Four

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Adam Chandler wasn't completely sure about her— but he didn't hate her.

Erin had the revelation as Stuart was dishing up the plates, found herself startled when he noticed her reaching for the raspberry preserves and instead snagged it for her, setting it neatly at her side as he met her eyes in a short pointed look. Startled, she'd stayed quiet as Marian and Stuart chattered behind her, finally given him a short stare back and turned back to her food, processing what it meant.

She'd certainly braced herself for a war, but maybe it would just a little battle?

"You said you were interested in social work last night, dear?"

"Yeah, but I'm still young so I'm basically shoved around by my bosses." She paused to glance up at Marian, found herself smiling without having to try. "That's my passion, though, helping people…" and she trailed off, staring down at her food again, struck dumb by how stupid that sounded. It had been this bad last night but at least she'd had JR there, and she'd been able to focus on him and keeping him from doing something stupid with his arm to keep her head from spinning. "My brother, too, but he's a bit more obsessive about it."

"What does he do for law enforcement?"

"Helps."

It was the wrong answer, as evidenced by the quick way Adam's eyebrows contracted for a heartbeat, and she gritted her teeth at the surge of panic inside her, wishing she was better at getting to know people without letting them know her. "I mean, his field," the older man explained, ignoring the narrow-eyed look Stuart settled on him.

It was surreal, to find the same face both being protective of her and also leading her interrogation.

That was what this was, she knew, an interrogation, and the fact that there were two people sitting between her and Adam was proof that the rest of the Chandlers didn't completely dislike her. "He does a bit of moonlighting as a PI," she finally managed, realizing it was the only word for what Jonathon did. "Handles family cases, helps out when the police are a bit too slow to handle all the ends."

"What kind of family cases?" Marian asked curiously, and she licked her lips, shrugging.

"Whatever comes his way."

"Sounds like he does good work."

"Yeah," she said flatly, and fiddled with her Monte Cristo uselessly.

"Is something the matter, dear?"

I hit a guy with my car and then ended up falling for him in the few minutes we spent in the waiting room before a doctor saw him and then the next morning I took him home with me because he looked so pathetic. We ended up watching bad romantic comedies two nights in a row before, after sharing a big plate of Chinese food, we started making out before he ended up going down on me on my couch. Within two days of this experience, I lost whatever was lost of my mind because when he asked me if I would marry him, I didn't just say yes, I actually tracked down the justice of the peace myself. We tied the knot less than a week after I hit him with my car— and I'm still not sure how I did this because, as Jonathon so often tells me, I'm actually the one who has a stick up my ass. Nonetheless, I am now a married woman and I was excited so I came back to his home town with him to meet his Big Scary Family and my long lost brother decided to pop up after nearly a year far away from the place. My other brother, my real one, found out before I could tell him and he told me this morning that he would handle everything and although he happens to be a responsible adult on most levels, he gets all cave-man when it comes to protecting me because our roles are reversed now . Oh, and I'm worried about my new husband because he's walking around town with only useful arm.

"I'm just worried about JR," and, okay, that was not a lie at all, not in the least.

Marian more than brought it, she grinned in delight, losing years as she shifted in her chair, relaxing slightly. Despite herself, Erin smiled at the almost motherly elation, a new emotion to meet. Her fingers still itched to dial JR's number and make sure he was okay, but she loosened up slightly, glancing away from JR's aunt just in time to see Adam and Stuart exchanging a long look. It was impossible to decipher but she recognized it after how good she and Jonathon had become over years of stress at sharing a private language.

They were arguing about her.

It continued for another heartbeat before it was abruptly over, leaving Adam sour-faced and Stuart delighted—

And Erin utterly overwhelmed when both settled intense looks on her.


Jamie Martin wasn't just glad to have his brother back; he was almost giddy with it.

Okay, a tiny part of him disliked Erin simply because she was now hogging up all of his brother's time but he would never admit that and besides, he did like his brother's new wife— she was nice and funny, pretty in a non-Playboy bunny way and she actually looked like she'd be able to balance out some of JR's more crazy qualities. Then again, she wasn't at all what Jamie would have expected, and just because she was kind of twitchy and kind of scary with how she'd stare into your soul.

Plus, she had hit JR with her car, and, well… what kind of chick married a guy she had hit with her car?

At least with the fractured arm, Jamie had an excuse for hogging JR's time away from Erin.

But first he had to save his brother from Fusion and the crazy women who ran it.

Jamie could admit he was intimidated by the women who ran Fusion since, one, they were seriously crazy even though, at the same time, they all seemed like it was everyone else around them who was crazy while they were the only sane people in Pine Valley. In addition to this, there was a simple fact that they made no actual sense—they would be tearing at each other one second and then grouping together as a herd to go after some guy that insulted them the next.

Why JR always went in there willingly, Jamie had no idea.

Plates of take-out held before him like a shield, fully prepared to fling it at any female who rushed at him, he exited the elevator nervously when it dinged to a stop, glanced warily around the main office to find it missing both Kendall and his injured brother. When none of the other women even noticed him, he edged towards her desk, paused when he found Greenlee Smythe peering at him over her desk like he was the biggest idiot she had ever seen.

"What, kid?"

"My brother?"

"What about him?"

Simone made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snicker.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Maybe he teleported," Mia chirped.

Why did they love torturing him so much?

"I mean—"

"In the break room," Greenlee told him with a smirk, pointing behind him with one well-manicured nail.

Relieved, he spun on his heel and took off for the room with the shut door, shifting the now cold breakfast food in his hands. It was lunch time now, and it hadn't helped that he'd spent a good forty minutes wandering around outside Fusion, unwilling to go in.

It wasn't even breakfast time anymore, dammit.

He pushed his hand against the door, found it locked and then froze, realizing he could hear voices through the door. No, not hear them, not even when he pressed his ear to the door, but he could hear the murmurs, male and female, talking fast and furiously.

Okay, ow.

JR was talking more to Kendall than he had so far to his own brother.

He pressed himself more firmly against the door, strained to hear but there was just a murmur, rising and falling. Scowling, bending to set the take-out containers to the floor by his feet, he peered intently at the door, looking for any place where he could get a better listen at what they were talking about. But there was no keyhole and he closed his eyes, dropping his head dully against the door.

It landed with a thunk.

Oops.


Kendall Hart came with heartache and contentment, exhaustion and exhilaration, offered no compromise.

Kendall had given him his heart back with one slim hand and then stabbed him in the back with the other; she cried and killed him, smiled and brought him back to the life; reached out to him for comfort and then gave him a one-two punch when he opened his arms like a big idiot to take her in and give her what she wanted.

Kendall did things to him, weakened him, made him stupid and didn't even understand what it was she did to him.

Didn't even realize he was acting stupid because she was making him act stupid.

No, he didn't want Kendall anymore, was done with drama and craziness and didn't want her extremes anymore.

"I look like a big stupid penguin."

"No," Nancy said, lips twitching into the slightest hint of a smirk, "you look like a very handsome penguin."

Ryan gave her a doubtful look and her smirk became a broad grin as she stepped forward and fiddled with his tie, a quick motherly movement. She'd come with the Cambias name, a middle-aged pleasant woman who had apparently worked for Alexander for quite some time—she also, he had found, owned a lot of cats.

How she didn't walk around all day covered in cat fur, he had no idea.

"You look like you're trying to figure out the secret of life," she chuckled suddenly, and he grimaced, wanting to smack himself for letting his thoughts stray to Kendall again. He had made a conscious decision that nothing would happen when he had come back to Pine Valley and yet, something had happened, several things. "Care to talk about it?"

"It's nothing."

But it wasn't nothing— because he'd already screwed up.

He'd kissed Kendall.

Without thinking, acting on pure idiotic instinct and the heat buzzing under his skin at the bite of her voice, he'd kissed Kendall, found his mouth sliding over hers with an overwhelming ease. And before he'd been able to give himself a mental slap and push her away, she'd kissed him right back, matching him with an effortlessness he desperately wished he could hate.

It had been just like before, as if he had never been gone, and it wasn't supposed to be.

Even through his suit, she had burned him like she always had, small hands sliding against his sides and searing him, igniting him, causing his breath to catch in his throat. Her pulse had beat fast against his palm and that had made it all worse, feeling her react like that, the loose way she tightened against him, just like before.

"If you keep staring at me like that, I'm going to have to hit you."

"What?"

"Like you want to eat me," Nancy said flatly, only the twitch of her lips betraying her amusement.

"I don't want to eat you."

"Then who do you want to eat?" she asked innocently, fluttering her eyelashes at him as if he wasn't blushing furiously at the words and squirming in the stupid suit. "I'm just saying… I have to live vicariously through you, Mr. Lavery."

"It's Ryan."

"Mr. Lavery—"

"Ryan," he repeated more firmly, and she gave him a sharp glance, a narrow-eyed look as she reached out and flicked an apparently invisible piece of lint off his lapel. "If you're going to make dirty comments that make me feel like I need to go scrub down, then you can at least not address me like a schoolteacher."

"I'll call you Ryan if you tell me who you want to eat."

How had he found himself being taken under the wing by a dirty old cat lady?

"It was over a long time ago."

"Sure are thinking about her awful hard for something that's long over."

He thought of Aidan and Kendall over a year before, an image imprinted on his thoughts, a movie he had played every night in his head after leaving Pine Valley, trying to train himself to stop thinking about her, to stop caring. It just caused a spike of emotion, though, a surge of hurt and he looked away from Nancy, looked down as he fiddled with his tie nervously, yanked at it uselessly.

"I don't like this tie."

"Then we'll try something else," she shrugged, turning away as if she didn't care about his romantic life.

It was proof she actually liked him, Ryan decided.


It cut him to pieces, how easy it was for him to fall back into his old habits.

Although not all that surprising on a rational level (he had found that the type of person who did this kind of work could never just walk away from it, willingly or unwillingly) it was still startling how damn much he had missed this life.

Two weeks after his death, he woke up sore on a hospital gurney being fussed over by nurses, managed to catch a single glimpse of Nick before his eyes had rolled back his head and he'd passed out again. When he woke up for good another week later, three weeks after his death, he'd opened his eyes to find Nick sitting at his side, watching Jerry Springer on the small television suspended in front of the bed.

He'd been sure then, closed his eyes in denial and struggled to breathe past the panic, past the appalling thrill he felt.

Just a few days after that, emotions still ripping him to pieces, he went back to work.

It was bittersweet consolation that he found himself handling the case he had kept tabs on even during his retirement.

The fragile little blonde he'd found so many years before on the streets was now right in the middle of it, eyes bright with determination and mouth set in a way amusingly familiar after several years of Pine Valley, moving with the grace he'd glimpsed when he'd run her down after she'd snatched his wallet so many years before. It was crushingly easy to feel the swell of paternal pride, and it numbed the sharp ache inside of the one person he missed the most these days.

He hadn't lied three years before, when he had told her that she was like a daughter to him.

It had been downright overwhelming to find Adrian in front of him, not just involved in the case but essentially keeping it together as it tried to unravel around them. He had never been a big believer in the idea of destiny, had seen too many horrible things in his life, done too many horrible things, to believe that any higher power could give a damn about anyone and yet, that it would be these two people that had become the linchpins of this operation…

It almost made Chris Stamp believe that there was a method to the madness around him.

He had always been proud of finding Adrian, of tracking him down and luring him into the work and still remembered the pleasure he'd felt at how well the kid (he had been just a kid when Chris had found him on the MIT campus) had always handled every operation they sent him into. He had a natural knack for it, certainly, but more than that, he had a level of control Chris himself had never possessed, a calming quality that at times made him better at their work than even their favorite New Yorker operative.

Not a surprise that the kid would go back into work after losing his father but that their superiors had allowed him to later take this case even with the personal involvement spoke of how highly they respected Adrian's self-control and dedication to the intricacies of his job. They were all close to this, far too close, but the two of them especially and the surrealism of it all, of all of them being caught in the middle of this…

Chris was grateful to be back on this job despite the pain he was in, was thankful for another chance at the bastard after so many close calls—but he still desperately wanted to know what the hell Madden had done to finally get the agency on his ass like this. It nagged at him, gnawed at him, and was why Chris had a separate private investigation going on.

And if this extra case kept him busy enough not to think about his son, well, that was just a coincidence.

So he was asleep, exhausted after thirty-nine hours of straight work, when his people started to call him.

The first from Jonathon, a combination warning and death threat and despite the usual stutter in his chest at the younger man's voice, he grinned at the message—and the grin had died as he flipped on the television and found out about his son's big return to Pine Valley; the second came from the young lady he'd found in New York so many years before, the little blonde who demanded an explanation for an entirely different marriage announcement he had consciously kept from her—she'd get back at him for it, he knew; the third came through Adrian, and it was the one he had been dreading since he had first heard that Erin had decided to get hitched to JR Chandler of all people.

It must have been love at first sight since only something that insane could make balanced Erin get hitched.

Chris considered the whole thing proof of what he had always believed in his heart of hearts— if there was some higher power orchestrating their lives, they had a real sick sense of humor.