Feline and man were locked in a brutal stare-down—THE most brutal standoff in a long history of similar events.
The white Persian's fluffy tail whipping back and forth tauntingly was the only movement in the sunny kitchen, and the continuous drip-drip of the coffee maker the only noise.
Dark eyes narrowed menacingly at the creature of stuck-up regality over the top of a chipped ceramic mug proudly bearing the words "Bestest Daddy."
Cool blue eyes regarded him disdainfully in response.
One of them had to break sooner than later, and he sure as hell wasn't going to let the old Pain in the Ass get the better of him.
It was a fight to the end, the ultimate battle of wills, the…
"Grow up, Luis," Sheridan advised him as she breezed past him en route to the refridgerator, the smart-assed smirk playing upon her lips tempered by the loving, if not exasperated, show of affection in her blue eyes. "Accept Miss Priss as the rightful master of this household, and all will be as it should be," she told him, her laughter lighter and more carefree this morning when the possibility of bringing their baby daughter home from the hospital loomed closer day by passing day.
Luis gave Miss Priss one last black scowl before getting up and walking up behind his wife. He pressed his lips to the crook of her neck in a tender good morning kiss, a chuckle rising up within him as he peered over her shoulder at the seemingly endless supply of breast milk overflowing from their freezer shelves.
"Luis, don't even," Sheridan warned, sensing his playful mood could spell H-E-L-L for her. This had the potential to be one of those days where every word that left Luis's mouth had the power to annoy her. She hated those days. Even if they did usually end in the most passionate nights.
"Who said I was going to say anything?" Luis shrugged behind her.
The phone's sudden, insistent ringing interrupted any answering comment Sheridan might have made, and she started packing up the diaper bag she usually carried to the hospital, keeping one ear open, lest it be news from Harmony Hospital concerning their nearly three-month old daughter.
"Lopez-Fitzgerald Dairy Service," Luis greeted jovially, dark eyes sparkling teasingly at her when she whirled around to cast him a fiesty glare. "Morning to you too, Mama…let's just say if looks could kill. Yeah, she's almost ready…I'll let you talk to her," Luis said, covering the receiver with his hand as he leaned forward and claimed one last kiss from her lips. "I should be able to swing by around lunch. Don't forget to give her my good morning kiss. I'm going to say bye to the kids."
Sheridan smiled at his retreating form and removed her hand from the receiver. "Pilar? Give me half an hour…"
Ali fingered the short, baby soft wisps of pale hair on her head gingerly, a soft sigh escaping her pink lips as she dropped her hands back to her sides and studied her reflection in the floor-length mirror.
The simple baby blue bathing suit was loose and baggy on a figure too slender, too small for her nine years. Her skin was pale and unhealthy-looking due to months in and out of the hospital. And her eyes…the weight she had lost made her normally large blue eyes more prominent than ever.
Watching his young daughter from her open doorway, Luis recognized that, for now, post-cancer Ali was but a shadow of pre-cancer Ali. Physically at least. But in every other way that counted…Ali Lopez-Fitzgerald had more than proven she was a champion fighter with more heart and guts than most people had in their little finger.
"I see you, Daddy," Ali smiled, blue eyes twinkling in the reflection of the mirror as they connected with his brown gaze. "What do you think?" she asked him, twirling around and modeling the suit for him with a giggle.
Luis swept her into his arms easily, feeling his heart swell almost painfully as he felt the whispering flutter of her lashes against his cheeks. "Perfect, AliCat." Luis declared.
"Daddy," Ali's tone was disbelieving, and her blue eyes fell to her own small fingers, lovingly straightening the brown collar of his police uniform.
"Perfect," Luis repeatedly adamantly, tipping his daughter's stubbornly set chin up and forcing her to meet his eyes. "I thought Mommy told you to change into the suit when you got there."
Ali ducked her head guiltily. "She did, but Daddy…"
Luis chuckled, hugging her slender frame even more tightly to himself and nearly making her squeak before she burst into giddy co-conspiratorial giggles.
"Our secret, huh, Daddy?"
Luis kissed each smooth cheek and set her back down on her feet. "Our secret," he agreed. "Pack your bag. Nana's already on her way." Pausing at the door, he turned back to spy her stuffing all her little girl toiletries into the pink and white duffel bag usually reserved for trips to ballet class. Smiling, he left her room, walking a few feet down the hallway to Cristian's domain.
Just inside, Max lifted his golden head from its resting point on his front paws, greeting him with a friendly thump of his tail.
Luis scratched behind the dog's ears as he crept quietly into his son's bedroom, not wanting to disturb Cristian's current operation: stuffing all his dirty clothes and piles of toys underneath his bed. Cleaning up without actually cleaning up—one of the child's most notable talents. With a controlled effort not to laugh out loud, Luis bid the five-year-old a good morning. "Not even monsters are brave enough to live under that bed."
Cristian jerked his dark, sleep-rumpled head up at the sound of Luis's voice, bumping it soundly. His brown eyes were still soft with sleep, and his yellow and navy-blue tee-shirt and faded jeans looked suspiciously like his uniform of the day before as he padded over to Luis on bare feet. "My room's clean," Cristian muttered defensively. "You can't see anything dirty, can you?"
Luis ruffled his son's haphazard black spikes affectionately. He had to agree with him there. Anything dirty was shoved under the farthest corner of the bunk beds. "Nothing but yesterday's shirt," he smirked, giving the shirt a swift tug over Cristian's head.
"Daddy!" Cristian cried out, his hands flying to his hair.
Luis chuckled, hefting the little boy onto his shoulders and striding purposefully out the bedroom door.
Sheridan rolled her blue eyes at them good-naturedly when they appeared beside her in front of the long bathroom mirror. Once she'd finished applying her makeup, she crossed her arms over her middle and watched, amused, as Luis set Cristian down on the bathroom counter and filled his palms with the hair gel he, and now her little son apparently, found essential to daily life.
Cristian's grin grew wider the higher Luis lifted the black spikes on his head, and he puffed his little chest out proudly.
"You," Sheridan smiled, winking at Luis as she talked to Cristian, "look more like your daddy everyday."
Cristian beamed with pleasure, hopping down from the counter and pausing only long enough to hug her loosely around the waist before he scampered back to his room.
Sheridan looked back to the mirror just in time to catch Luis adding a little extra gel to his own spikes and shook her blond head at him. "Men and their hair. Aren't you late enough already?"
"Bye. Love you too," Luis grinned as he starting backing out of the bathroom, realizing she was actually right. "Gotta make those rookies sweat a little. Besides…I'm their boss. What are they going to do? Fire me?"
"Maybe," Sheridan retorted teasingly. "Luis, go. You'll see us, ALL of us," she emphasized, her laughing demeanor suddenly turning somewhat sober, "around lunch." She expelled a soft sigh as she grasped the hand he offered her.
"Hey," Luis chastised gently. "It won't be much longer until she's home where she belongs. You'll see." Heartened by her grateful smile, he released her hand. "Remember what I said and believe it, Baby."
"Believe it," Sheridan echoed him, long minutes after he'd gone, and she heard Ali and Cristian greeting their grandmother at the front door.
"Uh! Uh! Uh! Uh!" Joshua proclaimed over and over again as he bounced up and down on the bed, trying doggedly to wake the bed's occupant from her restless slumber.
Abby groaned, rolling onto her back and flicking a long strand of tawny hair out of her hazel eyes as she grabbed the exuberant little monkey and tugged him into a sitting position astride her waist. "I'm up already. Geez," she proclaimed, annoyed to find her annoyance slipping away like water through her fingers. "Has MJ already left for school?" she asked slowly.
Recognizing his older brother's name immediately, Joshua nodded his head vigorously, the meaning of Abby's question lost somewhere in the translation.
Flashing the tiny boy an affectionate smile, Abby wrapped her arms around him and pulled him down to her in a bear hug. She looked up when a looming shadow blocked out the morning sunlight streaming in through the bedroom's generous windows.
"Ten minutes ago," Miguel answered her earlier question, stepping inside the room and approaching the bed's edge to extricate his giggling, wiggling son from her arms. "Breakfast," Miguel reminded Joshua, signing out of habit as he spoke. When Joshua glanced longingly at Abby, Miguel shook his head. "Abby has to get ready for work,," he told the dejected toddler, giving him a helpful push in the right direction.
Abby heaved her sluggish limbs over the side of the bed, standing up quickly and teetering unsteadily on her bare feet. She held up a distancing hand when Miguel advanced in concern. "Nothing but a head rush," she muttered, absently pulling the hem of her night-shirt down to cover the tops of her naked thighs.
Miguel fixed his dark gaze on a silver framed picture of Kay and the boys directly over Abby's right shoulder and felt himself relax marginally as she slid on a pair of worn-out jeans.
Abby's hazel eyes twinkled merrily at his discomfort, and she took pity upon him, disappearing into the bathroom to finish getting dressed. She re-emerged seconds later, toothbrush stuck in her mouth. Noticing the serious nature of his mood, she lifted one tawny brow in question, waiting for him to confess all to her—a confession that did not come. She slipped her feet into the pair of clogs at the foot of the bed and gave Miguel another assessing look. "He's gone at the end of the month, and so am I. So no more free peep shows," Abby teased gently, a sparkling smile lighting up her face at the slight blush Miguel couldn't seem to control at her words.
Miguel stopped fighting the grin creeping onto his lips and reached out a hand to pull Abby to him in a tight hug. "The boys love having you around. So do I. You don't have to leave anytime soon," he said sincerely, his arms dropping back to his sides as Abby stepped carefully out of his warm, friendly embrace, backing toward the open bedroom door.
"Yeah," Abby shot over her shoulder, a wicked twinkle glimmering in her hazel eyes as she delivered the parting words that would have Miguel laughing for several long minutes after her departure. "You just want my body."
Noah's silver-blue eyes darted over his shoulder as he clicked the mouse nestled in his palm rapidly. Sighing as he scrolled through several pages of names without any luck, he didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed with his lack of results.
"Any leads on the break-in at the Book Café?" Luis asked as he reached across Noah's arm to retrieve the file.
Noah quickly closed the window he'd been working in and whirled his chair around to face Luis, the knot already present in his gut tightening when he saw the suspicion glittering in his superior's intelligent brown eyes. Chafing his sweaty palms against his pants legs, Noah decided it was best to come clean with his boss. Instinctually, he knew he'd be better served having Luis as his ally than as an adversary. "I wasn't working on the break-in. I was working on something more…personal," Noah admitted, looking up and meeting Luis's unwavering dark gaze reluctantly.
Luis handed the file in his hands back to Noah and continued on to his office without another word.
"That's it? You're not going to lecture me…" Noah trailed off, too surprised at the lack of reprimand to say anything else.
Luis turned around, taking several steps back toward Noah before answering his question. "First offense. You came clean. There's nothing to say except advise you not to do it again and trust your word that you won't…"
Noah lowered his eyes from Luis's level stare guiltily. His dark blond head jerked up in astonishment when he realized Luis wasn't finished.
"…Make it an official investigation. Have Marty or another one of our officers look into it," Luis stated.
Luis's suggestion sounded logical, but Noah wasn't convinced.
"If it's something serious, Noah…" Luis began.
"It's not. Really," Noah said emphatically. "I'm looking for Katie's ex. Kendall's father," he clarified.
"Has he done something illegal?" Luis questioned, walking back around the desk and looking down at Noah in concern.
"No," Noah sighed. "I don't think so, Luis."
"You don't know?" Luis arched one dark brow at Noah in consternation. "You and Katie are getting married, Noah. Ask her."
"I didn't want to upset her," Noah said, raking a hand through his dark blond hair. "That and I wanted it to be a surprise, Luis. I need to find this guy so he can sign away his parental rights. On our wedding day, Katie's not the only one I want to make mine. I want to adopt Kendall."
"I feel like the daughter trying to keep peace between her divorcing parents," Katie declared, rolling her green eyes as Abby swept past her into the empty apartment. "How are you two ever going to work things out if you keep avoiding him, Abby?"
"Simple," Abby answered as she snatched the plain white envelope off of the kitchen counter and tossed it into the trash. "We won't."
Katie plucked the envelope out of the garbage and removed the single sheet of unlined paper from it, her green eyes fluttering closed in disappointment. "When are you just going to tell her how you feel?" she muttered under her breath, shaking her head as she re-deposited the envelope into the trash. She heard the shower start in the bathroom and wandered over to the refrigerator intent on finding some sort of sustenance. "Abby? Do you want anything?" she yelled, deciding on the menu herself when she couldn't decipher Abby's muffled reply.
Toast, buttered and plain, scrambled eggs, and orange juice awaited Abby as she scurried out of the bathroom, fuzzy lavender towel tucked under her arms and tawny hair trailing down her back, dripping wet. She grabbed a piece of plain toast, stuck it between her teeth, and hurried to her bedroom before Katie could stop her.
Katie paused outside Abby's open bedroom door, watching amused as her friend huffed with the struggle to fasten the button of the pair of khakis then shoved them off her tanned legs in frustration, kicking them across the room. "Who's the parent and who's the child here?" she teased.
"Katie, stop it with that damn analogy and find my swimsuit," Abby ordered, yanking a pair of purple track pants up and over her legs. Her tawny head disappeared momentarily while she slipped her arms and head through the form-fitting white tank top, reappearing moments later to nod at Katie when she held up the black one-piece. "My bag's over there," Abby pointed, dropping to her knees to hunt for her missing tennis shoe.
"Kendall's neater than you, and he's two years old. Two years, Abby," Katie shook her head in amazement as Abby swept her arm under her bed. She placed the swimsuit on top of the change of clothes already in the bag and zipped it up.
"Thanks," Abby rolled her hazel eyes at Katie. "Why don't you make yourself useful? Check my messages."
"Only if you promise to hurry, Bossy," Katie answered easily, laughing as she witnessed Abby limp over to her dresser, minus one shoe, and plug in the hair dryer. "I don't want to be late for my shift again."
"That was Lover Boy's fault, not mine!" Abby shouted over the loud noise generated by the hair dryer.
Katie hurried back into the living room in search of the answering machine in order to hide the tell-tale blush on her cheeks. She pushed the button on the small machine and listened as Sheridan's breathless voice filled the room. Katie smiled at the anticipation so evident in the other woman's tone as the message played, telling Abby to pick Ali up at the hospital where they were on their way to visit Hope. She forwarded past a couple messages for Nick and emitted an envious sigh as she listened to Shane's morning greeting to Abby. Shane's message finished, and Ivy Crane's voice seemed to fill the entire apartment, at once commanding and full of steely resolve.
"You've had your chance, Abby. No more waiting."
Katie turned around, open-mouthed, to see Abby's ashen face and furiously flashing hazel eyes as soon as soon as the beep signaled the end of the message. Her green eyes widened in incredulity at Abby's forthcoming condemning words.
"Damn that woman. Damn her to hell."