the confusion.

"What?" She asked, stunned.

"Last night... I broke into your apartment," Goran repeated and in spite of being completely astonished, Emma let out a soft chuckle. Why would a burglar call her the next day to confess his crime? It didn't make any sense and Emma knew there just had to be a logical explanation.

"All right, Goran. This doesn't make any sense. Why don't you start at the beginning, okay?"

Emma shot a look at Kyra, whose eyes were full of questions and she shrugged her shoulders, letting her lover know she didn't understand the purpose of the call either.

Emma leaned against the wall, one hand stuffed into the pocket of her jeans, while she listened to the soft-spoken words of Goran Markovic. Her eyes went wide when he related his story and she had to restrain herself not to interrupt him on a few different occasions. He briefly told her about his past and how he came to be in debt to this 'lady', who had the power to take away his life, or, so he thought. He told her about the way he had gained access to her apartment and Emma made a mental note to have better locks installed on her balcony door. Who knew it was so easy to get inside?

"And then I saw this picture of Simon and his mother and I knew whose apartment it was. I'm so sorry, Miss Emma. Your place is a mess, but I didn't break anything or steal anything. I can clean it all up for you, before...before...you call the police," Goran added in a whisper.

Emma took a deep breath, while her eyes traveled between the concerned faces of Kyra, Hester and her mother. The three women were all seated at the huge kitchen table now, staring at her in silence.

"Whoa, hold on, Goran," Emma replied. "I want some more information first. This lady you told me about, who is she?"

"She never told me her name," Goran answered. "But she's a regular client at the gas station I work for. I...I...once she paid with a check and I looked up her name. I just needed to know."

"I can't blame you," Emma mumbled. "What was her name?" she repeated with a strong feeling of foreboding.

"LeJeune. Vivian LeJeune," Goran softly answered. "Do you know her, Miss Emma? Why would she want to hurt you?"

"Oh, boy," Emma muttered, casting down her eyes to avoid the inquisitive look of her lover. Another blow for Kyra; her mother blackmailed a teenager to break into Emma's house, trying to find something, anything, she could use against her.

"I do have some ideas about that, Goran," Emma softly answered. "Can you hang on for a minute? Thanks."

Emma covered the mouthpiece with her hand and turned to face the curious trio at the kitchen table.

"All right, I can see you' re all dying to know what is going on and I will tell you as soon as I can, but I have a question first. Kyra, honey, I...um...there's this boy I know, a teenager, who is in a bit of trouble at the moment. Um...somebody, an adult, sort of forced him to do something illegal. He needs some help here, I guess. Do you think that....? I know it's quite bold on my part, but do you think Rick could help him to write down a statement?"

Kyra's eyes flew open and bore into Emma's with an intensity that almost made the teacher gasp in surprise.

"Busted," she knew, mentally kicking herself for being so transparent.

"What did my mother do this time?" Kyra asked, calm on the outside, but inside she could feel the anger bubble up in her chest.

Letting out a shuddering breath, Emma closed her eyes for a brief moment, wishing she could spare her lover Goran's story. But she knew she couldn't. Kyra had a right to know. Besides, Emma was a bad liar and she knew Kyra would immediately see straight through her if she would try to hide the truth.

"Your mother blackmailed a teenager to break into my apartment."

"What?" sounded from three different mouths. Their simultaneous reaction was almost funny and Emma would have laughed if Kyra's eyes had not been so full of pain and shock.

"She did what?!" Kyra exclaimed, pushing back her chair and jumping up. She stood in the middle of the kitchen, her hands clenched to fists and her curly hair dancing around her suddenly pale face.

Emma wished she could walk up to her lover, take her into her arms and cuddle away the pain and the worry that was clearly visible on Kyra's expressive face. But she had not finished her conversation with Goran yet and she needed Kyra to focus.

"Kyra, honey, listen," Emma softly started, her dark-blue eyes boring into a pair of stormy, green ones. "I'll tell you all the details in a minute, just hang in there, all right? We knew this could happen. We talked about it before. Right now I need to know if I can send Goran to Rick, to help him with a statement." Emma paused and watched in fascination how the anger in Kyra's eyes slowly disappeared, making way for a mixture of hope, shrewdness and amusement.

Wow, she must be a sight to see in any tense board meeting. I think I just witnessed how my honey's business mind kicks in.

"If my mother set this boy up to commit a crime, she just hammered another nail in her coffin," Kyra replied without emotion. "Yes, send him to Rick. I' ll call him and let him know he can expect Goran."

Suddenly realization dawned and Kyra's eyes went wide in surprise.

"Goran Markovic?" she asked, seeing Emma nod. "Jarek's brother?"

Emma nodded again and removed her hand from the phone's mouthpiece.

"Goran? Are you willing to write down a statement about how and why Vivian LeJeune forced you to break into my apartment?"

"Um...yes, sure, Miss Emma," Goran stammered, wondering why his brother's teacher was not furious about what he had done. He had expected her to, at least, be angry, but instead she was calm and friendly. "But I thought the police would take my statement, don't they always..."

"I don't want you to go to the police, Goran. Not without legal aid anyway. Listen, you need to trust me on this one. I do know Vivian LeJeune and it does sound like she was using you to try and hurt Simon's mother and me. If you write down a statement, it will help us to stop her from trying anything like this in the future."

"I' ll do anything you ask me to do, Miss Emma," Goran hastened to say, glad there was something he could do to try and make up for his criminal actions. "But I've never written a statement like that. I hope I'll do it right."

"Don't worry about that, Goran, I know somebody who will be willing to help you, a lawyer. His name is Roderick Peters. We' ll call him and explain the situation. After I've talked to him, I' ll call you back. Is that all right?"

"Sure, no problem, Miss Emma," Goran answered with increasing relief. "Do you have my phone number?"

"I don't have it with me, Goran. I'm still on vacation," Emma smiled, motioning Hester to hand her a pen and a piece of paper, which her sister obediently did. She quickly jotted down the numbers Goran provided and handed the note to Kyra, who had already taken her cell phone out of her pocket.

"We' ll call you back as soon as possible," Emma promised the teenager.

"Thank you. But, Miss Emma, what about your apartment? I...I...it's pretty messy. I'm so sorry, I really am. If you want me to, I can go back and..."

"No, Goran," Emma interrupted the boy. "We' ll discuss that later, all right? I know you committed a crime by breaking into my place. And you realize that as well, I know you do. And I guess I've every right to be angry with you, but you did the right thing by calling me. And I appreciate that, Goran. That must have been difficult for you."

"It was the least I could do, Miss Emma," Goran softly answered and Emma could clearly hear the shame and guilt in his voice. "I wish I would have had the courage to say 'no'. I should have gone to the police, when she started to blackmail me. I'm so sorry I didn't."

"We' ll talk about it later, Goran," Emma promised. "Just believe me when I say that you probably did us a huge favor today. All right? So, stop worrying and stay close to the phone. We' ll be calling you back as soon as we can."

Emma ended the conversation and with a deep sigh she put down the phone and looked up to three pairs of questioning eyes.

"I swear, sis, this gets weirder and weirder," Hester sighed. "You just had a friendly conversation with a punk who broke into your apartment?"

"I did," Emma calmly answered. "But Goran isn't a punk. He's the brother of one of my little students. He's not a bad boy, really."

"How did my mother put him up to it?" Kyra asked with a frown.

Emma motioned for everybody to sit down and in a clear voice she repeated what Goran had told her. After she was finished, there was a brief silence. Outside, Hester's children and Simon could be heard playing soccer. It was a familiar, reassuring sound and Kyra closed her eyes, while her keen ears picked up Simon's enthusiastic voice. It made her smile and with a feeling of contentment she felt the last remnants of anger disappear. She knew that, whatever her mother had tried to do to Emma, it would probably be her last attempt to make her daughter's life difficult.

"Do you think that...Rick Peters will help the boy?" Ann Altena finally asked, with obvious worry. She didn't know this Goran Emma had told them about, but she felt sorry for the boy and for his parents, who, without a doubt, were going through some troubled times at the moment.

"I'm sure Rick will help him," Kyra answered with determination. "In fact, I' ll call him right now and ask him."

Impatiently tapping her manicured nails against the polished surface of the antique table, Vivian LeJeune waited for her friend to pick up the phone. It took longer than usual and with a frown, she wondered if Margaret had forgotten their appointment. True, they had agreed to do some shopping a few weeks before Easter, but Margaret never forgot an appointment. Maybe something had happened.

Vivian LeJeune was just about to put down the phone, determined to try to get a hold of her friend again later, when the call was finally answered.

"Good morning, Margaret," she greeted her friend with a cheerful voice. "I wondered if you' d have gone without me. We were supposed to do some shopping today, remember? That new boutique has its grand opening today and I'm sure they' ll have those Armani pantsuits we saw in that magazine the other week."

"Oh, good morning, Vivian," Margaret Peters greeted in a soft, hesitant voice. "I'm sorry, but I do think I forgot. I...um...my migraine is really bothering me today and, to be honest, I'm not even dressed yet. I don't feel like going out today, Vivian. I do feel somewhat faint."

Unseen to Margaret Peters' eyes, Vivian LeJeune raised an eyebrow, while a small frown appeared in her forehead. Her friend never ever passed up an opportunity to shop. Even a migraine had never really stopped her in the past. Vivian LeJeune was sure that something else was bothering her friend.

"Are Roderick and his wife all right?" she asked in a cool voice. Rick Peters' threat to contact Kyra still lingered in the back of her mind. But she had known the young lawyer for a very long time now and she knew he would never have the courage to put his words into actions. When push came to shove, he was as guilty as she was. Contacting Kyra and telling her what had happened all those years ago, would be a foolish stunt on his part and Vivian LeJeune did not think Roderick Peters was a fool. On the contrary.

"Rick and Bridget are doing fine," Margaret Peters answered. "I haven't seen them since they...since yesterday morning, but I talked to Bridget on the phone and everything seemed to be all right."

"Good. I hope they'll reconsider their decision. I'm sure we can come up with a solid plan that will give Roderick access to his son. Imagine, Margaret, you do have a grandson and, in spite of my daughter's poor choices in life, Simon is a very nice, well-behaved boy. Roderick won't regret it."

"That's their decision, Vivian," Margaret Peters answered in a tired voice. At first, she had welcomed the idea of her son and daughter-in-law becoming involved in Simon Hartman's life. Personally, she did look forward to having a grandchild as well. Vivian LeJeune's idea had sound logical and simple. But Roderick's confession about the drugs and the way he had taken advantage of Kyra, had put things in a completely different perspective. Margaret could still not believe how a mother was able to set up her own child, like her friend had done to Kyra. Of course she knew Vivian was often cold and distant. She knew the things her friend had done to her ex-husband to get her way and secure a comfortable life for herself, but in Margaret Peters' eyes, that was just one of those things that happened when a couple got divorced. But after learning that her friend had supplied her son with drugs, Vivian LeJeune suddenly became a totally different person, and Margaret Peters really did not want to have anything to do with her anymore. Of course she wouldn't outright tell her friend that... she knew Vivian could be painfully vicious and she really didn't want to be on the receiving end of the other woman's anger. The best way would be gradually to increase some much needed distance. Maybe, after a while, Vivian would lose patience with her and terminate their friendship. If that would happen, Margaret would be relieved. To her, it would be a graceful way out.

"Ah, well, take it easy today, Margaret," Vivian LeJeune's voice interrupted her musings. "I guess I'd better get going, since I have another appointment this afternoon."

With a teenage burglar, who will hopefully provide me with some much needed ammunition, so I can blow that Emma teacher out of the water, and out of my daughter's and grandson's lives.


"Honey, if I ever complain about life being boring, please remind me of these last few days," Kyra sighed, casting a glance at Emma, who was skillfully maneuvering the dark-haired woman's car through the always busy streets of Amsterdam.

Emma softly chuckled and nodded in agreement.

"Don't worry, I will," she promised. "Please do the same for me," she added with a laugh. "Until a few days ago, my life was like a peaceful, little creek. Right now it's like a raging river."

"I'm sorry," Kyra mumbled, casting down her eyes and staring at her clasped hands.

"Don't be," Emma quickly responded, shooting a quick glance aside. When she had to stop in front of a traffic light, she reached out and covered Kyra's hands with her own. "You have nothing to do with all the bad things happening, sweetie. You're only responsible for the good things. And believe me, those good things are excellent."

That last remark made Kyra smile and she sent her lover a grateful smile.

"They are, aren't they?"

"Oh, yes, absolutely," Emma smiled. "I know we' re going through some unexpected and...unwanted events, but still, life has never been so good as it is now."

"Then it can only get better, once these...events...will disappear," Kyra concluded with a happy sigh.

"They will," Emma responded, full of confidence. "And I already know what not to take, on our next vacation."

"What?" Kyra asked with a soft laugh.

"A cell phone," Emma grinned, putting the car back in gear and cautiously crossing the busy intersection, mindful of the many unpredictable pedestrians and cyclists.

The mischievous twinkle in Emma's eyes filled Kyra with warmth and made her want to reach out and hug her lover close, losing herself in the softness of Emma's skin, breathing in the faint scent of sun-kissed flowers, she had come to associate with the auburn-haired teacher.

"What's that smile for? What's on your mind?" Emma asked curiously.

"You," Kyra softly replied. "I was just thinking about the way you smell."

"I smell?" Emma quickly asked, feigning horror. She cast a look in the rearview mirror and winked at Simon, who had been playing with an action figure Peter had let him borrow, but Emma's playful question had piqued his interest and his gray eyes danced when he looked from his mother to Emma and back again.

"Does Emma smell?" he cheerfully asked.

"Simon!" Kyra sighed, but there was a laugh in her voice. "Of course she doesn't smell. I mean, she doesn't smell bad. When I said she smelled, I meant it in a nice way."

"Are you sure?" Emma asked with a frown, sharing a smile with Simon. "I come from a farm, you know. Maybe you do smell...something..."

"Pigs," Simon helpfully answered, almost making Emma snort with laughter.

"We don't have pigs at the farm," she defended herself with a twinkle in her eyes.

"Okay," Simon relented. "Sheep then. They don't really smell nice, Emma."

"I know," Emma grinned, happy with the light banter, that took their minds off the difficult hours ahead.

"I thought one of your sisters told me you once fell in the piggy pen," Kyra remarked with an innocent look.

"That was ages ago," Emma replied with a grin. "That smell has worn off...hasn't it?"

With a bright smile on his face, Simon leaned forward as far as his seatbelt would allow him to go and took a loud, exaggerated sniff, which made Emma bite her lower lip to stop herself from laughing. Simon was such a cute kid and for a five year old child, he had an amazing sense of humor.

With a deep frown between his dark eyebrows, Simon leaned back into his chair, pretending to be deep in thought.

"What's the verdict, Professor Nose?" Kyra smiled, glancing over her shoulder.

"No pigs," Simon decided. "Emma, you smell like sunshine," he added with endearing openness.

"Sunshine, huh?" Kyra's smile deepened. Wasn't that what she had been thinking herself, only minutes before? "Mmm...I think you' re right, honey. That's exactly how Emma smells."

"And what does your mom smell like?" Emma asked the little boy, curious to hear what he would come up with. But Simon didn't have to think about the answer long.

"Home," he answered, not seeing the sudden moisture in his mother's eyes.

But Emma had noticed Kyra's reaction and again, she reached out to cover her lover's hands briefly with her own, giving them a loving squeeze.

"You think he' ll be a poet one day?" Kyra smiled, quickly wiping her eyes.

"I think he already is one," Emma replied.


Before they had left that morning, Emma and Kyra had discussed the way they wanted to protect Simon from all that was going on, as best as they could. Kyra would talk to her father, while Emma would take Simon to the hospital restaurant, where there was a little indoor playground for children. That would give Kyra and her father the chance to talk openly and undisturbed. It would probably be confusing enough for Simon, when he found out he would not see his grandmother anymore, and Kyra didn't want to add to that by having him overhear her conversation with her father.

After leaving Emma and Simon at the playground, Kyra headed for the floor where her father and Albert still shared a room. When she had called them, the previous evening, her father had told her he and Albert would be released on Wednesday. Since Norbert had lost quite a lot of blood, his doctor had wanted to keep him a little longer.

As soon as she stepped into the room, Kyra noticed her father sitting in a chair near the window, fully dressed and looking a whole lot better than when she had seen him the day after he was stabbed.

"Dad, you look good," Kyra smiled, bending down to kiss her father on his cheek. "Where is Albert?"

"He said he needed some fresh air," Norbert answered with a smile of his own. "You know him; he can't sit still for more than five minutes. It's a miracle they were able to keep him in bed for a full day."

"Still as energetic as ever, huh," Kyra remarked with fondness.

She pulled up a chair and took a seat next to her father, her dark-green eyes studying his face intently.

"You look so much better than you did a couple of days ago, dad. I'm so happy about that. You scared the living daylights out of me. Please, don't stroll along the canals in the middle of the night anymore, all right? It's not like you don't have the money to pay for a taxi."

Norbert grinned and reached out a hand to squeeze his daughter's shoulder lovingly.

"Money wasn't the issue," he agreed with a wry grin. "Albert and I just wanted to take a nice walk, enjoy Amsterdam by night. It never crossed our minds it was a hazardous idea. But, we know better now, sweetheart, so you don't have to worry about your poor, old dads anymore. We decided not to do anything like that anymore. Ever."

"Good. Thanks, dad," Kyra smiled. "That really does make me feel better. Besides, if you are so determined to enjoy Amsterdam by night, you and Albert can hop on one of those boats that take people on a nightly canal tour."

"Now, there's an idea," Norbert grinned, appreciating his daughter's sense of humor. "But tell me, Kyra, how have you, Simon and Emma been?"

As soon as she had entered the room, he had noticed the small lines of strain around Kyra's eyes and he knew something was troubling her. Kyra had always been a lot more introverted than her brother and Norbert knew pushing her for information would only result in her pulling away, so he always waited patiently, until she was ready to talk to him. It was a strategy that, through the years, had proven to be very successful.

"Simon and Emma are their wonderful selves," Kyra answered, not aware of the fact that her lover's name caused her face to light up with an intense, warm glow. "I'm so grateful for having them in my life, dad, I really am. I wouldn't know what to do without them."

Norbert Hartman smiled and he felt the happiness bubble up inside his chest. He and Albert had secretly hoped that one day, Kyra would meet someone, who would capture her heart. And Simon's. It had finally happened and he supported his daughter's choice of partner wholeheartedly. From the moment he had laid eyes on Emma Altena, he had liked the woman. The way she interacted with Kyra and Simon, made him feel he could trust her to love and support his daughter and grandson, and always be there for them.

"I'm glad she's interested in you, and not your money," he gently joked, nudging her with his shoulder.

Kyra cast down her eyes and to his surprise, Norbert noticed a faint blush creeping up her cheeks. Reaching out a hand, he cupped her face and gently forced her to look him in the eyes. The expression on Kyra's face was almost bashful and Norbert let out a soft chuckle.

"You never told her," he concluded, while his eyes were twinkling.

"Umm...it never really came up," Kyra admitted, nibbling on her bottom lip. "You know I don't care about talking business, not after office hours anyway," she added with a rueful smile.

"Since the two of you are seriously in love, I guess, at one point, you' ll have to tell her, honey. Especially if, one day, you decide you want to live together."

"I know, dad. And I want more than just living together. I..." Kyra took a deep breath and looked up, with eyes full of happiness. "I want to marry her."

Norbert Hartman slowly nodded and he could feel the moisture pool in his eyes. Kyra's happiness was so profound, it was touching.

"You two belong together," he softly spoke, gently brushing Kyra's cheek with his fingertips. "I'm so happy for you, honey."

"I haven't asked her yet though," Kyra sighed, sounding a little nervous.

"Having seen the way she looks at you, I don't think she'll say 'no'," Norbert grinned. "Will Emma adopt Simon?"

"We didn't talk about that yet. I did ask her if she wants to be Simon's guardian, in case something would happen to me, and she immediately said 'yes'. I know she' d want to adopt Simon. Especially since we both would like to...we' d like to have more children."

"Honey! You two have already talked about expanding the family and you haven't asked her to marry you yet? Shame on you," Norbert teased his daughter.


Kyra playfully slapped her father on his leg and immediately he reached out his arms to pull her in for a hug.

"Oh, sweetheart. I'm so happy for you! It does my old heart good, to see you and Simon happy. Can I tell Albert you' re going to propose soon?"

Kyra chuckled and rubbed her cheek against her fathers shoulder, breathing in his familiar scent, which, for a moment, transported her back in time. Making her feel like the little girl again, who had always loved to snuggle up against her father, while he talked to her, or read her stories.

"I'm waiting for the right moment," she confessed. "Things have been a little hectic lately. Besides, don't I need a ring?"

"And roses and champagne," Norbert nodded with a smile. "Wait till Albert finds out! I bet he wants to see the both of you in white dresses, in a carriage with six horses and a violin quartet on the roof."

Kyra laughed and gave her father a quick peck on the cheek, before releasing him again.

"Somehow that sounds a little too sweet to my taste. Besides, I hardly think Emma would go along with that."

"I can't blame her," Norbert smiled. "And I was just teasing, but you know your other dad, he' ll be jumping with joy. You know he's a sucker for weddings."

Suddenly a serious expression crossed Norbert's face and he cast his daughter an inquisitive look.

"How do you think your mother will react?"

"I'm glad you asked," Kyra answered with a wry smile. "I wanted to talk to you about her, dad. There are some things you need to know, and it's not going to be pretty."

"Your mother has changed into a bitter woman," Norbert sighed, with a mixture of sadness and guilt in his eyes. "I can't help thinking I had something to do with that, Kyra."

"You' re wrong, dad," Kyra immediately answered with determination. "Nobody gets through life unscarred. And whenever something bad happens, it's up to the affected individual to decide what to do with it. Mother is bitter because she let herself become that way. She constantly fed her own negative emotions, dad, and worst of all, she projected them onto other people. It's always about her. What she feels. What she wants. She doesn't care about other people, only about herself. And to be honest with you, I'm tired of it."

Norbert Hartman's gray eyes became dark with sorrow when he heard his daughter talk. If only he had been around more. If only he had been able to protect his sensitive daughter against her overbearing mother. If only...

"I should have been around more, honey. Maybe, if I had tried harder, I would have been able to see you and Jazz every weekend, instead of every other weekend. I should have put up a fight, maybe..."

"Should have, would have, could have, daddy," Kyra gently interrupted. "It's all hindsight and beating yourself up over things that could have been handled differently doesn't serve any purpose. We all make mistakes, dad. I too wish we could have spent more time with you, but at least you and Albert made us feel special. And loved."

"And your mother didn't?" Norbert asked, deep down inside knowing the answer already. It hurt.

"I can only speak for myself, not for Jazz," Kyra answered. "I do know that, for some reason, Jazz has always been her favorite, so maybe he experienced more affection than I did. But to answer your question: no, mother never did make me feel loved."

Norbert sighed and raked his fingers through his thick, unruly hair. It hurt him to hear his daughter tell him this, but no matter how much he wanted things to be different, he knew Kyra was probably right. Still, as a parent, it was hard for him to imagine that his ex-wife could be so cold and uncaring. Once he had loved her enough to marry her. Or, at least, at the time he thought he did. How things had changed...

"Your mother is a...complicated person, but I'm sure she does love you, honey. In her own way," he said, knowing how lame he sounded.

"No, dad, she doesn't. And I can give you a long list of examples that will prove that to you, but I won't. I' ll give you two examples. Recent ones. But first I need you to tell me something, daddy."

Kyra's eyes searched her father's face and in its expression, she could see he knew what it was she was going to ask him. And she also knew he would give her an honest answer. His eyes showed a mixture of regret, determination and surrender. The only thing she had to do was ask him.

"Dad, why and how is mother blackmailing you?"

To be continued in chapter 19

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