It was just another typical example of how completely, horribly bad his luck could be.


What had possessed him? He had no money, no family, no friends to speak of. Nothing had held him back, so he had packed everything he owned and had left with no real destination in mind. A change of scenery was all he had been thinking.


Sadly, 'everything he owned' was in two duffel bags in the trunk of the car. It amounted to nothing more than a week's worth of clothes and a couple of photo albums that his mom had kept. He was lucky he still had those, that his landlady from before his trouble had held on to them while he'd been gone.


Everything else in the old apartment had been sold to pay off his debt. The only reason he still had clothes was because he had hoarded cash over the past few years instead of putting it into his account. He could have gotten into trouble for it but didn't care. They wouldn't stop until he had exactly nothing, and he got that he maybe deserved some of their hatred but not all of their blame.


He'd spent the last six months scraping by on a minimum wage job, working at a local garage. He'd been ostracized by the community, the place he had lived since childhood. His so-called friends had refused to speak to him, and the death threats had reached the point of being ridiculous.


Previous to that he'd been in jail. He'd served six years of a ten year sentence, the maximum the judge could slap him with.


He still remembered every detail of that night, even if the district attorney tried to claim he had been too drunk to remember his own name. He'd met Jezzie Adams at the bar her parents owned. She worked there as a part time waitress. The rest of the time she was busy trying to lay every dick in town. Mark had dropped her when he'd discovered just how many times she'd cheated on him, but it had not stopped her from calling him and trying to get him back. Mark had prospects – he had just opened his own garage, money was coming in. He had no attachments, no family, and a fairly large inheritance from his mother's passing.


That night Jezzie had plied herself on thick, serving him a few beers, draping herself across him, practically in his lap. And then she'd dropped her bombshell. She was pregnant and claimed it was his.


He knew better than that but the news stunned him anyway. It had been at least three months since he'd last slept with Jezzie and he distinctly recalled using a condom as well, as he had every time he'd ever slept with her. She was also supposedly on the pill but of course he couldn't trust her to tell the truth about that either.


Mistaking his silence for acceptance, Jezzie had spent the next thirty minutes spinning a fantasy life for the two of them – no – the three of them. Being pregnant would change her ways, she'd be devoted to him, they would get married and buy a house, a big one because she had decided that she wanted at least four kids, maybe more, motherhood would be the thing that finally grounded her in reality…

It all ran together eventually.


The fact was, Jezzie was all but cut off from her family. They owned the bar where she worked, as well as quite a few other businesses in town. They were loaded to the gills and had more money than they knew what to do with. Jezzie was their spoiled youngest child, an ungrateful brat that had spent the majority of her teens/early twenties hating them for giving her everything and taking everything they would give her. Her father forced her to work at the bar, and work for the same pay as the other waitresses, and refused to help her anymore until she learned to be thankful for all of the opportunities they had provided.


Jezzie had tried to win her way back in but her father could be stubborn. It wasn't until later, after Mark's trial, that he had learned that Jezzie's news of being pregnant had the opposite intended effect on Michael Adams. He'd told her to take her bastard child and deal with it herself, he was not giving her a dime to help care or provide for it.

Jezzie had turned her attention back to Mark. Mark, who was sitting on nearly a million dollars from his mother's estate and insurance holdings.


It all came down to money for Jezzie. She thought she could twirl Mark around her little finger and he had to admit for a brief time she had. He must have looked ridiculous, following along behind her like a lost puppy while she screwed her way through various bars around town.


The fault was entirely his. He'd been lonely and Jezzie was an easy outlet. There was no love between them. On the few occasions when they weren't meeting to have sex, he found her boring to the point of painful.


He'd stopped at three beers because he had to open his shop early the next morning. He promised – albeit without much enthusiasm – to give her predicament some thought and let her know if he would agree to give her another chance. Jezzie had pouted but agreed. She'd followed him out to his motorcycle and had kissed him. Mark had allowed it because at that point what did it hurt? It was just a kiss after all.


She asked him for a ride home since it was time for her to leave anyway. He suspected an attempt to get him into bed, where she knew she would have all the power. If there was one thing she was good at it was sex. He knew better but agreed – if his mother had known he'd told a pregnant woman to walk home, she would have boxed his ears. He had been brought up to at least try to be respectful no matter what the circumstances were.


Jezzie lived in a small apartment on the other side of town. She asked Mark to take the back way to avoid the traffic lights, and he did so because it was the way he would have normally travelled. The dark country road was like a black ribbon unrolling in front of the big bike's single headlight. If he had been alone he would have opened the bike up and flown through the curves but Jezzie had always hated the bike, and especially hated when he went fast. Mindful of that he kept it to a steady 35 miles per hour.

When the accident happened it was out of nowhere. The country road had houses along it, each one with a gravel drive. The truck had shot out of a driveway to their right, from behind a thick screen of trees. Mark had no time to react even at a reduced speed. He swerved, the truck clipped them, and he heard Jezzie scream as she was thrown from her seat behind him. Mark tried to hold onto the bike but the truck just kept coming. Eventually he was knocked out of his seat and thrown onto the road, feeling rock and road grit chew into his skin and bouncing his head off the blacktop so hard that he lost consciousness.


He woke up three days later at the hospital. A stern-faced doctor informed him that Jezzie was dead. He also informed him an armed deputy was sitting right outside his room. Mark was effectively arrested in his hospital bed.


The trial was nothing short of a joke. Michael Adams had thrown his weight and money around and there had been nothing Mark could do to fight him. He couldn't get to his money because his accounts were frozen, he couldn't hire a lawyer who was outside of Michael's influence. Mark refused to accept a guilty plea, which pissed off both Michael and his buddy the DA. They'd been forced to trial but Mark should have saved his energy. The fact that Jezzie was pregnant had added to his responsibility in the crash, and he'd been charged with manslaughter. The judge had nailed Mark with the maximum sentence that carried – 10 years. Michael had been suitably pissed off again. Even he couldn't buy a direct murder charge in a vehicular accident.


So instead of that he'd sued Mark for everything he had while he'd spent the first year in prison. And he'd won of course, a wrongful death suit that focused more on the unborn child than on Jezzie herself. Michael's version of gaining sympathy from the judge and jury had worked. Mark had paid Michael every bit of his mother's inheritance money, had signed over the shop he had spent so much money and time getting off the ground, and had given permission for the sale of anything in his possession worth money.

He got out in 6 years. Mark kept his nose clean in jail and had spent as much time as he could either hitting the weights in the exercise yard or working in the prison's small engine garage. It wasn't a maximum security prison so there were no real hard-timers or lifers inside but it had been horrible just the same. He'd spent six years living in a cell so small he could touch every wall standing in the center of the room.


But the garage was his escape. Most prisoners who worked in the garage did it to learn a trade. Mark was already adept at repairs, and he'd been charged with teaching others, a role he hated at first but grew to enjoy. It meant more time out of his cell and with his hands on something he could fix.


Michael had tried to end that bit of enjoyment but the warden wasn't the type who could be bought. In fact, the warden had pointed out to Michael that he'd already taken all that he could get from Mark and to get over it.


Michael proved him wrong by having the judge garnish the tiny wages Mark earned while doing work I the prison garage. Michael had been awarded 2 million in the wrongful death suit and he would not stop until he got every single penny of it.

The month before he'd left prison Mark had the opportunity to sit down with the judge and an accountant. They had tallied up his remaining balance – still $200,000. The judge had considered it for a moment before granting a discontinuance of the remaining balance. Mark had paid well over half of the debt, which was more than what victims' families usually achieved. Michael had of course been livid but the judge had stood up to him on his decision – going after Mark for the remaining balance would be the equivalent of squeezing water from a stone and would draw too many inquisitive eyebrows from other lawmakers about how the case had been handled. They didn't want to draw the attention of state auditors because it would have been exposed that Michael had pretty much bought the trial, the judgment, and the sentence.


Mark could not prove any of it. They'd covered their trails pretty well. He was just glad it was over with. At least until his release date. He had nowhere to go and no one to stay with. On a whim he'd contacted the woman he had previously rented from. She had reluctantly agreed to let him spend a week in his old apartment. It was unfurnished but he didn't care. He went around looking for work, feeling like the town outcast. One of the smaller garages had hired him but Mark made virtually nothing and worked 16 hours a day. He scraped by.


But at six months he could not take anymore. He had still hoarded his money, keeping it on him rather than in a bank. He didn't trust banks, and distrusted paychecks even more. His boss had paid him cash but it had of course cost him for the privilege.

That was ok. Mark saved up enough to buy the used car that had just died on him. He knew it was a piece of shit but for only a thousand dollars he couldn't pass it up. He had just wanted it to get him away from where he had been. Of course he had hoped to make it to a bigger town, preferably somewhere in Florida, where he could find a decent job and start rebuilding his poor excuse for a life.


But it looked like this was the end of the road unless by some miracle the car only needed something minor. For a moment Mark wished he'd thought to buy a tent. It would be an upgrade from trying to fit into the back of the car comfortably. He had no idea where he was or if he was even close to a town or city he could walk to. He was suddenly exhausted to the point where he just wanted to sit down and give up.




Giving up apparently would not be an option.


Given that he was in the middle of nowhere, there were of course all sorts of night sounds around him. Small animals in the trees, birds, frogs, crickets. No engines which meant he probably wasn't near a major town or city. So it took a moment to register that the rustling noise from his right was more like footsteps than a raccoon in the bushes.


Mark was in the trunk, digging through his bags, trying to shift things around to make a pillow he could use to save himself the pain in the neck he would get from trying to fold himself small enough to fit in the back of the car when a voice from behind him startled him.


"Car trouble?"


Mark whirled around and shined his flashlight on a man who had appeared behind him. The guy winced as the light blinded him momentarily. Mark shifted it to shine at his feet.

The guy was easily Mark's height and size, and that was saying something. Mark was over six and a half feet tall. The other man had long hair pulled back into a messy ponytail, and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. In the dark that was about as detailed as Mark could get.


"Yeah. Engine died on me." Mark decided not to give the guy grief. Because in the backwash of his flashlight he could see the almost hidden driveway where the guy had come from. Unlike most of the others he'd passed, this one was blacktop just like the road, although cracked in places. "I'm not blocking your place, am I? I can try to push it off the road and get somebody out to haul it in the morning."


"No. Don't worry about it. Not like we get a lot of traffic out here." The guy seemed to be mentally measuring Mark. Not in a bad way. He just seemed curious. "You weren't going to sleep in that little thing were you?" He asked, half-smiling and pointing at the car.

"I had thought about it. Since I don't know where I am."


"Well. You're in Graves Falls. And you can definitely do better than that car."


"Yeah. Well…" Mark cleared his throat, uncomfortable.


The man tilted his head and was silent a moment. "Need a hand with your stuff?"


Mark frowned. "Why would I?"


"Because I was, in a roundabout way, offering you a place to crash for the night." The man shrugged. "I've been told I can be kind of dense when it comes to talking to people so maybe I wasn't really clear on the offer."


Mark almost smiled at that, at the man's tone. "You don't even know me."


"We all start off not knowing each other. Eventually we get there."


Mark raised an eyebrow, wondering if the guy was just in general crazy or if maybe this was a special personality quirk.


"This would fit right into something I'm playing with." The man went on as if Mark would understand. He shook his head. "My name is Glen. Glen Jacobs."


"Mark Calaway." Unsure of how to avoid it, he shook hands with Glen.


"I promise I can make more sense than this. I was working, and got stuck, and decided to take a walk to clear my head. And found you out here."


"I was driving and my car died." Mark replied. "Right in your front yard I guess."


"Not quite the front yard, but close enough." Glen smiled broadly. "Is this all you have?"


Mark felt he should guard himself as the man shouldered one of the bags. "Yeah…I uh…"


"Good. Less to carry." He handed Mark the other bag and slammed the trunk shut. "Got anything else in there you need for now?" Mark shook his head. "Great. Follow me. You won't need the light unless the woods freak you out. The drive is pretty easy to follow as long as it's a clear night."


Mark hesitated and shut the flashlight off before tucking it into his pocket. His eyes took a moment to adjust but Glen was right – the driveway had flecks of sparkling rock mixed in with the blacktop and it was obviously there.


"I would let you stay in the house but…my other guests might want to get to know you first."


It took a moment to realize that Glen had spoken to him. Mark glanced at him. "Uh…this would only be temporary, just for tonight. I'm not really comfortable with imposin' on you or your friends…"


"You aren't. It's my place. I own it." There was a flash of teeth as Glen grinned. "My housekeeper-slash-live in maid-slash-surrogate mother lives in the house with me. I'm renting a room out to another woman. I do have two other empty rooms I rent from time to time but like I said – you are not someone we know so we have to get to know you before we move you right in." It was as if Mark had not spoken. "I do have a studio loft space over the garage though. It's not as nice as the house but its private, and you can sleep in a real bed instead of a car."


Mark almost felt like he wasn't being given a choice in the matter. Usually his pride would not allow him to accept the offer but he was tired, and tired of fighting. He realized it had been eight years since all of this had started, eight long years of fighting an uphill battle, and he could not go on another step without getting his head straight.

"I appreciate it. But it's only for tonight. In the morning I'll find somebody to tow the car and get out of your hair."


"Don't worry. No rush. I know the garage in town, I can get them to pick it up and take a look at it." Glen smiled and pushed his hair back from his face. "Etta has breakfast ready at about eight in the morning if you wanna come eat with me. Darcy eats earlier or later – depends on what her shift is at the diner. I think she's working in the morning so you might hear her leave kind of early."




"We'll get your car towed and I'll take you in to town later to check it out."




"We can decide where to go from there."


"I was planning on…"


"Here we are." Glen interrupted Mark before he could detail his big plan that was really just a vague idea. The trees had opened up. The drive continued straight but a spur went to the right. The garage, as Glen had called it, was huge, as big as the apartment building that Mark used to live in. It was dwarfed by the house that stood thirty yards further up the driveway, an imposing brick and log structure that stood three stories and rivaled the houses that guys like Michael Adams lived in as status symbols.


"You own all of this?" Mark asked before he could stop himself.


"Sure." Glen glanced around. "Most of it came from my mom. Her family had this land for more generations than she could count backward. I just added the garage about 10 years ago. Got tired of tree branches hitting my car." As if that explanation made sense.

"It's huge."


"I know. I own six vehicles." Glen shrugged. "Three trucks, two cars, and a Jeep that we use to go trail riding. If you need to borrow one while you get your car fixed or while you wait to get another one, we can work on that. Although Darcy likes to use the smaller car. Keep that in mind, you'll stay on her good side."


That was the second or third time he'd mentioned his other guest. This time Mark caught the obvious affection in his voice. So maybe this Darcy was more than just a person paying to rent a room in the big house.


"Ok." Instead of protesting the length of his stay again Mark just agreed. He had a feeling Glen would just hear what he wanted anyway.


"In the morning I can show you around." Glen cut toward the garage and opened a small door set into the side next to the larger rolling doors. "The stairs are in the corner. I don't bother locking it – no real reason to. But you can if you want. There's a key up there hanging on the wall. Well…I'll just show you." He clicked a switch and the lights in the garage came on. Mark had enough time to see the sparkling chrome grill of a large truck before Glen was moving him up the stairs.


The space upstairs was nicer than Mark's old apartment. He had to admit it as Glen turned on lights and let him look around. It was basically a big open room with a full bathroom tucked into the corner. The back wall was dominated by a huge window, under which a king-sized bed was situated. The other side of the room was taken up by a couch and matching chair, and an entertainment center with a large television. There was a kitchen area as well, with bar stools at the counter instead of an actual table. The floor was made of shiny polished oak, covered by area rugs to cut down on footstep noise or just to protect it from traffic.


"It's nice. Better than nice." Mark amended.


"Good. You can use it as long as you want." Glen was eying him again. Now that there was light Mark could see that the other man was close to his own age, his hair was dark, his eyes a warm hazel. He was also in good shape. Mark had gotten into lifting weights in jail because it helped pass the time but this guy had him beat size-wise.


"Like I said, just tonight and then…"


"Yeah. If that's all you need then that's ok too." Glen smiled. "Come up to the house in the morning. Like I said, we'll take care of everything."


"Ok. Thank you."


"No problem. Good night." With that Glen had gone through the door and down the stairs. The floor was well insulated; Mark did not hear him in the garage below. He went to the smaller windows in the kitchen area and could see the other man walking up the slight incline toward the main house. Instead of going in the front door, he disappeared around the side of the house.


"Weird." Mark said it softly, out loud. He shook his head and looked around. There was a key hanging on a peg next to the door. He assumed it locked the room up. Mark, who'd had no reason to trust anybody for a long time, went to the door and twisted the lock, shutting everyone else out. They might be the friendliest people on the planet. Then again they might be like the family of killers in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Until he knew otherwise, better safe than sorry.


Mark took a few minutes to walk around the room. He finally went to his bag and pulled out a pair of shorts, wanting to take a shower. The bathroom was nice, the hot water was even better. He took his time and relaxed, trying to remind himself that this was not a hotel stay – he still had to worry about transportation and getting on with his trip.

But his trip to where? Maybe he could take the time to figure out where he was going. Maybe he could catch his breath. The guy was offering up a day to figure it out, so Mark forced his worries to the back of his mind. He could sleep tonight and worry about the rest tomorrow. It sounded great to him.




It took a bit to fall asleep. First of all because he was in a strange but comfortable bed. And then he had to stop looking out the window over his head. The wall, either by design flaw or design purpose, leaned into the room so that lying in the bed he could see the sky above. With no lights from a town the stars were like hard diamond points on a black velvet sky. He'd never taken the time to study on them, and for a while it was all he could do.


Exhaustion finally won out. He slept deeply until the first light of dawn. He wasn't sure what had awakened him, but that was all right. He'd always been an early riser. He stretched and headed for the kitchen to see if there was maybe some coffee. He would settle for some instant with water heated in the microwave. He found a can of real coffee that was still fresh and a coffee maker that looked brand new. Once he had that going, he started to feel a bit more awake, a bit more like himself.


Once he poured himself a generous mug of the hot coffee he went to the window over the sink and peered out at the house. He wasn't the only one up. There was a woman making her way down the hill toward the garage. From this distance he couldn't see details other than her dark hair. She looked young, maybe in her mid-twenties. Mark was only in his mid-thirties, it wasn't like he was teetering on the edge of being geriatric. As he watched, Glen appeared on the porch from around the same corner of the house he'd gone the night before. He obviously said something because the woman stopped and turned, blowing him a kiss off the tips of her fingers.


She turned and Mark had enough time to see she was wearing a blue skirt with a white shirt, and a pair of sneakers before she disappeared into the garage under him. He didn't hear the car start but he saw it exit and head down the driveway.


Glen stood on the porch for a couple of minutes before ducking into the house. Mark waited but nothing else seemed to be happening outside. He finished his coffee and snooped through cabinets. Although the apartment wasn't used much, there were still staples available. He pondered making himself breakfast but remembered Glen's offer. He glanced at the clock and saw it was already past seven.


Mark got dressed and repacked his bags. He had no intention of taking advantage of the other man's hospitality for longer than he already had. He made sure he had everything and that the place was as spotless as when he'd first walked in. Satisfied he left his bags by the door and headed down the stairs and outside to venture toward the imposing main house.


The front door was standing open, as were most of the windows. It was late spring, and they were taking advantage of the cool morning air. Mark knocked dutifully, trying not to look too impressed at the size of the place. It wasn't easy.


The door was finally opened by a tiny little woman with silvery white hair and deep brown eyes. "You must be Glen's guest from the garage." She said motioning him into the house. "Don't have to knock around here, honey. If the door's open, come on it. Even if it's closed, come on in. We don't generally keep it locked up. I'm Etta Sanders by the way. I sort of take care of things around here for Glen while he's working." She rattled on and on, not giving Mark a chance to do more than sputter in her direction. She led him through the open hallway, past what looked like a formal dining room on the left, and into a large open kitchen.


Glen was seated at the table already, reading through a newspaper, cup of coffee steaming in front of him. Etta had food cooking – sausage was sizzling on the stove while the smell of freshly baked biscuits filled the air. Mark accepted a cup of coffee with a thank you, got a dazzling smile from Etta in return, and took a seat across from Glen.


"Mornin'." Glen said, smiling at him over the top of his paper. "I half expected you to sleep in today."


"I've never been able to sleep much past dawn." Mark said, tasting the coffee. "I want to thank you again for the place to bunk down last night. I wasn't looking forward to the back seat."


"No worries."


"I'm going to see if I can't get the car running and get on down the road. At least off your property. Got to be an eyesore just sitting there."


"I'm sure it would be if it were still there. I had it towed already. It's in town at the garage." Etta muttered something and Glen sighed. "At the garage that I own. But we'll talk about that after breakfast." He finished before Mark could even begin to ask what the odd exchange had been about.


After eating his fill of what was the best food he'd had in years, Mark followed Glen on a tour of the house – at least the main floor. Besides the kitchen and dining room, there was a huge living room with a large television and a couple of deep leather couches. There were bookshelves against every wall, all of them overflowing. And plenty more seats. There was even a pool table in the back corner.


"You play?" Glen asked him, when Mark stopped to look at the obviously hand-carved table.


"Used to. Couldn't tell you the last time though."


"Darcy's a shark." Glen stated wryly. "Fair warning. Don't gamble against her."

"I'll keep it in mind."


Glen showed him the small basement, an add-on purely to house gym equipment. He told Mark to feel free to use it whenever he wanted. The closest actual gym was nearly an hour's drive away, which made it almost required having one at home.


Back in the living room there was a large bathroom near the stairs that led up to the second floor. Glen took him up so he could see the size of the bedrooms. There were four, two on either side of the stairs. Each had a bed, sitting area, and private bath. A couple of them had balconies – or rather alcoves with doors that opened to the outside. Etta occupied the first room on the left, Darcy the first one the right.


"If you decide to stay, we can move you in here. Of you can stay in the garage. Your choice."

"Why do you rent out rooms?" Mark asked, curious in spite of himself.


"Because I can?" Glen made it a question. "Because sometimes people need a hand and I have the means to give them one. One more floor. We have to go outside to get to it."


"Ok." Confused, Mark followed along behind Glen. They went down the stairs and outside, along the porch and around the corner of the house. There was a set of stairs that led up two floors to a large deck. Mark paused for a moment to take in the view. There was nothing but trees as far as he could see, and from this height the land seemed to fall away and go on just about forever. In the distance he could see the glint of a decent-sized body of water. "Nice."


"Yeah." Glen agreed with an amicable grin. "Not bad huh? That's Graves Lake. Kinda small, and thankfully missed being a real tourist trap." He had gone across the deck and opened a sliding glass door. "This is my place. Careful of the cords and stuff. I have computers everywhere."


Glen had not been joking. The door led into what he supposed had once been a living room. There was still a couch and a decent sized television. But there were several desks and workstations, and computers and components on just about every flat surface.


"I had this added on. Because I needed the power mostly. It all runs off a separate circuit." Glen explained even though Mark had not asked.


"Why do you have all of this?" He couldn't help but be curious.


"For work." Glen said as if it should have been obvious. He looked at Mark for a moment. "Programming stuff. You're not into computers, I take it?"


"Nope." Mark smirked. He'd never had a use for the things. Cell phones either. Who would he call? Technology had largely left him behind and he honestly did not care.

Glen was still looking at him. "You're probably gonna be mad but I have to be honest. I looked you up."


"Looked me up?" Mark echoed.


"Yeah. Had to do a background check. Partially because I'm nosy. But mostly because there are people I care about here and I might be a pushover sometimes but I'm not completely stupid." Glen motioned to one of the computers. "I know about your trouble. Your jail time."




"If it's any consolation to you, I think it's pretty much a steaming pile of bullshit."


Mark shrugged. "It's in the past. I guess there's no getting away from it though, is there?" He felt dejected again, realizing it for the first time. It wasn't just where he'd come from. People could look up his past and assume the worst if they wanted. He couldn't stop them.


"It goes no further than me and this room." Glen said. "And it's not like its general public knowledge. You weren't even front page news in your hometown. I just know how to dig." He paused for a moment. "But you might want to consider sharing it with people you get close enough to. Better they should find out from you."


"I had no plans on getting close enough to anybody for it to be an issue."


"Yeah?" Glen smirked. "You might be surprised when it comes to the people around here." He glanced at his watch. "Let's head to town. We'll see what they say about your car and I can point out all the landmarks. I think there might be at least three of them."


Mark nodded thoughtfully and followed as Glen led them down the stairs outside. He wondered why this guy was so willing to overlook the biggest mistake of his past and offer him a place to stay. It had been so long since anybody had been remotely kind to him that Mark did not know how to take it, or to be thankful for it.




Glen insisted on taking him to lunch at the town's only restaurant – a diner. It was after the lunch rush, although Mark wasn't sure the place would ever really have a 'rush'. The town was so small that a person could literally blink and miss it. Glen's place was on the outskirts. It was nearly 2 miles to the next noticeable sign of inhabitance – a cluster of large older homes right before what passed as the town proper. Town itself consisted of the combination garage and gas station that Glen apparently owned, a convenience store that marked the entrance to the town's beach and boat launch, the diner, a small grocery store, and a doctor's office. There was also a book store tucked in behind the doctor, and what looked to be a dilapidated movie theater on the other end of town. There were groups of houses here and there, and a small apartment complex across from the old theater.


Nothing stood out as remarkable. Glen insisted on driving up the lake access road and showing Mark the public beach and boat ramp. In mid-week, with the weather just starting to warm up, not many people were taking advantage of either. The lake itself was on the small side, not large enough or stocked with enough fish or deep enough to warrant a state campground. The beach itself was nice enough – it was very clean and well kept, which was sort of surprising for Mark. He had grown up down the road from a river, and could remember spending wild teenage weekend nights getting drunk and tossing empty beer cans into the water just because he could.


The trip to the garage had been anti-climactic. The car was completely dead. Mark poked through the engine and had to agree with Chris, the mechanic who had greeted them. The car was worth more as scrap than to sink money into fixing it.

Mark was still contemplating exactly what he was going to do when he and Glen took a seat in a booth at the diner. It took a moment for Mark to notice his surroundings. The place was pretty much deserted except for a single waitress and an older man in cook's whites. The waitress picked up her pad and pen and Mark registered that she was wearing an outfit similar to the one he'd seen on the woman that morning – a blue skirt and white shirt, minus the sneakers. The one wore low heels. The skirt was shorter than the other woman's had been as well, the shirt more revealing with more buttons undone. She had honey blonde hair that she wore in a messy braid over one shoulder.

She was pretty enough. She eyed Mark curiously, and then Glen, and Mark got the mental image of a shark swimming by before attacking a tasty looking seal. Oh he knew her type. Predatory – especially by small town standards. The kind of woman he always seemed to hook up with. Jezzie had been one of them.


"Hi, Glen." Her voice all but dripped seduction. She winked theatrically. "What can I do for you today?"


"Where's Darcy?" It was the first time Mark had seen Glen get remotely short with someone. He seemed to have something nice to say about everything and everyone.


"It's Wednesday. She's gone to school." Unfazed, the blonde licked her lips and looked pointedly at Mark. "And who is your friend?"


"Ah. Shit. I forgot." Glen ignored her question. "Bring us a couple of sodas, cheeseburgers, and fries. Loaded."


"Sure thing." She smiled and turned, walking off with plenty of hip wiggle. Mark looked away from her retreating backside to see Glen rolling his eyes.


"That woman is a pain in the ass. She's not very subtle is she?"


"Not really." Even if the woman was gone, her thick perfume still lingered. For a moment it drowned out the smell of food but it faded. "I know her type."


"Watch out for her." Glen muttered. He leaned across the table so that he wouldn't be overheard. "Her name's Christine. She puts out that one-night stand vibe but it's her way of trying to sink her fingernails into a guy."


"Oh yeah?"


"Trust me. She's more trouble than she's worth." Glen sat back. "I really wanted you to meet Darcy. She's a sweetheart. That one's polar opposite." He gestured in Christine's direction. "I forgot she had school today. Otherwise we could have gone back to the house for some of Etta's leftovers." Glen smiled. "Oh well. Since we're here and not there, I'll go ahead and say that you seemed to know your way around that car."


"Yeah. Anything with an engine, really." Mark said with a shrug.


"Good. We're looking for some help around the garage. We don't get a lot of traffic around here, and summer would hardly qualify us as a tourist destination, but we do get a few. Means that our busy season is coming. I want to hire you on."


"You…what?" Mark wasn't sure he'd heard right. "I can't. I had plans to…" But he couldn't finish that sentence. Plans to what? Drive until he ran out of money or road? It seemed like that had already happened.


"Plans change. Look – don't let it be a pride thing, ok? Like I said, I have the means to help when somebody needs it. You can stay in the apartment over the garage. You can work here in town. We'll figure out rent, and you can earn some money to buy another car. At the end of summer you can pay up what you owe and get back to your plans." Glen paused and smiled. "Of you might just decide you like it around here and make it more permanent."


"No offense to you, or the town, but this doesn't seem like the kind of place that would welcome somebody like me with open arms."


"And like I said, you might be surprised." Glen pointedly looked to the side where Christine approached with their food and drinks. Apparently she had given up on getting Glen's attention. She smiled at Mark though, making sure he got an eyeful of her tight top and exposed cleavage as she leaned down to put his food in front of him.

They didn't speak until she had walked away. Glen took a sip of his soda before smiling again. "I have to admit I might have an ulterior motive. Not that this area is known for being dangerous – but I have a few business trips coming up and I would feel better leaving if there was someone looking after things around the house."


Mark snorted at that. "I might be the least qualified person in town for that. You have a housekeeper and other…guests…" He used Glen's word. "What would be the point?"


"The point…" Glen paused to take a bite of his burger. "Is that I think there's nothing wrong with a little extra security. Especially in this day and age. Last summer wasn't so bad, I had a full house. But this summer I've sort of pulled back a bit."


Mark had no clue what he was talking about. "What do you mean?"


"Oh. Well, see…summer is when my company goes to all the software conventions, game conventions, electronics conventions. I personally don't go but we send reps. I do, on occasion, have to make trips to oversee some things, usually just a couple of days. Last summer I ended up gone for almost 2 weeks. I'd been worried about having to leave with just Darcy and Etta at the house, and Etta is only there through the week. She goes to her granddaughter's on the weekends."


Mark chewed a french fry thoughtfully. "Do you expect trouble?"


"No." Glen answered quickly. A little too quickly for Mark's tastes. He was slow sometimes but he had picked up the way Glen's voice changed whenever he mentioned this Darcy person. There was obvious affection there. And he was worried about her being alone. But leaving her with a stranger as a security guard? It made no sense.


"You know my record. What I did."


"What they accused you of, what you were convicted of. Yes." Glen said, nodding.


"Aren't you worried that I might snap or…" He had no clue how to finish that thought.


Glen was smiling. "No. Not a bit. Because other than that poor woman and that sorry excuse for a trial, you've never been in trouble. Graduated high school, could have played basketball in college. You turned it down though. You kept your nose clean for years. Why would I have a reason to distrust you?"


"Because I'm not sure I would trust me. And you obviously care for…uh…"


"Darcy." Glen supplied. He smiled. "I do. I love her. And I worry."


"I worry that maybe you know a little too much about me."


"All from a perfectly legal background check, no worries." Glen finished off his burger and started on his fries.


"So if I decide to stay…what's the catch?"


"No catch. I don't need money. I'm not necessarily hurting for companionship either." Glen glanced over at the counter, where Christine was blatantly flirting with an older man who was drinking a coffee. "Maybe I'm paranoid. But it seems that Darcy gets a little bit too much of the wrong kind of attention. And I'm just paranoid enough to think that somebody will get brave enough to try something, especially when I'm not there."


"What do you mean?"


"I really would prefer not to say. It's her story to tell." Glen said with a half-smile. "Just like yours is yours. If you want to tell her, if you think you should get it out into the open, then that is on you. She won't hear about it from me. And I know that we've only been hanging out the past few hours but I think you and Darcy would get along. Etta fully approves of you, and Darcy will too whether you tell her or not. I'm sure of it. But when everybody gets along it makes the living arrangements so much simpler."

Mark was confused again but honestly did not want to ask for a deeper explanation. The more Glen talked the more his head spun.


Glen seemed to sense it. "Months ago I let someone from town stay at the house. Just for a month. He joined the Army and was waiting out his time before going to boot camp. He had quite the chip on his shoulder. Picked fights with everybody, complained about everything. I gave him a place to stay because his father had died, and I knew he was just acting out because of that." Glen sighed. "I'm no psychologist though. At any rate, it didn't work out." The finish was not nearly as good as the buildup. And Mark understood that Glen was leaving something out, possibly something big. He chose not to push him on it, not yet.


"Ok. I can't guarantee the whole summer."


"Understandable." Glen said but he was smiling again. It was the look of a man who was about to get his way.


"I'll accept the job at the garage, and I don't mind keepin' an eye on things while you're away. But you're gonna charge me rent."


"I thought I established that."


"And I'll stay in the garage. I'm sort of…at home there." Mark said with a sigh. "That big house makes me nervous. Like a bull in a China shop."


"Needless worry but if that's what you're comfortable with, that's fine. We can install a phone for you…"


But Mark was shaking his head. "I don't have much use for a phone. You did a background check, you know I have no family. Got nobody to waste time calling."


"That doesn't mean you won't meet somebody." Glen said with a smile. "You'll need a line anyway, just in case there's an emergency or the garage needs to get in touch with you. That'll be at my expense. I was meaning to put a line out there anyway." Glen added before Mark could protest.


Mark nodded. "Ok. Fine. I'll do it. But it's a temporary arrangement."


"Of course." Glen reached into his pocket and took out enough money to cover lunch. "You'll start at the garage tomorrow morning. You can use one of the trucks until you find a car for yourself."


Mark could do nothing but agree as he followed Glen out of the diner and into the warm afternoon sun. Christine waved at them. At him especially. For a moment Mark was tempted. It had been a damned long time since he'd had female attention. Maybe he was just punishing himself. The opportunity had arisen a few times since he had been released from jail but something held him back. Maybe the fear of repeating the same mistake over and over. Instead of returning her wave, Mark pointedly ignored Christine and pushed the mental image of her naked from his mind. That was definitely a complication he could do without for the foreseeable future.




Supper was interesting.


Etta cooked fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and slaw. Mark had a feeling if he stayed with Glen too long he'd end up doubling his weight. Especially when Etta brought out dessert – chocolate pies.


It wasn't just the food though. He had just joined Glen at the table when Darcy came into the room. She wasn't wearing the uniform, if that's what it had been. She'd had time to change into a pair of cut-off jean shorts and a black t-shirt. She was apparently wearing a swim suit under it because he could see the strings from the top looped around her neck.


He noticed two things – fist, with her dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail it was impossible to judge her age. He had assumed mid-20s that morning, but he might have to amend that to late teens. The second thing was that she had the oddest, most interesting eye color he'd ever seen. They were gray. Not blue, not hazel, but gray. Mark caught himself staring more than once as they ate dinner and he mostly listened as Darcy and Glen chatted. She was a knockout. It occurred to him that was the reason that Glen wanted someone to watch out for her, especially if something involving a guy had happened the last summer.


He forced those thoughts from his head, recalling Glen's advice that it was Darcy's story to tell if she wanted to, and noticed she was looking at him expectantly. He realized she had asked him something but he'd caught none of it. "Sorry. I was uh…off in my own world I guess."


Darcy flashed a warm smile. "I just wondered where you were from." She met his eyes and for Mark it was like taking a couple of quick punches. Even if she wasn't spoken for, he already figured she was the type of woman that would be off limits to a guy like him. He'd never had any luck with her type – either because he didn't think he was good enough or they didn't, he wasn't sure. Mostly he'd stuck with what was easy for him. There was a certain kind of woman, like that woman from the diner earlier, than Mark had always had an easy way with. It made him think he should probably set his sights a little higher if he ever wanted to improve the situation.


"Houston. Originally" He finally answered her. "Spent most of my life outside of Austin though. Small town."


"As small as this one?


"Not quite." He half-smiled.


"Darcy is going to school to be a nurse." Glen said, leaning back in his chair and sipping the sweet tea that Etta had made to go along with the food. She smiled at him before nodding.


"Another ten or so years, and I'll be finished." She said with a grin.


"And she's a liar too." Glen said wryly.


"He thinks he's funny." Darcy said in Mark's direction. "It's hard to graduate fast when you can only take two classes at a time."


"I told you…"


Darcy cut him off. "I told you. You're not allowed to mention that again."


Mark was confused but that didn't matter. He sort of enjoyed their bickering. He'd been on his own a long time.


Once supper was over, Etta shooed them out of the kitchen so she could start cleaning up. Mark didn't know what to do with himself. Glen had gone upstairs to work on something – Mark had no idea what. And Darcy had disappeared. He roamed the first floor of the house and picked over the book collection in the living room, finding a couple that looked like they might be halfway interesting. If nothing else, he could read until he could sleep. He was feeling nervous about starting work at the garage the next morning and he didn't know why. It wasn't like he'd be performing brain surgery. And Glen had already assured him that he wouldn't have to mingle too much with the public. Chris was the manager and did all the talking in most cases.


He left the books on the stairs that led up to the apartment and went back outside. It was still warm after a day that had reached 80, and there was plenty of daylight left. He decided a walk would do him some good. He hadn't had a chance to explore yet, and he was curious. Earlier he had noticed that Glen's driveway didn't end at the house. It continued on, turning to gravel rather than blacktop as it reached the trees on the other side of the property.


Mark set off, barely paying attention to his surroundings. It was nice and quiet out there, with no traffic or people. Plenty of birds and bugs though. He slapped at a mosquito and smiled ruefully. Being back in the thick of nature was going to take some getting used to again.


The walk was long. The gravel continued well past the point where Mark thought it would end. He saw a path to his left, a branch from the main drive, but he chose to continue on. He estimated he'd gone nearly a mile when the sound of running water reached his ear.


Curious he kept on another hundred yards until the trees opened up again and he was in a small clearing. The ground sloped and well-trimmed grass gave way to sand. There was a small beach here but more surprising was the waterfall. It wasn't anything too spectacular – just a decent sized creek spilling into a spur of the lake. But it fell ten feet into water so clear the bottom was perfectly visible even where it was deepest.


Also he had inadvertently found Darcy.


She had been wearing a bikini under her clothes. Now she was swimming in the center of the pool, her red top a bright splash of color in the water. He glanced around and saw that this section was protected by a natural rock wall. The opening to the lake was small enough to prevent boaters from coming in. It also hid the beach from view. But it allowed enough water to flow through to keep it fresh.


While he'd studied the geography, Darcy had spotted him. "Hi. Again. You scared me, just standing there." She called from the beach. She had a towel and was drying her hair off, amused look on her face.


He was glad she was amused. Looking at her caused all the spit in his mouth to dry up. Bikini top, bikini bottom, both pieces clinging to her like a second skin…It took a moment to answer her. "Sorry." His voice was just short of a croak. He cleared his throat. "Just seeing where the road went."


"It comes down here." Darcy finishing blotting her hair and slung the towel around her hips before picking up her bag and the sandals she had apparently worn for the walk to the beach. She paused in the grass to brush sand off her feet and slipped her shoes on. "Glen's private beach. Graves Point, located right next to Graves Falls, which the town was named after. You didn't come to swim did you?" She asked, taking in the jeans, t-shirt, and boots Mark was wearing.


"No. I didn't even know you were this close to the water."


"Do you swim?"


"I know how." Mark said with a nod.


"Good. It's not a bad place to come. After a heavy rain or storm the falls get a little rough but nothing you couldn't handle." She looked troubled for a moment.


"I'll keep it in mind. Didn't mean to run you out of there." Mark tried not to stare too hard at her. She didn't bother redressing. It wasn't that her bikini top was particularly revealing but Mark hadn't been this close to a mostly naked woman in a long time. For a minute he felt like a fourteen year old kid again, confronted with the idea that the girls his age were maturing right along and he would have to learn how to deal with it.


"You didn't. I have to head back. Got to study a little bit before I go to bed." She started up the hill toward the road and Mark fell into step beside her.


"So…school huh?"


"Yeah. I kind of wanted to be a nurse when I was a kid. I mean…I never really thought of being anything else. Then I got sidetracked and never really gave it a serious effort. Finally started taking classes two years ago." Darcy shrugged. "I'll get there eventually."


"Must not have sidetracked you too much. What are you, 22, 23?" He took a stab at it. He had to admit he was curious.


Darcy laughed at that. "Thanks but, no. I'm 28." She absently adjusted one of the straps on her bikini, which drew his eyes back to her breasts whether he wanted them to go there or not. He couldn't help himself. Darcy was beautiful, there was no getting around it. Good face, killer eyes, a body that she definitely took care of – and he supposed her swimming had a lot to do with that.


To get his mind off of her body before he embarrassed himself, Mark looked around and spotted the trail that left the main road. "What's that?" He pointed.


Darcy made a face. "Leads to the cemetery."


"A cemetery. Out here?"


"Yeah. Glen's family cemetery. There are like 8 generations of Graves buried out here."

Mark stopped walking and eyed the trail with curiosity. Darcy stopped as well but he could tell she wasn't comfortable with the subject. "You ever been up there?"


"Sure. A few times."


Mark looked at her and saw something in her eyes. Sadness. "Mind if I take a look?"

She shrugged and walked with him. They were quiet as they moved along the trail a dozen yards until it opened up once again to a clearing with well-trimmed grass. There was a low iron fence that surrounded the cemetery. The clearing was huge – the size of a football field – but the cemetery itself wasn't that big. The older graves were in the center, the letters on the headstones so faded they were unreadable. Mark walked around slowly, aware that Darcy had paused at the entrance but hadn't ventured into the graveyard itself.


He paused at a large headstone, shaped like an angel. The name on it was Eleanor Graves-Jacobs.


"That's Glen's mother." Darcy called from where she stood with her arms crossed against her chest as if she were cold. "And his father, next to her."


Mark nodded and glanced at the second headstone. David Jacobs had died twenty years before his wife, meaning Glen had lost his dad at a very young age. There was one more headstone in this section of cemetery, a simple obelisk with a plaque inset into it. The stone itself was obsidian, unrelieved black, and had probably cost an arm and a leg. Mark read the inscription and frowned. Charlotte Eleanor Jacobs. She'd been young, only six when she'd passed away. And she'd died about 10 years before.


Mark glanced back at Darcy. She had turned and was looking back the way they had come, obviously uncomfortable. He didn't know why. It was a cemetery, a quiet place where people could come and reflect and remember. He'd never understood how people could fear a place like this. Death was as natural as breathing, screwing, and having babies.


He went toward her. "So who is that one? The newest?"


Darcy flicked her eyes in that direction and for a moment she looked utterly miserable. "You'll have to ask Glen. But you shouldn't."


"I'm asking you."


"It's not my place to talk." Darcy said resolutely, walking off. Mark gaped at her retreating back for a moment before catching up to her.


"Wait…" He reached out and grabbed her by the elbow, halting her before she could get far. "Ok I get that it's touching a nerve but how can I ask if I shouldn't ask?"


Darcy sighed and he saw her clench her teeth, her jaw flexing, before she relaxed. "Ok. Fine. But don't let him know I told you. Glen's big into full disclosure, and he'll tell you in his own time. That grave is his daughter's. She died ten years ago. Drowned at the Falls. There was a big storm, they were doing a lot of cleanup and she just wandered down the trail and went swimming. Glen said she could swim like a fish, but like I said…the Falls after a rain are dangerous if you aren't a strong swimmer."


"Hell. That's horrible."


"Yeah. I hate that place." Darcy glanced back toward the cemetery.


"But you'll swim where she died." Mark made it a statement.


"The lake didn't kill her. It was an accident. Tragic, but an accident. That cemetery just leaves me cold though. Maybe because I know how much it kills Glen to come out here. And he comes out here almost every night. He blames himself you know. That's why he's always jumping in to help people, strangers or friends. Like he's trying to make up for it. And it wasn't his fault. He wasn't even in town when it happened. But he blames himself. His wife left him because of it." She paused for a breath. "Not that she was all that great for him…rumor is she married him for the money, and took a good chunk of it with her when she left. Ten years and she's never been back to visit her daughter's grave."


Mark nodded slowly in understanding. It explained a few things anyway. Glen not wanting to leave Darcy and Etta alone. His helpful nature. His willingness to bend over backward for a stranger like Mark. He noticed something else too. Darcy was near tears. The affection and love that Glen had professed for this girl was obviously reciprocated. "I'm sorry. I'm pushy and I was curious. But thanks for telling me."


"Yeah. Well. It's not something I like to dwell on." Darcy looked down where his hand was still wrapped around her arm. "We should get back. I do have some studying to do. Anatomy isn't going to learn itself."


Mark let her go and fell into step with her again. They were quiet the rest of the trip back, each lost in their own thoughts. Darcy smiled at him when he walked her to the door of the house and told him good night. Mark said the same back, hoping he hadn't managed to ruin what had started off to be an interesting friendship.


There was an odd idea. Mark headed for the apartment over the garage, picking up his books along the way. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had actual friends, not just people who used him or he used. He was the first person to admit he could be a bastard when the mood struck him. Maybe that was part of his past he could change, considering that he had a chance to start over from scratch.




Two weeks passed, and Glen had been right. Mark fit in, in an odd sort of way. He knew people were curious of course – new people in town were rare, so he was a hot topic of conversation. But no one bothered him really. When it became known that he was staying with Glen and that Glen had vouched for him it seemed to set most people at ease.


He fell into a comfortable routine, something he could not recall ever doing in his entire life. Mark got up Monday through Friday, ate a quick breakfast in his apartment, and went to work. He stayed busy around the garage. Chris was decent with small cars and boat motors while Mark gravitated toward the larger vehicles. They worked well together. And it helped that Mark was something of a neat freak. Chris had never kept a very orderly garage so Mark made it a priority to straighten things out.


He always took the early lunch – at 10:45. There were a few reasons for that. The first was that generally he didn't each much breakfast. But the biggest reason was that he ate lunch every day at the diner. That was part of the pattern too; sit in Darcy's section, order whatever he felt like eating that day, and Darcy would sit with him while he ate. She ate with him if it was early in the week and she would be leaving for classes. They slowly got to know each other. Glen joined them a few times but he didn't eat. He claimed it was too early in the day for lunch.


On the days when Darcy worked the late shift or she was busy, Mark sometimes had to deal with Christine. The woman was pushy to the point of being annoying. She had no shortage of interested men hanging on to her every word but she was determined to make Mark a notch on her bedpost. Unfortunately for her, he had sworn off her type. Changing himself meant he had to start somewhere, and he realized he would sooner deal with loneliness and occasionally servicing himself than making use of what he sometimes unkindly thought of as the town pump.


He probably was not being fair. Mark did not really give a damn though. He had also lately realized he was too old to repeat the patterns of his youth. He just did not have the energy to pretend he was 20-something.


Darcy was another story entirely. It did not take long to see why Glen was so taken with her. It wasn't just her looks, although Mark more often than not found himself staring at her just a little too long. She had a good heart as well, was warm and witty, and somehow managed to seem innocent – or naïve. He hadn't decided. It wasn't a bad thing. While she was smart she was almost as awkward socially as Mark. She was comfortable around Glen, Mark, Etta, and her best friend Ava who Mark discovered was at the house so much she probably should have rented one of the rooms. She could be friendly with the customers at the diner but she didn't outright flirt with them as Christine did.


The garage was closed, except for emergencies for locals, on Saturdays and Sundays. At first Mark did not know what to do with himself, how to fill the time on those two days. It had actually been pretty simple. Glen once again provided a distraction.


Mark was at the house when the truck pulled up, trailer attached to the back. He had traded his books out for new ones and had his ass handed to him in a few games of pool by Darcy, who also had weekends off. She said it was a point of contention between herself and Christine, that Darcy not work weekends. But Darcy was working full time hours through the week while attending school. Plus she had seniority. Although from what Mark heard through the rumor mill people accredited her schedule more to her relationship with Glen than any effort her on her part. It may or may not have been true, but it was unfair. Darcy worked her rear off. She earned her weekends whether Glen had a hand in it or not.


He hadn't been joking about Darcy being good at pool. She took it very seriously. He would have said there wasn't a competitive bone in her body but she had run the table on him twice without half-trying. He blamed it on being rusty. She blamed it on his lack of skill in the game. It made him leave with a smile anyway. Hanging out with her usually put him in a good mood. It was strange but true.


He spotted the truck and realized it was Chris's. The trailer was one he hadn't seen before. Glen was speaking to Chris as they both walked around to the back, theoretically to open the trailer gate.


"Oh no. Did he go and buy another car or something?"


Mark hadn't realized that Darcy had joined him on the porch. She looked especially pretty with her long hair braided, those cut off shorts, and a white tank top that showed off her tanned skin to perfection. She was wearing her bikini under it again. He ignored the way that made him feel in favor of focusing on the vehicle blocking the garage.

"Small trailer for a car." Mark pointed out.


"Well let's go see what kind of trouble he's getting into." Darcy smirked and grabbed Mark's hand, pulling him along the porch and down the stairs. It was taking time to get used to this – touching – thing from Darcy. She could be reserved but then she'd flash an affectionate streak. Mark was not going to complain although she often did it in plain sight of Glen which struck him as being odd. He didn't want to be used to make someone else jealous if that was what was happening – but it didn't jibe with Darcy's personality. She just genuinely liked him for reasons Mark could not figure out.


It didn't take long to see what the fuss was. Glen and Chris were wheeling a large black motorcycle out of the trailer. Mark lifted an eyebrow as he looked at the machine. It was someone's custom ride, it was obvious, although it looked like it had been through hell.


"What the hell is that monstrosity?" Darcy asked with a laugh as Glen finally got the bike settled on its kickstand.


"This…" Glen palmed sweat off his forehead. The bike was heavy. "Is a lesson in adversity for Mark here. Or maybe a belated birthday present."


"Wait…what?" Mark looked from the ruin of what might have once been a beautiful custom Harley to Glen. "What are you talkin' about?"


"I was out clearing my head when I saw this. I figured you could use something constructive to do. You seem like the type that wants to keep busy." Glen smirked. "So here you go. Tinker with it, beat it to death with a sledge hammer, set it on fire. It doesn't start, it weighs about nine million pounds, and there's rust even on the plastic parts. Means it's the perfect therapy bike."


Mark had to smirk at that. "I can't a…"


"You can both afford it and accept it." Glen said, cutting off his arguments. "Consider it practice. We get lots of bike traffic through here. Some of them will need work and Chris isn't a bike guy – that was Tommy, and Tommy retired last winter."


"The parts…"


"Can be ordered through the garage, on the garage account." Glen anticipated him again. It was starting to get annoying. "You can pay me back eventually. Just don't go gold-plating or diamond-encrusting anything and we'll be all right."


"God no." Mark couldn't help it. In his mind's eye he could already see how the big bike would look, fixed up, all glossy black paint and shiny chrome. Whoever had left it to rot in the elements had been an idiot, but there was no shortage of those around. "The engine might cost more to fix than the thing is worth though. And it's missing half…"


"Then make me proud and get her going again." Glen patted the cracked leather seat. "You can start by shoving it into the garage, because I think I gave myself a hernia getting it on and off the trailer."


Mark nodded and realized belatedly that he was still holding on to Darcy's hand. He let her go, feeling his face get hot as he grabbed the handlebars and raised the kickstand. He immediately saw the problem. Smirking he shifted the bike into neutral so that it would roll easily. Darcy rolled open the big garage door for him and he wheeled the bike in without breaking a sweat.


By the time Mark had that done, Chris was leaving with the trailer. Glen was eying Mark with an expression that bordered on annoyance and amusement. "I didn't know it had a working gear left on it. Show off." He pointed out with a chuckle.


"You don't know bikes, do you?"


"Hell no. I know trucks. And sometimes boats. Recreational of course." He glanced up at the faultless blue sky. "And now that my mind is clear I have some work that I have to take care of. See you two at dinner." Glen waved and wandered toward the house.

Even though the sun was shining brightly, Mark turned on the garage lights to look the bike over. It would take a lot more than elbow grease to get it running, and even more than that to get it looking like the killer machine it was. He crouched and looked over the engine, testing lines, feeling for warped metal with his fingertips.


"I'm starting to feel like I should leave you two alone." Darcy finally said after fifteen minutes had passed. Mark had forgotten she was there.


He smiled for a moment at her tone. "I thought you were going swimming."


"Is that your way of getting rid of me?" Darcy asked, feigning hurt. "Sore loser."


Mark actually chuckled at that. "I only meant that I thought I'd go with you. If you want some company."


Darcy smiled brightly. "Sure. I wouldn't mid."


He nodded. "Give me a few minutes to get changed." He tore himself away from the bike, because honestly while he wanted to spend a few hours taking it apart there wasn't much he could do with it that day. He had no parts to put on it. Plus he'd have to figure out what was basically a plan of attack, to budget for the things he'd need…


He went up to his apartment and quickly got changed. Glen had loaned him a pair of swim trunks – surprisingly new, with the tags still hanging from them. Glen had waved it off, pointing out the six other pairs in his dresser, all of the similarly new. He could swim, but he didn't. At least not at the Falls.


Mark had played dumb as Darcy had requested. He had noticed Glen leave the house on two occasions, both times walking down the driveway and into the trees on the other end of the property. Darcy's talk of Glen visiting his daughter's grave ran through his mind again and Mark felt horrible for the other man. He couldn't imagine putting six years of love and effort into a little one just to have her taken away in a freak accident.


Mark yanked a t-shirt on and grabbed a towel, and tugged on a pair of sneakers. Then he went downstairs to meet Darcy for the walk out to the beach.




Glen had said that Mark's story would be his to tell when he was ready. He had not given any thought to telling Darcy because she had not expressed any curiosity about where he'd come from other than asking during their first dinner together.

So it sort of surprised him when he spilled it all there on the beach with the soft sound of

the Falls as background noise.


They spent almost an hour swimming around the clear water. At its deepest the water was just over Mark's head – that was right under the waterfall. After a week of no rain the Falls were little more than the strength of water running into a bathtub. It actually felt good, letting the water hit his shoulders and back.


Plus it was a good distraction. Because even though he'd gotten to know Darcy over the past few weeks and had gotten past that awkwardness that had come over him when he'd first met her, the sight of her in that bikini damn near hurt him physically. It was a good thing the water was cold. How long had it been, since he'd been with a woman? There had been one after Jezzie, a one night stand the week before he'd gone on trial. At the time it had seemed all right – he had been numb with everything that had happened. Now when he looked back he saw how empty it had been, how he hadn't even cared really. It was just something to do while he waited.


So eight years. No wonder the sight of a gorgeous woman in a bikini was flash frying some sort of circuit in his head.


That wasn't what made him talk though. No. He had stretched out on his stomach on his towel on the beach, next to where Darcy sat letting the sun dry her off. She had a pair of sunglasses on, but he knew she was studying him. Or more specifically studying his tattoos.


"Tattoos, the constant bandana, motorcycles. I'm starting to think you used to be a biker. Did your chapter of Hell's Angels disband or something?"


Mark snorted at that. He did wear a bandana around his forehead a lot, mostly because his hair – which he had kept short in prison – was growing out. It got into his eyes and annoyed him. He kept meaning to get it cut but there wasn't a barber in town and it hadn't seemed worth the effort of driving out of town to find one.


"No gangs. Just an appreciation for big bikes." Mark said, watching as Darcy leaned over him to study his tattoos. She smelled like warm sun and tanning lotion, a combination that made him feel a bit lightheaded. He was tempted to roll over and pull her down on top of him, just to see what it felt like to have her up against him.


Which would make him a fucking awful person. Darcy was with Glen, and Mark found that he had to remind himself of that more and more as time went on.


"Did you own one before?" Darcy, unaware of how tempting she was, sat back and leaned on her hands, looking at him expectantly.


"Yeah. Long time ago." Mark pushed himself into a sitting position, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. Darcy didn't let it phase her.


"In a galaxy far, far away?" She asked with an impish smile. Mark had to smirk at that. He had learned that Darcy's sense of humor often drifted into random movie quotes. Having been out of touch for quite a while, a lot of them were lost on him but that one was easy.


"The force had nothing to do with it." Mark looked at her for a moment before sighing and deciding that it was time to tell her. Just like that.


So he started at the beginning. Or as close to it as he could – ending things with Jezzie when he'd found out she had slept around. Her insistence that the baby she carried was Mark's. Her attempt to reconcile because of his money. And the wreck of course, the one that had changed his life. He spoke in a monotone, as if reciting something that he'd practiced. It was the only way he could get through it.


He finished by explaining how he'd ended up in Glen's front yard pretty much. By the time he was done he could no longer look at her. He hated being judged, and hated even more than it was Darcy doing it. He liked her. Sexual thoughts about her aside – and what male wouldn't have sexual thoughts about a mostly naked female sitting a foot away? – she seemed to be so sweet, so unlike other women he'd spent time with, that he hated to taint her view of him.


So he was surprised again when she reached over and took his hand in hers and squeezed his fingers. She didn't say a word; that simple gesture was enough to tell him that she didn't think any less of him. It was more than he had expected.


They were quiet for a little bit, both lost in thought. Mark finally heaved a sigh. "So what are you hiding in your past that makes you who you are?" He asked.


Darcy smiled but it barely curled his lips. "I'm not hiding anything. Not really. My mother was crazy. I've spent my life trying to do the exact opposite of everything she ever did."


"Crazy huh?"


"Yeah. When I was 16 she tried to sell me to some guy she knew."


The offhand way she said it made Mark look at her with an eyebrow up. "She tried to sell you?"


"Yeah. She needed drug money. Or booze money. I don't remember or care to remember. The only reason she had me was because she could collect welfare checks. My dad died when I was a baby. She never wanted me. She made it a point to tell me that several times a day." Darcy shrugged. "I got pretty good at ignoring her. She was a drunk and a drug addict but her abuse was mostly emotional and mental. It was her processional of boyfriends I was afraid of. Quite a few of them got amusement from smacking a scrawny little kid around. And then on my 16th birthday she tells me that an ex of hers offered a thousand dollars cash for her to disappear for a night and let him in the house with me. I didn't believe the thousand dollar part. Most of those assholes couldn't find two dollars to rub together. But the part about letting him in? She would have done it. She considered me competition. She was paranoid all the time by then, and swore I was sleeping with every man she brought in the house, why not charge them a fee?" Darcy scoffed. "I didn't wait to find out. I threw some clothes in a bag and left. Sort of drifted around for a while, scared to death that the cops would pick me up and make me go back."


Mark watched her speak through it all, since she was so far away. They were still holding hands. He stroked the back of her hand and squeezed her fingers, unsure of what he could say or if he should even speak at all.


"I guess I underestimated her lack of giving a damn." Darcy said. She smiled at Mark although it was sad. "As long as she still got her check every month she could not care less where I was or what I was doing. So what I did was lie about my age – it wasn't hard. I got a job. I was homeless for a while but it was worth it because I wasn't living with her anymore. Eventually I got my GED. I was stuck working at a factory, pulling 12 hour shifts for minimum wage, when I got word that my mother had died. I'd be lying if I said I was upset. It was like hearing about a stranger. But it was also like something had cut the last tie that held me down – I quit the job, I got in my car, and I started driving. I had no real destination in mind. I ended up here." She nodded at the lake. "Although in town. The diner was hiring. I thought waitressing would be a breeze. I rented an apartment on the other end of town. But eventually I realized that a waitress here makes even less than the factory I used to work for. I was broke within a couple of years, barely making it. I was actually getting ready to hit the road again to see if I would have better luck somewhere else when Glen offered me a place to stay." She smiled at that. "I knew him of course. He ate at the diner a couple of times a week. We got to talking and hit it off. Of course I didn't know about his daughter at that point. I heard about it later from Ava. He liked me though. And he's the nicest guy I've ever met in my entire life. I can't even exaggerate that." Darcy shrugged again. "And so here I am. He doesn't charge me rent because he said I can just pay him back 'whenever'. He fixed it so I can go to school and work."


"He seems to have a knack for it. Fixing things." Mark commented.


Darcy nodded. "I guess. I got lucky. Things could have turned out so much worse before and after I left my mother's house. I try not to think about it too much. I'm just thankful that I have everything that I have now." She pulled on his arm and turned it over, looking at some more of his tattoos. Mark eyed them as well. He was fully sleeved on both arms. She traced one of them with a finger from her free hand and he felt a pleasurable shiver go down his spine at the light touch.


Mark cleared his throat and Darcy let him go, as if remembering where they were. She glanced up at the sky. "I guess it's time for me to head back. No Etta. If Glen's not too busy we might grill out."


"Sounds good." Mark said, watching her. "Even if he is busy. I can run a grill."


"Good." She smiled but it was distracted. She tugged her shorts on and her tank top before shaking sand from her towel and slipping her sandals on. Mark slung his t-shirt over his shoulder and put his shoes on for the walk back. He planned on a shower to get the sand off as soon as he got to his room.


Glen was in the midst of whatever he was doing on his computers, leaving Darcy and Mark to fend for themselves. Darcy was more reserved that evening, making Mark wonder if she regretted hearing about his past or sharing hers. They ate on the back deck in near silence. Mark would have paid money for a hint about what Darcy was thinking. She was inscrutable. She had showered and changed into a dark blue sundress that showed off her tanned shoulders and shapely legs. Her hair was pulled up into a messy twist, which made her look more edible than the steaks he cooked on the grill.


After dinner she gathered their dishes and washed them while Mark stowed the leftovers in the fridge. And Mark decided he couldn't take her silence anymore.


"I hope that I haven't screwed this up." He said it almost to himself. His voice seemed to surprise her. She looked at him and frowned.


"Screwed what up?" She asked confused.


"This." He pointed from her to himself. "I know not everybody wants to hear that their new neighbor was convicted of killing somebody…"


"You were not." Darcy frowned again. "Ok. You kind of were. I'm no expert but it sounds like you got caught in a shit-storm that you couldn't get out of." She dried her hands on a towel, finished with their dishes. "I'm just confused."


"About what?"


Darcy looked at him for a long moment before sighing. "I don't know. Nothing important. Nothing about you or what happened to you. It's more something in my own head."


Now Mark was confused. She wasn't making any sense. "Darcy if I've done something…" He remembered how she had pulled away from him at the beach.


"You haven't. I promise." She tried on a smile. "I'm just tired. And probably had too much sun today. I worked 'til close last night and got up early today so the fact I'm still standing upright is a miracle."


Mark decided to let it go. He could be tenacious like a bulldog when the mood struck him but whatever Darcy was thinking and dealing with was her own business. He only hoped he hadn't set their friendship backward.




"So have you banged your neighbor yet?"


Ava's voice, and blunt statement, caused Darcy to choke on the water she'd been sipping. It was Sunday morning. And raining. Pouring actually. Darcy had been restless so she had gone down to the basement to make use of Glen's treadmill. An hour later she was hot, sweaty, thirsty, and still restless. Rainy days did that to her sometimes.

She hadn't even known Ava was there. "Thanks for the heart attack. And no, I have not 'banged' my neighbor, not that it's any of your business."


"I'm going to make it my business." Ava said with a smirk. She went to the fridge and helped herself to a can of soda. "He's a hunk. I'm surprised he doesn't have half the single females and some of the married ones lusting after him."


Darcy snorted at that. "Maybe they are. Secretly." Truth be told, there was a lot to lust after. Mark was good looking in a rough kind of way. Plus he was covered in muscles and tattoos. Darcy even liked his omnipresent bandana because it seemed to be such a part of him. He had those intense green eyes, perfectly formed lips, and a goatee that oddly enough also seemed to be as much a part of him as his eye color. His hair was deep brown, bordering on auburn, very red in the sun. He ticked a lot of boxes on Darcy's 'interesting' list.


The fact that she was seriously considering throwing herself at him wasn't really that far-fetched.


"Secretly, schmecretly. If I wasn't sleeping with your landlord I'd be tempted as hell to make that guy's day." Ava stated in a serious voice, making Darcy laugh.


"Yeah, yeah. Some of us are not on your level. We are well aware of it."


Ava and Darcy had been friends since Darcy had first gotten to town. Ava worked out of her house, one of the older homes located a few miles from Glen's. She had inherited it from her grandmother, as well as the business her grandmother had started nearly sixty years before. Ava was a seamstress. She hated the term 'designer' but she did that as well, designing wedding dresses, special occasion outfits, that sort of thing. The town was too small to really support her business so Ava supplemented it through her other passion, which was painting. She had tried out art school for a year, had gotten bored with it, and did her own thing. So far it had been profitable enough that she'd been able to devote a lot of her time to her home business.


She and Darcy were, personality wise, polar opposites. Ava was outspoken, brash, fearless. She never got tongue-tied around men because she often left men tongue-tied. She sported acres of deep auburn hair and chocolate brown eyes making her look like a doll. Until she talked and made people realize that she had a mouth on her like a sailor most of the time. Glen often referred to the two of them as the odd couple. Darcy pointed out that it was truer for Glen and Ava's relationship.


What was really funny was the number of people who thought it was Darcy who had the relationship with Glen. Ava hadn't wanted the attention such a relationship would bring her, and Glen didn't need the grief from his ex-wife. She and Ava had butted heads on occasion – which was every time they had seen each other. Glen had never cheated on his wife but she had accused him of it repeatedly. After their divorce, Ava had finally decided to 'try him on for size' – her description. They'd been seeing each other for almost six years.


Darcy hadn't minded being their cover mainly because it set her status as off-limits to the men in town. Some of them still tried to flirt with her, but they usually kept it to a respectful minimum. Glen had a reputation around town, and he owned far too much of it for any of them to be willing to cross him.


"All kidding aside…" Ava said with a smirk. "What's the hold up?"


"I just met the guy, Ava."


"Weeks ago!"


"You make my head hurt." Darcy finished her water. "And can we not discuss this in the kitchen where anybody can just wander in and hear us? Because unlike you, I rather enjoy keeping some thoughts to myself."


Ava grinned brightly. "Sure. Let's go to your room. I wanna pick through your closet. Glen's got his nose buried in some program or other and didn't even know I was there."

"I'm sure he knew you were there." Darcy said, leading the way up the stairs. "He just didn't care."


Ava cracked up laughing. "I'll go try again in a little while. Strip down to bra and panties, sit on his lap. All work and no play makes Glen a dull boy."


Darcy rolled her eyes and went into her room. Ava immediately flopped onto her bed and watched as Darcy began pulling clean clothes out to put on after her shower.


"Oh come on. Show some leg and boob, get his attention!" Ava laughed from the bed when she saw Darcy's normal weekend clothes – t-shirts and jeans.


"Maybe I should skip clothes all together and just parade around outside his window in the nude." Darcy threw her shirt at Ava. "You aren't helping."


"What do you need help with?" Ava asked, using her more serious tone of voice. "He's interested in you. I keep telling you, every time he looks at you it's like he's wondering what you'd look like naked."


Darcy felt herself blushing. "Really? Because I don't get that. At all."


"Woman, please."


"And Christine said…"


"Oh fuck what Christine says." Ava did not try to hide her distaste for Darcy's fellow waitress. "If she's tagging that man, I'll eat my fucking shirt."


Darcy raised an eyebrow. Why would Christine lie about such a thing? There was no reason to. She claimed she and Mark had gotten together a few times and had made enough hints so that anyone listening would understand that clothing was not an option. Christine reveled in spreading that around, as if making herself sound like the town whore was a getting a win over other people.


Funny thing was, Darcy had seen Christine flirt her butt off with Mark. And while Mark was polite he didn't necessarily play back either. Of course he didn't really play back with anybody, including Ava whose appeal was damn near universal. People couldn't resist her in most cases but Mark was proving to be the exception to the rule. Of course he had a hell of a poker face. Maybe he just didn't want who he slept with to be the town's business. If that were the case, then he picked a horrible bed partner. Christine's mouth ran faster than her brain on most days, especially when she thought she could gain something from talking.


It had been almost two weeks since Darcy and Mark had gone to the beach together. He was busy, either working at the garage or working on his motorcycle here. Darcy had, on occasion, gone out to watch him work, able to admire him without him really paying attention to her. He had taken the bike apart so that nothing was left on the frame. Then he started ordering parts. And cleaning what could be salvaged. He'd even put Darcy to work a few times, because she had a good eye for detail. She could clean the smallest parts and was more thorough than he was, because her mind wasn't occupied with the other thousand things the bike would need to get fixed.


He still came to the diner for lunch, but for some reason Darcy felt he was more reserved than he had been. She hoped she hadn't ruined it; talking about her past often put her in a rotten mood and she hadn't meant to take it out on him if that was what he thought. She had hesitantly tried to explain it to him but he had dismissed it, telling her that he understood. But still, a coolness had developed between them and Darcy had no idea how to change that.


"So what do you suggest, guru?" She asked, aiming for sarcasm, missing because she really did need advice. Ava was the only person who knew all of Darcy's secrets, and the only one she really trusted to guide her especially when it came to men.


"I suggest you insert yourself into his other interest. When he gets that beast out there running, ask him to take you for a ride. Then ask him to ride you."


Darcy felt herself turning red but she had to laugh. It was exactly how Ava would play things had it been her in Darcy's shoes. Somehow Darcy did not think it would work for her. "And what if he agrees? To the second part. Do I tell him that…"


"No! Unless you want him to run away scared. Guys don't want to hear that shit. It makes them twitch, thinking you're going to be needy and expecting a wedding ring for a roll in the hay." Ava eyed her carefully, seeing the worry on Darcy's face. "I promise it will be all right. He won't hurt you."


"Famous last words." Darcy picked up her clothes. "I don't know why I'm even talking to you. I shouldn't be worried about this stuff, I should be studying or working on homework."


"Darcy-darlin', as I am sure you will agree even the pope himself can get horny on occasion. You just happen to be in a position to take care of such a predicament."


"Why don't you just quit sewing dresses and painting and get your own radio show where you hand out sex advice?" Darcy asked, going into her bathroom on Ava's laughter. She got into her shower and washed off before getting dressed. She hated rainy days. She always felt so out of sorts when it rained and she was effectively stuck inside.


"If you think any self-respecting radio station would have me, you're crazy." Ava continued as if Darcy hadn't left the room. "But I am going back upstairs to mess with Glen's head again. I need some attention damn it. I have got to be at least half as interesting as a computer screen."


"At least." Darcy said with a laugh. She followed Ava back down the stairs and watched as her friend went around the corner of the house. Darcy stood on the porch looking thoughtfully at the garage. There was a car parked out front. Not Ava's. She was parked in front of the house. She realized that it was a car she recognized. It was Christine's car. That bright red was a dead giveaway.


So much for visiting with Mark. Darcy went back into the house but only for a moment. She grabbed an umbrella from a rack of them by the front door and set off walking toward the Falls. She'd rather not have to sit and wonder what exactly Mark was doing with Christine, just as she preferred not to dwell on Ava and Glen. But she felt like crying suddenly and for no good reason.


The downpour had swollen the falls from a slow running tub faucet to a much larger, louder down-pouring of water. The water in the pool churned and bubbled and Darcy felt a shudder work its way down her back. This was minor. She had seen the Falls running much faster, making the pool cloudy.


She didn't approach the beach because to be honest she didn't want to spend the rest of the day trying to get wet sand off her clothes. Darcy stayed on the grass watching as rain hit the water, listening to the white noise of the Falls, taking in deep breaths of the clean air. She had no idea how long she stood there. She finally turned to head back to the house.


And came up short. Mark was standing behind her. He hadn't bothered with an umbrella, so he was soaked. Seeing him startled her and Darcy jumped and almost slipped in the wet grass. He reached out and steadied her with a hand on her arm.


"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Darcy asked him, sounding much grouchier than she really felt.


Mark smirked. "No. Just wondered if you were gonna try to swim. Because I remembered what you said about the Falls and rain and…I got worried."


"Nothing to worry about." Darcy couldn't help but sound short. She watched as rainwater slipped down his cheek, for a moment almost crippled by the urge to lick it from his skin. Which was probably perfectly normal. For anybody else. "Just needed to clear my head a little. I thought you had company."


Mark made a face. "Is Glen working?"


"When isn't Glen working?" Darcy slowly became aware that Mark still had his hand on her. She ignored the flutters in her stomach as she started back toward the house.


"I didn't mean to scare you." He said, falling into step beside her. Darcy glanced at him and sighed in frustration, letting go of the pointless anger. She was really only mad at herself.


"You didn't. I just hate rain. It ruins my mood and makes me a cranky bitch." A bit of Ava came out in her voice.


"Ok. Sorry." Mark half-smiled. "Need something to do? I got some new parts in yesterday that I need to clean packing grease out of before I can put them on the bike."


It was so sad that cleaning greasy bike parts was the extent of the man's interest in her. Darcy wanted to say no. But even more she wanted to say yes. In fact she wanted to say yes while he touched her and did things to her on the floor of the garage amidst the scatter of machine parts. It was driving her crazy. Finally she nodded. "If you can put up with my griping, I suppose I'd be willing to help. I won't be in the way of your visitor will I?"


Mark frowned. "No. She's gone. Dunno why she was here in the first place." He shrugged and rubbed rainwater off his face. Darcy forced herself to focus on the task of putting one foot in front of the other. Lusting after this man was taking up far too much of her time and energy.




Between work, the motorcycle, and his new friends, Mark had his hands full for the first time in years. He rather enjoyed it. Especially when it meant he had Darcy to himself for a bit. He hated the selfish way that sounded but it was true. Glen had left on a business trip, the first of the summer, and he'd be gone for four days. Mark hoped to have the bike at least firing up before he got back.


For now he was painting. The rainy weather had cleared off enough that he could do it outside. He didn't do anything fancy – just a deep shiny black. He could have found a paint shop that would do it but he rather liked doing it himself. Plus painting meant it was almost time to piece it all together and give it a go.


Darcy continued to be his helper, but she was distracted now. It was obvious but when he finally got up the nerve to question her she'd only shaken her head and claimed she was just thinking about school stuff. She was debating summer school. Glen was pushing for her to take the summer off and she was resisting because she was more than ready to get school finished and behind her. Plus she was working the diner. Technically it was their busy season, and while there was an increase in customers it wasn't horrible. It meant that she often would go to work in the morning, leave for school at noon, go back to the diner after school, and then come home exhausted.


Glen was starting to get frustrated with it, even to Mark it was obvious. He told Darcy he was going to talk to Max, the man who was in charge of the place, and Darcy and told him not to bother. Mark had never seen them argue over anything, and Darcy's annoyance seemed to knock Glen off balance.


She was definitely not her normal friendly self. She was quieter than Mark had been used to, and seemed sort of down. But she didn't want to talk about it on the few occasions he had managed to bring it up without tripping over himself. As long as he was working on the bike, he found talking to her easy. If he had to look at her, he got tongue-tied and stumbled over his words. He was starting to feel like a fourteen year old kid around her, which in turn was aggravating the hell out of him.


It didn't help matters either, that Christine had taken to just showing up out of the blue. Sadly, he knew her off days because she tended to hang around the garage while he worked, or would show up at Glen's. Short of telling her to get lost, Mark didn't know what to do about her. She didn't get in his way but she was tireless when it came to flirting. Especially when Darcy was around.


She kept asking him out too. From what Mark had seen the nightlife around Graves Falls was nonexistent. Going out would mean a decent amount of time in an enclosed car. Mark wasn't sure he could hate himself enough to suffer that kind of torture.


It was bad enough he tortured himself with Darcy every chance he got.


He didn't know what it was about her that had him so fascinated. Even reminding himself, constantly, that she was someone else's woman did not put much of a damper on him. She had gone through a spell of being standoffish and had not explained why, not that he felt he deserved an explanation. And every time Christine showed up Darcy would get quiet on him. He wasn't the most talkative person on the planet so he rather enjoyed her chatter. Mostly because she talked about things that were interesting. Either that or he was just so interested in her that she could be reciting the alphabet and he'd think it was the most profound shit he'd ever heard.


Speaking of profound shit…Mark had picked up a habit that he hadn't had to resort to in quite a while. It wasn't an everyday thing, thank goodness, because if he had to masturbate himself that often someone like Christine might start to look acceptable. Once a week, maybe twice – especially after a trip out to the beach and spending time with Darcy in her bikini – yeah. Mark was sure he would be forgiven if he took matters into his own hands from time to time.


It did not help that he thought she was sending some very specific signals. He tried not to read too much into things but there were times when he caught her looking at him with an expression that he thought very likely mirrored his own on occasion. Like she was picturing him naked. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant feeling. Sometimes it seemed she was finding reasons to brush up against him or touch him. That could be largely in his head because he had done it himself on a few occasions.


In a perfect world he would just come right out and be blunt. Hell, it had worked often enough in the past. But Darcy was not like the women Mark had known before, and he wasn't sure blunt was the way to go when it came to her.


And of course there was the whole Glen thing. The two of them seemed very in sync, and still very obviously affectionate. So having dirty thoughts about Darcy felt almost like he was betraying the man who'd taken him in. Someone he thought of as a friend, albeit a strange one.


It bothered him that Glen kept Darcy at his house under the pretense of her being a guest. If they had a relationship and their feelings were mutual, why hide it?

Another thing that bothered him. Darcy's friend, Ava. Oh, she was nice enough. A little pushy but not predatory like Christine. But Mark had thought he'd caught her sneaking around to the stairs that led to Glen's third floor living quarters on a couple of occasions, once when Darcy was gone to school.


It definitely made the situation more complicated. And did not help him curb his interest in Darcy.


For now he was content, painting the big bike while Darcy cleaned the parts ahead of him. He'd give it to her, she didn't mind getting dirty. She was wearing a pair of cut off shorts and a button down that was tied into a knot over her stomach. And she had her bikini on under it. It was hard to miss. She had been on her way to swim when she'd poked her head in and seen him in the throes of a painting spree.


He set the sprayer aside and stretched, feeling his back groan in protest. Mark looked at the pieces scattered on the drop cloth and nodded. "With any luck, I can start putting it all together when it's dry."


"Awesome." Darcy couldn't have sounded more bored. It made Mark smirk.

"Ok, smartass. If you're tired of helping me then what do you want to do?"


"As little as possible." Darcy said with a sigh. She'd taken her last final the day before and Mark knew she was quietly worrying over how she'd done.


"How about I take you swimming?"


Darcy smiled sarcastically. "I didn't know I needed an escort."


"Lifeguard." He corrected.


"That too." She tossed the rag she'd been using into the bin where he kept his cleaning gear. "You aren't dressed to go."


"I can get dressed in two minutes." Mark headed for the stairs. It took closer to five minutes. He had to scrub some paint off his hands. He went back down in his trunks with a towel slung over his shoulder.


Even though the temperature was in the mid 80s the water in the pool was still cold thanks to the Falls constant churning. It felt nice after the heat in the garage. Glen had installed some industrial fans but Mark had avoided using them while painting to keep the dust levels down.


He watched Darcy swim for a few minutes as he stood under the falls, letting the water hit him on the head. Every few minutes she would roll onto her back, or stand up, and it was all he could do not to stare. The bikini left nothing to the imagination, and the cold water even helped with that because he could see the effect it was having on her. He never would have believed that the sight of a woman's hard nipples through clothing would leave him with a case of blue balls until now. The pervert in him actually encouraged him to touch himself; she was distracted, maybe she wouldn't notice.


That was a sobering thought. Also it made him feel sort of mean-spirited in a way he couldn't define. It was one thing to fantasize about the woman when he was in his own bed or shower, quite another to sneak and rub a quick one out when she was less than a few yards away.


So he purposely turned his back and forced himself to think about the motorcycle, work, and a particularly annoying knocking sound from a truck that had been brought in the day before. That did the trick. Two minutes and he was able to once more look at Darcy without feeling like a bull in heat.


Apparently he'd missed something. Darcy was limping in two feet of water, favoring her left leg. Mark swam over to her and looked at her in concern. "What happened?"


"Nothing!" Darcy reached out and used Mark's arm for support while she raised her foot up. It was bleeding profusely. "Stepped on a sharp rock. I swear."


Mark smirked. "Come on. Let's get you doctored up." He looped an arm over her waist so she could walk/hop without touching her injured foot to the sand. He sat her down and studied the cut for a moment before shaking his head. "It's bad. Gonna have to amputate."


"Fabulous." That sarcasm again. It was rare from Darcy which made it funny.


Mark grabbed his towel, frowned at the sand that fell from it, then picked up the t-shirt he'd worn to the beach instead. He ignored her protest and ripped a decent sized section off, which he used to make a makeshift bandage for her foot. She'd at least be able to get back to the house to put a proper bandage on it.


"The good news is, I think you're going to live." Mark tied off the shirt and gave her leg a pat, looking up. He saw her looking back, gray eyes completely unreadable.


"My hero." She said it in a low voice, and it sent a shiver down Mark's back. He was leaning over her, so close he could feel the sun warming her skin. Or maybe he was just being ultra-sensitive.


Darcy leaned forward and kissed him.


Nothing could have possibly shocked him more. There wasn't anything too involved with it. She just put her lips against his for a moment. When she pulled back she looked into his eyes and the unreadable expression was gone, replaced by what he could only interpret as amusement.


He had the sudden damn near impossible to fight urge to push her back into the sand and do more than just plant a friendly little kiss on her.


Darcy tilted her head and kept her gaze steady on him. Almost like she was inviting him to do it. To do something.


Mark just froze. He wanted to. Every single part of his body wanted to. But his head was being the problem. He finally blinked and pulled back, not seeing the look of disappointment that crossed Darcy's face. "We should get going. Get your foot taken care of." He managed to sound normal.


Darcy didn't answer him. She got up and gathered her things, careful to keep sand off her wounded foot. She walked with a slight limp, and Mark almost offered to carry her back to the house. Which probably would have been a bad idea considering how he was feeling at that particular moment. Good thing he had a motorcycle to rebuild, otherwise it would be a long weekend filled with fighting off his urges when it came to Darcy.




As the motorcycle's deep growl faded, Darcy looked at Mark and smiled at the expression of satisfaction he was wearing. "Is it supposed to be that loud?" She asked. The morning had started off a bit awkward, at least from her viewpoint. She didn't know what had possessed her to kiss him the day before, but it had seemed to confuse him more than anything. She'd been surprised to see the bike nearly completely together when she had come into the garage that morning. And now Mark had gotten it started.


For a moment a rare grin surfaced on his face. "Only the good ones are that loud." The grin faded as quickly as it had appeared, like the sun going behind a cloud. But he wasn't unhappy. Getting the big bike's engine running had obviously lifted his spirit.

Heeding Ava's advice, doubting it would work, Darcy smiled shyly. "I wouldn't mind a ride."


Mark's eyebrow went up. He didn't immediately say no, which she had half expected. But he hadn't said yes either.


"I don't know if I would classify it as road-ready just yet." He said, looking at the bike not at Darcy, missing the way his statement made her face fall. "But a little test run couldn't hurt. As long as we stick close to the house."


It took a moment to realize that he had agreed. "Good. Now?"


Mark glanced at the open garage door, taking in the overcast sky. "Sure. We should have just enough time for a short one." He finally looked at Darcy. "You sure you wanna do this?"


She could tell he was looking for her reaction, probably replaying the things he had told her in his mind. "Sure. Looks like it would be terrifying enough to be fun. Like a roller coaster."


"You got the right idea anyway." A wry note had entered his voice as he looked around the garage. "I don't think there are helmets though." Regret replaced the humor.


"That's ok. Just be careful with me." Darcy said with a shrug. Mark looked at her again, studying her. That time she had no idea what he was thinking.


He finally turned and busied himself pushing the bike. Darcy followed him outside and waited until he had swung a leg over the seat before following his lead and getting on behind him.


Darcy realized she probably should have been nervous, given what had happened to Mark the last time he'd been on a motorcycle. But the bike was the furthest thing from her mind when she settled her hands on his waist to hold on and the engine rumbled to life under them. She didn't try to hold herself away from him. There was really no room for that anyway. Of course she wasn't going to complain. She was starting to feel ridiculous, lusting after him like some kind of over-sexed schoolgirl. Even as he balanced the bike and started it rolling it was all she could do to not rub herself against him suggestively.

True to his word, they stuck close to the house. He went toward the road at first, the big bike riding smoothly over the cracked blacktop of Glen's driveway. He didn't go out onto the main road though – even if the bike was running and it was safe, it still wasn't licensed and he didn't want to test it too hard until he had a chance to finish cleaning everything up. Mark swung a wide turn and went back down the driveway, feeling Darcy's hands tighten around his waist when he gave the bike a little more gas and shot past the house and into the trees on the other side of the open yard.


He slowed when they reached the gravel cut off, smiling in satisfaction when the bike took the new road material in stride. It was a little rough going but he stayed to the center, riding along the middle of the pair of tire tracks. For a moment he considered turning and going out onto the highway once more, on open road where he could really see what the big engine could do. But he wouldn't do that with Darcy riding behind him. He was comfortable enough with her and so far he'd had no problems but wasn't sure he was ready to try real speed with a passenger riding along.


He slowed even more when they reached the clearing and brought the bike to a halt once the waterfall was in view. Mark cut the engine and listened for sputters or ticks. So far so good.


"It's loud. But does it go faster?" Darcy's voice brought his attention back and made him focus on the fact that she was still holding on to him. He had been so busy listening to the bike that he had been slow to register much else. Now though…she had her arms around him. But he felt the soft press of her breasts against his back, and the rub of her thighs against his legs, muffled by their jeans of course.


He had been avoiding this. But even a platonic bike ride was cause for trouble especially where his libido and Darcy were concerned. The hell of it was he could do nothing about it. She belonged to someone else, someone he had come to think of as a friend. Mark would not act on his impulses no matter how strong they were.

Cold water struck his face – one drop, then two. He glanced up as rain started to fall, smiling at Darcy's snort of laughter.


"When it's street legal, we'll go faster." Mark finally answered her question, reaching for the key. "We'd better get back." He felt her nod against his shoulder and started the bike once more, letting it rumble, just taking in the feel of the big bike under him, the woman against him, the cold drizzle on his face and arms…he would have gladly frozen that moment and stayed in it forever if he could have.


Resigned he turned the bike and headed for the house. By the time he pulled into the garage it was pouring and they were both soaked. Darcy grumbled good-naturedly as she got off the bike and laughed at his shirt, which was soaked in the front. Mark had taken the brunt of the rain but her hair was dripping, and watching the water hit her white t-shirt and leave dark spots almost undid Mark's resolve.


Thunder cracked and echoed, making Darcy jump. She peered through the garage door at the house, barely visible through the downpour. "I shouldn't make fun of you. I'm about to get soaked worse I think."


"Then wait it out here."


Darcy looked at him and smirked. "The bike was fun. Sort of. Maybe you have to go really fast to get the real idea of it."


Mark nodded. "You do. You'll get hooked."




"We'll go out when I get it finished." It was a whim to say it, to promise her anything. But worth it when he saw her smile. "I'll even teach you how to drive it."


"Yeah. No. If I ever got a tattoo I believe it would say 'passenger life'. That thing is too big for me to handle." Mark snorted and it took Darcy a moment to process what she'd said. Her face reddened a bit. "I meant the motorcycle."


"I know what you meant. Doesn't make it less funny." Mark pocketed the key and grabbed a rag. He wiped water droplets away from the bike's gas tank and handlebars. He hadn't spent so many hours cleaning it up just to have it rust on him.


Darcy watched him, combing her fingers through her hair and wringing some of the water out.


"I have towels. Upstairs." Mark amended, nodding toward the stairs in the corner.


"You need one too?"


Mark reached up and pulled his bandana off his head. It was wet but his hair was mostly dry. "I'm good. Help yourself though."


Darcy headed for the stairs. He'd left the door unlocked at the top. It was the first time she'd ever been in the studio space over the garage and she couldn't help but be curious. She went into the bathroom and found a towel, idly drying her hair with it as she walked around the big open room. The back wall was where the large window was located. It looked out on the seemingly endless line of trees. It was also where quite possibly the biggest bed Darcy had ever seen was placed. Other than the bed there was a couch, a chair, and a television in what was the sitting area. The small kitchen finished off the room. She didn't know what she'd been expecting. Mark was neat – there wasn't a dirty dish in the sink and the bed was made.


Darcy went to the back wall and stood by the bed, looking out the window. The wall had a slight bend, leaning in. Anyone lying in the bed would have the sky directly above them. She wasn't going to make herself at home enough to want to try it though, and settled for looking out across the acres of land. In the far distance there was a dull gray glint, and she realized she could see part of the lake from here. It was the way the land happened to dip from this vantage point. If it had been sunny it would have looked like a sliver of blue. Now it was silver with rainfall. She saw lightning fork in the distance, very likely over the lake itself, followed by another clap of thunder that made her jump a little. The roof of the garage and apartment was metal. It made it seem especially loud.


"Without the thunder, the rain actually sounds pretty nice on the roof." Mark commented from behind her, making Darcy jump again.


She put a hand against her chest and turned to look at him, sheepish smile on her face. "I didn't realize you had a lake view from up here." She said, gesturing at the window.

"Yeah. I guess." He moved to stand behind her and looked out the window. "It still makes me kinda nervous. All that open space."


"I couldn't imagine it. Being locked up." Darcy frowned thoughtfully. "I'm restless I guess. Never could sit still for long. I'm surprised I've stayed here this long. This was supposed to be temporary."


"I know." Mark cleared his throat. "Same here."


"But you did your time."


"Yeah." His deep voice sounded miles away. Darcy glanced up at him and saw he was still peering out the window, lost in thought.


"The only thing you're a prisoner of now is your own head." She pointed out. Mark looked at her with his eyebrow up.


"Sage-like wisdom this afternoon."


"I hear a lot of it from the drunks who come in right before we close." Darcy said with a half-smile. Since he wasn't wearing the ever-present bandana, Mark had pulled his hair back into a short stub of a ponytail. In that moment she would have given just about anything to see what he had been like before things had happened to change him, to have known him before circumstances had made him so reserved.


For an even smaller moment she wished she had a quarter of Ava's forwardness. An eighth. She would have settled for the ability to comfortably occupy silences.

Darcy knew she was kidding herself. If there was anything between her and Mark, it was nothing but friendship, and a shaky one at that. He couldn't open up to her and she couldn't open up to him because neither of them knew how. Plus he was seeing Christine, and Darcy knew she couldn't even begin to compete with her no matter how much Ava tried to convince her otherwise. There was something to be said for experience she supposed.


It didn't change the fact that she found Mark almost irresistibly attractive.




He was crazy to try keeping things platonic with Darcy.


What he should have done was turn and leave the room, go back down to the garage, and work on the bike for a while to get his mind off things. Or maybe a drive to town would clear his mind. Even a walk in the cold rain would probably have gone a long way toward stopping what happened.


Then again, as Glen sometimes said, it was hard to stop the inevitable.


He was aware of the look Darcy was giving him, her gray eyes clear and somehow inscrutable at the same time. She had no idea how appealing she was. That was what kept hitting him. Usually out of left field. This time was more primal though, and purely visual.


It was that white t-shirt. The tight jeans were good, showing off her legs, but that shirt. It wasn't that it was revealing although where her hair had dripped it had taken on a certain amount of translucence over her shoulders. No. It was the fact that there was nothing wrong with the air conditioning in the apartment, and Darcy seemed utterly mindless of the way her erect nipples pressed against the cotton of her shirt.


The jab of lust that went through him was almost painful in its intensity. All of the air was sucked out of the room and he could not breathe for a moment that seemed eternal. Apparently his game face had slipped. He must have made a noise because Darcy looked at him again and her face took on an expression of concern as she turned to face him.


"Mark, are you all right?"


It killed him. She had no idea what she did to him. He cursed himself, but did not try to stop himself. Not this time. He reached for her like a drowning man clutching for a life preserver pulling her close, shutting his eyes at her gasp of surprise, at the feel of her soft body against his. She sputtered and he took advantage, because he would hate himself if he didn't. Hell he sort of hated himself anyway, but at least he would know what it was like to feel her, to taste her, to touch her. He closed his lips over hers and delved his tongue into her mouth with a suddenness that had her gripping his shoulders.


Mark half expected her to push him away but she surprised him by giving in almost immediately, sliding her hands up his shoulders to thread her fingers behind his neck. She turned her head, tilting it so the angle was better, letting her tongue slide against his.

He had to break the kiss. Had to. He couldn't catch his breath, but at least he was breathing again. He gasped and squeezed her closer, burying his face against her neck, breathing in the warm scent of her shampoo, her soap, the smell of rain on her skin. He slid a hand down then up, under the hem of her shirt, his fingers grazing the smooth skin of her back. Darcy shivered against him and moaned softly, and Mark wondered if it was possible to spontaneously combust at the softest sound from her throat. The moan turned into a sigh when his other hand joined the first, and she shivered again when his fingers found the hook on her bra and popped it open.


He felt her fingers slip into his hair and tug, getting rid of the rubber band he'd used to hold his hair back. Darcy combed her fingers through his hair, pressing closer to him as his hands continued exploring her back.


Mark groaned and caught her mouth with his again, less aggression this time, more finesse. She was as responsive as she had been the first time, cupping his cheeks in her hands and angling her mouth against his for the best contact.


By the time they came up for air the second time Darcy was mindlessly grinding herself against him, and Mark had managed to cup her rear in his hands to hold her closer to make the most of the friction. Her soft moans left him light headed, feverish. What he wanted…what he needed…was to bury himself inside her and stay there until neither of them could move.


What he got was a dose of reality. Through the haze of his lust, his brain decided at that moment to voice an opinion about men who screw around with their friend's woman.

Ice cold water probably wouldn't have had nearly the same affect.


"I'm sorry…" He muttered it against her neck as he started to pull away. She had her hands locked around him again though, tangled into his hair. Her gray eyes had darkened like the storm clouds outside, and for a moment they were almost his undoing.


"You're stopping?" Her voice was husky, soft. It was all he could do to swallow and answer.


"I have to." Mark's voice was hoarse and he had to stop and clear his throat.


"I don't want you to stop." Darcy said softly. She gave up holding his hair and slid her fingertips over his cheeks, touching his lips.




"Is out of town. And I don't have to ask his permission."


Mark raised his eyebrows at that. "I am so confused right now."


"I'm not." Darcy rose onto her tiptoes and brushed her mouth over his. "I want you."


"I'm damaged goods." He pointed out, trying not to get too excited by her words, needing the reminder almost as much as she did.


But Darcy wouldn't be deterred. "Who isn't? I've never wanted anything like this before." Her face reddened. "And damaged or not, you want me too." To illustrate her point she slowly raised her knee, rubbing her thigh along his crotch, pressing his still rock-hard erection between their bodies. Mark hissed out a long breath.


"That is not playing fair."


"I know. Not a lot about this is fair." A momentary sadness crept into her voice but when Mark met her eyes again there was no sign of it. "But we can make it good."


"Good, hell. It would be amazing." Mark wasn't going to lie to her. He wasn't sure if he was trying to talk her into bed or out of it at that point. He was rusty; Darcy probably wanted more finessing than he could provide her at least for the moment. A couple of days with her in his bed to work out the kinks, he could perfect it down to a science. The thought made him smile inwardly.


"Amazing." Darcy echoed him. She let her hands slide down his shoulders, his arms, drawing a raised eyebrow from him as she stepped back. He was surprised enough by her retreat to loosen his grip.


But she wasn't going anywhere. He saw her take in a deep breath, fortifying herself. He expected her to talk; maybe she had come to her senses. But no. She grabbed the bottom of her white t-shirt and lifted it, tugging it over her head and letting it drop to the floor.


Coherent thought was near on impossible. Darcy was all smooth golden skin and curves, covered by those tight jeans and a white lace bra that really did not hide anything. He could see the dark outline of her nipples through the material and groaned low in his throat. The bra was loose of course; he'd unhooked it without even thinking about it.


"You're killin' me." He managed to growl out, reaching for her. Darcy didn't dodge him but she did manage to shrug her arms out of the skimpy material that covered her chest. She held it there for a moment, and he was struck again by how shy she could be, as if she did not realize how beautiful she truly was.


The thought almost brought him to a halt. If Darcy and Glen were seeing each other and he wasn't worshipping her every chance he got, then he was a damned fool in Mark's estimation. He refused to think that Glen would hurt Darcy, demean her, or put her down. He'd seen them together after all, he saw the mutual affection. She was relaxed around Glen in a way she hadn't been around Mark.


He reached out a hand and tried to stop it from shaking as he slowly eased the material away from her. Darcy covered herself for another second before slowly lowering her arms, once again blushing to the roots of her hair as Mark gazed at the swell of her breasts.


Mark gave in. He had to – nothing else was more important to him at that moment than Darcy. Before he could pull her close he yanked his own shirt over his head and tossed it aside. By his estimation they were both still wearing way too many clothes but they'd get there eventually.


He took her hands and pulled her closer, letting his fingers trail up her arms, her shoulders. He savored the first touch of her bare chest against his, the way her breathing sped up at the contact. Mark lowered his head and covered her mouth with his, relishing the taste of her, the silky warmth of her skin under his palms, the insistent play of her tongue along his. He wanted to touch her everywhere at once. He settled for slowly letting his fingertips slide down her chest until he was cupping her breasts in his hands with the hardened nipples caught between his thumbs and forefingers. He squeezed her gently, drawing a gasp from her.


Darcy broke their kiss to look down at Mark's hands on her breasts. He lightly tugged her nipples, making them harder, listening to her gasping moan of pleasure as he squeezed her again. He glanced over his shoulder at the bed then turned so he could sit. He'd had the height advantage standing. On the bed his head was level with her chest. It was perfect for him as he stroked her slowly, giving up the soft give of her breasts to let his fingers trail from her collar down the waistband of her jeans. He leaned forward and kissed the skin between her breasts, smelling her soft perfume again. His hands cupped her and squeezed as he kissed and licked the inner swell of her right breast, her left.


Darcy let her head fall back, holding onto his shoulders for balance, and moaned softly as his mouth closed over one hard nipple. One flick of his tongue across the peak and she was whimpering, her fingers tightening against his skin. He bit her gently, then soothed the spot with his mouth, alternating, enjoying her soft noises and the bite of her fingernails against his shoulders.


Eventually he stopped toying with her breasts to kiss his way down her stomach. His fingers found the fly of her jeans and he made short work of opening the button and lowering the zipper. He stopped kissing her long enough to lower her jeans down her hips, exposing white lace panties that matched the bra she'd been wearing. Hot lust licked through him and he had to stop and take a few deep breaths to keep control of it.


Darcy stepped back. He was disappointed but it was momentary. She kicked her shoes off then slid her jeans completely off her legs, along with the socks she'd been wearing. That left her wearing only the panties, an image that Mark thought should probably be illegal in most states. She let herself be drawn back toward him, between his legs. He looked at her, taking her in again. Every inch of her was bronze from the time she spent near the lake, at the falls.


He pressed his mouth against the skin above her belly button, nuzzling her flat stomach. Darcy smoothed his hair back from his forehead, closing her eyes as he nipped her skin between his teeth, his goatee tickling her. Mark slid one hand up the back of her thigh and over the swell of her rear, pulling her closer.


Mark slowly moved from the bed, kneeling in front of her, his mouth brushing the soft material of her panties. Instead of tugging them down or ripping them off – both viable options – he left them, opting instead to kiss the skin they didn't cover while his hands explored her smooth legs and thighs. He tortured himself as much as he tortured her, dragging it out, until he slowly pressed his mouth against her lace covered center. Darcy squirmed but he held her steady, pressing harder, feeling her hips flex involuntarily to get the most of the contact.


He couldn't take it anymore. He hooked his fingers into the waistband and slowly pulled her panties down, inch by inch, his mouth kissing each bit of exposed skin until she was bare in front of him, his mouth pressed into her folds and his tongue flicking out to touch her clit. Darcy's knees shook at the contact and she renewed her grip on his hair, moaning at the sensation.


The angle was good enough to get them both excited but not quite enough to really put Darcy over the edge. And while the thought of her climaxing against his tongue sent another one of those lustful strokes of lightning through him, he wanted to feel it, wanted to feel her, wanted to be inside her when she tipped over the edge. He slowly pulled back, listening to her soft panting breaths, and eased her panties down the rest of the way. He looked up at her for a moment, taking her in again, seeing that he wasn't alone in his need. Her expression was a mixed one, need and something else, something he couldn't define.


He blamed it on his passion fogged mind as he slowly got to his feet. He took Darcy's hand and guided her to the bed, watching as she sat down and eased back, using her elbows to prop herself up against the bed. She watched as he tugged his boots off, his belt, his jeans. Mark didn't miss the way her breathing sped up when she saw him fully naked for the first time.


Mark climbed onto the bed and slowly moved, crawling up her body. Darcy held herself utterly still, looking down the length of his chest and stomach before she swallowed dryly. "That thing is too big for me to handle." She echoed her earlier sentiment, making Mark chuckle.


"I'll go slow and easy." He murmured, his mouth against her ear so his teeth could nip her earlobe. Contrary to Darcy's nervous tone she shifted so he could settle between her legs, the hardened length of his cock nestled against her folds. She was hot, wet, ready. More than ready. If she kept moving her hips he was likely to go off before he ever got inside her. He reached between then and took himself in his hand, guiding the head of his cock through her folds, closing his eyes at the feel of her. He found her entrance and began to sheath himself, ignoring the urge to bury himself, keeping to his promise to take it slow. She was wet but extremely tight, and he had to keep stopping because all joking aside he was not necessarily small. And if she wasn't used to someone his size, then…


He lost the train of his thought as he finally managed to push in the last inch, his cock as deep inside her as it would go. It was another kind of torture but Mark waited, letting her get used to him, closing his eyes and hearing his own harsh breathing as he struggled to maintain control as she squeezed him and released, squeezed, released. Darcy's hands wrapped around him and she experimentally moved her hips, hissing in a breath when he pulled back an inch.


"Am I hurting you?" Mark asked, voice hoarse. Darcy had her eyes closed, and her fingernails were digging into him again, but she shook her head and raised her hips, sliding him back inside her. Instead of a hiss of pain she whimpered as he pressed against her, rubbing himself against her. Mark slowly pulled out, grunting in satisfaction when she tried to lift her hips to keep him inside her.


Darcy finally realized that he would be setting the pace, so she settled for wrapping her legs around his waist and burying her hands in his hair again, tugging it as he began to slowly stroke into her now-pliant body. She used her leverage to her advantage, grinding up into him at every stroke, rubbing herself fully against his body. Mark found her mouth with his and changed the angle 0of his thrusting, letting the length of his cock slide along her clit before entering, reversing the track. She moaned into his mouth and her nails bit in again as she came, her body arching up into him as she rode out the sensations.


Mark lost control. He had no choice. Her inner walls milked him through his orgasm and he groaned her name out as he snapped his hips firmly against hers and climaxed deep inside her, her soft moans filling his ears. He shuddered at the apex and collapsed against her, mindful to keep his weight on his knees and elbows, letting his forehead drop onto her shoulder as he tried to catch his breath.




He felt her shift under him and started to pull away, thinking she needed room. Darcy tightened her arms around him though, making him smile tiredly.


"I'm not crushin' you am I?" He asked in a low voice.


"Nope." She shifted again, wiggling a little. Mark closed his eyes at the sensation. He was still hard, and oversensitive. He dropped a line of kisses along her collar bone, up the column of her neck, nuzzling her. Darcy sighed and ran her fingers up and down his back, stroking his skin.


Saying he wanted her again would be an understatement. Mark had figured that one time wouldn't be nearly enough. Now that the urgency had faded he started teasing her, using his mouth on her skin, touching her lightly, until she all but purred under him. Darcy's hips moved against his slowly, shifting him inside her body, unable to stop. It felt too good.


There was only so far he could reach while he was still inside her. Mark wrapped an arm around her and rolled until Darcy was on top. He was still inside her. She slowly rose up until she was sitting astride him and pushed her hair back over her shoulders while she looked down at him.


Now his hands were free to explore. And so were hers. Darcy slid her palms over his chest, his stomach, stroking him from his shoulders to his waist, then back up. Mark grabbed her hands and pulled her so she was lying on top of him. He let her go to tangle his hands into her hair and bring her mouth to his.


Darcy pulled back, breathless, and sat up again. She experimentally rotated her hips, moving him inside her. Just a little. The friction was enough to draw a moan from his throat. Her lips tilted in a slight smile at the sound. She touched his chest again, smoothing her hands over his skin. Mark was content to just watch her and enjoy the feel of her inner walls as she began moving against him, trying to find the best rhythm, the most contact. He held onto her hips and guided her, first sliding her back and forth, then holding her still and pushing himself up into her, changing the pace then letting her take control again.


The second time was better than the first, because there was absolutely no rush. Darcy seemed content to ride him to a slow, shuddering finish. Mark felt as if he could watch her riding him all day long and not get tired of it. The way she moved, the touch of her hands, her soft moans and whimpers…it all just added fuel to his fire. It was a slow burn though – he had himself in control, letting Darcy reach her own end twice before he thought he was approaching another climax of his own.


She had just finished shaking through the aftershocks of the second one when he tightened his fingers on her hips and held her still, feeling her squeezing him. She looked at him, out of breath, eyes questioning.


"Don't move. I just want to feel you." He said hoarsely. Darcy held herself still, just watching him concentrate on the point where their bodies were joined. He was closer to the edge than he'd thought – he groaned out her name and spilled into her while he held her tight against him, straining up into her sated body.


When Mark thought he could move again, he pulled Darcy down to lay against his chest and stroked her back. She settled against him and sighed in contentment.

"Amazing." He echoed his sentiment from earlier. He smoothed her hair back from her face and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I promise I'm not always in a big rush."


Darcy smiled and blinked sleepily. "I'm not complaining."


"Good." Mark sighed and cuddled her for a moment before speaking again. "But I feel sort of…strange about this."


"Strange how?" Her voice was soft. Mark figured if he'd kept his mouth shut she'd be sleeping on top of him, which seemed like the perfect end to their little interlude.


"Me and you." He couldn't bring himself to mention Darcy's relationship with Glen. Not after what had just happened. He felt guilty already.


Darcy lifted her head and looked at him in confusion. "Why do you feel strange about us?"


"You don't?"


"No. Why would I?" She was frowning now, obviously hurt. Mark wished he'd kept his mouth shut.


"It's just that…we both have other…things…" He didn't know how to put it. Or how to even approach it.


"Is this because of Christine?"


Mark frowned at the name, not immediately realizing who she was talking about. And then it struck him. "No. Absolutely not. Why would she have anything to do with this?"


"Because you've been seeing her, right? Sleeping with her?" Darcy pulled back, mere inches but it may as well have been a mile. "I know that I'm not much by comparison…"


Mark cut her off. "You're crazy."


"I'm crazy?"


"Yes. Crazy. It's like saying a rose isn't much when you compare it to poison ivy."


"That's practically poetry." Darcy sounded amused but she blushed.


"I have not been seeing or sleeping with her, either." Mark pointed out. Darcy's blush deepened. "Give me a little credit."


"Then it's because of me, right?"


Now it was Mark's turn to be confused. "No. It's because of me. I don't know if my head is on straight enough to really understand what's happening between us. I didn't expect anything to ever happen between us."


Darcy's eyes were troubled. It killed him to have done that because just a minute before she had been so content. And he'd ruined it. His guilt could have waited.


She apparently didn't feel any such guilt about what they'd done. That was what had struck Mark as odd. It didn't jibe with the Darcy he had grown to know since he'd met her. The woman had been upset when she'd clipped a raccoon on the road on the way home one night, to the point where she'd had Glen and Mark out walking the shoulders to make sure it was all right and gone and hadn't just crawled into the ditch to die. Did he actually think the woman who did that would take cheating on her boyfriend lightly?


Maybe she knew about Glen and Ava secretly meeting. Maybe Mark was just Darcy's way of getting back at Glen. Mark looked up at her and pushed that thought from his mind. There was no way that Darcy would sink to that point. And he didn't think getting laid would be a priority if she suspected her best friend was sleeping with her boyfriend. She just didn't strike him as the type.


Darcy was shifting, moving away from him. He'd hurt her feelings and wasn't even sure why or how. He rolled and wrapped an arm around her waist before she could slip away entirely.


"Don't. I'm sorry. I'm just really out of practice about this kind of thing, ok?"


"I know." Darcy sighed and held herself stiff for a few moments before relenting and letting him pull her next to him. "I'm just a little…unsure. I guess."


Mark settled up against her back, spooning her body with his. She felt so good just lying there…he nuzzled her neck through her hair. "And I'm an idiot for ruining the moment. I've always been good at that."


"Nothing is ruined. I'm just overly sensitive." Now that she wasn't looking at him, it was easier to speak to him. "It's just…I've wanted this to happen since about five minutes after I met you."


Mark snorted. "No pressure on me then, right?" If she could be honest, so could he. "Same goes for me. Though it might have been quicker than five minutes."


"This has never happened before." Darcy said, her tone serious.


Mark raised an eyebrow. "What? That kind of instant attraction thing?"


"No. Well. Yeah, that too. But I mean…this." She gestured and took a deep breath. "I've never done this before."


Mark was confused. Done what before? Cheated? Jumped into bed with a virtual stranger? "Darlin' I think you've lost me."


"I know. I'm sorry." Darcy took another one of those deep breaths. "I mean I've never had sex before."


It took two solid minutes for that to really sink into Mark's head. He sat up on his elbow and looked down at her. "Wait. You've never…never?" He couldn't even put it into words.


"Never." Darcy echoed him. "Something always held me back."


Mark could only look at her. How in hell was that possible? But it had to be true. She had been nervous, but so had he. And then he remembered seeing something he couldn't define in her eyes and realized it had been fear. Maybe fear of him hurting her. Maybe just fear of the unknown. He hadn't known it for what it was because the idea that Darcy might have never slept with a man had never entered his mind.


It made him wonder, not for the first time, what exactly it was that was wrong with Glen.

Mark finally found his voice. "But how…I mean…you and Glen surely…"


"Me and Glen?" Darcy made a face, a look of almost comical surprise.


"I thought the two of you…"


Now it was Darcy's turn to snort. "No."


"But he's in love with you."


Darcy looked up at Mark with her eyebrows up. "No he's not."


"He told me himself."


Darcy was smiling. How could she be so happy with that? "Well, I love him too but I'm not in love with him."


"What kind of crazy shit have I stepped in here?" Mark finally asked, unable to understand her amusement.


"It's not crazy. Glen and I are just friends. Or…like brother and sister would probably be closer. I do love him, and he loves me, but that's it. People around town think that we're a couple I guess, and we don't bother to correct them. It's easier to just let the rumors lie than to try to argue them." Darcy wiggled until she was on her back and able to look up into Mark's eyes. "We aren't seeing each other, we've never had an interest in each other like that, and we've never slept with each other. He's been seeing Ava for years."


And that made everything make sense. Mark smiled sheepishly, a little embarrassed he'd jumped to so many conclusions. "I wish you had told me. Not about you and Glen – obviously it didn't matter in the heat of the moment. But Darcy…if I'd known that you never…I…" He had no idea how to finish that. He would have what?


"There didn't seem to be a good time to bring it up." Darcy said, making a face.


Mark smiled. It explained the shyness. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"


"No." She assured him softly.


"Ok. Good." Mark dropped a kiss on her lips before settling next to her again, pulling her close. Darcy turned to face him and snuggled up against his chest, letting her fingers stroke his skin.


"I have a lot of catching up to do." Darcy said in a prim little voice that had him smiling.

"Best way to learn anatomy. Hands on instruction." He grabbed her hand and pulled it up to his mouth to kiss her palm. He felt himself stirring again, once more thinking he'd reverted back to the ever-horny high school kid he'd once been, ready to perform at the drop of a hat. He shouldn't question it. He had eight years to catch up on himself.




Eventually they had to get up for food. By that point it was almost midnight. Darcy pointed out that she would have to work the breakfast shift the next morning, which made Mark remember that he also had to be at the garage by 8. Reality had a way of rearing its head at the worst possible time.


Mark ventured up to the main house and raided the fridge there for something more substantial than the snack foods he kept in the apartment while Darcy took a short soak in the tub. Which was probably smart of her – if it had been a shower, he would have been tempted to join her and then they'd be up all night.


He gave her a t-shirt to wear to bed and they ate at the counter in the kitchen. Once that was done and they'd cleaned up, Mark took a shower while Darcy set the alarm clock by the bed and crawled under the blankets.


Mark felt like he slept as soon as his head hit the pillow. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept so well. Darcy lay curled up next to him, and at some point the storms had moved in leaving behind nothing but the soft sound of rain hitting the metal roof.

When the alarm went off, Mark dragged himself out of bed with her. "You can sleep." Darcy pointed out, gathering her clothes that had been left on the floor.


Mark only shook his head and got himself ready for the day. He should have been exhausted, but he wasn't. He went to the main house with Darcy while she got herself ready and then walked her back out to the garage to get her car.


"Seriously, I don't need a bodyguard. I'm just going to work." Her voice broke into his thoughts. She had paused before climbing into the driver's seat while Mark had been lost in thought.


He smirked at that. "I know." He bent and kissed her. Darcy flashed him a brilliant smile and got into the car before he could get too carried away. He heaved a sigh watching her go then turned to look at the motorcycle, at his handiwork. He wasn't conceited but thought he deserved a pat on the back. Of course after the day he and Darcy spent, a pat on the back probably wasn't necessary.


Mark went up to the apartment and made some coffee. He had an hour to kill before he had to be at work. It wasn't until he went back down the stairs with the mug in his hand that he noticed it – at some point during the night Glen had returned. The truck he'd left in was parked in its usual spot. Mark felt an odd empty feeling in his stomach, the sort of thing he used to feel before a real screaming lecture from his dad when he was young. He and Darcy hadn't done anything wrong – but he felt caught all the same.


Etta wasn't around though. She would have been in the kitchen when Mark and Darcy had gone in. Odd. Mark started toward the corner of the house, almost to the stairs that led to the third floor when he changed his mind and set off down the path. After yesterday's rain, that morning had dawned cool and clear, and everything seemed to have grown overnight.


It only took fifteen minutes to reach the side path to the cemetery. Mark walked carefully on the still damp ground, and wasn't surprised at all to see Glen standing in the midst of the headstones. In front of his daughter's stone in particular. Mark didn't want to disturb him but Glen must have heard him coming up the stone pathway.


"You're up and about early." His voice carried across the quiet space.


Mark nodded and sipped his coffee. "Didn't expect to see you until tonight."


"Got done early. I hate hotels." Glen sighed and turned, moving to join Mark. He looked perfectly composed, except for his eyes, which until this moment Mark had thought could only express a sort of amused friendliness. The man looked absolutely haunted though. Not teary eyed, not sad. Haunted. "Coffee smells good."


"There's a whole pot up at the apartment."


"Probably the last thing I need. I should be sleeping. I was up all night driving."


Mark nodded and gestured with his mug of coffee toward the cemetery. He remembered Darcy's advice to play dumb. "Family cemetery?"


"Yeah. Going back to the first of the Graves family. Graves of the Graves, as my dad used to say. It always pissed my mom off that he was so…easy…about death. She took the family history seriously. Including this place." As Glen spoke he turned and looked directly at his daughter's grave. "Guess I do too."


"It must be something, to have that kind of connection to a place." Mark said quietly. His own parents were in different places. His mother had passed away first and had been buried with her parents and family two hundred miles from where they had been living. His father had been cremated and his ashes spread according to his wishes. Mark understood the purpose of a graveyard but had never really experienced the connection to one.


"It's not always a positive thing." But Glen half-smiled. "The grave with the black marker…that's my daughter. Charlotte." Mark raised an eyebrow and said nothing. It seemed safer. "She would have been sixteen next week. We had her young."


"What happened?" Mark felt he had to ask.


Glen shrugged. "One of those things. She wandered away." He shook his head. "I was gone. We had some bad storms come through, a tornado hit the water, worst mess they'd seen in this area in years. I had to leave. The business wasn't going like it is now, I wasn't home a lot. I arranged for some people to come and clean up – we had a lot of trees that were down. And Charlotte just…wandered away." Glen blinked a few times. "I found her. If I had gotten home an hour sooner…even 30 minutes…"


Mark said nothing. It seemed there was nothing he could say. Glen took a deep, shaky breath. "She drowned out at the Falls. I used to take her swimming out there. She loved it. I used to tell her she was probably a mermaid in a past life." He smiled to himself. "I never did find out why she wandered off. She knew to wait for me. Her mother never went down there. She wanted a pool – she said lake water was basically a step away from swamp water. I told Char a million times not to go out there alone but she did. Maybe she just got curious. She'd been warned about the Falls after a storm, but she wasn't afraid of anything. She might have wanted to see for herself and…fell in. Or…I don't know." Glen finished helplessly. "I got home and she didn't come running to meet me. Struck me as odd. Got the workers to start hunting and one of them said he'd seen her on the path. I've read the phrase 'ice in the veins' in about a thousand different books but that was the first and only time in my life I actually experienced it."


"I'm sorry." Mark had nothing else he could possibly say. "Is that why you don't swim there?"


Glen nodded. "Can't bring myself to go back down there. Darcy found it on her own. Believe me when I tell you I about worried myself to death over it. But short of tearing up the path and filling the cove with sand or cement, what can I do?"


It was rhetorical. Glen turned and started back down the path. Mark spared the graveyard one last glance before joining him on the walk back.


"I couldn't help but notice…" Glen shot Mark a sidelong glance, and Mark could almost see the other man dragging himself out of his depression. "That Darcy wasn't at the house when I got home. Also I may or may not have seen the two of you coming and going."


"You don't miss much." Mark said, feeling the flush crawl across his face.


"I miss a lot." Glen corrected him with a smirk. "But Darcy's kind of special to me."


"I know. She's kinda special, period." Mark admitted.


"A man could do a hell of a lot worse."


"I have." Mark said self-deprecatingly. "But I'm trying to change that."


"Good." Glen smiled. "I'd say something like 'don't hurt her' but I think that's a foregone notion."


"I'm gonna try." It was the best Mark could do. Glen seemed to understand. He clapped Mark on the back. Out of curiosity, Mark had to ask. "So Darcy said that you and Ava…"


"Yeah. Me and Ava." Glen shoved his hair back from his face and sighed. "We're complicated. Always have been. To be honest, it shoulda been her that I married in the first place."


"Why didn't you?" Mark asked before he could stop himself. Glen smirked again.


"She said no."




"Gotta give it to her. She sticks to her convictions. She's been saying no ever since."

Mark snickered at that. "You keep asking her?"


"Sure. Once or twice a year. Eventually I'll wear her down." Glen glanced at his watch. "You'd better hit it if you're gonna get to the garage on time."


"Yeah." Mark knew he'd be cutting it close but wasn't too worried about it. His mood was too good that morning for anything to really put a damper on his day. Glen had seemed down but he was pulling himself up again. Mark had spent an incredible day and night with an incredible woman. He was starting to think he might have a few things going for him after all. That was all right. He was overdue for some good luck.


His good mood lasted all day. For good reason. He'd worked out the problems on the truck that had stumped him Friday, he'd spent his lunch hour with Darcy, and he was brought another motorcycle to work on. Not a custom Harley but that was all right, he couldn't win the lottery every day. For the first time in a long time it felt as though a weight were lifted off his shoulders.




He got back to the house just after five. Mark went to his apartment and took a shower before heading to the house for supper. And walking in to Darcy and Glen arguing.

It only took a minute to figure out that it was about school, so Mark didn't have to worry it had to do with him. Darcy only had a week to sign up for summer classes, leaving her virtually no time for a break. Now when Glen pressed for her to take a break, Mark didn't hear the tones of a neglected lover. He heard genuine concern that Darcy was burning her candle at both ends.


Mark and Darcy exchanged looks. Hers was warm exasperation, as this was a debate she had heard quite a few times.


"What's two months?" Glen was asking when Mark walked in.


"Two more classes." Darcy pointed out. "I'm already behind. I should have already started clinicals. But no. I'm still slogging through chemistry and biology."


"If you insist on doing summer school, then you need to quit the diner."


"Quit the diner? Are you nuts?"


"Obviously." Glen said, helping himself to the plate of grilled chicken he'd put on the table. "One or the other. Not both. You'll wear yourself too thin."


"I am not going to quit my job. I can't rely on you for everything."


"You can. You just don't want to."


Mark fixed his plate, listening but not joining in. He felt he would just be in the way.


Darcy huffed an annoyed breath. "You have no idea how hard it is to just accept help, do you?"


"No. I don't apparently." Glen looked at her earnestly. "Darcy I'm only thinking about what's best for you. Remember last summer? Remember how you were gone for 16 hours a day and spent your weekends either reading textbooks or sleeping, nothing else?"


"Small price to pay to get done."


"Big price to pay when you don't have to pay it." Glen set his chin. Mark hadn't known him long but recognized it for what it was – he was not going to budge on this part of his argument. "Sign up for your summer classes. Go full time. The diner will be there in the fall."


Darcy looked at him with a frown on her face. "Don't go using that 'daddy' tone with me."


"It's not a tone. It's your option. I'd sooner you went to school full time and got that degree. It's more important than worrying about your pride. And you can pay me back. Keep a tab. I've told you a hundred times…"


"More like a thousand." Darcy said sarcastically.


"And now it's a thousand and one." Glen shook his head. "Deal with it."


"I'm serious. I can handle both."


"Of course you can. It doesn't mean you should."


Darcy's noise of annoyance had Mark biting back a smile. He figured he'd better keep his thoughts on it to himself. He just happened to agree with Glen. She didn't need to work herself to death just to prove she was better than her mother, that her rough start didn't have a hold on her. Any fool could see she was light years away from where she'd come from.


"So far we've only been play-fighting. I am serious about this, Darcy. One or the other. You won't be able to work at the diner when you start clinicals anyway. And if you go full time this summer you could be in clinicals in September. And done in six months instead of a year."


"I hate it when you bring logic into it." Darcy grumbled. She morosely took a bite of her chicken and looked at Glen, who was watching her expectantly. "I'll think about it, all right? Geez."


"Please do." Glen smiled broadly. He seemed to notice for the first time that Mark had joined them. "And how was your day?"


Mark smirked. "Not half as exciting as yours, apparently."


"I slept all day." Glen picked up his fork. There was a knock at the front door. Darcy excused herself to answer it before either of the men could. The sound of female voices drifted for a moment before there was the sound of footsteps heading upstairs. Glen tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. "Sounded like Ava."


Mark nodded, not that he'd know. He barely knew the woman. He went back to eating his dinner, glad when Glen turned the conversation toward work at the garage. It was a subject Mark was comfortable with.




"You are going to have to slow down." Darcy finally said, watching Ava pace around her room.


"I can't. I'm freaking out."


It was the first time Darcy had ever seen her friend in such a state. Usually Ava was calm and cool, even when she was angry. This wasn't anger though.


"Ok." Darcy watched her pace another circuit around the bed. She waited her out, giving her a minute to continue ranting.


When Ava paused for breath she finally looked at Darcy and made a face. "Oh my god. I'm going on and on like an idiot and you're sitting there looking like the cat that ate the canary. You did it, didn't you?"


"Did what?"


"Don't try that shit with me. You might as well take out a billboard." Ava grinned. "How was it?"


Darcy shrugged, seriously wishing her friend wasn't so attuned to that kind of thing. To be honest, she was sore. Not that she was going to complain. It hadn't hurt until that morning, but she'd gotten through it. All she had wanted when she got home was an hour long soak in hot water and some relaxation. Instead Glen had started in on her overdoing things.


"Don't try to change the subject. You're wearing a hole in my carpet. What's going on?"

Ava pushed her red hair back from her face and blew out a breath. "I'm late."


"Late for what?"


"Late. Late! You know. Period. My cycle. My monthly…"




"Ok. I realize that you're new to this whole sex thing, but generally speaking when you miss a period…"


"You didn't say you missed one. You just said you were late." Darcy said with a raised eyebrow. "How late?"


"Two weeks."


"That's not bad. You can be late for about a thousand reasons."


"Ok. I would love to believe that. Except I have this!" She tugged a white stick out of her back pocket and tossed it toward Darcy. Darcy picked it up gingerly, making a face.


"Lovely. Throwing pee-covered things on someone else's bed." She looked at the result window and raised an eyebrow. No questioning what it said. It wasn't the one-line, two-line test. It actually said 'pregnant' in the result window in plain black letters.


"Oh man."


"I can't breathe." Ava finally sat down on the end of Darcy's bed.




"What am I gonna do?"


"What do you mean?" Darcy thought that was the obvious part.


"I've been careful. I never wanted a kid! Can you picture that? Me with a kid?" Ava visibly shuddered. "I can't."


"I can." Darcy smiled and handed Ava her pregnancy test back. "What happened? Get a little too caught up in a moment?"


"No. No! Ugh…I don't know. I've been taking my pills. I always take my pills."


"Nothing is one hundred percent."


"Yeah tell me about it." Ava sniffled. Darcy frowned at her. She'd known her for years, and had never once seen her close to crying. "I can't tell him."


"You're crazy. Why not?"


"Are you kidding?" Ava sniffled again. "What if I decide not to keep it? Do you know what that'll do to Glen?"


Darcy could only blink in response. "But…Ava…"


"I had to tell somebody. I feel like I'm going to lose my mind." Ava angrily wiped her eyes.


"Ok. How about this? Don't tell anybody else. Make an appointment to get a real pregnancy test with Doc Richards. A blood test just to be sure. Then you can decide what to do."


"No way I'm going to Doc Richards. Glen would find out before I could get out of the parking lot."


"Doc Richards wouldn't call Glen."


"He has ways of finding stuff out though. You know how people in town are about him."

"Then go out of town."


"Go with me."


"I can't. I have to work."


"Darcy…please. I don't ask you for much…" At that, Darcy sorted. Ava continued as if she hadn't heard. "Just this one thing. Please?"


Darcy sighed. "Your boyfriend was wanting me to quit my job anyway."


"Oh yeah?" Ava sniffled and smiled half-heartedly.


"If I quit because of you then you'll have to have the kid. And then I can be its live-in nanny or something." Darcy reached on her bedside table and found a package of Kleenex she kept handy. "Here. Clean yourself up. If Glen knows you're here, you know he'll expect to see you. He's been gone a few days." She eyed her friend and tried to hide her worry.


It took another ten minutes to get Ava into a reasonably normal state. She put on a brave face and went downstairs to say hi to the men. Darcy decided she wasn't hungry enough to return to her half-eaten dinner. She went into her bathroom and locked the door, then ran a tub full of water as hot as she could stand. She wasn't going to attempt to study, she wasn't going to go swimming. She was going to have her bubble-filled soak and then curl up with a book and contemplate the things that had happened the day before.


She was even considering going out to Mark's to spend the night again but wasn't sure she was quite up to another night of attention. At least…not just yet. She had a lot to think about, not just things between herself and Mark. She definitely had no complaints there. And he seemed happier. It made her feel good that she could take a little of the credit for that.


Darcy leaned back in the hot water and laid a damp cloth over her eyes. She hated to admit that Glen had a point. If she wasn't working, she could take on a full class load. She'd have more time to study, and she could conceivably be ready for the next phase of her education before the trees changed colors in the fall. She had no doubt she could do it. She just hated having to rely on Glen's generosity. No matter how many times he offered, or insisted, she couldn't help but feel like she was taking advantage of him.


And she had known just by glancing at Mark that Mark would take up Glen's side. It was a rare moment when she'd been able to read him clearly and she had seen exactly what he'd thought – that she was pushing herself too hard. But she wasn't. Sure she got tired but who didn't? A lot of people had it worse.


But she'd promised Ava that she'd go with her the next day. And maybe she could stop by the school and see about signing up for those extra classes. Two birds, one stone. She smiled and relaxed. It was short-lived. Because she realized that in less than a year she would be ready to find a job as a nurse, making decent money for the first time in her life, able to live on her own. And she would have to go away to do that. She couldn't see working for Doc Richards – he had a nurse, a battleaxe of a woman named Norma who apparently had been a fixture around town since it was developed. The nearest medical facilities were at the college, and that was a forty minute drive. It was one thing to go to school there – another to have to face that kind of commute every day.


The thought of leaving left her cold. She was comfortable here. Some of the people were annoying but asking for everyone to be perfect was asking way too much. Every town had their problems. But these people were known. Darcy felt a cold ball of ice in her stomach at the thought of moving to a larger town, even a city. At first it had been all she wanted. Now she wasn't so sure.




Mark was rather disappointed.


After supper the night before, Darcy had disappeared. Oh he knew she was still in the house. Ava had mentioned that she thought Darcy was going to soak in the tub for a while – and she'd also tipped Mark a knowing wink. He wasn't entirely sure how to interpret it.


Ava hadn't stayed, and Glen had been troubled over her short visit, but he'd tried to put it aside. He and Mark shot a few games of pool, and Mark was relieved to find that Glen played more on his level. They were pretty well matched.


After that Glen excused himself to get some work done since he had slept through his usual work hours. Mark browsed through the books in the living room one more time, didn't find anything that interested him, and cast a glance at the stairs. He could just go on up and find out what Darcy was planning to do with her night. Or he could just go out to his own place and give her time.


In his younger days he would have probably gone up the stairs and told her she was staying with him. So Mark smirked to himself and decided to head to his apartment. She knew where he was – and, he reminded himself, she might have to work things out in her head. He vaguely recalled how his first time had thrown him off balance for a few days, and he'd needed time to process it. He assumed it was the same for either gender.


Darcy didn't put in an appearance that night. Which was a right – Mark hadn't realized just how tired he was. He slept deeply, catching up on the sleep he'd lost the night before.


He got up early, but not early enough. Darcy – and her car – were already gone. Mark wondered when he should start feeling offended. He had to smile at the thought as he ate a slice of toast with his morning coffee. He had his hands full at the garage so at least he had something to keep him busy. It wasn't until lunch time that he really stopped to worry about whether he had done something wrong.


He took a seat at his usual booth, expecting Darcy to join him. What he got was a smug Christine, who was all too happy to practically sit in his lap and tell him that Darcy had quit that morning.


"She quit?"


"Oh yeah. But then, it's what I always expected from her. You can't count on anybody these days. Now…" Christine laid her hand on Mark's forearm. "What can I get for you?"


It was on the tip of his tongue to say 'a hot shower' after feeling her hand on him, but that probably would have offended her. Or worse – she might have taken it to mean a shower with her. He suppressed a shudder at the thought. "Just a burger and fries. And a soda." He pointedly reached for a newspaper that some other customer had left o his table. Christine smiled and wandered away to take care of his order.


He ate slowly and made sure Christine was busy with other customers before going to the counter to pay. Max was at the register and accepted Mark's money.


"I heard Darcy quit." Mark tried to say it in an offhand way. Max nodded.


"Oh yeah. Been expecting it for a while. The good ones never stick around." He didn't bother lowering his voice, which made Mark smile. Max seemed amused as well. "Worried she was leaving us in a bind, bless her heart. Place never gets busy enough for that. You take care."


Mark thanked him and headed back to the garage. So Glen had apparently finally won their argument and Darcy gave up the diner. That was a good thing. She needed to focus on school. He wondered if Glen knew but didn't wonder for long. From what he'd seen there wasn't much Glen didn't know about the town and the people in it. At first Mark had thought it was almost eerie – after talking to Chris while they'd worked – or rather, having Chris talk to him, Mark wasn't the talkative type but Chris couldn't stand to let a silence go to waste – Glen just knew how the rumor mill worked, and he knew how to work the rumor mill.


By the time Mark got home that evening, he was starting to worry. Darcy wasn't home yet. Glen seemed morose at supper, which was odd for a man who had just won an argument. Of course he knew about Darcy quitting the diner. He freely admitted that Max has called him and told him. At Etta's barely disguised cough, Glen had finally cracked a smile. "And Max only called me because I own the place."


"Is there a place in town you don't own?" Mark asked, meaning it in a joking way.

Glen had shrugged. "The movie theater. Oh and the Doc's office." He said it with such seriousness that Mark believed him.


After supper Mark went to his apartment and got immediately bored. He paced for a while before grabbing his trunks and changing. A swim might do him some good. He rather liked the exercise. It didn't put as much stress on him as lifting weights, although he still did that too. He felt stretched and tested after a good swim though.


It was odd being at the beach without Darcy. He'd gotten used to her. And heaven help him he had gotten used to that red bikini of hers. He was pretty sure that skimpy strip of cloth and string was going to haunt him into his next life.


Instead of dwelling on it – what would be the point? He'd had the reality, and it far outdistanced the fantasy. Besides that, he would just be torturing himself. Getting himself wound up when being with her again wasn't promised would be worse than the jail time he'd served.


So he swam instead. The beauty of the cove was that at its center it was ten feet deep, and clear. The deep channel ran from the waterfall to the rock wall that protected the cove. A few times back and forth, and he found a good pace. He swam for almost thirty minutes, gliding through the cold water of the cove, feeling his arms and shoulders taking the brunt of his efforts. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling. By the time he stopped to catch his breath he was warm all over from the exertion. Mark stretched his arms over his head as he waded toward the beach, not wanting to cramp up.


And Darcy was sitting there, on his towel, waiting for him.


He almost tripped on his own feet, because she had managed to surprise him. He saw her grin impishly and had to smile in response.


"Sneaky." He pointed out the obvious as he finally reached the fairly level surface of the sand.


"Like a ninja." Darcy wasn't dressed for swimming. She had on a pair of shorts and another one of those white tank tops that showed off her tanned arms to perfection." You looked serious out there."


"It's good exercise."


"I know that." Darcy was all sarcasm. She was still smiling but it was distracted, as if she had something on her mind but she was trying to push it aside. Mark thought he might be able to help in that capacity. He held out his hand and she eyed it before taking it in hers and letting him pull her to her feet. She probably thought he wanted his towel.


He surprised her that time. Instead of letting her go to dry off he pulled her up into the grass, dragged her against his chest, and kissed her breathless. He almost managed to get her entire front wet, pretty much rendering that white tank top see-through. She wore a black lace bra under it. The contrast was enough to get his blood racing.

Darcy held onto his shoulders as he ducked his head and began licking and biting his way down her neck, a smile on her lips. "You know technically this qualifies as public and anybody could just wander in at any time right?"


"Mmm…and how many times have people wandered right in while you were here?" Mark asked against her ear, feeling her shiver as his breath puffed against her skin.


"None, I suppose." Darcy lightly ran her fingers down his arms, back up, feeling the muscles under his smooth skin bunching and flexing. "Is it all right if I stay with you tonight?" She asked, voice barely above a whisper. Her tone caused Mark to pull back to look at her intently.


"You have to ask?" He cupped her face in his hands.


"I figured if I pushed then you'd get tired of me." Darcy shrugged.


"I don't believe that would be possible." He stroked her cheeks with his thumbs.

She smiled at that. "I would have been over last night but I needed some time."


"I know." Mark sighed, feeling a twinge of regret. "I know I've made mistakes in my past…" He started haltingly. Darcy raised an eyebrow and smiled.


"Not because of that. You aren't your past." She assured him. "I was a little sore, to be perfectly honest."


"Oh." Mark chuckled. "I shoulda figured."


"I'm fine now." Darcy pointed out.


"Good." Mark slid his hands to cup her head, burying his fingers in her long hair. "Because if I have to wait 'til we get back to my place, I might explode. I thought I had a handle on this." He brushed his mouth over hers, lightly, the barest touch of lips to lips. "I missed you today." He admitted. Darcy smiled at that.


"Did you? Looking for me, huh?" She let go of his arms and held onto his waist, letting her fingers slide against his still damp skin.


"Seems like all my life."


"I don't know if I'd go that far." Darcy said with a smirk. Mark smiled and covered her mouth with his instead of answering. For now, this was answer enough. Mark lowered her to the cool grass and made love to her there with the waterfall as their music. It set the rhythm. And it somehow seemed fitting to be with her there in the place that they both enjoyed so much. For Mark this moment was even better than that fleeting moment on the motorcycle, the one he'd wished to freeze time at. It was the moment he began to realize that he did deserve someone like Darcy – he could be better than his past – and with any luck he could be man enough to deserve having someone like Darcy think the same thing.




Darcy couldn't remember the last time she'd slept in on a weekday.


It was kind of nice. Especially after the night she'd had with Mark. And of course the long day before that. Quitting the diner had been the easy part. Max said he'd been expecting it for a while. Darcy tried not to feel suspicious because of that – he had meant it as a compliment, she was sure.


She had picked Ava up and they'd hit the road. Ava was all nerves, and Darcy could understand why. She was scared to death. It didn't sit well on her friend. They went to the university's clinic. The doctor took no chances – he drew blood and tested her urine. The blood test would take a few hours to complete but the urine test was pretty conclusive in and of itself. It was positive.


Ava had still been in shock. To distract her, Darcy took her to school while she took care of registering for her classes. They tried eating lunch but Ava would only pick at her food. Darcy had never seen her so down.


"It is not the end of the world." Darcy pointed out finally, tired of just sitting in silence. Ava had looked at her for a very long time before speaking.


"I know. This is just me in disbelief. You know what makes it worse?"


"What?" Darcy could think of a lot of things that made it worse but Ava was finally talking so she didn't want to ruin it.


"Doc Richards said I wouldn't be able to have kids anyway." Ava scoffed. "He even tried to talk me out of birth control pills, said it would be like amputating your good leg along with your bad. Thank god I didn't listen to him." She dropped her head into her hands. "For all the good it's done me now."




"What am I gonna do?" Ava's voice was muffled. Darcy waved off the waitress who chose to appear at that moment and leaned closer to the table.


"Tell Glen."


"What? No. No way."


"I'm not going to say he's got a right to know, but…you shouldn't be making any hasty decisions on your own. It is half his."


"Do you know what this would do to him? Especially if I decide to end it?"


"It would break his heart. But he loves you, Ava. Maybe he would understand why you're so scared."


Ava looked up at that. "No he wouldn't. You know how he is. It's his way or no way."


"Except when it comes to you." Darcy said with a grin. "You're the only one who constantly puts him in his place. Hell – I quit my job because he wore me down. Nobody is immune. He needs you. You're the only one keeping him from becoming an evil overlord or something."


Ava actually smiled at that, although it wasn't her usual thousand-watt grin. "If he finds out I'm pregnant he'll probably lock me up in the basement and not let me out, just to protect myself from myself." She sighed heavily. "Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?"


"I'd tell him." Darcy didn't hesitate.


"Just like that?"


"God yes. I wouldn't want to go through any of it on my own. Plus it would be worth it to see the look on his face. Maybe it was meant to happen."


"You're looking at it through rose-colored glasses."


"I am not." Darcy snorted. "You are not fooling anybody, Ava. You and Glen have been together so long, at this point you telling him 'no' when he asks you to marry him is just a reflex on your part. What happens if he gets tired of asking, of waiting?"


Ava was struck silent by that.


"Tell him." Darcy repeated it again.


"I can't."


Darcy sighed. "You can. I can make it easy on you. I'll tell Etta you want to cook dinner for Glen one night, then I can make myself scarce. You can have the whole empty house to yourself to talk to him."


"And that's what you'd do."


"In a heartbeat."


"I'm terrified." Ava admitted.


"I know."


"I can't."


"You can." Darcy smiled at her. "I could tell him."


"Don't you dare!"


"Don't force my hand then." Darcy said with a smirk.


"Darcy…I don't think I want this baby."


"I think you're lying. Not to me. To yourself."


"No. I…" Ava couldn't finish.


"Look at you. You went from 'I don't' to 'I don't think'. And you're crying again. You never cry." Darcy took one of Ava's hands in hers, feeling how cold it was. "Tell him."


"I almost wish I hadn't told you." Ava sniffled. She grabbed for a napkin and wiped her eyes and nose.


"You only told me because I'm a practice run for the real thing." Darcy drank her soda. "Plus you knew I'd be the voice that encouraged you to tell Glen. A little outside influence to make you feel like you fought it as hard as you could."


"Just because you signed up for a psychology class does not make you a psychologist." Ava grouched.


"I know." Darcy sighed. "Let's go back to the clinic, tell the doctor you changed your mind, and hear the baby's heartbeat."


Ava looked horrified at the thought. "Hell no."


"It was just an idea." Darcy smiled sadly. "You're afraid to make it real, aren't you?"


"I thought I made that clear." Ava finally picked up her now cold hamburger and took a small bite. "Talk about something else. Anything else. I'm sick of thinking about myself. Tell me about your roll in the hay."


Darcy snickered. "There was no hay involved. And I'd rather not, thanks anyway."


"Well at least tell me how it was!" Ava made a visible effort to drag herself back into the real world. "Was he rough? Did he bend you over backward?"


"No. And no." Darcy could feel herself blushing. She had to laugh. "It was very…intense." She finished, for lack of a better word. If Darcy thought about it, she could actually still feel his hands on her that was how intense it had been.


Ava kept the topics neutral as they finished lunch. They had the whole day to waste, so Ava convinced Darcy to go shopping. Darcy didn't have a need for new clothes or the money to spend on it, and she resisted Ava's attempts at bribing her. She enjoyed looking though. Eventually she'd be in a spot where she could just buy whatever pretty thing caught her eye. For now she was content to window shop and let her mind wander to better things.


Eventually they went back to the clinic. The doctor once again asked if Ava wanted to hear the baby's heartbeat. She resisted. He told her the results of her blood test – positive, of course.


Ava took it surprisingly well. Although her face got pale, she had nodded solemnly and listened as the doctor warned her away from alcohol, cigarettes, and certain kinds of foods. Ava accepted a stack of brochures and a bottle of prenatal vitamins, and promised to make an appointment with her family doctor so she could get the care she would need. And with that they were on their way back home


"I can't see Glen right now. Can you drop me at my house?" Ava asked after they traveled the first twenty minutes in silence.




"I think I might go out of town for a few days."


Darcy raised an eyebrow. "O-k." She dragged it out.


"I need time to think. And Glen will expect me to go over there and I won't be able to do it. I can't face him right now. He's already wondering what my problem is from yesterday." Ava sighed. Glen had asked her to stay the night and she had mumbled out an excuse that sounded like a lie even to her own ears. He'd seemed hurt by it but hadn't questioned it. It made her feel awful.


"All right." Darcy glanced at her. "Just don't go making any hasty decisions."


"I know." Ava looked at the brochures in her hand and refused to speak again until Darcy dropped her off and she said goodbye.


It was nearly suppertime by then and Darcy wasn't hungry. She drove around for a little while trying to clear her head before heading home. She had missed supper and Mark wasn't in his apartment. She didn't want to bother Glen, because she was pretty sure if he asked, she would just flat tell him where she'd been all day.


So she followed a hunch and went to the beach. And sure enough, Mark was swimming. Darcy took her shoes off in the grass then walked onto the sand to sit down on the towel he'd left here. She watched him for a few minutes, smiling because he was so focused that he didn't notice her until he was practically on top of her.


It wasn't until much later, when she was lying in bed with her head on Mark's chest, listening to his slow heartbeat, that he finally asked what was on her mind.


"As little as possible." Darcy said sleepily. She felt him chuckle.


"You seemed a little…lost in thought." Mark stroked her back. He had ventured to the house to get her some supper earlier, and Darcy and Mark had shared a shower. Now she was content enough to drift in a semi-doze with him next to her.


"Just wondering what I'm going to do with myself for the next week until classes start. I've never had a vacation."


"Well. I can fill up some of the time." Mark dropped a kiss on her forehead.


"Mmm…" Darcy made a soft noise.


"Maybe this weekend we can go somewhere. Together."


"Somewhere? Where?" Curiosity had Darcy looking up at him.


"I don't know." He was smiling. There was enough moonlight coming in through the window over the bed to illuminate his face. "Maybe for a ride on the bike. Find a place with some distractions…an amusement park, or something. Act like overgrown kids. Get a nice hotel room and then act like consenting adults." It made Darcy laugh.


"Ok. I'm sold."


"Good." She slid up a little and dropped a kiss on his lips. He held her there for a moment before letting her go to snuggle up against his side once more. She closed her eyes and tried to push thoughts of Ava and her issues aside. She had her own love life to focus on, and lucky for her it seemed to be heading in a good direction.




Mark spent the next few evenings getting his new motorcycle fully road ready. On Friday morning he was able to sneak away from the garage and make the bike legally road ready.


When he got back to the garage, he would have dared anyone to try to ruin his good mood. Which is why what happened came as such a shock.


Chris was on the phone in the front, placing an order for parts to fix a truck he'd been tinkering with. He raised a hand to acknowledge Mark's greeting. Mark went into the garage bay area to see if there was anything for him to do.


And that's when he saw the wreck.


It was nothing but a tangled mess of metal and wiring, and Mark hadn't seen it in 8 years, but he would still recognize it anywhere. It was the motorcycle – his motorcycle – the one he'd been driving the night Jezzie had died.


"What the fuck is this?" He asked out loud.


"Some guy brought it in about an hour ago." Chris's voice from behind him made Mark jump. "Looks like a lost cause to me, but I told him to leave it and you'd take a look."


"Who brought it?" Mark finally asked.


"Uh…" Chris went to the job board that was on the wall, where they wrote down information about which vehicle they were working on and who it belonged to. "Tourist type. Didn't know the area. He said he bought it because he liked some of the custom work…yeah. Tom Smith."


It wasn't someone Mark knew. But what were the odds of the bike ending up here? And as far as he had known, Jezzie's father had destroyed the remains of the bike itself – it was another one of the things he'd gotten as part of his settlement.


Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he was imagining things. Mark went toward the bike, which was still on a small trailer. To the untrained eye it might look like any other motorcycle but Mark had practically built the damned thing from the wheels up. He'd poured blood, sweat, and tears into it. But just to be sure…he bent and peered at the scraped and dented remains of the gas tank, gingerly reaching out to run his fingertip over a small metal lip. He didn't have to get close to see what was there – his initials, followed by his 10-digit phone number. When he'd ordered the tank, the custom shop had used it to identify it as his. Some fill-in and sanding and it would have disappeared. But Mark had rather liked having the markings on there. It was small, hardly noticeable, and it reminded him that it was something he had made and built.

No doubt about it. This was the bike.


So what was it doing here?


Mark puzzled over it. For the rest of the afternoon he found himself looking at the bike as if assuring himself that it was still there. It made him nervous because it made no sense. Even if Michael Adams hadn't gotten rid of the damned thing how would it have ended up all the way here, essentially in the middle of nowhere?


Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore. Chris left at 3, taking off early since Mark had come in late. Mark went into the small office and dialed Glen's number.


He answered on the first ring. Either he had been expecting a call or he wasn't distracted by having his attention on a computer program. "Yeah?"


"Hey. I…uh…something's kind of weird here."


"Weird how?" Glen asked. Mark quickly explained what had happened. Glen was quiet for a few minutes, thinking it over. "And you're sure it's the exact same bike?"




"Did Chris get a copy of the owner's ID?" It was supposed to be standard at the garage, but Chris didn't always ask for ID when it was a local. Mark picked through the paperwork that was stacked on the desk and found what he was looking for.


"Yeah." Mark looked at the picture. Their printer wasn't the greatest – it didn't need to be, mostly they needed the name and address to be clear not the picture. It was grainy but Mark could see a dark haired man who looked to be in his mid-30s. He could have been anybody. Mark was sure he'd never seen him before.


"Good. I'll be down there in twenty minutes and we'll dig around." Glen hung up before Mark could question him on it.


Mark sat in the office waiting. He sure wasn't going to get any work done until he knew why the bike had shown up here. It was too coincidental. He was hundreds of miles away from where he'd come from in a town so small it only showed up on extremely detailed maps – he knew, because he had checked.


Glen pulled up fifteen minutes later. He was the one that decided to close the garage for the day since it was late. Plus he didn't want to be bothered. He had Mark do the usual closing routine while he set up his laptop in the office and connected to the internet.


It didn't take long for Mark to get the place in shape. He felt like he'd wasted the entire day studying the damned thing. Glen came into the garage and looked over the wreckage, and Mark pointed out the numbers – what he had considered a personal serial number. There was even a VIN they could look up, and he was sure they would find it had once belonged to Mark.


"One way to find out for sure." Glen stated. He led the way back to the office and sat down. Mark watched as he typed information into the keyboard, resisting the urge to look at the broken bike through the window behind him. "Definitely your bike." He had the DMV pulled up and had entered the information. "Although it says it was scrapped six years ago. Junk titled and recycled."


"Yet here it is."


"Yeah. " Glen picked up the printout and went hunting. It only took a minute to discover that the address on the ID card was not real. "Fake ID?" Glen seemed to be speaking to himself. He picked up the phone and dialed Chris. "Hey. The junker bike that got dropped off…did the guy match his ID?" He nodded as Chris spoke. "Right. Ok." He hung up. "Same guy as the picture. The phone number isn't going to do a lot of good either. I recognize the first three numbers – burner cell phone. You don't have to register it to use it."


Mark had no idea what he was talking about. Glen only shook his head and looked up the phone anyway. Just as he'd thought the number was tied to the nearest large city but no further information was available.


"Of course when you put in a name like Smith you're going to match a million people." Glen scratched his chin thoughtfully. He picked up the phone and dialed the number. There was no answer so Glen left a message and asked that Tom return his call as soon as possible to discuss exactly what he wanted done with the bike.


Mark was looking at it through the window. He couldn't help it. "What about the trailer?"

"What about it?"


"It's not one of ours. The guy must have brought it and left it with the bike."


Glen grinned and went into the garage to see if there was an identifier on the trailer. There was actually, a plate with an expired tag. He memorized the number and went back to the DMV site where he searched for the information. "And bingo. Although I don't know how much of a bingo it is. The trailer belongs to a Michael Adams." He looked at Mark. "I assume that isn't him in the picture."


Mark felt like his stomach had turned into a ball of ice. "No. He's…I guess in his sixties now. White hair. Crew cut. Looks like one of those military types that could never let it go."


"He was the last owner before the bike was junked. Maybe he sold the trailer and just didn't transfer it."


"No." Mark shook his head. "Michael Adams was Jezzie's father. The one that died when I wrecked the bike."


"Except you didn't wreck the bike. You got wrecked into."


"A distinction that the judge and jury never would have bought." Mark said. For the first time he felt something other than tired acceptance when thinking about what had happened. He felt angry. Why had it been glossed over, that they'd been hit by another vehicle? Mark hadn't hit the truck, the truck had hit them. In fact, he remembered thinking the damned truck was trying to run him off the road.


If he hadn't blacked out…if he could just remember…


It was useless though. He had tried to recall the moments leading up to his accident, and the aftermath, but once they were hit there was nothing but a smooth blank until he woke up at the hospital.


"Are you sure you don't know this guy?" Glen asked, indicating the picture. Mark looked but the picture was too bad to really say for sure. He could have been anybody. Or nobody.


"I don't remember him if I do know him. So no. I don't know him."


Glen was typing again. He put in the license number and ran a background check, which went exactly how he figured it would. No such driver's license number existed. In fact – not only did the address not exist, the town listed on the license did not exist either. At least not in the state mentioned on the license.


"Screw it. We'll throw it in the back and deal with it Monday." Glen snapped his laptop closed. Mark had raised an eyebrow but didn't move. "I'm pretty sure you and Darcy had plans to go somewhere today. You don't want to keep her waiting do you?"


"No. But…"




"Call me superstitious but I don't wanna risk taking her out on a motorcycle when that fucking…thing…just showed up out of the blue." He gestured at the window.


"Then take one of the cars. She'd understand."


"I know she would." But she would also probably be disappointed. Mark did not want to disappoint her. He'd never put so much thought into a relationship before, and was scared to screw it up. This was new territory for him so he wanted to tread carefully and keep her happy.


"Look. Nobody knows you're going anywhere except for me, and maybe Ava if Darcy told her. Maybe this Michael Adams found where you went to and he's fucking with you.  Or maybe it really is some kind of cosmic coincidence. Either way, you can't let it get to you or make you change shit to suit it. Because then they would win." Glen looked at him pointedly. "And they've already won once."




"Lucky for you, this time you have me." Glen picked up his laptop and unhooked various wires. "And they seriously do not understand who they are fucking with."


His tone made Mark smile although it did not reach his eyes. No matter what Glen said, the bike…the bike…showing up here could mean nothing but trouble. And the last thing Mark wanted was to get Darcy or Glen tangled up in his business any more than they already were.




They rode for nearly three hours before finding what they were looking for. Not a theme park, but a county fair. Mark drove through the town – a veritable metropolis when compared to Graves Falls – and they saw the lights from the carnival well before they spotted the carnival itself. Friday evening as dark was falling it was packed.


It was Darcy who decided to save the fair for the next day. They were close to the interstate, which meant they had plenty of hotels and motels to choose from. Mark went with the one that was furthest from the traffic.


He'd debated telling her about what had happened, and just taking one of Glen's cars. Darcy had listened to him, considered it for all of three seconds, and had nixed the car idea. She'd been looking forward to the bike. She wasn't worried. She trusted him.


That trust was a scary feeling for Mark. He spent the first hour constantly looking over his shoulder. Eventually he relaxed, but only because Darcy had proved to be more than a good distraction.


It was her idea to grab supper and take it to their hotel room as well. After the long ride on the bike she said she was ready to stretch out and relax, and Mark couldn't find a reason to disagree. By ten they were finished eating and Darcy had dug into the overnight bag she'd brought to find some pajamas. She had been quiet since they'd gotten into town, and Mark was starting to worry over it.


He heard her turn on the water in the bathroom and gave it all of a ten count before he let himself in. Darcy was a vague shape behind the frosted glass door of the shower. Mark smirked to himself and stripped before stepping in behind her. She was washing her hair, thoughtful look on her face, and jumped when she saw him.


"Sorry." Mark smiled at her, watching as she pushed soapy hair back from her face.


"I wasn't paying attention." Darcy grinned and rinsed her hair.


"Is there something wrong?" It wasn't the first time that week Mark had asked her that. Each time Darcy would sigh and tell him she was fine. He might not be the most perceptive man on the planet but even he could tell something big was on her mind, something beyond just the stress of increasing her class load or quitting her job. Which left him – the other big change in her life recently.


Darcy waited until her hair was clear of soap before stepping out of the way and letting him get under the spray of water. She also sighed, just as he had known she would. "There isn't anything wrong, really." She finally answered him, picking up a wash cloth and soaping it. She reached out and washed Mark's back, gently rubbing the foam against his skin. "I don't know what my problem is." She finally admitted.


Mark turned around and studied her again. She continued soaping him up, now washing his chest and shoulders. He reached up and caught her hand, pulling her closer, until she was pressed against him. The soap made her slip against him and his eyes closed at the sensation. But before he could lose himself, he had to ask. "Is it me? Us? This?"


"No." The utter conviction in Darcy's voice, coupled with the complete lack of hesitation, set his mind at ease more than any explanation she could have given. But he worried anyway. She dropped the wash cloth in favor of running her hands lightly over his shoulders and arms, spreading soap with her fingers.


"I could torture it out of you, I suppose." He said it in a thoughtful voice. Darcy's eyebrow rose.


"Oh yeah?"


"Mm. I have ways of making you talk."


"You have ways of making me do a lot of things." Darcy pointed out, half-smiling. She let her fingers trailed along his chest and down his side, then stepped back a bit so she could slip her hand between their bodies. Mark closed his eyes at the feel of her fingers closing around him. She had just enough soap on her hand that he slid easily against her palm.


"I thought I was going to torture you." Mark pointed out, groaning low in his throat when her slow stroking fingers paused to squeeze him. "You're just trying to distract me."


"Is it working?" Darcy asked. He didn't have to open his eyes – he could hear the smile in her voice. He felt her free hand touch his chest, and she gently pushed him back until the water from the shower ran over his shoulders, rinsing the soap away from him. Darcy still had her hand wrapped around him as she stepped forward, still slippery against his wet skin. Mark sighed and felt a pleasurable shudder go through his body at the light touch of her hand, the feel of her skin, the hot press of her mouth against his chest.


"What do you think?" The hardest part was for Mark to let Darcy have her fun. He could take control, and she would let him, but for the moment she was content exploring his body with her hands and mouth. She was coming out of her shell a little at a time, and honestly he did not have the words to make her understand exactly what it was that she did to him.


Of course, she probably already figured that out on some level. Mark opened his eyes and looked down when he felt her tongue circle the head of his cock. He watched her catch a drop of water from the tip with her tongue and felt another one of those shivers work its way down his back as her mouth closed over him. He reached out and pressed his hands on the wall on either side of him, willing himself not to rush her, not to grab her, not to do anything except enjoy the heat of her mouth.


At least for a few minutes. There was only so much he could take. And he knew by the self-satisfied smile on her face that Darcy knew that as well. When he finally reached for her, she willingly rose to her feet and stepped into his arms, tilting her head up so he could crush his mouth against hers. Mark turned and pressed her back against the wall, freeing his hands to explore her body. She sighed and moaned into his mouth as his fingers found her most sensitive areas and stroked, aided by the water that still fell over both of them. His fingers pressed into her center, found her clit, and he lightly rubbed her, drawing another low moan from her throat. Darcy tore her mouth away from his and gasped for breath as he began to stroke her with a firmer touch. She panted into his ear, sending ripples of heat through his body at the sound and he began slowly circling his fingers around her clit, teasing her until she cried out and bucked her hips against his hand as her orgasm took her.


She was still shaking when he withdrew his hand. Mark brought it up, and Darcy grabbed it and pulled it to her lips, sucking one of his fingers into her mouth. This time there was no little ripple of heat – a bucket of lava poured down his back wouldn't have touched what he was feeling. Without a word he pulled his hand away and reached down, cupping her rear in both hands and lifting her off her feet.


Darcy voiced an alarmed squeak and grabbed his shoulders, but he had her pinned against the wall. She wasn't going anywhere. Mark let his hands slide down a bit more to her thighs and she parted them, wrapping her legs around his waist. He felt her flinch at the first touch of his cock to her oversensitive center but he couldn't have stopped now if he wanted to. He lowered her onto his erect shaft, closing his eyes as her body took him in.


He tried to count to ten – a feeble attempt to slow himself down – got all the way to four, and felt Darcy move against him. She crossed her ankles behind his back and used her legs for leverage, pushing up to slide him out, releasing so he slid back in. That was all it took. The little control that he had snapped and Mark could do nothing but thrust into her, increasing the pace until it was all Darcy could do to hold on to him and cry out at the sensations.


It didn't take long. An entire week with this woman and he still hadn't managed to find any of the self-control he'd once thought he'd earned by virtue of surviving his teenage hormone-fueled years. With a long drawn out moan he came inside her, his fingers digging into the curve of her ass as he pulled her tighter against his body. He heard her gasping into his ear as she tried to catch her breath as the aftershocks went through his body.


Mark let his head rest against her shoulder as he came down from the high of his climax, and heard her laugh softly. "What?"


"The water is awfully cold." She was still breathless. It sent another of those pleasant shivers down his back. "Plus – I seriously can't feel my legs."


Mark chuckled. He hadn't noticed the water. Now that she'd pointed it out, it was rather icy. "I suppose we could act like civilized people and get in the bed." He slowly lowered her to the floor, keeping an arm around her to steady her until Darcy found her feet. He had a feeling that the plan to enjoy the carnival the next day might be axed in favor of enjoying each other instead. He could think of worse ways to spend a Saturday.


Of course he had been wrong before. Mark might have slept 'til noon but Darcy had him up by ten because she was hungry. They rode around town for a while before finding a place to eat breakfast. After that, Darcy insisted on parking the bike and wandering around on foot. She liked to explore, and Mark gamely went along with her. The county fair meant there was a lot going on. They started at a flea market and ended up at the carnival where Darcy dragged Mark onto all the rides he would fit on. It also felt like they ate their weight in junk food, as Mark pointed out when Darcy expressed an urge for a caramel apple, or a funnel cake.


It was fun. And it was the first time in a long time that Mark actually lived in the moment rather than thinking about his past or wondering about his future. Darcy kept him too busy to brood. And whatever had bothered her seemed to have faded as well, because she was her normal bubbly self all day. Maybe they had both just needed a day away to put things in perspective.


It wasn't until later, after midnight when Darcy dozed off in his arms, that Mark gave thought to what had happened the day before. It still felt too convenient to be a coincidence. Even having perspective didn't change that. He also realized something else as well as he watched Darcy sleeping. He was probably falling in love with her. He smirked to himself. Scratch the falling part. He was probably too far gone to be anything but. That was almost as scary as the trust she placed on him, if only because he had no idea what to do with it, how to protect it, or even if he deserved it.




They got back to Glen's just before supper. They'd spent most of that day just riding around, enjoying the weather and the drive. It was freeing, being on the bike. But short of kidnapping Darcy and running away, it was time to get back to reality.

He parked in the garage, noting that Ava's car was there as well. "Looks like Glen had some company." He observed as Darcy gathered her bag. She glanced at Ava's car and smiled.


"Good. I'm going to throw this in my room and see if there's anything to eat. You coming up for supper?"


"Sure. Gimme about ten minutes." Before Darcy could walk away, Mark pulled her close and kissed her. "You gonna stay with me tonight?"


She smiled again. "I could. But I can't stay up late. School starts in the morning."


"Yeah, but you don't have to leave at dawn." Mark pointed out.


"True." She stroked his cheek with her hand and kissed him quickly before pulling back. "I'll just bring some clothes down with me. Save me the trip back up to the house in the morning."


Mark smiled and watched her walk up the hill toward the house. He grabbed his own bag and went up the stairs to his apartment to stow things away. By the time he got up to the house Darcy, Glen, and Ava were waiting on him.


He did what he normally would have in a social situation. Mark sat quietly and tried to follow the conversation without contributing much. He had thought Darcy had been distracted – he hardly knew Ava and it did not take more than a few seconds to figure out that she also had something huge on her mind. Glen too. Mark was starting to feel left out then he remembered the wrecked bike waiting for him at the garage.


It wasn't an unpleasant supper but they all felt a tension in the air. When dinner was over Mark excused himself to go to the garage to stow the bike. He wouldn't be riding it again for the week, so he wanted to get it put to the side so it wasn't blocking any of the vehicles. Darcy and Ava disappeared upstairs. Glen eventually joined Mark in the garage.


"I did a little more digging around." He said, not having to mention exactly what he'd been digging for.


"Oh yeah?"


"Found the junk yard that supposedly disposed of the bike. The owner said that other than hauling it in, they had no record of destroying it. They couldn't because of the trial, and when it was cleared he figured one of his shift managers had taken care of it. A little digging – they had no record of it being demolished."


"So it could have just been…taken and saved? But why?" Mark picked up a cloth and wiped his hands. He'd been tinkering idly with the bike's engine while Glen talked, just to give himself something to do with his hands.


"Not only did they take it. They preserved it. It's in the exact same condition it was in, on the exact same trailer they used in the trial photos." Glen shook his head. "I told you the whole thing was bullshit. The more I dig, the more I think it's true. We can get your conviction overturned. I'm sure of it. More importantly, my lawyer is sure of it."


"You talked to your lawyer?" Mark raised an eyebrow. He wasn't sure if he should be amused at Glen's persistence, touched that he care, or pissed off that he was butting into business that wasn't his.


"I had to. Aside from the bullshit I wanted a legal opinion." Glen didn't seem bothered by Mark's inability to react. "Plus I had to find out about the junk yard and what they could and couldn't tell me. The more I dig the more bullshit I find. They didn't even bring up your blood-alcohol level at the trial – not the prosecution and not your defense attorney. Why was that?"


Mark frowned. "The prosecutor just talked about me drinking before getting on the bike. My defense…" he scoffed. "Was a wet-behind-the-ears kid right out of some cow-college law school. He was clueless."


"Yet you stuck with him?"


"I didn't have a choice." Mark reached up and pushed his bandana off his head. "Plus…I guess I was in shock. Still."


"The legal limit is .08. You were at a .03 according to hospital records – and believe me you don't want to know how I got my hands on those. You were well under the limit. But they found other stuff in your blood too. Narcotics. Those weren't mentioned at the trial either."




"OxyContin, specifically."


"I've never taken that shit." Mark tossed his bandana aside, feeling anger wash through him. "I admit when I was a dumbass teenager I smoked weed. Tried acid a few times. I grew out of that shit when my mom died. Didn't want to drug away all the money she'd left me."


Glen nodded and glanced over his shoulder. Mark figured Darcy must be making her way to the garage because he lowered his voice. "You were drugged. Oxy works and intensifies alcohol's effects – so you might have felt drunker than you actually were, more tired. It also explains why you can't remember things clearly. You were dosed. Wanna take a guess who would do something like that?"


Mark didn't have to think about it. "Jezzie."


"That's what I figured." Glen nodded. "She knew about your money. She also knew that you knew your limit. She tried to go around it by slipping some Oxy into your beer."

"But she got on the bike with me. Why would she do that?"


"I can think of a few reasons." Glen looked over his shoulder again. "First, maybe she figured on you being drunk enough – or feeling drunk enough – to let her weasel back into your good graces. She would have gone home with you, shown you a good time, and then take it from there. And the second…" He hesitated for a moment. "Maybe she wanted you to wreck. With her on the bike. Maybe she meant for the wreck to happen, to get injured just enough to where she could clean you out. Kind of like her dad ended up doing."


While he spoke Mark had wandered over to the garage door. Darcy was up on the porch talking to Ava. He watched her for a moment, feeling sick to his stomach.


"It doesn't explain the truck." He finally said.


"I know. It's the one thing that doesn't really fit in anywhere." Glen sighed. "I'm not done digging. Not by a long shot. You say the word, we'll get that conviction overturned."


"You sound sure of it." Mark said. He looked at Glen. "What would it matter now? I've served the time."


"It would clear your record. And besides that…it's the right thing. Justice. You didn't do anything wrong." Glen smiled. "And I can be sure because we'd be taking this inquiry to the state not the county. Maybe even have a federal judge look at things. We can subpoena a lot of records – financial records especially. I'm pretty sure we'll find that Adams greased a lot of palms in the time it took to prep your trial."


"And drag it all back into the open." Mark couldn't help but sound tired. He was tired of it. He was sorry that Jezzie had died, and her baby, but that was the extent of his investment into it. They had ruined his entire life, taking it apart brick by brick until he didn't even have a foundation to stand on. And now it was coming back to bite him in the ass. He looked at Glen and saw matching anger in his eyes, which he took as a comfort. It was nice, that someone else was getting angry on his behalf. "Ok. If you think it'll do any good."


"It will." Glen clapped him on the shoulder. "I'm going to get your financial records. Because I am determined that Michael Adams is going to have to revert your judgment back to you. As a matter of fact, once we figure up lost wages, wrongful imprisonment, pain and suffering…"


"I'd settle for having my name cleared." Mark said, smirking at the predatory look that had come across Glen's features.


"Baby steps." Glen smiled and looked at the bike. "You did a hell of a job on that."


"Thanks." Mark followed his gaze and nodded. "Makes me think of that old cliché about getting back on the horse after it throws you."


"I'm going to overstep my boundaries, but you should already know I don't have many of those." Glen said with a smirk. "But I think you've made a fan. A normal-person sized motorcycle would make a hell of a graduation present. Especially if it was a rehab job and custom built just for her."


Mark smiled at that and nodded. Actually it wasn't a bad idea. While Darcy had said she wasn't interested in learning to ride the big bike, one more suited to her size wouldn't be nearly as intimidating. Plus – it would be worth it just to surprise her, to see the look on her face.


"That's assuming she's still willin' to put up with me when graduation rolls around." Mark pointed out, hating the thought but realizing it could be true. A million things could happen between now and then. He ignored the little jab of jealousy that went through him at the thought of Darcy meeting another guy at school, one who was more in tune with what she wanted. One who didn't have a fucked up past to contend with.


Glen was smiling in his knowing way. "Stow the negative thinking. Focus on the good. And…other new-age type shit if that's what it takes." He finished just as Darcy joined them at the garage door. She had her small bag with her along with her backpack containing her textbooks and was smiling in confusion as she looked at Glen.


"What new-age type shit are you talking about?"


"Crystals and herbal remedies." Glen tweaked Darcy on the nose and meandered in the direction of the house. Darcy looked to Mark with her eyebrows up.


"Did you hit him on the head or something?"


Mark smiled. "No. Not yet anyway." He watched as Darcy went to Ava's car and stowed her backpack inside. "Ava taking you to school in the morning?"


Darcy snorted. "As if. No. She's blocking the car. Plus she asked if I would drop her car off at the dealership to get detailed. And since it's only a block from the campus, I'm saving her a trip." She smiled. "The walk will probably do me some good."


"As long as you're careful." Mark took her small bag and carried it up the stairs for her.


"Careful? I'll stay on the sidewalk. I don't even have to cross the street." She paused on the top step and turned to face him. They were more or less eye-level. "Everything all right?"


Mark half-smiled. "Seems like that's been my line the past few days."


Darcy grinned and shrugged. "You guys were in deep conversation. I didn't want to butt in."


"You wouldn't be. He was just doing some research into that bike that was brought in Friday." He didn't see the need to tell her the rest of it, especially when he didn't know what the outcome would be. "You wanna know more, you'll have to torture it out of me."


Darcy snickered at that. "I have ways of making you talk." She said, repeating the same thing he had said the day before. A slow grin spread on Mark's face.


"You have ways of making me do a lot of things." He repeated her line and ducked his head, kissing her. He pushed aside his errant thoughts. When it came to Darcy, everything else could wait.



Darcy had just settled into her first class of the day, listening as her biology professor began outlining what they would be doing through the coursework, when there was a commotion from the doorway. A frazzled looking student spoke rapidly and quietly to the professor, who then looked around the room. There were forty students.


"Darcy Edwards?"


Darcy felt her stomach drop. This could not be good. She rose to her feet and was well aware of the other students who turned to watch as she moved toward the professor. He gestured her out the door and shut it behind them. "You've got a phone call. Normally I wouldn't allow it, especially on the first day, but they say it's an emergency."


"Who is it?" Darcy asked, looking at the student who had brought the message.


"Glen…something. He didn't give a last name. He just demanded we find you and get you to a phone."


"What…why?" Darcy followed along until they reached one of the student services offices each building contained. It took a moment to transfer the call. "Hello?"


"Finally." Glen sounded out of breath. "Darcy – there's been an accident."


A cold knot formed in her stomach. "Are you all right? Is Mark…" She couldn't even bring herself to finish that. He had left for work shortly after she left for school. A million things could have happened to him in the hour since that had happened.


"No. He's fine. I'm fine." It Darcy a moment to realize that Glen was choking back tears. "It's Ava."


"Oh no."


"They're at the hospital there. And I'm about to go out the front door."


"What happened? Glen…don't go driving crazy. Talk to me and get yourself in control."


"I am. I'm just…" He didn't have to finish. "I don't know what happened. She left a little while ago to head home and get started on some project. Mindy – the older woman that helps run the grocery store – saw the car on the side of the road. She…it looked like..."


"It looked like what?" Darcy pressed.


"She hit a tree head on. The cops are out there checking it out." Darcy heard the distinctive thunk of a truck door closing. "Can you meet us at the ER? You'll get there first you can tell them some of her history…"


"Yeah. Of course. Just…drive carefully Glen. See you in a bit." Darcy hung up and rubbed her eyes. She hadn't realized she'd been crying until that moment. Class was completely forgotten – as was her backpack. She could always pick it up later. Darcy left the office and jogged across campus to the hospital.


The emergency room was quiet. She informed the registrar who she was and was told that the ambulance was expected in five minutes. Darcy went ahead and filled out some of Ava's paperwork – she had known Ava long enough to know finer points. She also watched as the clock's hands slowly crawled around, dragging. The registrar did not know Ava's condition, only that it was a single victim from an auto collision.


Darcy finally heard the siren outside and ran over to the doors to the main ER. She couldn't go in- the registrar or a nurse on the other side would have to buzz her through – but she could see through the small windows set into the door. A team of a couple of doctors and a few nurses rushed past. Moments later a gurney was rushed past in the other direction, surrounded by the ER staff. Darcy couldn't see much but she caught a glimpse of Ava's red hair and her heart seemed to freeze in her chest. To that moment it had not seemed real.


She spent twenty minutes pacing and getting angry that they would not tell her anything. She wasn't family. The staff would not get it through their heads that Ava had no family – Darcy and Glen were as close as it would get. When Glen finally rushed into the waiting Darcy was nearing the end of her reserve of patience. She nearly sobbed when she caught sight of him too. He looked as bad as she felt. Glen grabbed her in a hug and spent a minute catching his breath.


"What are they doing?"


"I don't know. They won't tell me." Darcy gestured at the registrar, a woman named Gladys. Glen set his lips in a grim line and let Darcy go to deal with getting some information.


Five minutes later he was back. The registrar had not bent to Darcy's insistence of knowing what was going on. Glen of course had more luck.


"She's unconscious. They don't know what kind of internal injuries she might have. They're waiting for radiology to get down here."


"And she just told you all that?" Darcy asked, reaching out to take his hand in hers.


"Sure." Glen lowered his voice. "I might have lied a little and told her I was Ava's fiancé."

Darcy snickered. It was more out of relief than humor. The wait felt like forever. In reality it was only half an hour before a doctor exited the ER and came toward them.


"Are you here for Ava Woods?" He asked, looking at Glen.


"Yeah. How is she?"


"Hanging in there. She's got a lump on her head the size of a golf ball, and a couple of rib fractures. Also she's losing blood. That's the problem part. We're going to have to take her to the OR and try to find it."




"Wait a minute. Surgery?" Glen and Darcy spoke at the same time.


"Yeah. It could just be a small laceration to one of her veins but we can't rule anything out through x-ray."


Darcy tried again. "But…"


And Glen was right on top of her. "Do it then. Fix her. Make her better."


"Wait." Darcy laid a hand on his arm, looked at him for a moment, then turned to the doctor. "I forgot to put something on the form. Because I wasn't really thinking straight when I was filling it out." Darcy took a deep breath. "Ava's pregnant."


The doctor raised an eyebrow. And Darcy felt Glen go still beside her. She couldn't look at him. It would break her heart. It had been Ava's news to tell but things were as they were.


"We'll certainly take every precaution with her then." The doctor reached over and patted Darcy on the hand. He excused himself to prep Ava for the journey to the second floor, where the surgical unit was. It would mean even more waiting but for now the news that Ava was stable was enough. The doctor had seemed confident as well, which went more toward assuaging Darcy's fears than anything else.


Glen didn't speak again until they were seated in the OR waiting room. Unlike the ER, which felt cramped because of how it was divided, this room was huge and built for people to pace around in. At least that was how Darcy always looked at it.


"Darcy…" He finally found his voice. Darcy looked at him, meeting his eyes. "Are you sure?"


She didn't have to ask what he was talking about. "Yeah. I went with her to the doctor. At the clinic downstairs, as a matter of fact."


Glen looked stunned. "I don't…she didn't…" He sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. "Why didn't she tell me?"


"I don't know. You know how Ava is. She has to have all her ducks in a row before she attacks anything." Darcy took his hand and squeezed his fingers. "Plus I think she's pretty freaked out about it."


"She doesn't want it." It wasn't a question.


Darcy shrugged. "At first she was sure she didn't. But the next day I think she was debating it."

"I know how she feels about that stuff. Kids and being tied down…"


"She loves you. She's been with you for years. Ava just doesn't like not having control over something like this." Darcy pointed out. "You aren't tying her down against her will."


"I can't even think about that right now. About…a baby." He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "She's got to be all right though."


"She will be." Darcy laid her head against Glen's arm. "So what happened? Did the cops say anything?"


"Nothing yet. I didn't give them time to talk to me." He pulled his cell phone out and spied a sign that asked visitors to turn their phones off. With a sigh he pushed it back into his pocket. "All I know for sure is that she hit a tree. Thank god she was driving the car you usually use. We just had it serviced and had everything checked, remember? They even tested the airbags."

"Yeah." Darcy suppressed a shudder. It had been a month ago. Glen had taken the car and had gotten it checked out top to bottom. He did it with all his vehicles. And he would probably start doing it with Ava's too.


It was nearly an hour later that they got news. Not from the OR; they were still working on Ava. One of the county deputies walked in and looked around until his gaze settled on Glen. '


Glen rose to his feet. "Well?"


The cop glanced at Darcy and then focused on Glen. "Preliminary report. Looks like there was another vehicle involved in the wreck."


Glen raised an eyebrow. "What?"


The deputy looked around and lowered his voice. "Yeah. Found some paint on the rear quarter panel – silver flake and blue. Looks like the car got tagged by somebody's bumper."


"A hit and run?"


"Looks that way. Although that's more something we'd see on a Friday night not a Monday morning." The deputy looked troubled. "Problem is there were no skids on the road. She either didn't have time to hit the brakes – or the brakes didn't work. Car's going to impound so we can go over it." He nodded toward the doors to the OR. "Any word? I'm gonna need to talk to her as soon as I can."


"Nothing yet." Darcy answered for Glen. She had to. He was grinding his teeth. He was also clenching and releasing his fists. He wasn't just angry – he was infuriated. Darcy didn't know such a thing was possible from Glen but there it was. She put her hand on his forearm and squeezed, making him look at her instead of the cop. "Don't go off half-cocked. Ava needs you."


"I know." He said it through clenched teeth. "Get on investigating the car. I want answers."


"I'm supposed to stay here until…"


"I'll call you when it's over. I want that car taken apart piece by piece if it needs to be." Glen stared at the deputy until the smaller man shifted uncomfortably. "Find whoever did it."


"We will."


"You'd better." Glen turned and walked away, shrugging off Darcy's hand and moving to the window to stare outside and try to get a handle on his temper. Darcy and the deputy shared a look before he sighed, nodded, and turned to leave.

Darcy watched Glen for a moment, frowning thoughtfully. She didn't know what she could do to calm him down. So she moved to stand next to him and wrapped an arm around his waist. He held himself still for a moment then draped an arm over her shoulders and hugged her to his side.


"You should call the garage. Talk to Mark." Glen's voice no longer sounded angry. He just sounded tired. He pulled his cell phone out and handed it to her. "He's probably worried."


"Why would he be worried?" Darcy asked with a half-smile.


"Because if I was him, I would be." Glen looked pointedly at her. "I am. First that bike shows up. Then somebody runs Ava off the road."


"What does one thing have to do with the other?" Darcy asked in confusion.

Glen rubbed her shoulder. "Any other day it would have been you driving the car, Darcy."


Darcy's eyebrows went up. She hadn't thought of that. "You think somebody did this on purpose? Why?"


"I think somebody is trying to rattle Mark." Glen looked over his shoulder as the OR doors opened and a scrub-wearing nurse appeared. "Go on and call him. I'll talk to the nurse."


Darcy nodded and watched as he intercepted the woman and went to find a quiet place to use the phone. Glen had a point. Mark was probably worried. Plus she wouldn't mind having him to lean on while they waited for news of Ava's condition.




"I should just leave."




Mark wasn't just worried. And he made the leap to connecting things much quicker than Glen or Darcy had. "Yeah. Leave."


They were in his room over the garage. Ava had come out of surgery and was sedated so that the healing process could begin. The doctors said she would wake up in the morning. Glen had refused to leave her side, and Mark insisted on taking Darcy home. There wasn't anything they could do at the hospital – they have found the source of Ava's internal bleeding and had stopped it. As far as they were willing to admit, everything seemed fine, including her pregnancy.


Mark had been even quieter than usual on the ride home. Darcy tried to draw him out but he couldn't concentrate. He was rattled. Even more than when the bike had shown up.


"Darcy, not to belittle what your friend is goin' through, but that coulda been you in that car."


"I realize that."


"Do you? Because if you did you'd understand why it would probably be best for everybody if I just disappeared."


"You're serious." Darcy was looking at him as if she'd just seen a spider crawl out of his mouth.


"I usually am." Mark was looking around the room, avoiding looking in her direction. He had to. Because Darcy sounded near tears, and it would kill him if he saw that and knew he was the cause of it. "I should have known better. I don't want this shit touching you, Darcy. You or Glen or anybody else. It's my problem. Not yours."


"Little late for that." Darcy pointed out.


"Yeah well. I'm a slow learner." Mark jumped when his door slammed. He looked and Darcy was gone. He sighed and went after her, not wanting her to be angry at him. She almost made it back to the house when he caught up to her. "Wait!"


"Why? What's the point?"


Mark tried to touch her arm but Darcy jerked away. "The point is I don't want to see you get hurt." He said softly. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me Darcy. If something happened to you because of me…" He couldn't finish because just the thought of it chilled him.


"I'm the best thing that's ever happened to you, and your first thought is to leave." It was a flat statement.


"You think I want to leave? It's not a matter of what I want, Darcy."


"If you leave, you're letting them win again." She said, her voice flat again. Mark frowned down at her. "Giving up without a fight, packing up and disappearing. You might as well let them put you back in jail, Mark. And if it's not a matter of what you want, then make it about what I want. Because I'm pretty sure I should have a say in things between us, too."




She didn't let him finish. "I'm tired. I'm going to go up to my room to lie down for a while."

With that she turned on her heel and went inside the house. Mark stood there for a few minutes, just trying to process her anger. She couldn't actually believe that he wanted to just pick up and leave her here, but he didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. It was either that or risk her getting hurt because of him. Obviously Adams or whoever was doing this was willing to cross a pretty big line to prove a point. Although what that point was, Mark had no idea.


He stood on the porch for a few minutes, thinking. He could leave. In theory, it would be the simplest thing in the world to go up to the apartment, throw his things into a couple of bags, and take his stash of money. Glen hadn't wanted any rent up front, so Mark had saved a decent amount. He could take the bike. Eventually he could find a place to settle in and then find a way to repay Glen for everything.


But that left his situation with Darcy.


He hadn't been lying. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He knew he didn't deserve her – there was no way a guy like him deserved a girl like her. Which was why leaving would be even harder. But to protect her? Even if she got pissed off…he wasn't willing to risk her life. The person who had run Ava off the road was all too willing to put a life in danger. Darcy would be angry but she would be alive, and that was all that mattered.


Mark looked at the door to the house, debated going up and trying to talk to Darcy again, and decided not to. She was mad enough as it was. If he was really planning on going – and to protect her, he should – it would be best to just make a clean break and then hope she would eventually forgive him for it.


He didn't see that happening. But if it meant that she would no longer be in danger, then it was worth the loss. He'd sooner she was alive and happy than dead because of him, because of a stupid mistake from his past. He went down the hill and into his apartment and grabbed his bags from the closet. Ignoring how his chest tightened and his heart hurt, he started packing his things. He didn't want to drag it out more than he already had.


Mark had everything packed in under half an hour, including the money he'd stowed in the upper shelf of the closet. And he hesitated. Not because he wanted to prolong cutting his ties, but because he realized if he left, Darcy would be alone at the house. Etta was there of course but still…the more he thought about it the more he knew he would have to wait until Glen got back.


Of course he had no idea when that might be. He paced around his room until it got dark outside then he couldn't take it anymore. He went down the stairs and up the hill to the house to see Darcy again.


It was quiet. Most of the lights were already out. He'd skipped supper but that was all right – he'd never felt less like eating. Mark went up the stairs and did not hesitate before going to Darcy's door. He opened it and saw she was sleeping on top of her blankets, still wearing her clothes. Her bathroom light was on as well so she wasn't sleeping in the dark. He debated with himself for all of thirty seconds before shutting the light off and taking off his boots and shirt. He crawled into the bed beside her and pulled her close, wrapping an arm around her waist.


Darcy muttered and shifted but didn't wake up. She was emotionally exhausted. He understood that. But Mark couldn't sleep, even with her warmth against his side. He stayed with her until well after midnight, until the sound of an approaching vehicle caught his attention. He carefully got up without disturbing Darcy and grabbed his things before heading down the stairs. He met Glen on the front porch.


"Hey. Didn't mean to wake you up." Glen looked exhausted.


"You didn't. I wasn't sleeping." Mark leaned against the wall and tugged his boots on, then shrugged back into his shirt. "How is she?"


"Awake. In pain. But she told me to get the hell out and go home, so she's improving already." Glen smiled although it was tired. "She gave her statement to the police too. Wanted 'to get it over with'." He imitated Ava's tone. "She's pissed. But that's good because she's a fighter."


"And what did she tell the cops?"


"That she was driving, minding her own business, when a truck came up behind her and tagged her rear bumper. She thought they were just trying to pass so she went onto the shoulder and that's when they tagged her again, hard enough to jolt her off the road and into the tree." Glen's voice stayed steady but Mark saw the way he kept clenching his fists. "Single male driver, dark hair. Dark blue single cab truck. That's all she got. It happened too fast."


"But she's all right."


"Yeah." Glen smile again. "She's all right. Hates anybody to see her down." He paused and the smile fell. "She's also plenty pissed that I found out about the baby."


Mark nodded. It still stunned him and he hardly knew the woman. No wonder Darcy had been so preoccupied the past week or so. Ava had dumped it on her lap when she'd needed to vent and Darcy had been chewing it over.


"Darcy sleeping?"


"Yeah. Guess the day caught up with her."


Glen nodded. He was studying Mark closely. "We need to talk about this."


"Yeah. I know."


"But it'll keep 'til morning. I'm gonna message Chris and tell him to handle the garage. Darcy won't want to miss class again since she missed all day today. We'll deal with it after we've had some sleep."


Mark nodded and Glen clapped him on the shoulder. "Get you some sleep. Pretty sure Darcy wouldn't mind you bunkin' in with her for a change."


"Yeah." He'd not be mentioning the argument they'd had earlier. They were all too drained to deal with it. "Good night."


"Night." Glen smiled tiredly and walked up the porch, going around the corner. Mark listened to his heavy footsteps on the stairs before sparing a look at the house's front door. He hesitated, then opened it and locked it before closing. If Glen had been less tired, he probably would have read Mark's intentions as clear as day. Lucky – or unlucky – for him, Glen had been worn out. Mark knew if he meant to go, then now was the time. No messy confrontations, no arguments, no promises. And even though it hurt him he turned and walked down the hill to the garage.


He grabbed his bags and made sure he had everything. There still wasn't much. He made sure to leave his key where it had been hanging the first night he'd stayed there. He went down to the garage and found a couple of tie-cords, which he used to secure his things to the back of the motorcycle. Starting it was out of the question of course. It would wake everybody up. So he kicked it into neutral and began pushing it along the driveway. He paused once, and couldn't help but look back at the big quiet house. A few lights burned in the lower floors – Etta would have left them on. He wavered but only for a moment. It was for the best. He would take his trouble and go and let them get on with living their lives. He turned back to the task of pushing the big motorcycle far enough from the house where the rumbling engine wouldn't disturb anyone sleeping.




Three months later, Mark was still trying to find a place to settle in. He'd ridden for three days, going nowhere in particular, just thinking that he'd know it when he found it. And that was how it worked – sort of. He found a small town, albeit larger than Graves Falls, and had worked briefly for a garage there. There was even less work than at Glen's place because of the prices. It made him realize just how good the people who made use of the resources Glen provided had it.


The manager wasn't surprised when Mark wanted to move on. In fact he'd given him directions to another town, slightly larger, just a few hours away along with the name of a man who owned a car dealership. And that was working out. They were busy because people came in from surrounding counties. Mark worked from open until close, then went home – in this case, home was a tiny apartment a few blocks from the dealership. He probably could have fit two of it into the place above Glen's garage.


Mark tried not to think about that. Because that would inevitably lead him to thinking about Darcy, and it would be like reopening a wound that wasn't quite ready to heal.

He got the reputation for being standoffish and quiet, which suited him just fine. He didn't want to get close to anyone again. He even stopped going out to places. At first he'd visited a bar right up the road – nothing special about it, it was close enough to walk to, so he'd stopped in for a beer. A couple of visits were all it took to convince him to stay home. People were friendly enough, especially the waitresses, and it seemed like they were a little too friendly when it came to him. Maybe he was just paranoid. Or maybe he underestimated his appeal. Either way it would be a hell of a long time before he jumped into bed with another woman. Not when Darcy took up so much of his mind.


He'd never missed anyone the way he missed her. It wasn't just the intimacy either, although he certainly missed that aspect as well. It was worse than how he'd mooned after her in the beginning because he knew what he had given up. But it was for her own good, her protection. Not that he had a way of knowing if it worked.

Mark settled but he didn't get too settled. He figured he'd be moving on soon enough, drifting until he found his place.


He was working one afternoon-nearing-on-evening when his manager came in to see if he had time to check out one more vehicle before locking up and heading home. Mark had no plans and didn't mind the overtime, so he'd agreed. He finished up the oil change he'd been doing before washing his hands and heading out to the waiting area to see what was next.


Mark felt his heart stop in his chest when he saw Glen sitting there.


Glen half-smiled and rose to his feet. "Howdy, stranger."


"Hey." At a loss, Mark merely stood in the doorway unsure of what exactly Glen wanted or how to even respond to him.


"You don't make it easy to find you."


"You managed."


Glen's smile was more genuine that time. "I have my ways. Plus…Ava told me to give you some time. Which I did."


"How is she?"


"Good. Recovered. She's 'nesting'. Apparently that means she has to gut the entire house to make a nursery."


Mark smirked at that. "So the baby is fine too?"


"Yeah. It's a boy. We just found out the other day." Glen shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned. "We're getting married. Next month."


"Oh. Good. Congratulations."


"Thanks. It's only taken half a lifetime to get her there." Glen shifted on his feet. "At any rate – I wanted to talk to you. About your conviction." He turned and picked up a folder that Mark had not noticed o the seat beside where he had been sitting.


"I thought…since I left…"


"Yeah. Well. I'm like a dog with a bone sometimes. I don't know when to give up." He brought the folder to the counter and opened it up. "Given the circumstances, your history, the utter lack of evidence, and pretty specific, deliberate, and obvious payoffs the state court has decided to overturn your conviction." He slid some papers across the counter for Mark to look at.


Mark picked them up and read them over. He recognized a few court documents, but the rest were new. One was a letter from a state judge directed to him, a statement about his time served that was a thinly veiled apology. There were other papers too, copies of his drug tests from the hospital, his records, and even a copy of the responding officer's record of the accident.


"This isn't the report they read at my trial." Mark said, looking at it.


At the trial the report had put the blame squarely on Mark's shoulders. This one noted the presence of skid marks that belonged to another vehicle, paint samples that were collected from a secondary vehicle, and listed the contents of the bag Jezzie had been carrying – an item that was ignored during his trial. Among her scatter of makeup and keys had been a small pill bottle, reported stolen several weeks before by an elderly neighbor of Jezzie's. The bottle contained eight whole OxyContin pills and one half pill. The half pill was in line with the amount of the drug that was found in Mark's system at the hospital. "You were right. She drugged me."


"Just enough to make you a little loopy. Not enough to knock you out or put you in any real danger. The second vehicle took care of that."


Mark flipped through the rest of the paperwork. The last thing in the folder was an envelope. He opened it and stood there for a long moment, holding a cashier's check in his hand. "What the hell is this?"


"Well seeing as how you weren't there for what I like to call the retribution phase, the judge decided on an award independent of what we asked for. That's your money plus eight years four months of interest."


"This is almost three million dollars." Mark felt like all the strength was running out of his legs. He sat down behind the counter on the stool where they usually sat to do consultations or paperwork.


"I would have cleaned him out personally, but I didn't want to seem greedy."




"They got him on fraud, evidence tampering, and witness tampering. I don't remember the other charges. Michael Adams was arrested last week and charged formally. He might be able to hire a decent lawyer but the evidence is stacked against him. He's looking at thirty years." Glen slid all the papers together and tucked them back into the folder. "Unless he'd like to share the blame and tell people what he knows about the accident. And about what happened to Ava of course."


"So he knows something?"


"He has to. The bike, the one that was wrecked? One of the guys at the junkyard remembers Adams himself picking it up. Claimed he was going to drop it at the police station impound lot and take his trailer back. Technically it was still his, so they had no reason to question it. He had the bike and trailer until it showed up at the garage. Plus the blue truck – both accidents caused by a blue truck pushing a vehicle off the road? Too coincidental even for a thick-headed person. A little more time the rest will make sense. I can feel it."


"Good. Great." Mark tried to be enthusiastic. "I appreciate you going through all this trouble. I guess I can pay you back for it since I have this…"He held up the check before dropping it. "That kinda money scares the shit out of me though."


"Money causes a lot of problems." Glen agreed. "Solves some too. Never hurts to have it." He tilted his head to the side. "You haven't mentioned Darcy."




"She was pretty angry when you left."




"Still is. But she's hiding it better. She's gone."


"Gone?" Mark got to his feet. "What do you mean, gone?"


Glen held up a hand. "She said that Ava and I needed the house. She didn't want to take up room. I know it's ridiculous but her mind was made up. She and a couple of people she goes to school with rented a place near campus. She got a job working at the hospital nights and weekends. At least it's something that has to do with her schooling." He didn't sound happy about it. Mark could understand that.


"Why would she...she loved your place."


"I know." Glen sighed. "But maybe she needed a change of scenery. Some of us beat ourselves up with memories, and others try to walk away from them. Good and bad." He took a deep breath. "We put up a gate – over the trail that goes to the cove. Darcy said it was 'symbolic of me moving on'." Glen made a noise that was almost a laugh. "I hate to admit it when she's right though. I have been pretty much at peace since it went up." He shook his head. "Etta's agreed to stay with us – sort of as a housekeeper and nanny. We converted one of the rooms back into the master. The third floor we're just going to use for office space – mine and Ava's."


"You can learn how to share." Mark said, smiling slightly.


"Whether I want to or not. I am." Glen pushed the folder across the counter to Mark. "These are your copies."


"I don't know how to thank you."


Glen snorted. "You can thank me by coming back."


Mark slowly shook his head. "I don't think I can do that."




"Because…the only reason I have for going back probably hates me right now."


"True." Glen smirked. "Although I don't think Darcy has a hateful bone in her body. She's hurt. She's upset. But you can fix it I think."


"How? By flashing money at her and telling her I'll take care of everything from now on?"


"Well for starters you can show her you mean business." Glen still wore the smirk. "I was thinking of selling the garage. To the right buyer of course. Chris likes managing but has no interest in ownership. Too much responsibility, he says. Once you have the business, you get a house. I just happen to know of one that will be for sale very shortly. In town, just a mile or so from the garage. Ava won't want to keep up with it plus our place."


"You've got it all mapped out."


"I'm good at it. Planning ahead."


"Yeah. But Darcy has moved on."


Mark did not miss the look that passed over Glen's face. "Not really."


"What are you not telling me?" Mark asked, getting to his feet.


"Nothing. Except…Ava thinks Darcy has been seeing someone she works with at the hospital."


"Then I shouldn't show up to ruin it for her."


"According to Ava, Darcy is rebounding. It's not serious right now, at least not that Ava is aware of – she believe me she's got a sixth sense about that kind of thing. She refuses to talk about you. To anybody."


"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"


"No. It's supposed to make you realize that she needs you as much as you need her. Before she does something stupid and cliché and marries a med student with more debt than prospects." Glen hesitated before reaching over to clap Mark on the shoulder, a gesture that Mark had not missed until he did it again. It was Glen's way of showing affection. He understood that now. "The offer is out there. We'll cut you a great deal. You can build the place up, invest in it. Since you actually know what you're doing around cars."


"I'll think about it."


"Good." Glen smiled, although it was sad. "I wanna invite you to the wedding too. Next month on the nineteenth. Afternoon wedding at the house, informal, just a few guests."


"I'll think about that too." Mark smiled stiffly. "Congratulations again, by the way."


"Thanks. I…uh. Guess we'll see you around."


"Yeah." Mark could not commit to more than that. He watched as Glen exited the office before locking the door behind him. He saw the truck drive away and oddly enough felt homesick for Graves Falls in a way he'd never felt for any of the places he'd lived before. He turned his attention back to the counter, and to the check that was sitting there waiting for him. The number was staggering. What would a guy like him do with all that money? It scared him more than anything. And it felt to him like it wasn't an award from a judge – more likely it was Michael Adams buying his way out of trouble yet again.


He refused to think about it anymore as he gathered up the folder and check. He didn't want to think about Darcy and some other guy either but Glen had put it in his head. It made him feel sick to his stomach, imagining some nameless, faceless man touching her. Kissing her. Listening to the way her moans changed pitch and tone when she got excited, or feeling her fingernails rake his back when she let herself go. He pictured her as he always did – not fully naked, but wearing the bikini that he'd found so fascinating from the moment he'd seen her, water dripping from her hair, skin a sun-kissed bronze.


He paused before shutting out the garage lights and had to laugh at himself. His decision had already been made, probably as soon as he'd seen Glen sitting in the waiting room. As usual he was just too slow to notice it.




Friday afternoon, Darcy let herself into the small house she had rented with three friends and tossed her backpack onto the kitchen table. It had been a long week, especially since she'd started picking up hours at the hospital. At first it had been two hours a night – but as she'd learned the ropes they'd added to her hours until she was nearly working a full time schedule.


She actually didn't mind it. She loved it. She liked interacting with the patients, and families, she liked caring for people, and over the past few weeks she discovered she had especially loved working with the kids who went through their hospital. It was heart breaking on occasion but Darcy felt almost called to the work. She was going to talk to her academic adviser on Monday about a pediatric specialization to find out what she would need to do to make that happen.


The real bonus of the work she'd been doing that summer was she already had her place lined up for clinicals when they commenced the following month. She already knew the people she'd be working with, and she had a general idea of the job she'd be performing. The added benefit would be she would get paid for her service since she was considered a hospital employee.


She grabbed a soda from the fridge and heard a noise from the hallway. She glanced up and had to bite back a laugh. "Joe. You forgot your pants."


Joe Wilson was Sue Harrington's boyfriend. Sue was one of Darcy's roommates. They had the oddest but most in sync class schedule, so walking in on the two of them was always a possibility. Joe felt comfortable enough with himself and Sue's friends to roam the house in his underwear rather than getting dressed. Of course Joe had nothing to be ashamed of – he played football for the university's team and kept himself in great shape. He was also in classes for sports medicine, which he claimed was going to pay the bills once football season was over.


"No burglar is going to wait while I find my pants." Joe pointed out. He eyed the soda in Darcy's hand then went to the fridge and helped himself.


"I'm not a burglar." Darcy hefted her backpack again. "I am going to go study though."

"You off tonight?"


"Yep. Finally."


"And you're going to study? It's Friday night."


"I'm aware of the day of the week. It doesn't change the fact that it's the only chance I'll have to get any work done." She poked him on the chest as she walked by, smiling. Sue's door was open and Sue herself was sitting on the end of the bed, in tank top and shorts, puffing on a cigarette. The other girls hated when she smoked in the house. Darcy found it didn't bother her a bit. "Entertain your boyfriend. He's getting on my nerves."


"What about when he gets on my nerves?" Sue asked with an impish grin. She was the youngest of the housemates at 22, and the smallest. She was barely five-foot-two. She also sported a pixie-style hair cut that showed off her white blonde hair to perfection. It was funny picturing her and Joe together, because Joe was a strapping six-two, two forty. But Sue had him firmly wrapped around her pinky. It was rather adorable in Darcy's humble opinion. "Some guy was here looking for you earlier." Sue said, stubbing her cigarette out in the ashtray she kept by her bed. "Big guy. I was kinda worried you were gonna get your kneecaps broken or something."


Darcy laughed. It had probably been Glen, who had kept threatening to come visit to see where she lived. She had seen him and Ava plenty since she'd moved out. Whenever she had free time she'd go back and eat lunch or dinner with them, or she'd meet them at the clinic when Ava had an appointment. She had just been so busy that it was hard to find time to get away.


Besides that, being busy kept her mind off of other things.


"If it's important then he'll come back. Or call."


"Speaking of." Sue got up and wandered to her door, spotted Joe, and pointedly took the soda out of his hand. "Pete called about twenty minutes ago. Wanted to know if you were free tonight."


"Oh. Well. I'll call him back."


"Your answer should be yes to that." Sue said with another grin.


"My answer will be I have to study. He'll understand."


"All work and no play…"


"Easy for you to say. It hasn't taken you ten years to get a degree." Darcy walked off on Sue's laugh and shut herself into her room. The house had four bedrooms, all of them small. She shared an attached bath with Rose, another roommate. The fourth was Becca. They made quite the oddball group. Sue was the only one who was a traditional student. Rose actually had two children, and was in her early thirties. Her husband was a truck driver. He was putting her through school. Her kids were currently staying with her mother, and they had all agreed that moving Rose closer to campus was a priority. She visited her kids on the weekends so she was often gone from Friday afternoon 'til Sunday night. Becca was twenty-five, and this was her second attempt at college. She was already an employee of the hospital. Now she was working on earning a degree. It saved her money to rent a place rather than commute. She was also married, but her husband was in the military.


Darcy debated for a moment, but then picked up the phone and dialed Pete's number. It was best just to get it over with. She liked him – he was nice enough, very affable, laid back, and quick-witted. He was also what Ava would call conventionally handsome with thick dark hair and blue eyes. Pete was in his final year as a resident at the hospital in pediatrics and was considering making the move to pediatric surgeon. He had ambition, Darcy would give him that.


He'd also become fascinated by her for reasons she still didn't entirely understand. Oh she knew him of course, from working around the kids. She also knew he had a reputation as being sort of a womanizer. He wasn't like some of the doctors who thought it was their right to hit on and sleep with as many nurses as possible, but he had no shortage of willing females to choose from. He'd asked Darcy out, and she'd said no. She was too busy to date. It did not stop him from asking. She at first attributed it to him being turned down but it didn't seem to faze him. He actually enjoyed her company and said it was because she did not act like the other students he'd worked with; she didn't treat him special because he was a doctor.


She wasn't a groupie, in other words. Doctors had them, Darcy had seen it for herself. She and Pete were friends and that was it although on occasion she had caught him looking at her and had understood that the friendship was provisional and he would take it further if she would give him half a chance.


Three months and Darcy still was not ready for that.


She was still angry that Mark had just left. Nobody else got a say in the matter. Not even her and she'd thought that maybe things between them had progressed to the point that those sorts of decisions would have been best reached together. But no. As soon as there'd been trouble he'd taken off. And to protect her? It still irked her. Because it seemed like he had just been looking for a reason to leave and Ava's accident had provided a convenient excuse.


She didn't doubt that Mark's troubled past had something to do with Ava's accident. Darcy also knew it was the anger talking. It didn't stop her from being mad though. He hadn't promised her anything after all.


Darcy forced thoughts of Mark aside, otherwise she'd spend her entire Friday night crying instead of studying or acting like a functioning human being.


"Well if it isn't my favorite nurse." Pete answered with a smile in his voice.


"You must have my number confused with someone else. I'm not a nurse yet." Darcy said, trying to match his tone.


"Ok then, Ms. Not Nurse, how about a movie tonight?"


"I can't. I…"


"Have to study. Yes. I know." Pete chuckled. "Ok. How about I bring over dinner and you eat with me? You can't eat a textbook."


"I suppose you have a point."


"Of course I do. I'm a doctor."


"Sort of." Darcy said with a smile. Ok, so it was hard to keep a bad mood when Pete was in a good mood. It was what made him good with the kids.


"Don't split hairs. I can be there are about 6. How's that?"


Darcy glanced at her clock. It was just a few minutes past 4. "That'll be fine. But I really…"


"Do have to study." Pete finished for her yet again. "Darce, you are starting to sound like a broken record. Cut yourself some slack. You're going to have a heart attack before your thirty if you keep pushing yourself so had."


"Is that your clinical opinion?"


"No. A friendly one. You can't get better than an 'A' no matter how much you study."


"I'd like to keep that 'A'."


"And having one night where you aren't reading a textbook isn't going to bring it down." Pete admonished her. "But I'll settle for dinner. At 6."


"Ok." Darcy shook her head and said goodbye. She glanced at her backpack, and shook her head again. Pete had a point. Why did she push herself so hard? The material wasn't difficult. She had a knack for her science classes. But if she wasn't studying it left her with free time, and if she had free time then she started thinking about Mark and what had happened…


"Oh my god, just stop already." Darcy spoke out loud and pressed her hands to her forehead. The more she tried to not think about the man the more he was in her head. It was tearing her apart. The least he could have done was say goodbye. She understood why he felt he had to go even if he didn't believe that. But to just leave in the middle of the night like a coward…Darcy groaned and smacked her forehead again.


She looked at her backpack again and then pointedly pushed it under the small desk in the corner. She was going to take a long hot shower, and change into comfortable clothes. And she was going to call Pete back. Instead of going out to a movie, he could just rent something and bring it with him. Lounging around on the comfortable couches in the living room, eating junk food and relaxing sounded like the perfect way to spend her day off. She'd make time to study tomorrow, before work or Sunday after work. She didn't have to keep pressing as hard as she had been.


And honestly she didn't have to sit around moping and thinking about some guy who had decided that he was the only one in the relationship who had a right to make decisions. She grabbed the phone and called Pete again before she headed for the bathroom and her shower.




Sue and Joe joined them. Joe never turned down pizza. Darcy made sure Pete brought enough to feed them all, and had gone up the road to the store to get more drinks and chips and snacks.


It was fun. And relaxing. And there was no pressure because there were more people than just Darcy and Pete there. She had no idea why the thought of being alone with the guy made her nervous – she had thought she'd be over that by now.


Pete behaved himself, even when it was obvious that Sue and Joe were more interested in each other than the movie Pete had brought over. He did put his arm around Darcy's shoulders, and rubbed her arm. That was it. He gave her a friendly kiss – on the cheek – when he left close to midnight. By that time, Sue and Joe had gone to bed. Pete had to get up in the morning since he was on call at the hospital. Darcy didn't have to go in until noon.


She got ready for bed, glanced at the clock, and decided to call Glen and leave him a message. She'd meant to do that earlier but had completely forgotten. She expected voice mail and was surprised when he answered on the first ring, although he sounded very distracted.




"Yeah. You sound pleasant. What's wrong? Pregnancy hormones drive you to your workstation?"


"Ha. No. Just working the kinks out of a new program." She heard the click of a keyboard and the creak of a chair. "And how are you? Keeping busy, I know. Don't answer that one."


"Then don't ask." Darcy smiled. "I actually gave myself a night off to do nothing but eat and watch the worst movies ever committed to film."


"You took a break? That may be the first sign of the impending apocalypse."


"You're too funny. I was just calling to say I was sorry I missed you earlier. You should have called first, I coulda saved you the trip."


"What trip?"


"I thought…Sue said…" Darcy replayed the conversation from earlier and laughed. "Ok. Well she didn't actually say it was you. She just said some big guy was looking for me earlier. I just assumed you were making good on your threat to come approve of my living arrangements."


"Wasn't me. I haven't been out all day today." Darcy had his full attention now. She no longer heard him typing. "What time was it?"


"She didn't say." Darcy said. "And why does it matter?"


"It matters because we still don't know who ran Ava off the road."


"Why would you immediately think one thing had to do with another?"


"Because I enjoy worrying. You need to ask her for details. Time, what he looked like…"

"In the morning." Darcy interrupted him.




"Glen. It's midnight. She's in her room with her boyfriend. Unless I want to become the punch line in all of Joe's threesome jokes, I'd prefer to wait until in the morning. At least Joe will put on underwear for breakfast."


Glen laughed at that. "See, this is why I should have had a say in where you moved to."


"Yeah. All this normal is getting to me. I'll call you tomorrow."


"You'd better."


Darcy hung up with a smile on her face. She crawled into bed and it did not take long to drop off into sleep.


Her good mood lasted until Sue came out of her room for breakfast. Joe had left to work out with a few friends of his. Darcy was eating toast and reading over her notes from her biology class, a nod in the general direction of studying.


"Good mornin'." Sue grinned and went to the fridge for juice. "I notice that Pete once again didn't sleep over."


"I didn't ask him too."


"Shit girl. He's fine."


"That's nice." Darcy laughed. "So what about the guy who stopped by yesterday?"


"What guy?"


"You said some big guy stopped in looking for me."


"Oh. Yeah. Right!" Sue sat down and poured herself a glass of juice. "Kinda hot, in a biker guy kind of way. He didn't give his name. Just asked if you were around."


For a moment Darcy felt as if ice had been poured down her back. "What time was it?"

"Right around 2. I was expecting Joe." Sue shrugged.


"What did he look like?" Darcy asked, almost afraid to know.


"Tall. Big." She held her hands apart. "Sort of long dark brown-ish hair. Bandana. Skin tight t-shirt, tight jeans, and about a shit-ton of tattoos."


Darcy fumbled her toast. It couldn't be. There was no way it could have been Mark.


"You all right?"


"Yeah. Did he say anything else?"


"No…or. Yeah. Actually. He said he'd try again later." Sue took a drink of her juice. "That was it. He didn't get specific. Why do you look like you're going to be sick?"


"Oh. No reason. It's just…" Of her three roommates, Sue was the only one that knew Darcy had been – for lack of a better description – dumped recently. "It sounds like the guy I told you about. The one who left."


Sue's eyebrow went up. "Really?" She tilted her head and studied Darcy for a moment. "I can't picture it."


"Kinda like nobody can picture you and Joe?" Darcy said with a half-smile.


Sue snorted. "Oh. So it's like that. I get it." She sobered. "Although I assume that his showing up is not necessarily a good thing."


"I don't know."


"Well hell honey. I'm sorry. Are you still pissed off at him?"




"Good! Make his ass work for it."


"Work for what?"


"Whatever it is he wants." Sue looked at her as if she were dense.


"And what could he possibly want after three months?"


"What every man wants. Doesn't matter if it's three minutes, three months, or three years."


"That's kind of sad." Darcy said, but she smiled when she said it. Because it was also kind of funny. "And I would think if that's all he wanted, he would have found it elsewhere by now."


"Oh honey. When you love somebody, they are the only person that'll do. Sad but true fact of life." She eyed Darcy pointedly. "Hence the reason you won't put out for sweet Pete. That man's done everything but wrap his wiener in a red ribbon and present it to you."


Darcy started laughing. She couldn't help herself. Sue certainly had a way with words. But she felt a pang as well. Because Sue also had a way of hitting the nail on the head.


"Just because I haven't slept with another guy doesn't mean that the same went both ways."


"True." Sue wiggled her eyebrows. "You've got it bad for that biker. What's his name?"



"I can hear it. Even in just the guy's name." Sue sighed. "I am such a sucker for that shit."



"I mean the mush."


"Well I'm still mad at him."


"Hey, at least he made an effort. That's more than I can say for most guys. Yeah he skipped out but Darcy – he was giving you up. Gotta remember that he hurt himself at the same time."


"I don't have to remember anything. He never said how he felt one way or the other." Darcy sighed tiredly. "We weren't together all that long anyway."


"What the hell difference does that make?" Sue finished her juice and poured another glass. "My parents knew each other for all of three days before they eloped to Vegas. And here they are, 25 years later, still hitched and giddy like teenagers. It's disgusting but cute at the same time."


Darcy was saved from commenting when the phone rang. Sue bounced up to answer it. "For you, Darcy. It's Pete the package."


Darcy snickered and took the phone. "Hello."


"I heard that." Pete said, a smile in his voice. "I'm afraid to ask when it means."


"Believe me, better that you don't know. I thought you were working."

"I am. Slow day at the office. I was wondering if you wanted to go get dinner tonight when you get off."


Darcy immediately wanted to say no. But why would she? It was just dinner after all. "I don't get off until eight."


"That's all right. I have some errands to run when I get off. I can pick you up at the hospital."


"Oh great. I can go out to dinner in my scrubs smelling like disinfectant."


Pete laughed. "It wouldn't bother me a bit. And you could shower at the hospital you know. That's what the lounges are for."


"I know." Darcy sighed. "Ok. I guess. Make it eight-fifteen or so, that way I have time to make myself presentable."


"Sounds good. I'll see you tonight."


Darcy hung up and looked at Sue, who was looking at her with speculation in her eyes. "What?"


"Don't what me. You turn him down for weeks, and now suddenly it's a late dinner after work?" Sue snorted. "Take it from an expert, hon. You wanna fuck a guy out of your system, you fuck the guy you're trying to get over. Because anybody else is gonna be a poor substitute."


Darcy scoffed. "I never said I was going to sleep with Pete."


"You don't have to come out and say it. A late dinner, a few drinks, you'll be able to blame it on the alcohol and being tired and angry."


"This may shock you, Sue but I have no intention of ever sleeping with Pete." Just thinking about it made Darcy frown.


"Then why bother going out with him?"


"Because I can't take sitting here doing nothing anymore." Darcy finally said, pushing her plate of uneaten toast aside. "I've done that all my life. I've hidden from things. You have no idea what that's like. And I'm sick and tired of hiding."


Sue smiled. "Or you're just trading one kind of hiding for another."


"What do you mean?"


"Oh come on. Easy, no-pressure Pete? And conveniently finally accepting a dinner invite from him on the very day you find out the man who wets your panties is back in town."


"That's crude."


"But honest." Sue grinned and Darcy had to smile back. It was hard not to.


"Ok. Fine. Yes. Pete feels safe." Darcy admitted. "But I know that's an illusion, because I'm not completely stupid. Eventually he'll want more than one-armed hugs. And by that time I'll probably have a million good excuses to never be alone with him."


"So…" Sue dragged out the word.


"So…" Darcy sighed. "I don't know." She cupped her head in her hands and leaned her elbows on the table in frustration. The phone rang again and she groaned. "If it's for me, tell 'em I'm having an emotional crisis or something."


Sue laughed and answered the phone. She spoke softly for a moment before nudging Darcy's hand with the plastic receiver. Darcy took it and said 'hello' before the temptation to just throw it away could really sink in.


"You were supposed to call me back."


"I didn't give you a specific time." Darcy sat up straight and saw Sue eying her with her eyebrows up, wry smile on her face.


"Well?" Glen asked, impatient.


"Well…nothing. I guess – from what my roommate said – that it maybe was Mark. Unless there's some other very big, biker like guy roaming around asking about me."








"That's it. Just ok." Darcy drummed her fingernails on the tabletop. "You knew he was here didn't you? You're probably the one who told him where I live."


"I never…"


"Spare me. Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. Were you not going to tell me he was back in town?"


"Darcy, I didn't know he was back."


"And I believe that because…"


"Because, I don't know, I just said it?" Glen sounded hurt that she'd accused him. "I saw him a couple weeks ago. Took him his court papers. Asked him to come back. I never got an answer and I haven't heard from him since."


"You went and saw him?"


"Yeah. You know me, obviously. Nosy by nature. Had to check it out."


Darcy laughed but it sounded hollow to her own ears. "Yeah. Ok. Sorry for jumping at you."


"It's all right Darcy. All that working and studying – you're under a lot of pressure."


"Ha. Don't start with me."


"Wasn't gonna. Ava wanted me to remind you that you're going dress shopping with her this week."


"I know. My next evening off."


"Good. Keep it in mind. See you later."


Darcy hung up and handed the phone back to Sue. She saw that Sue was still wearing the same expression. "What?"


"Two phone calls, two different guys. Plus one beating down the door? And you guys said I was the slutty one."


Darcy cracked up at that. She wished she could look at life through Sue's eyes for a day. An hour. It would probably be fun, in a tiring ditzy-smart sort of way. She looked at the clock and figured she should get ready for work. She'd figure out what to do about Pete and call him on her lunch break if she needed to.




Glen found Ava on the third floor, working on curtains for the baby's room. It still came as a shock when he came into this part of the house and saw what it had become. Not that he didn't approve of the changes – it just took some getting used to.


"What are you doing?" Ava asked, drawing him out of his thoughts.


"Playing detective. Did Mark call here?"


Ava smirked. "Maybe."


"Case solved." Glen moved behind her and put his arms around her, letting his hands rest on her belly. "Darcy is pissed."


"I figured she would be." She put a pin through the blue material and brushed her hair back from her face. "She'll get over it though."


"I thought she was seeing some other guy."


Ava made a face. "Not really." She looked over her shoulder at him. "I don't trust him."


Glen half-smiled. "You don't even know him."


"Yeah but it's weird. There's such a thing as being too nice."


"I should call the cops."


"Ha. Yes. Please make fun of the pregnant woman." Ava pinched him on the back of the hand.


"What do you want me to do? You know Darcy doesn't really listen to me. She pretends to but then she does her own thing anyway."


"And good for her. You're too bossy for your own good sometimes." At the sound of footsteps on the deck Glen let Ava go. They both turned to see Mark standing in the doorway, looking as confused by the changes in the room as Glen was.


"Mornin'." Glen said by way of greeting. Mark nodded and attempted to smile.


"Not to point out the obvious, but you look like hell."


"I feel like hell." Mark agreed, stepping inside. "Didn't sleep last night. Got too much on my mind."


"Do I need to leave you boys alone?" Ava asked, looking from one to the other.


"Nope. You're fine." Glen smiled down at her before looking at Mark. "Give my offer any thought?"


"Yeah. Some." Mark leaned in the doorway and crossed his arms. "I didn't tell you I was coming because I wanted to roam around and try to figure out if this is what I wanna do. Where I wanna be." He glanced at Ava for a moment before looking away. "Then I figured I shouldn't be avoiding Darcy just because she's mad at me. So I went to see her. She was still at school though. I've been wandering around ever since."


"So what are you gonna do now?" Glen asked.


"I have no idea." Mark sighed heavily. "Actually that's not true. The one thing I do know is that I can't do anything else until things are settled between Darcy and me. One way or the other."


"Preferably one way." Ava said with a smile. "She's at work today. Go kidnap her."


Mark snorted. "That would go over well, wouldn't it?"


Glen's phone chose that moment to ring. He gave Ava an apologetic look before crossing the room to pick it up. Ava rolled her eyes and went to the door to stand in front of Mark. "Business calls. Why don't you walk an off-balance pregnant woman down the stairs?"


Mark smirked. "Sure." He went ahead of her, keeping an eye on her progress.


"And since Glen is busy, and can't hear us, I'll tell you. I don't like this guy that Darcy is hanging out with."


Mark frowned. "Glen said she's been seeing someone."


"I wouldn't classify it as 'seeing'. Talking to, occasionally hanging out – yeah." Ava paused and looked Mark in the eye. They were more or less eye level on the stairs. "I don't trust him. I've never seen him or met him but something seems kind of…off about him." She didn't miss the way Mark's hand tightened on the rail.


"What do you mean, off?"


"Glen thinks I'm being hormonal." Ava said, rolling her eyes. "But nobody is that nice. Not without some kind of ulterior motive. Even Glen can be an asshole on occasion. This guy is like Mary Poppins with a dick. I don't trust it."


Mark stared at her for a minute, grinding is teeth. "Have you met him?"


"No." Ava shook her head. "He keeps worse hours than Darcy does, apparently. Either that or he manages to avoid being around when we are. We as in Glen and I. Apparently he's fine dealing with her other friends."


"Where in the hospital does she work?"


"Right now? The emergency room. I think. They rotate her around to different places. I'm pretty sure she told me that's where she's working this weekend."


"Ok. I'm going back up there."


"Good." Ava smiled at his back as he finished going down the stairs. "I'd offer to go with you but Glen would probably have a heart attack."


"Darcy might kill me for showing up. Better you're not a witness, I guess." Mark paused at the bottom step. "And thanks for the help yesterday."


"You're welcome." Ava smiled again. "She misses you, you know. That's why she's still mad."


Mark refused to think about that. He didn't want to get his hopes up. "I miss her. I shouldn't have left."


"Tell that to her. And if you need a place to stay in the meantime, we'll be here." Ava gave his arm a pat before moving around him and heading to the house. She still had a lot of work to do to get the nursery ready for the baby's appearance.


Mark had a forty minute drive to try to figure out how to best approach this situation. He wasn't on the bike – the weather was getting cool, which meant he'd left it behind in favor of the truck he'd bought. He needed the truck to haul the bike. Currently the bike was in storage with the rest of his things – not much by most standards, but it was a start. When he found a place for himself, he intended on going back to get everything. He'd be starting over but at least he wouldn't be starting with nothing.


Of course, that all depended on how things worked out with Darcy. Whether she accepted him back or not, he had decisions to make. Mark had to be honest with himself – other than the money, which still freaked him out to think about, what did he have to offer her? Just him and his screwed up way of thinking? An inability to articulate how he felt? He snorted at himself. "Every woman's dream." He muttered out loud.

The hospital had a small parking garage. Mark took the first open spot he found on the first level. He crossed the receiving area where ambulances parked and went in through a set of sliding glass doors.


This early in the afternoon on a Saturday the waiting room was virtually empty. There was one man sitting on a hard plastic chair, arms crossed over his chest, chin nearly touching his arms. Sleeping or trying to. He looked uncomfortable. Mark went to the registration desk and braced himself, just in case he saw Darcy before he was fully ready.


It wasn't Darcy at the desk. An older woman with short dark curls sat there, typing into a computer. "Can I help you?" She asked, looking up at him with an expectant smile.


"Yeah. Maybe. I'm looking for someone that works here. Darcy Edwards?"

The woman's eyebrow went up. "She's in the back. Do you want me to page her?"


"I…" Mark thought it over. "Well. I'm kind of surprising her. She isn't expecting me."


"Oh." She grinned. It took years off her age. "Well. How about we put you in a triage room and surprise her from there?"


Mark smiled back although he felt nervous. He couldn't remember ever being so anxious about seeing a woman. "That would be perfect. Thanks."


"No problem. Follow me. She's a student nurse, so she's the one that does the initial patient interviews and gathers information back here." She gestured for him to go around the desk and led the way into a short hall. There were four rooms. She put him in the first one and flipped a colored plastic flag out to show that it was occupied. "It'll be just a minute."


"Thank you." Mark watched her shut the door and paced nervously. He finally forced himself to sit down on the exam table. The room wasn't big enough to really effectively pace in, and he was starting to feel like a caged animal. He kept glancing at his watch, as the minute hand crept forward slowly.


He was so intent on the time that he didn't notice the door open. It wasn't until Darcy dropped her clipboard that he looked toward the door.


Three months hadn't changed a thing. The sight of her was enough to make him wish he hadn't been so damned selfish and had actually listened to her before he'd left instead of sneaking out while she'd been sleeping.


"What…why…" She couldn't form a coherent question. She also looked absolutely beautiful, although Mark thought she would accuse him of being biased. Her hair was pulled back into a braid that lay over one shoulder. Darcy, like the woman at the front desk, was wearing black scrubs. Black definitely suited her gray eyes and deeply tanned skin.


He understood her being tongue tied because for the life of him, he could not find his. He just looked at her, drinking her in. Mark expected anger – maybe not yelling, since it was her place of work, but a few choice swears followed by damning him to hell and having him escorted out by security? He could totally see that happening.


Instead of doing that, Darcy covered her mouth with her hand, walked forward kicking the clipboard out of the way, and shocked him by moving right up to him and wrapping her arms around his shoulders.


He wasn't going to complain. He put his arms around her and hugged her close, taking in a deep shaky breath at the feel of her. Mark closed his eyes and realized two things simultaneously. Darcy was shaking uncontrollably. And Darcy was also crying.


"I'm so sorry, darlin'." He managed to whisper next to her ear.


Darcy sniffled and let him go long enough to wipe her eyes. "I thought I'd never see you again. I thought something happened to you, and I would never know it. You could have been dead somewhere and I never would have known." She spoke in a rush.


That hit him. It was a harder gut punch than just seeing her had been. She wasn't just angry with him – she had worried herself sick. All because he had left. Left without bothering to even call, or leave a note. Mark hated himself for that too. The least he could have done with tell her something, or call to let her know he was all right. But no – he'd cut his ties thinking he was doing what was best for her when really it was what was best for him. It would have hurt too much to keep in contact with her in his self-imposed isolation when she couldn't be with him.


He stroked her back and cradled her in his arms. "I wish I hadn't put you through that. I wasn't thinking, Darcy. That's gonna be my downfall. I think too much about the wrong shit, and I don't give enough thought to what's important. If you hate me, I'd understand. Hell I'd deserve it. I'm a selfish bastard, darlin'. Even when I try to do good by someone else in the end it all comes down to what I want, what Ineed."


"I don't hate you." Darcy said, her voice muffled against his shoulder. "I tried though. I tried really hard to hate you."


Mark pulled back. Darcy reluctantly let him. He didn't let go of her, instead he cupped her face in his hands and brushed the tears off her cheeks with his thumbs. "I tried really hard to stop loving you. Guess that makes us sort of even." Darcy frowned at him as she processed what she'd heard. "I couldn't say it before. Hell I probably shouldn't say it now, because I don't think I'll ever deserve somebody like you. And you'd probably wanna hear it under better circumstances." He looked around before meeting her eyes again. "And maybe in a better setting."


Darcy's mouth twitched at that, a weak smile but way more than he had figured he'd get. Mark ducked his head and pressed his mouth against hers, kissing her, closing his eyes at the feel of her lips against his. She parted her lips and he took advantage, tasting her with the tip of his tongue, coaxing a response, leaving her breathless. Leaving them both breathless. It took everything in him to stop at that one kiss. He wanted more. Even in the middle of a hospital emergency room he wanted more.


Which was why he had to stop while he could.


"I have some big decisions to make." Mark tucked a stray bit of hair behind her ear and stroked her cheek with one finger. "Important ones, about the future. Maybe our future. I said it shouldn't always be about what I want or need, but Darcy…I love you. Nothing like this has ever happened before. I'm lost."


She opened her mouth to speak when the door behind her was thrown open. They both jumped. Darcy brushed at her eyes quickly before the woman from the front desk could see she'd been crying.


"Sorry, kids. Time's up. We have an ambulance inbound. They're gonna need you in the back, Darcy."


"Thanks Carol." Darcy took a single step back before turning to look at Mark again. "I have to go."


"I know."


She hesitated, biting her lower lip. "I get off at eight."


Mark smiled at that. "Need a lift home?"


"It would be a good time to talk. About things." Darcy toyed with her braid. Mark grabbed her hand and pulled her forward to kiss her once more, quickly, on the lips.

"I'll be here."


"Good. I have to go." They could both hear an approaching siren outside as Darcy repeated herself. Mark nodded and watched as she left. He wouldn't say a weight had been lifted from his shoulders but she hadn't tried to kill him. He had that much going for him anyway.




The rest of the day dragged on. For the first time since she'd gotten the job at the hospital Darcy was happy when they decided to cut her free early – at seven instead of eight. It had just been a slow day and there wasn't much going on to keep her busy. She had called Pete to cancel dinner. He'd been understanding but distracted. That worked in her favor because Darcy honestly did not look forward to explaining why.


Of course she was stuck at the hospital until eight anyway, since that's when Mark had said he'd be back. She was wishing she'd thought to bring a book so she could study for an hour when Pete poked his head into the nurse's lounge.




"Nope. I'm off." Darcy smiled. Pete looked exhausted. His day had been busier than hers, obviously, which wasn't unheard of in pediatrics.


"Lucky. I'm stuck here until next Wednesday. Wanna grab a coffee with me?"


"Sure." Darcy shrugged and got up from the couch. She had an hour to kill. Although she didn't drink coffee – the taste had never really grown on her. Pete pointed her to a table in the nearly deserted cafeteria and went to get them both something to drink. It only took a minute before he returned with a steaming cup of coffee for himself and a soda for her. "You stuck here all night?" She asked, taking a sip.


"Nah. I have the pager." He smiled ruefully. "Of course it's just easier to sleep in one of the lounges. We've got eight post-surgery kids on the ward tonight. Tonsils. Every one of them."


"Yikes." Darcy grinned and drank more of her soda. She hadn't realized how thirsty she had been until she started drinking. "We had a slow day."


"Good. You need a few of those every now and then." He smiled when she drained her cup. "Sorry about dinner tonight though. I was really looking forward to it."


"I know. I'm sorry." Darcy smiled apologetically.


"Plans change." He shrugged and drank more of his coffee. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm good." Her smile was more genuine. But she couldn't hold onto it. Because now that he'd asked, her stomach did feel a little queasy. She was also starting to feel light-headed.


"Good. You look a little pale."


"It's the lighting in here." Darcy tried to joke but a wave of dizziness washed over her. "Oh. Ok…maybe I am a little off."


"Working yourself to death. I warned you." Pete finished his coffee and looked at her in concern. "Do you have a way home?"


"I…" It was on the tip of her tongue to say no but then she remembered Mark. "Yeah. But not until eight."


"Well. I'll give you a lift. You don't need to stay here if you aren't feeling well. And I'm sure Mark will find you if you aren't here waiting on him."


Darcy nodded and wished she hadn't. It made the room spin. She managed to walk out to the hall by herself but didn't protest when Pete took her arm and let her lean on him.

She felt hot and cold at the same time. The hall seemed to sway every time she took a step. It wasn't until they got outside and he guided her toward the parking garage that it struck Darcy, what Pete had said.


"How did you know his name?"


"Hmm?" Pete was intent on leading her without her falling down.


"You said Mark would find me. How did you…" Her legs buckled. Pete caught her easily and held her steady. They reached the parking garage and Pete steered her toward his vehicle. Darcy merely looked at it for a moment before looking up into Pete's eyes. He was smiling down at her.


"I know because I saw him leaving earlier. And then you called. Believe it or not, Darcy, I am very good at putting two and two together."


He was still leading her toward his vehicle. His truck. Under the lights of the parking garage it was a deep blue. Darcy tried to focus and remembered Glen saying something about a blue truck but her head was swimming too much to concentrate.




"You know what's funny? It's a lot easier this time." They had reached his truck. He opened the passenger door and lifted Darcy inside, then belted her in before he slammed the door and jogged around to the driver's side. Darcy tried to open her door but she could hardly move. Pete's door slammed shut, making Darcy jump. "He took something from me. I'm going to take something from him. I had to wait to be sure you were the right one this time. Didn't want to make the mistake I made when I ran your friend off the road." Pete smiled again and it sent a chill through Darcy. "I was just angry at the time. If I'd been paying attention I would have seen it wasn't you. It was way too easy." He started the truck and dropped it into gear. "This way I can be sure. You know – I almost wasn't. I almost decided that he'd done the smart thing and moved on. Guess it pays to be patient." He was smiling again as he paused for traffic before pulling onto the road, and reached over to run his fingers over Darcy's cheek. She would have pulled away but she was shaking too hard; she was nauseous as well. "Of course I never thought he was all that smart." He drove onto the highway and gained speed.


"But…I don't…"


"Of course you don't." Pete reached over and gave her leg a rub. "Don't worry. You'll probably sleep for a little while and you'll feel better when you wake up."


"What did you give me?"


"A little of this. A little of that. Mixed it in your drink. That trusting nature of yours made it way too easy." He glanced at her again. "We're going to have a little fun when you're better. It would be easier when you're out, but what the hell? I'm up for the challenge. And you might enjoy it."


"Why are you doing this?" Darcy asked. She could barely keep her eyes open. She was fighting it but losing the battle.


"I thought I made that obvious." Pete said. He still had his hand on her leg. He continued to stroke her thigh. If Darcy hadn't already been nauseous it would have made her sick. "See, I was just a broke-ass kid trying to work my way through community college. Didn't have the money to go to one of the good schools you know. I got accepted to medical school – my grades were good enough, but not great. I couldn't get a scholarship. I figured what the hell, I'll just keep on working while I'm in school how hard could it be? I barely finished my first year. I could work to pay for school but I didn't have time to study, and I almost flunked out. I was trying to figure out what to do when I met Jezzie. She was all excited, thinking I was gonna be a doctor. We made plans. Lots of plans." He sighed. "And then I got her pregnant. You'd have thought it was the end of the world!" Pete laughed without humor. "And do you know what she did? She couldn't stand waiting for me to start making money. She came up with this bright idea to pin the baby on one of her exes. He had money. She said he'd pay her to go away."


Pete turned off the highway. Darcy had no idea where they were now. Full dark had fallen and she didn't recognize any landmarks. "Jezzie thought she was being smart. But I knew what she was doing. She wanted his money because her daddy wouldn't support her anymore. She wanted to win him back. She dropped something…I think it was Oxy, her neighbor was always pissing and moaning about how she worried her pills would get stolen…into his drink. She didn't know that I knew all this you see – but I heard her talking. She was going to dope him up, seduce him, and convince him to marry her. Or at least take care of her. I couldn't let that happen. I loved her."


"You caused the wreck." Darcy said softly. She yawned. Pete looked at her and smiled.


"A minor miscalculation. I didn't know that Jezzie was going to be with him. She was supposed to work until close. I knew he was at the bar. And I knew the road he always took to go home. Jezzie was a mistake."


"You killed her. You killed her and the baby."


"No. Mark killed her." Pete's smile faded and he frowned darkly. "It was his fault. If he'd just gone away and let us be…"


"He didn't start this."


"He did. I was sick and tired of hearing about it. Mark had money. Mark had plans. Mark would do anything Jezzie wanted if she asked nice enough." Pete's fist hit the steering wheel. "She wasn't supposed to be with him that night!" He got his emotions under control once more. "It wasn't until after the trial that Jezzie's father approached me. He knew. He figured it out. And he covered it up!" Pete laughed. "He hated Mark. Hated him more than I did! And do you know why?"


"No…" Darcy whispered.


"It's the best part. Hilarious really. He hated him because Mark's father managed to steal his mother out from under Michael's nose when they were kids!" Pete laughed and squeezed her leg. "Michael told me that he'd pay for my schooling if I'd be willing to 'finish what I started'. I couldn't turn it down. Mark's money pretty much paid for my training. I find that even funnier than Michael's pitiful revenge fantasy. All it required was for me to be patient. And then Mark got out of jail and disappeared. Of course it didn't take much to track him down. Michael hired a private investigator. It took all of an hour to transfer to this university. And then I started nosing into things on my own." He slowed and turned the truck down a rough gravel drive. Darcy winced as she was bounced in the seat, feeling her stomach flutter sickly.


Pete still had a hand on her thigh. He rubbed it again. "And what do I find? That Mark already has a replacement. He moved fast. You don't even remember seeing me at the diner! Easy enough to hide in the background and watch. Any idiot could see he was into you. And you actually bought into it." He gave her leg a pat. "Of course that worked for me. Michael sent me the bike…just to rattle him. I wish I could have seen his face." Pete laughed again. "And you had the same pattern. Every day the same time, the same road. You were late that morning. I never stopped to think that it broke your pattern." Pete shook his head and brought the truck to a halt.


They were in an open area. There was a small house at the end of the drive that looked like it had seen better days. "Found this place by accident. Nobody comes out there. There hasn't been anybody living here in about 10 years. And no neighbors. Perfect for what I need to do." It was as if he were talking to himself.


Darcy heard her teeth chattering. Pete looked at her, all concern. "Poor Darcy. Don't worry. I'll warm you up. You'll feel better after you get a little sleep. I promise." He slid out of the truck and came around to her door, pulling it open. Darcy couldn't protest. She found she could no longer even speak. It seemed like too much effort. Pete picked her up and carried her toward the sagging front porch of the house. "You didn't make it easy to get close to you. I'll give you that. But I was in no rush. If Mark was truly gone, then who knows? Maybe the two of us would have ended up together." He ducked his head and rubbed his cheek against hers. "But I had to bide my time. Because if there's one thing I've learned it's that guys like him have a way of coming back. And sure enough…" Pete sighed and kissed her on the temple. "But that's all right. I'll deal with him. And we can have ourselves a little fun in the meantime. I think you might enjoy it."


Darcy tried to protest but the drugs he'd slipped into her drink were winning out. She blinked slowly and tried to struggle as he went through the front door. She was out before he was able to lay her down on the bed in the corner of the main room. Pete watched her sleeping for a moment, smile on his face. But it did not reach his eyes. He reached under the bed and pulled out a box. The smile became more genuine as he brought out the two pairs of handcuffs he had bought just for this occasion, should the need arise. He fully expected Darcy to fight him. Being as gentle as possible, he snapped the cuffs around her wrists, then raised her arms to snap both loose cuffs together behind one of the stout oak slats that comprised the headboard. He'd tested it himself – it would hold. He had the means to keep her sedated if she became too much of a problem.


Now he only had to wait. Give Mark a few days to wonder and worry. And then maybe he'd let Darcy make a phone call. Pete smiled again and trailed a finger down her cheek, her neck, then down her body. It was all he would allow himself for the time being. He had all the time in the world to discover what made this one so damned fascinating. He merely had to be patient. Still smiling he tucked a thick blanket over Darcy's sleeping form and sat down on the edge of the bed to wait.




She started to lose track of time.


That was somehow the worst part. The way things seemed to run together, the periods of darkness when Pete had to go out to do untold errands and needed her docile.


Darcy woke the first time with what she thought of as the worst hangover of her life. That wasn't saying much – she'd only been drunk a couple of times, and never drunk enough to truly pay for it the next day. Her mouth and throat felt as if they were lined in sandpaper, her stomach churned, her head pounded. There was a small lantern in the corner and even that meager light seemed to drill into her eyes. She had moaned, and tried to rub her face with her hands but she was somehow attached to the headboard. Her shoulders and arms were numb from being suspended for so long.


Pete heard the slight noise. He appeared in her bleary field of vision with plastic cup filled with water.


"No…" Darcy shook her head, regretted it immediately, and couldn't stop as he tried to get her to drink.


"It's just water." He flashed his boyish grin and proved it to her by drinking from the cup. When he saw Darcy wasn't going to budge, he sighed and finished it off before fishing in his pocket. "I'm going to rearrange you. Make you more comfortable. Be quiet, do exactly what I tell you to do, and I won't have to drug you again."


Darcy could do nothing but nod as he produced a key. In a moment her arms were free. Pete sat her upright and relocked her cuff, this time just her left arm. He left her right arm free for a while so she could hold the unopened bottle of water he offered her instead of the cup.


Darcy took it and drank greedily. She was hurting in too many places to keep track of. The worst of it was the awful nausea that was still with her; it left her alternately hot and cold. She was starting to get the feeling back into her arms as well and soreness was settling in between her shoulders.


Pete rummaged through a bag and pulled out food – apple slices, chips, cookies. Junk food mostly. Darcy eyed it and felt her stomach lurch unpleasantly when he put some on a plate and brought it to the bed.


"I can't…"


"You have to eat. I'll bet you didn't each much all day. Get some food on your stomach and the nausea will go away." Pete said solicitously. "Here." He opened a pack of crackers. "Nibble. It'll help."


Darcy took a cracker and did as he said, barely nibbling into it. Her stomach protested. She thought of the water she'd drank and that was it…she managed to lean over the side of the bed before she threw up the little she'd managed to consume.


Pete rubbed her back until she was done then laid her back against the pillow. "I tried to warn you." He got up and cleaned up the mess before he sat down once more.


"You made me sick."


"No. It's just a side effect. It'll pass." He picked up a slice of apple. "Nibble. You have to keep trying or the nausea will just get worse."


Darcy had no choice. She tried to ignore the way her stomach clenched every time she took a bit of apple or cheese into her mouth. She ended up eating more of the crackers and drinking more water.


The nausea receded gradually. It was still there. Darcy kept looking around, trying to figure out where they were, if they were somewhere within reach of help. She purposely did not allow herself to think of Mark – she'd end up breaking down if she did. Darcy knew it. It didn't stop her from hoping he had noted her missing. Noted and was already trying to find her. Tears pricked her eyes.


"Now, now. None of that." Pete finished off a handful of chips and shook his head at her again. "I'm not going to hurt you Darcy. In fact I'm not going to do anything to you that you don't want me to do."


"I don't recall asking to be drugged and snatched away from the hospital." Darcy pointed out, feeling some of the fight come back into her.


"A necessary evil. You wouldn't have come otherwise. Because of him."


"You have it wrong." Darcy said, trying to force her mind to think. She remembered him telling her everything on the ride to wherever they were.


"How so?"


"Mark didn't come back to win me over."


"Right." Pete scoffed.


"He tried. I guess. If you can call that trying…" A tear slipped from the corner of her eye. "And I told him to leave."


"Darcy, you would make a horrible poker player. You just don't have the right mindset to lie." Pete shook his finger at her, as if he were chastising a small child. "But that doesn't matter. Even if you told him to fuck off he'd still be wondering what happened to you." He held up another slice of apple. Darcy shook her head. "Suit yourself." He popped it in his mouth then set about cleaning up the small mess from their middle of the night snack.


It gave Darcy a few minutes to really look at where she was. A decent sized empty room. There was an air mattress near the lantern, with blankets and pillows. And books. Apparently Pete had been reading while he waited for her to wake up. There was a kitchen in the back corner – or the remains of a kitchen. It was hard to tell because all of the counters had been torn out. The sink remained, oddly enough, as did an ancient looking dishwasher. Two doors led to the read of the house. One of them, slightly opened, revealed a square room that had to be the house's only bedroom. The other room was a bathroom. She could see the toilet and bathtub from her spot on the bed.


The bed itself was a double with a heavy oak headboard. She couldn't test it because he would hear her although it was tempting. There were sheets, a couple of blankets, pillows. That was it. Everything else was in bags near the inflatable mattress and Darcy highly doubted that Pete would be willing to let her go looking for a weapon.


Darcy wiggled around until she got into a position that didn't hurt her left arm, still cuffed to the headboard. Pete watched her with that odd half-smile on his face, the one that she had found endearing before she'd learned he was a psycho waiting to happen. "What are you going to do with me?" She ventured to ask.


Pete shrugged. "Maybe nothing. Depends on how the next few days go."


"You shouldn't play poker. You're a horrible liar." Darcy muttered.


"I fooled you didn't I?" Pete's smile turned into a grin. "For…two months?" He sat down on the bed next to her and stroked her cheek with one finger. Darcy held herself still, refusing to let him see her flinch away. "Of course you were upset with some other guy. I probably could have worn my intentions on my shirt and you wouldn't have noticed."


"Probably." Darcy agreed through clenched teeth. His hand had moved down and he was lightly tracing the side of her breast.


"Of course I wondered what it would be like, to be with you." His hand cupped her breast. Darcy frowned but did not move or make a noise. He squeezed briefly and let her go. "I could still find out. But not just yet. First we'll wait."




"Don't you worry about it." Pete poked her on the nose with his finger and got up. "Get some sleep. It's a long way until sunup."


For Darcy sleep was a long time coming. Pete didn't turn the lantern off. He had no problem dropping off moments after he'd gone to bed. Or he pretended to. Either way it didn't matter. Darcy knew there was no way out.


The windows were just starting to brighten when she finally dozed off. It wasn't for long. A stinging pain in her arm had her eyes fluttering. Pete was standing over her with a needed in his hand, that amicable smile on his face. "I have some things to do. And I don't trust you to behave while I'm gone."


Darcy frowned and felt the effect almost immediately. There was no dizziness or nausea at least. Instead her vision went over gray before she fell into a drug induced sleep. She didn't notice Pete relocking her right wrist into the handcuff, or his final perusal of her sleeping form.


That was how things went. He let her up – briefly – to use the bathroom when he returned from his errands. Darcy was too dazed to look for an escape route in the bathroom. There was a window, but it looked like it would be a tight squeeze for a five-year-old to crawl through, let alone a grown woman.


That second night was the night Pete brought out the scalpel.


"It occurs to me." He spoke from above her. Darcy once more had both wrists cuffed above her head. "That it isn't very nice of me to let you lay here in your scrubs." In the dull light from the lantern the scalpel looked like liquid silver. Darcy watched the sharp edge as he moved it slowly back and forth. He brought it close and ran the back side of the blade slowly along her cheek, not cutting her, just letting her feel the coldness of the steel. He lowered the blade until it was under the collar of her scrubs. With practiced ease, he slit the material open all the way down to the hem.


Darcy blinked and tried to control her breathing. If she freaked out she risked him cutting her, whether accidentally or on purpose. Pete gauged her response and cut the arms away until she was laying there in her bra. He repeated the process on her pants even though he hadn't bothered to tether her legs. Darcy understood the theatrical aspects of cutting off her clothing – he wanted her to know he had the blade and that he'd use it if he had to.


Once she was down to bra and panties, Pete eyed her hungrily. The cold flat side of the steel blade was tracing small circles on the skin between her breasts. "I have fresh clothes for you. Pajamas. Flannels I think. It gets cool here at night."


Just like that, it was over. He shifted her handcuffs so that she could put the new clothes on and went so far as to tuck her into bed. He even kissed her on the forehead, a move that made her skin crawl but she made no comment, showed no sign it bothered her.

The next morning, at first light, again she was awakened by the prick of the needle sliding into her arm. She struggled briefly but could not really fight the effects of the drugs he was giving her.


This time she wasn't out nearly as long. In fact she woke up nearly thirty minutes before he returned. Not sure how long she had, Darcy pulled on the cuffs, the headboard, the slats, looking for a tiny amount of give in any of it, finding none. She realized she had to do something without causing obvious damage. He cuffed her to the same slat every time, but if he saw it was damaged then he would change it and she'd have to start over. Darcy knew it without having to think about it much.


She wrapped her fingers around the slat and began rocking it back and forth, slowly, applying just a slight amount of pressure. There was no give at all. At least for now. But if she worked on it every chance she got, she may be able to loosen it.


"In about five hundred years." She muttered to herself. She almost made herself laugh. Darcy thought if she was stuck here with Pete much longer she might go as crazy as he apparently was. And she damn sure wanted to be long gone before he reached the point of pulling of his revenge fantasy on Mark. She had no clue what it entailed but knew somehow that neither she nor Mark would live through it. Pete might kill Darcy to draw Mark out, then kill Mark. Or worse…Pete might kill her in front of Mark.


"Great. I'm the one that dies and I'm worried about how it'll affect someone else. When I get outta here, I'm goin' to therapy." Darcy was still talking to herself, something she had done as a child but hadn't had to resort to in a good long time. It was the equivalent of a pep talk. She set to work on trying to get the board loose. She would figure out the rest when the time came.




"Time to make a phone call."


Pete's voice dragged Darcy out of her thoughts. As near as she could figure, she had been here for three days. Pete had moved the bed closer to the wall where she could look out the window. She was also wearing only one handcuff again, sitting up on the side of the bed. He hadn't tried to touch her since he'd cut her scrubs off – in fact, when he'd given her a second set of pajamas he had resolutely turned his back so she could change without being stared at. He even brought her some water and a wash cloth, and soap, so she could get cleaned up. He went so far as to apologize for the lack of hot water, otherwise she could have used the shower.


He was holding out a cell phone. Darcy merely looked at it. "Who am I supposed to call?"


"Mark, of course."


Darcy snorted. "He doesn't have a phone. At least not that I'd know the number. He ran off, remember?"


Pete's smile faded. "Surely he has a cell phone."


"I didn't ask." Darcy shrugged.


"This throws a bit of a wrench into my plans."


"Bummer." Darcy's voice carried nothing but boredom.


Pete's smile returned. "Then we'll call someone else to relay a message. Who should it be? Sue?"


"Sue? Sue didn't know him." Darcy looked at the floor, because she didn't want to look at the phone in his hand. "Call Ava."


"Ava. Your friend from the car accident."


"Yes. From the 'accident'."


"And why would she be able to pass along a message?"


"Probably because that's where Mark would be staying. Unless he's at a motel somewhere, and Ava wouldn't let anybody stay in a motel if she can help it." It wasn't Ava that Darcy wanted. It was Glen. But she sure as hell wasn't going to tell Pete that.


"Well it doesn't hurt to try." He held out the phone where it was in Darcy's line of vision. "You dial. And talk. Chat. Don't try to give them a hint about where we are…"


"I don't even know where we are." Darcy interrupted.


Pete went on without batting an eye. "I'll give you two minutes. Tell them I want Mark to call back within the hour. Or I'm going to start putting a cut on you for every five minutes that passes after that hour." Darcy took the cell phone and saw that he had the scalpel in his hand as well. She looked at it dully before punching in Glen's number. She closed her eyes as it rang on the other end, wiling him to be home. He was always home.


She almost sobbed when he picked up with his usual short 'yeah'. "Hey."






"Darcy…where are you? Are you all right?"


"I'm…ok. I guess." She ignored the other question. "I've only got a minute."


"I'm listening." Glen was also doing something with one of his computers. She could hear him. Tears slipped from her eyes.


"He wants Mark to call him back within an hour."


"He's standing right here. Do you want…"


"No. I can't. Not now." Darcy didn't want to talk to Mark because talking to Mark would probably kill her. "If Mark doesn't call back, he says he'll start cutting me. Marking the time."


"Son of a bitch…" Glen muttered. "Darcy…"


"Hold on." Darcy looked at Pete. Pete was staring at his scalpel, not looking at her. "Phone number?" She repeated the number to Glen even though she was sure that Glen already had it.


Glen seemed to sense her reluctance to talk. He lowered his voice so he spoke barely in a whisper. "I'm tracing you. We know who you're with, the general direction he took you. We're gonna find you."


"I know." Darcy smiled. Pete tapped his wrist. "I have to go."




"Just pass the message along to Mark please." Darcy hit the end button and handed the phone back to Pete. He put it into his pocket and just stood over her, staring down at her. "They're going to pass along the message."


"Good. Then this could all be over by tonight, if he plays his part."


Darcy doubted it. Pete seemed to be content in letting things drag on as long as possible.




Mark had to fight not to snatch the phone out of Glen's hand. He watched the other man hang up and continue to type on his computer.


"I'm supposed to call back…"


"You have an hour." Glen pointed out.


"I don't need an hour." Mark reached for the phone and Glen stopped him.


"You need a little time to get a handle on yourself. You won't do her any good if you jump too fast. We have to be smarter than this guy."


"He'll cut her."


"After an hour. We at least have to play along that we're tracking you down to give you the message." Glen looked up at him. "We are going to find her."


"We have to." Mark went back to pacing. He kept looking at the clock, and was getting angrier by the minute.


It had been three days of hell for him. At least he wasn't alone. Glen was as worried as he was. He had the added benefit of being able to do something about it – namely calling the cops and ordering them to get him the surveillance footage from the hospital. Mark had been too upset to be amused by the way the cops jumped whenever Glen told them to.


He had gone to the hospital a few minutes before eight and found out that Darcy had gotten off early. The woman – Carol – had paged her over the intercom system but she had not appeared. Mark figured maybe she had forgotten, although that did not sit well with him. He drove to her house, where the same roommate he'd met the day before informed him that Darcy wasn't home and that she'd had dinner plans so maybe she had gone out.


It was news to Mark. When he went back to the hospital Carol had let him use the phone to call Glen. It hadn't taken long to get the other man worried as well. No one had seen Darcy since she'd gotten off work.


Glen biggest gripe had been Darcy's resistance to keeping a cell phone on her. At least it was until the police showed up with the surveillance videos. He and Mark watched as Darcy was led out of the hospital minutes before Mark showed up to get her.


"Five minutes and this wouldn't have happened." Mark said hollowly as Glen re-watched the video.


"We can't know that." Glen had gotten on one of his computers and within thirty minutes he had tapped into the traffic cameras that were around the university.


"How did you manage that?"


"The illegal way." Glen didn't elaborate. Instead he scanned through the footage until he found what he was looking for – the same truck that they'd seen exiting the parking garage. He had headed north out of town. "Not much out that way for a good couple of hours. They could technically be anywhere."


"But you don't believe that."


"No. I think he's relatively close by. He wouldn't have wanted to take her far, because there'd be too much risk of getting caught out."


It became a waiting game. Glen had the police out checking. Short of a door to door search, they had come up with nothing. It was Ava who pointed out that Pete might have a second vehicle, one he used to make trips into town rather than the truck. He would figure they'd be looking for him, and he'd be figuring right.


And now finally a phone call. Mark wished he could have at least heard Darcy's voice. But maybe Glen was right. He was agitated enough as it was.


It was of course Glen who figured that Pete Hughes was someone who might have known Mark from the past. They were from the same small town. Mark had no idea who the man was though, even when he saw pictures of him. He wasn't the type that ran with the crowd Mark kept company with.


"What are you doing?" Mark finally couldn't take the silence anymore. He wanted to be doing something. Anything.


"Running a trace on the cell phone."


"Is that legal?"


"Not really. And it might not work because it's probably a burner, and those don't usually have GPS chips in them. But at least we can see the general area it came from."


"Did she say anything else? Was she ok?"


"She said she was. He only gave her a minute to talk." Glen sighed grimly. "Just like I thought. The phone is useless. Unless when you call him you can keep him on the line longer."


"It's been thirty minutes." Mark said, getting agitated again.


"Calm down. We're not gonna let the whole hour go by." He picked up his own cell phone and plugged it into his computer. "You've got to keep him talking. Don't get angry. Pretend you don't know him."


"I don't know him."


"Yeah but he thinks you should. Otherwise we wouldn't be here." Glen slapped the phone into Mark's hand. "If he wants to meet up, agree to it. And don't act overly concerned about Darcy."


Mark frowned. "What? Why?"


"Because the more he thinks you care, the more likely he's gonna be to hurt her." Glen studied Mark for a moment. "He already threatened to cut her. Not to kill her. He wants you to see his handiwork, because he thinks you deserve it."


"Maybe I do." Mark looked at the number that Glen had written down before sighing and punching it in. He braced himself to hear Darcy's voice, reminding himself to remain calm.


What he got instead was a perfectly pleasant male voice. "That was quicker than I thought it would be."


"What do you want?" Mark asked.


"What do you think?" Pete chuckled. "Justice. Retribution?"




"Don't pretend you don't know."


"I'm afraid I don't."


"Jezzie. Jezzie and my baby."


Mark frowned deeply. "Your baby?"


"Of course." Pete sighed. "You killed them both. It should have been you that died that night."


"I won't argue that."


Mark's comment seemed to stun Pete for a few moments. There was utter silence. "Meaning?" He finally asked.


"Meaning it should have been me that died. But it wasn't. And I've had to live with that for the past eight years."


"Oh. I suppose I should feel sympathy for you." Pete scoffed. "You took away the only thing that mattered. So I'm going to do the same."


"What are you talking about?"


"Darcy is what I'm talking about." There was a rattling sound as Pete shifted the phone. "She's beautiful. It would be a shame to ruin that, to make her pay for your mistakes."


Mark's hand tightened on the phone but he counted slowly to three before speaking. "I've already paid for my mistakes. As a matter of fact, I've got papers showing that I wasn't even in error."


"That's a lie."


"No. My conviction was overturned. I served the time and I can't get that back but according to the papers I have, I never should have been convicted in the first place." Mark chuckled hollowly. "Matter of fact, Adams had to repay the money he took from me."


He could hear Pete breathing heavily on the other end of the line. "Bullshit. You want me to cut her? Is that what this is about?"


"I don't give a shit what you do. You shouldn't have dragged her into it. You have a problem with me, then by all means let's take care of it. Leave her and anybody else out of it." It almost killed him to utter those words but Glen nodded approvingly.


"Right. Are you trying to say you wouldn't suffer if I were to take my sharp little knife and run it across her throat? I could torture her a little first. Cut off a few bits here and there. My knife is very sharp – it could handle some wet work before getting down to business." Pete's voice dropped. "Of course before I could do any of that, I would want to consummate our relationship first. I mean…I've been courting her for a couple of months now, it would be a waste to kill her off before I got a taste of what we'll both be missing."


"What do you want from me?" Mark managed to keep his voice steady although he was shaking from holding back his rage. He had never been so pissed off.


"What I want is what I said. Although I suppose now things have changed. Is this your phone?"




"Good. I'll call back in two hours. And I'll let you know where we can meet."


"You're going to let her go."


"I haven't decided that yet. It all depends on you. Two hours." With that, Pete hung up. Mark tossed the phone onto the desk and covered his face with his hands.


"Fuck." That about summed it up.


"I have guns. Do you want one?"


Mark looked up to see Ava standing in the doorway. He had not heard her come up the stairs. She looked worriedly between the two men.


"We don't know how much good a gun would do, babe." Glen smiled at her and went back to his computer. Ava sighed and went to Mark to lightly rub his shoulders.


"The cops?"


"Worthless." Glen finally leaned back. "They're still in town at least. All the towers are local. No GPS on the phone. He didn't put her on the line, did he?"


Mark shook his head.


"Because he wants you to worry." Ava said softly. She looked at Glen over Mark's head. "Do something."


"I'm doing what I can."


"You can do more. Darcy always said you were a half-step shy of being some kind of evil overlord."


"I'm all ears if you have any ideas." Glen said, smirking at the reference. He'd heard it before. He leaned forward and clapped Mark on the shoulder. "Go outside. Walk it off. You have a couple of hours. We'll brainstorm. Maybe I can talk to the police chief and see if they can't get a better fix on the cell signal." He didn't look like he had much faith in that. "At least they'll know."


Mark shook his head but got to his feet. He'd be watching the clock yet again but Glen was right. He couldn't just sit here. Without another word he left the room and headed down the stairs to walk the path out to the beach. He needed to feel a calming influence and that seemed like the only place he would get it.




After Pete hung up the phone the second time he sat on his air mattress and stared at Darcy for what seemed an eternal amount of time. Apparently the call had not gone as he had expected.


Of course she had only heard his half of the conversation. And the threats. He was probably serious about them. It struck her that Pete wanted to cut her, maybe wanted to play with his scalpel a bit, and was just looking for a reason that he could look back at later and claim she brought it on herself.


He didn't say a word, merely rose to his feet and left the house. A moment later Darcy heard the sound of an engine. She looked out the window and saw his drive off, confused. Apparently he was so rattled he forgot she was only wearing one handcuff and she hadn't been drugged.


Darcy wasn't about to look that gift horse in the mouth. The headboard was a lost cause. Three days and there was still no wiggle to it at all. Whatever was holding it together, if she got out of here, she planned on writing the company a congratulatory letter. They should be building prisons rather than furniture.


She looked around the room and raised an eyebrow at the object on the inflatable mattress. In his agitation, Pete had forgotten his cell phone. Or maybe he'd done it on purpose, looking for a reason to take his frustration out on her.


Either way – Darcy wasn't going to waste her time wondering. She got to her feet and experimentally pulled the bed. The floors were thankfully scuffed wood – Pete had dragged the bed around enough for her to know it was moveable. It only took a few minutes but it felt like time was going by way too fast. She managed to pull the bed far enough that she could reach the air mattress. Pete had moved it closer to the bed the night before. In his mind, he had been thoughtful and had given her some magazines to look out, so he'd shared the lantern.


It was like he couldn't make up his mind whether he was crazy or not. Which in her estimation made him more dangerous. So far he'd been controlling himself, but what was he going to do when he finally confronted Mark? She didn't think simply shooting him was part of the plan – she had yet to see Pete with a weapon other than the scalpel and his apparently unending supply of tranquilizers. She still had no idea what it was he'd been giving her, only that it worked fast and broke down in the system pretty fast as well. She had no idea where he kept it either. He usually waited until she was already dozing before he produced a needle to give her a dose.


Darcy snatched up the cell phone and then had to pause for a moment wondering just who in the world she could call. It would have been nice to hear Mark's voice but probably wasn't a good idea. Glen? The cops? Darcy wasted precious time debating her options, such as they were. In the end she dialed Glen's number because he was the only one she really trusted.




"It's me."




"He's gone. For the moment I think he's trying to figure out what to do next. He forgot his phone."


"Fuck…if he catches you using it…"


"Least of my worries." Darcy said. "I don't remember much of how I got here. He slipped me something in my drink at the hospital. It made me sick. We're somewhere out past the city limits, at an old abandoned farmhouse. One bedroom. I don't see anything outside except for trees and more trees." She spoke quickly, not giving him time to interrupt.


"We know he went north."


"Oh yeah? I don't think he stayed north." Darcy was looking out the window across the room, one she hadn't really paid attention to before. "As a matter of fact, I'd almost swear we were back in Gates Falls."


"What do you mean?"


"I can see the lake."


Glen was silent for a moment. "Part of the lake you know."


"Hard to tell. It's in the distance. But if Pete wanted to keep an eye on Mark then he would have wanted a place close. Maybe heading north was to mislead people who might look for me."


"How far from the lake? If you had to guess."


"Half a mile? Give or take. Hard to tell. I can't get close enough to the window to get a better look."


"Ok. I'm going to start looking." Glen sighed. "We're going to fix this."


"I'm gonna hold you to that." Darcy said, trying to keep her voice steady. She thought she heard the faint rattle of gravel and felt panic sink into her. "I have to go. He might be coming back."


"Be careful. We're gonna get you out of there as soon as we can."


"I know." Darcy whispered. She hit the end button then spent a few moments deleting the call record. She put the phone back on the inflatable bed in the same spot where Pete had left it and quickly shoved her own bed back into place.


By the time Pete walked in the door, Darcy was laying on her side facing the window, her cuffed left arm over her head. Pete was still agitated. She didn't have to roll over to see it. She could hear him pacing and tossing things around.


It wasn't until she felt the bed next to her shift that she paid any real attention. "He said he doesn't care about you. How much of that is a lie?"


Darcy closed her eyes. She knew that was a complete lie but Pete didn't need to know that. "I don't know." She felt something cold touch her arm and didn't have to look to know he had his scalpel in his hand.


"Whether he cares or not, I will deal with it. I have an idea but I'll need your help, Darcy."


She huffed out a short laugh. "Because I'm in a position to be helpful?"

"Because you want to save your own ass." As he spoke he let his hand drop until he was cupping her rear in his hand. He squeezed. Darcy made no indication of noticing. "You'll do one thing for me, and I'll let you go. Unharmed."


"And what thing is that?"


His hand lifted away from her for a moment, then came down again and slid up her hip, over her side, until he was cupping her breast in his hand through the thin pajama top she wore. Darcy did not worry about this. He seemed to be doing it simply to see her reaction, not because he was motivated sexually. Darcy was almost convinced he wasn't able to act on it – that was what the problem was. He might want to, but his body would not cooperate with him. She would have laughed had she been in a different spot; a would-be rapist with erectile dysfunction. Her psych prof would have a field day.


"Don't worry. Nothing too taxing. As a matter of fact, you might enjoy it since you're so mad at him." He squeezed her again then pulled away and paced off through the house. Darcy fought the urge to shudder and wished, not for the first time, for a hot shower. Now her mind turned worriedly to what exactly it might be that Pete expected her to do that would hurt Mark. A few stray tears slipped from her eyes but she blinked them away quickly. She could break down later. For now she needed to keep her mind clear.




It was almost time to hear back from Pete. Mark kept looking at Glen's phone, willing it to ring. He tried to pay attention to the matter in front of them but it was lost on him – this was not his home turf, he knew practically nothing about the geography.


It amazed him that Darcy had managed to call Glen again. And he'd missed it. Then again, maybe that was for the best. He had never had any sort of anxiety issues, not even when he was sitting in a holding cell waiting for his trial to start. He knew why of course – the trial had only affected him, and he hadn't cared. He'd been defeated before he'd ever stepped into the courtroom. This wasn't about him though. Darcy was innocent, she didn't deserve this. Yet another reason why he should have stayed out of her life.


For her sake, he wished he could have resisted the urge to see her again. She wouldn't be in this mess now. He felt like he had somehow cursed her, even if Glen had cleaned up the fiasco that had been his trial and conviction. It was as if a dark cloud followed him, and Darcy was paying the price for it.


Glen had cleared off one of Ava's drawing tables, which was easier than moving computers around. He had also scrounged up a few maps that showed Graves Falls. One of them showed property lines. Mark had been amazed at first but then he realized that Glen's family had been the founders so it shouldn't have shocked him to learn that besides a few small properties the rest of the county was owned by Graves Trust Partners – Glen, in other words. It was one thing hearing it, quite another to see it on paper.


"There are still too many places they could be." Ava said. She had pins, which she affixed to the map at all the properties that were within a half-mile of the lake. There were several dozen.


"We can eliminate some." Glen touched one of the pins. "This one. Those college kids from one of the frat houses rented it for the summer. Too close to the water, and hardly where you'd hide somebody. I think there were eight of them."


Ava flicked the pin away. "These are too close together. You can see houses on either side from the middle house." Glen nodded and pulled the pins. "That one is Jack Winslow's place. He's got eight kids."


"We could do this all day." Glen pointed out. He eyed the map. Forget where it couldn't be. Give me some possibilities."


Ava eyed the map. "You know the place better than I do."


Glen didn't have to answer. His phone began to ring. He looked at it, then the clock, then Mark. "Bound to be him. Go ahead."


Mark nodded and picked it up. "Yeah?" The phone was still connected to Glen's computer. Mark otherwise would have been pacing with it.


"Here's the deal." Pete didn't bother with any fake pleasantries, or taunting. "An even trade. You for her. You come here…alone…and do what I say, she walks."


"Fair enough."


"You understand what I mean by alone right? No cops. No friends. Just you."


"Yeah. I get it."


"Good. I'm going to text you directions and instructions. And I'm going to be timing you. You take longer than you should, I give Darcy a new and interesting scar to share with her friends. I see someone with you, or even thinking you contacted the police – well. A scar will be the least of her problems."


"You can stop with the threats. I understood the first time."


"And no weapons. Not even a pair of nail clippers."




"You'll get your first text in five minutes. I'd suggest you head to your vehicle." With that, Pete hung up. Mark looked to Glen.


"Did you get all that?"


"Yeah. And you of course are not going alone."


"I have to."




"I won't risk her."


"You honestly think he'll just let her go?"


"I honestly don't know. And I honestly don't want to put her in any more danger than she's already in."


Glen eyed him. "I'm going. I'll be right behind you. Here." He held out his hand for the phone. Mark handed it over reluctantly. Glen pulled the cords and opened the message function. "Every time he texts you, you forward it to me. You just hit this button, then this one." Glen showed him. "I can follow without him knowing it."


"With the cops?"


Glen looked at him steadily. "Do you honestly think the cops would fare better?"


Mark slowly shook his head. As a victim of the system, such as it was, he didn't trust anyone in uniform as a general rule. Even less when it was his own neck on the line. But what Glen was hinting at was doing something worse than involuntary manslaughter. They were edging into cold-blooded murder territory.




The messages sent Mark on a nearly hour long drive – a roundabout way to get to where he was going less than five miles from Glen's house. He supposed it would deter anyone from following him. He sent every message on to Glen, hoping he would stay far enough back so that this guy didn't get spooked enough to hurt Darcy. It seemed as if he were just looking for an excuse.


By the time he was directed to a nearly overgrown gravel drive, dusk was falling. Dark would come early this far away from street lights. Mark couldn't decide if that was in his favor or against.


He rounded a bend and his foot automatically stepped on the brake. His headlights picked out the house – an old single story house, one step up from a shack, with a sagging roof and an overgrown dooryard. In the middle of the yard was a picnic table, which also looked like it had seen better days. And sitting on the table was Darcy.


She didn't look up when he pulled in. Mark caught a glint of metal and saw that her wrists were handcuffed together. He felt his anger go up a notch. Other than the cuffs there was no outward sign that she'd been hurt. He finally focused on the man who stood next to her. He'd seen pictures and even seeing him in person did not refresh Mark's memory. He had never seen this guy before, never spoken to him.


The guy gestured Mark out of the truck and again there was that glint of metal. This time it took longer in figuring it out because it was so small and on the few occasions when Mark had been in need of a procedure requiring instruments, the only scalpel he'd ever seen was the disposable kind.


Mark turned off the engine and got out, slamming the door shut behind him. He left the headlights on because it really was getting dark. He would take any advantage he could get, even a weak one.


"Were you followed?" Pete asked, leaning casually on the table next to Darcy.




"Should I believe him?" Pete aimed that at Darcy. She shrugged and still did not look up. Mark resolutely kept his gaze on Pete.


"I'm here. Let her go." Mark pointed out.


"On my schedule, not yours." Pete reached over and pushed Darcy's hair back out of her face. He had given Darcy some clothes to put on – jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a thin jacket. He had even taken the time to brush her hair. Darcy had sat calmly throughout that ordeal. She had been quiet since the phone call earlier, speaking only in yes or no answers even when he threatened her or touched her. Pete had wondered if he had broken her spirit finally, which would be a pity but not a complete surprise. "I need her for a few more minutes anyway. Empty your pockets."


Mark sighed and did it. He had his wallet. The phone was still in the truck on the seat, the keys in the ignition. He had cleaned everything else out before heading out.


"Jacket off."


Mark tossed the leather jacket he'd put on against the cool air to the ground. Then realizing this was basically a pat-down without the touching he went so far as to raise his shirt and turn so the idiot could see he didn't have a gun tucked into his waistband. Ava had offered rather emphatically but Mark hadn't even been tempted. He wouldn't risk it setting the guy off. He bent and raised the pant legs of his jeans too, just in case the guy thought he'd carry an ankle holster. Or a knife. Possibly a rocket launcher. He had no idea how the guy's mind was working.


"Satisfied?" Mark asked, straightening his shirt.


"Eventually." He motioned Mark forward. "Come on over and have a seat. This will only take a minute." Pete stepped back so that Mark could sit on the table next to Darcy. It took all of his willpower to hold himself away from her; to in fact try to act like her presence next to him meant absolutely nothing. After his initial assessment he kept his eyes to himself. "Darcy…" Pete held out his hand. Darcy looked at it for a solid minute before lifting her own. Both of her own. The cuffs rattled as Pete took her hand and helped her stand up. "I'm going to let her do the honors, so to speak."


"The honor of what?" Mark asked in a low voice. He watched as Pete drew something out of his pocket. Not the scalpel, although that was still in his hand. It was a syringe filled with clear fluid.


"Making you nice and docile." He stepped closer to Darcy, standing behind her, raising the hand that now held the scalpel. "And you're going to do it without an argument. Or she's going to pay for it."


"I told you to stop threatening me."


"I'm not threatening you." He traced her cheek with one finger, then set the blade of the scalpel against her cheek, not applying any pressure. Darcy held herself utterly still though. All it would take was a slight movement and she'd be cut. "I'm threatening her. But Darcy has agreed to play along for a while yet, haven't you sweetheart?"


Darcy nodded, still not looking at Mark. Instead she kept her eyes fixed on the ground.

"Once you've had your medicine, we'll take your truck…away…and Darcy is free to walk out of here."


"I'm supposed to believe that?"


"I haven't harmed her yet." As if that proved anything. Pete smiled hollowly. "Although I can and I will. A little slip up…" Darcy winced as the blade bit into her skin. Not much. Just the point. Mark held himself still, wrestling with the need to launch himself at the man as a drop of blood rolled down Darcy's cheek, her neck, and stained the white collar of the shirt she was wearing. "Look at that. Clumsy me." He lifted the pressure. The cut was small – less than half an inch, not deep, but it was bleeding quite a bit. "Guess it doesn't matter. My little dream of being a surgeon someday has pretty much been cancelled." He reached down, grabbed Darcy's hand, and turned it over. He put the syringe into her palm. "You give him his shot, Darcy. It's good practice for you. Practical use of your skills."


Darcy's fingers closed around the syringe. She hesitated for a moment and Mark could see she was eying the cuffs.


"Don't worry." Pete apparently saw the direction of her look as well. "They won't get in your way. We don't need to keep a sterile field around here."


"On the arm?" It was the first time she had spoken. Her voice was flat. Mark had a moment to wonder if she had been drugged and figured it was probably likely.


"That would be fine. Try about half. Any more than that and he might not wake up." He laughed and it sounded fake. He also sounded condescending, as if speaking to a slow child. Mark fisted his hands and moved them to his lap. He was about two seconds away from snapping the guy in half.


Pete continued stroking Darcy's hair for a moment, watching Mark for a reaction. An odd half-smile stayed on his mouth as Darcy stepped forward, closing the distance between them. Although she had sounded drugged, her hands were steady as she removed the cap that protected the needle. Pete watched her closely as she raised the sleeve of Mark's t-shirt and turned the needle in her hand.


Her eyes finally raised up and met Mark's. And he saw what she intended to do. No wonder she had been looking down. Before he could try to stop her, or move, she gripped the shaft of the syringe in her hand, spun on her heel, and stabled the needle into the side of Pete's neck.


He tried to slice her with the scalpel as she pressed the plunger and released the full dose of tranquilizer into his system. It happened so fast that Mark barely registered her moving even though he understood she'd meant to do it as soon as he'd seen the look in her eyes.


Darcy stepped back. Pete took a step after her, two, then went down on his knees. The needle was still sticking out of his neck. He dropped his scalpel and groped for it weakly, fingers brushing it before he fell forward onto his face in the grass.


Darcy was breathing heavily, staring down at him. It wasn't until Mark got to his feet that she looked at him. She raised her hands and for a moment Mark thought she was pointing out the handcuffs. It took a beat to realize that Pete's last swing with the scalpel had actually connected. Her jacket and shirt were soaked and blood was gushing from a cut on her arm. Darcy's knees came unhinged and Mark jumped toward her, catching her, cursing under his breath as she passed out. He fumbled for a moment, holding her and yanking his shirt off over his head to use to try to stop the bleeding.


He kept an eye on the prone body of Pete the whole time. Minutes passed, only a few, but it seemed to go on forever. He heard the sound of tires on gravel and rose to his feet, cradling Darcy in his arms as Glen pulled to a halt behind Mark's truck.


"She got hurt." Mark said before Glen could fully exit his own truck.


"How bad?"


"She passed out. He cut her arm." Mark noted the way Glen's eyes went to Pete. "She got him. Pumped him full of drugs. I don't know if he's just passed out or…" He didn't need to finish.


Glen tried to look at Darcy's cut arm but it was still bleeding profusely. "We've got to get her to the hospital."


"That's a thirty minute drive from here."


"I know. But I don't think a bandaid is gonna do it." Glen reached out and took Mark's shoulders in his hands. "Can you get her to the hospital without wrecking your shit in the process?"


Mark nodded, turning toward his truck. Glen held onto him a moment longer. "What? I can't waste anymore time."


"There are going to be questions. Lots of questions." Glen said, speaking fast, knowing Mark was eager to get Darcy to help. "Keep your mouth shut, and tell Darcy to do that same. At least until I get this cleaned up."


Mark nodded. "Cleaned up how?" He couldn't help but ask.


"It's maybe better you shouldn't know that part of things. He had to have had the cuff key on him. Wait." Glen said grimly. He let Mark's shoulders go and went to Pete, where he checked his pockets. He pulled out a small ring of keys. A moment of fumbling and the cuffs were off Darcy's wrists. "Go. Be careful."


Mark didn't need to be told twice. He slid Darcy's limp body into the passenger seat of his truck and pulled out, getting one last glance of Glen standing over Pete's still prone form, a phone against his ear. In two minutes he was speeding toward the university hospital, one hand holding the makeshift bandage in place on Darcy's arm to try to stop her from losing even more blood.




Two days, a blood transfusion, a tetanus shot, antibiotics, and 29 stitches later, Darcy was released from the hospital. The police had prodded but mildly. Especially when Glen was in the room – and he was, constantly. Mark spent the first night with her while she slept, refusing to leave her side even though it was obvious she wouldn't be waking up. He sat up, holding on to her uninjured hand, just watching her.


Glen insisted on spelling him in the daytime, and although Mark wanted to stay by that point he was a perpetual zombie on his feet. He didn't go far though – Glen had secured a private room for Darcy and Mark took up the couch in the corner. It was uncomfortable but he was so tired by that time he didn't really care. It was after lunch that first full day that she started coming out of it. Glen had taken Ava to get something to eat, and Mark was alone when he felt Darcy's fingers tighten against his and watched her eyes flutter open.


His chair was right next to her bed. He leaned forward and brought her hand to his lips, kissing the back of it. "Hey."


"Hey." Her voice was hoarse. She swallowed a few times and blinked, trying to clear her vision. "Where am I?"


"Hospital. They've got you on some kind of IV." Darcy tried to push herself up but Mark laid his hand against her chest. "Don't. You need your rest."


"I was pretty much shackled to a bed for three days."


"I know, darlin'." Mark brushed her hair back from her forehead. "But this time it's so you won't get sick. Plus you gotta watch your stitches. Don't want to pull them out."


Darcy raised her left arm and looked at the bandages there. "He cut me?"


"You don't remember that part?"


"Not really." She frowned and relaxed against her pillow. "I remember he wanted me to dose you."


"Yeah." Mark continued lightly stroking the side of her face, avoiding the butterfly bandage that covered the cut on her cheek. Every time he looked at it he wished he could get his hands on the man who had done it but he realized that Pete was beyond his reach now.


Odd thing was, Glen wouldn't say what had happened to him. Mark had wanted reassurance that the man was gone, and Glen had offered that. He had even gone so far as to claim that Pete was dead. But when Mark had asked if it had been the tranquilizer that Darcy had shot him with, Glen had merely shrugged, clapped his shoulder, and told him not to worry about it. It was taken care of.


Mark wasn't worried about it. Not for himself. But he did worry about Darcy, about her state of mind. Their situations were different but he knew about how messed up the feeling of responsibility in a death was. And he hated that she'd have to go through it.

She wasn't up for long the first time. The second time she was more with it although she still said she had some spotty memory issues. That time Glen had been in the room, as well as Mark. They had gone over the story to tell the police, although Glen said he was sure they had enough information from him. Meaning he had told them to back off. It was unspoken but understood by the people in the hospital room anyway.


Officially their story was that Pete had taken Darcy but had left her after the first night. She hadn't seen him since, and neither had anyone else. As far as they knew he could be halfway to anywhere. Just another student who had cracked under pressure. It was sad for the kids that he had cared for but for the people who understood what he was, it was a relief. Mark had to wonder how many of those kids had been in danger while the unstable man was supposed to be treating them.


That was in the past thankfully. Darcy managed to sit up the second time, and got to drink for the first time. That night she insisted on being left alone – according to her, all of them looked like hell and she didn't want them stealing her thunder. Mark left only because Glen practically dragged him out. He reassured him, once again, that Darcy would be fine. Pete was gone.


On checkout day Mark went to pick her up. He was going to take her to Glen's, to the apartment over the garage. Mark didn't plan on staying there long though. He went into Darcy's room carrying her overnight bag full of clothes. And was surprised to see her up and about, IV pole gone, large bandages exchanged for smaller versions.


He had to help her get dressed, especially getting her shirt over her arm. It was sore and would be for a while, until the cut had healed enough to stop pulling. And honestly helping her get dressed gave Mark an opportunity to look at her from top to bottom, to be sure the cut on her arm and the smaller version on her cheek were the only injuries she had suffered.


"Stop inspecting me." Darcy finally said, self consciously trying to button her shirt.


"I can't help it." Mark caught her hands and pulled her gently up against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and smiled when she did the same, mindful of her injured arm.


"I'm fine." She said, smiling a little. Mark nodded.


"I'm sure you are. But I can't help but wonder what went on." He hated to bring it up but it ate at him. Especially since Pete had hinted at raping Darcy.


She made a face. "Nothing. Mostly he just threatened me. Even that was weak at the end."


"What aren't you telling me?"


"What's the point of dwelling on it? He's gone."


"I know. But for my own peace of mind…" He let it hang there. Darcy sighed.


"Other than flashing his scalpel at me, he groped me a couple of times. Mostly to see what I would do." She felt Mark suck in a deep breath and stopped him before he could speak. "I don't think he had the ability to do more than that. If you catch my drift."


"I do." He didn't want to find it funny, but in an odd way he did.


"Can we please never bring this up again? Of all the shit in my life I'd like to forget, the time I spent in that asshole's company is at the top of the list."


"If that's what you want." Mark let her go and finished buttoning her shirt. In half an hour she was ready to go. The ride back to Glen's was made in silence. Mark held her hand the entire trip, smiling every time she tightened her grip on his. Glen and Ava were out, presumably shopping – wedding or baby, Mark had no idea. It meant they had some quiet time together before he had to share her. The first thing she wanted was a long, hot shower. The hospital had cleared her to shower if she could keep her bandages dry for a couple of day. Mark was only too happy to help her out. It gave him a convenient excuse to get his hands on her anyway.


He was more nervous now after three months than he'd been after waiting eight years. Maybe because he had come so close to losing her. Their lovemaking was slow and sweet and, yes he had to admit, careful. He was afraid of hurting her. But Darcy did not want him to stop; she held onto him and rocked him into her body until they were both satisfied and dozing in the afternoon sun that came in through the window over the bed.


It was much later, after supper, after everyone else had gone to bed that Darcy had wandered off. Mark worried for about thirty seconds then realized – there was really only one place she would have gone. He set off through the gate Glen had installed, following the faint path in the moonlight until he reached the beach. Darcy was sitting in the grass, a sweater wrapped around her, looking out at the water that was far too cold for swimming now.


"I realize that I should have said I was going for a walk." Darcy said without looking around. Mark smiled and sat down next to her, draping an arm around her shoulders.


"I managed to figure it out on my own. What's on your mind? You've been quiet."


"I know." She sighed and rested her chin on her raised knee. The butterfly bandaged on her cheek glowed white against her skin. And he didn't get angry about it. He was sad. She'd be wearing a couple of scars because of him. If he had never come into her life…if he had just stayed away…

Mark shook his head. He couldn't keep beating himself up over it. Darcy was fine. He was fine. They would be fine together. More that fine, in fact. If Mark had his way Darcy would be living with him permanently. "You know?"


"Yeah. I'm going to quit."


Mark was confused. "Quit?"


"School. I'm going to quit school."




"I know. It's stupid of me, I'm almost done, another six months and I'd be finished. But I have to be honest, Mark. If this was what I really wanted it would not have taken me this long to get this far."


"I think you've lost me."


Darcy sighed. "Being a nurse – it's like a career goal somebody else had that I kind of took over. I'm good at it. You know why?" Mark shook his head, knowing that an answer was not necessary. "Because I work hard to be good at it. It doesn't come naturally to me like it does for people like Sue or Carol. I've had a week to think about it, pretty much. And being a nurse is not what I want."


"What do you want?" Mark asked softly.


"I don't know. And it scares the hell out of me." Darcy absently brushed at her cheeks and it took Mark a moment to realize that she was crying. "I killed him, didn't I?"


Mark hugged her closer to his side. "I don't know, darlin'. Glen won't say." And Darcy knew that. She had tried to ask Glen about it but he was keeping his mouth shut.


"I'm not crying because of that. That was a necessary thing. I wasn't going to let him hurt you again." Darcy leaned against him. "But I don't know where I go from here."


Mark cleared his throat. He knew an opening when he was presented with one. "For starters – you can move in with me."


She laughed but it sounded watery. "Right. And you can be my sugar daddy, spending all your reacquired wealth on me."


Mark smiled at that. "If you would let me I would. But I was thinking more along the lines of 'what's mine is yours'. I want to settle down. I want to pick up the threads and get started living. I spent eight years on hold. Even if the conviction is overturned, that's time I can't get back." He stroked his hand through her hair. "And it means that I can't afford to waste any more time. I did enough of that already."


"What does that have to do with me?" Darcy asked, looking up at him. There was enough moonlight so that he could see her eyes and the tracks of wetness on her cheeks.


"Everything." Mark reached out and wiped her tears away with his fingertips. "I'm gonna need help. And probably an occasional kick in the ass."




"And you'll figure out in your own good time what you want to do. If not a nurse then something else. I'll back you up."


"I was thinking of starting a daycare."


Mark smiled at that. "See. Planning already."


"No. It's a pipe dream. I don't know anything about running a business. But I like kids. And the kids liked me. I could see doing something like that, at least for a while. Or maybe…I don't know…becoming a teacher. It would mean more school but..." She faded away.


"Could Gates Falls use a daycare?"


"Gates Falls could use quite a few things. And yes. Right now most people have to take their kids into town."


"Then we can make it happen. We'll get our own place, we'll put down our own roots." Mark braced himself although he still smiled. "In case you were wondering, this is my very convoluted way of asking you to marry me."


Darcy laughed softly at that. "I suppose I'd better say yes then. It would cut down on the confusion." She put her fingers against his lips when he tried to duck down and kiss her. "We still have a lot to figure out."


"I know." Mark kissed her fingers before taking her hand and pulling her close. As he pressed his mouth to hers he couldn't help but wonder just how one man's luck could shift so drastically. He'd been through hell for eight long years. Now he had heaven in his arms and a future at his fingertips, and it was all thanks to a breakdown on a lonely empty road in the middle of the night.


The End.