Once upon a time.
That's the way fairy tales are supposed to start, right?
Once upon a time.
Well, this story doesn't start like that.
No, it starts with a girl who had good intentions, showed poor judgment, and loved a boy beyond reason. The boy loved her, too, but he put conditions on that love and set her on a pedestal.
He thrived on her free spirit, impulsiveness, and innocence. Then he tried to change her, tame her, contain her.
They were suffocated by the love they shared, sucked into it, the way fire exhausts oxygen. Each waking moment was consumed by the other, each thought, each movement. The boy was the reason the girl breathed, the reason she cried.
And they used each other up.
The girl was no longer a princess, perfect and untouched, but the boy was not a prince, either. He was twisted with his idea of honor, so that he acted dishonorably.
No, this story isn't a fairy tale. No guarantees of happy endings. No flowers and doves.
But it is a story.
And it is their story.
I live you, I breathe you, I taste you in my being, but I will set you free. I am done with you.
"Are you sure you want to do this, mi hija?" Pilar Lopez-Fitzgerald's tone held an unspoken admonishment.
Guard your heart, and spare those around you.
Theresa Crane lifted her son from his bassinet and held him close to her heart. Her old world might fall down around her feet on this day, the day of Ethan and Gwen's wedding, but she was determined to build a new world for herself, and her son was the center of that life.
The last three years were a whirlwind of emotions—happiness, contentment, agony, grief, uncertainty fear, jealousy, joy—and they led to this moment. True, it was not what she had expected, nor what she wanted, but it was what it was.
"I have to see for myself, Mama."
Pilar's worn hands smoothed her daughter's hair. "You will only make matters worse."
"I will behave myself." Her tone was clipped, impatient. "I will not stand in his way."
Pilar sighed. "That's not what I meant. You will make the hurt worse."
Theresa kissed Ethan Martin's soft cheek, and the baby cooed. "No. I have cried my last tear. I just have to put the last nail in the coffin, and this will help me to do that."
"How Theresa? How is watching the man you love marry the woman you hate going to help you? That doesn't make sense!"
Theresa smiled, though it took much effort. "Since when have you known me to make sense?"
A new life starts, one with new possibilities, new challenges. But first, the old must die.
The church was beautiful, especially considering that so little time went into executing the preparations for the wedding. Gwen kept her word when she said she would marry Ethan as soon as possible.
Or was it before he had the chance to change his mind?
Ethan was, after all, a fickle man.
Rebecca Hotchkiss was, naturally, intent that nothing would go wrong for her daughter. When Theresa entered the church, Rebecca pulled her aside into a nearby vestibule and lifted the long dress she wore to reveal a handgun holstered onto her flabby thigh.
Her threat went unspoken, but it was deafening at the same time.
Theresa supposed she should be frightened, but all she could think was how Rebecca's display perfectly demonstrated that it was, indeed, a shotgun wedding. If not for the child Gwen carried, the day would be like any other and the wedding would not exist.
But Gwen was ever so conveniently pregnant, and that obligation drew Ethan to her.
Throughout the ceremony, Theresa fought tears and even uncomfortable laughter. Oh God, it was so deliciously laughable to watch the man she had always wanted pledge his life to someone else.
How little Ethan's words meant.
"I, Ethan, take you Gwen…"
I had thought marrying Gwen would make me happiest man in the world, that she was the brightest star in the sky. Then you came along, Theresa. You eclipsed all the stars in the universe. Some things are meant to be.
"…to be my lawfully wedded wife."
How little indeed.
If you look, you shall find.
Theresa entered the wedding reception at the country club with aplomb. She would not run; she would not hide despite the fact the room resembled a den of snakes.
Many of those assembled came not to celebrate, but to gloat.
They would take their shots at her, Theresa knew, but she intended to send a message. The vipers were not rid of her even if she no longer pursued Ethan. As Mrs. Crane, she commanded authority and influence.
They would never be rid of her.
I am weak, but I am strong.
She took a glass of champagne offered to her by a waiter. Her eyes fell upon the bubbles, and she remembered her past experiences with the beverage. How different her life would be had she not taken those drinks in Bermuda.
From across the room, she saw Ethan and Gwen enter the reception hall. A huge smile shone on Gwen's face as she scanned the room. Then her gaze fell on Theresa, and her eyes hardened.
I won, she seemed to say.
Theresa merely inclined her glass in a mock salute.
Gwen's eyes weren't the only ones focused on her. Gwen's new husband also stared.
And then Theresa lifted the glass's rim to her lips and swallowed its contents, embracing her new life.
A deep voice, smooth as velvet, sounded from behind. Strange. Before she had even heard him speak, she sensed his presence.
"They were all taking bets about whether you'd show."
Theresa lifted an eyebrow as she turned to face broad shoulders. She had to look up, and when she did, she audibly sucked in her breath. The man was beautiful. Hair of gold, chocolate colored eyes with a hint of mischief, and a grin that belied danger of the best kind.
Theresa regained her footing and lifted her chin proudly. "Did you get in on the action?"
"Sure did," he said before he leaned closer, speaking almost conspiratively. "I even made some money off you, Gorgeous."
"So glad I could be of service." Her tone was dry.
"Well, I'm hoping that I can be of service to you tonight."
Theresa crossed her arms. "A proposition? And all before we've even been properly introduced."
"Is that what it was?" The corners of his mouth lifted slightly. "You are sure of yourself."
"The Cranes gave me my education. Are you going to tell me I'm mistaken?"
"I would never presume to do anything of the sort." He paused, seeming to reflect on the double meaning of his words. "Do with that what you will."
The man took her hand and lifted it to his mouth. Lightly his lips caressed the back of her hand. The gesture was simple, but it held the promise of so much more if only she'd accept.
It sent shivers of delight down her spine.
And just as quickly as he appeared, he moved on, leaving Theresa bewildered.
Who was he?
No matter. She wasn't looking for a casual lover.
You draw close when you should pull away. You love me; you want me. I am your addiction, and you hate me for it.
The relatively quiet sound of a motorized wheelchair hummed behind Theresa.
Ivy Winthrop Crane expertly stopped her chair inches from Theresa's position. "It's all over, Theresa, and you lost. Quite honestly, I'm shocked that you have the gall to remain in a place where it's quite obvious you aren't wanted."
Theresa spun around, looked down at Ivy, and studied the huge smile plastered on the face of the older woman. She would have been beautiful if not for the spiteful nature she exuded.
"Well, you've got me there, Ivy," Theresa conceded as she pursed her lips. Then her eyes darted to a couple in the distance, Sam and Grace Bennett. "Then again, you would know how it feels to be unwanted."
Ivy recoiled at Theresa touching upon the sorest of subjects with her. "Why you little—"
"Did you think I was going to come apart at the seams? Hhhmm? Do you think that anything you say matters to me anymore?"
"It might not matter to you, Theresa, but you are going to hear me out. I loathe the day that you set foot in my house and set your trampy claws into my son. Fortunately, he wised up. Now he's with Gwen, a woman who truly deserves him and will never hurt him. And you—you've got nothing."
"I have a beautiful son, Ivy. That hardly qualifies as nothing. I have my youth, energy, intelligence, and ambition. I will survive this, just as I've survived everything else that has happened in my life, and I'll do it without resorting to being a bitter old biddy whose only happiness comes in attempting to tear others apart."
With that, Theresa strolled away. The air in the room felt oppressive, and the night called to her.
She left the crowd, the bright lights, and much of the noise, walking onto the empty terrace. Her first instinct was to look to the night sky, to wish, to dream. But dream of what? Things that would never be? Things she wasn't even sure she wanted anymore?
Theresa wasn't certain how long she was outside before he came to her. Like a moth to the flame, they were drawn. And just like a moth to a flame, the heat scorched, created a self-inflicted agony and ecstasy.
Ethan's voice was crisp, distant. "Thank you for not causing a scene at the wedding."
Theresa leaned against the stone railing. "Is that all you have to say to me? After everything that has been said, everything that has been done?"
"Then you should go inside. You've said what you came to say."
He turned to walk away, stunned by her coldness, but stopped. "Theresa—"
"What do you want from me, Ethan? You push me away and make me feel like the lowest person on earth. And then you pull me to you and damn me for it!"
"It's not fair. I know that. It's just—God help me. I-I couldn't stay away." He began to reach for her, then refrained.
Theresa took a deep breath. "Two years ago, almost to the day, Ethan, we stood together at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. You held my hand in yours, and I was filled with so much love and happiness that I thought I would simply burst."
"I felt it, too, Theresa. I thought I had everything figured out. Our life was going to be filled with love and adventure. I believed we were invincible. A lot has changed since then."
"But the more things change, the more they stay the same."
"Damn you, Ethan. You're talking to me of feelings when your—your wife is just right inside still wearing her wedding gown and carrying your child. What kind of man are you?"
"I'm scared, Theresa."
"What do you want from me?"
"You were once my dearest friend."
"We'll never be friends again, Ethan. Too much has passed between us. I can't hold your hand and tell you everything will be fine because I don't think it will. I told you that I would stay away, and I meant it. Please show me the same courtesy."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"You're supposed to start acting like a man, Ethan. Grow up and make your own decisions." She began to walk past him, but his words halted her departure.
"I'm haunted by the life that should have been, Resa."
Theresa nearly choked. "I fought for us, Ethan! You're the one who gave up."
"No! At every turn I believed in you, and you fed me to the wolves!"
Theresa pushed past him and rejoined the party. Her heart beat furiously, but she was determined not to cry. She'd spent all her tears on Ethan Winthrop, tears of happiness, tears of pain.
All I've known, all I've done, all I've found was leading to this…
Upon reentering the ballroom, she was acutely aware of the stares she received, most notably the glare of Gwen Hotchkiss Winthrop.
He damns me.
Theresa began to make her way to the coat check, but she didn't get very far before the bride stood in her path.
"Have you no shame?" Gwen spoke in a hushed tone.
"I am not having this conversation with you."
Gwen gripped Theresa's arm. "Oh yes, you are. It was bad enough for you to go after Ethan before we were married, but he's a married man. You really should be a gracious loser, Theresa."
"Let go of my arm, Gwen," Theresa hissed.
"Fine." Gwen released her grip. "But know this. If you come near us again, I'll bury you. I don't care if you do hide behind your so-called title as Mrs. Crane. I will destroy you. I've done it before. I'll do it again."
Theresa's brow lifted. "You've done it before?"
Gwen hesitated as she realized her slip-up. "What I meant was that I've already taken Ethan from you. That destroyed you."
Theresa shook her head. "That's not what you meant."
Gwen crossed her arms. "Look, I'm not going to waste my time on you. This is my night to shine, and I plan to enjoy it."
"I will find out, Gwen. The truth always comes out, and since you're just sooooo truthful, I'm sure this truth will come out, too."
The adversaries locked eyes before Gwen turned to walk away, a huge smile plastered on her face covering the nervousness she felt.
I am lost, so I am cruel. But I'd be love and sweetness if I had you.
His fingertips were on her back. Her mystery man's touch simultaneously burned her and gave her chills.
"Don't go yet." It wasn't a command; nor was it a request. Theresa couldn't decipher his words, just as she was having a difficult time deciphering him.
Why am I so attracted to you when my heart is breaking for someone else? Why are you here with me? Why do you want me to stay?
He grinned. "Because then I'll have to pursue."
Her eyes narrowed. So he was a man who liked to play games. Well, she had enough on her plate dealing with one man-child. She didn't need another. But there was something about him….
No, she would play his game, if only for a moment. "Some men like the chase."
"But you're used to doing the chasing, aren't you, Theresa?"
Why was he so familiar? And how was it that he knew her?
"Who are you?"
"My friends call me Fox."
He certainly was pleased with himself. Confident, too. Theresa had met his type before, the type of man who assumed that woman should fall at his feet. "And what should I call you?"
"I do have a few suggestions, but all of that will have to wait until we have the opportunity to go to a more…private…location. I'm about to toast the bride and groom."
"And I'm about to leave. Alone."
"You'll want to stay for this, Gorgeous," he insisted, his dark eyes twinkling.
Theresa frowned. He knew something…something he wasn't saying.
"Trust me." He spoke in earnest, a decisive departure from his previous tone.
He offered his hand to her, and Theresa couldn't explain why, but she trusted him. She took his hand, and his fingers wrapped around hers.
As they walked back into the ballroom, an audible gasp filled the air, made even more prominent by the lull in the music.
Ivy's eyes flared as she made a bee-line for Theresa and Fox. "Nicholas Foxworth Crane, what are you doing bringing this…this…," Fox met his mother's gaze straight on, a warning blazing in his eyes. Ivy took his cue, "…person… back in here? We were finally rid of her, for God's sake!"
Fox sighed dramatically before he shifted his gaze to Theresa. "Blended families are so difficult."
Theresa swallowed hard. "You're…you're….Ethan's brother?"
"Like you didn't know, Theresa!" Ivy hissed.
"Come now, Mother, did you take down all the pictures you had of me to make room for more of my brother? Oh wait, that's right. You never were keen on having my pictures around. Too much of a reminder that you and my father…"
"That's enough, Nicholas! I will not have you speak to me this way!"
"Then don't draw the fire, Mother."
Fox pulled Theresa on past Ivy. "Why didn't you tell me?" she whispered.
"You didn't ask."
They walked to a waiter, and Fox removed two glasses of champagne from the tray the waiter carried. He passed one to Theresa and lifted the other in the air.
"If I could have everyone's attention, I would like to propose a toast to my brother and his new bride." Nicholas Crane's boomed clearly over the crowd, and the individual conversations ceased. He was a man who commanded attention.
Ethan and Gwen looked to each other and smiled before turning their full attention to Fox. Theresa worked hard to avoid rolling her eyes at the sight of them. Wasn't it just a few minutes before that Ethan approached her, trying to pull her back to him? And now he acted as though he didn't have a care in the world.
"To my brother. May he know exactly what he's getting."
Theresa felt her stomach flip-flop. The way Fox spoke—the words he chose—something wasn't right.
"And to Gwen, may you remember this night forever."
"Hear, hear," a chorus of voices rang out.
"Oh, and there's one last thing…" Fox dug beneath the dinner jacket he wore and pulled out a folded magazine. "…I have a surprise for you both. A little reading material for the honeymoon."
Fox spanned the distance between himself and his brother.
"Best of wishes," Fox smirked as he handed over his gift.
Ethan unfolded it, startled by the bold letters which greeted him.
MAN SET TO MARRY WOMAN WHO PLANNED HIS DOWNFALL. PLASTIC SURGEON REVEALS ALL.
Gwen eyes grew wide as she unconsciously lifted her hand to her nose, wracking her brain. Was it possible? She knew that when the anesthesia was wearing off after her nose job, she'd been quite woozy and unusually talkative. Had she revealed even more than she thought?
"Ethan, obviously this is a trick. You don't actually believe that I— "
"Not another word." Ethan's voice was cold, silencing Gwen immediately.
He skimmed the article, his heart sinking. What had he done?
You fed me to the wolves, Ethan….I love you….What's love without trust?...When you act like this, yes, I do love Gwen more….Gwen's always been honest with me, Theresa. All you've ever done is lie. I can't be with a woman who lies to me as easily as she breathes…..I am haunted by what should have been.
"What is it?" Theresa asked.
"What have I done?" Ethan choked out, not hearing Theresa's question. He stepped away from his new bride. "And what have you done, Gwen?"
He threw the tabloid to the floor and Theresa moved to pick it up. Before she was able to, however, Gwen snatched it and tore it to pieces.
"There. Now it can be carried out with the garbage where it belongs," Gwen soothed her husband. Her eyes shot daggers at Fox. "Your brother was only trying to cause trouble."
"I didn't have to do anything, Gwen. You did this to yourself. You—and your mother."
Fox turned to Theresa. "It seems Gwen and her mother are the ones who sent my mother's letter for Sam Bennett to the tabloid from you computer. They set you up, Gorgeous."
Rebecca Hotchkiss fanned herself melodramatically and cried out in protest before sinking to the floor in a faint.
In an instant, life can change. A chain reaction, spontaneous, unstoppable, undeniable…what goes around, comes around.
Weeks later, Theresa still marveled at the events of Ethan and Gwen's wedding reception.
A tabloid article destroyed Gwen, just as Gwen had once used the tabloid to take Ethan's identity and set the events in motion that would destroy Theresa's relationship with him.
Ethan walked away from his new wife that night, intent upon receiving an annulment. Gwen pursued him as he angrily bolted down the stairs of the club, lost her balance as she tried to grab hold of him, and tumbled down the remainder of the stairs.
Taken to the hospital, she and Ethan faced the grim news that the child she carried was lost, just as Grace Bennett lost the baby she carried two years earlier thanks to the Hotchkiss women's schemes.
Despite the fact that she was vindicated in Ethan's eyes, Theresa could take little pleasure in it.
Ethan wanted to marry her, but the roller coaster ride of a relationship ended with her refusal to take him back into her life.
"You need to be alone, figure out who you are and what you want. I've set you free, Ethan."
And she had. For the first time in her life, she'd let go.
No more childish fantasies of fairy tales and happy endings. If fate brought them together again, she would be surprised. Then again, fate did have a rather snarky sense of humor.
So, yes, it was difficult for her to find pleasure from the events of Ethan and Gwen's wedding reception.
However, she did find pleasure with Fox. He'd warned her that they would find a name together that she could call him, and he was right. They settled on lover, an appropriate title.
Fox made her feel alive, vital, beautiful, sexy, and wanted. She made him feel loved, a feeling that only intensified the physical gratification.
The screams Ethan heard come from Theresa's room late at night set him on edge and seared his very soul. Ethan knew Theresa had another man in her life, in her bed, in her body—and that man was his brother.
No, this story isn't a fairy tale. No guarantees of happy endings. No flowers and doves.
But it is a story.
And it is their story.