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Chapter Four
Plowing Ahead

"The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends."
~ Proverbs 14:20 ~

So far, her Friday had turned out better than the day before, when she'd turned her ankle while walking to work. This morning, there had been no tailspin, no running disaster to foul up the rest of her day. Jack had been true to his word, for not only had Paul given her a ride to the airport, Jo had found the workshop computer back up and running, as good as it had before it crashed. Jo was counting herself lucky despite having spent the morning and all of that afternoon cooped-up in the office, for she was once again making progress on her research of the wheel wells. She delved through online archives of military aircraft, read accounts from the ground crew and pilots who had worked with or had flown the F8F Bearcats, and saved out any information that would help to determine a historically accurate color for their Bearcat's wheel wells.

Though Jo's ankle felt almost normal, Paul was slated to drive her back to her apartment one last time. Tomorrow, she figured she would be able to walk anywhere she needed on her own two rested feet.

Jo was almost afraid to admit it, but her day had gone amazingly well, maybe too well. She didn't dare say it out loud for fear she might jinx the last half hour of work. Five o'clock was so tantalizingly close she could almost taste the dinner she had waiting for her in the fridge back home.

Staring at the wide flat screen computer monitor, Jo skimmed the contents of a message board dedicated to Bearcat restoration. She copied an archive URL from someone's post, then pasted it into a file where she kept track of her research resources. If the message board didn't pan out, then she'd try that archive. Jo rubbed her eyes. She'd been staring at the screen all day, and the strain was beginning to dry out her eyeballs.

The soda cup Paul had brought her was empty, but Jo sucked the straw anyway to get what was left of the long-melted ice cubes. Wrappers from lunch sat in the wastebasket, for along with the soda, Paul had brought her chicken strips and a tossed salad from a local diner. It had been a sweet gesture, for she didn't think Jack had put him up to bringing her lunch. Jo was careful to not be overly impressed though. When Paul had handed her the takeout bag, and the soda, he'd acted like the light should be glinting off his shining armor and blinding her with its radiance. For pity's sake, it was only lunch, not a donated kidney. Even so, it had made her truly feel like she was a member of the crew, for they habitually looked out for each other and gave out help whenever needed.

Jo stretched in her chair and yawned. Only fifteen minutes until five. "Nothing could possibly ruin my day now," she sighed. She was about to kick herself for saying it out loud, when she heard the curious sound of a revving engine.

What was that?

She leaned forward to peer through the open office door, and into the workshop. It wasn't the roar of an airplane, but more like something she expected to hear from a finely tuned racecar.

The engine revved again, and Jo pushed up from the chair. She had to see what was going on for herself.

As Jo stepped from the office, late afternoon light shone in her eyes, for the outrigger hangar doors had been rolled back and stood open to the Arizona sky. She followed the sound of all the commotion, the shouts of men talking above the sound of an engine. The heat burned down on her as she stepped outside, but she didn't care. Her eyes were fastened on the sweet machine in front of her.

A deep cherry-red Ferrari.

The engine gave a throaty growl as she stepped closer.

Jo had never seen anything like it in her entire life. She'd seen pictures, of course, but they didn't do justice to the real thing. Her heart beat fast as she traced the form, the aerodynamic body that looked as though it could fly over the ground without breaking a sweat.

Be still, her aching heart.

Jack's shout came over the revving of the engine. "What gas mileage are you getting out of her?" he asked.

Jo didn't bother listening for the answer, for it didn't matter. You didn't get a machine like this because of its fuel economy. This vehicle was all about the senses; it wanted to perform, to delight, and to entice. It was doing a good job of all three as it sat there and growled. She took in the shapely fenders, the unflinchingly wide grille, and felt the tug. It was almost primal. She wanted to thank whoever owned this heavenly piece of engineering for bringing it by their shop, but she didn't dare. It was most likely one of Mr. Campbell's high-paying clients, for it took money like you wouldn't believe to restore a decades-old warbird back to flying condition. Still, she wanted to see the driver, if only to get a glimpse of what an owner of one of these looked like.

She couldn't see his face. She started to look back at the car, when he turned, and saw her.

He gave a small salute.

It wasn't... no, it couldn't be.

He smiled at her, and she felt her knees go weak. Whether it was the smile, or the car that had the greater influence, she didn't know. Her brain wasn't firing on all cylinders, it was too busy trying to register that guy, sitting in that car.

The revving stopped, and Jo could suddenly hear the others around her.

"Jo." Paul tapped her on the arm. "Ethan wants to give you a ride in his Ferrari."

"Excuse me?"

"That's what he said." Paul looked at the car and shook his head. "It's something, isn't it?"

"Is it his?" she asked.

"He sure acts like it is." Paul gave her a small nod in Ethan's direction. "If you want to go, then you'd better tell him before he leaves."

"But it's not five yet."

"Oh, yes it is." Paul lifted his watch and showed her the time. For someone who had been mildly flirting with her that afternoon, Paul seemed all too willing to shove her into the car, if only to see the car in action.

Jo was still trying to figure out what was going on when Ethan Taylor leaned over, and popped open the passenger door. Ethan looked back at her and Jo felt her heart quicken. The invitation was clear-- so clear, the others looked at her with shaking heads. Was she lucky, or what?

"Looks like you have your ride home," Jack said. He didn't look too happy about it, but something told her it wasn't envy. His caution baffled her.

A ride home? In a sports car? Jo hurried around the car to get inside. If this were the last thing she ever did, it would be worth it. So worth it. To die in such a vehicle would be an honor-- no, make that a privilege. She would have to be dead not to feel that kind of horsepower. Things like this didn't happen to her while she was awake. She had to be dreaming.

Jo reached the open door, and for some stupid reason, she paused.

"Are you coming, or not?" Ethan asked.

Oh, she was coming. Jo hopped inside. She tugged the seatbelt over her shoulder as the car took off. She wanted to laugh as Ethan rocketed from the airport while the engine flexed its muscle and all but lifted them off the ground. They might as well have been flying, for Jo could hardly feel the road as they blew past the airport gates and onto the street.

The car suddenly changed speeds, and Jo watched as the driver checked buttons and gauges, as though figuring out how it operated. Even as they cut their speed, Jo couldn't help but feel the rich leather beneath her and wonder at the brilliance of the machine.

"Jack said something about taking you home." Ethan barely glanced at her, his eyes focused on the road. He spoke above the sound of the wind blowing past them. "How about dinner first?"

When she said nothing, Ethan slowed a little more and glanced at her.

"Your name's Jo Mack, isn't it?"

She nodded.

"I'm Ethan Taylor-- we met Wednesday, at the hangar." He glanced at her and she smiled. "You've probably heard about me? From Jack?"

Jo didn't know what to say. She was breathless.

"Maybe Aiden mentioned me? Aiden's daughter married my brother," Ethan explained.

Jo smiled. "Okay."

"I live in San Francisco, but I'm here--"

"I know why you're here." She saw the surprise in Ethan's face and wondered if she had gotten it all wrong. "You're visiting your family, aren't you?"

He smiled. "So how about it?"

"How about what?"

"I'm asking you out to dinner, in Phoenix."

She hesitated. "That's a little far."

"You're not going to disappoint me, are you?" Ethan laughed. "I bought these wheels just for the occasion."

Jo didn't believe Ethan for one moment, but it answered her unasked question. This car was his. Ethan Taylor owned a high-end sports car? What was he-- a brain surgeon? She looked at his messy hair, the white T-shirt, the baggy cargo pants.

"Are you hungry?" he asked. When she nodded, he sped up.

In less than an hour, they reached Phoenix while the late afternoon sun still hung high above the horizon. Ethan seemed vaguely impatient, for he passed more cars then she cared to count, and yet when there was no one to pass, he slowed as though time didn't matter.

Jo hoped she hadn't done anything rash by getting into his car. She didn't know the man-- not really-- and yet she had allowed him to take her several miles from home. She cursed under her breath. She had let a stranger turn her head with an Italian sports car with little to no questions asked. That it was the ultimate car and deserved to be admired everywhere it went, wasn't an issue. It was, and it did. She only wished she had gotten to know him a little better before climbing into his car and accepting an invitation to dinner. In Phoenix.

It was as though she'd momentarily lost her mind. She didn't do things like this; she took her time where men were concerned.

The car was absolute perfection though, and Jo grudgingly gave Ethan the credit she figured he deserved. She wouldn't give him an ounce more though. If he wanted any more of her admiration, he would have to earn it by actually getting to know her.

"I think you'll like this place," Ethan said, as he pulled in front of the one restaurant in Phoenix that Jo disliked with a passion. Greene's Food was an organic gourmet restaurant where the waiters wore earth-toned uniforms, and had name badges that proclaimed the people as recycled plant material. Okay, so they didn't take it that far, but this place wasn't a restaurant, so much as a statement. If you were trendy, you ate here. If you were a vegetarian--

Jo sighed. Fantastic. She would have to like a man who majored in vegetables and obscure-sounding food that had no taste. She didn't know for certain what he liked, or disliked, but Greene's Food? It wasn't a promising sign.

They parked, and Jo was about to climb out when Ethan motioned for her to stay put. It appeared she was going to be treated like a lady; he would open the door for her. Jo looked down at her faded shirt, and dusty blue jeans. She wasn't trying to embarrass him, but she wondered how much he could take. She wasn't wearing makeup, after all, and she didn't even want to think about her hair. People didn't call this car a convertible for nothing.

Ethan opened her door with a smile, and Jo stepped out. He showed no revulsion as he went to open the restaurant door and waited for her to go ahead of him.

Ladies first, and all that.

Though Jo didn't feel much like a lady this evening, it wasn't her fault if she looked like a runaway scarecrow. She had expected to eat the wild rice casserole leftovers in her fridge, in the privacy of her home, not dine out at a trendy restaurant.

"Have you eaten here before?" Ethan asked as he followed her inside.

Jo smiled and avoided the question as a waitress showed them to a table in the corner-- one of those dinner for two set-ups where all you could do was stare at each other. On any other evening, Jo would have welcomed a little romance. But looking like this? Jo could think of better ways to die.

"Greene's has a restaurant in San Francisco, as well," Ethan said, as the waitress beamed at him and gave them their menus.

They had only just sat down, and Ethan Taylor was already getting admiring looks from the waitress. He acted as though it happened all the time. But of course it did. Why wouldn't it? He was the cutest man alive, after all. Jo sighed. She had hoped to prove herself different from all the other women in his no-doubt already crowded social life, but so what? She was here to eat, and admire his car, not make him feel manly.

Ethan looked over the menu. "Greene's make the best hummus wraps on the planet."

Jo smiled.

From the dinner choices, Jo didn't hold out much hope of ordering something that didn't have dirt still clinging to its freshly pulled roots. She settled for the Organic Tofu Experience, whatever that was, and then ordered the fruit and veggie smoothie because it sounded halfway good.

"Make that two smoothies." Ethan handed the waitress their menus, then settled back and looked at Jo.

She smiled and hoped her face wasn't flushing.

"How did you like my new car?" he asked.

"How new is it?" Jo asked. Though he had made some joke about having bought the car for the occasion, it hadn't dawned on her that it really was new.

He smiled. "I bought it this morning."

The waitress came back with two glasses of water. When she left, Ethan nodded to Jo.

"It was time to make some changes in my life, and I've always wanted a convertible." He paused. "I take that back. I've never really thought about getting one before this morning, but I figure you only live once. You did like the car, didn't you?"

Was the question really necessary? Ethan had to know she liked it, for she'd been ogling the car all the way into Phoenix.

"What's not to like?" she shrugged.

He smiled, and looked a little more relaxed. "How long have you lived in Cielo Grande?" he asked.

"A few years."

"And before that?"


"Really?" He looked about the restaurant. "Then coming here must be like coming home." When she only smiled, he stared at the table for several moments in awkward silence. He looked around, then motioned to the food poster in one of the wide windows. "They have the same advertisements in the restaurant in San Francisco."

She nodded as though that was interesting, and wondered if he was beginning to wish he hadn't invited her to dinner.

She was about to say something polite, when he spoke up.

"Are you familiar with Joan Chen?" Ethan asked in what vaguely passed as desperation. "Before Joan founded GlobalTechPop, she worked for one of my companies. She and I designed the mobile app for this restaurant chain-- for Greene's Food." He paused, as if trying to gauge Jo's reaction.

Jo nodded, as though she had known that already. She felt awkward, and out of place. As he went on, and talked about the wild state of venture capitalism in San Francisco, Jo tried to figure him out. He seemed overtly geeky, like he'd just stepped away from his desk where he did various and sundry important things that were considered important by those who understood what he did. The observation may have been an overstatement, but sitting at that small table gave her a perspective that she hadn't counted on. From a distance, he had slob written all over him, but close up, geek oozed from every pore.

The waitress came back, and slid their orders in front of them as Ethan continued to talk. He seemed to understand that Jo wasn't picking up very much of what he was saying, and yet he kept going. That he was nervous was obvious, but why he should be that way was a mystery to Jo. Surely, he was used to talking to the opposite sex. He had to be used to them, for he treated the adoring young woman who served their dinner as though she was one of hundreds.

The waitress smiled brightly as she left their table, and Jo doubted highly that it was because he had designed the restaurant's mobile app. He was just plain cute, and he had to know it, for he acted as though it happened all the time.

Jo wished she knew what that felt like. Men had admired her before, but not the way the waitress had looked at Ethan. It had to feel amazing.

Smiling, Ethan took off his sunglasses, hooked them from the neck of his T-shirt, then started in on his humus wraps. As Jo looked over the tofu thing she had ordered, she couldn't help but notice Ethan's eyes. They weren't terribly red, but it gave him a tired look that seemed familiar somehow. He looked fine otherwise, so Jo chalked it up to allergies and started eating the pressed soy curds that had been made to look like a hamburger patty. It was no hamburger.

Ethan looked at her. "Are you married?"

"I got into your car," she frowned, "so I'd hope the answer to that question is obvious."

"Ever been divorced?" he asked.

"What is this-- Twenty Questions?"

"I was only wondering," he shrugged.

"No, I haven't. Have you?"

Ethan took a drink from his smoothie. "It's been my observation that marriage takes too much time, and divorce takes even more." He paused. "Even if I had the time though, it's too much of a gamble. I don't see how people can do it and still claim they're rational."

"That's a little too cynical for me," Jo smiled, "but in general, I agree."

He looked at her with a frankness that she found mildly unsettling. "Do you enjoy your work?" he asked.

She smiled. "I'd be an idiot, if I didn't. The crew have been incredibly kind by sharing their experiences with me-- I've been learning so much. They've all been wonderful, especially Mr. Campbell. When my community college classes start up in August, he's going to let me work around my class schedule."

"You're a student?"

She nodded. "I'm working to get my A&P certificates."

"Really." Ethan looked impressed. "So you're studying to become an aircraft mechanic. That sounds hard."

"It's not easy," Jo conceded without trying to brag. "I attend the community college in Cielo Grande, so it's nothing special."

"I attended community college, myself," he smiled, "so I won't knock it."

"Did you transfer to a four-year?" Jo asked, trying to keep the conversation moving along. She didn't want another one of those painfully quiet lulls where it was obvious neither one knew what to say. "I'll pretty much be able to get all the education I need in Cielo Grande, but Grandpa was sorry I wasn't planning to get some huge scholarship, and transfer to a prestigious four-year university."

"Does your Grandpa live around here?" Ethan asked.

"He passed away in April."

"I'm sorry to hear that. You must miss him." Ethan frowned. "Of course you miss him, he's your grandpa. It was a stupid comment. Just ignore me and enjoy your tofu."

She smiled. "I lived with Grandpa for several years-- off and on-- but, yeah. I miss him a lot. He served with the Phoenix Police Department before I was born, and after I turned six, he became a polygraph examiner." She smiled at the look on Ethan's face. "It's what it sounds like. He was responsible for studying all those squiggle marks and determining if you were telling the truth or not. He swore he could tell whenever I lied, which pretty much made my teenage years a nightmare. I finally got it though my thick skull that I shouldn't lie. Period. Whether Grandpa could tell I was fibbing, or not. Grandpa was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln, and his favorite quote was, 'No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar.' Grandpa was convinced that whatever failings we have in our justice system, justice can only be as good as the people serving it out."

"He sounded like quite a man."

"He was," Jo smiled. "He was a good judge of character."

Ethan looked at her thoughtfully, and she wondered what he was thinking.

"Have you ever done anything kind of dumb," Jo asked, "only to regret it later?"

Ethan looked at her askance. "Is that one of your grandpa's trick questions?"

"The day before yesterday--" Jo gave herself a moment to think before she continued-- "I did something that I almost never do. I flirted with a total stranger."

Ethan's mouth tugged into a grin. "You sure did."

"I don't know what possessed me to do that," Jo went on, "but I did, and I need you to know that a serious relationship is the last thing I want right now. Men are distracting, and I have to keep my focus."

He smiled. "You do realize that we're only having dinner?"

"It's a good dinner," she added, choosing not to tell him what she really thought of her fake hamburger. "It's just that I don't want you to have the wrong impression. I'm a little bit responsible for why you asked me out, and I don't want you to get hurt."

He smiled, and looked as though he didn't know what to say.

Feeling a little self-conscious, Jo filled her mouth with tofu to keep from talking. She wouldn't have said anything at all if she hadn't known that he liked her. She could tell by the way he looked at her, the mixture of interest and fear in his eyes that made her think he wanted something more than dinner. Why someone who was as obviously successful, and as handsome as he was, should want anything at all from her, was beyond Jo. She knew from experience that she could attract men, but not men like him. While her ex-boyfriends hadn't been outright losers, none of them had been cologne-ad tech-titans, either.

Whether Ethan was a titan or not, was beside the point.

He was out of her league.

Her shirt had dried sweat stains on it, and yet he was still interested. Either Ethan was completely nuts, or she was, and she was fairly sure of her own sanity. Most times.

Jo smiled, and Ethan's shoulders relaxed a little.

He picked up his fruit-veg smoothie. "Are your parents from around here?" he asked.

She gave a noncommittal shrug. "Are yours?"

Ethan looked at her for a long moment. Then he shook his head, and changed the subject. They talked about the weather, the lack of any real color on the walls of the restaurant, the fact they liked their smoothies. Jo did like the drink; she found it thick and cold and down-to-the-ground healthy, but the fruity vegetable flavor left a sweet taste in her mouth that made her smile. It had been a pleasant surprise.

By the time they left the restaurant, the sun had disappeared beneath the horizon. Jo waited as Ethan opened the passenger door for her. She slipped into the car; he shut the door, then rounded the back of the convertible to the driver's side.

"Do you really like the car?" he asked.

She gave him her best you-gotta-be-kidding-me look, and he smiled.

"This slice of sports car heaven didn't come cheap, but it was worth it, wasn't it?" He looked to her, as though waiting for her approval.

She cocked her head. "May I ask you something?"

Ethan settled behind the wheel, and motioned for her to ask away.

"My opinion won't change a thing, so why do you keep asking if I like your car?"

"No reason, I guess." He gave her a sideways glance that had her smiling. "When I first saw you at Campbell Aviation, you were coming on pretty strong. I hope it doesn't embarrass you to hear that, but it's true. Then something changed-- I don't know what-- I guess you'd changed your mind." Ethan didn't look angry, but matter-of-fact. "After I got this car," he smiled, "you didn't think twice about jumping in."

"You didn't buy it because of me, did you?"

"Of course not." He started the car, and revved the engine so that the older couple coming out of the restaurant turned and smiled at them. Ethan flashed a grin as he eased from the parking space. "Do you mind if we take the long way back to Cielo Grande?"

"What do you mean?"

"It's finally beginning to cool down out here," Ethan said as he turned on to the street. He punched the gas, and reached the speed limit in two seconds flat. "I want to drive around and show off the car."

She tried not to encourage him by smiling. "Are you always this insecure?"

He grinned. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. When I woke up today, I had no idea that I was going to buy this car, and now that I have, I want to enjoy it."

Jo shook her head. "You must be doing well to buy something like this without giving it a second thought."

He frowned. "How much do you know about me? Surely, Jack or Aiden must have said something. I'm not a secret."

Jo wasn't sure what Ethan meant by that, but she answered as best she could without making a big deal out of it. If something was supposed to be common knowledge, it wasn't to her. "My general impression is that Jack doesn't like us to gossip about our boss, or his family," Jo shrugged. "So I don't know much."

"I thought for sure he would say something." Ethan sighed. "Then I guess it's up to me. Do you remember Joan? I mentioned her at dinner. She worked for one of my startups before going off to found her own company-- she called it GlobalTechPop. I never cared for that name. Anyway. My point is, most startups don't do very well. In fact, they usually fail-- and Joan's did, and seven of my own did as well. But my last startup," Ethan said with a shake of his head, "that last one, I struck gold."

"What do you mean?" Jo asked.

"This past April, I sold my startup for over seven hundred million."

"You mean, dollars?"

He nodded, and she whistled in admiration.

"That explains the car." Jo watched Ethan, and saw him fight back a smile. "This changes nothing," she cautioned gently. "I'm still not interested."

Ethan grinned. "You got in, didn't you?"

She was about to come back with a retort, something very fine, that would put him in his place. Before she got out a single word, he sped up, catching her off balance as she grinned into the wind. This baby could fly, oh, how she could fly!

"What about it?" Ethan asked. "Feel like taking the scenic route home?"

"Go for it!" Jo shouted. The car practically begged to go all out, but Ethan reigned in the power, and kept it hovering near legal. It surprised her, for she couldn't quite forget Mr. Campbell's comment about Ethan's lack of responsibility. She shoved the thought aside. Nothing mattered tonight except the feel of the wind on her face and the sound of the car as it ate up the road and begged for more.

* * * *

She hadn't known about him? Jo had knocked Ethan for a loop when he'd heard that, for he had been certain that some one, at some time, would have said some thing about him. For all his effort, he wasn't sure it was making much of a difference. She wasn't interested; that's what she'd said, and he was trying to make up his mind how much he believed that. He had gotten her to smile more than once, without even trying, and when she looked at him he could tell she liked what she saw.

It gave him hope.

Ethan had to admit, he'd done stupid things in the past to impress a woman, but not to this extent and at such great price. He wasn't crazy though, or nuts, or a taco short of a combination platter. He had made a decision and had stuck with it. Simple as that. It had worked, the car had gotten her attention long enough for her to take another look at the driver.

He didn't want to mess things up before he got another yes, a sign that would show she was changing her mind about him.

A doubt whispered in his thoughts that perhaps she had been lying the whole time, that she had known about his money even before she had flirted with him at Campbell Aviation. But no. He pushed it aside in favor of the decision he wanted. She liked him-- he wanted to believe that, and he did.

He glanced at her, saw her head back and her eyes closed, and he smiled.

He kind of liked her, too. Man, he'd better, for he'd just bought a car to impress the woman. He liked her, didn't he? He wasn't simply doing this because she was handy, was he?

Ethan frowned.

As he had said he would, he took the scenic route back to Cielo Grande, taking several hours before heading for the interstate. The sky had turned black above them with just a sliver of a moon showing. It made for a long romantic ride. Things always felt closer, and more intimate in the dark, and tonight was one of those kind of nights.

Ethan didn't want it to end.

He cleared his throat. "We're nearing Cielo Grande."

"Already?" Jo said with a dreamy sigh. "I haven't had this much fun in a long time."

"What are you doing tomorrow?" he asked.


"I don't know." Ethan didn't hurry to explain himself. He kept it loose, and off the cuff. "I thought we could go somewhere, and eat breakfast. If that turns out all right, then maybe we go somewhere else and have lunch. After that, if you're still having fun, then maybe you'd let me take you out to dinner again."

She said nothing, and Ethan sensed her caution.

"I'm talking about a simple, nothing-promised date. Just two people agreeing to be at the same place at the same time. So," he held his breath a beat, "are you free tomorrow?"

"I have work." There was a smile in Jo's voice-- he could hear it.

"You work Saturdays?" Ethan smiled, for he sensed the tide turning in his favor. "Surely, you don't work on weekends. No one but masochists and the self-employed work on weekends." Ethan should know. He had worked without stopping for months at a time while trying to sell his last startup. "What do you say?" he asked.

She gave a small smile, and Ethan could tell she didn't want to say no.

He took the turnoff to Cielo Grande, then followed Jo's directions to the apartment building near the airport. He pulled beside the curb, and let the engine idle as she pushed open the passenger door.

"Thank you for dinner, Ethan."

"Come on," he hopped out of the car and stepped with her onto the sidewalk. "Let me pick you up tomorrow morning, and show you a good time. I'm not asking for anything else-- just tomorrow." He smiled when she turned and looked at his mouth. "Come on," he said in a quiet, coaxing voice. "Don't think. Just do it."

She looked so wistful it was driving him crazy.

"You won't regret it, Jo. I swear, you won't."

Her mouth curved into a smile, and she stepped close. She leaned in, and his heart beat double-time as he lowered his head for a kiss.

A door slammed shut behind them, and Ethan startled, and turned to see someone taking their trash out to the curb on the other side of the street. The man looked at them with a curious stare, much like drivers lingering past a car wreck to see what they could see. In this case, no kiss. Jo patted Ethan's arm, and started for her door.

"See you tomorrow morning?" Ethan asked.

Jo paused in her tracks, and turned halfway and considered Ethan. "I'll be ready by eight," she said, and smiled when he gave a triumphant fist-pump. "Good night," she called, as she let herself into the apartment.

"Yeah." Ethan sucked in a deep breath, and let it go with easy satisfaction. "Good night." He waited until she had shut the door behind her before going back to his car. He dropped behind the wheel, tugged the door shut, and sat there and grinned like a stupid idiot. Life usually stank, but today? Today had been unusually good. The realization that life could be this good came as a shock. He'd had so many bad days, this one seemed to come out of nowhere.

Pulling away from Jo's place, Ethan headed for the Campbells' house with a light heart.

Humming a tune Ethan couldn't place, he drove to the grand adobe that the Campbells' called home. He realized they didn't live far from Jo, but then it made sense that Aiden hadn't wanted to be far from the airport. Ethan thought about that, and decided Jo hadn't wanted to be far from the airfield, either. Aviation nuts. It'd serve him right if he one day found himself living next to an airport, struggling to stay asleep while aircraft taxied down the runway. It happened at the Campbells' house, so it made sense that it happened elsewhere.

Ethan smiled.

He had made up his mind to make some big changes, and he'd already made one. He'd bought a car. As he pulled in front of the Campbells' home, he was thinking over another.

Who said he had to be cautious, and take things slowly? Ethan was plowing straight ahead.

Before he left his brand new toy alone in the driveway, Ethan started the automatic top in motion, and sat back to watch as the rear trunk opened, and lifted out a two-part hard-top roof. Like setting a stack of dishes one plate at a time, the first half of the roof was placed over Ethan's head; the arm lifted, then placed the remaining section behind the narrow backseat. He turned and watched as the arm disappeared back into the trunk, only for the trunk to then close itself.

Ethan laughed.

That had to be the coolest thing ever.

Too bad he hadn't thought to put the top up before he'd left Jo's place. She would've died to see that in action.

Ethan got out, locked the car, and then started for the house with a quick step. Man, what a good day. He went to the front door, twisted the handle, and found it locked. He was about to try the doorbell when the door swung open.

Ryan stared at him before turning and shouting, "Ethan's back!"

"Do you have to announce it to the world?" Ethan stepped past Ryan, and into the house. "Did the dealership deliver my old car?"

"It's out in the driveway. Didn't you see it?"

Ethan let the question go. He had better things on his mind than his old four-door. He checked the time, and winced, for it was nearly midnight. He hadn't realized it was that late. He gave Ryan a look, for the kid could've roused the whole house with that shouted announcement of his arrival. Ethan didn't want that. He wanted to quietly go to his room without being noticed. Ethan would've skipped seeing anyone, if that had been a choice, but he couldn't get to his bedroom without first passing through the great room.

He braced himself. Time to beard the lion in its den. With a sigh, Ethan moved past the kitchen and into the great room where Aiden dozed on one of the couches. Okay, one lion down. Ethan started for the hall when he noticed Matty waiting in a recliner.

"Just heading off to bed," Ethan said lightly.

Matty stood up. "Why haven't you called?"

"I did-- from the dealership."

"Don't you realize we've been worried?"

"I did call."

The look of defeat in Matty's eyes didn't stay there for long. "Are you all right? Is there anything you want to tell me?"

"Such as?"

"Are you doing drugs?"

Ethan laughed, noticed Aiden begin to stir, and lowered his voice. One lion was enough. "Do I look high to you?" Ethan asked.

"Would you tell me if you were?" Matty asked.

"I'd tell you." Ethan shook his head. "Wow. All this confidence in my character is inspiring. I'm flattered, I really am."

"We were worried about you," said a voice behind Ethan.

Ethan turned and found Ryan had followed him into the great room. Wonderful. They had an audience. "I appreciate all the time and energy you put into worrying over me, but do us all a favor and stay out of this. Okay?"

Head bowed, Ryan went past them and into the hall. Hopefully, he was going to bed.

Ethan motioned to Matty. "Are we almost finished? Because I'm bushed-- I've had a long day."

"We all have." Matty scrubbed his face with both hands. "Sometimes you scare me, Ethan. You're a grown man--" Matty looked at Ethan with helpless eyes-- "you're not a teenager anymore, you have the right to make your own decisions. As much as I want to, I can't live your life for you."

"That's right-- you can't."

"It's all up to you, Ethan."

Ethan didn't know how to answer that. "I'm all right. I really am. I don't know how to make you believe me."

The brothers stared at each other. Matty sighed.

"I'm praying for you. I want you to know that."

"Then I'm sure everything will turn out fine." Ethan smiled against the guilt balling in his stomach. "Matty is praying-- I'll remember that. Maybe I'll write it down somewhere so when my courage fails, as I'm sure it must-- I can read it and take comfort." Ethan smiled to the room, even though no one was there beside Matty and Aiden. "We have nothing to worry about."

The hurt in Matty's eyes was clear.

Man, Ethan hated this, he really did. "I take it back, all right?" He pushed out a long, weary sigh. "We're both tired, and I need to get some sleep."

"We're done here," Matty said with a shake of his head. "I love you, Ethan."

"Yeah." Ethan forced a smile. "I love you, too." He started for the hall. "Good night."

Instead of saying anything in return, Matty nodded his good night, and Ethan pushed into the hall.

Biting back a curse, Ethan punched the air, only to see Dylan and Peter looking at him from the room they shared down the hall. "The show is over, guys. Time to go to bed." Ethan sighed when they shut their door.

Ethan didn't need this. He didn't need any of it. He rounded into his room, and found Ryan coming out of the bathroom they shared. Ethan wished, he really wished, that he didn't have to split the bedroom with his kid brother. He wanted to be alone, to curse the universe and the powers that be for his miserable luck. The day had been going unbelievably good until he'd come home.

Home. This wasn't home, that was an apartment in San Francisco, not this place.

Ethan tugged off his shoes. He'd been right all along-- he never should have come.

"Thanks for the car."

Ethan looked up. "What?"

"I said, thanks for the car." Ryan sat on the edge of his bed, looking every bit the nineteen-year-old that he was. Even with that pitiful excuse of a beard, he still looked like a shoulder-slumped kid. "Dad and Mom were going to get me a car, but now they won't have to. They have enough expenses with the new store opening in Phoenix."

Feeling his face grow warm, Ethan only nodded. He hadn't expected gratitude. Giving the car to Ryan had been an afterthought, something he'd done to get rid of a vehicle he no longer wanted.

"Dad really was worried about you, you know."

"Yeah. I got that."

Ethan changed out of his clothes, choosing to wear his boxers to bed. There were a light pair of pajama bottoms around here somewhere, but Ethan didn't feel like digging through the clothes on the floor to go looking for them. He sank on to his bed, and breathed deep. He felt calmer now, which was good if he ever hoped to actually get some sleep.

Ethan nodded to Ryan. "Why all this worry about me? I was only gone the day. Okay, I didn't come home last night, and I fully admit I should have called before morning. But I'm not a kid, I can take care of myself." Ethan looked to Ryan for help, and Ryan only shrugged.

"I think Dad thinks that you might be drinking."

"Has he said that?"

"Not in so many words." Ryan shrugged, a frustratingly teenager thing to do when someone did it as much as Ryan. "He's just... you know, he's just dad. He thinks a lot." Ryan shrugged. "He means well."

"I know." Ethan rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. "I know he does. I guess he wouldn't be Matty if he didn't mean well." Ethan pushed back, and stretched out on the twin mattress. "Could I ask you something?" Ethan looked over at his brother. "Don't you ever feel strange calling Matty, Dad? I know he's the only dad you've got, but still, he's your brother."

Ryan smiled. "Pete and Dylan are always calling him Dad, so I guess I fell into the habit. Besides, whenever someone asks about my parents, I know they mean Matty and Beth. It felt stupid not to call them what they are. They're Dad and Mom."

"I envy you."

"I'll tell Dad you said that," Ryan grinned.

Ethan hurled a feather pillow at Ryan, and Ryan ducked, and snatched it up, and launched it back at Ethan. The brothers grinned. Ryan shook his head, and went to bed.

"Would you turn out the light?" Ryan asked.

With a yawn, Ethan got up, and went to switch off the overhead. "Good night, Ry."

"See you in the morning," Ryan said, his voice already sounding with the first signs of sleep.

The room dark, Ethan padded back to his bed in bare feet, more than ready for some quiet and rest. He climbed beneath the sheets with an ear-to-ear yawn, punched the pillow to get things just the way he liked, then sighed deeply.

Ethan closed his eyes, and saw Matty standing in the living room, looking at Ethan with such fear, that Ethan shivered, and turned in his bed to get more comfortable. He had to stop thinking about it. It took over an hour before sleep finally came, but when it did, trouble haunted Ethan's rest. He saw himself walking into a room crowded with red and white carnations, a four-year-old-Ryan squirming in his arms. They moved close to an open casket, peered inside, and stared at their mom. They were supposed to say their good byes, but Ethan found he couldn't form the words no matter how hard he tried. "Mom," panic rose in Ethan's throat, "it's time to wake up. This isn't funny anymore." Ethan watched as her mouth stretched wide into a gleeful smile. "Sorry now?" she asked.

Ethan shot up in bed, his heart pounding so hard he thought it would break his ribs.

A dream-- it had only been a dream.

Ethan looked over to where Ryan quietly snored.

With a soft groan, Ethan dropped back to his pillow, his breath still coming in large gulps. He remembered the last words his mother had written before taking her own life: "You'll ALL be sorry." While the suicide letter had been directed at Beth and Matty, Ethan had long felt the force of that ALL. She had put it in caps-- it had been hard to miss.

What was Ethan supposed to be sorry for?

That she'd been useless as a mother? That she'd tossed her life away without even the smallest glimmer of apology? That she'd done her level best to make them feel guilty for her death? What? What had Ethan ever done to her to deserve that inclusive ALL? If she was waiting for an apology from him, then she would have a very long, very hot wait. He wasn't sorry and he never would be. He was overjoyed that she'd finished herself off, that she had saved them the trouble and the hassle of dealing with her, and her addictions. He regretted nothing he had said to her, nothing he had done. She had deserved it all.

Ethan groaned. Why did he have to have a dream like that, tonight, of all nights, after his fight with Matty? It was beyond Ethan; Ethan only knew the timing stank.

Feeling sick, Ethan turned onto his side, and tried to force calm into his nerves. Too shaken to close his eyes, he stared into the darkness until sunlight shoved its way around the bedroom blinds.

Worn out, Ethan went to sleep.

"As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways..."
~ Ezekiel 33:11 ~

"He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul..."
~ Proverbs 15:32 ~

end of chapter
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