Author's Note: Well, we've finally reached the end of this part of Ethan and Theresa's journey. I hope you've enjoyed it. Just a word of warning, though, a portion of this chapter is mature in nature. That portion will be labeled with a double horizontal line so that if you prefer to avoid that portion of the story, it will be easy to sort out.
Thanks so much to all of you who have revisited this story so many years after it was originally written (remember those R&A, TurtleRun, and coffeeroom days?) and to all of you who are first time readers, as well.
Chapter Seventy-Five: "The Real Thing"
"Your game's back," Jamaal commented as Drew's three-pointer made its way through the basketball hoop.
"I'm trying not to let things distract me anymore."
"Things—or women?" Jamaal asked as he got the rebound. Dribbling the ball, he watched his opponent carefully.
"Things, women, or tough guys named Jamaal that like to try to divert me away from my game," Drew replied as he made a play for the ball.
Jamaal sidestepped him and took a shot. As it went through the hoop, the clock ran out. "Time for you to pay up, Man."
Drew groaned. "You really know how to break a guy," he said with a grin. He walked to his gym bag and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. "I guess my game is back, but yours never went away."
Jamaal smiled as Drew handed him the money. "Thanks! My ma's gonna be so surprised when I come home with grocery money!"
"Yeah? Well, you're a good hustler, kid."
"Same time next week?" Jamaal asked.
"You bet," Drew replied as he took the basketball and sank it through the hoop. "Only next week, you'd better be prepared to pay up."
"Haven't had to yet," Jamaal said with a wink before heading out the door.
Drew looked back to the hoop.
A slow clapping sound reverberated through the gym. Drew spun around when he heard it.
"Bravo, Son. Bravo. Quite the performance."
"Father! What are you doing here? This isn't exactly one of your usual haunts."
Julian wrinkled his nose and looked around the facility in disdain. "I suppose not. I'm finding it hard to believe that it could be one of yours. What were you doing anyway by losing to that boy purposely?"
Drew squared his shoulders. "What makes you think I did it on purpose?"
"Come on. We both know that Cranes don't lose otherwise."
Drew turned away from him. "You never did answer my question. What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, naturally," Julian replied, straightening his tie. "I needed to speak with you."
"About what you're doing with your life."
Drew rolled his eyes. "Right. The talk that no son wants to have with his parent. What is this anyway? I thought that you and I had an understanding. You and Grandfather have Ethan to do your bidding, and you leave me to my own devices."
"Yes. Well….things change. Besides, I think I have an offer that you can't refuse."
"Really? And what's that?"
"A chance to one-up Ethan."
Drew's eyes narrowed. "And what makes you think I would be interested?"
"Please. Hasn't that been the bane of your existence? Always so close…yet so far away."
Andrew's surprise shone on his features.
"Don't look so shocked. Competition is healthy. It's what drives us to better ourselves."
"Now you're starting to sound like Grandfather," Drew commented.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"That's not how it was intended."
"Oh, posh, Andrew. You've had quite the life, and from what I can tell, you've lived it to the fullest. Now it's time to pay up."
Drew crossed his arms. "You need me for something."
"I think you have it backward. You need me."
Drew shook his head. "I don't think so. Julian Crane does not come to places like the Harmony Youth Center unless it's out of desperation. Nor would Grandfather allow such talk if there wasn't a catch to it."
Julian rubbed his chin in thought. "All right. The truth of the matter is that I see an opportunity. Perhaps I've always seen a bit of myself in you, so I don't like the fact that you've always been on the outside, my boy. Now's your chance to prove that you are a true Crane. Now's your chance to do what Ethan never could do….make the tough decisions. Think about it."
With that, Julian turned around and left. Drew watched his father go, unable to shake the feeling that there was something more to what Julian told him. Yet how could he pass it up? Wasn't that what he'd always wanted? To be welcomed into the fold?
A fear unlike anything Ethan had ever known seized him. Quickly, he pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and dialed the emergency number.
"This is Ethan Crane. I need the police now! My girlfriend has disappeared!" his voice was frantic.
The voice on the other end was calm and collected. "Listen to me carefully and try to remain calm, Mr. Crane. What details can you give me? Did you witness an abduction?"
"No, but when I got home…."
"Sir, are you at …."
But Ethan didn't hear the voice on the other end. He was too focused on the sound of the doorknob turning. His body tensed as the door swung open. Yet relief flooded over him when he heard the tiny curse that reverberated through the room.
It was the most wonderful sound he'd ever heard.
"Stupid bag," Theresa muttered as she held a plastic bag with torn handles.
"Never mind," Ethan said hastily into the phone. "She's here." He turned off the phone and took the bags from her arms, setting them aside before pulling her into a kiss.
Theresa's senses felt overwhelmed. She could barely breathe; she could barely think. All she could do was feel. And what a feeling it was! Being near Ethan, touching him, was the most wonderful thing in the world. Of that, she had no doubt.
Finally pulling away to get some much needed air, she looked up at him, her breaths quick, her mouth swollen. "If I would have known that I would get this kind of greeting, I would go out and come back in more often."
He tenderly stroked her face. "You had me so scared."
"Scared? Why?" Theresa asked. "I just went to the store, and I did leave a note."
"A note? Where?" Ethan asked.
"On the kitchen table."
"I didn't see it."
"Hhmmm," she said as she walked into the kitchen. Sure enough, the note wasn't there. Upon closer inspection, she saw that it was on the floor. "Must have blown off when the air kicked on."
She walked back into the living room and saw the broken vase and flowers on the floor for the first time. "Oh no! What happened?"
"I don't know. That was why I got so scared. When I saw it, I thought…"
"You thought something had happened to me! Oh, Ethan, I'm so sorry!" She said gingerly placing kisses on lips. "I actually thought that I might get back before you did, but the store was pretty crowded."
He leaned his forehead down against hers. "I'm just glad that you're okay."
"Ethan, I'm never going to leave you. Never. We've spent too much time apart already."
"You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that," he said before tenderly kissing her.
"I just wish I knew what happened here," she said as she looked down at the flowers. "Do you think someone came in while both of us were gone?"
"Nothing is missing. The door was locked, too."
She frowned as she knelt down. "We should probably clean up this mess." She picked up one of the flowers Andrew brought. "I think some of these might be salvageable, but some are in bad shape."
Ethan knelt and took her hands, distracting her from the flowers. "I need you to listen to me carefully."
His tone was serious, and that worried her. "What is it?"
"Theresa, there are a lot of things going on. I'm not going to beat around the bush. It's not safe. I got a call from Gary Livingston, asking me to meet him at his office. He said he had information. When I got there about thirty minutes later, I was met by the police, and Livingston was dead."
"What? How?" Her face fell.
"Gunshot wound. The police are calling it a suicide, but there is no way that Gary Livingston killed himself. He was scared, but he wanted to talk to protect his family."
"I-I can't believe this."
"Whoever killed Livingston probably did so because he knew too much."
"And it's probably the same person who sent the imposter," Theresa supplied.
Tears filled her eyes. "This is just so terrible! After the imposter ordeal, I had my suspicions that Mr. Livingston was not on the up-and-up, but for someone to kill him? No one deserves that!"
"I know, Baby. I know."
"And why would anyone want me gone that badly?"
He shook his head. "I don't know, but I do know one thing. Gwen's not behind it."
"How can you be so sure? I don't want to think it's true, but we both know that she's capable of some very underhanded things."
"Call it an instinct on my part or selfishness on hers. She's been playing a game with us, but she doesn't want to win by default. She knows that if anything were to happen to you, I would be lost—to her, to everyone."
"Ethan, if something were to happen, I would never want you to give up. You are such a wonderful man with so many amazing gifts—amazing talents."
"It's all a moot point, because there is no way that I'm going to let anything happen to you. I know what it is to live without you, and it's not what I would even call living. It was just existing."
"I love you, Ethan."
"I love you, too, Theresa." He smiled at her. "I say the words, but somehow they don't seem adequate to show what I feel for you. Three little words: I love you. So simple, but there's so much more to how I feel."
Her heart skipped a beat, and she could feel the butterflies in her stomach. Their eyes met, and Theresa could feel the tension between them. It would be so easy just to lose herself in him, to give herself over completely. How she wanted to! But was it right to take things so far so soon?
She swallowed hard, having a difficult time forming words. "I, um, I bought some things at the store I thought you might like."
He could sense her reticence and her need to move to a more neutral subject. "Oh you did, did you?"
"She's sleeping," Luis whispered as he walked back into the living room.
Sheridan smiled at her husband. He'd been so protective of both her and Katie since they'd come home from the hospital earlier that day.
"I could've put her down," Sheridan whispered back.
Luis sat next to her. "Well, I want you to get rested up. It's a pretty big deal to have a baby, Sheridan."
"Tell me about it."
"Are you in any pain?" Luis asked touching her face. "Can I get anything for you?"
Sheridan's heart fluttered. She didn't think she would ever get used to having love showered upon her. She drifted for so many years without it. After her mother died, it was as though the light had gone out of her life. Her so-called family couldn't care less about her. Strings of relationships with men who only wanted her for her money followed. How she'd managed to find Luis, she would never know. He was a gift from God, and now they had their own precious gift together—Katherine Pilar.
"I'm fine, Luis. I promise."
"You would tell me if you weren't, wouldn't you?"
She rested her hand on his chest and grinned. "Have you ever known me to not let you know what I'm thinking?"
Luis smiled back. "Good point. You do have to be the most opinionated, stubborn woman I've ever known."
"And you have to be the most opinionated, stubborn man I've ever known. We're just lucky we made it this far," Sheridan replied, her tone a teasing one.
"Well, when you have something good, you don't want to let go of it, and I have the best there is. You—and now Katie. I'll never let anything happen to either of you. I swear it."
Sheridan frowned upon hearing the serious turn the conversation took. Something was bothering Luis. He was trying to hide it, but she could tell. She had a feeling she knew exactly what it was.
"How is Theresa?"
Luis looked at her, and she could tell that he was biting his tongue. Something had definitely happened; something that made him uncomfortable.
"Well, she's with Ethan," Luis offered as an explanation.
Sheridan nodded. Now she understood why Luis was so glum where his sister was concerned.
"She has to make her own choices, Luis," Sheridan said gently.
"But how can I stand by and let her make the wrong ones? Especially when they could very well get her killed!"
"Ethan loves her, Luis. He would lay down his life for her. You do know that, don't you?"
Luis rubbed his forehead. He supposed that in Ethan's own way, he did love Theresa. But where had it gotten either one of them? Ethan already had one failed marriage under his belt, was incredibly selfish, and Theresa was vulnerable. It just wasn't a good combination. "What I know is that he's hurt her over and over again. I just don't want to see that happen again."
Sheridan reached out and took his hands in her own. "We didn't get it right the first time, either, Luis. It took us awhile."
"That was—different. We had people working against us."
Sheridan shook her head. "It's not so different, sweetie. Ethan and Theresa had people working against them, too." She paused. "Luis, I need you to promise me something."
"What is it?"
"I want you to promise me that you're not going to be one of those people working against Ethan and Theresa. They've both been through so much, and Theresa needs the support of her brother."
Luis took a deep breath. "Oh, I've already heard the ultimatum, Sheridan."
"From Theresa. Either deal with her relationship with Ethan, or I won't have a relationship with my baby sister anymore."
"What did you do? I mean—how did that make you feel?"
"Pretty damn rotten," Luis admitted. "I love her, Sheridan. I want to protect her, and it hurts to see her in this situation."
"But she loves Ethan. It's been almost six years, and that hasn't gone away. Don't make her choose, Luis."
Luis's brown eyes met Sheridan's blue ones. "Is that what I've made you do, Sher?"
"Luis, I don't regret marrying you for a minute. You are my family now, and the Cranes are my past, but it is difficult for me when you and Ethan fight. He's the only one of my family, besides my mother, who ever cared for me. He's also one of my best friends. I just wish the two of you…" her voice trailed off.
"I don't know how to let this go," Luis said quietly.
"You're going to have to start by letting Theresa go. She's not your responsibility anymore. She's a grown woman, and she has to live her own life."
"I just—I just feel like she's my own, you know?"
"But Luis, she's not. If you don't accept that, she's not going to be in your life at all."
Luis swallowed hard. "I still remember brushing her hair and putting it in pigtails. Hank and I used to tease her a lot, but she was the most beautiful little girl. And so sweet. So trusting. At night, she used to cry out for Papa. Miguel was too young to remember him, but Theresa—Theresa remembered. I would go and check on her, and she'd wrap her little fingers around mine."
Sheridan felt tears come to her eyes. "It was hard on you not having him."
"It still is. Sheridan, my family is my life. That's why I can't let this go."
"Luis, Ethan is not the enemy."
"He's a Crane."
"So am I," she pointed out.
"But you gave that up. Ethan never will. Alistair and Julian will always have some hold over him. He'll become more and more like them, and I don't want my sister to be part of that. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me if Al and Julian didn't have something to do with the Chuck imposter and the attempt on Theresa's life."
Sheridan sighed. "Ethan's not like them in the least! Why else would he leave the company behind to strike out on his own to help those who need it? He cares about what happens to people. He is a decent man, and he is in love with your sister."
"But you don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that Alistair or Julian had something to do with the imposter."
Sheridan hesitated. She hated to admit it, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility. She, better than most, knew what her family was capable of. "I can't say for certain, but yes, it is a possibility."
"Which is another reason why Theresa needs to be away from Ethan."
"Let it go, Luis."
"You will drive her away. Is that what you want? Ethan makes Theresa happy. Let them have peace."
"I'm not promising anything. You know I don't make promises I can't keep."
"Just try. Just try."
"We are going to have a feast!" Theresa said with a smile as she stirred the arroz con pollo in the skillet. "A little sopa to go along with it; frijoles, too. I also thought I might throw together a few quesadillas. It's not exactly gourmet cuisine, but it will do."
Ethan stood behind Theresa, wrapping his hands around her waist. "Are you kidding? Do you have any idea of how much I have missed your arroz con pollo? Or your quesadilllas? You shouldn't spoil me like this."
"I like spoiling you," Theresa said with a light laugh.
"In that case, what's for dessert?"
She turned around and playfully hit his arm. "You are terrible! Actually, I thought that I would let you make dessert."
"Unless you want macaroni and cheese for dessert…"
"Oh, stop being a baby. I'll talk you through it…unless, of course, you can't follow directions," she teased.
He sniffed. "What's that I smell?"
Her brows furrowed. "I don't smell anything but the food."
"No…no. I'm pretty certain that's the scent of a challenge in the air."
"If you think you're up to it," Theresa said standing on her toes and whispering into his ear.
"I'm up for anything you throw my way," he replied with a grin, his words tinged with a double meaning.
Theresa felt her cheeks redden. She wasn't used to the raw feelings he elicited in her, the things he made her want to do just from a simple look or the tone of his voice.
A sudden clanging noise snapped Theresa and Ethan away from their amorous thoughts. "What was that?" they asked in unison.
Walking into the living room, they saw Serendipity perched on one of the end tables, the telephone receptacle which had been there now on the floor.
"Well, it looks like we have our answer about what happened to the flowers," Ethan said with a smile.
Theresa was horrified. Serendipity never acted like this at home! "Serendipity! Get down from there!" she hissed.
The cat merely looked at her from his perch.
Theresa groaned and scooped her kitty up and placed him on the floor before picking up the phone and its holder.
"I'm just glad that no one was in here," Ethan said with relief evident in his voice. He was careful not to show too much concern in front of Theresa, but with everything that had happened in the last few days, he was afraid for her.
She shook her head. "This little monster is almost as bad. I'm sorry, Ethan. He never acts like this!"
"Maybe we can just chalk it up to being in a new place," Ethan suggested.
"Yeah. I suppose so. I, for one, like being here with you. It feels like a wonderful dream."
"This time it's the real thing, though," he said pulling into a hug. The scent of her hair filled his nostrils, and he felt intoxicated with her nearness. "Reality is better than the illusion, don't you think?"
"Mmmm. Absolutely," she replied as she leaned her head against his chest, listening to the beating of his heart, so perfectly in sync with her own. "I think we have a lot to talk about."
"I think you're right."
She looked up at him, laughter in her eyes. "But don't think that you're getting out of dessert, Mister!"
Rebecca Hotchkiss stared at the phone, trying to gather the courage to pick it up and do what must be done. How could she do it? Yet how could she not?
Think finesse, she told herself. You've always had it. Always.
But would finesse be enough to make Alistair Crane see things her way? She was accustomed to making others see things her way. Some would call it manipulation, but she preferred to think of it as a gently persuasion. But now—now she was in a situation with little control. It wasn't something she liked in the least. What was there to do?
She went into her arrangement with Alistair knowing that things could get sticky; she just thought by now they would have different results. Theresa would be gone, and Ethan would be at Gwen's side once again—where he belonged. No, it would never do to have all the Crane influence and power working against her daughter rather than for Gwen. Fortunately, Gwen still wanted Ethan. For what reason, Rebecca couldn't fathom. Ethan was attractive, yes. Intelligent, no. He was too easy to persuade.
But then Rebecca remembered the anger and sheer hatred in Ethan's eyes earlier. She had no doubt in her mind that he would destroy her—and everything she held dear—if the game she and Alistair were playing didn't cease immediately. She was just afraid that Alistair wouldn't see things from her perspective. What did he have to lose?
"Do it. Just do it," she murmured as she finally picked up the receiver.
Dialing Alistair Crane's private number, she felt her heart race as she heard the ringing on the other end.
"I was wondering how long it would take for you to call, Rebecca," came Alistair's deep voice on the other end.
He sounded amiable enough, she was relieved to hear. Yet it did make her nervous that he was expecting her to call. He seemed to know so much—and how he found out, she couldn't be sure. All she knew was that it filled her with a great uneasiness. "How did you know?"
"I make it my business to know everything. For example, I know that Ethan paid your daughter a little visit today, and you were on the receiving end of some rather harsh words."
"Yes, well…sticks and stones," Rebecca replied, trying to sound nonchalant, though it came out a bit strained.
"He worried you."
"Maybe a little," Rebecca replied in a small voice.
"When we entered into this arrangement together, I thought it was understood that weakness of mind was not to be tolerated, Rebecca. You've disappointed me."
"Yes, but when we entered into this arrangement, I had no idea of everything you intended."
"Please. You knew exactly what you were getting into. Did you think Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald was just going to go away by herself? Or that Gary Livingston would? He became a liability, Rebecca. Don't find yourself in the same situation."
Rebecca swallowed hard. There was no backing out.
"So what do we do next?"
"Lie low for awhile. We'll let things get back to normal and lure Theresa and the other Lopez-Fitzgeralds into a false sense of security. And when they least expect it…"
Rebecca closed her eyes. She'd made a deal with the devil; there was no going back.
Opening her eyes, she looked at a picture of her daughter.
What I do for you…
"I don't think I could eat another bite," Theresa said rubbing her stomach. "Gosh, I don't think I've eaten so much in….forever."
"You were supposed to save room for dessert," Ethan reminded her.
"Well, I'm sure by the time you're done, I'll have room for it."
"So what am I making, oh great chef?"
"Well, I thought about being mean and making you prepare flan, but I don't think you're quite ready for that. So then I thought chocolate chip cookies would suffice. You don't happen to have a frilly apron, do you? No cooking experience is complete without one."
Ethan snapped his fingers. "Darn. I must have left it the closet of my other apartment, along with my collection of high-heeled shoes."
Theresa giggled. "Aren't you full of surprises?"
"Never a dull moment," he said with a wink.
"Absolutely not," she replied as she stood and walked around the other side of the table where he sat. Standing behind his chair, she reached down, taking his left arm and pulling up his shirt sleeve. She did the same with his right arm as well.
Ethan pushed his chair back from the table and stood.
"Now you're ready to get down to business," Theresa announced.
He wrapped his arms around her waist. "I certainly am," he murmured before taking possession of her mouth.
"You…aren't…..going to…..get out of…..making…..dessert…." she said between kisses.
"You are one tough lady," he said with a grin as he finally pulled away from her. "It was a valiant effort, though."
"Charm will only get you so far," Theresa said taking his hands and pulling him toward the refrigerator.
"I don't know, Theresa. There are plenty of people who skirt by on their charm alone."
"Like who?" Theresa asked as she opened the refrigerator door and took out milk and eggs.
"Well," Ethan began, "my brother, for one."
Theresa chewed her bottom lip. "You weren't very happy to see him earlier, were you?"
"If you were me, would you be?" Ethan asked as he pulled flour, brown sugar, and vanilla that Theresa bought from his once-bare cupboard.
Theresa sighed. "I suppose not."
"The two of you were very….comfortable with one another."
Theresa put her hands on her hips. "Ethan Crane, are you jealous?"
"Of course not! I just…well, okay. Maybe a little. It's just that you have this—I don't know what to call it—a soft spot, maybe, for him. I don't understand it."
"That's because you only see what he lets you see of him, but Ethan, he's so much better than you or even he gives him credit."
"Theresa, he manipulates. All his life, he's used people. Then he makes messes, and he expects other people to clean them up for him."
"He manipulates only because he thinks it's the only way to get what he wants! I, better than anyone else, know what it's like to be caught in that trap, Ethan."
"That was different."
"Not so different," Theresa said softly. "I just wish you could see what I see. I have seen a side of him—a selfless side—on more than one occasion. Did you know that he plays basketball with the kids at the youth center? That's not something he has to do; it's something he likes to do. And it means so much to them. And what about what he did today? He didn't have to tell you what he knew about Gwen, but he did it because it was the right thing to do."
"He did it because he wanted to impress you."
Theresa shook her head. "No, Ethan, that's not it at all. He knows how I feel for you. I think that in some way, he's always known—even when I didn't know it myself. What he did today, he did because he knew that the situation was hurtful to me and to you."
"I guess I just can't forget how he insinuated himself into your life so that he could get back at me. It makes me so angry when I think of the way he used you, the way he hurt you."
"I was hurt by him, yes, but I've been through worse," she replied, rather pointedly.
Theresa's words hit Ethan, and he swallowed hard. "God, I'm a hypocrite, aren't I?"
"Hypocrite is not a word I would use. Ethan, we've both done things to hurt one another. But let's face it: Andrew wasn't the only one who was being a user. I used him to get back at you that night on the wharf."
"Only because I hurt you."
"Yes, you did hurt me, and what I did as a result was not something I would normally do. On the same token, Drew has done things because he's been hurt all his life by what he perceives to be your parents' preferential treatment of you. He's like a little boy, Ethan. A hurt little boy."
Frustration rose in Ethan. "But I can't change that! I can't make my parents treat him one way versus another. I don't have any control over how he feels! I think you're forgetting that Andrew is not a hurt little boy. He's a grown man, and he has to live with the consequences of his actions. We all do."
Theresa nodded. "I agree with you. He does have to live with the consequences of his actions, and I think he's starting to realize that. But I also think that he needs to be encouraged—not torn down. Ethan, I care about what happens between you and him. I just wish…."
"Resa, I think this is something we're just going to have to agree to disagree about."
"For now," she amended as she winked at him, some of the seriousness of their conversation, melting away.
Ethan couldn't help but smile. "You are so tenacious!"
"Really?" she replied as she felt his arms slid around her waist. "And just what else am I?"
"Very kind," he said kissing her forehead.
"Beautiful. So beautiful," he replied before placing a light kiss on the tip of her nose.
She giggled at the feel of his lips on her nose. "Anything else?"
Kissing her cheek, he replied, "You are quite clever."
She sighed and ran her fingers lightly down his arms. "Is there anything else left?"
His blue eyes drank her in. "One other thing. You are the most incredibly sexy woman I've ever met."
Theresa audibly sucked in a breath. Ethan lightly brushed his lips against hers. "Didn't mean to embarrass you," he murmured.
She looked up at him, her eyes dewy with love. "Embarrassment is not exactly what I'm feeling right now," she admitted.
"What are you feeling, Resa?"
"Like I need to get my bearings," she replied. "And I'm amazingly in the mood for…."
"Chocolate chip cookies?" he supplied with a grin.
"Yeah. Cookies," she replied, forcing herself to move away from him.
"I want you to be sure that you're ready for cookies. You know I'll wait until you're absolutely certain."
Theresa's heart pounded. He certainly wasn't talking about cookies anymore. She smiled. "Have I told you lately that I love you?"
"Not in the last five minutes."
"Well, I do love you, Ethan. With all of my heart. You are the best." She kissed him on the cheek before going to the cupboard to pull out shortening.
He sighed. He was glad she thought he was the best, because he certainly didn't feel so great. He knew he was responsible for so much pain in her life—and in Gwen's life.
Ethan knew that he did what he had to do where Gwen was concerned, but she was a part of his life for so many years. Yet the old anger was boiling within him again. He didn't even know how he could feel compassion for a woman who continually lied to him—tricked him—all for her own selfish purposes. Yet he did. It was utterly frustrating.
Theresa looked back and him and saw the look on his face. "What is it, Ethan?" she asked, concern filling her voice.
"I was thinking about Gwen."
"Seeing her today—seeing her desperation—it was sad. I was angry with her, so angry. I still am, but I also realize that I have a lot of culpability in this situation, as well."
"Did she admit what Drew said?"
"Finally. She denied it at first. I'm not certain that I expected otherwise. Then when she finally opened up, it was as though the floodgates were open." Ethan hesitated, wondering if what Gwen said about Andrew and herself was true. He'd like to think that his own brother wouldn't do that to him, but then again, this was Andrew Gwen was talking about. He finally continued. "Everything she'd been bottling up came out. Everything from her resentment of my feelings for you to always being second in my life. Some of the things she said were true, Theresa. I wasn't a good husband to her. I never should have married her in the first place."
"For so many reasons," Theresa said quietly. "But Ethan, I don't want you to beat yourself up over this. Remember what you said about Drew not taking responsibility for his actions? I think the same thing is going on with Gwen. She wants to blame you for what she did. It isn't your fault that she did things to keep us apart. That was a decision that she made. Those actions had consequences, but she didn't want to deal with it. So what did she do? She blamed everyone else."
"I turned my back on her today."
She squeezed his hand. "And it's hard."
"Yes, it is. I don't want her in my life, Theresa. I really don't. But I was harsh. So harsh."
"Sometimes harshness is what it takes. Gwen needs to make a life for herself, Ethan. If she's still clinging to hope that you and she will get back together, how can she move forward? No, you did the right thing. No matter how mercenary it seems, it was what needed to be done."
"You must think I'm a fool."
She shook her head vehemently. "Not at all! I think that you are truly a decent man. Even after all the garbage Gwen has hurled at us, you still have compassion for her. Not many men would. You're a good man, and that's only one of the many reasons I love you."
Ethan felt a warmth wash over him. How many times had he wanted to be near Theresa? How many times had he dreamed of her? How many times had she been out of his reach? But here she was—standing with him in his kitchen—telling him that she loved him. It was too good to be true, but it was the real thing.
"Well, I'm going to warn you that my cooking skills—or lack thereof—are not going to be one of the reasons why you love me."
"I seem to remember a certain young man dressed as an Italian waiter at the Crane Cabin several years ago who did some cooking. You did just fine then."
"But I had Chad with me. I tell you, Resa, there's nothing quite like seeing Chad Harris in a kitchen. You wouldn't think that he would know up from down, but he knows his stuff. I would've been in trouble if he hadn't been there."
"Well, I'll bail you out this time, Mr. Crane," Theresa said passing him a large mixing bowl. First things first, you need to measure out 3/4 a cup of shortening."
He measured it out and put it in the bowl. Furrowing his brows, he looked at the fatty globs. "Is that a lot of shortening?"
She laughed. "I'll just say this. If I ate these cookies all the time, I wouldn't be able to keep my girlish figure. Now we need something to sweeten it up. Go ahead and add 1-1/4 cups of brown sugar. That should do the trick."
He carefully measured it out. "When I was a little boy, I used to love brown sugar. When I'd come home for holidays, your mother used to give me spoonfuls of it to eat."
"Mama did that?" Theresa asked, surprise evident in her voice.
"Oh yeah. But she did make me promise to brush my teeth immediately afterward."
"Now that sounds like Mama!" Theresa replied. Her mother was always very concerned about the little things.
"Have you spoken to Pilar lately?" Ethan asked.
"Just the other day. I'm sure Luis has spoken to her, though, with the baby being here and all. Mama seemed happy, though I do think she worries about all of us here."
"Still, it's good that she's living for herself now," Ethan said.
"Absolutely. Even though it was so scary when she was sick, it was also a wake-up call for her, I think. She's always been so selfless, always taking care of others. Now she takes care of herself."
"I'm glad to hear it," Ethan said as he pulled out the hand mixer and plugged it in.
She smiled as she watched him. At least he knew how to use a mixer.
Ethan looked back at Theresa, seeing the amusement on her face. "What?"
"I was just thinking about you and Sheridan. You actually know how to use a mixer. When I taught Sheridan to make cookies, she was at something of a disadvantage."
"Yeah. She didn't know what a mixer was, let alone how to use one. She's improved considerably since."
"I understand that she makes a mean lasagna."
Theresa nodded. "Lasagna that could give Luigi a run for his money."
"Who would've thought?" Ethan asked with a smile. "You know, it was actually those cookies that Sheridan made that made me wonder if you were back in town. I remember going to her house one afternoon, and I smelled the most delicious aroma. It reminded me of the last time we made cookies together."
"Mmmm. That night was so much fun! I seem to remember a little game we played…"
"Don't even," he warned.
She persisted. "…and you told me your most embarrassing moment. Something about a presentation you did before your class with your zipper down."
"Oh, you are a cruel, cruel woman!" he groaned. "But I can give as good as I can take. I seem to remember that you are a closet Carpenters and Neil Diamond fan."
She sighed with exaggeration. "Guilty as charged."
"We'd be a dangerous pair if we ever resorted to blackmailing each other," Ethan teased.
She opened the package of flour. "Oh yes. The dirt we could tell!" She looked at the flour and laughed, a memory suddenly coming to her.
"What are you up to now?"
"I'm not up to anything. I just thought of more blackmail material for you. Are you up to hearing?"
"Well, when I was in college, I had a friend that the rest of us used to love to tease. You just had to know him. Jonathan was quite the character. It all worked out, though, because he loved the attention. Every spring, without fail, we would get into these—I'm not sure what to call them—prank wars, I suppose. One night, a friend of mine and I went to Jonathan's dorm room and knocked on his door. When he came out, she dumped flour on his head and I doused him with water. We floured him!"
Ethan's jaw dropped. "You floured him? You are terrible!"
"Oh, we paid for it, believe me!" Theresa replied laughing. "So when I saw this flour…"
Ethan's eyes widened. "Oh no you don't!" he said stepping back from her.
Theresa looked at him with wide-eyed innocence. "What on earth are you talking about? Do you honestly think I would flour you, Ethan?"
"In a word, yes."
"You're right!" she said laughing and coming toward him with the flour.
He held his hands up. "Think this through, Theresa. If you flour me, then we don't have flour for the cookies. Just give me the flour."
"Give it to you, eh?"
She started to lift the package, but he reached out and grabbed it from her. He took the package and put it on the top shelf where she couldn't reach.
"Hey!" she protested. "No fair!"
"I can see the way it's going to be. I'm always going to have to keep my eye on you."
"Well, I was kind of hoping that you would have more than your eye on me," she teased as she pulled his arms around her.
He leaned down and rested his forehead against hers. "Do you have any idea of how crazy you make me when you say things like that?" he whispered hoarsely.
Theresa smiled coquettishly. "Well, I'm not seventeen anymore. I do have some idea."
She gently rocked her hips against him, and he groaned as he felt himself respond to her.
She was going to be the death of him yet.
"Then you'll also know that men aren't always gentlemen," Ethan replied as he ran his hands along the hem of her shirt. She gasped when she felt him move under the material of her shirt and against her bare skin.
She raised her arms, and he lifted the shirt over her head. He looked at the beautiful creature that stood before him clad in a lacey white brassiere. She was the most exquisite sight he'd ever seen.
"I guess that's what I'm counting on," she replied as she tugged at his shirt and unbuttoned it. Her hands ran up his chest and over his shoulders, pushing the shirt down his arms. "Now we're even."
He slipped one of the straps of her bra off her shoulder and lightly kissed her shoulder, moving his way toward her neck. "Not quite," he replied before reaching behind her and unclasping the brassiere. He slid it off her body. "Now we're even."
She felt his hands cup her, and she shut her eyes. She'd always wanted to be touched by him; she'd dreamed of it. And now—now it was finally happening.
He pushed her against the kitchen cabinets, wanting so much to press himself into her, to make her his in every way. He groaned harshly at the thought.
She opened her eyes, wrapping her arms around him. Ethan looked into her brown eyes and saw love reflected in them—and trust.
He cursed himself. What was he thinking? He was practically mauling her in the kitchen of all places!
He pulled away from her. "I'm sorry, Resa. I shouldn't have…"
"I don't want you to be sorry, Ethan. I want you to want me."
"I do want you. So much it hurts." And it was true—literally. The throbbing between his legs was evidence of that.
He reached down and retrieved his shirt before draping it around her shoulders. She put her arms through it and buttoned a few of the buttons. Looking at him, she felt utterly frustrated.
"I know that I'm not exactly experienced at this sort of thing, but what am I doing wrong?"
Her voice was small, and Ethan felt like an absolute jerk.
"You're not doing anything wrong. Believe me when I say that you're doing everything right. It's just that you're too precious to me for us to rush into something that you might regret later. I just think we need to talk about this."
Theresa was touched by his words. She reached out and stroked his face. "You're too good to be true."
"I'm just a man, Resa. Just a man."
"The man that I love," she purred.
He took her hands and led her to the living room. Together, they sat on the sofa.
"I know we've gotten ourselves into trouble in the past with pedestals, but my eyes are wide open, Ethan, just as yours are wide open. I know you aren't perfect. You know that I'm not perfect. Yet none of that diminishes what I feel for you in the least."
"Theresa, it's one thing to feel something, but another thing entirely to act on those feelings."
"Ethan, we act on those feelings everyday! A simple smile, a simple touch can say so much."
"What you're talking about is a little different, Resa. I just—I just remember how you told me you wanted to wait until you were married. That when you made love for the first time, you wanted it to be with your husband."
"When I was seventeen years old, that was what I wanted. But I'm not that little girl anymore. There is still a part of me that wants that, I suppose. There is also this other part of me, Ethan—this other part that is having such a hard time waiting. I've given you my heart. It just seems right to give you my body, too."
Ethan swallowed hard. "I don't deserve you."
She lifted her fingers to his lips. "No regrets about the past. We're together now. That's all that matters."
"You make me believe that anything is possible," he whispered hoarsely.
"I honestly believe that when I'm with you, anything is possible," she replied.
He touched her face. "I just want your first time to be special, Resa." He looked around him at his bare apartment. "This wasn't exactly what I'd envisioned in all my fantasies."
"So you've fantasized about me, have you?" she teased.
He kissed the soft skin of her inner wrist, feeling her light pulse against his lips. "You could say that."
"Ethan, don't you know that I don't need a mansion or a castle? All I need is you! Being with you is what will make this special. Nothing else!"
Ethan stood and held his hands out to Theresa. She took them, and he pulled her up into his arms. A fierce wave of possession overtook him. He would be her first-her only. It was an overwhelming thought. To know that she had saved herself for him….
Theresa smiled at him as she moved her hips against him, waiting for a reaction from him. She certainly got one as she watched his eyes darken with desire and heard his soft moan.
He put his hands on her hips and brought her into contact once again with his aroused body.
Theresa looked up at him, licking her lips involuntarily.
He moved to place wet kisses along the column of her throat. She could barely catch her breath.
He then took complete possession of her mouth. His mouth coaxed hers before his tongue swept inside. She groaned low in her throat and wrapped her arms around his waist. Her nails then dug into his back. He groaned, and she thought it was the most errotic sound she'd ever heard.
Reaching between them, Ethan unfastened the buttons on the shirt she wore before tossing it aside.
He stepped back and looked at her. She was amazing. So beautiful, so pure.
Theresa put her arms around his waist and led him toward the bedroom. Once there, she turned to him as she felt his arms take hold of her. He reached behind her and unfastened the button of her skirt before unzipping it. It fell to the floor.
Theresa licked her lips as she watched him peruse her body. An unfamiliar dull ache filled her. She knew that Ethan could make it go away. Only Ethan. Only he could give her what she so desperately needed.
She smiled as she reached for the button on his pants. "All things fair," she said with a wink. She quickly finished the job she started with Ethan's pants and smiled as they hit the floor. Clad only in boxers, Theresa smiled as she could see evidence of a rather sizeable bulge within them.
"Theresa…." He hissed as he felt her cup him.
Deftly, she pushed his boxers down, watching with wide-eyed wonder as he kicked them aside. She'd never seen a naked man before. Her gaze made its way from his handsome face, down his chest, and then lower until she could see his evident desire for her.
What would it be like to have him inside of her?
She took his hands and pulled him to the bed, but he hesitated.
"What is it?"
"I need to get protection," he said.
"I'm on the Pill," she said as pressed her body against his.
He buried his hands in her hair and sighed deeply.
She lay back on his bed, her golden skin a startling contrast to the navy blue comforter. He came down on top of her, gathering her in his arms.
Theresa loved everything about him; his scent, his taste, the feel of his skin under his fingertips, the strength of his body on top of hers. He could easily crush her, but he was so incredibly gentle when he touched her, when he held her. Though surrounded by his power, she was also comforted by it.
He wooed her with his tongue, his mouth, and his hands. She felt as though she was the most precious thing in the world to him. He made her feel wanton, wild, and powerful. He reacted to her every touch. She could make him groan simply by raking her fingernails across his shoulders.
She moved against him, and he held her more tightly to him, deepening the kiss.
He was determined to go slowly. He wanted to savor their first time, but he also didn't want to hurt her.
She had the softest, smoothest skin he'd ever felt. He wanted to taste every inch of her. And the scent of her skin intoxicated him. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and inhaled her sweet fragrance.
His chest covered her breasts. She gasped at the raw pleasure of feeling his skin against hers. The heat of his skin made her nipples hard, and she was overwhelmed at the erotic feelings taking hold in her body. She moved restlessly against him, wanting something more from him to alleviate the heaviness she felt in her breasts.
Ethan seemed to know exactly what she needed. His hands moved down from her shoulders to stroke her breasts. He took each of them into the palm of his hands, then slowly rubbed the pad of his thumbs across her sensitive nipples.
She let out a little cry of pleasure and dug her fingernails into shoulder blades. He grunted at the pleasure-pain she gave him, then moved down her body so that he could caress her with his mouth.
He ran his lips lightly down the valley between her breasts.
She sighed. Her skin was overly sensitive, and being so close to him felt like heaven. It was incredible. Absolutely incredible. She felt as though she was coming off the bed. She arched up, begging for more.
She didn't think it was possible to feel more pleasure until Ethan covered one of her nipples with his mouth and began to suckle. She couldn't remember to breathe. The pleasure was so intense, it consumed her. Just when she was certain she would die from the ecstasy of it, he rolled away from her.
She groaned in protest, but he met her with a hard kiss on the lips before fixing his attention on the lacey white panties she wore. His hands spanned her waist, then his fingers tucked themselves at the waistband before he gently pulled them down her slender legs.
Theresa was completely naked now. Maybe she should have felt self-conscious, but she didn't. All she knew was that she was with the man she loved. No other care in the world existed at that moment.
Ethan drank in the sight of her, the throbbing he was feeling becoming more intense. "You are so beautiful," he whispered hoarsely. "And I love you so much."
"Show me how much, Ethan. Show me," she urged.
He gathered her in his arms and held her tightly. His hardness was pressed intimately against her pelvis. Pleasure warred with fear. He felt so incredibly huge against her. Her mouth went dry. She was waiting for the inevitable pain that would come and squeezed her eyes shut. Yet a moment later, there was none. Ethan was still against her.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him only to be met with a look of such tenderness that she'd never seen before.
"Baby, I don't want to hurt you," he whispered wistfully.
Her heart melted. She reached up and stroked the side of her face. He leaned into her hand and then kissed her palm. A shudder of desire caught her by surprise.
"Ethan…" she whispered breathlessly.
He slanted his mouth over hers and her lips parted. His tongue swept inside, plundering, giving, tasting, teasing her. Her hands went to the back of her neck and her fingers splayed upwardly, burying themselves in his hair.
She never wanted him to leave her.
Her tongue rubbed against his with a boldness and urgency that surprised them both. Their kisses were quickly taking on an urgency that consumed them both.
His hands moved down between their bodies. He stroked her breasts and then moved lower. His fingers circles around her navel, and she instinctively moved against him.
He shifted his position, moving to her side, all the while, his mouth never leaving hers. His hand moved lower still until he found what he most wanted to touch. His fingers surged through the soft, curly hair between the junction of her thighs.
Moving between her folds, he groaned with satisfaction at finding her wetness there. God, she was so wet for him! It drove him wild.
Theresa whimpered when she felt the invasion of his fingers into her body. The rhythmic motion of his fingers against her made her wonder how much more she would be able to take of his sweet torture. She moved against his hand, arching, demanding more. Her nails ran down his chest, and she softly moaned his name.
Her uninhibited response to him made Ethan lose his own control. His actions became rougher. He pulled her to his mouth, taking possession of it, his tongue burying itself in her mouth just as his finger buried itself in her tight sheathe.
She cried out against him, and he knew he had hurt her. He eased his finger out and tried to soothe her with a slow, achingly erotic kiss. And then, before she realized his intent, his mouth replaced his fingers and he was kissing her there, stroking her with his tongue and lips. The taste of her was intoxicating. She writhed against him, and he used his tongue to stroke the passion in her. Only when she was trembling and burning and pleading for him to come to her did he stop his assault on her senses.
"Baby, I need to be inside of you," he whispered hoarsely. "I need you so much."
She moved away from him. "I need you, too, Ethan. So much."
He rolled her under him, her legs spread. He lifted her hips up high on the front of his thighs, and when he was about to enter her, he demanded that she look at him. "Resa, are you sure?" It was going to kill him if she told him to stop, but he didn't want her to regret it.
She nodded. "Ethan, I think I'm going to die if I don't feel you inside of me."
"Baby, it's going to hurt, and I'm so sorry. But after that, it's going to feel like heaven."
She moved restlessly against him. "Please, Ethan. I love you so much. Touch me. Make love to me."
He kissed her then, long and hard. His tongue moved inside her mouth to mate with hers, and then he tried to ease into her tight sheath slowly. It was agony for him. All he wanted was to be planted deep inside of her.
She tensed at the unfamiliar sensation as he invaded her body, inadvertently giving him pleasure. He couldn't take it anymore. He pushed into her with one quick thrust, breaking her virginal barrier.
Finally planted solidly inside her, he captured her cries with a kiss.
Within the span of a few seconds, the pain began to lessen. A dull ache remained, but when Ethan leaned down and kissed her tears away, it was forgotten.
Though it didn't seem possible, he sank deeper into her. He was surrounded by her, caressed by her tightness, consumed with so much intense pleasure, he thought for certain he would die from it.
He stilled, allowing her time to get used to him. "I love you, Theresa. So much."
The determination to hold back only lasted a few seconds. She restlessly moved against him and began to stroke his shoulders. He rocked against her. Sensation after sensation flooded him. He slowly withdrew then thrust into her again.
"Oh yes." she moaned. He felt so good to her. So good.
The rhythmic motions became more frenzied. Each thrust became more forceful, much quicker. Each time he sank into her was better than the time before. He was heedless to everything else but giving her pleasure and finding his own.
Her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck. He pulled her legs up to hold him around his hips. And then she began to move with him. She arched up when he pulled back, a ritual that was becoming more exhilarating with each touch, each stroke. They moved in perfect harmony.
She marveled at how he felt. With each thrust, he seemed to become harder and fuller. He filled her with a sense of wonder.
She felt another feeling rising within her, one that scared her. "Ethan…." she whimpered.
He soothed her. "It's okay, Resa. Just let go."
And then she was flying. Tremors racked her body, and she screamed out his name.
Feeling her convulse around him, Ethan thrust deeply in her one more time before letting himself go. Spilling his seed deep within her, he moaned her name.
His ecstasy was so earth-shattering and gratifying, he felt tears come to his eyes. His heart was slamming against his chest. He never knew that making love could be like this.
She'd given him perfection.
He rolled off her. Resting his head at the crook of her neck, he felt her small hands bury themselves in his hair.
Her heart pounded, and her breathing was labored. She'd never known that such passion was possible. She'd been consumed by him, overwhelmed by him.
He'd given her perfection.
She clung to Ethan, feeling safe and protected in his strong arms, until her heart ceased beating so erratically and she could draw a complete breath.
"Ethan, I never knew….." she couldn't find the words.
He reached up and gently stroked her cheek. "Neither did I, Resa. That was….that was…."
"Wow!" she supplied.
"Yeah. Wow is right. Baby, I've never felt like this before. You took me to a place I've never been."
"Never?" she asked in amazement.
"Never," he asserted. "And you gave me the most amazing gift."
"There could never be anyone else for me but you, Ethan. I always wanted you to be my first—and only."
"But I know you also wanted to wait until you were married. Any regrets?"
"Just one," she replied lazily. "That we didn't do this sooner. We have so much time to make up for, and you have a lot to teach me."
He laughed heartily. "I think you're a natural. Are you still hurting?"
"I'm fine," she assured him.
"I'm glad. I wouldn't want to hurt you for anything in the world."
She yawned lazily and ran her fingers through his hair. "I know, Sweetie. I know."
He pulled her more closely to him, wrapping his arms around her slender body. She was entirely spent, and all she wanted to do was lie there with him, fall asleep in his arms, and greet the world together.
Being with him was perfection. Absolute perfection, she thought before drifting off.
end of warning
Sunlight streamed in through the window. Theresa opened her eyes to find Ethan's gaze upon her. The soft blue of his eyes were a welcome sight to her.
"Good morning," he said greeting her with a kiss.
"Mmmm. Good morning, handsome. What time is it?" she murmured.
He looked past her shoulder at the alarm clock on the nightstand. "A little past ten," he replied.
She smiled. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. We were up pretty late last night, weren't we?"
"That we were. I have to admit that I was a little afraid that I would wake up to find last night was just an incredibly erotic dream. Actually, at first, I thought it was."
She ran her hands down his muscular arm. "If you're dreaming, then so am I, and it's not a dream I want to wake up from."
"No one's going to spoil this for us, Resa. No one."
A small crease formed on her brow. "They're going to try."
"Let them! It's not going to work. Through all the plans that have been laid, all the plots that have been hatched, we've still managed to find our way back to one another."
"It's pretty amazing, isn't it?"
"Not so amazing when you consider that we have fate on our side, Theresa."
She giggled. "I can't believe you just said that!"
"Why not?" he asked with a grin. "It's the truth."
"Ethan, I don't know what's going to happen next. There are a lot of things going on—with your family and mine. All I do know is that I want us to face it together. I can do anything with you by my side. "
"Always, Resa. Always," he replied kissing her tenderly.
Her heart fluttered at his nearness, and happiness flooded her. Life was definitely good.
"I just have one question. Are we going to finish making the cookies?"
He pulled her close to him, their bodies melting into one another. Feeling his sweet caresses, she clung to him. "This is not what I meant," she giggled. "But I'll take it."