CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: "My Heart Goes To..."

The weeks of Spring passed in a daze of the sounds of hammering, electric tools, and excited voices as work crews hurried to repair the hurricane's damage. Jack watched it all from the shadows, so to speak, avoiding the crowds of newcomers to ensure his identity remained safe. Doug's own feelings towards Jack healed once he heard about Jack's apology to Ann and Cliff and he learned that all those nice people staying at his Inn were due to Jack's involvement. And, of course, Jack was paying their Inn fees, so that helped as well.

They focused on the most damaged homes first—especially the Clinic, which needed it's top floor. But more than simply rebuilding, there was also some expansion going on. Jack told Elli and the Mayor that if they needed a few extra rooms, just say the word and it was theirs. Of course, Elli couldn't pass on the opportunity for a new room for herself and Stu, so they didn't have to share. And the Mayor was glad to have a study, so he requested one.

Not all the things brought on the ferry were things to build with. Medical machines—very valuable ones—had been brought by the three visiting doctors treating Popuri and Lillia. All three were busy and not at all willing to tell Jack anything until their diagnosis had been done and through with.

Jack spent the first week with his father, enjoying a lot of quality father-son time that they had simply missed out on as Jack was a child. Kevin Harris noted his farm with pride. "Looks good, Jack. Darn good, to be truthful. Your grandfather would have loved it. It looks better than when he worked the soil."

"I've been caring for my crops." Jack said, dismissing the praise. In truth, he did it because he loved it. The crops, the fields, his animals...all of it. Jack understood what had driven his grandfather so much in the old days. The farm was a full time job and although it was tough, he made it. It was good for his heart and his soul, but he didn't leave behind the thoughts he had of three certain young women.

But that was for another day, he knew. Time now to take to heart all that he had been taking for granted. It was time to make the last person on his list happy and that was who matter most to him right now. He stepped onto the Yodel Ranch and let himself in, since the Ranch considered itself a place of business and Barley was too old to get the door quickly and May too short to reach the doorknob well.

Inside, he found more than the usual suspects. Saibara and Gray were at the supper table, nursing a bowel of grits each. Barley spied Jack and grinned, "Thair he is! The young fella that's makin' this town better than it ever has before! Come in, come in, Jack my boy. How are ya, what's the word?"

"Here on a little business." Jack said, "And to see some friends of mine."

"Friends, eh?" Barley asked, "Yeah, how much does that cost ya?"

"Heh. Quite a lot, sometimes." Jack laughed. He nodded to Saibara and Gray. He had made his peace with them as well, though Gray seemed reluctant to forgive him for the clothesline across the jaw. (There was now a small hole in the Inn's floor and everyone had begun to call it's Gray's Hole)

"Where's the little one?" Jack asked.

"Outside." Barley said, "Swingin' on her swing, as always. She been real down fer the last few weeks. I think she misses yer farm, but you told her not to come back, you did." At that Barley seemed to stare at him hard, but Jack nodded and said, "Well, let's see what we can do about that, can't we? By the way, Saibara, how come the crews haven't started on your smithy yet?"

Saibara grunted, "Well, truth is the Smithy wasn't doing so well, Jack."

"Oh? I could have helped you out a bit. Is money what you needed." Jack mentioned.

Saibara shook his head. "Not that, Jack. Not that at all. Thing is, there's just no need for a smithy. I was the last of a trade that's been out of use since I was a boy and since Gray hasn't picked it up at all...well, it's just time to leave it closed."

"Oh." Jack said, nodding.

"He's right." Gray said, "Sometimes, a man has to be honest with himself about something. I just suck when it comes to being a smithy. It's just not my thing. But that's okay, I wasn't crazy about it anyway."

"Aren't you going to build a house?" Jack asked. "I mean, it's on me, guys, really. I don't mind."

"Well...I could," Saibara said in his gruff voice, "But truth be told, I wanna help my old pal Barley here. He's getting a bit old and needs some help. I don't think it's too late to learn to be a rancher."

"I suppose not." Jack said. "What about you, Gray?"

"I may see if helping the ranch is nice, but we'll see." Gray said, shrugging. In truth, he could almost tell if the job wasn't right for him. It seemed that for now, Gray was a soul without a cause. Still, Jack wasn't about to intrude. He could tell Gray wouldn't be calloused to farm work. He would do it, if Jack asked him to be his farm hand, but his heart wouldn't be in the work and that was what truly mattered in a man and his job.

"Come on, you old fart." Jack said, "I want to pick out some prime stock today. In fact, Saibara, Gray, you could help me out. I aim to take a few good grazers back with me, don't doubt it."

Jack walked outside and Barley turned to Saibara, grinning widely and nodding anxiously. Saibara nodded and held up his fingers, rubbing them together in the international sign of 'money, money, money'

Outside, Jack found May sitting on her tire swing, going back and forth with a quiet look about her. He smiled, "Hello there, pretty lady. How are you today?"

May took one look at Jack and her eyes lit up and the child's ability to forget something so wrong as a yelling vanished as the tall adult that she adored jumped down from her tire swing and ran over yelling, "Mr. Jack, Mr. Jack, Mr. Jack." She ran right into his arms and he swept her up, tossing her above his head and catching her again all to the delightful screams of the five year old little girl.

Holding her in his arms, Jack proceeded through Barley's herds and picked out five cows and five sheep. With a little time and some help from the Ranch hands, he got them all to his house before the end of the day and had them in his bright green pasture that took up over half his field. He put them in with Belle and Frodo and gave them some cow and sheep names (Besse, Dolly, Bonnie, Blue, and Momma Doll for his cows and Shag, Wooly, Carpetback, Fuzzball, and May called the last one Mr. Rumples, so he kept it)

The end of the week, on a celebratory Friday, Jack saw his father off on Zack's repaired ferry. "Wish you could stay, Dad." Jack said. "Friday nights are a hoot. We got the women in on it since last Summer."

"Your mother's going to be worried, Jack. I told her I'd be home Sunday morning, so I'd better get going. You enjoy yourself, Jack." He hugged his son, "I'm proud of you, Jack. I know your grandfather would be, too."

"Yeah. I love ya, pops."

"Love you too, son."

Jack stood on the edge of the pier, watching his father disappear into the horizon. With a start, Jack realized that today was the day of the Harvest Festival. Oh well, he figured. No real bother since everyone was focused on making it through the rebuilding process. Several ferries were parked on the shore. Plenty of food had been unloaded, however Jack was still farming his proverbial tail off to help get fresh veggies and fruits to his hometown.

Nothing was good enough for Jack. He had to do more, had to help everyone that he could and the silent voice of Ace was complying more than he thought. The side of him that was Ace couldn't get enough of doing for the people. The exhilarating feeling that came over him knowing that what was small to him was life-changing to others was unlike any other he had ever felt before. And he wanted more of it. He had to do more.

But aside from completely renovating the entire village, there wasn't much he could do. Homes could only be rebuilt so fast. He could only do so much. Jack was, after all, only human.

He went home and reflected on his time here. So much of it, for so long, had seemed so pointless. A hopeless pursuit of growing crap and chasing skirts. Now that the turmoil that had made everything seem pointless to begin with had faded, he had his purpose, his sense of belonging back. Now he was whole, and eager to stay his life here.

Yet, it wasn't truly over, he knew. Not really. He knew that one of the messes he had made that couldn't be fixed with money. He had been triple-dipping with Mary, Karen, and Popuri. Now, at the end of his troubles, he had an even more personal trouble to face, because there was an unsettling, yet definite truth about this that Jack could no longer deny.

He was truly in love with three different women.

But now, with his mind cleared, he knew what to make of it all and why he had done and felt with each girl.

Mary—shy, assuming, angelic Mary—he loved him with all his mind. When they were together, she was on his intellectual level and they both knew it. They loved books, they loved talking about books, and the stimulating conversations between them were ones Jack adored, had looked forward to each night when the craving for BLTs hit him. It was a love between minds, a longing for equals, that drove Jack to love Mary.

Karen—stunning, sly Karen—this was a love that was rooted in the physical. He loved Karen with his body, but there was more to it than that. She complimented the side of him that leaned towards Ace. He had driven that similar part of her mind and the end result was their Christmas Eve fling. Karen was appealing, friendly, fun to be around, and he truly knew she was as much a part of him now as he was a part of her. If she hadn't felt something, she wouldn't have given him that part of her that couldn't ever be returned. Something was there, it simply had to be nurtured into something more and not stuck in the physical side of the relationship.

Ann had complimented Ace and, in another lifetime, he could have seen himself with Ann, but she was with Cliff. For that, he was glad—even more so that they were able to get over his sleeping with her. Jack had to admit that made Cliff more of a man than him. He could never do that, had never done it when he caught two of his old girlfriends cheating on him.

And then there was Popuri. There was no mere words to describe what Jack felt. Popuri was a true rarity in these days and times. And unassuming, innocent young lady at the verge of womanhood, but never letting her girlish self go. She was waiting, he knew. Not the sexual waiting, waiting for marriage, but waiting in her heart. Waiting for Jack because she had long ago made her choice. She was waiting for Jack to admit that he loved her as much as she loved him and they could go on with their lives together.

Whereas Jack loved Mary with his mind and Karen with his body...

He loved Popuri with his heart.

And that had brought out the true JACK in Jack. The soft side of him he hadn't seen since he was younger, more carefree. She was carefree, loving, heart-felt in everything she did, and wanting nothing more than to become the woman she knew she could become, but she couldn't do it without him. It was him or no one, he could see that. She asked him for nothing but his mere presence and suddenly Jack understood.

That's what true love is all about.

Not how much money or how many games you're willing to play. Popuri didn't play games to make Jack pursue her. Jack hated games like that—like 'hard to get'—because he knew they just wanted to tease him, get him to spend extravagant amounts of energy and cash to prove he wanted to date her. Popuri didn't do that. All he had to do was smile and kiss her and Popuri would leap into a flaming chasm for him and that, he realized was true love.

And the more he thought about it, the more he thought that this made sense. Never did he feel happier than when he was with Popuri. He infectious happiness, her bright demeanor, her endless joy at anything that life had for her was a pure spirit that Jack had never seen in another person.

Except Wendy.

And now he had to face the facts. He was at the edge of a threshold, but would he jump or not. He had missed his chance with Wendy—last he had heard was that she was married with several kids, but was his chance with either of the three women he loved gone? Would he spend his life with one or the other or the other?

No, Jack said to himself. It had to be one and he prayed, literally, for a solution to be delivered. What was he to do about these girls and was one of them right for him? What kind of love did he have for these girls? He had to find out. He had to know.

It was time to see who the girl he would love for the rest of his life was going to be.

XxXxXxX

Night fell and Jack walked down the avenue to Mary's house. It was dark and he wanted it that way. There was no way he wanted to been seen in public, this was a private matter between the two of them. No one had any right to see or hear anything from it. This was strictly between Jack and Mary. He held in his hands a brown wrapped package, which he simply held in his hands.

Before he had even arrived at her house, she was leaving her door and pounding the pavement towards him, her blouse and skirt flapping in the cool Spring breeze that was drifting through that day. She smiled when she saw him, "I knew you were coming."

"BLTs?" Jack smiled, laughing.

"Every time." Mary answered, pushing her bang behind her bang behind her ear. "So...I guess you wanted to talk."

"That would be the correct assumption." Jack said. "Ever since I was...well, I hesitate to say cured, but ever since I got my head on straight I've been wondering about my relationships and I knew sooner or later I have to make a choice."

They started walking down the avenue towards the Clinic and the Church. Jack proceeded to tell Mary what he knew so far. "I love you, Mary. I know that much for certain. I fell in love with you, I think, because I never met my female intellectual equal." Jack told her everything he knew that he loved about her, why he loved those things, and how it was an attraction of the mind more than anything, but that it was a solid things they could build on.

Jack, ever the master of body language, could see from Mary's eyes that something different was dwelling within her eyes. Almost certain was he about her answer. She sighed deeply, "I can see you thought a long hard time about this, Jack. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy being in love with two men. I know now why I've felt the things I've felt between us. Jack, we're two of a kind, really we are, but ever since our separation since before the snowstorm, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on what you mean to me."

"Did you find out anything?" Jack asked.

Mary smiled gently, "Great minds think alike. You said everything I wanted to say, Jack."

The two of them laughed, stopping in the middle of Rose Square and facing each other. Mary hugged on arm, "But things are different now, Jack. I had a chance to think, to really think, and take into account some other things. One was that you did physically strike me. Good or bad, it's something I can't really allow into my life, Jack. I swore it to myself that I would never, ever allow that to enter my life. So...unfortunately, that's a strike against you...even though I do forgive you for extenuating circumstances."

Jack nodded, accepting what she said. "I deserve it. Sorry."

"Then I took into account the fact that you have been, since last year, courting two other girls besides me. That hurt at first, but after talking with Ace a few times it was obvious that he wasn't completely responsible for all that happened. You, Jack, have issues with women and that's obvious."

Jack was silent for a moment before a new voice spoke up. "You couldn't have said that any better, Mary." Mary and Jack turned to see a young girl approaching—one who's taste in purple vests was questionable.

Karen stepped out of the unseen shadows and approached with her hands up. "I was standing nearby, I didn't mean to interrupt. But I heard you two talking and...well, I think I have a few things to add to what Mary's saying, Jack."

"This is really between me and Mary right now." Jack said, "I wanted to catch you later."

Karen and Mary stood side-by-side, watching Jack. Jack felt like he was being sized up by a couple of his ex-girls. In a way, he kind of was. "Jack, you have issues with women." Karen said, "Not just with us, but with women in general."

Jack crossed his arms. "Okay. So what kind of issues do I have?"

"Well, let's start with your seven ex-girlfriends." Mary said, adjusting her glasses. "Where do you think things went wrong with them?"

Jack shrugged, "They were all crappy girlfriends?"

"How did you meet them?" Karen asked, "Why did you start dating them?"

"Well..." Jack began to think. "I met them all through my job. They knew me, of course, but most of them started giving me eyes and I was hooked for a little while. Of course, it always ended crappy."

"You mean like this." Karen said, smiling at Jack and eyeing him the way she always had. Jack jumped back, "Er, yeah. Just like that. Drives me wild, those eyes."

"Well, no wonder." Karen said, "All your girlfriends you ever had you dated because they did something you liked, but tell me this: was there ever a connection like you and Mary?"

"No."

"And then the only reason you made advances with me was because I made eyes at you and we were physically attracted." Karen said, "Mary for her mind and me for my body, but you were looking for both in one, right?"

Jack nodded, "That makes sense."

"But that's not all." Mary said, pointing her finger, "Because even though we're having this conversation, Jack, you and I both know where it's going to go."

Jack grimaced and nodded again. "Yes, I believe so. You're going to dump me, right?"

Mary shook her head. "No, Jack. We're mutually splitting what we had and if I'm not completely insane, I'm betting you aren't hurt by it."

Jack looked at her emptily and sighed. "No. Disappointed, I suppose. I guess, in a way, I knew it wouldn't work out."

"The same reason why we won't work, Jack." Karen said, "But I'm betting you already knew that, too."

Jack shook his head, "No, actually, I didn't. I thought that...there was something we could have done. We could have..." But he saw Karen shaking her head as he said this.

Karen just looked disappointed, "Jack, you just don't get it. You are I, we were all about our bodies. Our hearts didn't enter the picture until later and by then it was too late. I've seen your ugly side, Jack, and every time I look at you—even now—I just can't get things out of my head: the way you looked at me like a hungry bear spying a fish, those times where the only thing I knew was what your hands grabbed, Christmas Eve and that foul language you spoke to me. Jack, it's just too much for me. You hurt me, Jack. As glad as I am that you've gotten rid of Ace, I simply can't live knowing the things I know."

Karen swallowed hard, "But that's not all, Jack. I want to leave, Jack, and now that I've gotten over you, taken care of this last little bit of my life here, I want to get away from Flowerbud and see the world. I want to wake up in the Bahamas and watch the water. I want to hike up the slopes of Stone Mountain. I want to walk through New York City. I want to see the West and East Coast. Jack, I want to live! You came here to stay the rest of your life. Being with you, Jack, would be putting the final nail in the coffin of my life. I don't want to be here, Jack. I want to go and if I'm with you...I couldn't do that."

"So for the sake of my sanity and to keep things less complicated...I don't want to be your girl. I hope you can forgive me, but I also don't want to end up as girlfriend #8."

Jack looked between the two of them. "You two sure know how to make a guy sweat it out. I guess you got it all figured out. I wish...I guess I can't say I'm sad about parting, but I never liked not finishing something. I guess now it makes sense when I look at it, but I wish I hadn't hurt both of you like this."

Mary and Karen seemed to soften in their faces. Mary reached up and touched his cheek, "Jack, any hurting I had I cried out over the Winter, when you were at home. Mostly, I studied on your split personality condition and a way I could help you with it. Eventually, I knew that in order to help you, I had to play the part of your enamored girl. You see, Jack, I actually lost interest before your explosion as Ace. I think the moment it came was when Ace wanted me to be his personal toy was the moment I knew I was getting in over my head and eventually got over you. I'm sorry to tell you this way, but it's the truth. Jack...I just fell out of love with you."

She waved her hand with a smile. "But don't worry about me. I'm fine. My heart will go on and all that nonsense and if you like, we can still read books together and eat BLTs, we just won't be cuddling or whatnot."

Karen looked to Mary, "You sly little minx. I knew there was more to you than a studious bookworm. All those trashy romance novels your read, I knew there had to be a dirty girl somewhere behind those little glasses."

Mary rolled her eyes.

Jack shrugged, looking to Karen. "What about you?"

Karen shrugged back. "I'll be okay, Jack. But...seriously, I think you need to work on your intimacy skills. If you were an overweight biker, I could have expected something like that out of you, but for future reference, you may want to tone down...everything." She twirled her hands around in the air, trying to find a subtle way to tell him he was a crappy lover.

Jack nodded, "I'll remember that." He sighed, "Well, I guess that's that. The ear of Jack and Mary and Jack and Karen is over. I'm sorry I put you two through everything, I really am. I hope you don't—"

"Jaaaack." Mary and Karen said together.

"No one's blaming you, Jack." Mary said.

"We understand and forgive you." Karen said.

"There's just one other thing." Mary said, pointing to the distant lights of the Poultry Farm. "You're crazy if you think that in this small town you can get away with dating one girl—much less three at once—and get away with people not knowing. Popuri doesn't know it, but Ann had been working on her behalf for months now."

Karen smiled, "Ann almost threatened to choke me. After the whole thing with me and you on Christmas Eve, Ann started telling me what Popuri thinks of you. Jack, I may not know what love is to me, but I can certainly see it in Popuri. She's a kind girl, a really innocent soul and I, for one, am not going to stand between her and you. That's another reason I don't want to try and start over with you."

"She's right, Jack." Mary said, "Popuri loves you. Not like I loved you or Karen loved you, with her mind or her body, but with her heart. Every day since you arrived, or so Ann has told us, Popuri has prayed to God, wished upon stars, blown on dandelions, looked for shooting stars...anything you want, she did it all in the hope that you'd eventually stop fooling around and sweep her off her feet. I don't want to stand between you and Popuri. You can see it, too. If this were some kind of story being written by a wanna-be author, the people reading it would probably see it too."

Mary pushed her glasses up. "Tell me, Jack. Who was Wendy? You screamed her name several times during your fight with Ace."

Jack lowered his head. "Wendy was my first girlfriend. We...we were supposed to get married after high-school, but I dumped her because I wanted to make my mark on the world.

"And did you?" Karen asked.

Jack nodded.

"And was it worth it?"

Jack shook his head.

Karen smiled, "Then you've finally learned something about women. If you don't want to repeat what happened with you and Wendy, then you have a chance to make your life with Popuri—the life you could have had with Wendy. Jack, you're getting a second chance at love, most people don't ever have that chance in their lives.

Jack nodded. "Right. I know. I...I love Popuri. She's been so wonderful to me and I've taken her for granted. I went behind her back and saw the two of you. This must have broken her heart."

Karen put her hand on his shoulder. "Then go see her, Jack. She's sick and seeing you would brighten her up. Go to her, Jack."

Jack nodded. "Thanks. Both of you. I do love you, no matter what we say. You'll both always be special to me." He took the two girls in a tight, long embrace together and when he parted, there wasn't a dry eye amongst them. Jack handed Mary the brown package he had been holding. "This is for you, Mary."

She turned it over in her hands. "What is it?"

"A surprise." Jack said with a twinkle in his eye, "But only for when you get home. There's another surprise on the dock. I want you to go look. It just got here this afternoon. Take care." He waved to the two of them as he walked off for Farm Row, leaving the two of them behind.

Mary turned to Karen. "Come on, let's go see."

Together, the two of them set off for the docks, where they found boxes upon boxes stacked higher than they were and waiting with a piece of paper on the side that read: "For Flowerbud's head Librarian."

Mary ripped open the top of one box and looked inside, her mouth dropping so far down her glasses fell off her face. Karen smiled when she saw the contents. "Looks like you've got some work ahead of you, Mary."

Each box was stuffed to the rim with books. Books upon books upon books. Fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, history, botanical guides...literature of every kind and all of it brand-spanking new. Mary picked her glasses up, smiling from ear-to-ear and cried as she happily ran her fingers along the wonderful books that would replace the ones lost in the hurricane.

XxXxXxX

Jack knocked on the door to the Poultry Farm and a moment later, Rick answered the door. "Jack?"

"Hey, Rick. Can I see, Poe?"

"Actually," Rick pushed his glasses onto his nose, "This is a bad time."

"Is that Jack?" Popuri's voice called. Rick looked back and then opened the door for Jack. Popuri and Lillia sat together on the couch, the three doctors standing before them in the living room. "Rick, don't be rude. Invite Jack in."

Rick shook his head, "Popuri, this isn't an appropriate time."

Popuri looked past her brother and to Jack, "Jack, please come in. I could use your support. Rick, Jack deserves to be here."

"Why?" Jack asked as he walked in. "What's going on?"

Dr. Peltzer looked to Jack, "We've determined the illness that Miss Lillia and Miss Popuri have. If you'd like to sit down, Mr. Jack." As soon as Jack was sitting next to Popuri—and after he took her hand—Dr. Spalding continued, "You both have contracted a very rare disease known as Chronic Wasting Syndrome. CWS is rare and it deteriorates the body's stores of energy. It can mimic a dozen or so other diseases, which is why your medication hasn't helped, miss Lillia."

"Can you treat it?" Rick asked.

"Well, the disease is a little more complicated than that." Dr. Peltzer said, "It is also affected by the person's mental state of being. The will to fight off the illness is more important than the medication. A person fighting it can very well overcome it's affects. However, someone who has a very depressed mood will see worse symptoms than usual. In your case, Miss Lillia, your desperation to see your husband is affecting you very badly. You won't get well until...well, until you're happy again."

Lillia nodded, "And that won't happen until I see my husband again."

"Now, the illness is treatable, Miss Lillia, but I'm afraid you've shown symptoms for so long, you would only regain about seventy percent of your former capabilities back. You'll still be weaker than you were. However, Miss Popuri has only recently shown symptoms, so for her, as long as she's happy, can retain her full health as long as she medicated and avoids very serious bouts of depression—which would accelerate the illness. Do you understand, miss Popuri?"

Popuri swallowed. "I do."

"How much is the medication?" Rick asked.

"Very expensive." Dr. Peltzer said.

"Don't worry about that." Jack said.

"Mr. Jack, am I to assume you're the one footing our bill?"

Jack nodded, "I am. Just do what you're trained to do and you'll get paid."

Dr. Peltzer looked to his watch, "Well, it's about time to get to bed for us. We'll be over tomorrow to start your medication treatments, miss Lillia, Popuri." The doctors bid them farewell and left. As soon as they were gone, Jack turned to Popuri. "Poe, can I talk to you for a few minutes?"

She nodded and Jack watched with great sadness as Popuri moved slowly from the couch to the door where they went outside and stood beside the creek.

"I've missed you, Jack." She said softly.

Jack put his arm around her, resisting the urge to simply take her in a long kiss. How could he have been so blind? How could he have not seen her before now? How could he have passed up his one true love for so long? Well, that ended tonight.

"I missed you too, Poe. Listen, I want to tell you something. Something personal to me. For a long time, I've been hiding behind Ace's shell, his stature, his strength, but not any more. Thanks to you and everyone else, I've got my head on straight and I've never thought more clearer. I made some mistakes, I did some stupid things, but now I know the truth."

He turned to her, holding her hands in his, "I know now I always felt something for you. The way my heart just swelled when we were together, those wonderful dinners and dances we had together...everything all leads to the same conclusion. I love you, Popuri. I've buried my head in my neither regions and I've ignored it entirely, but I won't lose you, Poe. I love you too much to even think about throwing away the kind of lover we have together. I'm so sorry I never returned the love you showed me, but that all in the past. Popuri, my heart goes to you." He smiled, his face flushed and his chest ready to explode as his heart pounded against his rib cage.

But Popuri just stared at him.

Jack frowned, "What's wrong?"

"I wish I could believe you, Jack." She said, lowering her eyes, "But ever since you went into a rage at Court...all I can see is your angry face, yelling at people, yelling at me!"

"I know, Poe. But that wasn't me, it was Ace. You have to forgive me, Poe. Give me a second chance." He got on one knee before her, looking into her eyes and slinging his hat onto the ground. No, this wasn't happening, it couldn't be. Not again. Not like what happened with Wendy. Only now the roles were reversed. Now he was like Wendy was, begging him to stay, begging Popuri to take him.

But she shook her head, "But that's just it, Jack. How much of what we had was really you? How much was Ace? Was any of it real? Did I love a man who didn't exist? Or maybe I loved Ace."

"No!" Jack cried, "Ace was the bad one. He was the one who tried to force you into something you didn't want."

"And when he couldn't get what he wanted, he turned to Karen...or Ann." Popuri sniffled, her eyes wet with tears, "Jack, was there anyone in this town you didn't sleep with? I know the answer: me. Why, Jack? Were you teasing me? Was I just someone to play with and kiss around with behind Karen's back? Was I supposed to put out when you wanted just to keep you? No thank you, I have more respect for myself than that."

"The truth is, Jack, that I don't believe you were completely innocent, no matter what Mary says. Ace may have done some bad things, but let's face it: you didn't stop him very well, if you wanted to stop him at all. You say you love me, but I don't...Jack, I don't know if I can believe you or not."

Now Popuri was crying full force, "You hurt me so badly, Jack! I just wanted to die, but I couldn't. I wouldn't. Because that was the cheap way out. I'm not going to abandon my life because I got hurt. I'm not a little girl anymore, Jack. I'm not the same Popuri you kissed in the meadow. I'm a woman, Jack. I'm a woman and I know for myself what I want to do."

Jack shook his head, his heart thudding in dull pain. "Please, Popuri...I love you. I don't want to lose you. I swear upon everything I have that I do love you, it just took me too long to realize it. I swear, Popuri, if you'll give me a second chance I'll make it up to you. I do love you. But please, don't tell me you don't want to see me anymore. I promise no more tears, no more hurting, nothing but you and me and every happy moment we can spend together. Please? I love you, Popuri."

For a long moment, Popuri was silent and when she lifted her head, he could see her eyes sparkling that way they always had when she looked up him. But they were only there before she lowered her eyes again and the door slammed shut; Jack felt his heart sink to the level of his left boot.

"Jack...I...I did love you, but now...I don't know what to think. Please...for now...let me be. Let me think for a while, let me be on my own and help my mom with this. Please, Jack? Until I'm ready to say yes or no or anything like that...just let me be?"

Jack shut his eyes. In some way, he knew that was the only hope she had and it was better than nothing at all. It meant to give her some time to reconsider...or some time to cement her feelings. Right now, nothing was getting accomplished. He wanted nothing more than to kiss her, hold her, love her like he wanted. But by the time he could even lifted his head, she was going inside. Jack sank to his knees, put his head in his hands, and cried harder than he ever had before.

XxXxXxX

Mary sat on her bed at bedtime, looking at the package. It was a large envelope, stuffed thick. The address was from a placed called Pendant Publishing. She opened it and pulled out a stack of papers. She picked up a letterhead and read it:

"Dear Miss Mary,"

"Mr. Harris graciously sent us a copy of your manuscript and we were very impressed. We would like to have you on as one of our contract authors with a beginning advance of eight thousand dollars, with more if royalties surpass the advance. (Which we are sure they will). Enclosed is your contract to write for pendant publishing. With your permission, we'll put your first novel into a hardcover edition, then mass distribution in paperback. We look forward to working with you on future projects. Please reply promptly."

"Monica Weston, Editor-in-chief"

Mary could only gasp and read the letter until she couldn't even understand what the words meant anymore.