Chapter 19

Circling

"The decision to kiss for the first time is the most crucial in any love story.

It changes the relationship of two people much more strongly than even the final surrender

Because this kiss already has within it that surrender."

~ Emil Ludwig


His lips landed on hers for only an instant; a feathery caress unleashing recollections of what used to come next sweeping throughout her body. Shane lifted his chin upwards allowing his lower lip to linger ever slightly and graze the tip of Kim's nose before baptizing her with a delicate kiss on the forehead. Suppressing a pleasurable sigh, Kim's eyes flew open; the disappointment momentarily plastered all over her face. If he harbored mischief behind those soulful eyes, Shane didn't betray it. Kim's head dropped slightly forward from the weight of desire before she quickly regained a more formal stance as Shane released her.

"There, and the lady retains her honor." He noted lightly before turning to the children.

Abruptly he shifted his focus,

"Alright, let's get you two into bed before St. Nick bypasses Donovan Manor!" Shane roared as he chased the children, who laughed and squealed with glee, up the winding stairs to their rooms. Kimberly lagged behind consumed in her thoughts. She entered Andrew's room first as Shane tucked in Jeannie in the adjoining quarters. Then switching rooms, the two passed one another in polite silence repeating the process with the other child. When Shane entered the hall once again, he heard the soft but animated voice of Kimberly as she recited a familiar poem to their daughter. Her voice low, Shane could not quite make out the selection. It appeared to be a special secret between mother and daughter. There was a palpable bond between the two born of an "us against the world" mentality that no doubt developed during the latter months of a pregnancy Shane couldn't accept. Each time he gazed into Jeannie's innocent and fragile blue eyes, Shane felt the sting of his abandonment before the little girl entered the world. "It hadn't been personal," he'd swear in those private moments when Jeannie would burrow deep into his arms as though the child feared her father might reject her again? It was as though the little girl harbored the memory of her father briefly cradling her before walking out of the maternity ward and out of her life for a time.

Now leaning beside the doorway of Jeannie's bedroom, Shane gazed affectionately as Kimberly wrinkled her nose and smiled lovingly at their daughter whispering something into her ear. His mind was still focused on deciphering Kimberly's bedtime selection as she emerged from Jeannie's room. Startled by Shane's presence, she avoided making eye contact and motioned towards her room across the hall.

"I think I shall retire now." Kimberly suggested softly. She hadn't quite regained her equilibrium from earlier.

A wave of disappointment flashed across his face, but the experienced poker player quickly masked it with a more neutral expression.

"Oh?" Shane inquired nonchalantly.

Kimberly had done an excellent job avoiding him all day despite outward appearances. Her ability to stubbornly cling to social norms with no hint that it bothered her aggravated the spy greatly. He wasn't sure how much more restraint he could practice at this point? However, Shane desperately wanted to prevent experiencing a Christmas Eve like the one from the year before: sipping brandy alone by the fire while gazing at a lifeless tree.

Kimberly paused whirling around to address his "implied" accusation. Narrowing her eyes slightly, she studied Shane's face for a brief moment. He had made it extremely difficult for her to retain her senses since arriving at Donovan Manor—their intimate "dates" unearthing feelings that refused to be quenched any longer. Kimberly resented every moment that she found herself studying his features, tracing the curvature of his lips and the hard, toned outline of his arms presently covered by the luxurious grey cashmere sweater he wore…

Blinking away her secret desires, Kimberly focused on the task at hand. She assumed that he'd want to continue their conversation from the night before, but had no intention of discussing their relationship…or hers and Philip's, or anything else with him!

However, Kimberly detected no hidden agenda lurking behind the spy's stoic countenance. No, Shane displayed the same sincere, carefree expression that he carried when he kissed her downstairs moments earlier. Though a look of perplexity grew over his face as Shane waited for a response. Instantly Kimberly realized her folly.

"The children's stockings…" She acknowledged gently sliding her hands securely into the pockets of her silk burgundy robe. She felt cold.

Saving face Kimberly tilted her head to the side and quipped, " Santa's helper is falling down on the job, huh?"

The calculating spy had won this round!

"Why, it's the most crucial aspect of the evening's festivities!" He assured her heartily as Kimberly stepped towards him offering a conciliatory nod. His dimples twitching, Shane added mischievously,

"No harm, no foul. Santa will simply plop a lump of coal into yours."

Wrapping her arms around herself for warmth,

"I'll take your lump of coal kind Sir, and use it to warm my cold feet tonight!" She replied jokingly.

Kimberly's lively laughter melted the air of tension between the two, so Shane extended his arm as an invitation to escort her down the stairs. Gingerly Kimberly latched onto it and followed him, so they could finish preparing for the early morning celebration.


Location: Donovan Family Room

Gathering the children's goodies that were safely stashed away in corner closets of the Manor, Shane and Kimberly knelt by the fireplace to sort and place under the tree and into the velvety stockings. The tranquil magic of a Christmas Eve evening captured the two guarded hearts as they wrapped their children's presents from Santa. Stealing subtle glances in one another's direction, they tiptoed around each other carefully avoiding topics that might ruin their much-anticipated evening. The conversation remained light, but cautious.

"A compass?" Quizzed Kimberly when she noticed Shane retrieve it from the bag, scribble on the card attached to it, and place it in Andrew's stocking.

Shane's eyes lit up.

"Yes, the boy's going to be hiking and camping more this year…"

"Ah, yes…" Kimberly slowly affirmed. "The Brady family tradition of all things Scouting continues."

Shane arched his brow curiously knowing that the only time he could ever remember Kimberly sleeping out in the "great outdoors" was when they were in West Virginia, which hadn't been by choice.

Her eyes twinkling from the memory that the conversation produced, Kimberly corrected,

"The male ones, of course." She quipped passing another item in his direction to add to Andrew's stocking. Their fingers lightly caressed each other; the delicate thread remaining intact despite their perceived separation.

"Bo, a Scout?" Shane interrupted incredulously after pondering her statement. "You've got to be kidding me!" He roared, which induced ripples of laughter from Kimberly.

Pressing her thumb and forefinger together,

"Barely." She clarified and then sighed, "You know Pop; once an idea is in his head..."

Indeed he did, and the way the corners of Shane's mouth turned upward indicated where his mind drifted with her statement. The bundle of mistletoe hung impishly in the distant background just over Shane's right shoulder and accusingly in Kimberly's line of sight. She gazed down at the array of hair bows and charms for Jeannie that were in her lap and focused on the task at hand.

The crackling of the fire mimicked the futility of their conversation.

When Shane didn't speak, the oppressive silence forced Kimberly out of her shell. She cleared her throat as a last ditch effort to salvage the evening.

"You know, I still remember us standing at one of those awards banquets for Roman, not Eagle, but one before that…"

"Star, perhaps?" Shane offered grateful to see the light in her eyes return from behind the shadows the fire created between them.

"Yeah, maybe that's it." Her eyes lifted to see him watching her intently, his compassionate smile encouraging her to continue. Beaming once more at the recollection, she leaned forward instinctively. Kimberly began gesturing with her hands— the brightness of her eyes overshadowing the brilliance of the fire.

"And one of the other fishermen from the riverfront—one of Pop's good buddies, asks Bo if he was looking forward to becoming a Cub Scout..."

Shane eyes widened waiting for the punch line as Kimberly leaned back dramatically cupping her beautiful manicured hand and placing it on her right hip. Putting on her best child-like Bo Brady impersonation, she scoffed irritably:

"Well no!"

Pausing for effect and then continuing,

"Because number one! You have to do what they tell you! And number two, they make you do all this extra work!"

Kimberly smiled triumphantly at the accuracy of her narration.

"Oh, now that's the Bo Brady I recognize!" Shane howled exuberantly. "Never one for authoritative institutions." He added with a boisterous laugh.

Rising to standing position, Shane extended his hand to her as they maneuvered towards the fireplace—the crackling fire laughing with them.

"Which makes his emergence into the police force all the more ironic." He added elbowing Kimberly as they placed each stocking back onto their hooks positioned at the mantle. The warmth emanating from the heavenly glow of the fire beckoned them to remain at the mantle. Shane gazed into the flames stealing cautious glances in Kim's direction to study her cues. As she played absentmindedly with the holly adorning the mantle, Kimberly sighed,

"I miss the old Bo …"

"Hmm," Shane nodded affirmatively before pausing, "Meaning?" He inquired inquisitively.

When she hesitated, Shane motioned encouragingly for her to elaborate.

"He's so serious now… All his spark is gone."

"Well, that's understandable considering the sudden demise of his and Carly's…" He began diplomatically.

Kimberly waved off his explanation.

"That relationship was on borrowed time from the moment it began."

Shane arched his brow at the statement. The couple was so close to the altar that even he considered them solid. However, Kimberly and Bo were awfully close and eerily similar in many ways, so he listened closely to her assessment. She whirled around to retrieve two oranges to place in the children's stockings. Handing one to Shane, who slipped it into Andrew's stocking,

"It's more than Carly's sudden abandonment, Shane. Bo hasn't been himself since…"

Immediately catching on,

"Hope." Shane interjected empathetically. The usually astute spy hadn't given much thought to Bo's personal choices being mired in his own personal hell for so long. But Kimberly's concern for her brother caused Shane to realize a few things for the very first time. His steady gaze coaxed her to meet his eyes head on.

"I see your point. He loved her very much." Shane exhaled sympathetically, " One doesn't bounce back from a loss like that." He admitted in a low voice casting an affectionate gaze in Kim's direction. But she was too absorbed in commiserating over her brother's personal anguish to pick up on the cues.

"Yes, too much to easily open himself up to another woman so quickly."

She pivoted her body towards Shane to punctuate her opinion. Whatever boundaries Kimberly had placed between them were knocked down briefly due to her passionate opinions towards Bo's wellbeing. Her blue-green eyes blazing and her right hand still holding onto the mantle, Kimberly mirrored an attorney pleading her case to Shane. It was endearing. Waving her left hand erratically,

"He goes traipsing off half-cocked into vigilantism. Then, Steve gets killed and he plunges into a relationship with a woman who clearly never blew out the torch she held…!"

"Alamain." Shane interrupted tersely.

Kimberly flinched slightly at the force of his voice feeling as though she'd been smacked across the face by the intensity of his words. Shane's eyes widened apologetically but he was lost at how to respond. It conjured up memories for both that neither really didn't want to address at the moment. Kimberly retreated back into a protective state, turning towards the fire one more. Staring at Jeannie's stocking, she traced the golden embroidered letters. Speaking softly,

"It was evident from day one in my opinion—long before Nicholas was an issue."

"What? That Carly still harbored feelings for Alamaine?" He asked rhetorically. For too long Shane focused on the glaring hole in Kimberly's assessment of men in her life but this discussion punctuated just how well Kimberly could read people and literally had the case assessed perfectly in the beginning. Not only the case, but also him, which made Shane feel as though they weren't merely talking about Bo's motives for pursuing Carly anymore.

"Well yes." Kimberly answered grasping for something to focus on or do instead of letting her eyes rest on him. "I never held anything personally against her, it's just that those two never seemed to be happy together, you know?"

Indeed, he did.

Having fumbled anxiously for several minutes with the Christmas display on the mantle, the ribbon and garland had become untangled. Slightly embarrassed, Kimberly slipped her hands into the pockets of her robe, but her eyes remained fixated on the fire below.

Standing by the mantle, it was difficult to determine if it was the physical flames creating the flush feeling within her cheeks or the emotional ones producing the effect.

"Ah, misery loves company." The spy offered wisely after a strange silence befell the room.

Kimberly nodded her head affirmatively just as Shane added with a self-indictment,

"Invest in something safe with very little risk, and lose nothing when it inevitably ends." He revealed bitterly.

"Lose nothing?" Kimberly questioned incredulously. She turned to address him, but only briefly. "I'd say having your heart smashed into a thousand little pieces is a great deal more than nothing."

The whole tone of their discussion felt strangely like a break down of their own lives and the tortured spy couldn't help but laugh at the macabre of it all.

"It's hardly funny, Shane." She scolded gently.

"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes when presented with such absurdity, all one can do is laugh at oneself."

From the corner of her eye, Kimberly could see him studying her every move.

"Well, that would explain why Bo's moved on so quickly with Billie Reed." She observed soberly taking the direction of their conversation back to its original topic. "Still, my little brother needs to recognize that what he's doing is emotionally destructive, and not just to him, but those around him." She added quite prophetically.

Her words lingering in the air, their eyes locked as the truth swirled around them amplified by the glittering lights of the tree. Were they discussing Bo and his women issues, or the affair with her sister, or her and Philip presently?

Suddenly the fire withheld its warmth from them.

"Oh, I suspect on some level he knows what he's doing." Shane keenly observed never taking his focus off the windows into Kim's soul that now burned a bright green against the backdrop of darken room— lit only by the flicker of the fire and twinkling of Christmas tree lights behind him.

"And it only works for so long before…" He let his words hang in the balance almost beckoning her to take the bait.

But Kimberly didn't.

Shane half-expected her to craft another flimsy excuse to flee, but she simply abandoned her perch by the fireplace and retreated towards the shadows on the other side of the tree by the window. Shane knelt down by the hearth to stoke the dwindling fire as the conversation trudged forward.

"So you are saying he used her?" Kimberly suggested with a hint of condemnation lacing the statement.

Kimberly paused by the tree lightly tracing the needles with her right fingers as her eyes lifted towards the mistletoe. All pretenses of merriment vanished leaving the quiet stillness of a winter's eve to punctuate the seriousness of their conversation. Her back remaining to him, she waited for his reply. Shane heaved a labored sigh as the iron poker clanked against hearth.

"Probably as much as she was using him to get back at Alamaine." He shot back pointedly.

Kimberly stopped dead in her tracks— his words pricking her heart. From the corner of his left eye, Shane could see her petite frame shrouded in red fitting of the scarlet letter Kimberly subconsciously wore. She whirled back around to face him folding her arms across her breast defensively. Of course, he'd have to allude to that, again! Offended by the accusatory nature of Shane's statement, she hurled another flame in his direction.

"Ah, I see… now the pot is calling the kettle black!"

The gauntlet had dropped and both of them knew that the discussion wasn't about Bo's torture but their own miserable mistakes. "Which is what you were doing with her!" The burning unspoken admission loomed over them. Shane returned the iron poker to its resting place and contemplated his course of action. They quite literally stumbled into a familiar war, but he possessed little interest in pursuing this route. Their ability to employ cutthroat tactics to maintain their emotional distance had been his downfall with her in the first place.

"Not exactly, Kimberly." He answered wearily. "But at least we are finally getting somewhere with this little exercise." He noted wryly.

Standing, he strolled up behind her. Placing his hands remorsefully on her shoulders, Kimberly rebuffed his comfort and whirled around to face him stepping back in the process. Shaking her head vehemently,

"No, I don't think that we're moving forward here if that's what you're trying to suggest?"

Confidently Shane threw his shoulders back removing his hands and sliding them into his black trouser pockets. The corners of his mouth turned upwards ever so slightly waiting for her to continue.

"I don't know why we do this." She acknowledged weakly. "We go round and around and frankly it's a bit dizzying."

"I agree. Let's stop spinning our wheels." He replied evenly.

"More like stop pretending." Kimberly replied sharply as she studied his face for a moment. He resembled so much of the man she'd met all those years ago except now Kimberly viewed him differently. No matter how much she loved him, no matter how altruistic his intentions in the beginning, ultimately the game lured him back in and always left her on the wrong end of the spectrum. Maybe Kimberly couldn't completely forget all those alluring memories from their past, but she sure as hell could kill the little masochist that seemed to relish in the thrill of them!

"What exactly are you getting at?" Shane sighed exasperatingly. The way he serenely stood before her innocently playing his cards infuriated her, so Kimberly struck back.

"What's going on here between us!" She exclaimed passionately.

"Which is?"

The glint in his eye betrayed his acknowledgement that indeed, something was brewing between the former lovers, which incensed Kimberly even more.

"How dare you try to throw this on me!" She cried out.

"Madame, if I have overstepped the boundaries of common decency; please, accept my apologies." He replied calmly.

Kimberly didn't know whether she would rather him overstep those boundaries, or pummel him with one of the oranges they had just placed in the children's stockings! The revelation of her and Philip setting a date for their wedding clung to the tip of her tongue begging to be unleashed on him. Instead she regained her composure and coolly announced:

"I'll stay through tomorrow, but then I am traveling to Berlin to spend New Year's with my fiancé."

"I see."

If her announcement rattled him, the spy didn't let on.

"The children should stay here so that you can have as much time with them." She added reassuringly.

"I'd appreciate that." He nodded cordially.

And then, there seemed to be nothing left to say. In the distance, the old grandfather clock in the entry hall chimed midnight.

Kimberly turned on her heel retreating towards the stairs when Shane called out,

"Kim?"

Halting, she remained at the doorway, "Yes."

"Philip's truly a lucky man. I sincerely hope he realizes this?" He revealed tenderly.

Kimberly's eyes fluttered around tracing the thread of carpet beneath her velvet slippers. Exactly what is he angling for? Her heart searched for a clue.

"He does." She replied meekly, so that the stillness of the room wouldn't punctuate the truth.

But they both knew it was a lie.

"Very well then; he shouldn't make the same mistake with you that I made." He admitted candidly.

"Damn you, Shane Donovan!" She muttered under her breath. The depth and genuineness dripping in his voice pierced her heart. The way the man could slip under her skin so effortlessly was criminal. Kimberly straightened her posture and peered at him from the corner of her eye attempting to appear unaffected. When his enigmatic stare didn't lift, Kimberly pivoted her face towards him—her blue-green eyes burning with an achingly mournful intensity. With a choked whisper,

"Well,... sometimes it lasts in love,... but sometimes it hurts instead."


Christmas Morning

Slowly at first, but increasing in activity, a gentle stirring interrupted a deep, but dreamless sleep. As Kimberly regained consciousness, the overriding sensation she felt was pain —the throbbing in her throat had returned in full force and body aches reverberated up and down her body. Having struggled for days with the feeling that she was falling ill, Kimberly had hoped to stave it off for at least one more! She'd spent the last Christmas in bed, sick while everyone gathered at Roman's.

"Oh, no." She lamented silently as the movement became steadily hard to ignore. "Not today." She prayed. "Any day but today."

Kimberly awoke to the jostling and joyous display of Jeannie to her left bouncing UP…and…down, UP …and…down on the bed.

"Merry Kissmas, Momma!" She exclaimed cheerfully when she saw her mother's eyes open.

Kimberly smiled faintly at the display and reached for her daughter's hand as the little girl collapsed into her mother's arms for a hug. The room still covered in the bluish haze of the early morning light, Kimberly guessed the sun wasn't quite up yet.

"Merry Christ…" The stabbing pain prevented a hearty return; thus the words came out in a hoarse whisper. "…mas, my little one."

Kimberly hoisted herself up and reached for her robe as Jeannie scurried off the bed and waved her mother to follow.

"Where's your brother?" She asked, her voice raspy as she stumbled into the bathroom to freshen up.

"Getting daddy!"

Kimberly emerged seconds later and momentarily leaned her head against the doorframe then let her daughter pull her out of the room and down the hall. Colliding with a drowsy Shane,

"I'll get the coffee brewing?" He suggested groggily as Andrew sprinted ahead.

"Tea would be better." She whispered as the two parents made their way down the stairs.

Shane paused at the foot of the stairs surveying Kim's appearance. Her weak voice and pale features alarmed him.

"You feeling ok?" He asked placing a comforting hand upon Kim's right shoulder before they entered the festive room.

"I'm FINE." She emphasized. "Just not awake yet."

Christmas Morning revealed a renewed light flowing in from the grand window creating a dazzling contrast to the lush greenery of the decorated tree to the right of it. Its spicy pine aroma beckoned the sleepy inhabitants to enter and taste the spirit of the Christmas morn'. Kimberly whirled around to soak in the merriment of the children rushing to their stockings overflowing with goodies from "Santa." Knowing that arguing with her would be unproductive, Shane fetched the tea before the family commenced with their private little gift exchange.

The remnants of the blizzard had blown off the isle during the night and revealed a bright snowy landscape along the rolling hills of the Cotswold. Handel's 'Messiah' played softly and dreamily in the background as the Donovan children tore open their presents; Shane and Kimberly seated at opposite ends of the tree. Finding it particularly difficult to sit still while the others exchanged their gifts, Jeannie alternated between the laps of her parents. Andrew assumed the role of reading each tag attached to the gifts and then passing it to its recipient. Delighted with her new tea set, Jeannie flitted around filling her parent's cups and saucers every few minutes while Shane helped Andrew assemble the freight cars for the train set. Predominately remaining an observer to the lively scene, Kimberly struggled to remain animated and present with them all the while her head throbbed and body ached with chills.

"Kimberly, we have an engineer in our midst!" He boasted after the boy made some last minute adjustments to one of the cars.

For Simmons, the visual seemed just perfect for the old place and he neglected to conceal the pleasure he derived from the activities. Kimberly had no intention of dampening the day with her illness or the internal conflict churning within over her confrontations with Shane from the past few days. For his part, Shane seemed content with allowing Kimberly to drive their interactions for what best suited her. His affable manner created a joyous and affectionate atmosphere for the two young children to witness and treasure for years to come. Without realizing it, his delicate tact with her only drew Kimberly closer to the man she was fighting fervently to stay detached from.

Shortly after lunch, Peachy arrived and the Manor exploded with activity once again. Simultaneously the phone began to ring with Christmas Greetings from family and friends back in the States. Taking Peachy's woolen scarf and coat, Shane detected that the elder spy had business on the brain. Simmons escorted the array of beautifully wrapped gifts to the tree as Kimberly disappeared into the study with the children to continue multiple phone conversations.

"Here, I brought you something extra." Peachy slapped the newspaper against Shane's chest cutting her eyes towards him accusingly,

"I see that we couldn't take a day off to observe the birth of our Lord." She observed curtly.

Pouring herself a cup of tea, then tip-toeing across the remnants of wrapping paper strewn all over the floor, the elder spy sought a comfortable seat on the leather couch. Shane followed behind.

"I beg your pardon!" He scoffed. Focusing his attention towards the paper, he read the headline from The Guardian.

"Disgruntled Elf Bombs Toy Manufacturer" Shane's eyes darted towards Peachy in amusement.

"Might you be the elf?" She eyed him cunningly as Shane read:

"…An early Christmas morning explosion rocked residents from a nearby toy…"

"Toy?" He scoffed. "Maybe for the adults!"

His voice dropped to that of a murmur as Peachy studied the spy's evolving expressions as he read the article. "Manufacturing facility in the Avellino Province of Campania, Italy…"

"Ha!" He quipped in mid-recitation. "But to answer your question: no, my celebration hasn't been short-changed in the least." A self-congratulatory grin slithered across his mouth before admitting guiltily,

"I'm afraid our little friend forced our hand the other night."

Peachy's eyes queerly darted up to his. "Yes?"

"We ran into the little worm coming out of the symphony." He answered evenly.

"I see." Peachy replied calmly though her eyes betrayed an uneasiness that the spy had seen several times in the past.

Shane shot her an admonishing look as he propped his right arm against the mantle. He really didn't need a lecture at the moment and stared into the hypnotic glare of the twinkling lights. Peachy sipped her tea and softened her stance as Shane relayed the details from their run-in with Arlo; the brightness and cheer in his eyes dissipated leaving the spy distracted as he traced his forefinger along his lower lip. Shane appeared to be in a trance— one that unnerved his mentor, so she attempted to lighten the mood.

"Well, that explains several messages we've received from Signore Piras since midnight." She noted victoriously. "Congratulations, Shane. I do believe you've rattled the poor chap."

"That was the plan, Peach." He noted cautiously. "So Kimberly becomes just a minor hiccup in his memory of Doyle's associates."

Pondering the angle, Peachy observed,

"And it forces him to depend on your resources. I'm sure he'll have to consult with his boss over the matter, which opens up a meeting for you."

Turning his attention away from the decorations,

"And we'll be sure to be oh so accommodating…after toying with him first." He remarked slyly.

Shane's eyes twinkled at the thought. Peachy set her cup and saucer behind her on the bureau as he asked about her family in order to change the subject. Waving off the inquiry,

"Ah, they're well." She exhaled pleasantly. "Still wondering when I'll retire to an old folk's home though." She added with a sigh.

The elder spy crossed her legs smoothing out the creases in her woolen pleated skirt and flashed him shrewd grin before motioning towards the study.

"I want to know how that one is doing?" Peachy requested maternally.

Shane sighed miserably and took a sip of tea trying to avoid the topic.

"Ah, I see." Peachy observed acutely. "You and the Lass waded into uncharted waters while I was away."

"No one drowned, if that's what you're trying to imply." He remarked dryly.

Appearing slightly miffed by his rebuke, Peachy changed tactics.

"Very well then." She replied thinly. "But I wasn't referring to your ongoing novella of a life, my boy!"

Shane shot his partner a look of consternation but before he could offer the proper retort, Peachy continued,

"I'm referring to how pale the Lassie looks. I don't think she's well."

He nodded affirmatively and heaved another heavy sigh.

"Yes, I noticed too, but she's being as stubborn as always. Not letting anyone help her."

"That sounds familiar." Peachy noted eying her partner sharply.

Shane's eyes darted towards the study where a rhythmic rumble ensued. "Blasted determined to carry on for everyone's benefit."

"You referring to her physical or emotional condition, Laddie?"

The twinkle in her eye induced a reciprocating wink from him that indicated the spy was far more at peace with the situation than she had given him credit. Lifting her chin appreciatively for the spy to reveal his newly discovered information, Shane strolled over towards his partner and set his empty cup on the serving tray situated on the coffee table.

"She's scared, Peach."

Peachy nodded in agreement, but narrowed her eyes intently as Shane reclined contently on the other end of the sofa.

"By your cocky demeanor, I assume that you think there is hope for the two of you?" She tried to sound neutral regarding the matter, but failed miserably. Shane slowly smiled, but offered nothing choosing to keep his findings to himself. The revelation occurred in this very room and as luck would have it; confirmed as he gazed into those mesmerizing eyes that reminded him of the waters outside his villa in Capri— right before his lips caressed hers underneath the mistletoe last night.

"Well, out with it!" Peachy pressed bringing him back to the present. "Has the Lassie said something to you…or did you overhear something between her and Collier leading to this conclusion?"

Shane waved his hand dismissively. "No, nothing like that though honestly Peach, they've been engaged for how long now with no movement in sight towards the altar?"

"True." Peachy chirped but wagged her finger at him. "Careful not to overplay your hand, Laddie. She hasn't untangled herself from that blubbering fool, yet."

Shane gestured heartily in agreement.

Unexpectedly, the warm and melodic nature of Kim's voice as her and the children entered the room interrupted the revealing conversation. Jeannie and Andrew hurried towards Peachy for hugs and exaltations, before scurrying away towards the ballroom to play with the train.

"They found her!" Kimberly gushed rushing towards Peachy for a hug. Her good cheer contagious, the room erupted in joyous affection. "Belle," She added. "John found her!"

"Oh, a Christmas miracle!" Peachy boasted clapping her hands together.

"I'm sure Roman and Marlena are ecstatic. This calls for a toast!" Shane suggested as he headed towards the kitchen to chill a bottle of champagne for the occasion.

The news from Salem lifted the spirits of the Manor once again ushering in another wave of merriment as the day wore on. However, Kimberly's condition continued to deteriorate. By mid-afternoon when the traditional Christmas feast commenced, swallowing her food became difficult. Kimberly masked her discomfort praising Simmons for his attention to detail with the roast turkey and chestnut stuffing. Later in the evening, Peachy offered to usher in the bedtime routine with Andrew and Jeannie, so Shane and Kimberly could retire in the family room alone. The bone-crushing fatigue was plastered all of Kimberly's face.

"There's something incredibly lonely about an empty tree." Shane observed as they entered the tranquil setting. The tree still brimming with lights welcomed them in, but its barren underbelly signaled the descent into the New Year and the ending to their wonderland. Kimberly gazed at Shane's wistful expression and chuckled admiringly.

"Ah, I think you spoiled them this year." She mused pleasantly rubbing her arms. It was very difficult to keep warm at the moment and the evening tea had done little to squelch the searing pain in her throat.

Shane's eyes still rested on the majestic Douglas Fir.

"Ah, discipline's for the rest of the year; Christmas is for spoiling." He proclaimed magnanimously.

Kimberly giggled at his remark. The cool, aloof spy was such a kid at heart.

"You're a good father." She complimented affectionately feeling slightly teary-eyed.

Still wearing his formal black suit for dinner, the crimson colored tie hung carelessly around Shane's neck— the spy loosening it at the first opportunity. He turned to address Kimberly's statement gazing at her for a moment. She appeared more fragile than usual. Shane wandered over to the bar to his left, fixing a brandy and replied,

"Well, I couldn't ask for a better mother for my children." He motioned and offered to fix Kimberly one. When she politely declined, Shane took a sip of the smooth amber liquid throwing a searching gaze in her direction.

Appealing to the eye, Kimberly had dressed warmly in a soft, green cashmere mock turtleneck sweater and black pencil skirt. Ever the lady, she wore heels that accentuated her toned legs hidden beneath the confinements of her stockings; Kim's hair cascaded around her shoulders. When she moved, the aroma of her perfume wafted into his nostrils filling them with memories that were far too seductive for a time like this!

Sensing Shane's eyes bathing her in desire, Kimberly blushed slightly, dropped her head and maneuvered towards the fireplace. He followed behind and placing the glass on the mantle, ignited a flame from within the mahogany firebox. The 'woosh' of the flame created immediate heat, which Kimberly instinctively leaned in to absorb, as Shane rose to standing position. Kimberly wasn't sure if it was the reverberating heat of the fire or chills coursing through her body, but she felt light-headed suddenly. There was no use pretending anymore. Feeling flush and unsteady, fear crept into her heart that this was more than the flu!

"I don't feel well." She admitted weakly grabbing the mantle for support.

Instantly, Shane abandoned his drink wrapping his arms around her waist as she collapsed into him.

"You've put up a good front, but I think it's time you let someone take care of you, soldier." He quipped though his eyes betrayed the gravity of the situation.

Kimberly's head fell back limply as he scooped her into his strong, protective arms. Shane cradled her head for support, lifting her chin so her eyes could focus on his.

"Stay with me, Kimberly." He soothed as he delicately stroked her left cheek with his thumb. Her legs felt like jelly, so she desperately clung to his sweater. Shane's expression of adoration as he studied her dilated pupils toyed with her heart and memory.

"You know, you're being awfully nice to me considering…" Kimberly murmured as Shane escorted her to the leather sofa.

"Considering what?" He asked curiously sensing she wasn't altogether with him. Shane astutely engaged in conversation to keep her conscious. Though she uttered the words, her hazy mind wafted in and out of the present…

Like the fog hovering over the Salem pier, the weight of the spy's request for her to seduce Bronsky loomed over them.

"I wouldn't say that I was being particularly nice…" He confessed, which merely heightened her interest in him.

Laughing nervously,

"Oh I would!" She replied brightly.

"Considering I've been dreadfully mean to you." Kimberly mumbled leaning into his chest for support. Sitting had done little to stop the room from spinning.

"True." Smiling broadly,

"But it is part of your charm." He retorted still attempting to keep her talking.

Wrapping a pale blue and brown chenille throw around her shoulders, Shane rubbed her arms tenderly attempting to generate some warmth, for Kimberly kept shivering.

"Darling, you're awfully sick." He observed amorously through the haze of her spiking fever. Her head fell lifelessly on his left shoulder; her eyes lids heavy from the fatigue. "I should take you to bed." Shane mumbled compassionately, but the suggestion appeared to reveal a double meaning to her.

"Hmmm, but what about Philip?" Kimberly replied incoherently.

Pausing suddenly as her suspicious nature overtook her. " It's almost as if you're trying to get me to work for you?" She noted skeptically as her blue-green eyes turned to ice and scrutinized his expression...

Shane laughed to himself, knowing Kimberly would be horrified if she knew what was being revealed in her vulnerable state. He slid his arms around her waist and pulled her firmly against his chest. Stroking her hair,

"He isn't here, but I am my darling." He murmured seductively into her ear—his eyes scanning the room as he weighed his options.

"… Oh, I'd be nice to you under any circumstances." He admitted candidly. She tilted her head to the side dubious to his intentions.

Shane's instincts clamored that Kimberly needed a doctor. Though wildly inappropriate, Shane couldn't resist the declaration,

"God help me! I can't stop loving you." He cooed into her ear as she slipped out of consciousness…

"Why?" She prodded cynically as she attempted to unearth some hidden agenda other than the one she already was privy to.

"Because you're special." He acknowledged affectionately. ~ Jan.21, 1985