Liam cringed in the passenger seat of the GTO, doing his best to ignore the slight variations in sound emanating from the engine he knew by heart. Clenching his hands into fists, he managed to keep his mouth shut when the car started vibrating as Annie pulled into a parking space near the beach. Reminding himself she knew what she was doing, he held his breath until she eased down on the clutch and shifted into neutral. Parking effectively, but without much finesse, she shut off the engine.
The setting sun made her hair blaze like fire as she beamed and announced proudly. "I did it."
Liam willed his fingers to uncurl and expelled the breath he'd been holding. "Yeah. Yeah, you did."
"Oh, come on," she chided at his lackluster response. "That was awesome. I didn't stall it once."
"True," he allowed, his stomach twisting at the thought.
"And I barely grinded the gears," she added.
Wincing, he recalled their first lesson when he practically heard each individual gear being stripped down to metal splinters as she tried to shift between first and second. His prediction of a heart attack almost came to pass. "Also true."
"I'm totally getting the hang of this," she said with confidence, turning back to the wheel and appraising the dashboard. Liam almost wished she wasn't. The more comfortable she got driving his car, the more she'd want to and since he couldn't seem to say no to her no matter what crazy request slipped past those gorgeous lips, he would probably die of cardiac arrest before he reached his eighteenth birthday. Dragging a hand over his face, he still couldn't help smiling at her enthusiasm. Annie glanced at him slyly from the corner of her eye. "I did way better than Teddy."
"Teddy? What are you talking about?" he demanded, whipping his head around and giving her his full, undivided attention.
Annie shrugged and pulled the keys from the ignition. "Oh, it's nothing."
Narrowing his eyes, he reached for the keys only to have her anticipate the move and snatch them out of his grasp. "Annie…" he warned.
"Liam," she replied, matching his tone and struggling to keep her expression neutral.
"What did Teddy do to my car?" he asked, draping his arm over the back of the seat.
Scrunching up her face, she pretended to think, all the while twirling his keys on a finger out the window, well beyond his grasp. "I'm not sure how to explain it. I mean, I clearly have no idea how cars work since I barely got us here in one piece-."
Unable to reclaim the keys, Liam settled for the next best thing and popped Annie's seatbelt so he could drag her across the full bench seat to his side of the car. A gasp of surprise turned into a laugh and she held the keys hostage behind her back.
"Now," he said, pinning her in place with his arms braced behind her head and next to her hip. Leaning in close enough to feel her breath on his lips, he tried one more time. "Tell me what happened to my car."
Annie's gaze dropped to his mouth, but she held her ground. "Not until you admit it."
"That I'm actually kinda good at driving your precious car," she said, raising a brow in challenge.
"Fine," he replied, but instead of saying the words he gave into the temptation he created and brushed her lips with a kiss. Annie had picked up the basics of driving a manual transmission and he even though he'd never be able to ride shotgun in his own car, he'd admit she was a quick study. He pulled back only far enough to speak. "You're kinda good at driving my car."
"Mmm," she murmured, pressing her lips together for a moment, savoring the kiss. Then her lids fluttered open and looked at him expectantly. "And?"
He frowned, searching her face. "And what?"
"And every time I'm about to shift you press down with your left foot like you're going for the clutch."
"I do not," he denied, incredulous.
"Oh yes, you do!" she cried, laughing at the stricken expression on his face. Curling the fingers of her free hand around the collar of the button down he wore over a white t-shirt, she added. "It's like drivers ed all over again when my dad nearly put a hole in the floor on the passenger side trying to stomp on the brake."
"I…Whatever," he glowered, mildly embarrassed. "What are you doing watching me anyway? You're supposed to be watching the road."
Annie rolled her eyes. "This is definitely just like drivers ed."
"Okay, truce," he declared, his hand traveling higher on her hip, his thumb ducking below the hem of her top to sweep the bare skin. "Tell me what happened to my car."
"Liam, nothing happened," she promised, warming to his touch. She abandoned his shirt and sunk her fingers into his hair, trying to tug him close enough to claim his lips once again. When he refused, she pouted and sighed. "Fine. Teddy stalled it out a few times when he drove it back to your place when you were in the hospital."
"I knew it," he said with grim triumph. Glancing toward the dash, as if he could see directly into the engine he shook his head. "I knew it wasn't running right. The gears have been sticking and shifting into second there's this weird-."
Distracted as he was, Annie easily succeeded in guiding his face back to her and closing the gap between them. Her mouth was soft, but insistent on his and he soon forgot all about the car as she dragged her nails over the nap of his neck. Breaking the contact only enough to form words, she murmured. "I don't want to talk about the car."
"What car?" he asked, the question lost as their lips met again. With little effort, he shifted and pulled her into his lap. Working the keys from her grasp, he tossed them on the driver's side so she could focus completely on them. Happy to oblige, she offered no resistance and caught his face in her hands while she straddled his thighs.
"We're already late," she sighed, after a few intense moments. Liam actually had to search his memory for the reason they were out in the first place. Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, school started next week… That was it, the end of the summer beach party.
"I didn't want to come anyway," he muttered, returning to the much more pleasurable task of making her writhe in his arms. Brushing her hair off her neck, he left a trail of open mouth kisses down the column of her throat.
"Mmm, I know," Annie breathed, coaxing his lips back to hers to taste him again for a few delicious seconds. "But I haven't seen Silver in forever."
"And that's a bad thing?" he argued, moving in for another kiss. "Let's just hang out alone tonight."
Laughing, as she tilted her head and thwarted his attempt, Annie shook her head. "I'd be flattered that you don't want to share me if I didn't know you were using me as an excuse to be a hermit."
"I hate parties."
"No, you hate people," she clarified, opening the passenger door and crawling off him. Bracing a hand on the roof, she leaned down and winked. "But today is your lucky day, know why?"
Grabbing his keys, he climbed out after her and stood close enough that she had to crane her neck to look at him. Automatically, his hands locked securely around her waist and pulled her flush against him so there would be no mistaking his intentions. "Because we're going to spend this party like we did the last one?"
Even in the dark, he could see the blush creep up her cheeks as he bested her attempts at seduction. "Well, I was going to say that you don't have to play sober cab since I am 'kinda good' at driving your car," she shrugged and twisted out of his grasp, backing down the path to the sand, the innocent expression in direct contrast to her tantalizing promise. "But you never know. Maybe you'll get lucky twice."
Making the appointment to speak with an attorney had been one of the hardest phone calls in Colleen's recent memory. Actually showing up to said appointment turned out to be infinitely more difficult. She would have liked to put it off another week, but with Jeffery out of town on business and Liam breathing down her neck, demanding to know what she was going to do, any further delay would be merely prolonging the inevitable.
The office of Elaine Newcomb, Attorney at Law, was not the ostentatious dark wood and leather fortress that housed the lawyers working for Jeffery's company. Colleen found the neutral grey walls, carpet and blond wood trim soothing by comparison, much more her league. She could actually envision having a conversation with this woman and being assertive and honest, rather than hiding behind vague generalizations and inoffensive commentary. Even so, she had to fold her hands tightly and concentrate on keeping them in her lap to avoid fidgeting as Elaine examined the copy of the prenuptial agreement.
"What do you think?" Colleen prompted moments later when Elaine set the sheaf of documents down on her desk.
"Well, as prenups go this one is fairly straightforward," Elaine explained, removing her black rimmed reading glasses and tucking her grey streaked hair behind her ear. Colleen found herself fascinated by that little admission of age. Grey hair in LA was about as common as snow in July. "The only interesting part is that little infidelity clause. Was that really his idea?"
"Yes," Colleen nodded, not trusting herself to say more. To her surprise, the anger and humiliation she'd felt at Mastro's hadn't dulled as the days passed. Jeffery had had the decency to stay away that night like she'd asked, but the very next morning he'd shown up at the house with flowers and diamonds and apologies. She'd been as cold as she was capable of being, but the man was confident and determined. No matter what faced him, Jeffery Sarkosian always won.
"That is an impressive level of arrogance," Elaine commented wryly.
This time Colleen managed a strained smile. "Yes, it is. Based on what I've told you, will the clause apply if I sue for divorce?"
The lawyer pressed her subtly painted lips together in thought. "If it were up to me, based on his past, I would say yes. Unfortunately, it's not and a man like Jeffery Sarkosian didn't get to where he is by embracing morals and honesty. His attorneys will probably argue that since the definition of infidelity is left ambiguous, a date with the assumption of more does not qualify."
Colleen's heart fell like a rock to her stomach. Even though she'd never believed it would be easy, she had desperately hoped otherwise. "So, what are my options?"
"Well, filing for divorce is easy. Jeffery may challenge it, but there's nothing stopping you from leaving your husband."
"But my son and I would have nothing."
"I know," Elaine nodded sympathetically. "Look, what you need is evidence. Proof that Jeffery's plans that night didn't end with a simple dinner."
Evidence, proof, assumption, morals, ethics…every word weighed on Colleen's resolve tipping it perilously close to the breaking point. How bad would it really be to succumb to Jeffery's apologies? He never did anything half way and already the lengths he was going to win her back had surpassed any he'd used before. If…no, when he cheated on her again, he'd have the decency to keep it quiet, let her believe their marriage was perfect. She could do it. She was a master at denial.
But, god, what about Liam? If possible, her heart sank even lower at the thought of his reaction. She'd lose him for good if she failed to grow a backbone and eradicate Jeffery from their lives. Truthfully, she couldn't believe he'd stood by her this long. Then again, he was her son and his capacity for misplaced loyalty was a boundless as hers.
Arriving at a decision, she squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. Gazing levelly at Elaine even though her heart was pounding, she asked. "Okay. What kind of proof are we talking about?"
The baggage claim area at LAX bustled with travelers. Most wore tired but expectant expressions; some anxious to begin a long vacation, others eager to return to their homes and get back to normal life. Debbie and Harry Wilson, however, could have passed for TSA officials had they the proper uniforms. Wearing identical expressions of impatience and irritation, they stood a few feet apart and watched the entryway from the terminal. Confronting Dixon as a unified front had seemed best the night before when Debbie had called her soon-to-be ex. Now, she wished she'd come alone.
"Are you sure we have the right gate?" she asked without looking at Harry.
With an audible exasperated sigh, he replied. "Yes."
"Are you positive?" she pressed, unwilling for some reason to accept his word.
"Debbie, I double checked twice," he said, closing the gap between them and pitching his voice low. "There aren't that many flights arriving from Hawaii. He's not even late. Why don't you sit down and rel-."
"Don't you dare tell me to relax," she warned through clenched teeth. "We wouldn't even have to deal with this if you hadn't undermined my decision and gave Dixon mixed signals that it was okay to go."
"So we're back to this being my fault?"
Debbie wanted to argue that it had never stopped being his fault, but held her tongue. Laying all the blame at Harry's feet would have been easy and cathartic for about five minutes until her conscience got in the way. With a glance, she chose to say nothing and schooled her thoughts against the emotional onslaught of memories that threatened her composure. Twenty years ago if someone had told her she'd barely be able to stand in the same airport terminal with Harry Wilson, she would have laughed in their face. Now, the reminder of what she was losing rubbed her nerves raw.
"How do you want to handle this?" she asked in a neutral tone.
"Not at baggage claim, that's for sure," he said with a sigh. "I'll back you up on whatever punishment you think is right."
"It's going to be hard. I told him no, you told him yes and he snuck out of the house without saying goodbye," she raised her brows and shrugged. "I don't really know what we should do."
"Well…we could let the punishment fit the crime," he suggested, the corner of his mouth hooking up in a grin. "Take away his keys."
"So Annie and I have to drive him everywhere?" Debbie rolled her eyes, but allowed a hint of a smile. "Brilliant idea, Harry."
"Yeah, but it does the job. After a week of being at the mercy of his sister to get around Dixon will think twice about his travel plans in the future."
Debbie considered the idea and decided the idea was rather poetic. Let Dixon keep his freedom, just take away his ability to enjoy it. "Alright. No car for the foreseeable future. Probably contingent on how long it takes to drive me crazy playing taxi, but we won't tell him that."
"And I'll help," he reminded her. "Just let me know. I'm only forty-five minutes away."
At the reminder that he was no longer living under the same roof, Debbie's throat closed up and she could only nod. Civil conversation over, they separated once again, each eyeing the open doorway to the terminal with mounting impatience. As Debbie struggled for each breath, she tried to convince herself that it wouldn't always be like this. Over time the sharp edge of failure and loss would dull to a manageable ache that she'd grow accustomed to, maybe even be able to forget at times.
Keeping that thought firmly in mind, she watched the monitor above the baggage carousel change to reflect Dixon's flight number. Any moment now, he'd be walking through the doors from the terminal and she'd be seeing her son for the first time in three months. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Dixon and Ivy waltzed blithely through the open doorway, backpacks slung over shoulders as they laughed. The smiles quickly drained from their faces upon noticing her and Harry. Debbie watched as they quickly said goodbye and tried to that she was mad.
"Hey, Mom. Dad," Dixon greeted them with all the enthusiasm of a man facing a firing squad. "Guess I'm in pretty deep-."
Before he could utter another word, Debbie abandoned pretense and pulled her son into a crushing hug.
On the other side of the LAX, a flight from Amsterdam via New York pulled up to the gate. Flight attendants hurried about, preparing the boarding area for deplaning. One by one, passengers began to emerge, mostly men and women in a hurry to make a quick business meeting before catching a connecting flight. Among the power suits of the first class, two blond and beautiful California girls passed through the gate, one of them obviously pregnant and clearly irritated.
"I can't believe you made me fly commercial," Jen Clark muttered bitterly, physically pushing her way past a passenger lingering too long in front of the departure board.
"Will you stop already?" Naomi rolled her eyes at her sister's hysterics and donned a pair of oversized sunglasses. Digging through her equally oversized carryon bag, she pulled out her cell. "We flew first class and you had two seats to yourself."
"I just don't see why we couldn't wait an extra day for the private jet."
"I told you. I have an appointment at the spa for the weekend," she explained for the third or fourth time. "As of Tuesday, I will be a senior and when I walk through those doors as West Bev I plan on looking better than my best."
"Right, but what you haven't told me is why you want to walk through those doors at all," Jen replied, placing a surprisingly gentle hand on Naomi and forcing her to stop and look at her. Real concern lurked deep behind her piercing blue eyes. "Considering what happened, you're perfectly justified in washing your hands of that place. We could have hired the best tutors in Europe."
Naomi swallowed the by now familiar wave of nausea that threatened to choke her whenever she thought about Mr. Cannon and what he'd done to her. "I know. But Ca-he'll be gone and I-I refuse to let him take anything else from me."
"I still think you should sue-."
"Jen. No," Naomi cut her off with an emphatic flick of her wrist. Looking at her sister now, she still had trouble believing they'd not only spent the summer together but become something resembling friends in the process. "That's not going to happen."
"Are you going to tell anybody?" she demanded, not for the first time.
Naomi took a deep breath. Friends they may be, but that didn't stop her from wanting to throttle her sister on occasion. Things hadn't changed that much. "No. I'm not. I'm going to pretend the rape never happened. As far as anybody knows, nothing changed over the summer."
Although Annie tried to be social and mingle with her classmates on the beach, when Liam drifted to the fringes of the party, she felt his absence acutely. Still, she was determined to start her senior year on a much different note than her junior, so she slowly worked her way through the crowds, casting glances every now and then at the far bonfire where Liam sat in the sand, nursing a beer and watching the last rays of the setting sun disappear below the horizon.
Half an hour later, she gave in and joined him, dropping to her knees next to him in the sand. "You are such a brat. You barely spent five minutes saying hi."
"Whatever," Liam scoffed, his hand traveling up her thigh to curl possessively around her hip. "You were talking to people you don't even know."
"I happen to be a very friendly person," she replied haughtily, reaching over him and plucking the beer bottle from his other hand.
He watched her, one brow raised as she took a sip. "What happened to you playing sober cab?"
"It's insurance," she said, narrowing her eyes and biting back a smirk. "We'll just have to stay for hours now to make sure the alcohol from that one tiny sip is out of my system."
Liam laughed and took the bottle back. "How you convinced people you were a good girl is beyond me."
"Oh yeah," she replied, bracing her hands on her knees and leaning forward until their noses almost touched. The delicious thrill of anticipation washed over her as his gaze automatically dropped to her lips. "I'm a total badass."
Liam didn't waste time with words, his hand moving from her hip to wrap around her neck and tug her mouth to his. With a contented sigh, Annie returned the kiss and swore off any further efforts at being sociable. This was where she wanted to be, always wanted to be, wrapped up in Liam and the way he could make her feel like she was the only person in his world. When she'd marveled over being a normal couple, she hadn't been kidding. She honestly hadn't known if the intensity of their connection would survive after the threats they'd been facing disappeared. When he kissed her, however, any rogue doubts still lingering in her mind melted away and she knew her fears were without merit.
"Ugh, will you two get a room?" Silver tsked in disgust as she plunked down in the sand next to them. Annie pulled away in surprise, a grin already curving the corner of her swollen lips despite the slight flush of embarrassment creeping up her cheeks. Liam shot Silver a look that would probably would have killed if she hadn't been busily flipping through text messages on her cell.
"Believe me, I tried," he grumbled, stretching back to prop himself up in the sand. Twisting out of her perch on her knees, Annie scooted close to his side as he tipped his head toward her. "She made me come."
"And the rest of us thank you for bringing Mr. Anti-Social to the party," Silver replied wryly, raising a brow at her friend. "He's such a joy."
"There's an entire beach you could harass," he shot back. "Why don't you go bother someone else?"
"You two really do fight like family," Annie observed with a laugh.
"Yeah, he's like the little brother I never wanted," Silver drawled as Teddy joined them.
"Hey," he greeted them for the first time that evening and pulled up a piece of sand for himself. "What's up?"
"I was just about to drown your girlfriend," Liam replied, flashing a broad grin at Silver.
"Don't mind him. He's just cranky because Annie made him come out of his cave," the brunette replied with an equally taunting expression.
"Maybe you guys are related," Teddy teased, earning a withering glance from his girlfriend before she returned her attention to her phone. Taking a sip from his own beer, he turned to Annie. "So…are you ready for Tuesday?"
"Dude, seriously?" Liam demanded before she could say a word. Annie tried, and failed, not to tense up at the reminder that she still wasn't done with Jasper. Just as Liam predicted, he, Teddy and Silver had received identical summons and while she felt infinitely better knowing they'd be there with her, she was still maddeningly nervous.
Teddy held up his hands. "Sorry. Didn't know the subject was off limits."
"It's not. He's just overprotective," Annie insisted even as she met Liam's eye gratefully. He made no attempt to argue, holding her gaze steadily. Turning back to Teddy, she forced a smile. "I'm ready. I'm not looking forward to seeing Jasper, but you guys will be there. We'll just…see this through and then it will really be over. We can start our senior year without any baggage from the summer hanging over us."
"Amen, my friend," Silver agreed, raising her drink in a mock toast. Almost on cue, a beep from her momentarily abandoned cell claimed her attention. Instantly upon reading the text, her eyes went wide. "Oh…you might want to hold that thought?"
Annie glanced at Liam and frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Naomi's back," Silver replied, gesturing with her phone. "She just texted me about her 18th birthday party this weekend. No mention, of course, about the fact that we haven't spoken in three months."
Annie's stomach twisted as vivid memories from last year came unbidden to her mind. Even if they wanted to – and she didn't, not really – too many people had seen her and Liam together and very much a couple to hide it from Naomi. She wouldn't be surprised if by the time they got to school on Wednesday, the entire school had already told her all about it.
"Well, court's going to be a cakewalk now," Liam commented dryly, after they'd all digested that information.
"How do you figure that?" Silver demanded.
"Because there they have guards with guns to deal with the crazy people," he explained, but he only had eyes for Annie and they sparkled with amusement.
For just a moment, she forgot where they were as the depth of her feelings distracted her. The summer had been worth it. The thought came to her in a sudden flash of realization. Every second, good or bad, had led to not only falling in love with Liam, but trusting and relying on him in a way she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to do after what had happened with Jasper. The smile that curved her lips was unstoppable and just that quickly the nerves about whatever might happen in the future disappeared. "We're never going to be a normal couple, are we?"
"I don't know," he admitted, reaching up to brush her hair behind her ear, his fingers trailing down her cheek and over her lips before he took her chin between his thumb and forefinger. "But does it matter? I kinda like us the way we are."
Annie bit her lip, but for once it was the red reflection of the flames that turned her face pink. Leaning in she took her time and kissed him slowly. In the span of three months they'd overcome groundings, assault charges, gunshot wounds and military school. With a beginning like that, they'd be crazy to even try normal. When she pulled away, she was grinning. "No. It doesn't matter. I kinda like us, too."
AN: To say I was overwhelmed by the response to this story would be a vast, vast understatement. I have never experienced anything like it with any of my other writing and it made completing the fic such a blast. Thank you very, very much.
I am planning on a sequel, so I hope you'll all still be interested in my words in a couple months when I start posting that. Among other things, we'll see how Naomi handles Annie and Liam being together. While I love how she reacted on the show, I have something a little more…dramatic in mind that was just too big to tack on to the end as some kind of afterthought.
So, until then, thanks again.