As ever, much gratitude to Laurelin the Pale

Chapter 13

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Mick felt the change overtake him. A moment of intense melancholy inserted itself into his already gloomy mood. He would not tease himself with the compound again, at least not until Josef's scientists had perfected it and he could live a predictable, fully human life. It was much too hard to grow cold, to feel his beating heart stop. Saving Coraline be damned. It was about time that someone saved him.

Beth was right about one thing; Coraline might not recover without him. His deepest fear was that she would become more like her brother than was prudent. Like an abused child who learns no other coping mechanism than to resort to the physical violence she experiences, the already ruthless Coraline could easily morph into a monster like Lance. Easier to guide her back to her usual self-absorbed life, rather than let a real monster emerge.

Perhaps helping Coraline was another form of self-protection, he thought, because when this was babysitting job ended, he was going straight to Beth. He was in love with only her, and he would be betraying them both if he did not make that absolutely clear.

After thorough consideration of her current capabilities, Beth reluctantly accepted that flying was the only sensible way to get back to Los Angeles. She had so wanted to rent a convertible and let the rushing wind blow away her thoughts.

At least that was the plan until she had Google-mapped it, and discovered it was a nearly nineteen-hour trip. That meant stopping, and staying overnight somewhere, and she was too weary for all of that. She knew, too, that she was not ready to face her apartment, or Josef's house, or anything familiar, when everything still felt so strange. Newport Beach had always been a favorite of hers, so she booked a room at the Island Hotel, knowing the ocean would help soothe her. Josef would meet her there later this evening, and she could only hope that he would understand her possible change of heart. She still wasn't certain how she felt about being turned, and how could she explain anything to Josef when she didn't understand it herself? And, if she were honest with herself, there was the not so small matter of Mick.

They'd driven to the airport in San Antonio in near silence. She feared breaking the bond that they had forged in silence in his bed last night. What his thoughts were, she did not know, nor was she willing to speculate. It was comfortable, riding the near-deserted road, and that was enough. After the days of turmoil that sometimes seemed a lifetime ago, companionable silence was blissful relief.

At the airport, she had insisted that he board his flight, knowing that he had many hours of solitary travel looming ahead of him. She knew she'd held him far too long, pressing her cheek against his, hoping it would not be too very long before she saw him again. Watching his retreating back as he climbed the stairs and disappeared into the plane, her heart constricted. He had not looked back at her, but she felt his gaze through the window, felt it as she turned to make her way to her gate.

Through the gleaming, floor to ceiling windows, Mick saw Coraline, seated in a comfortable overstuffed chair, reading. She looked as she always had, as a resting panther, calmly and gracefully waiting to spring. He knew that before he reached the door, he would enter her awareness, and with an ironic smile, he knew she would not respond until he was in the room with her. That was Coraline, making an entrance even when it belonged to someone else.

"Mick, I'm so glad you're here," Coraline said, setting aside the book and rushing to hug him close to her.

In a gesture he'd made a hundred times before, he stroked her hair, resting his chin atop her head. "How are you feeling?" he asked, gently untangling himself from her grasp.

"I'm… better." She paused, then added, "How's Beth?"

"She's on her way home. She and Josef have a lot to discuss."

"Beth returned to Josef. You returned to me. Finally, life resumes its proper course."

"Life doesn't concern either of us, Coraline," Mick said as he moved to take a seat in the chair beside the one she had previously occupied. "I would think that after your recent bout with the compound, you'd know that better than anyone."

Sighing, she sat beside him. "So life is for the living, Mick? We simply exist in tandem with the humans? You still believe that?"

"I know it, and so do you." Only Coraline could drag him into this completely inappropriate conversation. "Look, I've had a long day and I'm exhausted. I need to feed, and rest for a little while."

She nodded, end of conversation. For now. "Of course, Mick, let me call for some service."

"Thanks, but I'm here to take care of you. I'll manage."

She shrugged, intentionally revealing even more of the perfect skin exposed by the loose, scarlet silk robe that draped across her shoulders. "I'll be waiting," she said, her eyes offering a subtle challenge to resist her.

Mick responded involuntarily, a surge in his groin that served to bring him back to reality. "I'll see you in a couple of hours."

Mick was actually not the least bit tired, having slept well on the plane. However, as he had discovered the first time he'd used the compound, when he reverted to his vampire self, he was nearly as driven to feed as he had been when Coraline turned him. Using one of the freshies that were on hand to supplement the glasses of blood he drank helped sate his hunger, and a shower completed the process of recovery. If only it were that easy to cope with Coraline.

There was no doubt in his mind that she would use their extraordinary chemistry to attempt to win back his affection, and he was well aware that at some point, he would succumb. No other woman had the same effect as she had on his libido. Under normal circumstances, he could resist her, no matter how intense her persuasion. But here, alone with her, and fearing that Beth and Josef would somehow cement their relationship in a way that would preclude his ever being close to her again… He would surrender to the lust Coraline always fed, tinder to the fire inside him. His only option was to try to control when it would happen. Sometime other than tonight, certainly.

Knowing he had another hour before Coraline came looking for him, his thoughts drifted to Beth, to wondering what she would tell Josef, and how he would reassure her there would never be another to supplant her in his heart. Perhaps if months ago, he had been as honest with her as Josef surely would be, he and Beth would be doing the "happily ever after" by now. Instead, he was half a world away nursing an obsessed, neurotic woman. He supposed he had to accept what he had tried to force Coraline to for all these many years; there was no going back. Oh, he would, he had to, tell Beth how he felt about her, there was no question about that. Unfinished business always gnawed at him until it was resolved. Then, for once in his life, he would try a new city, a new persona. He was considering New York, or maybe Buenos Aires. More likely, he would take a year off, settle in for a few months in each of them, and return to Los Angeles, hoping Josef and Beth had taken up residence in Scotland or London or any place other than the city he loved.

A knock at his door interrupted his thoughts. Coraline. He sighed, accepting that after all, she was the reason he was here. "Just a minute," he said, scrambling to pull on some sweats. Opening the door wearing the towel would definitely skew the advantage in her direction.

"It's just me, Mick," she said, her voice its usual combination of sultry and innocent. He heard the knob turn, and there she stood, still in the scarlet robe, now wearing lipstick in the same shade.

"Let me get my shoes…"

"Mick, there's no need to bother," she said, closing the door behind her. "We can talk here."

He had inadvertently allowed her the first advantage, and was now wishing he had stayed in the States. It was there in her wide-eyed, innocent gaze, coupled with the slight, moist-lipped pout. Coraline was fine, back in top form, in fact. He shook his head, hoping he had not stepped into a battle for his life. "How are you really, Coraline?" he asked.

With her well-practiced, hip rolling walk, she glided past him, settling lazily onto the bed. "I'm doing fine, but then, our kind heals notoriously quickly. Although I'll probably need years of therapy," she laughed. Seeing his look that said she could already have used centuries of it, she changed her tactic, rising from the bed to stand in front of him. "Seriously, Mick, I've lived for hundreds of years, and I haven't always been treated as well as I might have liked." Stepping closer to him, she placed her hands on his shoulders, and then ran them slowly over his chest. Mick grabbed her wrists, gently removing the unsolicited contact.

"Coraline, this isn't the time."

"It's not the time for what, Mick?" Her gaze dropped to his pants, to the first stirrings of an erection she saw there, and a knowing half-smile played over her scarlet lips.

That look was all that ever mattered. Damn their predictable je ne sais quoi. "I refuse to be drawn into this. I'm here to help with your recovery."

For one fleeting moment, she looked as if he had slapped her. "The doctors are here to help with my recovery." Her hand went to his face, caressing his cheek, tracing one ear with her finger. "I thought you came back for me."

Box scores from the 1958 World Series, if he could remember them, might help extricate him from this situation. The blood racing to engorge him was currently winning the battle, and he would be damned if he would have sex with Coraline. "I came back because I thought you needed a friend."

"We've never been friends," she said, and he thought he saw wistfulness in her face.

She was right about that, and his answer was a slight nod. "No, Coraline, we've never been more than animals in heat." Why had he come back? Was it to help Coraline, or to clear the way for Josef and Beth? It was not as simple as either of those choices was. "I did come back to help you. I hoped we could be friends, and I wanted you to know you could depend on me." He hesitated, but decided that while it might not be the ideal time, he needed to tell her the truth. "Coraline, I'm in love with Beth. She might not feel the same way about me, but that doesn't change my feelings about her, or you." He waited, holding his breath, hoping she would not shatter.

He should have known her, and himself, far better than that. Her hands went to the soft belt of her robe, and with a shrug, she stood naked before him.

Leaning her face very close to his, close enough so he could feel the exhalation of her breath on his lips as she spoke, she said, "I know." She smiled at the sound of his quickening breath, though they had no physical contact. "Still, you can't help yourself, can you?" With that, her lips moved the final half inch to meet his. A mere brush, light as hummingbird wings, yet the air around them sparked with their electricity.

"Coraline," he said, as she melted against him, her nipples brushing his chest, twin currents of electricity shocking his brain and his already-straining erection simultaneously. There was no time for decision, no moment of hesitation. He pushed forward, knocking her to the bed as she pulled his pants down, far enough, far enough to allow him immediate entry.

"Mick!" she gasped, driving her hips toward him as he plumbed her depths, a tempest of lust, propelled by some primitive instinct to complete the act, screaming and biting as they came. But this time was different, conscious thought returning to him almost immediately. Maybe they would have this strange power over each other for as long as they survived, but it was not love, and they, not any more than this.

"Mick, you're thinking, aren't you?" she asked, accepting now that he had told her the truth.

"I'm thinking 'Kings of Leon', if you must know," he answered, the whisper of a smile playing over his bruised mouth.

Wryly, she answered, "And Caleb Followill didn't see half of what you have."

That drew a laugh, as he pushed away from her. "I should have known."

"How could you? I hardly ever spend time in Nashville." She moved to the edge of the bed, gathering her robe from the floor. "This is the end, isn't it Mick?"

He shook his head, rising to stand by her side, helping her back into the robe, straightening it around her before lightly tying the sash. "I know better that to say 'never' when it comes to you, Coraline. " Hugging her close to him, he added, "But yes, I am still in love with Beth, and no, I won't leave until your flight to Antarctica."

Sliding free from his embrace, she looked into his face, searching for what, he was not sure, but finally, she said, "You're already gone. Stay if you wish, but if I were you, I would go home. I'll be fine, Mick. There really is nothing more you can do."

"You don't know that," Mick said sincerely. "We have never really tried to be any more than heaving bodies and sweaty sheets. I care about you, Coraline, and I think I can help."

She sighed, cupping his face with her hand. "I have lived hundreds more years than you, yet somehow, you know so much more about love. You were right all along Mick. It wasn't meant to be. I think I have always known, maybe that's why I turned you, an effort to keep you close. When that failed, I tried kidnapping Beth, hoping to make us a 'family', to give you something human again. Go home, Mick. We'll both have the freedom to move on." She kissed him lightly on his cheek, tailing her fingers across his jaw in a gentle caress, and then she was gone.

Briefly, the room seemed especially empty, as he felt an unexpected sense of loss. But a cool breeze from the open window cleansed the air, and in a matter of moments, the loss was replaced by the promise of a new beginning for them both.

Beth heard the crash of waves against sand through the open car window well before she saw the ocean. Calm slid over her like a warm caress, and she knew that she had made the right choice. There were still a few precious hours of daylight left, time for her to be alone with the sea. Enough time to make a decision, or at the very least acknowledge and accept her uncertainty about choosing to give up her life.

A friendly smile greeted her at the reception desk, and at the mention of her name, an unexpected level of attention greeted her. As her luggage disappeared soundlessly, an exceedingly handsome and gracious man led her to the elevator, insistent upon seeing her to her room.

"There must be some mistake," Beth said as he opened the door to an enormous living room, larger than her entire apartment. "I booked a double-"

"There is no mistake, Ms. Turner. Mr. Kostan phoned with very explicit instructions that you required our finest accommodations. Allow me to familiarize you with the Presidential Suite."

She was not yet used to Josef taking care of her in his way, and this was overwhelming, she thought as she stood on one of the five balconies the hotel manager had pointed out to her. The suite was several times larger than her apartment, and the view from where she stood was unimpeded to the ocean. Money might not buy happiness, but it was doing its damnedest at the moment. She would have time to enjoy this later, now all she wanted was to make the short walk to the beach, and finally feel the salt water on her skin.

Fingering the note that greeted her upon her return, she waited for room service to deliver her dinner. The hotel had offered to send a personal chef to prepare her menu in the suite's kitchen, but that was simply out of the question. She needed to be alone with her thoughts. Josef would arrive at nine, and she wondered if he would be gone by nine-fifteen.

It was much more difficult than Josef thought it would be, waiting for nine p.m. to arrive. With so little effort on his part, he could hear her move about the rooms, listen while she sang in the shower, and even know what she had ordered for dinner. He couldn't remember exactly why he'd chosen to wait until nine to meet her. Something about the darkness, the full moon… File it under "You've made smarter moves, Kostan".

He could not stop himself from listening; try as he might. His usual coterie surrounded him, bodyguard in the second bedroom, and a trio of freshies across the hall. Yet the only person he wanted to see was out of reach until… He checked his watch for the fifteenth time in twenty minutes. Another hour until fate extended its mighty hand to close gently around him and Beth, or crush him, alone.

A visit across the hall left his hunger sated, but his heart yearning. He liked his girls, and usually, he enjoyed their pleasure in his bite. Tonight, their moans rang hollow in his ears. He did not want them in his rooms, and only realized when he went to theirs that it was because of Beth. If she gave him the opportunity to hold her again, to love her again, he wanted the air free of anything but her precious scent. Or so he told himself. Perhaps he simply could not face them, if there were no more Beth in his life. He remembered his feelings of helplessness and despair when Sarah's crossing had failed. A life without Beth was an even more disturbing thought. Selfishly, he knew where Sarah was, knew that he could always care for her needs. Beth would be alive in the world, loving another man, having a family, growing old, and he would have no part in her life. That was the worst-case scenario, of course. His hope was that whatever obstacle stood between them, she loved him still, and together, they would find a solution.

Staring at the clock on the wall would neither delay nor hasten the arrival of nine o'clock, but Beth continued to glance at it every two minutes anyway. She would know soon enough if Josef would love her if she chose to remain human. Finally, a light rap sounded at her door, and again, she glanced at the clock. Damn, how could it be nine already?

She opened the door, and there stood Josef, impeccable as always in sage linen. "Beth," was all he said, and after a moment's hesitation, he reached out to stoke her arm, a range of emotions fleeting across his face.

"Josef." She felt everything he was feeling as he touched her, and although she had promised herself that she would not pressure him in any way, she hugged him briefly, before motioning him inside, closing the door behind him.

The suite was exactly like his own, but he dared not take a seat. It was her show, and she could present it anywhere she chose.

"Why don't we sit outside, it's such a beautiful night," she said.

"That it is," he said, thinking that nothing could possibly be more beautiful than the sight of her after so many lonely days.

She led him to the large balcony off the living room, as he suspected she would. The ocean view was undoubtedly no longer visible to her, but she probably enjoyed the sound just as much. He knew there was a double chaise there, and wondered if she would choose to share that seat with him. He made no move toward any of the available seats, determined to exert no pressure on her. An inward sigh of relief he hadn't expected escaped when she sat on the chaise and patted the seat beside her.

He didn't put his arm around her, in fact made no additional physical contact with her. "Thank you for the beautiful suite, Josef. It was very kind of you."

"You're welcome." 'It was very kind of you?' Josef wondered if this was Beth's way of saying goodbye, and looked deeply into her eyes to see if she realized that her gratitude was like a knife twisting inside him. Seeing no hint of subterfuge, he said, "You deserve nice rooms."

Steeling her courage, she decided to get it on with it. "Josef, I feel so scared." Pure instinct drove him to put his arm around her, to pull her close against his side.

"I don't bite."

She laughed, feeling so much lighter. "Yes, you do. But that's not what I'm afraid of. Actually, it is. I'm not sure I want you to turn me."

So that was it. She had chosen Mick as a sire. "I know you've known Mick a lot longer, and you have every reason to trust him with your life." He had to ask, had to know. "Does this mean we're through?"

"I hope not. Wait. Do you think I'm telling you I want someone else to turn me? That I prefer Mick do it?"

"That's what I heard," he said glumly.

"Then I said it wrong. I am not ready to be turned. All that happened, who I became… I am no longer certain I will ever want that life. But if I ever do, I would only give my life to you, Josef. Only you." The silence that ensued deafened her, the roar of blood in her ears the only sound she heard.

His response was swift, and one she would never have expected. One moment she sat beside him; the next, she was one is lap, encircled in his arms, her head held against his neck. He kissed her hair, stroked her arm, held her tight against him. She looked up at him, just as a blood-red tear escaped his eye. Shifting toward him, she kissed it away. "I thought I lost you. You chose to call Mick, to be with him…"

"Because he's my friend, and he'll love me unconditionally, like a big brother. You're my man, Josef. You could stop loving me for any number of reasons."

"Beth," he said, taking her chin in his fingers, "Let me make this clear. If you choose to be a vampire, I will love you forever. If you don't, I will love you and be by your side until you die. Nothing will ever change my love for you. Got it?"

She lay her cheek in his palm, staring straight into the depths of his warm, brown eyes. "Got it." Their lips met, and the depth of emotion she felt sealed her trust. Rising, she took his hand and led him to the glass paneled railing of the balcony, holding his hand as they watched the thin line of moonlight reflected in the water.

"So," she said, "How did I do, overall, as a pseudo-vampire?"

"Hell, I was almost sorry to kill Lance. He was right, you'd make a hell of a vampire, and I would have enjoyed watching him try to win you away from me for the next hundred years. It would be so satisfying to watch him fail."

"So you killed him despite your more noble instincts?"

"Actually, I limit my noble instincts to Tuesdays. Self preservation was my only motive."

She smiled at the night sky. He could be selfish, ruthless, unrelenting, but she knew he was also kind, tender and loving. "So," she said, turning toward him, "Any chance I can take advantage of you while you're vulnerable?"

"It has been a long day, and I'm pretty drained, emotionally… But you can try." The devilish gleam in his eye told her that he might make her work for it, and after what she'd put him through, work for it she would.

Taking a step back, she winked at him playfully as she slid one strap of her sundress off her shoulder.

He moved closer, lowering his lips to where the strap lay, lightly massaging his mouth against her arm, up her shoulder and neck to her ear, where he stopped to whisper, "Okay, I give up, you can have your way with me."

The way her eyes gleamed at him sent his heart soaring. Every emotion she felt wrote itself across her eyes, immediately. This time, he saw exactly what he had dared to hope he would. She loved him, she wanted him, and she had sent Mick away and returned to him. "Beth," he exhaled her name as he kissed her, imagining the moist, hot feel of her, dreaming of making love to her all night long in languid, knowing strokes.

Beth had other ideas, quickly tugging his shirt from his trousers, making quick work of the buttons, anxious to feel the muscled flesh beneath it. She loved the smooth skin that covered rock-hard, lithe muscle, the sparse hair that drew a line straight down to the erection straining for freedom against his zipper. Tugging at his belt, wanting his skin against hers, she pleaded, "Help me, Josef," as she tugged her dress over her head. In a second, she had what she wanted, her body pressed as close to him as she could.

For a moment, he held her face in his hands, looking in wonder at the desire in her eyes. Still stroking her cheek with his thumb, their mouths moved lightly against each other for a moment before locking in a kiss that seemed to go on forever, Beth running her hands over his broad shoulders, his strong back, finally pulling him closer against him as her hands reached his ass. "Now, Josef, please, feel how I need you now."

His urgency matched hers, thoughts of holding himself back to make love to her slowly thrown to the evening breeze. Grabbing a nearby chair, he sat and groaned as she lowered herself atop him, her head rolling back as she moaned her approval at the thick length of him filling her. Frantically, she gyrated atop him, sweat slicking her at the effort. She was close, and he sensed it, using his strength to rock her up, down and around him, until the wind carried her cries of pleasure into the heavens above them. A split second later, as her body still spasmed around him, his orgasm followed on a mighty groan as he sank his teeth into her neck.

'You're a goner, Kostan,' he thought, as he held her against him still. He could not bear to let her go, to withdraw from her, to move. This was the purest moment he'd ever felt, and he wanted to remain joined to her like this forever. Her face against his neck, cooing sweet sounds that had no meaning and yet said everything, for both of them.

"I'm strangling you, aren't I?" she asked as she raised her arms to pull her damp hair back from her face, and her answer was a plaintive moan as he slid from his place inside her. "I'm sorry," she added, snuggling closer.

"It's okay. Although I will admit, if there were a way we could be surgically attached here," he slid his fingers into her, their combined fluids eliciting another groan of longing, "I'd do it. Admittedly, it might be a problem at board meetings… but it is my company." He smiled broadly. "When was the last time I told you I loved you? I forget."

"Just a minute ago, when…" She couldn't say it, nor could she prevent a blush from creeping across her face.

"Then it's been too long," he said, enchanted by her all over again. "I love you."

"I love you." Playfully, she kissed him. "But it's a little chilly out here."

"Well, then," he said, "Let's get inside and warm you up." He stood, and thrilled to the feel of her legs wrapping around his hips as he carried her into the shower.

Josef felt as if he were in some perfect fantasy. The woman he loved stood glistening with water she had made cooler for his comfort, all the proof he needed that his life was about to change in a way he could never have anticipated. He was… content, and it was a feeling so strange and wonderful, he wanted always to live in it. And with this woman at his side, he always would. He knew she anticipated lovemaking in the shower. Strangely, he wanted only to touch her, hold her soft body against his. He hoped she understood as he took a cloth and gently smoothed the tea-scented soap over her.

Tears formed at the corner of Beth's eyes as Josef smoothed the thick terry lightly over her back. She smiled as she sensed the joy in his touch, and in the perfect quiet between them. She was at peace, perhaps for the first time ever. And she hoped it would never end.

He dried her reverently before laying her on the bed, drinking her with his eyes before lying beside her. He stroked her softly, memorizing each curve with attentive hands as he kissed her over and again. As her breathing quickened, he watched her blue eyes darken and glaze with desire. Slowly, he moved from her lips to her neck, and lower, pausing to tease each nipple into straining toward him. Moving lower, lightly scraping his teeth down her torso, he paused at the spot just below her navel, before moving gingerly to part her legs, to taste the sweet, swollen heat that was her center. His name rang in his ears, as over and again she moaned, "Josef", as she reached the apex of her orgasm.

Beth knew she was clawing at his shoulders, forcing his face closer, but was unable to stop. For a moment, as he made his way down the landscape of her body, she feared he would stop, but his hesitation had quickly turned to worship, and she opened to him, knowing he was hers forever. Though spent, she wanted to return to him the pleasure she'd felt, but he simply held her, meltingly close.

"Josef, I wish I could sleep the night with you, but you need to rest in your freezer."

"I do. But I'll be back as soon as I can," he said. "I'm leaving the best of me here."

For the first time in decades, Josef was at a complete loss as to what to do. His perfect bliss, his bright future, turned to uncertainty in the blink of an eye. He fed absent-mindedly, and then made the phone call that could turn his bliss to dust.


"Josef, what's wrong?"

"Where are you?"

"Do you not even keep tabs on your plane? I landed in LA an hour ago. Turns out Coraline is doing fine without me. So I came home."

"How fast can you get to Newport Beach? I have a problem. We have a problem."

"It's Beth, isn't it?" Mick's heart sank. If anything had happened to Beth…

"She's fine, Mick, sorry. But yes, it's about Beth. How soon can you be here?"

"Less than an hour at this time of night."

"Get here in half. I'll meet you in the lobby."

Mick ran through the doors of the hotel, to find Josef pacing the lobby. Josef, the most physically calm person he knew, tracing a directionless path around potted palms. "Josef. You're sure she's alright?"

"Yes Mick. It's not Beth I'm worried about. Come upstairs. We'll talk."

Josef poured them each a large whiskey, and downed his before speaking. "I just had the best night of my life, Mick. I've never felt so close to anyone, ever. Beth really loves me."

Mick felt a pain deeper than any other he had known, but managed to suppress the primal wail that threatened to accompany it. He loved them both, and had, somehow, to find happiness in their joy. "So, what's the problem?" he asked, his shaking voice betraying his emotion.

Josef regarded him sadly. "I'm sorry, Mick. I never meant to…"

"It was her choice, Josef." Why was Josef so unhappy? The air in the room was thick with emotion.

"That's not the end of it, Mick. You love her, don't you?"

A terse nod was Mick's sad reply.

"And you would never hurt her, would you? And you'll always take care of her?"

"Josef, you can't seriously ask me that." Mick braced himself for what he was now sure was some hideous punch line.

"I don't know what to do."

"Josef, please. I'm jet lagged, I'm hungry, I'm tired, and now I'm scared. There are tears in your eyes. What the hell is wrong?"

"Promise me, if I have to step out of her life, you'll be there for her."

"If she loves you, Josef, and you love her, why on earth would you leave her? If you break her heart..."

"I couldn't. It's my heart you might hear shattering into a million lonely pieces." Josef took a deep breath before continuing. "She may choose to be with you, Mick. Or she may choose me."

"It sounds to me like she already has chosen you."

"Because she doesn't know she's pregnant." There, he'd said it. "If it's yours… You have the right to raise your child with her, Mick."

A child, who might be his, but could just as easily be Josef's. A child. His child. Or Josef's?

Thanks to everyone who stuck with this to the end. I appreciate your time, and your thoughtful reviews.