A/N I know, I know. The phrase "sorry for the delay" doesn't even begin to cover it. I'll just blame writer's block, real life crappiness and uncertainty how to proceed next. I thought for sure interest would wane after all of this time, but those of you who are reading this are a very tenacious bunch. ;)

I really appreciate the continued encouragement and patience from so many of you, not just regarding this story but overall. Every kind review and PM has made me smile, and I thank you sincerely for that.

Happy holidays, everyone! Hope you enjoy my present.

Chapter 9

Veronica awoke early the next morning, with a mild headache and a strong desire for caffeine. She hadn't slept well. Troubling dreams had plagued her throughout the night; dreams of wandering through the maze-like halls below deck, searching for something that she couldn't quite seem to find.

As she untangled herself from her twisted sheets, she turned to see that Meg had not yet risen. Her sister slept peacefully, dark lashes fluttering lightly and a soft smile upon her lips. Veronica smiled to herself, certain she knew which subject was responsible for evoking such a pleasant countenance.

She squinted at the clock on the bedside table, trying to make out the time. It was just before

6am. Sighing, she climbed out of bed as quietly as she could and glanced around the cabin for her slippers. Spotting them beneath the couch, she slipped them on, pulled her hair up into a messy bun and headed out the door.

Veronica knew it was probably too early to hope that the crew had put out any breakfast yet. The others had inevitably stayed up very late and wouldn't be looking for food for at least a couple more hours. But she remembered Alain telling her that one of his tasks was to keep tea and coffee available at all times, and so she began her quest for caffeine.

Tripping several times over the bottoms of Duncan's over-sized pajama pants, she somehow managed to make it down the hallway to the Tea Room in one piece. The door was shut, but Veronica could see light streaming through the cracks. She pushed it open without hesitation, stopping short when she saw Logan seated at the table.

He was typing rapidly on his laptop, one bare foot propped up onto the seat next to him. He wore nothing but a pair of black silk boxer shorts, and his hair was a mass of rumpled spikes. Logan paused for a moment, stirring his coffee absently as he re-read what he'd written, and then he continued typing at an even greater speed. He didn't look up.

Feeling as though she'd just wandered into someone's private office uninvited, Veronica nevertheless decided that her need for caffeine outweighed all else, at the moment. She moved wordlessly towards the side table, over-turned a white china cup and began to make herself a cup of tea.

Assuming she was just one of the staff, Logan continued to ignore her. He finished up the e-mail he was writing, sent it, and began reading the next message in his inbox. It was from his assistant Cassidy, and it detailed some of the finer aspects of the new project he was interested in. Logan was so engrossed in it that Veronica's presence in the room would have gone completely unnoticed to him, had she not had the bad luck to drop her teaspoon onto her saucer with a loud clatter.

Logan finally glanced up, his annoyance quickly morphing into utter surprise. Veronica stood before him in a pale blue tank top- pale enough that he could tell instantly that she wasn't wearing anything beneath it- and a pair of enormous plaid pajama pants. Most of her hair had escaped the confines of her bun, falling in untidy strands over her eyes. Her eyelids were slightly pink and puffy, which had the unexpected effect of making her eyes appear an even more vivid blue than usual. He'd never seen her look so utterly adorable.

"Sorry," Veronica muttered. "I, uh, didn't mean to interrupt."

"You're not interrupting," he replied. He closed his laptop, e-mail forgotten, and gestured to the chair across from him. "Have a seat."

Veronica hesitated. "You look busy."

Logan shrugged. "I was just looking something over. It can wait." Suddenly conscious that he was clad in nothing but his underwear, he quickly dropped his foot to the floor and twisted his body forward, taking advantage of the cover provided by the white linen tablecloth.

Hiding her smile, Veronica took the seat opposite him. She nodded to his laptop. "Anything interesting?"

"Oh, yes," he replied, suppressing a smile of his own. "Extremely interesting."

"Care to elaborate?"

"Well," he began slowly, running one finger along the rim of his coffee mug, "I'm trying to decide if I should get involved with something." His eyes lifted up to meet hers, dark and intent. "Something that may not be in my best interests, financially, but which I'm having a very difficult time passing up."

Veronica frowned slightly, feeling that familiar mix of confusion and curiosity that always seemed to accompany her conversations with Logan. She knew that he was being purposely vague with her, which was frustrating and a bit annoying. With anyone else, she would have dropped the subject. Yet, with him, she seemed to be developing an almost compulsive desire to learn more.

"And what conclusion did you come to?" she asked.

Logan took a sip of his coffee, continuing to watch her over the top of his mug. "I'm still trying to figure it out."

Feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny, and a bit like she wasn't privy to some private joke, Veronica wasn't sure how to respond. She blew on her tea and took a sip, then set the cup back on the saucer. When she looked up, Logan was still staring at her. Exasperated, she leaned backward in her chair and, very deliberately, stared back.

Logan ran one hand back and forth through his hair, disheveling it even further, and regarded her with a small smile. He wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten into a staring contest with Veronica Mars at six o'clock in the morning, but he could think of worse ways to spend his time. He took a sip of his coffee and propped his foot back up onto the adjacent chair, letting her know he could do this all day.

As Veronica watched him let out a big, fake yawn, she felt her irritation grow. He was always so cocky, so damned pleased with himself. Even at dawn, hair uncombed and wearing next to nothing, he seemed well aware of just how good he looked. It made her keenly sensitive to her own unkempt appearance, which in comparison wasn't nearly as alluring. She crossed her arms over her chest self-consciously.

"Aren't you cold?" she finally blurted out.

"Why would I be cold?" he returned.

"Because you're practically naked."

Logan raised an eyebrow. "Is my level of undress offending you?"

"No, not offending me," Veronica replied. "I guess I just haven't met too many billionaires who like to wander around in their underwear."

"I'm not wandering," he corrected. "I'm sitting."

"You were wandering the first night we were on the ship," she reminded him. "In your underwear."

"Should I point out what you were wearing that night?"

Veronica searched her mind, landing on the memory of the embarrassingly shear black nightie. Fighting the blush that accompanied the recollection, she muttered, "I wasn't aware you'd noticed."

"I noticed," he returned dryly.

She lifted her teacup off the table and took a sip, taking her time before she replied. When she was confident that her complexion had returned to its normal color, she glanced back up at Logan with a sweet smile. "Well, at least I had the decency to put on a robe."

"To the very grave disappointment of the kitchen staff, I'm sure," he smirked. Logan paused to take a sip of coffee, keeping his eyes fixed on hers. He set his mug down and lifted one eyebrow. "My lack of clothing didn't seem to bother you last night."

"Last night you were wearing swim trunks," she pointed out.

"Same level of coverage, no? Whereas your outfit last night…"

"Yes?" she urged.

"Quite a bit less coverage."

"I told you, my sister-"

"Are those Duncan's?" he interrupted.

"What?" she replied, confused. Veronica followed his eyes, looking down at her bent knee. "The pants? Yes. Why?"

Logan, stunned that he'd just asked that question aloud, didn't respond. He took a moment to regain his composure before continuing, planting a smile firmly upon his lips. "Look, if it bothers you so much, I'll go put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt," he conceded. He gave her a pointed look. "I'd grab a jacket, too, but you'd just find a way to 'borrow' it from me."

He set down his mug and began to stand up, but Veronica held up her palm to stop him. Logan took his seat again, waiting for her to go on.

"I never said it bothered me," she corrected in a calmer voice. "I was merely pointing out that it's unusual for a guy with such a…" Veronica paused, trying to think of a delicate way to phrase it. "Such a public profile, to be so un-concerned with his appearance."

"I'm a nine, remember?" Logan grinned, leaning back again. "I don't need to be concerned with my appearance."

"You're impossible," she sighed.

"What?" he asked innocently. "You were the one who said I was a nine in the first place."

Veronica opened her mouth indignantly. "I never-" She stopped and shook her head. "You know what? It's far too early to deal with your particular brand of insanity. I'm going back to bed."

Logan didn't want her to leave; he'd been enjoying her company. But Veronica was already lifting her teacup off its saucer and standing up.

He pulled his laptop closer to him and pushed the screen open, not sure how he was supposed to concentrate on work after all that talk about Veronica's skimpy clothing. Struggling to banish several very wicked thoughts from his mind, he muttered a distracted, "Sweet dreams."

"Thanks," she replied. "And good luck doing… whatever it is that you're doing." Veronica waved a hand towards his computer negligently.

She hadn't really meant anything by the remark, but it got his full attention. Logan looked up, forcing a smile to mask his irritation. "What I'm doing?" he repeated, pressing an open palm to his chest. "Oh, you know, nothing important. Just running my own company. But you go have a nice rest."

Veronica stared at him, taken aback by his tone. I've offended him, she realized. Wounded his pride. She forgot, sometimes, that he wasn't your typical seventeen year old guy. He was a billionaire, heir to the Echolls dynasty. That undoubtedly came with all sorts of responsibilities and demands on his time that she hadn't even considered.

Feeling a bit contrite, she chose to ignore his jab about getting some rest in favor of an attempt to smooth things over. "Yeah, right," she joked lightly. "We both know you're really just updating your Facebook status."

At her words, Logan's temper subsided as rapidly as it had arisen. He felt silly for getting so annoyed in the first place. "You got me," he replied with a wry smile. Pretending to type, he spoke aloud, "Tiny blonde on ship continues to distract me from my work. Must bribe staff member to throw her overboard." He tapped the Enter key decisively and looked up. "Status updated."

"Thanks for the heads up," Veronica said. "I'll stick to the shadows."

"A wise decision," Logan replied. He nodded to the teacup in her hand. "And don't worry, I won't alert the staff to your petty larceny."

Veronica rolled her eyes. Realizing this could go on all morning, if left unchecked, she bit her lip on her sarcastic retort and began walking towards the door. She'd just reached it when he spoke up.

"Uh, hey," Logan added quickly. "I don't know if anyone told you yet, but we're doing brunch in the Upper Deck Salon at ten. And I think we're due back to the harbor around noon."

"Okay," she replied slowly. "Thanks. I guess I'll see you then."

He nodded and looked back down at his computer, pretending to read. But the moment the door shut behind her, Logan closed his laptop and leaned backwards in his chair with a heavy sigh. Every encounter he'd ever had with Veronica left him feeling the same way: confused and frustrated. Yet also…invigorated, he realized. Stimulated. And not just physically.

Unable to sit still any longer, he stood up and tucked his laptop under his arm. He'd foregone his morning workout to save energy for surfing later, but the restlessness he felt was growing intolerable. He needed to move, to do something. Logan crossed the room in five long strides, heading towards the door. He had almost four hours to kill until brunch, and he needed to find a distraction.

xxXxx

Veronica's attempts to go back to sleep were all in vain. She blamed it firmly on the caffeine, although she'd only ended up drinking half her tea. Meg still slept soundly in the bed beside hers; she looked over at her jealously.

The clock told her only an hour had passed since she'd left Logan in the Tea Room. Yet she felt like she'd been lying in bed for days, waiting for sleep to come. Deciding it was time to give up, this time for good, she got up once more.

She wandered over to the pile of neatly folded clothing that had magically appeared on her bed the previous day. Everything Veronica had worn since she'd come onboard had been freshly laundered. She couldn't help grinning as she wondered which one of the guys on staff had gotten stuck handling her delicates.

Veronica got dressed quickly in the clothes she'd arrived in, deciding a jog was long overdue. She didn't relish the thought of running into Connor, after their little scene last night, but she was pretty confident he'd still be sleeping it off. She grabbed her iPod and headed to the Sky Lounge Deck.

Sun was streaming through the glass walls of the Exercise Room in vibrant rays as she approached the door. She paused to peek inside, surprised to find that it was indeed occupied- but not by Connor. Logan was jogging on the treadmill at a fast clip, his expression stern with exertion. Although still shirtless, he'd put on a pair of shorts and sneakers.

Remaining motionless, she watched him as he ran. The muscles in his back and arms tensed and relaxed with each step, almost hypnotizing in their unbroken movement. His form was flawless and his breathing steady, even though he was running hard. He was obviously in prime physical condition. And it shows.

Veronica walked through the door and into the room, but lingered by the entrance. Logan was listening to his iPod and hadn't noticed her arrival yet. She continued scrutinizing him for several moments, with reluctantly growing appreciation. Nine might not be so far off after all, she grudgingly admitted. At least where looks are concerned. As for personality…

She hesitated, surprised to discover that her feelings towards Logan had softened quite a bit, since their trip had begun. Veronica couldn't pinpoint when the shift had occurred; it had happened so gradually. And it was a rather startling discovery. After the way he'd behaved at the charity ball, and the unkind things he'd said, she never would have suspected that she'd manage to tolerate his company just days later.

More than tolerate, she realized, with mounting alarm. Actually…enjoy.

Before she had time to process that thought, Logan turned his head and spotted her standing there. Veronica crossed the room quickly, in an attempt to act as though she'd just arrived. She glanced at the equipment around her uncertainly. She wasn't really a gym person; she preferred running outdoors. Most of these machines were a mystery, and Logan was on the only treadmill.

Logan watched her curiously. She was moving towards the elliptical machine with a doubtful expression on her face. Remembering how she'd jogged to the marina before their trip began, he slowed his pace to a walk and pulled his earbuds out. "Hey," he greeted her. "Just give me a minute to cool down and it's all yours."

"No," she replied, feeling oddly shy. "You were here first. I'll just-"

"Don't worry about it," he interrupted. "I'm going for a swim now anyway."

"Training for a triathlon?" she inquired, raising an eyebrow.

"No," he shrugged, feeling a bit self-conscious himself. "I just like to stay in shape."

Veronica nodded and they both fell silent; the only sound was the rhythmic inhale and exhale of Logan's breath. Unsure what to do with herself while she waited, Veronica leaned against a weight bench and glanced back over at Logan. From this distance, she could just barely make out the faint scars on his back. If she hadn't known they were there, she never would have noticed them. Now, it was all she could focus on.

She thought back to their conversation the previous night, Logan's words drifting into her mind: "I got those when I was dragged out of the way by my ankles." It was horrific, what he'd gone through. Losing both of his parents at such a young age, his last memory of them so brutal. Veronica had been surprised that he'd entrusted her with that memory; surprised, too, at the raw vulnerability she'd glimpsed in his eyes as he'd told his story.

He looked over at her then, catching her in her stare. Veronica glanced down guiltily, afraid he'd be able to tell what she'd been thinking about. She heard him hit a couple of buttons on the treadmill, and when she looked up again he was stepping off the machine. He bowed exaggeratedly, sweeping his arm towards the treadmill to indicate that he was relinquishing it to her.

Logan stood up straight, eyeing her with a devious smile. "Since it's obvious that you've decided to stalk me today," he began, "I'll make things easier for you. I'll be down at the pool for about a half hour, and then back in my room for a shower. Then I'll be packing for approximately twenty minutes. After that, I'll be up in the salon for brunch, where I'll most likely remain until our arrival in Neptune. Got all that?"

For once, he had the satisfaction of catching Veronica completely off guard. She stared at him with her mouth slightly open, looking rather affronted. He smirked and made for the door, not waiting for a reply.

Refusing to allow him the last word, Veronica searched her mind desperately for a reply. "You're wandering around half naked again," she called after him. "Just thought I'd point that out."

Without turning around, Logan lifted nine fingers above his head. She couldn't see his face, but she could hear him laughing as he left the room.

Veronica shook her head and walked towards the treadmill, trying to ignore the escalating confusion she was feeling towards him. But she couldn't seem to ignore it. Logan remained on her mind the entire time she ran, memories of their encounters travelling in and out of her thoughts erratically.

What she discovered was that she still found him to be egotistical, entitled and extremely irritating, at times. Yet, he was also intelligent, witty and exceedingly interesting. Veronica realized that she may have been hasty in forming her initial opinion of him. True, she'd had good cause to dislike him. But perhaps it was just as Meg had said- he'd simply been having a bad night.

I've certainly had my share of bad days. Is it fair to hold a grudge because of a few sentences he uttered almost a week ago?

Frowning, Veronica shut off the treadmill without bothering to cool down. She thought the physical exertion would have cleared her mind a bit, but all it had done was left her with more questions. She walked over to the sliding doors and opened them, stepping out onto the balcony.

It was a glorious morning. The sun was rising in the sky, turning the ocean beneath it to liquid gold. Veronica closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. It was good to be out on the ocean; good to be away from Neptune. This certainly wasn't the way I'd pictured my Spring Break going. But I have to admit: it hasn't been all bad.

Veronica walked over to the railing, looking out to sea. She could see land in the distance, dull brown and uninviting. She lowered her head over the railing, turning her eyes towards the stern of the ship and the pool beneath her. Someone was in the pool, swimming laps. She remembered Logan informing her that he was going for a swim, and stepped away from the railing quickly. The last thing I want to do is get accused of stalking again.

She retreated towards the side of the balcony, not ready to go back inside yet. She'd just settled into a comfortable chair in the corner when she heard voices. Trina and Madison were stepping out onto the balcony in their bikinis, each carrying a towel. Madison headed to the exact spot Veronica had just vacated, leaning against the railing and looking down.

Trina joined her. They stood there for over a minute without saying anything. It was the longest Veronica had ever heard them go without opening their mouths. Madison was wearing heels, her long blonde hair fanning out behind her in the breeze. She looks like a beauty pageant contestant during the swimsuit competition, Veronica thought, suppressing a chuckle.

She continued to wait for them to move, hoping she could slip past them while they were distracted. Yet still they remained. Sighing, Veronica was just about to reveal herself when Madison began to speak.

"God, look at him," she said, voice steeped in admiration. "Talk about endurance."

Trina made a face. "Ugh. I'd rather not think about that, thanks." She glanced over at her sister. "When are you going to move on to someone you actually have a shot with, anyway?"

Madison looked at her, disgusted. "I have a shot with him," she insisted. "I have more than a shot with him. Trust me."

"You think so?" Trina asked. Bored of Madison's unwaning obsession, she felt a sudden urge to stir things up. "Because it seems to me that it's a different blonde who's caught his eye."

"Who, Veronica?" Madison spat. "Please."

Trina smiled to herself. It was so easy to get her little sister riled up. "I don't know," she returned loftily. "Haven't you noticed the way he looks at her?"

Madison narrowed her eyes. "I'd be more worried about the way your husband looks at her," she said pointedly. Trina snapped her head around, glaring at her. A tad uneasy at the look in her eyes, Madison was quick to backtrack. "It's not his fault though. I mean, look at the clothing the little slut's been prancing around in, these last few days."

"True," Trina agreed, her anger shifting seamlessly to Veronica. "She's obviously desperate for attention. It's pathetic, really."

Relieved, Madison continued. "Meg won't give me any good gossip, but I get the feeling Veronica gets passed around Neptune like a cold sore."

"The town tramp," Trina said gleefully. "I'm not surprised."

"Well, could we expect anything less, from that family?" Madison asked dryly.

She glanced down at Logan, who continued to do slow, steady laps in the pool beneath her. He moved effortlessly, his limbs long and lean. She was reminded of the statues in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. Hewn from Carrara marble and polished until flawless. He's perfect. And perfection doesn't mix with filth.

Madison straightened her posture and turned towards her sister, chin jutted out proudly. "Logan would never even consider Veronica as an option," she announced confidently. "Don't you remember what he said about her the other day?"

"Oh, what was it again?" Trina asked eagerly. "Something about that ridiculous mother of hers."

"'The daughter of the town drunk'," Madison quoted, smiling triumphantly. "'What a prize.'"

"That was it!" Trina laughed. "And is it any surprise that the town tramp is the daughter of the town drunk?"

Madison laughed loudly. Now that Veronica's worth had been solidly trampled, she felt much better; much more secure about her own claim to Logan. Madison took one last look at him, more determined than ever to make him hers. Then she stepped away from the railing and walked towards the hot tub with Trina, who was still giggling.

As soon as their backs were turned, Veronica stood up and headed quickly for the sliding glass doors. She stepped through them and slid them shut silently. She crossed the exercise room to the hallway and ran down the spiral stairs, trying to get as far away as possible. Yet even when she'd reached her cabin, she could still hear their derisive laughter echoing in her head.

xxXxx

Brunch was a rather awkward affair.

Veronica had, in fact, considered skipping it entirely. But she'd quickly abandoned that idea in favor of a new plan. She wasn't going to spend her last hours on the ship skulking in her cabin. She refused to give anyone that satisfaction. Instead, she'd decided to show up in the very same cut-off top and Daisy Duke's she'd been so loathe to wear, that first night on the ship.

She wore the outfit proudly, all traces of self-consciousness gone. Veronica knew now that she would never fit in with this group; never be accepted. They were going to talk about her no matter what she said or how she behaved. So I may as well give them some fodder for their gossip. A little something for them to remember me by.

Her wardrobe choice had the desired effect. All eyes were upon her when she entered the salon, and each person reacted just as she'd expected… from Logan and Connor's unmasked admiration to Madison and Trina's unmasked disgust. Veronica smiled pleasantly at each of them in turn and took her seat at the table next to Meg.

But her feeling of victory was short-lived. The reality of actually sitting down with the people who'd had such cruel things to say about her settled in quickly, and she wondered if she would have been better off skipping brunch after all.

Logan sat directly across from her, looking extremely refreshed after his morning workout. True to his word, he'd showered and changed since she'd last seen him. Veronica could feel his eyes upon her, but she refused to look at him.

She knew she only had herself to blame, for believing that he'd been sincere in his interest in her. It was clear to her now that she'd been nothing more than a diversion. Yet she couldn't help feeling disappointed, and a bit betrayed.

"Have a good run?" he asked her now.

"Yes," she replied. She poured hot water over her teabag, keeping her eyes focused on the task.

"Are you on the track team, in school?"

"No."

"The coach begs her to join weekly," Meg spoke up. "But she always says no."

"Why?" Logan questioned.

Veronica looked up, briefly. "I'm just not interested," she replied coldly.

Logan paused, a bit taken aback. Unsure how to reply, he searched his mind for a new topic. "Are you, uh, looking forward to getting home?"

"Very much," she said. "It'll be nice to see my friends."

He frowned, certain now that Veronica was upset with him about something. I thought she knew I was joking, about the whole stalking thing. Maybe I offended her? Logan cleared his throat, determined to make amends. "So, when are your classes done for the year?"

"June."

"We'll be coming back here in July," Logan informed her. Deciding to change tacks, he smiled playfully and continued. "I think you'll owe me a tour of the town when I arrive. It's only fair."

Veronica hesitated before answering. Just a couple of hours ago, she'd been thinking that maybe it wouldn't be so bad, having Logan around this summer. That it may even be fun. Now, the prospect of spending three months in the same town with him only made her feel ill. She slowly raised her head, looking him directly in the eye.

"It's a small town," she replied, forcing a polite smile. "I'm sure you'll be able to find your way around without my help."

Logan stared back at her, his frustration mounting. Veronica had always been direct with him. It was one of the things he admired most about her. He had no idea why she was acting like this, all of the sudden. He had half a mind to demand she tell him, right this second. But then he remembered that they weren't alone, and that she wouldn't react kindly to that sort of behavior anyway. So he opted to keep silent.

The food arrived, then, and everyone busied themselves with serving. Logan made no more attempts to begin conversation with her. He knew she'd offer him nothing more than a word or two in response, and that would only aggravate him further. Yet he continued to watch her, wondering what had gotten her so upset with him.

Veronica ate heartily, despite having little appetite. She remained mostly silent, only speaking to Duncan and Meg. Madison and Trina ignored her completely. Connor only spoke once, asking her to pass the salt and pepper, but his eyes never strayed far from her. She didn't look in Logan's direction for the remainder of the meal.

When they finished eating, several crew members appeared to take their leftovers away. One of them informed their party that they would be arriving in Neptune shortly. Everyone except for Veronica left the table, seating themselves on the couches as they waited.

She looked out at the ocean as she sipped her tea, trying to compose herself before she had to face the others again. Before she felt entirely ready, she saw Logan approaching her out of the corner of her eye. She stood up quickly, trying to make her escape before he reached her. But she was too late.

Logan had no idea what he was going to say to her, yet he felt that he needed to say something. He didn't want to leave things between them on such a sour note. He scratched the back of his neck and looked down at her. "Listen, if I said or did something to offend you, I'm really-"

"Hey, Logan!" Duncan called from across the room. He held his cell phone out. "My dad wants to talk to you for a minute."

Logan frowned, glancing down at Veronica. Her eyes flitted up to meet his, but she looked away before he could decipher her mood. Sighing, he walked towards Duncan to take his phone call.

Veronica headed over to the couch quickly, not wanting to get caught alone again. She took a seat next to Meg, but made no attempt to join into her conversation with the others. She couldn't help mulling over Logan's truncated apology. She wished, now, that they hadn't gotten interrupted. I could have told him that all he's been doing since we met is offending me.

Yet he'd looked so sincere; as though he were truly bothered by the idea that she was angry with him. Maybe his ego is wounded. He can't stand the fact that there's anyone on the planet who doesn't think he's a god.

Veronica glanced at the clock on the end table, urging time to move forward more quickly. She was very ready for this trip to be over. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the engines slowed and stopped. She waited as patiently as she could for the announcement that it was safe to disembark.

Martin and Alain showed up to bid her goodbye, providing her with a nice excuse not to have to interact with anyone else. Then the captain entered the room to exchange pleasantries and make sure they'd had an enjoyable journey. Veronica and Logan never got another moment alone, and she decided it was for the best. She wouldn't have to deal with him for at least two more months, and by then she was sure she'd be all but forgotten.

The next thing she knew, they were all walking down the plank towards the dock. Veronica had been so deep in thought that she hadn't bothered to pay attention to any of the conversation around her. So it came as a bit of a shock when she looked up to see Lilly, Gia and her mother standing there waiting for them.

Veronica turned towards Meg, who was walking just behind her. "What's Mom doing here?" she asked in a frantic whisper.

"Gia called me earlier," Meg explained. "She asked me when we were getting here." She eyed her sister in some confusion, surprised that Veronica looked so upset. "I'm sorry, I didn't think it would be a big deal."

It shouldn't have been a big deal. A few hours ago, she would have been completely unbothered by her mother's presence. Now, the words "town drunk" ran through her mind on a loop, punctuated by the remembrance of Trina and Madison's laughter.

Their group gathered in a loose circle on the dock as porters bustled around them, organizing luggage. Lianne smiled broadly at them all, hugging Meg and Veronica in turn. As soon as Veronica got close to her mother, she could smell the alcohol on her breath. She and Meg exchanged glances.

Veronica turned towards Duncan, eager to say her goodbyes as fast as possible. But before she could begin, her mother started speaking. "I'm so glad we're not late! We just came from brunch. I ran into Susan, and we were having so much fun I completely lost track of time."

And you obviously lost track of how many mimosas you drank, too, Veronica thought. "You could have sent the car," she said softly.

"Oh, no, I had to see if Meg was okay!" Lianne protested. She put one arm around her eldest daughter, squeezing her tightly. "Gia said you were puking your guts out, poor thing. Are you feeling better now?"

Meg smiled gamely, although her cheeks blazed red. "Duncan was nice enough to find me some Dramamine," she explained. "I wasn't sick for very long."

Lianne turned towards Duncan, arm still around Meg. "Oh how sweet of you," she gushed. "Taking care of my little girl like that. I bet she didn't even tell anyone she was sick, did she?"

Duncan opened his mouth to speak, but Lianne carried on, unabated. "Meg never complains. Not even when she broke her finger, when she was five. The other girls would've been screaming bloody murder, but she didn't say a word." She laughed brightly. "We wouldn't have even known, if Veronica hadn't told us what happened.

"It's just her personality," she continued, looking at Meg proudly. "Everyone loves our Meg, even strangers. When we went to Malibu last summer, the lead singer of a band-" she paused, giving them all a coy smile, "- I won't say which one, of course, but they were very hip at the time- just fell head over heels in love with her.

"It's a shame that didn't work out," she said wistfully. "He wrote a song about her and everything. Remember that, honey? What was it called again? Something about angels… Angel Eyes?"

"Angel Rising," Gia corrected. "He sang it for her in front of the whole crowd."

Veronica rolled her eyes. "Ugh, don't remind me."

"Why, it wasn't a good song?" Logan spoke up.

She glanced at him, surprised that he was addressing her. "No, the song was fine," she replied evenly. "But him singing it to her like that in front of everyone was pretty mortifying."

Logan tilted his head slightly. "I'd think most women would consider that romantic?"

"I'm not most women," Veronica informed him. Her tone was a bit caustic, but Logan merely smiled at her response.

Lianne looked at Logan distastefully, wondering why Veronica was even speaking to him. "Well, anyway," she said. "I hope the girls weren't too much trouble." She looked up at the yacht admiringly. "Now that is quite a ship," she remarked. "We used to have one, you know. I'm not sure why my husband insisted we sell. I always enjoyed it."

Veronica heard a snicker, and looked sharply at Trina and Madison. They were whispering to one another, barely able to contain their mirth. She saw Logan glance over at them with a frown, and then down at his watch. She remembered that he had a meeting to attend.

Worried her mother was about to invite herself onboard for a tour, even though it was clear that everyone wanted to leave, she turned towards Lianne. "Mom, I think we should get go-" she began.

Lianne firmly ignored her. "Gorgeous day out, isn't it? Bet you don't get too many of these in New York, huh?" She looked at Duncan. "So, you'll be back for the whole summer?"

"That's the plan," he replied with a smile. "My dad needs me to help out with the new facility, so..." He shrugged. "I just go where I'm told."

"Yes, you're very accommodating," Logan remarked dryly.

"An excellent trait," Veronica noted. She couldn't help glancing at Logan before adding, "One of those traits that society deems worthy, wouldn't you agree?"

Logan smiled again, pleased that she was finally addressing him directly. "Well, there's being accommodating and then there's being a pushover," he countered. "If someone simply does what they're told without question, that's not a very commendable trait, is it?"

"So when is it acceptable to be accommodating?" she questioned, unable to stop herself from arguing back. "Let's say a friend or family member asks you to help them, without telling you the specifics. If you help them, does that make you a pushover?"

"It depends on what they ask," he replied, raising an eyebrow.

They were facing one another fully now, absorbed in their conversation. Madison watched them with a scowl. She was impatient to leave, eager to finally have Logan's full attention. She didn't understand what they were all still doing, hanging around on this dingy dock with these people. And she and Trina were outnumbered by Mars sisters now, which she didn't care for at all.

Madison was about to interrupt their discussion, but Lianne stepped in before she got the chance. Lianne was far more interested in trying to find out Duncan's plans for the future (especially in regards to Meg) than she was in hearing what Logan had to say. She eyed him now with disdain. "Well I suppose some people don't understand what it means to be a true friend."

Both Meg and Veronica looked over at Lianne, surprised by the vitriol in her voice. Despite Veronica's current feelings towards Logan, she didn't wish her mother to be outwardly rude to him. Meg and Duncan were obviously still interested in one another, and she didn't want him to get scared off.

Besides, Logan was Duncan's closest friend. She'd seen how much Duncan valued his opinion, these past few days. It was a mystery to her why, but that's how things stood. And Logan already thinks Mom is a useless drunk. What if he convinces Duncan that Meg just isn't worth it?

"I don't think that's what Logan was saying," Veronica said, speaking calmly. "He just meant-"

"So, Duncan," Lianne cut her off. "Have you lived in New York your whole life?"

"Yes," he replied politely, although a bit taken aback by the abrupt subject change. "Born and raised."

"Our family has been in New York since the 1700's," Madison remarked haughtily. "Haven't you ever heard of Nathaniel Kane?"

Duncan flashed her a warning look, before turning back to Lianne with a smile. "But I'm really looking forward to being on the west coast."

"I think you'll find living by the ocean a nice change of pace," she replied. "We're all a bit more relaxed here."

"Clearly," Trina muttered under her breath. Madison laughed out loud.

Lianne looked at them in confusion, unsure what she'd said that was so funny. To distract her, Veronica blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "They're throwing a party, when they come back here."

"And when will that be?" Lianne inquired.

"After I graduate," Duncan replied. "Once we're all settled into the new place."

Meg glanced over at Trina and Madison. "We were thinking the last weekend in June, right?"

"No, it can't be that weekend," Lilly spoke up. "That's Dick's graduation party." She looked at Veronica with a sly smile. "He already stopped by looking for you, you know."

"Twice," Gia added with a giggle.

Logan listened with interest. This wasn't the first time Dick's name had come up in conversation. But when he glanced over at Veronica, her expression was unreadable.

"So if we're not doing it the end of June, when should we have the party?" Trina asked.

"How about 4th of July weekend?" Meg suggested.

"Yeah," Duncan replied enthusiastically. "That sounds great."

Logan frowned. All of this discussion about coming out to Neptune in June was news to him. He'd been a bit preoccupied by other thoughts, this past week, and hadn't paid any attention to the party planning. He'd been looking forward to spending some time with Heather, before he had to head back to California. And watching the fireworks with his little sister was a tradition they'd held for years.

"I thought we'd be in New York for the fourth," he said to Duncan. "Don't you want to stay for the fireworks?"

"We have fireworks here, too," Lianne informed him. "They may not rival the Macy's fireworks, but I assure you our display is more than satisfactory."

"I'm sure they're lovely," Logan replied dryly.

Catching his mood, Duncan turned to Lianne with a kind smile. "Well, we have lots of time," he said diplomatically. "I'm sure we'll figure it out." He cleared his throat. "But unfortunately, I have an appointment to get to, so we should probably get going."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Lianne apologized. "I didn't mean to keep you."

Sighing in relief, Veronica thanked Duncan for his hospitality and bid Madison, Trina and Connor a perfunctory goodbye. While she was waiting for Meg to finish saying her own goodbyes, Logan walked over to her.

"I, uh, guess I'll see you in a couple of months," he said.

"Yeah," Veronica replied flatly. "For the big party."

"You don't sound particularly enthusiastic about it," he noted.

She shrugged. "Well you've been to one party, you've been to them all, right?"

"Our parties tend to be a little more… extravagant." He nodded towards Trina. "Once she gets going, there's no stopping her."

"I'm sure it'll be lovely," Veronica said, echoing Logan's words to her mother. She looked over at Meg, who had finally finished saying her farewells to Duncan. Veronica glanced up at Logan briefly. "See you around."

Frustrated by how aloof she'd become, he simply nodded. "Yeah, okay. See you."

Without another word, she walked away to join the rest of her family. As he watched her go, he felt an acute sense of loss that he hadn't been prepared for. This is a good thing, he reminded himself. I can't get involved with someone who lives three thousand miles away. Still, when she didn't turn back to look at him, he couldn't help being disappointed.

As they walked away, Logan stood silently, listening to their conversation. Lianne glanced over at Veronica, really looking at her for the first time since she'd arrived. "What on earth are you wearing?" she asked.

"You can thank your two youngest for this," Veronica informed her.

Overhearing, Lilly grinned and turned towards her sister. "So, did we do a good job packing?" she asked innocently.

"I'm not speaking to you," Veronica replied.

"Oh, c'mon, it was funny," Lilly insisted. She glanced behind her, where Logan still stood watching them. Smiling, she added, "And it looks like it worked."

"Like what worked?" Veronica asked with a sigh. "Embarrassing me?"

Lilly rolled her eyes. "No, silly. Showing everyone how hot you are. Especially Logan."

"Yeah," Veronica replied sarcastically. "I seriously doubt that."

Her little sister shook her head, exasperated. "You're so clueless, sometimes. All of these guys are totally hot for you, and you're not into any of them?"

"Some of us aren't as interested in chasing boys as we are in other things," Veronica told her.

"Why not?" Lilly questioned. "What else is more fun?" With that, she hurried over to Meg to grill her sister on all of the details of the trip.

Veronica watched her go, lagging behind the rest of her family. She'd thought that she'd be excited to get off the ship; to finally get back to her normal life. Yet she felt just as restless and preoccupied as she had for the last three days. Against her better judgment, she took one last look towards the ship before she stepped off the dock. But there was no one in sight.

xxXxx

Veronica didn't feel like herself again until she got home and saw her dad. He gave her an enormous hug when she walked in the door, acting as though he hadn't seen her for months instead of days. After he'd finished greeting the rest of them, he and Veronica wandered into the kitchen.

She sat down on one of the bar stools at the island, while Keith poured himself a cup of coffee. When he was finished, he leaned against the counter, studying his daughter curiously. "You okay honey? You seem a little down."

"I'm fine," she replied automatically. He gave her that look of his, the one that told her he didn't believe her, so she continued with as much cheer as she could muster. "Really, I'm fine. Just tired."

"Did you have fun, at least?" he questioned. "Did that Echolls boy give you a hard time?"

"He was fine."

"Fine," Keith repeated, nodding his head slowly. "I see." He suspected there was more to the story, where Logan was concerned, but he decided not to push. "Well I really missed you, kiddo. It's good to have you home."

"I missed you too, Dad," Veronica said honestly. "Very much."

Keith stood up straight and walked around the island, giving her a kiss on her forehead. "It'll be nice to have a conversation about something other than clothes or boys, for a change. Although, speaking of boys, you've had quite a few gentleman callers since you left."

"Anyone interesting?" she asked.

"Just the usual suspects. Casey, John… and Dick, of course." Keith paused to take a sip of his coffee. "I have to say, what he lacks in intelligence, he more than makes up for in determination."

Veronica sighed. She knew the time had come to have a talk with Dick , but she felt so emotionally drained that she wasn't sure she had it in her today. But he's still my friend. I should at least call him back. With that thought in mind, she stood up. "I better get in touch with him before he reports me missing to the authorities."

"I am the authorities," Keith reminded her with a grin.

"And you never let us forget it," she remarked affectionately. "See you later."

"See you later, kiddo," Keith replied. "And Veronica?"

"Yeah?"

"Go easy on him, okay? He's not a bad kid."

Veronica couldn't help smiling at his uncanny ability to read her mind. "I know, Dad. And I will," she promised.

xxXxx

Later that afternoon, Dick and Veronica strolled down the beach together in silence. This was a very rare occurrence; he normally talked her ear off. Yet today, he seemed rather subdued. Almost morose. After several minutes of this, he stopped walking. She stopped too, looking up at him curiously.

"So you and Gant are back together, huh?" he asked abruptly, kicking at a shell with his bare foot.

"What?" Veronica laughed. "No. Who told you that?"

He glanced up at her. "Like ten people."

"Ten actual people, or ten imaginary people?" she joked.

"Ten actual people." He paused. "Well, okay, maybe it was two. But still. They said you two were getting all frisky at Mac's party."

"Hardly," she replied. "We played a game of water volleyball. If that's your idea of getting frisky, all of the rumors about you must be grossly exaggerated."

"You think I'm gross?"

"What?" she asked, getting more exasperated by the minute. "No, I don't think you're gross. It's just an expression."

"I know you still hook up with him, sometimes," he blurted out.

"Dick… That's really none of your business."

"I know," he muttered. "But I don't have to like it."

She smiled up at him, touched by his protectiveness. Yet he didn't return her smile. He was looking down again, digging at the sand with his toes. "Look, I've gotta tell you something. And I know you're not gonna be happy about it."

Uh-oh, she thought. Here it comes. Thinking quickly, she said, "About your trip to Cancun? Don't worry, I already know all about the donkey shows. I mean, I'm extremely disgusted by them, but if you and your buddies feel the need to go-"

"I'm being serious, Ronnie," Dick interrupted, looking up at her again. "I had a long talk with Kendall the other day, and I made a decision."

"Okay," she said slowly. Vastly relieved that he hadn't just admitted his undying love, it took Veronica a minute to actually process his words. When she did, she looked back at him in confusion. "Wait, who's Kendall?"

"My agent. Kendall O'Dell?"

"Oh," she replied. "Um, when did you hire an agent?"

"Like a month ago. Didn't I tell you about this?"

Realizing that the reason she didn't know this was because she'd been avoiding Dick as much as possible, lately, she suddenly felt very guilty. I'm a bad friend. "Uh, no," she said quietly. "I don't think so." Veronica paused. "Why do you even have an agent?"

"My dad thought it was a good idea. To like, protect my brand, or whatever."

"Your brand?" she laughed.

"Yeah," he said, a bit defensively. "Surfing is like the one thing I'm good at. People actually know who I am."

"I'm sorry," she replied contritely. "I wasn't making fun of you."

"Well, anyway," Dick continued, "we were talking about my options. You know, like serious stuff, about the future. And, uh, she thinks I should drop out."

"Of what?" Veronica asked. And then it hit her, and she looked up at him in shock. "Of school? Dick, that's insane. It's only two months until graduation. Why the hell would you drop out now?"

He shrugged. "There are lots of competitions going on right now. If I wait until June or July to go pro, I'm gonna miss out on a shitload of opportunities."

"Oh come on, you can't be serious. How much difference can a couple of months make? And it's not like youneed the money."

"It's not about the money," he explained. "It's about getting my name out there, for real. Kendall thinks I could be the next big thing. Like, the Kobe Bryant of surfing."

"Except for the fact that you're blond, and white, and about a foot shorter?"

Dick continued, undeterred. Veronica's opinion was one of the only ones that actually meant something to him, and he wanted her to understand. "Kendall thinks I should, like, go into acting and stuff. She calls it 'transitioning'. She said it's sort of like an insurance policy, for when I get too old to compete. Or if I get my leg bitten off by a shark or something."

Veronica didn't reply. Truthfully, she was both surprised and impressed by Dick's ambitions. He'd never really talked about his future with her before. Any time someone asked him what he was going to do after graduation, he'd say, "I don't know, man. I just want to surf." She wasn't sure she agreed with his agent's methods, but at least the woman was motivating him.

Taking her silence for disappointment, Dick continued on in a rush. "She already got me a role, too. In that movie Mac's dad is doing? I didn't even have to audition or anything. I guess she knows a lot of people, or whatever. Called in some favors." He paused, studying Veronica to try and figure out what she was thinking. "You're not saying anything," he said impatiently. "Are you mad?"

"No, I'm… I just think if you don't finish high school, you're going to regret it."

He glanced away guiltily. "I'm flunking three classes," he admitted.

"Dick," she admonished.

"I know, I know. This is why I didn't want to tell you. I just- I missed a lot of school this year, and even with tutors…" He shrugged. "Not everyone is smart like you."

"You're smarter than you've ever given yourself credit for," she replied.

"Nah. I'm just awesome at faking it." He grinned and put an arm around her, and for once she didn't shake it off. It was weird to think about school without him. No more goofing around at lunch or copying off my homework before class. Everything is changing...

"So, Lilly told me you went on a yachting trip with a couple of prep school boys from New York," Dick said.

"We did," she confirmed.

"You told me you couldn't come to Cancun because you had to catch up on your school work. So… how'd you have time to go yachting?"

"I didn't want to go, I assure you. I did it as a favor to Meg. Believe me, it wasn't how I wanted to spend my Spring Break. Or who I wanted to spend it with."

Taking her meaning very differently, he smiled to himself. "Well I guess I can forgive you for not coming to Cancun. But we're planning a trip to Vegas in July, and you've got to come. I'm not taking no for an answer, even if I have to knock you out and stuff you into my suitcase."

"Remind me, do you need legs to surf?" she asked.

"Um, duh."

"Well then I wouldn't suggest stuffing me into a suitcase. That course of action might result in something involving a baseball bat and your kneecaps."

"Oh, yeah, your dad's pretty protective huh?"

"My dad wouldn't be the one swinging the bat," she informed him with a sweet smile.

Dick laughed, unbothered by her threat. "So listen, everyone's gonna be there. It's gonna be a kickass time."

Against her better judgment, she nodded her head slowly. "Okay, fine," she agreed. "I'm in." At least it'll be something to do.

"Sweet," he grinned. "Oh and by the way, it's six inches."

"Excuse me?"

"Kobe's six foot six. I'm six feet tall. So I'm six inches shorter, not a foot. See? I can do math too." He looked down at her, mouth open in false astonishment. "Wait a minute, did you think I meant my-"

"Do not finish that sentence," she cut him off.

He chuckled and started walking again, and Veronica followed. Well, at least he's back to his normal self again, she thought. She glanced over at the ocean, glimpsing a ship far on the horizon. At least one of us is.

A/N Austen has been tough to tackle, I won't lie. I'm trying to straddle the line between modernizing the story while staying true to both the spirit of the book and the characters we all love so much. I really hope that I'm accomplishing this. Please let me know what you think! :)