A/N: This story is part of my AU series and takes place about a month and a half after At All Costs. Having said that, it's not absolutely necessary to read the previous stories in the series before starting this one, as far as understanding what's going on; however you might get a few spoilers for previous stories. If anyone does want to read the others first, the order the stories were written in is on my profile page. :-)

Love and Loyalty

Chapter 1

With the click of a button, twenty-four-year-old Vanessa Bender saved and closed the computer graphics file she had just completed. The striking ash-blonde beauty sat back and waited for the computer to finish. Vanessa smiled as her eyes fell on the framed photo she kept on her desk at work. Leaning forward, she picked up the picture of her fiancé, Joe Hardy, and stared into his piercing blue eyes that always seemed to sparkle with laughter. Given his head-turning good looks and outgoing, fun-loving personality, Vanessa thought the blonde-haired love of her life could have any woman he wanted and she felt blessed that he wanted her.

"Only nine more months and we'll finally be married," she murmured to the image staring back at her.

Vanessa thought briefly of the turmoil they had endured the past year but only for a moment, mindful of the promise she and Joe had made to each other. They agreed that the last, painful year would stay in the past where it belonged. To make certain the demons had been exorcised for good, the young couple had turned down all the invitations they had received from family and friends to ring in the New Year. Less than two weeks earlier they had stayed home choosing to welcome the New Year alone together.

"Our year," Joe had whispered to her just as the clock struck midnight.

'So far so good,' Vanessa thought.

Placing the photo back in its customary spot on her desk, she sighed contentedly. The first two weeks of the New Year had been quiet and peaceful, as Joe and Vanessa planned for their upcoming winter vacation – a Christmas gift from Joe's parents. World-renowned private investigator Fenton Hardy and his wife Laura had surprised not only Joe and Vanessa, but Joe's older brother Frank and his wife Callie, with an all-expenses-paid week at their favorite ski resort. Vanessa knew it was no accident that this trip coincided with the one-year anniversary of the night she had been raped, and once again felt incredibly lucky. Not only had she found Joe and fallen in love with him, but she got a second family in the process who loved her just as much as her own mother did. In the six years she and Joe had been together, she had come to think of Laura Hardy as a second mother and Fenton Hardy as the father she never had. Getting an 'older brother and sister' in Frank and Callie had been an added bonus.

Vanessa had quickly learned that Joe and his brother shared an exceptionally close relationship and understood if she wanted to be included in Joe's life, Frank automatically came as part of the package. Luckily, Vanessa had taken to Frank immediately and become quite fond of both him and Callie. Although only one year older than Joe and Vanessa, Frank and Callie had taken it upon themselves to 'watch over' the younger couple, something that had been instrumental in getting them through the past year – and some of the worst moments of their lives. Sharing their ski vacation with Frank and Callie would make it even more special.

"Vanessa, there's a Kara Lidster on the phone for you." The voice of Cohen Enterprises' receptionist coming through the intercom brought Vanessa out of her reverie. "Should I put her through?"

"Kara Lidster?!" Vanessa exclaimed both shocked and delighted. "Yes!"

Up until Vanessa had moved to Bayport shortly after her seventeenth birthday, she and Kara had been best friends. Growing up together in New York City, they were inseparable from the day they met in kindergarten, through grade school, junior high and the first two and a half years of high school. After Vanessa's mother Andrea, had packed up and relocated to the small seaside town of Bayport, Vanessa and Kara had stayed in touch for a while, but as time passed, life seemed to get in the way. While Vanessa thought of her friend often, their contact had dwindled to exchanging birthday and Christmas cards. Thrilled at the prospect of resuming an old friendship, Vanessa scooped up the phone.

"Kara?!" she said excitedly.

"Hi, Van!" Kara replied with equal enthusiasm.

"Wow, it's been forever since we've talked! To what do I owe the honor?"

"I…just missed hearing from you." Kara sounded just a little too lonely.

Vanessa tempered her enthusiasm as she sensed something wasn't quite right with her old friend. "I miss you, too."

"So…you still with that guy you met in high school? Joe? The one who wanted to be a private detective?"

"Mm-hmm," Vanessa confirmed, the happiness evident in her voice. "In fact, we're engaged."

"Oh, Van, that's great! Congratulations! When's the big day?"

"September 24th. Don't worry, you're on the guest list. No matter how long it's been, I couldn't get married without you there, K," Vanessa said fondly, using the childhood nickname she'd given her friend.

"I can't wait." Kara sounded almost wistful. "So did Joe follow through and become a private detective like he wanted to?"

"He sure did. In fact, he joined his father's business," Vanessa said, wondering why Kara was suddenly so interested in Joe's choice of career.

"What about you? Are you still working at that graphics firm?"

Vanessa hesitated, not having told Kara about the rape or the aftermath, including her change of employers. "I'm still working in graphics but with a different company. A friend of Joe's started it while he was still in college and it really took off. I'm in charge of the entire graphics department!"

"Very impressive. Sounds like you really love it."

"I do. Now tell me about you?" Vanessa left the question open-ended. When she heard nothing but a few sniffles in response, Vanessa knew she'd been right about her friend. "Kara," she said softly, "what's wrong?"

Kara was now crying openly. "I'm sorry, Van. I'm in trouble… big trouble. I didn't know who else to call. Please Van, I need your help…"