Spoilers: Queen Bea. The fic picks up right after Zoe almost swallows the ring and Marcos proposes.

Rating: PG-13

Chapter One: Unexpected Heartbreaking Revelations

Oh, Marcos...if only you'd asked me yesterday, I think to myself, staring at the ring sitting in the palm of my hand. "I'm sorry, Marcos, but things are too crazy for a change like this right now…" God, I don't want to hurt him but it's the best I can do, the best thing I can think of to say to let him down easy; not lead him on, to not give him false hope that once the shock wears off I'll start sobbing, jump up and hug him tight, pressing kisses all over his face and whispering 'Yes, Marcos - of course I'll marry you.'

"Zoe, what are you saying?" He asks as though he doesn't already suspect - already know - why I look sad, like I've just found out he's been transferred to Siberia in some alternate universe where Dan didn't get up the nerve to walk into the elevator half an hour before and kiss me as if he knew something I didn't. As though he knew tomorrow would never come and it was now or never.

God…this is hard. "I'm...I'm saying 'no,' Marcos. And....I'm sorry. Really...if things had happened differently, then maybe this would work, but as things are right now...they won't." Oh...please, God, don't let me cry, not now. Not here. "I'm sorry Marcos," I whisper setting the gold diamond ring on the table in front of me, not looking at him as I move to stand up, attempting a graceful exit as the tears press harder at the back of my eyes.

"Zoe, wait," he says, putting his hand out over the table as if finding the exactly right spot over the cute little centerpiece, between the winking white flames of the long taper-candlesticks will make me stop or sit down; so long as I didn't stand up straight, walk out the door, never looking back. "I'm sorry I asked you now, so soon after everything-"

"Marcos," I sigh, cutting him off as I sit back down, wishing I can stop hurting him this way but knowing I can't stop causing him pain until everything that needs saying has been said. "It's fine. I know the kids like you and all, but I think it would be too much for them - and me. If...this were to happen right now...It's just too soon after Susan -" Ugh...as if turning Marcos' proposal down doesn't hurt enough, just saying Sue's name hurts, nearly killing me because I know she'd want me to be happy. But I know Cliff, Taylor and Hannah would probably balk at the sudden appearance of the All-American perfect family on the horizon so close that they could see the paint brush hairs stuck in the white paint on the picket fence.

He just waves his hand dismissively, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and doing his best to hide it as he tries to assure me it's fine that my turning down a life of bliss at his side is nothing to worry about. No worse than a few drops of spilt milk, no tears needed. "Hey, no, I - I understand. Go...go be with Cliff, Hannah and Taylor."

It's all I can do to just stand, nodding and backing up a step before turning around and striding to the coat check, chin up, eyes straight ahead. Hoping I didn't hurt him too bad, that he doesn't find out about Dan and I; or at least that he doesn't find out about The Kiss or the date on my desk calendar when Dan finally decided to take the risk.

I drive home on autopilot, not going too fast, too slow or too drunkenly. All told, I was just another Chicago driver who actually knows how to drive.

The lights are on downstairs and I can't help wishing there were some way to get upstairs and into bed without having to walk past the three of them; my darling cousins. A fire escape would work nicely, back stairs no one but I know about or use would be even better: I wouldn't have to walk up the side of the house on rickety metal or wooden stairs that could go crashing down to the ground if too much weight is applied. Something that is very probable with the guilt and confusion weighing me down.

I'm in luck, though. Taylor's the only one downstairs and, judging by the fact she's in her pajamas, I'm guessing she's going to finish her sandwich and go up to lay in bed to begin the wallowing; probably stare at a picture of her and Rhyder. Or rip up a picture of her and Rhyder,I suppose. Depending on if she's sad or angry, I guess, if not both.

Looking up, she sees me walk in the door and she frowns, narrowing her eyes. "Hey Aunt Zoe, what're you doing home? You said you weren't going to be home 'til late and it's only 8:20." Oh, she's got a point there...wish I'd thought up a reason for the early end to my date before walking in the front door.

Hmmm ... be vague Zoe...Be vague...for now, at least..."Oh, well...let's just say we have similar taste in guys...sort of," Oh, very good job, very good...sarcasm, sarcasm, sarcasm...

Taylor's eyes go wide and her mouth drops open. "Wait," she whispers, "What're you saying - that he proposed?" Heh - I always knew she was a smart duck...

I can't help laughing a bit. It still seems unbelievable that Marcos proposed...more so than Dan kissing me in an elevator right after Candy dumped him - not what a girl hopes for in a relationship...or a marriage proposal. Not what a guy hopes for in a relationship or a marriage proposal, either, I suppose. "Eh...yeah, he did." And the next question is...!

'Please, please don't let Cliff and Hannah be listening, please...I want to tell them myself, please...' Whining may not be all that becoming but I think begging is very classy...

"So...what'd you say?" Ok - score one for me...I just knew she'd ask me that next...

"I...said no," I tell her quietly, still reasonably surprised myself I didn't say yes. I love Marcos - I know that. It just doesn't seem to be enough anymore.

"Oh. Why? Because of what happened with Rhyder?" And the girl throws me a curveball...

"Ugh - no, Taylor, I didn't say no to Marcos because of what Rhyder or you or anybody else did. I just think it's too soon after-" I break off, hoping it won't hurt as bad as if I don't say her name, but...the thought's there...and it hurts, whether I say Susan's name aloud or not. Like when you're a little kid and you fall off your bike and skin your knee and all the way home you tell yourself not to think about it but you can still feel it throbbing and stinging like nobody's business.

Taylor tries hard not to cry, to hide the fact that tears are welling up in her eyes, but I know she still misses her mother. I know because I still miss my sister, and that it's all a little bit too much, everything with Rhyder, Sue's death, and whatever else that's going on in her life is too much, compounded with this new piece of information about Marcos and I. "But...I don't get it. I mean – are you and Marcos still gonna be together, even though you turned him down, or what? Mom would want you to be happy...she wouldn't want you to be miserable because she died," Taylor finishes, her voice cracking as the dam finally breaks and tears start rolling down her cheeks.

Unsuccessfully trying to hold back my own tears, I pull her into a hug, squeezing her tight before releasing her to explain, "I didn't turn him down because I thought your mother would...I don't know…come back and haunt me or something if I said yes. I turned him down because I'm not ready to be somebody's fiancée. And….no. I don't think Marcos and I are still together," I finally say, hugging her again.

"So," she begins, resting her head on my shoulder, "Who do you love?" The $64 million question comes out in a whisper and I'm not sure if she knows or if she's just curious, wondering if maybe I'm harboring some secret crush on Matthew Goode or Josh Duhamel, if she knows or suspects about Dan, or if she's just asking to ask, because she doesn't want to go wallow in all her heartbroken, teenage glory yet.

Grinning stiffly, I scoff and she pulls back so she can see my face, her eyebrows raised. "Me, love somebody aside from you and your brother and sister?" Oh wow...I cannot believe I ever got an acting job; I'm absolutely horrible. "Is that what you meant?" Ladies and gentlemen, the wine and cheesy part of the evening, if only to hide the dull ache of guilt and sadnessfirmly rooted in my chest.

She just smiles a bit, sadly, as she pecks me on the cheek saying, "Yeah...that's what I meant," and she eats the last couple bites of her sandwich, drains the rest of the milk in her cup, and heads upstairs after rinsing out the glass, leaving the dishes by the sink. "Good night, Aunt Zoe," she calls from the steps, ducking her head and darting up the last of the steps without waiting for an answer.

"Night, Taylor," I say to the now empty stairs as I walk into the living room, flopping down on the couch and flicking the TV on. Just in time for the beginning of some made-for-TV movie called 'I Want to Marry Ryan Banks,' not feeling worthy of actually being comfortable as I join Taylor's recently-formed Wallow Club....And oh God – they all have mullets. Talk about a bad 80's flashback...Despite the bad hairdos, though, I would honestly go for Ryan's "manager" Todd rather than Ryan himself...

End chapter One