Chapter Twelve

Six Months Later…

Sometimes, it felt as if she was living out of her car, and, unfortunately, it wasn't nearly as glamorous as it appeared on television or in the movies. She ate breakfast in her car, did homework in her car, often changed clothes in her car, and, on really bad days, even took naps in her car. She spent more time in the little subcompact hybrid than she did at work, or at school, or even at her tiny, one bedroom apartment. It was ridiculous, slightly comical, at times, but, still, ridiculous.

And she wouldn't change a damn thing about it.

Lowering her seat which was already rolled back as far as it possibly could be because of her long legs, Marissa struggled with her blouse. If nothing else, her hectic living schedule had forced her to revisit her flexibility, and, now, even wedged between the tiny confines of her eco-friendly car, she was able to reach behind her back and unbutton the small clasp that kept the light, silk shirt hooked and closed. Tossing it aside, she glanced around the crowded parking lot, making sure no one was watching as she slipped off her slacks. In just her bra and panties, she quickly fished out the dress she had hanging in a garment bag behind her, pulling it over her head to hide her previous state of undress. A cursory peak in the mirror told her that her hair was still tied up in a messy bun, looking effortless while in reality the updo had taken twenty minutes to perfect during her media relations course that evening. With an obligatory swipe of lipstick and reapplication of some darker eye makeup for evening, she was ready, sighing in relief that she could manage the whole process of changing from day to night in less than three minutes. A little more practice, and she'd have her time under two.

"You know, you could slow down the show," a voice, a very recognizable one, chastised her playfully as its owner opened the passenger side door and, as smoothly as possible, slid into the vehicle amongst her mountain of text books, folders, and office equipment. "The one thing I had to look forward to all day, and you rushed it."

She didn't even deign his mock complaints with a response. Instead, the willowy blonde leaned over the center console and kissed the man she loved hello. "Hey, you."

"You're late."

"I know," she commiserated, sighing in defeat. "I warned everyone that I might be, and I honestly did everything I could to get here as early as possible, but, first my professor ran class over, and then there was traffic, and, of course, I had to get behind someone who was driving…"

"Marissa," Ryan stopped her mid-rant. "It's fine. No one's upset. There are so many people in there, I'm not even sure they missed the fact that you're late and that I skipped out over half an hour ago."

Her eyes widened with both shock and playful reprimand. "You did what?"

"It was boring," the doctor protested, chuckling at her expression. "Besides, I wanted to be waiting for you when you got here… for obvious reasons."

Rolling her eyes, she opened the driver's side door, waiting by the car for her significant other to join her. Walking into the restaurant with his right arm wrapped around her waist, she allowed herself a moment to lean into him, to allow his presence to totally envelope her. It had been days since they managed to spend any alone time together. With the wedding on top of everything else crowding their schedules, life was so frenzied.

Closing her sparking blue gaze in contentment, Marissa confessed, "I've missed you, too."

She felt his warm lips brush against her temple before he opened the door to the elite establishment, closed for the evening because of a private party, the chill of the air conditioning and the roar of a hundred guests assaulting her instantly and causing the brief moments of peace she had just shared with the man she loved to evaporate. It was time for a performance.

Lifting her head from Ryan's shoulder, she felt his arm slip away from her as they, together, moved to lace their fingers together. Walking hand in hand towards their awaiting and gathered family, they both smiled at the courteously offered greetings and returned the superficial, perfunctory pleasantries too widespread in polite society. It was a game, a ruse, similar to that of which she had lived willingly in New York with Tanner but different because it wasn't of her own design or forced upon her.

Instead, Marissa gladly played her role in the entire deception for those closest to her. She did it for Summer and her love of the opulent. She did it for Seth and his utter cluelessness when it came to everything social. She did it for Caleb who, with absolutely no reason besides the fact that his adopted grandson cared for her, had given her a chance. And she did it for Sandy and Kirsten, because they had welcomed her into their family with open arms, never once frowning upon her because of her past or judging her for the things she had lived through and survived. And, at the end of the night, when the last guest had gone home and the engagement party disbanded, she and Ryan would go back to being just another ordinary couple, lost in their relationship and the little joys and heartaches they shared together as one.

Releasing her boyfriend's hand, the personal assistant, for the second time that evening, offered the woman before her a sincere smile, enveloping the petite brunette in a secure embrace. "Congratulations, Sum," Marissa whispered into her best friend's ear. "I'm so happy for you."

"And, you," she moved on to the man standing beside the stylist, grinning mischievously at him. "Who would have thought you had it in you?"

"Seriously, I know," Seth agreed indulgently. "But, what can I say, the women, they just can't resist the Cohen charm."

"Well, they better, ass," the still freeloading, now, twenty-nine year's fiancée warned, glaring at the young man with her hands placed firmly on her curvaceous hips.

But everyone just laughed at Summer's admonition, knowing full well that Seth 

worshipped the very ground she walked on. There was a better chance of the curly haired brunette actually going out and finding himself a real job than there was of him cheating on the woman he loved… and slightly feared.

Sliding up to the group of four, their newest member asked, "actually, what I want to know is just how much longer Marissa is going to be able to resist Ryan's charms. Will we be planning a second wedding anytime soon," Sandy inquired inquisitively if not with anticipation.

"Not for a while," the man in question responded, rejoining his girlfriend as they once again tangled their tanned digits together.

"We're…," the college student's voice trailed off as she met her boyfriend's steady, knowing gaze. Reading his agreement in his deep, cobalt depths, she pressed on. "We're good, really good, the way we are." Meeting her someday father-in-law's rather disappointed brown eyes, Marissa added, "there's no need for us to rush."

The rest of the evening went smoothly… and slowly. The impressive, lavish dinner dragged on, course after course, as the large, celebratory crowd talked and laughed together, sharing stories of the engaged couple and speculating about their future. In their quiet corner, though, at the head table beside the soon-to-be married Seth and Summer, she and Ryan merely sat back and quietly enjoyed the festivities. With his free hand placed intimately on her thigh underneath her dress, she was constantly aware of his presence beside her, but his touch wasn't meant to seduce or even possess. It just simply was. It was a promise of both the present and the future, another way for him to always reassure her that he was there, with her, and he always would be; it was just another private moment of happiness they could share together… and they did.

! !

The sound of the overly large front door slamming behind him reverberated through the cavernous, marble foyer. There was no need for him to announce his presence so loudly every evening, but Caleb Nichol, single, self-proclaimed eternal bachelor since his first and only wife had passed away many years before, liked bold things, even if there was no one else there to appreciate them but himself. The staff had all gone home for the evening at that point, leaving him alone with his things and his memories in the home he had raised his children in. And, oddly, unlike most other adults, the past and the knowledge that those he cared for the most were happy elsewhere were enough for him.

Tugging at the silk noose around his neck, he loosened the restraining material, eventually flinging the tie off and onto the thickly carpeted floors of his private study. The room was dimly lit by a single, mellow, green lamp perched precisely on the center, front lip of his desk. Its warm light threw shadows against the mahogany paneled walls and illuminated only the neatly arranged papers and folders on his private work space. Taking a seat behind the massive writing table, he leaned back in the creaking, leather chair, savoring its familiar, welcoming shape as it conformed to his body. There, behind his richly carved, antique desk, Caleb Nichol always felt the most at home.

The phone was close by, within easy reach for him to pick up. Dialing the number that had been confidently replaying itself over and over again in his mind all week, 

he placed the call that he had been putting off for six months. While his grandson might have been satisfied with how things resolved themselves in New York, he was not. The billionaire CEO did not particularly care to leave anything in fate's hands, and, whether it was his place or not, he was fully prepared to interfere where another human life was concerned.

Politicians declared war, creating massive death tolls, with far less thought than he had put into his current predicament. Doctors made life or death decisions for their patients every day. Judges sentenced others to death row with just a simple decree and a rap of their wooden gavel. If those men and women had the right to play god, then he, more powerful than any of them separately or combined, could do so, as well, if he pleased, and, unlike those others who made such decisions because it was their job to, he was sentencing another being to death because it was right, because it was just, and because it was for his family. If he was wrong, then he'd pay the price later, but, for now, he'd relish just how satisfactory his decision felt.

"It's me," he greeted the other person on the line when they picked up. That was it; no other preamble or overture was needed. "You know what to do. Tanner Meriden dies in prison tonight. Make it look like an accident, and make it look good. I don't think either of us want this coming back to haunt us at a later date. I'll be in touch."

Replacing the phone in its receiver, the older man stood up from his desk, switched the muted, jade colored lamp off, and proceeded to make his way upstairs and to bed, his conscious perfectly clear.

! !


They were lounged out together on her couch, Ryan behind her as she leaned against him nestled between his bent legs. The lights were off, the television was silent and dark, and it was just the two of them stripped bare emotionally as it often was. After Seth and Summer's engagement party had come to a close hours before, he had followed her back to her apartment, and, since arriving and changing, they had hit upon every single topic they could, avoiding the only one that truly mattered.

They had discussed the party in detail, sharing a few, private laughs at others' expense. They had, together, found a snack in the kitchen, preferring simple food to the foreign, hard to pronounce French dishes they had been served earlier in the evening. And, as always, they went over their respective days with each other. Marissa entertained him with a story about how it had taken her almost forty-five minutes to convince his grandfather which tie looked the best for his meeting. When her four years were up, she didn't know what she would do every day without Caleb Nichol to spoil and smother. He was the doting parental unit she had never had growing up as a child, and, since he catered to her every whim, she had a feeling he would be just as lost without her as well. And, in return, Ryan shared a couple humorous anecdotes about his rather scatterbrained receptionist. Although, to others, their routine might have seemed trite or even boring, in the end, the only thing that mattered was that it worked for them; they enjoyed the whispered summations of their days apart.

But, with that one word, Ryan reminded her that, on that particular evening, there was one very important part of her day that she had, thus far, left out of their 

conversation. Tilting her face back to look at her boyfriend, the blonde beauty teased, "actually, no, I don't sew, but, if it's that important to you, I'm sure I could learn how to."

"Very funny, Cooper." Kissing her nose, the physician pretended to insult her. "I think you've been hanging out with my brother too much."

Sighing, she dismissed, "not likely, especially with how hectic my schedule has been lately. Between work, and school, and helping Summer plan the wedding, I barely have any free time to see you. Seth is the last person on my mind… or penciled into my day planner."

"I'll admit that I've been going through a little Marissa withdrawal recently."

"And that's why I can't wait for spring break."

"Don't get too excited," he warned her. "After all, Caleb still refuses to give you the week off."

Narrowing her gaze, Marissa sat up, turning around to face the man she loved. "What do you mean by still?"

"Well," the doctor hedged, refusing to meet her gaze. "I might have…"

"Talked to him," she finished, lightheartedly punching his arm. "I told you not to do that. He probably thinks that I made you say something."

"He does not. I made it very clear to him that you'd probably skin me alive if you found out about our little meeting."

"And I just might," the journalism major threatened, though there was no real animosity present in her voice. "Listen, I don't mind that your grandfather refuses to bend the rules for me. I'm just another one of his employees, so I should be treated the same way."

"You're not," Ryan stated unequivocally, pulling her back into his warm embrace, "just another employee. You're a part of his family."

"Even so, it's not like we could actually go anywhere if I had the week off. You have patients to see, and your practice is too new to close for a few days just so that we could go away together. We'll both work during the day, and, for an entire week, you'll have me all to yourself at night. I already told Summer that we're not shopping, tasting, or interviewing anyone during spring break."

"And how did she take the news?"

The personal assistant scrunched up her face in thought, trying to recall her best friends exact words. "I'm pretty sure she said 'whatever. I'll just make Cohen's lazy ass go with me.'"

"Well, with that in mind," Ryan grinned, pulling them both down so that they were lounging on the couch, "I say, your place or mine?"

The question required absolutely no thought whatsoever on her part. "Yours - you have the better bathtub."

"Alright, so, now that we've settled that and you've managed to avoid the issue at hand, once again, I'm not going to let you distract me anymore."

Marissa quirked her head to the side. "Why, I do believe that was a challenge."

"Hold that thought," he directed her. "I'd love for you to take what I just said as a challenge, but, first, would you please just tell me how your doctor's appointment went today."

"You worry way too much, Atwood. Six months ago, Doctor Madison told me that I'd be fine, and, today, my new doctor said the exact same thing. No permanent damage, no scarring, and absolutely no reason why, in five years or so, we couldn't try, if we wanted to, for a kid."

"Or six," her boyfriend suggested lasciviously, his hands falling from her hips to slide, without censorship, underneath her thin dress. "Six kids sounds like a reasonable number to me."

Brightly, Marissa agreed. "Sure," only adding the provision after several quiet, suspense filled beats, "if we adopt."

"Hm," the doctor appeared to consider the idea, all the while rearranging them on the sofa so that she was facing him. Standing with her still wrapped around him, he walked them towards her bedroom, talking the entire time. "Maybe we will adopt. After all, I was. Perhaps we should try to help kids from abusive homes. If any two people have the experience to help them get past that, it would be you and I, and I kind of like the idea of us returning the favor that the Cohens gave me all those ye…"

"Ryan," she interrupted him calmly, enfolding her legs suggestively around his waist and squeezing tightly. "Don't you think this is a conversation better suited for after we have sex?"

"Right," he agreed before, unceremoniously, dropping her onto the queen sized bed, its large shape dominating the otherwise small bedroom. Over the sounds of her laughter, he complimented, "good idea," before lowering himself to rest upon her, any other words either of them were thinking about saying evaporating into the still and quiet spring night.

! !

They had been parked in the grungy trailer park Marissa had grown up in for almost an hour, just sitting there, several lots down from her mother's house, the same one she had grown up in as a little girl, waiting for what, he didn't know. While Ryan realized that facing Julie was something his girlfriend had to do, watching her as she visibly diminished in size as her shoulders slumped forward and cringed emotionally from just the thought of, after six months, having to revisit the worst part of her life, he wondered if the confrontation wasn't coming too soon. Between simply being away from her mother and Tanner and surrounded by people who loved her, Marissa's self confidence had grown by leaps and bounds. Add to that the fact that she was seeing a therapist twice a week, and he knew that the woman he loved was 

well on her way to recovery. But tackling the demons Julie represented… Well, that was a matter located on a completely different level of difficultness.

"You know," the general practitioner told her without judgment or disappointment. "You don't have to do this today."

"But we drove all this way…"

"That doesn't matter to me," he reassured the woman he loved, twisting in his driver's seat to look her in the face. "I'll drive you here every day for the rest of my life if you need and want me to. This, you finally talking to your mother about everything she's done to you over the years, it has nothing to do with me. You have to do it for yourself for no other reason than simply getting those feelings off your chest, and, whenever you're ready to do that, I'll be right here, supporting you, encouraging you, waiting for you."

And that's when she smiled at him, the sheer strength of her happiness making Ryan feel slightly weak in the knees. "You know how much I love you, right?"

"If I didn't before that grin, I sure as hell do now."

The sound of her merry laughter made him feel ten feet tall and capable of anything. "Well, good." Before he could reply, the doctor felt his girlfriend's lips upon his as she whispered a quick yet passionate kiss against his mouth. Once she pulled back away, she continued. "But I'm ready to do this. I need to. The sooner I finally put my past behind me, the sooner I can move forward with you in the present."

Ryan smirked. "That sounds great to me."

"But I have one favor to ask." He nodded his head to show her that she should ask of him whatever she desired to. "Will you," her gaze dropped as the question came to an abrupt stop, and he watched as the woman he was planning to spend the rest of his life with toyed with their joined hands, running her long, slender digits around and in between his own blunt and slightly calloused ones. Biting her lip, she finally asked what she tried to before, glancing at him from underneath a heavy veil of dark, mysterious lashes. "Will you go with me?"

"If you…"

"You won't have to say anything," she rushed to promise him, interjecting before he could respond. "I just want you to stand there beside me, holding my hand in yours. I want to show my Mom that we're stronger together than we are apart, that I'm finally happy. It won't matter how many times I tell her that, seeing you there with me, supporting me, she won't be able to deny the truth of that visual."

Dipping his head in assent, Ryan got out of the vehicle, walking around the small, sports car to, once again, lace their hands together, palm to palm. Leaning into the college student's shoulder, he murmured so only she could hear him, "I'll always go wherever you go, even if you don't want me to."

She bumped his hip with her own. "Fat chance of that ever happening, Atwood."

They were so lost in each other that, as they rounded the corner of her former 

childhood home, neither of them realized Julie was leaving at the same time, only looking up at the redhead when she spoke up and confronted them. "Marissa?"

The jollity of their former moment disappeared instantaneously. "Hello, Julie."

"Uh… is there something I can help you with, directions perhaps? I highly doubt you're here to see me."

"Actually," the younger woman hedged, her voice trailing off as her mother popped an impatient hip out.

"Look, I'd love to chat, but I don't have the time." The sarcasm dripped off of Julie's every word. "Some of us, present company excluded, have to work for a living, so, if you'll excuse me…"

She went to brush past them, but Marissa, temper already piqued, stood in her way, blocking the path. "No, I won't excuse you, and don't give me any of that 'poor me' garbage. You have to support yourself now? So what. Ryan pays his own bills; I pay mine. It's a part of life, Julie. Everyone does it."

"Oh, yes," the redhead taunted. "Let's listen to the woes of the rich doctor and his slut. This should be…"

"That's enough," Marissa whispered vehemently. Though her voice was still low, it did not lack any strength or vitality. "For years, I've sat back and allowed you to insult me to make you feel better about yourself, but no more. It's not my fault that you got knocked up as a teenager, it's not my fault that you preferred to wallow in poverty than to go out and make something of yourself, and it's certainly not my fault that you've never found someone who could love and respect you. But, then again, if I've learned anything these past few months, it's that you have to love and respect yourself before you're capable of accepting those feelings from another person."

"That's beautiful, Marissa, but I really do have to get to work. So, why don't you take your baggage and your shrink gained wisdom and go hit up someone who actually cares."

"I'm not done talking to you yet." Ryan could feel the tension of determination enter the personal assistant's body, and his faith in her and her newfound poise and self-reliance only increased. He had been wrong to doubt her readiness to confront Julie. She had certainly already proven that to him and more.

"Fine," the older woman conceded, leaning in a bored manner against her trailer. "Say what you want to say and then get out."

"I will," his girlfriend agreed. "I want to tell you that you were a terrible mother, that Caitlyn and I deserved more than your meager and failed attempts at affection. If you didn't want us, why did you keep us? There were thousands of people out there who would have gladly adopted your unwanted children, but, instead, you selfishly kept us, and for what – so that maybe someday you could use us to your own sick advantage? You knew," the blonde next to him accused tearfully. "You knew the whole time what Tanner was doing to me, and you didn't care. It's just the way men are, Marissa. He doesn't realize that he's hurting you, Marissa. For everything he 

does for us, he deserves to be given a few concessions, Marissa. Stop exaggerating, Marissa. All women go through this with the men who love them. And maybe, the worst one of all, don't be selfish, Marissa. Caitlyn and I, we need you to be with Tanner. Don't you love us enough to stay with him, Marissa?

"I was your daughter, your own flesh and blood, and you left me in a relationship, no," she corrected herself, dashing away the fallen drops of emotion coursing their way down her tan and slightly freckled face. "You practically forced me to stay in a relationship that was slowly killing me physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally by manipulating and guilting me."

"Say and think whatever you want, but, in the end, it was you who chose to be with Tanner, not me," Julie dumbly defended herself.

"You're right, and I do accept my own portion of the responsibility, but you, as my mother, should have done everything within your power to help me see that I needed to find the will to leave that relationship, but you didn't. And, because you did nothing, I, now, want nothing to do with you." Taking a deep breath, Marissa fortified herself for what she was about to say next. "This is goodbye. I deserve better than a mother like you, and I've found it in Ryan. His family is now my family as well, and I just… I don't want you in my life anymore, Julie. So, please, stay away from me. Don't try to contact me. Don't call, don't write, don't even think of me. You're a part of my past, a past that I've confronted and made peace with now, and there's no room for you in my future.

"Goodbye, Julie."

Pivoting around, the two of them made their way back to the awaiting car, still hand in hand. Wordlessly, they climbed inside and drove away, leaving Julie, and the trailer park, and everything it represented for Marissa far behind them, and Ryan sighed in relief. The cycle of abuse she had been living under for years had finally been shattered apart.

Marissa was free.