So here is my latest one shot. It's not a story I plan on continuing at any time in the future but never say never, I guess. I hope you like it... Oh and just one thing, Max and Lucy never happened in my version of the story - just saying! Enjoy!

The Body.

It was the Saturday of the Easter weekend and Max walked out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a towel as he went to answer the door. He hoped it wasn't someone wanting something because he was already running late. He frowned as he saw two people in suits on his doorstep. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"Mr Branning?" the female asked.

"Yes, that's me…" he said.

The man spoke this time, "Detective Sergeant Bryant… this is Detective Constable Summerhayes… Walford Police…" They both held up their badges for him to look at.

"Can we come in?" the female officer asked, a serious expression on her face.

"Oh, um… sure…" he said, stepping back and opening the door wider. The people entered the house, both looking around the hallway. "Go through into the lounge…" he said, "Would you like a tea or coffee?" he asked them.

"We're both fine, Mr Branning…" The female said again, "Maybe you would like to take a seat… Is your wife around?" she asked.

"I'm not married," He said as he took a seat on the sofa, "not anymore anyway." He stared at the police officers, his face pale as they looked at him with blank faces, "Sorry… has something happened? You didn't tell me why you're here…"

The two officers shared a look and it only increased the concern he was feeling. It was the female officer who spoke again. "Mr Branning, I'm sorry to have to inform you, but the body of a young woman was discovered earlier today and…" she paused, sympathy washing over her face, "we believe it's your daughter…" she said.

"What?" Max gasped, interrupting her.

"She was found this morning on Walford Common," the male officer said.

"We're very sorry, Mr Branning…" she said.

All energy disappearing from his body and he slumped back on the sofa. "That can't be right… they were both here last night… Abi's already left for…" his mouth ran dry and he's moving before he can complete his sentence; his destination being his daughters' bedroom. He pushed open the door, faint hope still present within him but his heart sank as he saw the room was empty.

Footsteps came up the stairs behind him and it was the female police officer again, "Mr Branning, we will need to take a closer look at your daughter's room in due course…" she said softly, "so we'd ask you to leave the room as it is please…?"

Max turned to face her, shock written across his face, "Are you sure it's her?" he whispered. "Are you sure it's Lauren?" he asked, his voice breaking slightly as he said her name.

"Why don't we go back downstairs, Mr Branning?" Emma said gently.

"I need to call my ex-wife…" he said.

"I can call her if you'd prefer…" she said, "Or I can get an officer to go round to her house and break the news to her in person…"

"She lives in Exeter…" he told her, "I need to make some calls…" he said absently.

"Let's go downstairs, Mr Branning…" she tried again, her hand reaching for his arm and urging him away from the bedroom.

"Max…" he murmured. "Call me Max…" he said.

"You can call me Emma, Max." she said as the pair walked back down to the lounge and Max stood in the window, staring blankly across the square. His heart was beating triple time, a familiar feeling of loss building inside him as he contemplated a future without Lauren. He took a shaky breath, brushing his hand over his face and wishing he could find out it was all a mistake. He couldn't go through this again… he couldn't deal with losing another child… especially not Lauren… not his little princess… He leant forward and rested his head against the glass, closing his eyes and remembering the last time he'd seen her. She had left the pub with her friends, heading for the party at Roxy and Ronnie's. How had she ended up on Walford Common? And why would anyone want to harm her?

*JL*JL*

"How did she die? What happened?" he whispered, turning and seeing both officers watching him carefully.

"A post mortem is being performed to ascertain the cause of death, Mr Branning…" the male officer that Max couldn't remember the name of said.

"Max…" he said again. Despite the fact there was three of them in the room Max felt alone. More alone than he ever had before. He wished someone else was here with him. More than anything he wished Lauren was here.

"Was she… I mean, did they…?" He couldn't ask, he couldn't find the words.

"Mr Br… …Max," Emma said, realising what he was asking, her heart going out to the man as she could see the devastation in his stature, "There was no sign of sexual activity… The coroner's first assessment was a head injury and he believes her death would've been pretty quick. We think she might have been a victim of a robbery, her purse and her mobile weren't with her," She told him. "The coroner did say she's unlikely to have known much about it…"

"Good…" he breathed, relief filling his body.

"Can I call anyone for you, Max?" Emma asked. "It can help to have someone with you…"

"My brother, Jack…" he said quickly, knowing that Jack was the person he needed here, he would help him deal with this. He pulled out his mobile phone and found the number in his contacts. He held it out towards her and she made a note of the number, wandering out of the room to make the call.

The room was silent for several minutes, Max unsure what he was supposed to do now, even though he'd been through this before. This felt different. This felt worse. His hands patted his pocket and he pulled out his packet of cigarettes, needing the familiarity and comfort of one right now. He left the room, opening the front door and standing on the top step as he lit and then smoked one of the death sticks as Lauren referred to them... used to refer to them. His eyes ran over the square, surprised that everyone else seemed to be going about their business as if it was a normal day. He realised that for the other residents it was just a normal day. He dropped the butt, only half smoked, onto the floor a minute or so later and stubbed it out with his shoe, vowing (not for the first time) that he would quit. He turned back to the house that currently felt nothing like a home and walked through the door, shutting it firmly behind him.

Emma walked out of the kitchen with a couple of mugs in her hands. "Your brother is heading over here… he should be here in an hour." She told him, holding one of the mugs out to him. Max took it, taking a swig and wincing as he tasted the sugary tea. "It'll help with the shock a bit, Max…" she explained. "Do you have an address for your ex-wife?" she asked. "I can arrange for a local officer to go and tell her what has happened…"

"I'd like to see her first..." he said suddenly. "I want to see Lauren..."

"I'm not sure that is a good idea, Max," Emma told him softly.

"That's not something we would advise immediately, Mr Branning…" the man said. "The forensic officers need time to recover evidence…"

"I need to know... I need to see..." he stopped speaking, the ramifications of what he'd said hitting him hard. He walked back into the lounge, abandoning his mug on the dining room table and instead opting for a glass of scotch. Yes, it was too early to think about drinking but he needed one now more than ever. He poured himself a generous glass, pausing slightly as he lifted it to drink some. Lauren's voice rang in his ears, telling him he shouldn't be turning to the alcohol either... He ignored her words and took a large mouthful, wincing as he swallowed it. He would think about stopping that at another time... he needed it now to get him through all of this.

*JL*JL*

Jack drove his car through the streets and into the square. He hadn't expected to be coming back here so soon and most certainly not for the reason he was returning now. His heart broke for his brother as he thought about him going through this tragedy all over again. The first time had been almost more than he could handle but this... well, this could be the breaking of him. Jack swallowed the lump in his throat as he dealt with his own emotions at the news he'd been told almost an hour earlier. How could something so awful happen to someone like Lauren? Yes, she may have... he paused that thought, wincing as he referred to her in the present tense. She'd had her faults he amended but people didn't dislike her. Even at her worst, Lauren had had friends... and she was better now... much better than she had been nine months earlier. He and her parents... hell, all of the family were so proud of her for the achievements she had made since going to rehab. She'd had her whole life in front of her and now... now he would never get to see the amazing woman she was going to become.

He stopped his car outside Max's house, seeing the unknown car still sitting there and knowing it belonged to the police officers at the house. He took a couple of minutes to compose himself; to try and prepare himself for what he was about to face. It was an impossible situation, there simply was no way you could prepare yourself for this. His thoughts momentarily drifted to how he'd felt when he'd found out James had died and his heart clenched. He had only had to go through that experience once and then here was his brother about to face it for a second time. He looked around the square one last time and then opened the car door, walking slowly up to the front door just a minute later.

The door opened just seconds after he'd knocked on it and he could only assume it was the policewoman who had phoned him earlier. "Jack Branning?" she asked softly.

"Yeah..." he replied. She opened the door and let him into the house. "How is he?" he asked her as he took his coat off.

"He's in shock... understandably..." she told him. "He's been stood in the dining room for the last half an hour, drinking scotch and staring at some pictures of the family." She admitted. "He's asked if he can see her... he wants to do that before we let his ex-wife know what's happened... I was hoping you could talk him out of it..."

"The only way he's going to get closure on this is if he sees her..." Jack said, understanding why Max had made the request, "He's been through this before... his eldest son died four years ago... and Lauren was always his little girl... his favourite in many ways." He paused briefly and then looked at the policewoman, "He just wants to be sure before he causes the woman he still loves to go through the pain he's going through now..."

"I'll speak to the mortuary technician and see how things are going..." Emma Summerhayes said.

"Thank you," Jack nodded and then walked into the lounge, his eyes locking on his brother instantly. "Max..." he said softly. He looked up as Jack spoke and the younger Branning could see the devastation on his face and in his eyes. He stepped closer, reaching Max just as he crumbled before him. The two men hugged, Max sobbing into his brother's shoulder as the despair he was feeling overwhelmed him.

*JL*JL*

Max and Jack sat silently at the dining room table. Max was staring at a picture on the sideboard, one of the three kids that had been taken just over a year ago... before Tanya left... before Kirsty's arrival... when Max and Tanya had still been together... when the children had been happy. They were all smiling in the photo, laughing as the photo was taken... even Lauren who had been happier at that time than she'd been for a long time. And Jack knew the reason why. He turned to his brother at that thought, "Do you want me to call Joey?" he asked Max. Max glanced at him, a whole new depth of despair on his face, knowing the pain that conversation was going to cause.

"Not yet..." he whispered, his voice broken from the misery he was feeling, "not until we know for sure..." he added.

"What happened?" Jack asked, ever the policeman. Max shook his head, staring once more at the pictures on the side. Jack turned to the police officers and he cleared his throat, drawing their attention, "Do you know what happened?" he asked.

"Our officers are still recovering evidence from the scene, Mr. Branning..." the male officer said.

"Do you know if there was a reason for it?" he asked, "Was it robbery? A mugging? A... sexual attack?" he whispered the last part, hating to think of his favourite niece going through something like that.

"There was signs of a struggle at the scene but there didn't appear to be any sexual assault," Emma revealed, relief flowing through Jack's body at that news. "Like we told your brother earlier, Lauren had no possessions with her... there was no bag... no purse or mobile... and her injuries were quite severe..."

"So you don't know if it was her?" Jack said, clutching wildly at any straws he could find.

"There were several business cards with her name on them in her jacket pocket..." Emma said gently and Jack sank again. Her phone beeped before Jack could ask anymore and she stepped out into the hallway to answer it.

Jack looked once more at his brother, seeing him sitting before him, a broken man that could possibly never be put back together again.

*JL*JL*

The police car moved slowly through the square, the Branning brothers sitting on the back seat. They were finally on their way to the hospital, having been given the all clear to go and view the body. Both men were worried about what they were about to face but needed to go through it... to see Lauren one last time. They needed to do it in order to finally accept she was gone.

Jack saw some familiar faces as the car drove through the market, Peter Beale on his fruit and veg store, Ian walking into the cafe, Kat, Alfie and Bianca on a market stall. There were also several unknown faces who he stared at blankly. He wasn't sure if anyone saw him or realised it was him in the car. He wondered if any of them knew what had happened yet... probably not he guessed. It was just him and Max who were living through this hell.

*JL*JL*

"I've been a lousy father..." Max said hoarsely as the two men sat outside the morgue. "When I think of all the years I should've been there for the kids... I sometimes wonder if Lauren would've ended up how she did if I'd been different..." he admitted, "I know it's my fault that she ended up an alcoholic... I'm to blame for this..."

"Stop it, Max..." Jack said, "Yes, you've made mistakes over the years, we all have... even Lauren. No one is perfect Max and it's unrealistic to think you can be." He placed his hand on Max's shoulder and squeezed it gently, "She loved you though, right? And you loved her... You were there for her when she needed you…" He took a deep breath, "And you don't know that her being an alcoholic is what led to this, do you?" he said.

"Why else would she go off to Walford Common to meet with someone in the middle of the night?" Max said. "With someone she didn't know…?" Jack stared at him intently and the penny dropped inside Max's head, "You think it was someone she knew?" he whispered, his heart shattering all over again.

"It could be… or you're right, it could be a complete stranger. It could just be a case of mistaken identity… who knows, Max… let's just get the next few minutes over with, shall we?" Jack said gently.

*JL*JL*

Max and Jack walked through the door to the room. There was a curtained off area to the room and they both paused as they took a few seconds. Jack put his arm around Max's shoulders as the curtain began to move and they both stood stiffly, waiting for the body to be revealed.

The curtain seemed to take an age before it was drawn back and Max sagged noticeably as she was eventually revealed to them. He began to cry body shaking sobs and Jack hugged him tightly. DC Emma Summerhayes moved to where they stood and Jack looked at her over Max's shoulder, "It's not her…" he whispered, "It's not Lauren…"

Emma paled as she realised what the two men had just been put through, "Are you completely sure?" she asked softly.

Jack nodded, "It's Lauren's friend, Lucy Beale… she lives on the square… they've been friends since they were twelve year's old…"

"I'm so sorry, Mr Branning… I'm sorry for the turmoil we've put you through today."

Max pulled away from his brother, "Don't be sorry…" he told her. "I'm ashamed to say I'm relieved…" he admitted, "I'm glad it's not Lauren… that it's Lucy…" He frowned slightly, "and that makes me feel really bad for saying it but I am… I couldn't go through that again."

"That's understandable, Max." she said softly.

"I do want to know where Lauren is though…" he murmured, "I'm worried because she and Lucy were going out together last night… so if Lucy is here…" he turned and looked at the battered body of Lauren's best friend, "then does that mean you just haven't found my daughter yet?" he whispered.

"We will look for her, Max… but I think it's a good sign that we haven't found her already." She said, hoping to reassure him.

"Then where is she?" he asked them both and unfortunately neither of them had an answer for him.

*JL*JL*

Max and Jack walked into the house about thirty minutes earlier. Both of them felt better than they had when they left but they were both thinking of how the police were now probably breaking the news to Ian… giving him news that no parent should ever have to hear. They knew how devastated the whole of the Beale family would be, having experienced those same emotions both recently and in the past. Max made a silent vow that he would go over to see him in the next couple of days, to offer him a shoulder to lean on and support him through this.

*JL*JL*

"Dad?"

Max was walking as soon as he heard her voice, the tension that had been climbing in his body with each passing minute disappeared as soon as she'd spoke. He swept her into his arms, hugging her tightly against him. "Babe…" he whispered.

"Dad?" she said, confusion clear in her voice.

"Where the hell have you been?" he asked her, anger and worry returning to his voice as the emotions from the day rattled free when he loosened his hold on her. "Do you know what I've gone through today, eh? Do you know what I thought had happened to you?"

"What's going on, dad?" she asked him.

Max pulled Lauren back against him again, unable to say the words that were going to break her heart. Now he was worried about how she would handle what he was going to tell her. "Let's go into the lounge, babe…" he told her softly, pulling her with him as he walked through the door. He didn't dare let go of her yet and she moved awkwardly beside him.

"What's the problem, dad? You're scaring me now… has something happened to mum? Or Abs? Oscar?" she asked, all out worried now.

"No, Lauren… they're all fine… it was you I thought something had happened to…" he said as they sat on the sofa. "The police arrived on the doorstep this morning and told me a body had been discovered on the Common… they said it was you…" He was gripping her hands in both of his, staring at her face as he told her what had happened that morning. "I thought you were dead, Lauren… I thought I had lost you and I have never felt pain like I was feeling at that moment…" he whispered. "It was worse than when I lost Bradley… and I didn't think that was possible."

"Dad…" Lauren breathed, "I'm fine… honestly. I just went to see a friend last night… and I ended up staying there. It was too late to call you…" She stared at her father, seeing the strain around his eyes and the slightly glassy look to them. She had seen that look on his face before, just before she'd left the square with her mum and brother, going to rehab. It had haunted her dreams for several nights after she'd left and she hated the fact it was back on his face now.

"I thought you were at Roxy and Ronnie's party… with your friends…" he said.

"I was… but everyone was getting really drunk and I felt uncomfortable. I didn't want to be there anymore… so I phoned my friend and went to see them." She bit her lip, "I needed to see them…" she murmured.

Silence hung in the air. "I went to the morgue… to identify your body…" he mumbled, "Your uncle Jack came over to be here with me, we were both upset."

"Is he still here?" she asked, hoping she could get a chance to see her favourite uncle.

"No… he's taken Abs over to Dot's and they're going over to the Vic for dinner."

"You stayed here…" she said.

"I was worried about you… imagining all sorts of things… and I wasn't really in the mood to go out, to be honest." Max stared at his eldest daughter and he knew now was the time to tell her, "There's something else I need to tell you, babe…" he said gently.

"What?"

"When I was at the mortuary I was convinced it was going to be you that they showed to me… but like I said it wasn't…"

"Why did they think it was me?"

"There was no forms of identification on her… just a business card with your name on it. They assumed it was you…"

"They had my business card?" she said, her face paling as she realised she'd had some contact with this nameless girl.

"Babe… it was Lucy…" he murmured and Lauren's eyes widened.

"What?" she whispered. She shook her head, "Lucy? No… no... you're wrong… she's not dead… this is Lucy, dad… You're wrong…" she was angry now and she tried to pull away from him, tears filling her eyes and threatening to spill down her cheeks. She saw the seriousness on her dad's face and she knew he wasn't messing around – not that it was something you would mess around about – but as she watched his face she knew her best friend had died. Lauren's heart shattered and she gave into the tears, sobbing hard as reality sank in. "Are you sure it's Lucy, dad?" she asked him in a whisper.

"I saw her body, babe…" he told her, "it was her… and, so help me god, I was grateful it was because the alternative was too painful for me to handle. I was relieved it was her… and not you…"

Lauren launched herself at her dad, hugging him tightly as they both cried for the blonde who was dead and the fact it hadn't been Lauren. "I love you, dad…" Lauren whispered to him as her crying lessened.

"I love you too, darling… and I promise to be a better father to you and your sister from now on…" he told her. "I'm going to do a better job, I swear and I'll be there for you both when you need me…" he said, squeezing her tighter in his arms. "I'll even give up the fags..."

"I know, dad..." She whispered back. "And in future I'll call you, whatever time of day or night it is and let you know if I'm going to be staying out... I'm so sorry I worried you..." She buried her face in his shoulder as the emotions got too much again. "Does Ian know...? Peter?" she eventually asked him.

"The police were going to go and see Ian once they'd dropped me and your uncle back here... so I should imagine Peter will know by now." He told her softly. "I'll go over there tomorrow or the day after and see if there is anything I can do for Ian... support him through this..." he told her gently, "there but for the grace of God..." he added, kissing the side of Lauren's head tenderly as the events of the day ran through his head but this time with a different outcome. His arms tightened around her again as that thought built in his head.

Lauren pulled herself from her dad's arms, "Why don't you go and join the others at the Vic?" she said, "You look like you could use a drink..." she told him.

"Why don't you come with me?" he said.

"I'm really tired... I think I'm just going to go to bed, to be honest..." she said. "Do you think you could convince Uncle Jack to stay though...? I'd love to see him tomorrow, spend some time with him?" she said.

"I don't like the thought of you being here on your own, babe... not after what I've just told you..." he said, lifting her chin and staring into her eyes.

"I'll be fine, dad... I'm just going to sleep. We can talk more in the morning. Maybe we could have a family day?" she said.

"I'd like that... a day with my girls..." he said, leaning forward and kissing her on her forehead. "If you're sure about me going out...?" he added and Lauren nodded her head. "I won't be back late..." he said as they both got to their feet.

"There's no rush, I'm a big girl, dad..." she teased him but neither of them laughed. The repercussions of earlier events still too close for either of them to make light of the situation. Lauren watched as her dad grabbed his jacket and then walked out of the house. She didn't miss the backwards glance, as if checking she was really there, before he closed the door behind him. She grabbed her bag off the floor and rifled through it, pulling out her mobile phone. She dialled the most recent number in her call history without any hesitation. Relief ebbed through her as the call was answered. "Hi..." she whispered.

"You okay?"

"Yeah... I'm home..." she paused, biting her lip as tears flooded her eyes. "Lucy's dead..." she whispered, crying as soon as she said the two words together.

"What?"

"The police came round this morning and they told dad it was me... he spent most of this morning thinking I was dead..." She said quietly, the emotions creeping into her voice as she spoke. She took a step back and sat on the stairs, leaning her head on her hand as she cried into the phone. "He went to identify the body and that was when they discovered it was Lucy and not me..." There was silence at the other end of the line for several seconds before she could hear movement. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Coming over..." was the quick reply.

"You can't... People will see..." she breathed.

"I don't care... you need me there so there is where I'm going to be..."

She didn't put up anymore protest because in her heart she knew it was the truth. "I'll see you soon then..." she whispered.

*JL*JL*

Lauren was still sat at the bottom of the stairs forty minutes later when there was a soft knock on the front door. She sprang to her feet and rushed over, opening it and flinging herself into his arms, hugging him as tight as she could.

"It's okay, babe..." he breathed as he felt her fall apart against his chest. He kissed the top of her head, stepping into the house and shutting out the rest of the world as he closed the door. He dropped his hastily packed bag on the floor and wrapped his arms around Lauren's waist as he carried her into the lounge. It was some time before she stopped crying but as she pulled away from him she realised she was curled up on his lap as he held her tenderly in his arms. She was right where she needed and wanted to be. He lifted his hand and pushed her hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear, making them both smile at the familiarity of the gesture.

"I love you too, Joe..." she whispered, staring into his dark eyes with so much love and desire.

He lowered his head and kissed her gently, both of them moaning as the kiss naturally deepened. He slowly urged her backwards, laying her on the sofa as he leaned over her, all the time the two of them kissing. She was panting softly as he kissed across her face, her arms thrown around his neck as she held him against her. "I've missed you..." he breathed in her ear and she giggled.

"Joe, it's been a couple of hours..." she teased, "Am I so irresistible that you can't be apart from me for even that length of time?"

He pulled away from her slightly, staring into her eyes, "You know I always want to be with you, babe... you mean everything to me..."

Lauren smiled up at him, "I'm glad I came over to see you after you left..." she whispered, "I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't been here for me now..."

"You'd have coped..." he said, dropping another soft kiss on her lips, "but I'm always here for you if you need me, I hope you know that," He added quietly.

"I need you now, Joe..." she breathed, her arms tightening around his neck, tugging him close.

"Do you now," he said, a smirk on his face. His hands brushed down her body and ran up her leg, pushing under the skirt she was wearing. She bit her lip as he ran his fingers over her knickers, a soft sigh slipping from her lips as he pressed his thumb on her clit. "Do you need me here?" he asked, pressing on the same spot again. She nodded her head. He lifted his body up, kneeling between her legs as he brushed his hands up her legs. With one small shift of her hips he was removing her underwear, dropping them on the floor moments later. He returned to his previous position and he smiled at her as he grazed her opening with his fingertips, causing her to moan. "How about here?" he whispered and she nodded again, her eyes drifting shut as he teased her entrance. Joey studied her as he continued to touch her, feeling her body respond as he saw the emotions filter over her face. He brought her to the brink of orgasm and then removed his fingers, seeing the frustration replace all other emotions on her face. He kissed her gently, "Don't move..." he breathed against her lips, smirking as she scowled at him. He pushed himself upright, adjusting his throbbing length within his jeans as he stood up. He removed his jacket, dropping it on the floor and then turning to face Lauren. She was watching him intently, having barely done more than breathe since he'd stood. He could feel her eyes running over his body as he pushed his jeans down his legs and if it was anyone else he'd probably have felt slightly self conscious... but it was Lauren, the love of his life... the girl who had changed everything and made him want to change... made him want to be the person she deserved to have. He practically tore his T-shirt as he yanked it over his head and it felt like her eyes were almost burning him as they ran over his body. His boxers were quickly pushed down his thighs and to the floor and then he moved back to where she lay. He lined his cock up with her opening, staring into her eyes for several seconds before sinking into her, both of them moaning as they were joined. It felt like heaven to make love to Lauren and each time it was as if it was the first time... it never felt the same way twice, even now, lying on this couch, in the same position as they'd been the actual first time they were together. He moved slowly within her, drawing it out as he gradually built the arousal they were feeling. Lauren lifted her arm and placed her hand on the back of his neck, dragging him down so she could kiss him deeply as she moaned into his mouth. She shifted slightly, her legs wrapping around his waist, letting him move deeper into her and pushing them both to the edge of release. "Is there anything else you need, babe?" he practically growled against her mouth.

"You…" she whimpered, "you to make me come… make me scream your name…" she breathed, "just like you did last night over and over again… Please Joe…" she said, her hand caressing the side of his face.

"Your wish is my command, Lauren…" he told her, moving his hips faster above her.

"Oh God, Joe…" she moaned, feeling her peak rushing to the fore.

"Come for me, babe… take me with you…" he breathed in her ear, kissing the skin in front of it tenderly before burying his face in her neck.

Lauren fell apart quickly when she heard his words, clenching around his cock tightly and feeling him pulsing inside her. She screamed his name, her back arching off the sofa and pressing against Joey's body. One of his hand's grazed up her body and cupped one of her gorgeous breasts, brushing his thumb over her nipple. He loved how responsive Lauren was with him… how every little touch from him had her gasping for breath. It should've been their biggest clue that it was special between them… different than any of their previous (and later) relationships. She had told him once that no one had ever brought out the same reactions in her and he had to hope that one of the reasons they got back together was because of this.

He continued to stroke his length slowly in and out of her body, feeling their orgasms slowly fade. That was another thing Joey had found with Lauren… he always came much harder with her than he did at other times. The romantic in him liked to think it was because he loved her but even thinking that made him wince slightly. He had never been like this with another girl. She made him feel. She made him different and he loved her for it.

*JL*JL*

Lauren lay beneath Joey, neither of them having spoken for almost twenty minutes now. "We should go upstairs, Joe…" she murmured. "I don't think I want dad to find us like this… there's only so much his heart can take in one day…" she said, smiling at him and kissing Joey's cheek.

They slowly moved off the sofa, gathering up Joey's clothes and Lauren's underwear. Lauren shooed Joey up the stairs, pausing briefly to pick up his bag before following him to her room.

*JL*JL*

Lauren lay in Joey's arms in her bed, a couple of hours later. They both were exhausted from their activities, Joey having spent much of that time making sure she was properly looked after by him; that all her needs were taken care of. Lauren turned her head slightly and kissed his chest tenderly. "Are you sad?" she whispered.

"About what?" he asked.

"Lucy being dead…" she said, tears filling her eyes at her words, still trying to come to terms with her best friend's death. "I know you were with her… you must've cared for her…" A jolt of jealousy ebbed through her at her words but she pushed it away. Now wasn't the time for that.

Joey rolled them, lying above her and staring into her tear filled eyes. "Yes, I'm sad she's dead… it's awful that someone so young should be killed… and yes, I had feelings for her at one time…" he told her, "but you know what?" he whispered, "the way I felt about her is nothing in comparison to how I feel about you. If it had been you… if your dad had called me to tell me you were dead… I'd have been devastated… I don't even want to think about the possibility of that ever being true. The thought of losing you forever kills me, babe…" he said softly, lowering his head and kissing her. "The time we were apart last year and after I left was more than enough for me… I don't want to go through that again…"

"Me either…" she said. "I love you, Joe…" she whispered.

"Love you too…" he told her, his hand brushing her hair back from her face and tucking it behind her ear to reaffirm those words to her. He rolled over onto his back and pulled her so she was lying on his chest again. His fingers ran through her hair and he could feel her relax against him. He let himself relax too, something he was only really able to do with the girl who was currently in in his arms. Tomorrow would be the time they had to sort things out… deal with what had happened in the last day. And they would have to deal with the fact they'd been keeping their relationship a secret from everyone again. He just had to hope that it would be easier with people finding out this time.

*JL*JL*

Max walked back into the house and despite the fact he knew she was home he had to check he hadn't dreamt about her return earlier. He walked up the stairs and quietly pushed open the bedroom door. He was relieved to see Lauren. What did surprise him though was to see she wasn't alone and she was lying asleep in her bed… with Joey. It suddenly became clearer to him where she had been the night before. And now that he thought about it he was pretty sure she had been absent quite a bit over the last few months so he suspected they had been seeing each other for a while.

There was a time when he had been against the two of them together. Initially he had just wanted Lauren to be happy… so he'd pushed them back together, hoping Joey would give his daughter the stability she needed in her life. Then her drinking had spiralled out of control and Joey had ended the relationship, unable to handle the pain of seeing her torture herself like she was. Not that it had been easier for him to watch her from afar, Max knew that. He had thought it was destructive for the two of them to be together then and he had been glad when they didn't get back together once Lauren had returned to the square.

Max had seen the way Joey had looked at his daughter ever since they had split and it had reminded him of the way he used to look at Tanya… back in the early days of their relationship, before he had started to cheat on her. He had been an idiot to ruin his own relationship like that and now he was glad that Lauren would get to have some happiness in her life after all the pain and suffering she had been through. It was what she deserved.

He glanced at the pair again, seeing Joey tighten his hold on Lauren and kiss her softly on the forehead as he slept. Max could clearly see he loved Lauren; he had never seen his nephew behave like that with someone before… not even his sister… so he knew his feelings were strong for Lauren.

Max turned away from the room, closing the door softly behind him. He walked back down the stairs and into the lounge. "Abs… why don't you go and stay at Jay's tonight?" he told his youngest daughter.

"Really?" Abi said, her face lighting up after her dad spoke.

"Yeah… just don't be home too late tomorrow… I'd like us to spend some time together… as a family…"

Abi walked over to him and hugged him tightly, "Thanks dad." She said. "I'll just go and get my things…"

"You can't, babe…" Max told her. "Lauren's up there… with Joey…" he said. "Don't disturb them, okay? Your sister's still upset about Lucy…"

Abi looked at the floor, knowing her sister wasn't the only person who was upset by today's events. She could already see the changes in her father and she liked what she was seeing. "Okay… I guess I can manage… I'll see you in the morning…" She rose on tiptoes and kissed her father softly on the cheek.

"Stay safe, Abs… yeah…" She nodded and quickly left the house. There was a part of Max that wanted to go with her and make sure she got there in one piece but he knew he couldn't think like that. It was just a few houses away. Instead he turned to look at his brother.

"Lauren and Joey are back on?" Jack asked.

"Apparently… I'm guessing that's where she was last night… it explains the way she's been recently." He admitted as he walked over to the side and got them both a drink.

"What do you mean?"

"Happy… she's been happy…" Max murmured. He passed a glass over to Jack and sat down. "You okay to stay tonight? I know Lauren would like to get a chance to see you tomorrow…"

His brother nodded quickly, "Assuming we can tear her away from lover boy, you mean?" Jack teased him.

Max flinched, "Don't Jack…" he said, taking a large gulp of his drink. "I'm not going to make a big deal about it… I just want both my daughter's to be happy and safe… it's all any father wants, right?"

"Of course, Max…"

They are silent for a couple of minutes, "I'm glad it wasn't her…" Max whispered.

"Of course you are, Max…" Jack said.

"Does it make me bad that I'm glad it was Lucy?" he murmured. "I mean, I wouldn't wish what Ian's going through on anyone but I'm just so very relieved it isn't me." He drank some more scotch, "I miss Bradley too… today reminded me of the things I miss about him… and how much I screwed up that relationship so badly. I don't want to mess it up as bad with the girls and Oscar… I've already come so close to losing them because of my own stupidity… I can't do that again…"

"You know what to do then, right?"

"I know and I'm going to… the girls come first in the future… They are my focus…"

"It's good to see your priorities are in order, mate." Jack said.

*JL*JL*

Lauren opened her eyes, the room dark but two very familiar strong arms were wrapped around her, making her feel safe and loved. They had been together again for three months and it had been the best time of them being together. She was with a man who truly loved her and she loved him right back.

Her thoughts drifted to Lucy quickly and she wiped away a tear that fell down her face. She came to a decision in that moment… she was going to live her life to the full… it was what Lucy would want. It was what Lucy would never have an opportunity to do herself. Lauren wasn't going to waste her life any longer, letting life pass her by while she waited for something to happen. Instead she was going to push for things… she was going to fight for what she wanted… like she had three months ago when she went to see Joey and asked him if they could try again. She had been blessed when he had said yes, with barely a moment's hesitation. She had smiled and then launched herself at him, kissing him deeply. It had spiralled from there really and she had found that it was nice to be in a relationship with him when she was sober this time. Tomorrow everyone would find out they were together once again but she wasn't going to let the pressure of what they thought get to her this time. It wasn't her problem if they didn't like it or approve of it. She knew what she wanted now and she was going to fight for it tooth and nail. She closed her eyes, sighing softly as she breathed in the scent that screamed Joey. He was a beautiful man and he was all hers.

THE END.

A/N: So there you go… I bet you thought I was going to kill Lauren, didn't you? I did think about it… for about two seconds… I nearly wrote an alternate ending this morning showing the aftermath if it had been her… but I couldn't bring myself to do it… Once was enough for me on that front*… I hope you stuck with the story to the end… I'm sure you will have liked your reward if you did… although if you didn't, you won't be reading this either… oh well… PLEASE SEND ME A REVIEW - IT MAKES ME WANT TO KEEP WRITING... BOTH BIG STORIES AND THESE LITTLE ONE SHOTS.

* That doesn't mean I will never kill a main character off in the future, so don't think I won't. If it fits in with the story, I will do it… I just didn't want to do it today.