Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

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ArchAngel1973
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Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby ArchAngel1973 » Sun Feb 21, 2016 12:26 pm

L-J-L 76: Thanks! Chances are very good that they will!

sarammlover: That reunion was a long time coming but it went well! It’s a rough road coming from where Max came from and having that strong network working together with the will to survive the past is the key. Alex and Isabel and Jenny are very lucky people and they’re so fortunate to be able to make a life together as a family. Thank you!

keepsmiling7: Thank you!

Lol, Diablo has the best of everything, doesn’t he?

Liz has come a very long way since the beginning of this story and I can’t imagine their ending being any less than perfect.

Natalie36: Thanks for reading!

Eva: Thank you! Max has been through so much in his young life but he has an inner strength that has pushed him to reach for more than he’s known. Money is nice, but as you say, that’s not what makes him a rich man.

I love ensemble fics and while this one has primarily revolved around Max and his story, it’s been a lot of fun to see what the other characters were doing.

begonia9508: Lol, it was a long wait, again, but here’s another part!

There were some very hard parts to write. Some of the things these characters have dealt with have been difficult to say the least, but they’ve managed to survive and now they’ll begin to thrive.

Roswelllostcause: Thanks! Diablo is a lot of fun to write. Yep, the pieces are getting there.

AlysLuv: That’s a lot of reading! I’ll confess there are times I have to do that same thing! After all the ups and downs we’re finally seeing everyone find their place in the group and it’s wonderful to see.

dreamon: Thanks for reading!

Alien_Friend: Thank you! After the darker moments it’s so good to finally reach a place where the group is getting past that. Jenny has made a huge difference in Alex and Isabel’s lives. For Alex, he’s finding himself ready to reach for things that for so long he’s been unable to do and it’s good for him. Being able to share that with Jenny makes it that much sweeter.

Shakes took great care in making sure the people important to Max were taken care of. And Max, well, he wasn’t about to let Dottie get hurt by her son’s careless attitude.

Liz has changed so much over the course of the story and it’s been an interesting journey. I have a feeling you’re right… she and Max will make wonderful parents someday.

Diablo is amazing and he leaps off of the pages. Sometimes I fully expect to see him when I’m writing, lol.

BQ1: Thank you for that amazing compliment!

xilaj: Welcome back! It’s good to ‘see’ you again! The journey getting to this point was important, but seeing how things unfold once Knight was taken out is just as important. Shakes pulled out all the stops making sure that everyone Max cares about was taken care of.

I would also like to see that. Shakes, I believe you’re right – he does have the furthest to go. This is a story that I’m having a hard time letting go of because I have immensely enjoyed writing it and seeing where it went. Thank you so much for that compliment!

Max knows what it’s like to grow up in the system and he’ll address the question about foster kids today.

It looks like Ava and Liz are well on their way to becoming friends. With a common bond like Max it would probably be strange if they didn’t.

Diablo, that dog has become such an important character. He gets a kick out of so many things when dealing with his humans. And of course, having a little one underfoot, er, paw, has really made him happy.

This group is definitely well on its way to becoming a family.

I think Max and Isabel are going to have a very good, strong relationship that grows over the years.

It wasn’t as soon as I would’ve liked, but I am back with a new part! Lol, and it’s still not over!



Part 64

The front door opened as Max ran up the steps and Liz waved at the driver when he tipped his hat and hurried back around the car. She closed the door as he drove away and turned to help her boyfriend out of his coat. “How’d it go with your sister?”

“It was amazing, Liz.” He held the file folder tightly as he freed his other arm from the sleeve of his coat. “She’s gonna talk to her fiancé about coming by on Christmas Eve.”

“That’s great!” She hung his coat up and reached out to tap the folder he was holding. “What’s this?”

“It’s stuff her dad kept on me.” He released it to her when Diablo ran into the room and he leaned over to give the dog a good rubdown. “Sorry about our run, buddy. I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.”

Liz bit her tongue to keep from disagreeing with him. She knew being outside was more than something he enjoyed, it was something he needed, but she worried that he was going to spend so much time outside that he’d end up sick. It was hard not to let her worry show but she tried to curb it because she didn’t want him to feel like he was being coddled.

He grinned at his girlfriend. “You can relax. I found a gym with an indoor track not far from the house, and with a little financial persuasion I was able to get a membership for me and Diablo. We have an hour before it opens to the public.” He shrugged when she looked at him. “I have to get out and run and I know you worry that I’m gonna make myself sick in this weather so I figured it’s a good compromise. And,” he wrapped his arms around her and lowered his head to kiss her, “just to sweeten the deal, I got a membership for you too.”

“Um-hmm, I know what time you go to work, remember? I love you but I’m not getting up at that time of the morning just to go running.”

He shook his head. “Nah, that hour’s just for me and Diablo. I know better than to think you’re gonna drag your butt outta bed to go for a run. The memberships are good for any time the gym’s open but the only time I could get him in was before they open to the public.”

Liz leaned back in his arms to study his features, seeing the happiness that just lit him up from the inside. “Did you guys have dinner?”

“No, you said you were cooking and her fiancé and daughter were waiting to eat with her.”

“Good, let’s go into the kitchen and you can tell me all about your visit while we eat.”

*****

Kyle ducked his head against the wind as he knocked on the front door of the modest two-story house. The Queens neighborhood was quiet, the streets nearly deserted as darkness began to settle over the city. He enjoyed this time of day, the brief lull that separated the hustle and bustle of the day from the electricity that charged the night. He turned his head and took a step back when the door was opened and he nodded at the man standing there.

“Somethin’ I can do for you?” The man was in his mid-sixties, slightly overweight, and balding. His worn uniform pants were held up by a pair of suspenders over a grease-stained tee shirt that was clean in spite of its appearance. He squinted through his glasses in an attempt to identify his visitor.

“Mr. Foster?” He nodded when the older man made a rolling motion with his right hand, the gesture filled with impatience. “I’m Kyle Valenti. I called earlier?”

“C’mon in.” Benjamin Foster studied him for several long minutes before he pushed the screen door open and stood back so he could enter.

“I appreciate you agreeing to see me.” He rubbed his hands together to warm them up.

“You’re just lucky the wife was a packrat, son.” He led the way through the house and into the living room that showed signs of a hurried tidying. “I don’t think she ever threw a damn thing away. Didn’t matter how big or small it was, if it was broken or not, if it came into this house, she held onto it.”

Kyle smiled at the older man’s grumbling. He could remember Grandpa going on about similar things after Grandma passed away and in spite of the words that had sometimes sounded harsh, it had been impossible to miss the underlying mixture of pain, loneliness and affection that colored his voice.

“Well, it took some doin’ but I finally managed to dig up what you’re looking for.” He waved his visitor into a chair as he shuffled over to the desk by the window to pick up the shoebox. His hands shook as he lifted the lid off of the box. “My Delia was a strong woman and she had a heart of gold but it got broken so many times over the years.” He held the shoebox out to the younger man. “Here’s what you were lookin’ for.”

He accepted the box and reached inside, picking up a raggedy stuffed giraffe and looking at it for a few moments before sitting it on the arm of the chair. He lifted up the handful of photographs and sifted through them before carefully placing them back inside along with the toy. “Mr. Foster, I can’t tell you what this means.”

The man handed the box lid over to him before taking his seat and shifting around to find the right spot. “She was a social worker for nearly forty years and it just about killed her every time she lost a kid.” He shook his head. “That one there,” he pointed at the box, “that one haunted her. Little girl was devastated after losing her parents. Six or seven years old if I remember correctly, and Delia couldn’t find the right home for her. Grandparents didn’t want her, said she’d be a reminder of what they’d lost. She placed her in a home, the first of many, and after the first few placements her boss moved the girl to another caseworker, said Delia was getting too involved, taking the situation too personally. Foster parents tried but the girl couldn’t seem to adjust and then she ended up in a bad situation, kind no kid should ever be subjected to.”

“Your wife felt responsible,” Kyle guessed with a sympathetic nod.

“Like I said, she felt it in here,” he tapped his chest. “Wasn’t her fault.”

“No sir, it wasn’t.” He shook his head. “I know it doesn’t help, but Ava doesn’t blame her. She couldn’t remember your wife’s name, but she described her perfectly. When I started looking for some of her parents’ things I never imagined it’d lead me here.”

“Delia wanted to get those things to the girl but by the time she was able to get her hands on what’s in that box it was too late, kid was in the wind.” His tired gaze lifted to the younger man and he gave him a slight smile. “It would’ve meant so much to her to know those things had finally made it into the hands of their rightful owner.”

“It’ll mean the world to Ava to have these things, Mr. Foster.”

“She’s doin’ alright then?”

“Yes sir, she’s better than alright now. It’s been a hard road getting to this point, but she’s made of tough stuff.”

“That’d make Delia happy.” He forced a smile as he got to his feet. “She always felt it deeply when one of the kids slipped through the cracks or when the system just flat out failed them. She gave a lifetime to a career that was thankless most of the time. She was cussed out, spit on, physically assaulted a couple of times and even held at gunpoint once, but she couldn’t let go of that job.”

“The kids she helped, they were her reason for doing the job day after day. They might not have appreciated it at the time, at least not all of them, but what she did, it made a difference in their lives.”

Benjamin nodded as he led the way over to the front door. The conversation was exhausting him and the need to be alone with his grief was overwhelming. He was grateful when the younger man didn’t ask any questions or try to extend the visit, following him to the door and shaking his hand before taking his leave.

*****

The contents of the file were strewn across the living room floor and Max lay on his stomach, weight braced on his forearms as he read document after document. Liz was sitting close by, leaning back against the couch as she scanned over the report in her hands. Diablo was stretched out between them, sleeping soundly while his humans went about their business.

“This’s interesting…”

“What’s that?” Max asked without looking up from the paperwork he was reading through.

“Your cellmate’s name was Sands, wasn’t it?”

“Um-hmm, Garrett Sands.” He glanced at her. “Why?”

“Knight wasn’t the one who arranged for him to be your cellmate.” She scooted closer with the file and laid it out in front of him. “Isabel’s father made that deal. Look.” She pointed at the entry. “Judge Conroy sentenced Sands and after meeting with Philip Evans he made the recommendation that he be placed with you.”

He read through the documents in disbelief. “And all these years I thought it was Damon that made that happen.” He’d certainly been quick to take credit for it. He winced. “I was afraid Ava had sold her soul to the devil to broker that deal.”

“You’ve never asked her?”

He shook his head. “No. I’ve always been afraid of the answer.” He gnawed on his bottom lip. “I know what I almost did when her life was on the line. If it weren’t for Shakes…”

Liz rubbed his arm. She knew she’d never understand the life he’d led before they met, never understand being pushed so far into a corner that selling her body was the only option that stood between a friend living or dying. She had a feeling the only way to understand that would be to live it and she hoped she was never put in a position where a situation like that made sense. She leaned against his side and ran her fingers through his hair, her thoughts interrupted when he turned the page and shifted as his brow pulled down in a frown.

“Liz, look at this.” He pushed himself up into a sitting position and picked the file up. “Your parents’ program… he made arrangements for me to be entered into it several years ago.” He scanned over the forms requesting admittance. “Why would he do that? I mean, okay, he knew me when I was a little kid, but he’s got copies of my rap sheet in here, he saw what I’d done, what I was capable of…” he shook his head.

“He obviously saw something too many people overlooked.”

“If it wasn’t for the program I don’t know where I’d be today.”

“You would’ve gotten out of that other life, Max.”

“Maybe. I wanted out, but on my own?” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know, Liz. It’s not that I wouldn’t have tried my damnedest, but I was on my own. The program changed my life. It gave me somethin’ I’d never had before. I had Ava, and we had each other’s backs without question, but having you and everyone else there, that’s what made it possible to take Damon down. Take one of you out of the equation and,” he shrugged, “I don’t know what the outcome would’ve been.”

She rested her chin on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got into the program. It doesn’t matter who got you in or why though because it wasn’t the program that changed your life.” She pressed her hand against his chest. “It’s what’s in here that made that change possible. This kinda change doesn’t happen unless you make it happen.”

“It still takes a lot of help,” he said as he turned his head to smile at her. “But thanks for the vote of confidence.” He paused to run his fingers over the results of a paternity test. “I wasn’t his but I meant enough to him that he wanted a better life for me.”

Liz reached up to comb her fingers through his hair as she looked down to follow his gaze. “I’m glad things went so well with your sister.”

He nodded in agreement. “It’s funny. You get an idea in your head of how people are based on the everyday stereotypes and sure, it’s true a lot of the time, but sometimes it’s so far off base it’s laughable.” He rolled his eyes. “DJ completely destroys the rich boy stereotype. He’s nothing like I would’ve expected. I would’ve thought he’d be spoiled and self-centered, but he’s able to balance all that wealth with an unexpected amount of humility. Michael blows the ex-con that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks stereotype outta the water. With his history you’d think he’d be hardened by his past and his time in prison, but he managed to overcome all of that to become this guy that’s honorable and works hard to do the right thing.” He grinned. “And Isabel? She’s so down to earth and… normal. Yeah, she’s got money and there’s no mistaking which side of the tracks she came from, but even though we’re so different I don’t have any difficulty imagining us building a relationship.”

“I was talking to Mom about her. Did you know she used to work with Isabel’s mom? They chaired a few charity committees together. Small world, huh?”

“Yeah, she told me after her mom died she carried on with her work.”

Liz shifted to lie on the floor next to him. “At the children’s home?”

“Um-hmm.” His gaze drifted over the file, not really reading, just looking. “That’s where they adopted their daughter from.” He pushed the file back and turned to brace his weight on his elbow. “Liz, we’ve talked pretty seriously about a future together, but we’ve never really talked about kids.” He shrugged. “I know you asked me about it once a while back, but it wasn’t like we were talking about it directly, just kinda… I don’t know, in an abstract sense maybe?”

Her thoughts drifted for a moment, going back to a recent conversation she’d had with Dr. Kendrick, the therapist DJ had recommended. Even after agreeing to go to counseling with Max she’d felt hesitant, uncomfortable about putting all of her emotional baggage out there for the woman to see, and it hadn’t taken long to realize that Max wasn’t any more comfortable with it than she was. The doctor had suggested they might feel more comfortable if they had separate sessions to begin with and after a while move on to joint sessions.

It had helped immensely and while they had graduated to joint sessions, they both continued to see her individually. It was in a recent session that the doctor had inquired about her dreams. She had admitted early on to putting many of them on the backburner after the incident with Dennis Rhoads and Dr. Kendrick had picked up on that but rather than pursuing it at that time she’d held onto it for a later date.

“You said a few weeks back that you’d lost the dream of having a husband and children.” Dr. Kendrick watched her patient, searching for signs of discomfort and not finding any.

“When I was younger I knew that was what I wanted. My parents only had me, not because they didn’t want more kids, but because it just didn’t happen for them. They gave me everything parents should give their children – unconditional love, support, discipline, and an example that made me want to have what they had.” She shook her head. “What they still have.”

“But you wanted something more?”

“I wanted a brother or a sister, y’know? It’s a little lonely being an only child.”

“So when you pictured your future, you had more than one child in mind.”

“Yeah, a whole houseful,” she said with a quiet sigh.

Dr. Kendrick smoothed a wrinkle out of her pants, giving her patient a moment to compose herself. “When did that dream go up on a shelf?”

“The night Dennis Rhoads attacked me and stripped away any belief I’d ever had that I was safe.”

“In our last session you said you felt safer than ever before.”

She nodded. “I do. For a while I know that feeling was tied to Diablo, to the steps I’d taken to make sure I understood every bit of the self defense lessons I’d taken, and then Max came into my life.” She smiled as so many memories flashed through her mind.

“He makes you feel safe.”

“Yes, he does. The longer we’re together the closer I feel to reaching for the dreams I let slip away.”


“Maybe we’re not ready yet,” he said, mistaking her silence for hesitation. “I’ve still got time before my parole ends, we’ve been together for quite a while but we’re really just getting started, and…” he stopped talking when she pressed a finger against his lips.

“I remember that conversation.” She smiled as she recalled that day with ease. That discussion had never really been far from her mind. “I think you’ll be a wonderful father to our children, Max, and I do want them with you, but…”

He cocked his head to one side as he looked at her, trying to decipher her expression. “But you don’t think we’re ready for that yet?”

“No, it’s not that. I’d like to spend more time with the two of us before we’re faced with morning sickness, diapers and middle of the night feedings. We’re both young and we’ve got time. I’ll admit, it’s tempting, especially when Cadence is around because I can see it, Max. When it happens I’ll embrace it with everything I have, but I just don’t want us to rush into it.”

He considered what she had said for several minutes before nodding. “Would you be open to adoption at some point?”

“Honestly, it’s not something I’d ever considered before meeting you. When Maria told me they were adopting Hunter all I could see was her sacrificing her freedom and then I figured that the novelty would wear off. And I also couldn’t understand why they’d want to take in a child that wasn’t even theirs.” She chuckled and shook her head. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it until the day you set me straight about a few things where their situation’s concerned and then I started looking at it from a different angle. Anyway, I said all that to get around to saying yes, I’m open to that option.”

“Even if the kid – or kids – was older?” he asked curiously.

“Even if,” she agreed.

*****

Isabel walked into MacArthur House, humming along with the Christmas music she could hear playing from the speakers in the recreation hall. The weather had turned cold with no sign of it switching back and the temperatures were too low for the children to be outside playing. They needed room to move around, to exercise; to play and burn off all that excess energy from being cooped up indoors, and the hall gave them that much needed outlet.

Alex and Jenny were at their last practice before Christmas and since they wanted to surprise her at the concert she wasn’t allowed to attend the practice sessions. She had been putting the finishing touches on a couple of desserts she’d made for Christmas Eve when she’d received a call from Sharon, asking if she could come to MacArthur right away. She turned down the hallway that led to the administrative wing and she could hear the older woman talking as she neared her office.

The frustration was evident in Sharon’s voice as she ended the conversation and disconnected the call. She sighed heavily and leaned back in her chair, running a hand through her hair before reaching for the earring lying on her desk.

“Rough day?” Isabel asked sympathetically.

“I’m really sorry for calling you in on your day off.”

She waved the apology aside and took a seat in one of the chairs facing the desk. She set her purse in the second chair and gave Sharon her full attention. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve had a few additions to MacArthur but as you know, we’re running at capacity right now and with the holiday right on top of us finding a place for them is proving to be next to impossible.” She rubbed her temples tiredly. “As soon as we find home for one of our little ones it seems like there are at least two to fill that spot.”

“How many?”

“I’ve managed to whittle it down to three but the problem is they’re siblings and they’ve been separated twice and it hasn’t worked well. They’re young but there’s a very strong bond between them and unfortunately folks either don’t want that many young children or they just don’t have the room to take them in.”

“How long have they been bounced around?”

“Just under a year. I’m worried that another foster situation will only cause more confusion and create more difficulty than it resolves.”

“Do you have their files?”

“Um-hmm.” She pulled the files and handed them over. “I wanted to see if you had any ideas.”

“So at this point separating them is our best option where available families are concerned,” she mused, her voice low. She scanned through the files, biting her bottom lip as she found herself in complete agreement with Sharon’s assessment. “It’d be bad enough to separate them at any other time, but right before Christmas?” She shook her head. “What about after the holidays? Anyone willing or able to take all three of them?”

“Willing, yes, but able, no.”

“Three, five and seven,” Isabel murmured as she studied the files. “They’re so young.”

“They certainly are that. Eric’s the oldest and he’s very vocal about the three of them staying together. Faith worships the ground he walks on and if he says it she believes it. Danny’s the youngest and even though his memories of his parents aren’t likely to keep him from settling in with another family, it’s apparent he’s most comfortable if his brother and sister are with him.”

“Well, I know it won’t solve the problem indefinitely, but I can give Alex a call. Maybe we can take the three of them in over the holidays, give us some time to find a more permanent home for them.”

“Oh, Isabel, I didn’t mean to suggest you should take them. You’ve got more than enough on your plate.”

Isabel shook her head. “It’d just be for a little more than a week.” She rubbed her brow as another thought hit her. “Although that could be more damaging in the end, couldn’t it?” She sighed heavily. “It’s a difficult position and they’re too young to really understand.” She and Alex could take them in, give them a home for a week or so, but in the end the children would be moved again. A heavy silence fell over them for a few moments. “Well, let me make some calls anyway.”

Sharon smiled and nodded in appreciation.

*****

Max whistled as he walked through his neighborhood on Christmas Eve morning, enjoying the freedom to be outdoors whenever he wanted. The air was crisp and cold and the weather forecast was calling for snow. He hoped it was right because he was looking forward to a white Christmas. He glanced up at the sky and smiled.

“Does Liz know you’re out in this cold?”

He turned his head when he heard the question voiced with concern and he smiled at his neighbor, Ashley Gentry. “Short reprieve before she puts me to work getting ready for dinner.”

The woman chuckled and shook her head at him. “You’re as bad as Henry.”

“You have company coming over?”

“All three of our boys are flying in and it’s nothing short of a miracle, Max. Our youngest was granted leave at the last minute and he’s on a transport headed home now. I still can’t believe he’s gonna be here for dinner.”

He smiled at her news. Her joy was palpable. He knew from recent conversations with her and her husband that their youngest son was stationed overseas and they hadn’t seen him in more than two years. “I’ll bet it’s gonna be a Christmas to remember.”

“He’ll be home through New Years’.” She sighed happily. “I’d best get back to the house. We weren’t expecting Henry Jr. so there’re a few things I’ll need to send Henry to the store for.”

Max snorted. “I’m sure he’ll love that.”

“He’ll grumble about it and try to get out of it but it’s all for show. Oh, he’ll hate it for sure, but he’ll go because he wants everything to be perfect too. He won’t admit it, but it’s true.” She winked at him. “Merry Christmas, Max.”

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Gentry.”

Diablo ran to greet him when he stepped through the gate and the dog grabbed the hem of his coat between his teeth and pulled, doing his best to hurry his human along.

“Alright, alright, I’m comin’. Did Liz send you out to get me?”

Playful growling and more tugging was his only answer.

They stepped through the front door a few minutes later and warmth surrounded them, temporarily making his skin feel like it was on fire. He shrugged out of his coat and hung it up before unlacing his boots and kicking them off. The house was filled with the scents of fresh evergreen, cinnamon and vanilla, and breakfast cooking. “Well, I don’t know about you but I’m starvin’.”

“Not so fast, mister,” Liz said when she came into the kitchen and caught him snooping through the covered dishes.

“What?” He shot a longing look at the fluffy scrambled eggs. “We don’t have to hang more lights or somethin’, do we?” He’d never done the Christmas thing and thanks to Liz the place looked great. But it had been a lot of work and he really didn’t want to check more bulbs, hang more lights, or anything else related to decorating.

“No.” She smiled and shook her head at him. “It can wait. Go on and fix a plate.”

His hand hovered over the lid of the pan as he shot a glance at her over his shoulder. “You sure?”

She pulled a couple of plates down and motioned for him to remove the lid. “I’m sure.” She nodded at Diablo and gave a command with her right hand as soon as Max turned his attention back to the food. The dog shook his head before bounding out of the room, disappearing from sight before Max was finished filling the first plate.

They took their time over breakfast, discussing things that still needed to be done before their company started to arrive in a few hours. Once the food had been consumed and the dishwasher loaded he looked around, realizing that Diablo had been mysteriously absent during the meal.

“He’s waiting with your Christmas present,” Liz said when she caught him searching for Diablo.

“I thought we were waiting until tomorrow to exchange presents.”

“We are, but there was a miscommunication about one of yours and since Diablo picked it out he’s impatient to give it to you.”

Max chuckled and took her hand. “Then I guess we shouldn’t keep him waiting any longer.”

“Go in the living room and he’ll bring it to you.” She gave him a nudge in that direction. “Let me go tell him you’re ready.”

He wondered if this was what it would be like when they had kids. Kids, he thought with a smile. He looked around the room as he dropped down in one corner of the couch. He’d never wanted much beyond a roof over his head, food in his belly and safety. Well, he had all of that and more now. More than he’d dared to dream and so much more than he’d even known was possible. When he’d first met Liz all those months ago he never could’ve imagined one day he’d be sitting in a home they shared, contemplating children in their future.

Nope, he hadn’t seen this one coming. But he was alright with that. Life had turned out better than good. He just wished he could talk to Shakes and tell him how much everything he had done meant to him. He’d written the letter and given it to Shakes’ lawyer, but it was so inadequate. Words would never be able to convey the depth of his gratitude or his appreciation for everything Shakes had done. As Mr. Carrington had warned, he’d never received a response though the man had assured him that the letter had been received by its intended recipient.

He was pulled out of his thoughts when he heard something sliding across the floor, the sound accompanied by the rhythmic clicking of Diablo’s nails against the hardwood. Liz stepped into the room first and moved to sit beside him.

“Ready?”

“He had to have all this fanfare, huh?”

She laughed and rubbed his arm as she settled back into the cushions. “He insisted on it. We were out walking a couple of weeks back and we passed a shop with this… gift in the window. He stopped and pulled me back so he could take a closer look. He was pretty demanding too, so after looking for a while we went inside and before long he was certain he’d found the perfect gift for you.”

Diablo backed into the room, dragging his gift, all the jostling making the large red bow on top sway back and forth. He stopped when he finally reached Max and he moved back, sitting down to face him over the present. When his human made no move to touch it he lifted a paw and patted the packaging.

“Impatient, isn’t he?” Max shifted and reached for the bow when it suddenly moved and he jerked his hand back. He looked at Diablo when the dog barked before dropping his head to nose the package. “Did you see it move?” he asked with a side glance at Liz.

She tipped her head to the side, studying the package. “No, but I was watching you.”

“Huh.” He ran a fingertip over the material covering the gift, following it down to where it was loosely tied. He tugged on the string and as he pulled it away something cold and wet pressed against his hand before following up with a warm swipe. His eyebrows lifted and he pushed the wrapping back, laughing when the black and white bundle of fur bolted out of the basket and into his arms. The puppy wiggled around, trying to lick and nip everything it could reach.

Liz smiled as she watched him and she leaned back to take a few pictures before motioning for Diablo to get in on the action.

Max ran his hands over the puppy’s thick black and white coat, staring into the playful blue eyes as the bundle of fur studied him. “He’s…” he lifted the puppy up to check his facts, “he’s a Siberian Husky.”

“Yes, he is. He’s a purebred, registered and all yours.” She reached over to stroke the puppy’s head. It was apparent that Max couldn’t have cared one way or the other if the puppy was a mutt or a purebred. “You said you’d never had a dog and he’s never had a human, so…”

A dog of his very own. A slow grin settled on his face.

“What’re you gonna name him?” She had a feeling she already knew the answer.

“Balto,” he said without thinking about it. He nodded to himself, satisfied with his choice, and he reached over to rub the Doberman patiently waiting for acknowledgement. “Thanks, Diablo. You couldn’t have picked out a better gift.”

The dog shook his head, making his tags jingle, and he barked happily before bouncing back and shoving his nose into the basket he’d dragged into the room. A moment later he emerged with a blue collar hanging from his mouth and he sat down between his humans as he waited for Max to accept his offering.

Max took the collar from Diablo and lifted it up to look at the red nametag shaped like a fire hydrant and he laughed when he saw the name engraved on it: Balto. “I guess it’s unanimous then.” He finally managed to put the collar around the fidgety puppy’s neck and he smiled when he put the rambunctious animal down and he started to run in circles, chasing his tail.

“He’s great, Liz.” He caught the puppy when he charged across the room and jumped into his lap, snuffling loudly in the crook of his arm before wiggling around and lying down with a contented yawn.

“I’m glad you like him.” She smiled and reached over to stroke the puppy’s back. She turned her head to meet Max when he leaned in for a kiss. She knew a puppy was going to keep things lively around their home for a while but she was looking forward to the chaos. And speaking of chaos, they still had work to do to finish getting ready for their guests. She didn’t rush him though, having learned from Max that sometimes you just had to let life happen at its own pace.

*****

Amy stared at the phone in her hands for several minutes before she finally put it down. Her heart felt like it was racing a hundred miles an hour as she went over the conversation she’d just had with Nancy Parker. She could feel hope and excitement pushing and shoving to be let out and she couldn’t contain the smile that broke free when she heard the key turn in the front door.

A moment later other sounds followed, so familiar she didn’t even have to expend any effort to identify each item as it was placed on the cabinet next to the doorway in the living room. Badge, keys, a handful of change and an odd assortment of hard candy wrappers, half of which would end up on the floor for her to pick up later when they invariably ended up losing the fight with gravity. She turned just as her husband walked through the door, rolling her eyes at his lack of subtlety as he scanned the stovetop and counters for dinner.

“Honey,” he greeted her with a kiss. “How was your day?”

“Good, it was good.” She wrapped her arms around his waist to prevent him from moving away. “I was thinking I might bring Brenda on fulltime at the shop.”

He leaned back to look at her, studying her expression. “Yeah? I thought you said you weren’t gonna do that until you decided you were ready to be home more?”

“Well, you know we talked about children recently.”

Uh-oh. “Yeah, but we both agreed that even though we’re far from old, middle of the night feedings and walking the floor for hours on end with a colicky baby was a little more than either of us want to face at this point in our lives.” His eyes widened comically as he considered every word she’d said since he walked in the kitchen. Was she trying to tell him she was pregnant? They definitely weren’t old and having a baby at their age wasn’t exactly unheard of. It was a little daunting to consider going through all of that again, but if it was true he wasn’t gonna run from it either. “Are you…?”

“No, I’m not pregnant.”

“Oh, okay.”

She smiled at the underlying disappointment she could hear in his voice. “But, I just got off the phone with Nancy and she had just got off the phone with someone she knows who works for a local children’s home.” She moved to make him a cup of coffee when his attention kept straying to the coffeemaker.

“They need someone to foster a kid?”

“Well, yes and no. It’s two boys and a girl, brothers and a sister, ages three, five and seven. They’ve been in the system for about a year and split up for most of that time. The home’s at capacity and they can’t find a family to take them in together.”

“Three, five and seven, huh?” he mused as he accepted the cup of coffee from her. “Good ages.”

“Um-hmm, maybe an occasional middle of the night drink of water or a nightmare, but no diapers or feedings.”

“Be a shame to split them up and especially right before Christmas.”

She nodded, watching him as he mulled things over.

“And we do have the room.”

“We do, yes.”

“Suppose it couldn’t hurt to just run over and meet them.” He lifted his eyes to meet his wife’s gaze, grinning when he saw the anticipation shining there. “We come home with three kids you know we’re gonna need more groceries.” He just barely managed to put the mug down before his arms were full of squealing woman and he laughed for the pure joy of it.

He missed the sounds of kids in the house and underfoot. Yeah, they could drive a person crazy on a good day, but what a reward they were.

*****

Ava shifted to glance into the backseat and check on Cadence before settling into her seat once more. She looked around at the houses they were passing as they drove through the residential neighborhood. It was quiet and many of the houses were already lit up with Christmas lights even though it wasn’t yet dark out. She looked over at Kyle, watching him as he concentrated on the road and hummed along with the radio.

If she’d had any doubts that she was in love with him they would’ve been blown out of the water a couple of nights ago when he came home with an old shoebox that held a handful of pictures of her parents and her along with a stuffed toy she hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. The giraffe had been carefully cleaned and it had taken up residence in a corner of their daughter’s crib and the pictures had been framed and were now mixed in with the ones of Kyle and his family. It meant more to her than she’d ever be able to say that he had taken the time to track down those pieces of her history.

Some of the pictures had stirred up old memories and she’d shared the stories with him. It was the photograph of her parents in a hospital room, her mom cradling her close while her dad held one of her tiny hands that had caused her to come undone. It was apparent that they hadn’t been well off but the faded photograph had exuded love and warmth as her parents looked at each other over their sleeping newborn. She’d cried herself to sleep in Kyle’s arms, something she’d never allowed herself to do with anyone else. It had been a cathartic experience and somehow it had brought them even closer.

She was brought out of her thoughts when they slowed down for no apparent reason. “Are we taking the long way?” she asked when her curiosity got the best of her. They weren’t expected at Max and Liz’s until five o’clock but they had left early and he hadn’t said why.

Kyle pulled into the driveway of a house that wasn’t decorated and didn’t have any lights on inside. “I saw this house about a week ago when Sean and I were coming home and he took a shortcut.” He nodded with a grin when she frowned. “Yeah, I know, it’s not a shortcut. We got turned around a few blocks back because of some roadwork.” He cut the engine and pulled the key from the ignition. “But, it had a For Sale sign out front and I drove by it again the next night on my way home, got the number and called the real estate agent.” He motioned to the house and opened his door. “C’mon, let’s go take a look.”

Her eyes wandered over the front of the house. It was a two-story home, older but seemingly well cared for. It was brick but the upper level had white siding and there were shutters on the windows. There was an attached garage on the left side of the house and a long porch that wrapped around the right side. Shade trees lined both sides of the street and a white picket fence bordered the front yard.

She looked up when her door opened and she accepted Kyle’s hand when he offered it to her to help her out of the car. She waited while he released the carrier from the backseat and carefully covered Cadence so she wouldn’t be exposed to the cold wind. She knew there were plenty of women who didn’t want a man to open their doors for them or do any of a number of the things Kyle did for her, thinking it was somehow taking something from them, but he didn’t do any of those things to put her in her place or because she was the ‘little woman’. He did them because he had been raised to be respectful of women and it showed in the way he acted and the way he treated her. Personally, she loved that he was the way he was and she wouldn’t change him for anything.

She took his hand when he held it out to her and her gaze lingered on the For Sale sign posted next to the front gate. “Are we meeting the real estate agent tonight?” She couldn’t imagine a real estate agent would be so desperate to make a sale that they’d be willing to go out on Christmas Eve.

“No, I called and made arrangements to get inside without dragging her out tonight. I wanted you to see the house, get your opinion.”

She could hear the excitement in his voice. They had been looking at houses for more than a month and while they’d seen several they had liked they were always missing something. He released her hand to pull the screen door open. He unlocked the front door and reached inside to turn the lights on before gesturing for her to go in ahead of him.

He locked the door behind them and watched her as her eyes scanned over the wood floors that were polished to a high shine. “It’s four bedrooms and three and a half baths. Living room faces the front yard and the kitchen faces the backyard. Lots of windows. Um, formal dining room but the kitchen’s plenty big enough for a decent sized table and chairs. There’s a den downstairs and an office off the master bedroom upstairs. Oh, and you’re gonna love this… it has a finished basement.”

“Why do I just know you’ve already been pricing pool tables and large screen TVs?” she teased as she wandered off to the right to check out the large living room. With a fireplace! She loved the thought of sitting in front of a roaring fireplace when it was cold outside, snuggling up with Kyle and just being together.

“Well, a guy’s gotta have his man space.”

“His man space?” she echoed with a hint of mocking in her tone. “Does it have a laundry room?”

“The basement?”

“Oh, no, if the laundry room’s in the basement the decision’s already made.” She was not running up and down the stairs to do laundry. The amount of laundry two people generated was bad enough, but with a baby in the house it was ridiculous. No way!

“It’s on the main floor, completely separate room. And, just to make the deal sweeter, the previous owners had a dumbwaiter system installed. So, no running up and downstairs to haul the laundry and it has features to keep little people from climbing inside for an adventure.” He grinned. “Hey, I’ll let you use the pool table and watch the big screen.”

She snorted softly. “You’re so generous.” She was on the move again, heading for the kitchen. “How’s the backyard?”

“Not as big as the last house we looked at but plenty of room for a swing set and there’s a big old oak back there that’d be perfect for a tree house and a tire swing one day, and the back porch would have to be expanded because it’s not much of a porch. There’s a small piece of property behind the house that’s expected to go up for sale within the next year. It’s just a small lot but you said you always wanted a garden and it’d be just about the perfect size. I mean, the yard’s still a good size as it is, but it’s an option we could look into if you wanted to.”

She moved around the kitchen, her fingers ghosting over the countertops. She stopped at all of the appliances to check them. She stood at the sink and just looked out over the backyard for several minutes, easily picturing a summer scene; Kyle barbecuing, Cadence swinging on the tree swing, friends scattered around that expanded porch, and her bringing out a pitcher of lemonade made with freshly squeezed lemons. She turned to walk around the long center island, turning on the faucets in the double sink at its center before checking the drawers and cabinets. She loved to cook and this kitchen was just made for it.

They walked through the house, taking their time as they moved from room to room, and he could tell she was impressed. They made their way to the basement and after spending some time exploring all that it had to offer she eagerly headed for the second floor. She moved from bedroom to bedroom, pausing in the hallway when she noticed another door.

“Attic,” he said when she reached for it. “Also finished and with several windows for plenty of natural light. So no exposed beams, cobwebs or critters waiting to jump out at you from a dark corner.”

After spending some time in the roomy attic Ava declared it perfect for her since a woman needed her ‘woman space’. They ended their tour in the master bedroom and he leaned in the doorframe while she moved around, looking at the large walk-in closets, the huge bathroom off the bedroom, the bay window complete with window seat, the recessed shelves and finally the enclosed fireplace.

“Kyle, it’s perfect! Other than the wallpaper in a few of the rooms that would have to go I don’t even see anything I’d want to change. We have to make an offer before someone else beats us to it.”

He crouched down to set the baby carrier on the floor and he braced his weight on one knee as he fussed over her blanket. “You’re sure?” he asked as he looked up at her.

“It couldn’t be more perfect.”

Kyle nodded and motioned for her to come closer. When she was standing in front of him he took her hand, smiling up at her as he turned it over and placed something in it.

Her eyes widened in shock when she saw the house key with an engagement ring tied to it with a deep blue ribbon.

“Marry me, Ava.”

*****

Jenny bounced on the balls of her feet, her excitement palpable as she waited for someone to answer the door. Her eyes widened when she heard barking followed by a loud yelp and then a thud. Seconds later the door was pulled open and she looked at the dog sitting next to the man, tilting her head to the side when his lips pulled back in what looked like a smile. She laughed when the dog held his right paw up for a shake and she took it, introducing herself to him before leaning in to look at the tag on his collar. “Hi, Diablo.”

“Sorry about the racket,” Max apologized as he reached up to run his free hand through his hair. “Came running through the house and had to jump to keep from tripping over Balto. I managed to land on a shirt he’d dragged into the hall and slid halfway to the door on my backside.” He held his hand out to his sister’s fiancé, shaking his hand as he motioned for them to come inside.

“Are you my Uncle Max?”

He closed the door and crouched down in front of the little girl. “Do you think I look like an Uncle Max?”

She studied him for a minute before nodding with a shy smile.

“Then I must be him.” He held his hand out to her, unsure of protocol in situations like this, but rather than take it she launched herself into his arms. He hugged her, touched by the absolute trust and acceptance in her embrace. “You must be Jenny,” he said when she stepped back.

An impish grin lit up her features. “Do you think I look like a Jenny?”

“Hmm…” he pretended to give her question great consideration. “Nope, not just a Jenny. I think you look like my niece Jenny.”

“Then I must be her.” She tipped her head back to rest against her mom’s side. “I like him,” she giggled and said in a stage whisper.

“Isabel,” he greeted as he got to his feet and leaned in to give her a hug, “it’s really good to see you again.”

“Max Evans!”

“That means my new puppy’s getting himself in trouble and by default, so am I.”

“That would be Balto?” Alex asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, early Christmas present and we haven’t had a moment of peace since he got here.” He grinned with a one-sided shrug. “Keeps things interesting, but if he’s managed to get his teeth into another pair of my girlfriend’s shoes we’re both gonna be in for it. Apparently women’s shoes aren’t cheap.”

Alex had to smirk at that comment. “Cheap and shoes are two words that just don’t go together when one is talking about the fairer sex.”

Jenny’s eyes went wide when a blur of fur ran past them. “You got a puppy for Christmas?!”

“Yeah, any chance you might wanna puppy sit?”

She grinned and looked up at her parents, quickly shrugging out of her coat, and as soon as they gave their nod of approval she was off like a shot.

“It’s quite possible that when we go home tonight either you’re gonna be short one puppy or we’re gonna be short a daughter,” Isabel remarked with a laugh.

Max laughed and took their coats, hanging them in the hall closet before leading the way into the living room. “I’m really glad you guys could make it. The snow’s slowed everyone down so you got here before anyone else.”

“Oh, my,” Isabel whispered as she looked around the large living room. “Who’s your interior decorator?”

“That’d be Liz. She’s good, huh?” The pride was evident in his voice.

“Better than good, she’s amazing.”

“Thank you,” Liz said as she joined them and introductions were made. “I just met Jenny, she’s absolutely adorable. And keeping Balto busy. I can’t think you enough for that.” She reached down to pat Diablo when he came to sit beside her.

The doorbell rang and Max got up first. “I’ve got it. You’ve been on your feet all day.” His fingers grazed her shoulder as he rounded the couch and headed for the foyer.

“I’m so glad you met with Max the other night, Isabel. He’s been so excited about getting to know you and your family. And the folder you gave him, I can’t even begin to tell you how much that meant to him.”

“Merry Christmas!” Maria called out as she came through the doorway.

“Parker, how long till dinner?” Sean hollered out. “I’m starving out here!”

“You just inhaled a double cheeseburger on the way over,” Mac said with a roll of her eyes. “You can’t possibly be that hungry.”

Michael rounded out the new group’s entrance. “Parker, where’s hellhound?”

“I suppose you want me to put him in another room?”

“Excuse them,” Maria said and introduced herself to the couple sitting on one of the couches. “They’ll trade snotty comments all night with or without encouragement but it’s even worse if they’re encouraged.” Her voice trailed off as she tipped her head to one side to study the dark haired man she’d just met. “Alex Whitman,” she mused quietly. “Not the Alex Whitman.” Her eyes went wide and she turned to look at her best friend when he nodded with a chuckle. “Liz, do you know who you have sitting in your living room?” She rolled her eyes at the clueless expression on Liz’s face. “Liz, the concert we’re going to on the 29th? Don’t you remember me telling you the other day that the band’s publicist had released a statement about their lead bassist performing?”

Michael took a seat after exchanging introductions and he eyed Diablo warily when the dog lay down between Max and Liz. It was their home and he couldn’t exactly expect them to put the dog outdoors anymore than they could expect him to put his kid in another room the whole night if they were at his house.

Over and over the doorbell rang and with each new entry the house filled until every possible seat had been taken. The room was loud and filled with conversation and laughter as the hour passed and the time for dinner to be served grew closer. Liz reached over and squeezed Max’s hand when he checked the time yet again and she knew he was wondering where Ava was. He’d expected to see her before anyone else and it was unnerving him that she hadn’t shown.

He jumped up yet again when the doorbell rang, rushing to get the door and nearly knocking Michael over.

“Where’s the fire, Evans?” he asked, his curiosity getting the best of him as he followed the other man to the front door.

“Doorbell,” Max answered shortly as he pulled the door open. He tried to hide the feeling of disappointment when he found Manny standing there with another man. “Merry Christmas, Manny.” He stepped back. “C’mon in.”

“Merry Christmas, Max.” His dark eyes twinkled with happiness and mischief as he reached back to grab the other man’s arm and drag him over the threshold. “Max Evans, my brother Jorge Chavez.” His attention shifted when he caught movement behind Max and his gaze roamed appreciatively over Michael as he shrugged out of his overcoat and scarf. “Miguel…”

“Unless you’re about to say ‘Merry Christmas’, bite your tongue,” Michael warned him.

The man shuddered dramatically. “Why would I bite my tongue when there are so many places on your delectable body that are just begging for attention?”

Max glanced at Manny’s brother, sensing the man’s discomfort, and he nodded at Michael. “Hey, you think you can get Manny a drink?”

Before Michael could answer a pair of little hands grabbed onto his jeans insistently and he reached down to pick Hunter up. “Hey, you remember Manny?”

“Mammy!” Hunter grinned and held out a candy cane in the man’s direction.

Manny gestured to the little boy. “Miguel, may I?”

“Sure, but be prepared. Now that he’s got a few words established he’s gonna talk your ears off.” He released Hunter into the man’s capable hands and they walked off to get a drink.

Max watched Manny’s brother as he slowly followed them, stopping when he reached the arched doorway into the living room where everyone was gathered. The man didn’t seem to know what to do with himself and it was pretty obvious he wasn’t comfortable with his brother. There was an odd mixture of loneliness and happiness in his expression as he observed the way Manny was greeted by the people gathered there.

“Can I get you a cup of coffee, Jorge?” Somehow he had a feeling the man didn’t drink much.

“Yes, thank you.” He followed Max into the kitchen, nodding as he was introduced to a couple of older women who were bustling around preparing a large amount of food. “You’re good friends with Manny?”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. I’ve only known him less than a year but it’s more than enough to know he’s the kind of man you want at your back in a fight. He put himself in danger to help a… mutual friend a while back.” He didn’t care to discuss the danger Liz had been in.

“That’s the man I know,” he admitted quietly. “This man,” he gestured briefly to the doorway, “this man I don’t know.”

“Did you just find out he’s gay?”

“No, I’ve known for a while. I just don’t know how to deal with it or with him.”

Max chuckled. “Manny’s an outrageous flirt but he’s also conscientious about it. If he knows that someone isn’t comfortable with it he’ll tone it down with them.”

“But that man he was just talking to.”

“Michael? He encourages it to a certain degree. It’s a game with them.” He shrugged. “I think it’s safe to say your brother’s attracted to him but he knows that Michael’s straight and already taken. Manny’s safe with everyone in this group and anyone who hurt him would regret it.”

“He’s always been larger than life. He held the family together when our father left, he was the high school football hero, hell, he served in the Marines for three years and I could relate to that Manny.”

“He’s still your brother. He’s still a man who tries to do the right thing. He’s still a human being that wants and needs to love and be loved. He’s probably no different than you or anyone else in that respect.”

Jorge sighed. “But to want to be with another man that way?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand that.”

“Maybe you don’t have to. No, I know it’s not easy to have your perception of someone changed so drastically, but the truth is, inside he’s still the same person you’ve known your whole life. We tend to be afraid of things we don’t understand so we try to pick them apart so they make sense to us.” He shrugged. “Not everything has to make sense. We spend so much of our lives labeling everything and trying to figure out where it fits, but you can’t do that with people. There are too many variations. It’s obvious that he loves you, that he wants you to be a part of his life, and believe me, he’s toned his normal behavior down a great deal – probably because he knows you’re not comfortable with who he is.”

“I’m glad he’s found people who accept him. He’s happy.”

“And that’s important to you.” He nodded when the other man simply smiled. “Just love him, Jorge, that’s all he wants from you. That’s all anyone in our lives really wants from us, it’s all we want from them. Happiness isn’t a given and we all have the ability to build others up or take them out at the knees.” He shrugged. “Life’s too short to tear others down and the way I figure it, acceptance comes from love.”

Jorge considered the man’s words. He wasn’t pushing him to accept anything about his brother, rather, he was simply encouraging him to love him and just let the rest come in its own time. “I’m glad I said yes when he asked me to join him tonight.”

“Trust me, he is too.”

*****

DJ glanced up when he saw the woman that appeared in the doorway and he grinned. “I know you’re a good cook, Parker, but I knew a group this big was more than you could handle on your own.” He got up and crossed the room to sweep Lilah up in a big hug, twirling her around a couple of times before setting her back on her own two feet. “Lilah, I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” he said as he nodded at his date for the evening.

“Oh, Daniel, she’s lovely,” she whispered as the tall lithe blonde crossed the room.

Courtney relaxed as she was introduced to the diminutive woman that had DJ wrapped around her little finger. Although, truth be told, that seemed to go both ways. “Daniel’s told me quite a bit about you, Lilah.”

The older woman beamed proudly when she heard DJ’s girl call him by his given name. He’d never brought a girl around before and there was something special about this one, she could just feel it! She couldn’t wait to tell Emily. Her sister liked to give him grief about everything but she knew she cared about him just as much as she did.

“Uncle Max, I think Balto needs to go outside,” Jenny said as she came up behind him to lean on the back of the couch next to his head.

“Think so?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Alright, I’ll be right there.”

“Can I go with you?”

He glanced over at Alex since Isabel was deeply involved in a conversation with several of the women about… well, he didn’t know, but it appeared to be very involved. “You mind if Jenny tags along with me to take Balto out?”

“No, just make sure she wears her hat and gloves.” He looked at his daughter. “And zip that coat all the way up.”

She grinned and nodded before taking off for the front hall to collect her coat. She was pulling it on when Max stepped into the foyer and reached for his own coat. “I love Balto! He’s so sweet and funny.”

“He is pretty funny,” Max agreed and crouched down to help her with her zipper when it got stuck. “Do you have a dog at home?” he asked as they stepped outside with the dogs.

“No. I was gonna ask Santa could I have one but he was too scary. Mommy said I could write him a letter but I don’t think he’d bring me a puppy if I was too scared to talk to him. What do you think?”

“Me?” They followed the dogs around the side of the house and he brushed the snow from the edge of the fountain so they could sit down for a minute while they waited. “Well, I’ve gotta confess, Jenny, I never really got the whole Santa thing. I thought he was pretty scary too. Kinda like clowns, y’know?”

Her eyes grew wide as she listened to what he was saying. “You don’t like clowns neither?”

“No, they’re kinda creepy.”

“It’s ‘cause they wear those masks all the time, huh? Yeah, I think they’re scary too. My friend Preston, he’s real smart, he said it’s moms and dads who really bring the presents. He said he’s thought about it a lot and if Santa could really take toys to all the boys and girls in the world in one night he’d have to have super powers.” She shook her head. “Preston knows all the super hero people so if there was a Santa with super powers, he’d know.”

“He sounds pretty smart.”

“Oh, he is! He’s eight,” she said as if that explained her friend’s great wealth of wisdom. “He was eight two weeks ago an’ I got to go to his birthday party. I never been to a birthday like his but it was a lot of fun. Did you ever beat a pintata?”

“A pintata… oh, a piñata,” he said and chuckled. “No, I’ve never done that.”

“You should have one for your birthday. It gots candy an’ stuff in it and you get to hit it with a stick to make it come out.”

“That does sound like fun. I’ll let Liz know since she’ll wanna do something for my birthday. Of course, that means you’ll have to be there.”

She beamed happily. “I’m glad you an’ Mom got to meet.”

“Me too, Jenny.” He watched the dogs for a few moments in contemplative silence.

“I’m real glad you’re my uncle an’ now our family’s getting bigger, aren’t you?”

Max smiled. “I’m glad about that too, yeah.”

“My daddy from when I was borned, he didn’t want me,” she confided. “He said mean stuff sometimes and he told lies too. But I told him he couldn’t be my daddy no more.”

“Yeah, sometimes moms and dads just don’t want to be parents anymore.” He smiled at his niece. “And sometimes that’s the best thing that can happen to a kid.”

She stared at him. “You’re real smart, like Preston.”

Before he could respond to what was obviously a very high compliment something hit him in the center of his back and snow showered down over him as the snowball exploded.

“Bull’s eye!”

He dusted the snow off of his shoulders and out of his hair as he turned from the waist to look at Michael.

“Jenny, how are you at snowball fights?”

Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “I’m real good, Uncle Max!”

“I’m real glad to hear that because I’ve never done this and we’re gonna have to take him down.”

Uncle and niece exchanged a high-five and took cover behind the fountain. It didn’t take long before almost everyone had come outside to join in the battle being waged. Christmas lights had been strung through all of the trees in the front yard and they provided ample lighting for the participants as they scrambled for cover using the statues that hadn’t yet been removed and fired off their arsenals of hastily packed snowballs.

It was that scene that greeted Ava and Kyle as they pulled in and parked behind the row of cars lining the driveway. “Would you look at that,” she whispered, her eyes glistening with unshed tears as she observed Max in the middle of the fray, leading the charge against the opposing side.

“Wanna get out there?” Kyle asked as he brought her left hand up and pressed a kiss to her knuckles above the engagement ring. “You know you do. Go on. I’ll get Cadence inside and just maybe there’ll be someone who decided to forego the snowball fight who’ll wanna keep an eye on her for a few minutes.”

“No, maybe next time.” She wanted to, so badly, but she just wasn’t ready to put herself right in the middle of things. Coming here tonight had taken an effort. Not because she didn’t want to, but because it was so far out of her comfort zone.

He nodded, understanding what she wasn’t saying. She’d come so far the past few months and he knew there was no point pushing her – encourage, yes, but it was important to know when to back off. She was learning to move past her own boundaries and reservations and he knew that was going to take time. It had been her and Max against the world for so long and then after his sentencing she’d had only herself to rely on. She was moving at her own pace and there was no reason to rush her. Her discomfort had eased considerably since they had first come home but these group situations were still a pretty daunting experience.

She jumped when someone rapped on the window, the quiet sound loud in the silence and she realized the battle in the front yard had come to an end. She looked up at Max and nodded when he gestured to the door.

“Why don’t I take our girl inside and give the two of you a few minutes?” Kyle suggested. He smiled when she grabbed his collar and pulled him over for a kiss before agreeing. He climbed out just as Evans opened her door for her and he nodded at the man over the top of the car.

“You guys missed an epic battle,” he said as he raised his right arm to wave at the three men making their way back down the driveway. The snowball fight had drawn the attention of his neighbors and Ashley and Henry Gentry’s sons had joined in the fun after delivering a cake their mother had sent over.

“We’ll catch the next one.” Kyle lifted the car seat out after checking on Cadence. “I’ll see you guys inside.”

Ava smiled at him and watched him make his way up to the house. “New friends?” she asked when she noticed the men heading for the gates at the end of the driveway.

“You remember the neighbors I told you about? Ashley and Henry?” He nodded when she made a sound of agreement. “That’s their sons.” He glanced at her before giving her a nudge with his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s walk around back. I thought maybe you guys had changed your minds about coming.”

“You didn’t call.”

“Nah, I didn’t wanna push. I know it can be pretty uncomfortable being around a bunch of people sometimes.” He shrugged as they climbed the steps to the back deck. “There are still times it’s hard for me.”

“It is, sometimes, but that’s actually not why we’re late.” She sat in one of the chairs next to him and held her left hand out.

Max reached for her hand, pulling it closer and studying the ring on her third finger. “Ava…” He looked up at her and smiled when he saw the happiness radiating from her. “He’s a good guy.” He squeezed her hand lightly. “I’m happy for you.”

She leaned over to hug him. “It’s what I’ve always wanted, you know? But I’d gotten to a point where I’d stopped believing it was ever gonna happen. I wasn’t expecting him.”

“I’m really sorry – “

“Don’t be.” She stopped him before he could complete that thought. “I’m not. What happened in our past brought us to this place, to these people. I wouldn’t change that if I could. There are things I wish we hadn’t seen or done, situations I wish we hadn’t found ourselves in, but the truth is, if we changed any one of those things, we’d likely change the outcome, and I wouldn’t change a single thing if it meant not having Cadence and Kyle in my life. You can’t truly understand or appreciate the good in life if you’ve never survived the bad, regardless of what that is.”

He chuckled. “You always did have an optimistic streak.” He turned his head when he heard the quiet jingle of tags and a moment later Diablo bounded up to join them. “Dinner must be ready,” he said when he saw the small place card with his name written on it. He accepted it and held it out to Ava.

“Oh, it’s so pretty!” she gushed as her fingertips traced over the vibrant green snowflake that decorated one side of the place card. A scrolled design could be felt in the raised areas that bordered the card and his name was written in the center in calligraphy.

“Wait till you see what she did with the napkins,” he teased, knowing she’d want to know how to make the design. Liz had folded them to make them resemble some kind of fancy flower. He’d watched her do it and he still had no clue how they’d gone from being square bits of cloth to the shapes they were now in. “C’mon, I wanna introduce you to my sister.”

She had been looking forward to meeting the woman for some time. She smiled as they got to their feet and she looked around at the lights that decorated the yard. “It’s so nice to be outside without being at the mercy of the night,” she said quietly.

Without a word between them they each knew the others’ thoughts were on the streets with the people who were at its mercy. There were people who wouldn’t survive the night, the low temperatures lulling them into a sleep they would never wake from. Few people would ever know about that loss and even fewer would consider it a loss.

“Do you remember Father Patrick?”

“Yeah.” The old priest had found them huddled in the corner of the cathedral, bedraggled and filthy from their time on the streets, and desperately seeking a reprieve from the freezing cold outside. He’d been kind and unassuming as he offered them shelter, feeding them and even clothing them. He’d asked very few questions, apparently familiar enough with street people to know too many questions would only make them run. And they had run the next day when a pair of cops had shown up. They hadn’t stuck around to find out why they were there. It hadn’t mattered.

“I went to see him recently. He’s still at St. Matthews and he remembers us.” She smiled as she thought about the visit she’d had with the old man. He was just as warm and welcoming as he had been all those years ago. “He’s opened a shelter and he needs volunteers desperately. Kyle and I are gonna go down there early in the morning to help out with breakfast and then we’re gonna go to the service.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” he draped an arm around her shoulders as they followed Diablo around the house. “I can’t make any promises about Liz because she’s not too fond of the hours before daylight, but I’ll see you there.”

Her arm tightened around his waist, letting him know she appreciated the offer.

“I’m gonna be up early anyway. I promised Dino and Viking have a hot meal.”

She laughed quietly. “You know he only accepted for his dog’s sake.”

“Yeah, but at least he’ll have somethin’ warm in his stomach.” He shrugged. “I worry about him. He’s been on the streets for years and it’s where he’s most comfortable but…”

“But he’s getting older and the streets aren’t getting any friendlier or safer.” She nodded in understanding. Dino preferred the streets in spite of the threats and the danger; he couldn’t handle being confined indoors and he hadn’t been able to hold down a job. “We can only do what people will let us do for them, Max. You know that.”

“Max Evans!”

Ava’s eyebrows shot up when she heard the tone of Liz’s voice as she called him. “Speaking of dangerous…” She trailed off when a black and white blur ran past them and a moment later Diablo took up the chase.

“My Christmas gift has an appetite for expensive shoes,” he explained, deserting her to help Diablo try to corner the exuberant puppy.

“Sorry, Liz,” she apologized when the woman appeared at the end of the porch, arms crossed over her chest. “I was keeping him occupied.”

Liz laughed and shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I knew puppies do this when I let Diablo talk me into buying him.”

She couldn’t hide her amusement. “So this’s Diablo’s fault?”

“Well, I’m certainly not taking the blame.”

Ava joined her on the porch and they watched as Max tried his best to catch the puppy and retrieve the shoe.

“Kyle’s about to burst at the seams in there,” she said with a pointed look at the other woman’s left hand.

“I knew he wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet.” She rolled her eyes with a quiet chuckle. “Not that I wanted him to.”

“Don’t worry, everyone’s cool. I promise they won’t mob you the second you walk in the house. Maria knew he was planning to ask you so she pounced as soon as she saw him. Not that it would’ve been hard to figure out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile that big.”

“Okay, I’ve got it,” Max said as he tramped through the snow towards them, the shoe dangling from his hand by a broken strap and Balto cradled in his other arm. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess it’s not salvageable?”

“No, probably not.” She smiled and waved a hand dismissively. “Dinner’s ready and we should get in there before Michael starts chewing on the furniture.

Max laughed and shook his head at her, relinquishing Balto to Ava’s waiting hands. She couldn’t resist animals and a puppy was even harder to ignore. “He’s a handful.”

She held him up and stared into his mischievous features. “Oh, he’s so sweet!” They stepped into the house and she managed to hold onto the puppy while successfully getting out of her coat and she paused next to Max when they reached the entryway to the living room that was packed with people. She leaned against her best friend’s side and sighed contentedly when her gaze landed on Kyle, deeply engrossed in a conversation with a group of guys. Cadence was being entertained by Maria and a couple of women she didn’t recognize but she nodded when Max indicated that one of them was his sister and the other was a woman he worked with.

“We’re home, Max.”

He looked down at her and his arm around her shoulders tightened for a moment. “Yeah, we are, Ava. It’s been a long road but we’re finally home.”

L-J-L 76
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby L-J-L 76 » Sun Feb 21, 2016 12:59 pm

Great Chapter!!!! Please please please please please please please please please please come back and post more really really really really soon? I can't wait to read what will happen next for Max and Liz. Love the Christmas and the present Max got for Christmas. Glad everyone got together and had fun. Wow Max and Liz's family got bigger and happier. Love the snow ball fight Max, Michael and Jenny had. Can't wait to find out if Max and Liz will get married and have kids together.

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L-J-L 76

Roswelllostcause
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby Roswelllostcause » Tue Feb 23, 2016 11:52 am

Great part!
Check out my Author page for a list of my fics!


http://www.roswellfanatics.net/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=155639

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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby keepsmiling7 » Tue Feb 23, 2016 12:40 pm

Yes, Max and Ava are finally home.
You've been gone a long time and I really missed Diablo.......he is such a special part of this story.
And Diablo has a friend......Balto.
Will they all be running at the gym??
It's so good to see Kyle and Ava and their little family. Looks like there will be a wedding soon.
So Liz being an only child......will be ready for a family of her own, just not right now.
Cute little Jenny likes her Uncle Max......
But someone please feed Michael fast before he chews on the furniture...........I LOVE THAT LINE!
This is a great story, so glad you made it back to complete.
Carolyn

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Natalie36
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby Natalie36 » Wed Feb 24, 2016 8:16 pm

omg i cried great part :D

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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby sarammlover » Thu Feb 25, 2016 12:14 pm

All I can think is how far this group has come!!! They are bonded in a way than can never be taken from them. I am amazed at their honesty, their struggles but more importantly how much they all love each other. Well done.

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dreamon
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby dreamon » Tue Mar 08, 2016 10:00 am

Loved it!!!
I have a few dreamer challenges in mind if you are looking for ideas so pm me!

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killjoy
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby killjoy » Tue Mar 08, 2016 9:28 pm

Been reading but not the best feedbacker. My fault......but still love this :mrgreen:

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Natalie36
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby Natalie36 » Thu May 19, 2016 7:30 am

:cry: :cry: missing so much

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begonia9508
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Re: Prisoners of the Past (CC, A/U, Adult) Part 64 - 2/21/16

Postby begonia9508 » Tue May 24, 2016 9:08 am

I found the new part and it was wonderful.... The life is getting better for all the People, I had thought they would end badly...

It was a Long way home but surely the best one for all of them! Thanks EVE :mrgreen:
- Les jouissances de l'esprit sont faites pour calmer les orages du coeur!
- On reconnaît le bonheur au bruit qu'il fait quand il s'en va!
- L'amour vous rend aveugle et le mariage vous redonne la vue!


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