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He Leads the Way

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Chapter 2: FRIENDS 4-EVER

Crystl’s head came up even as her forehead lowered. She sniffed again and frowned. She hadn’t imagined it; she smelled smoke! “Hawk,” the twenty-three-year-old said, her voice taking on a no-nonsense tone, “take my things home. I’ll be a little late.”

Jay’s frown signaled that he did not approve of this plan, but he knew better than to argue with that tone. “Okay, but, Sunny? Be careful.” He lifted her packages into bulky eighteen-year-old arms. He had strict instructions not to leave Crystl’s side, but the tone she used evoked some feeling of instant obedience. He didn’t know it, but that was the tone his real mother had used on him long ago when he was in trouble.

“Always,” she returned, taking off. She followed the smoke smell to the edge of town, less than half a mile from her own beachfront home, where a rickety house was burning to the ground. As she came to a stop, the porch roof had just caved in and a woman was screaming, “Isabel! No! Not my daughter!” Suddenly, there was a roar, and Crystl turned back to the house, standing transfixed as a giant of a man threw pieces of the porch roof off of himself with a thrust of his massive shoulders, an unconscious young woman about Crystl’s age limp in his arms, apparently none the worse for the wear. The people stood immobile and silent as the giant located the girl’s parents and handed the unconscious form gently to her father. The crowd began to disband, some helping the family to the hospital, others to make arrangements; the people that owned the house now completely engulfed in flame had obviously lost everything. Crystl, however, couldn’t move. The hero that had saved the girl looked after the departing family, then swayed and fell. Crystl’s ability for independent movement suddenly returned, and she rushed to his side, wetting her handkerchief in a watering trough along the way. She cradled his head in her lap, wiping the ash and soot from his face with her handkerchief. “Oh, God, don’t let him die,” she prayed softly. “Don’t let this good man die.”

Suddenly, he took a deep, shuddering breath that turned into a hacking cough. As the cough subsided, he turned burning emerald eyes on her. “Are you an angel?” he croaked.

Crystl smiled, her violet eyes swimming in tears. “No. Thankfully, you are not dead yet. But you might be if we don’t treat your burns and wash the smoke out of your system. We’ll go to my house; it’s closer than the hospital. Can you walk?”

He carefully sat up, then stood, and took a few steps. “Yes. I can walk.”

“Good. Follow me.” The pair went slowly, and finally, Crystl led him into her kitchen. She poured him a glass of milk. “You should really get to a hospital. I’ve had some medical classes, but I don’t have any equipment here for smoke inhalation.” She found some burn cream in her first aid kit.

The hero stood. “I didn’t inhale any smoke, really. I should be getting home.”

Crystl put her hands on her hips. “You will sit right here, at least until I get burn cream on your burns.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Just how many med classes did you have?”

“Enough to make that doctor’s orders. Sit down. Drink your milk. And take off your shirt.”

The glass paused halfway between the table and his mouth. “I beg your pardon?”

“Take off your shirt,” Crystl repeated calmly. “I cannot properly treat your burns with your shirt in the way. Of course, if you care to keep the burns and the scars they produce, I will be forced to wrest your shirt from you, and I don’t welcome the prospect of causing you that much pain coupled with the shame of being bested by a woman, so if you please!”

“Goodness! Sheath claws, woman! Sheesh,” he returned, unbuttoning and gingerly removing his shirt, wincing as it stuck in some places.

“Thank you,” she returned pleasantly. “What’s your name?” she asked, beginning with his chest and trying to force her mind and his off of what she was doing, first, gently cleaning the area with a damp cloth to identify burns, then spreading the cream, grimacing every time he jumped.

“Brad McClan. You?” Brad was pleased that his voice sounded steady, her touch was making him self-conscious, pleasing him and frightening him both at the same time, his skin tingling everywhere her gentle, soft, sensitive hands touched.

“Crystl Bennett.” Crystl fought to keep her hands and her voice steady. She already knew that this was an incredibly handsome man in front of her, but there wasn’t a girl Crystl knew who wouldn’t kill for the chance to have Brad McClan in their kitchen, much less with his shirt off and with the freedom to touch the broad, muscled, toned, tanned chest. If local gossip was to be believed, Brad didn’t grant such favors lightly, and if a girl did ever have that privilege, it never happened twice. That it happened to be her, the girl who had the least chance of all the girls in town, was almost too impossible to be believed. Crystl smiled. There were benefits to having a soft heart. She stopped herself from asking for his autograph.

Brad was having much the same reaction. After getting out of the police force seven years before, after the Bennett case, Crystl Bennett had popped into his mind at the most inconvenient times – and quite frequently, too. “Miss Bennett. It is indeed a pleasure to meet you.” He bit his tongue, telling himself that it didn’t matter that he had been on the police force when she was kidnapped, that it was his fault (as his boss said) that his rookie mistakes might have lost her for good if her father hadn’t returned her on his own. He watched as she smiled at him, her mouth stretched open in the happy grin to reveal even white teeth and dimples lining her mouth, her violet eyes sparkling with a happiness Brad had never seen in the eyes of a kidnapping victim, no matter how long ago it had happened.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. McClan. And please, Crystl,” Crystl returned, moving around to his back. “I’m glad I could help,” she continued, leaning around to wink impishly at him.

Brad grinned back into her beautiful eyes. “I sure hope you don’t have a habit of catching people at their worst.”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” she retorted tartly, pleased at how flippant her voice sounded, especially since she had to quickly duck behind him to hide the dreamy expression in her eyes and the blush burning in her cheeks. How on earth did he acquire a smile that could turn her to putty? When he smiled, his smoldering eyes flashed and crinkled at the corners, and dimples appeared around his mouth as dazzlingly white teeth flashed. She had been the intended receiver of many a smile in her day, and none were as handsome as his. Those select few that could cause her to melt had long since lost that ability since she realized what was behind those smiles: a personality out of its depth in a parking lot puddle. If this was his worst, Crystl sincerely hoped his best wouldn’t make her faint dead away. “There,” she finally said, sitting back. “I’m done. Please get checked out by a doctor sometime soon, Mr. McClan.”

He smiled again as he turned to face her. Her eyes were full of a genuine concern for his well-being. “Just call me Brad,” he answered. “And you have my word. I will see a doctor just as soon as I can manage.” His face turned serious as he kissed her hand gently. “Thank you,” he added quietly, and disappeared.

And Crystl, more flustered and confused than ever about this untouchable man, sat perfectly still as he left.

“Brad! Where have you been?” Thace critically eyed her brother. Soot still streaked his face, his arms were grimy, and his clothes were dirty, too. “What on earth have you been doing?”

“I pulled Isabel Deveraux out of her burning house.”

“Oh, now you’ve really done it. Brad, that girl has had a crush on you since you were kids. Saving her life was a really brilliant way to make her forget about you.”

“Well, what would you have had me do? Let her roast alive in her own house? No one else was going after her, and somebody had to pull her out.”

A spasm of hurt crossed Thace’s face. “Of course I didn’t mean that.”

Brad was contrite. “I’m sorry, Mouse. I didn’t mean to snap at you. And, besides, I just spent the last half-hour in much more pleasant company.”

Thace lifted a perfectly arched eyebrow. “Who might that be?”

Brad looked at his kid sister and half-smiled. “I’m tired, so I’m going to take a shower and get to bed.”

“Curious name.”

“I’m not giving you her name.”

Now, both eyebrows lifted. “Her?”

“Yes, her. Now, scat.”

“What kind of talk is that?”

“That is none-of-your-business talk, Thace. Out!”

Thace, still pouting, left.

And Brad stayed in the shower much longer than he intended, thinking about Crystl Bennett, and why he wanted to kiss her so badly.

* * *

“Crystl! Wait up!”

Crystl turned at the sound of her name. The sweet, slightly breathless voice belonged to a girl that she called one of her best friends, though the two seldom saw each other except for Sunday mornings when they watched a classroom of four-year-olds together. “Hey, Thace. How was your weekend?”

Thace’s cheeks turned bright red. “Okay.”

Crystl lifted a honey-colored eyebrow. “You’ve either got a killer sunburn or a tell-tale blush, either one of which means a better than ‘okay’ weekend. Spill.”

Thace shook her head, causing her auburn curls to dance and sway. “No way, Crystl. My lips are sealed. My boyfriend has sworn me to secrecy. Besides, you probably don’t want to know.” It was obvious that Thace was thinking about what Crystl didn’t want to know as she was approaching the shade of a lobster.

Both Crystl’s eyebrows lifted. “Whom are we dating?”

Thace narrowed her eyes playfully. “Back off, woman. Isn’t there an amendment that protects my privacy? We aren’t dating anybody, thank you, and I’ll not have you stealing my boyfriend.”

Crystl pouted in vain as they entered a classroom full of yelling, tumbling four-year-olds. As they began to restore order, all talk of Thace’s mystery weekend was abandoned, though it stayed on the minds of both girls for some time after.

* * *

Brad leaned forward and folded his arms on the balcony railing, his eyes, as always, fastened on Crystl Bennett. In the two weeks since the fire, he had been brave enough to suffer a shirt for the sake of morning service, but had been unable to think of a legitimate reason to stop by her house again. To say “thank you” again sounded stupid even inside his head. To ask if she was alright was profoundly ludicrous, and he couldn’t think of a legitimate reason why he would “just be in the neighborhood”. Crystl was laughing at something the girl next to her was saying, tossing her long golden hair back behind her shoulders. Brad wondered how long it had taken her to find a dress the exact blue-purple shade of her eyes.


Brad winced as a hand slapped his still-tender back. He turned to see Isabel Deveraux, the girl he had saved from the fire, standing behind him. He had been so absorbed in watching Crystl that he had failed to notice that service was over. “Miss Deveraux,” he said, wishing desperately that she would move her hand; it was causing him agony. “How is your family?”

“They’re fine; they’re right there, see?” she used the opportunity of pointing them out to move even closer, totally invading his personal space, twirling her black hair around her finger, trying for a coy manner and failing miserably, her cattish green eyes twinkling suggestively at him.

“That’s good.” Brad saw a boy he’d been tutoring for weeks heading for him. Thanks for the escape, God, he thought. “Excuse me, please.” He gratefully moved away from her and high-fived the boy. “Hey, what’s up?”

“I got an ‘A’,” the boy crowed gleefully, waving the math test with the big red ‘A’ marked on it under Brad’s nose.

“You could be Helen Keller and see that thing. Way to go!”

“Thanks to you,” the lad returned. “Thanks for the help, and for believing in me.”

“Anytime.” He grinned. “Even though we spent more time discussing a certain sister of mine than doing math.”

“She was a more pleasant topic,” the boy said nonchalantly. “And yes, I finally did ask her out.” He grinned. “And managed to reduce her to a quivering mass of blushing maiden.”

Brad grinned at him before turning and almost tripping over Isabel again. “Did you want something else?”

“Just to thank you again. Maybe dinner tonight, at our new house? My parents are out.” Her seductive tone suggested she had something other than dinner planned. Her hand stroked his chest, causing the new skin to burn painfully.

“No, thank you.”

“Oh, come on. I could arrange a special dessert.” She giggled. “I’ll have everything you see here, plus…” her voice dropped to a whisper, “…everything you don’t.”

“Sorry, have plans.” Brad turned away to hide his anger. Talking such a way, and in church! He saw his friend waving and made his way over. The two headed for the main floor of the sanctuary together.

“Looked like you could use an escape,” Billy commented.

Brad chuckled, his anger gone. “Yeah, not to mention I was monopolizing the time of a girl you’ve been crushing on since kindergarten. You can have her, my friend. I have my sights set elsewhere.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “You crushing on someone? Is it possible that the famed-”

“Don’t say it!” Brad hissed. “I don’t need you on top of everybody and her sister calling me Twin Oaks’ most eligible bachelor.”

“Okay, man.” Billy held up his hands in surrender. “So, who’s the lucky lady in your crosshairs?”

Brad answered slowly, “Crystl Bennett.”

Billy was instantly sober. “Ooh. Shoulda known you’d pick a tough one. Be careful, Brad. She’s deeply scarred.”

“I know,” he returned. “I read the papers. But, after all, who better to understand me?”

Billy shook his head. “I don’t know, Brad. She doesn’t date, period. I even asked her out.”


“Yeah. I mean, she’s so beautiful. But an Ice Queen, I’m telling you.”

Later, Brad was standing ready to counsel those who came forward in second service. It was a busy invitation. Suddenly, he spotted the pastor waving him over. He looked at the girl standing next to the man to see none other than the violet eyes of Crystl Bennett! It was obvious she had been crying and was still crying, and Brad knew he was in trouble the minute he decided that she was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, even with red-rimmed eyes and a tear-streaked face. The clear, glowing innocence he had grown accustomed to in her eyes (from the thousands of photographs around her home and the ones he had clipped out of the newspaper and the one he had kept from his days as a policeman) was still there, but it was eclipsed by a clear view to her soul. Brad had always known she had a beautiful heart and soul, but the soul he saw through her eyes hit him like a bullet. Crystl’s spirit and soul had been battered almost beyond recognition, and she was crying from the agonizing fear and pain. “Come with me, Crystl. Come on.” Avoiding the buzzing counseling room, he led her to the office of the counselor himself. The room was deserted and silent, and he pulled her down next to him on the couch, letting her lean against him as she spent herself in tears, putting his arms around her shoulders, wanting to help and feeling wretchedly powerless to do so. “Crystl, tell me, what’s the matter? I can’t fix it if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

Crystl made a monumental effort to calm herself and offered a tremulous smile. “It isn’t really so devastating. I’m just being silly.”

“Oh, I sincerely doubt that. What’s going on?” Brad asked again.

“Well, I just turned down my sixth proposal in the last 48 hours. Every guy mentions the beauty of this body, but nothing deeper. What they don’t know about me, they can’t handle. They see me like…like…”

“Like a beautiful object to gloat over, some prize for finishing first,” Brad completed her thought gently, a trace of bitterness in his voice.

Crystl nodded, completely missing the “I’ve-been-there” tone in Brad’s voice. “I won’t always look like this. They should know that.” She took a shuddering sigh. “They don’t want to love me. They want to own me. They think I’ll always be pretty.”

“Crystl, you will always be beautiful.” He put a finger to her lips, silencing her protest. “Let me finish. Not because of the flawlessness of your body, but because of the beauty of your heart and soul. That is what makes you beautiful, and that will keep you beautiful long after you’re bent with age and your hair goes gray.”

“You forgot when I wrinkle up like a prune,” Crystl added seriously, then broke into laughter. “Thank you, Brad,” she said, smiling at him. “I needed that.” She lowered her eyes, then looked shyly back up at him. “Do you really think who I am is more beautiful than how I appear?”

“Who you are is what makes you as beautiful as you appear, so I would definitely have to say yes,” he returned. Taking out his handkerchief, he captured her tiny chin in one hand and carefully wiped away the tears. With her so close, he lost control of himself for one moment and kissed her sweetly.

“Mmm!” was Crystl’s sound of surprise. Then, as the kiss deepened, “Mmm,” became her quiet moan of pleasure.

Brad opened his eyes as he began to draw back and realized what he was doing. He pulled away as if struck by lightning. “I’m sorry,” he said, horrified at himself. “I meant to ask you if you would date me today, and that was absolutely the worst way to approach that question in recorded history.”

“Brad,” Crystl said quietly, bringing his gaze to her face again, seeing the horror at himself in his eyes. “I will not date you unless you solemnly promise me right here and right now that you will kiss me like that some more.”

“You’ll date me?”

“If you kiss me again.”

Brad’s face took on an unspeakable joy.

Crystl waited a full five minutes before pointing out, “I’m waiting.”

He grinned roguishly. “Well, if I must.” This time, the kiss, though still tender, was deeper, more passionate, hungry, as Brad pulled Crystl close, into his lap, pressing himself into her returned embrace. Her touch on his back was so much gentler than Isabel’s, and he found himself subconsciously relaxing in her arms.

Crystl finally broke away. When she caught her breath, she said, “We did this backwards.”

“What do you mean?” Brad said.

She smiled at him, wiping a trace of her lipstick away from his mouth. “Usually, one finishes lunch before one begins on dessert.”

“Well, then, let’s go to lunch. I can’t get enough ‘dessert’ right now.”

As they began walking out, Crystl put a hand gently on his back.

Brad immediately stiffened, but then relaxed. Her touch was so much more gentle than Isabel’s, gentle enough not to aggravate the new skin.

She quickly withdrew her hand. “Sorry. How’s your back doing?”

Brad wished she’d touch him again, and so, reached for her hand. “A little stiff. Okay. The doc said I should be back up to speed in a couple weeks.” He grinned down at her. “And my lungs were completely clear of smoke.”

“Good,” she said, blushing as he nonchalantly swung their hands between them.

Brad pulled his hand from hers and put it to the small of her back, guiding her to his car, both of them missing the incensed gaze of Isabel Deveraux as she left with her parents.

* * *

Later that week, Crystl was carrying a magazine with her up the porch stairs when she discovered Brad, Thace, and Jay all sitting there. The magazine slipped out of her hands in her surprise, smacking loudly on the floor. Brad picked it up. Crystl said, “What are you all doing here?”

“Well, I was spending some time with my boyfriend, who just happens to be your brother, and my brother showed up looking for his girlfriend, who just happens to be you,” Thace volunteered matter-of-factly, one foot idly swinging as Jay kept in motion the porch swing they were sharing.

“Weird,” Crystl said.

“Here,” Brad said, handing her the magazine and rising to follow her inside. “I autographed it for you.”

Crystl studied the cover picture, a shirtless Brad, his wet hair curling over his forehead, the title proclaiming him as “Sexiest Man of the Year!”. “I only bought it for the picture,” she confessed softly. “I think they’re right.” She turned into the informal parlor and sat on one of the two couches.

Brad smiled, sitting beside her. “I’m not angry with you. Stop sounding like you’re a kid caught with your hand in the cookie jar.” He looked at it again. “Funny, I don’t remember owning those clothes or ever striking that pose.” His grin widened.

Crystl smiled back; she couldn’t help it when Brad was smiling at her. “So, did you come by for more dessert, or what?” She knew she was blushing brightly and chose to ignore it.

Brad noticed the roses of her cheeks grow deeper and filed that pleasure away to remember later. “Actually, I came to see if you could put some more burn cream on me. The shirt kind of aggravated the burns.” His eyes took on a teasing gleam. “If you’re not objecting, though…”

Crystl’s smile broadened. “I could never refuse green eyes anything.”

“Crystl, I’m supposed to tell you Mom and Dad flew out for Germany today. The vacation Mom’s been waiting for,” Jay popped his head in to say.

“Oh. So you and Thace will be headed upstairs?”

“No, we’re going over to her house. She’s going to attempt to teach me to cook.” He disappeared again, and moments later, the two heard the front door close.

“Well, come on, Brad, let me take a look at your burns.”

Brad took off his shirt en route to the kitchen, still moving a little stiffly.

Crystl got the cream, then turned. “Mmm, not bad. You should be healed in another couple weeks or so. If you can keep from aggravating them. That means no shirt-wearing.”

“Hmm. I might have to take advantage of that doctor’s orders,” Brad teased.

“Brad, I’m in very serious danger of falling in love with you.”

“And that’s dangerous…how?”

“There…there are things you don’t know about me. Horrible things.”

“Same for me.”

“You don’t understand. Listen.” Crystl took a deep breath and began spreading the cream. “I was born Crystlyn Kathryn Johnson on June 14. My mother died in childbirth when I was eight. Jay was only three. My father put us up for adoption the next year. My six-year-old sister, Theresa, he kept. Lord knows what he’s done to her. Anyway, on the day I turned sixteen, he kidnapped me. The police had just given up on finding me when I showed up on the doorstep, closer to being raped and dead than anyone had ever been without actually being so. That has happened on and off for the last seven years.” The deep breath this time shuddered. “Now for the worst part. I was born June fourteenth. My parents were married September twelfth. I’m a…a…” Crystl couldn’t force out the ugly word. “Well, my parents weren’t married when they had me.” Crystl’s hands, finished with Brad, lay limply on the table, and her eyes focused on them as she struggled not to cry.

Brad tipped her chin up, gently forcing her to look at him, his heart going cold when the tears swimming in her eyes began silently slipping down her cheeks. “Crystl, honey. I knew most of that. I read the papers. I was on the police force the first time you were taken. Your mother told me a story of a girl with a big heart, a soul worth more than her weight in gold, and generally a fairy tale I didn’t think could possibly exist. You proved me wrong the day you brought me home from that fire. You were calm under pressure, gentle, caring, and knew exactly what to do to help me out right then, and more, did it for me with a smile that I swear would bring out the sunshine when it’s raining. What your father did to you was not your fault. You are a pure, graceful, intelligent young lady. Besides, my own past was worse, simply because I made the choice. When I was twelve, my father died. Thace was only four years old at the time, and she doesn’t remember much about him at all. Mother went to work almost immediately at a small nursery, leaving me to care for Thace. That kept for about a month. Mother told me she would have to start selling herself to care for us. Lucky we were being home schooled. Anyway, I started looking for something that would make us money quickly. I was lifting weights constantly in those days; the streets I walked to search for food were not safe. I was walking back from a failed interview for messenger boy one day, when I was twelve, with Thace, only four, in my arms. Suddenly, about six men tackled me. Before I knew what had happened, I was in a street fighting ring, and they told me that Thace was the prize that I was fighting for. My opponent was out cold inside of ten minutes. They gave me my little sister, and the prize money. I had found what could help my family survive, and I was good at it. After a few years, I met Jack, and we were the glory of the underworld. It’s only by the grace of God that I never touched the booze, drugs, or women that were shoved at me, both while I was fighting and to this day, even though I prefer to leave that world behind. I built my fortune nearly killing other men. Jana pulled Jack and me out. She and Jack are married and living in Brussels, Belgium now. I know no woman could love me after what I did besides Jana and my mother and sister. I know I should have told you before, but I wanted at least a few hours of your company without being eyed as mud in your opinion.”

“Brad,” Crystl said, bringing his gaze to hers. “What did you expect? That I would hate you, think you a monster? No! I know the man who, at the risk of his own life, protects those who need it. Your sister, the people in that house…your heart is bigger and better than mine could ever be. I don’t know the man whose name was whispered in dark alleyways. You did what had to be done. It wasn’t for an addiction. It was to live. You’re a good man, Brad. Being a fighter doesn’t change that.” She smiled as she kissed his cheek gently. “Now that we’re done trading histories and with your burns, wasn’t there something you wanted to do?”

* * *

“Why would there be salt in cake?”

“Why do cows eat grass?” Thace retorted, greasing the cake pans. “I don’t know why it is, Jay, but it is. If you learn to simply follow the recipe without asking a lot of pointless questions, cooking gets easier. How’s the batter look?”

Jay looked into the bowl he was stirring. “Kinda lumpy. Is it supposed to look like that?” Jay caught her look and half-grinned. “I know, I know, no pointless questions.”

“Right. What do the directions say it should look like?” Thace asked.

“Smooth,” Jay reported.

“So beat it mercilessly until it’s smooth,” Thace instructed.

“Wow. Who knew cooking could be so…violent?” Jay said in a mock wondering tone. He grinned when Thace threw a dishtowel at him and teased, “Oh, surely, you’re not throwing the towel in this early?”

Thace smacked his shoulder. “Just beat the batter, you impudent rascal.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jay vigorously stirred the batter. “Okay, it’s smooth,” he reported ten minutes later. “Now what?”

Thace sighed. “Did you or did you not learn to read? What does the recipe say?”

“Oh, yeah. ‘Pour the batter into two 9-inch greased springform pans. What are springform pans?”

“These are,” Thace said, pointing to them. “Because you can flip these latches on the sides and the sides come off, so your cake layers don’t fall apart because you’re trying to lift them out of a regular pan.”

“Oh. That’s smart.”

Using a spatula, Thace helped him get all the batter out of the bowl and into the pans.

Jay consulted the recipe again. “Okay. ‘Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Why doesn’t it just give us one time?”

“Because different ovens bake differently. We’ll check on it in about thirty minutes. Meantime, I’m going to teach you a little known secret of the kitchen.”

“What is that?”

Thace grinned. “You can cook two things at the same time. What shall we make for dinner?”

* * *

“It’s nice to meet you. Our daughter talks of nothing else.” Elisabeth and George Bennett had come home to find Brad and Crystl on the couch in the family room, talking. Crystl had just made introductions.

“Crystl’s told me a lot about you as well. She speaks very highly of you. It’s an honor to meet you.” Brad gently squeezed Elisabeth’s offered hand and shared a firm handshake with George.

George beamed as he put his arm around his daughter. “She’s been through a lot, but I’ve never seen her glow like this before.”

“Papa!” Crystl said, blushing red.

“Honey, it’s my sworn duty as a father to embarrass you in front of each and every one of your boyfriends.”

“The glow is very becoming,” Brad told her, his eyes twinkling at this interplay.

“You two aren’t leaving right away, are you? We’d love to have you stay for a while. A little supper, a little chat…”

Crystl shot her mother a look. “Mother, every ‘little chat’ you’ve ever had with any of my boyfriends turns out to be the reenactment of the Gestapo questioning downed Allied pilots. I am not going to subject Brad to that. Not now, at least. We’ve got a lane at the bowling alley reserved at seven. We’ll have to rush to get there on time to begin with.”

“Well, maybe some other time.”

Brad grinned. “I look forward to it. Crystl can’t separate us forever.”

“Brad! Mind your manners!” Crystl said, and the two left the Bennett house with laughter and good-natured banter.

* * *

Brad decided not to put on a shirt as he went to meet Crystl at the door the next night. After all, he reminded himself, she had told him not to wear one. He opened the door to find not Crystl, but Isabel Deveraux. As he stood in the doorway, surprised, she slipped past him into the house. He sighed, but closed the door and turned to her. “Can I-?” the question died in his throat. Isabel had taken off the long coat she had been wearing to reveal nothing but a long string of pearls, sewn together to specifically leave her breasts bare, and not to cover anything else at all. He reddened and turned away. “Isabel, are you out of your mind?”

Hearing her giggle, he realized that she was taking his rhetorical question in completely the wrong sense. “Why? Does this outfit drive you out of yours? Isn’t it luscious? Not to mention the body in it, of course.”

“You’re hardly in anything, Isabel. Now-” Brad was given pause as Isabel jumped on him, wrapping her legs around his waist, her breasts thrust in his face, moaning erotically, rubbing up and down.

Brad thought he might throw up, and fought to get this she-cat off of him, but she clung. Brad, very red in the face, was as close to striking a woman as he had ever been, not mention that her touch was making his tender new skin scream in agony. Finally, he managed to unwrap her legs from around him and hold her off by the shoulders, holding her coat over her. Quietly, his tone cold and deadly, he said, “You disgust me. Get out of my house, and take your pornographic filth with you. You had better thank your lucky stars that my mother and my sister are not at home, or you would not be getting off so easy. Now get out.”

“Brad, are you blind? Can’t you see that I’m so much better for you than that tramp, Crystl? Would she be likely to offer you what I am, what I have to offer?”

“No, she isn’t, and that’s why I am so attracted to her. Get out of here, Isabel, before my family comes home.”

“Am I interrupting something?”

Brad turned to see Crystl in the doorway, and he was refreshed by the fact that she was wearing a very simple, very modest round-neck blouse and a long denim skirt. “No, Angel, you’re not interrupting anything. Isabel was just leaving.” Brad turned to glare at her.

Scowling darkly, Isabel whirled into her coat, and with a, “You know where to find me if you change your mind,” she left.

Brad sighed and closed his arms around Crystl.

“What was that all about?” she asked calmly as he swung her up in his arms and carried her into the parlor to sit in his lap.

“An unsuccessful attempt to seduce me.”

“I saw that outfit, for lack of better term, that she was wearing. Would you feel more comfortable if I were in pearls?”

“I would feel more comfortable if I could forget the whole thing.”

“Well, I don’t think I can make you forget,” Crystl said doubtfully. “But perhaps I could distract you a while.”

Brad grinned down at her, his eyes tracing the high upsweep of her delicate cheekbones, the gentle slope of her jawline, the arch of her eyebrows, the sweep of her long golden brown eyelashes, the pure violet color of her clear eyes, the small straight nose, and the curve of her full rosy lips. “Really? And just how, precisely, do you plan on that, pray tell?”

Crystl let her fingertips trail along that strong, clean-shaven jaw. “Well, why don’t I show you instead?” she whispered softly, just before kissing him.

Isabel was forgotten.

* * *

When Crystl arrived the next night, a woman answered the door. The set of her eyes and her friendly smile told Crystl right away that this was Brad’s mother. “Mrs. McClan, I’m Crystl Bennett. Is Brad here, by any chance?”

Leigh studied the face of the woman her son loved, and understood the name “Crystl”. The girl’s eyes were the clearest, purest violet Leigh had ever seen, luminous and glowing. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Crystl, both from Brad and Thace. Please, come in; Brad’s in the study.” As Leigh closed the door and turned to lead the way, she asked, “By the way, do you happen to know anything about this mystery man my daughter keeps going on about? I used to know all about my daughter’s friends, but I can’t get anything out of her about this particular guy except that she’s head over heels about him.”

“Actually, I know him pretty well. He’s my younger brother, Jay Johnson.”

Leigh grinned. “How interesting. But tell me, how did you and Brad actually meet? He followed you in the papers for years.”

Crystl winced. “Not my happier memories.”

“He clipped the pictures and put them in his scrapbook. Nice collage of them, actually. And if he ever finds out I told you that, I’m toast.”

Crystl grinned. “Your secret is safe with me. We actually formally met the day the Deveraux house burned down. I took care of his burns and told him to get a doctor to check his lungs for smoke.”

“I heard about that. He couldn’t shut up about you for hours afterward. Here’s the study. Brad? You have company!”

Crystl tipped her head back with a smile when Brad opened the door. “Hey there, handsome.”

“Hi, honey. I wasn’t expecting you today. Come in; I’m helping Thace practice. You want to watch, Mom?”

“Do you promise I won’t end up with a broken jaw or something?” she asked doubtfully.

“Oh, come on, Mom. Thace and I are both better than that, and you know it.”

Crystl took in what he was wearing. It was a karate outfit, a black belt knotted around his waist. “You’re a black belt?”


Crystl lifted a brow at the offhand admission. “Jealous. I’m only a brown. Advanced brown, but I haven’t reached black yet.”

“You should talk to Thace. She has a competition for her red belt this coming week, so I’m helping her. She blazed through the first levels; she’ll be a black belt in no time.”

Crystl and Leigh took a seat, perching on the edge of the desk. Thace grinned and bowed at them, her hair in a French braid, her feet bare.

“Hey, Thace,” Crystl said with a grin. “Does Jay know you’re practicing karate?”

“I told him,” Thace returned with an answering smile. “So far, he hasn’t made me prove it.”

“You ought to invite him to the competition. He’s a great cheerleader.”

“That’s a thought. Ready, Bear?”

“Waiting on you, Mouse,” he said comfortably, standing loose.

Crystl and Leigh watched the practice, laughing when Thace landed her big brother on the mat.

“All right, I surrender,” Brad said, picking himself up again. He bowed to Thace, then flopped down in a chair.

Crystl took a water bottle to her boyfriend. “Did she bruise your fragile ego?”

Brad grinned. “Nah. Just means I was a good teacher.” He gulped some water. “Want to go shopping with me? I’m looking for a new suitcase. The lock on my old one finally disintegrated.”

“Sure. We can make a day of it, grab some supper, maybe catch a movie.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll be back later, Mom.”

Leigh smiled as her son rose and crossed the room to hug her and kiss her cheek, tugging lightly on Thace’s long braid. “I won’t wait up.”

* * *

Brad was awakened from a dead sleep by the ringing of the phone. He had gotten in at one in the morning, and was hoping he could sleep in. Opening a bleary eye, he looked at the clock. His eyes widened as the phone rang again. He snatched it up, knowing there were few people that called at two o’clock in the morning, and none of them he could ignore. Hoping his mom and sister were still asleep, he said quietly, “Hello?”

Jack was pacing his living room, frustrated that Jana could so calmly watch her husband and do needlepoint. “Hey, Brad, we’ve got a situation here.”

Brad was instantly wide awake. “What’s up?”

“It’s McGee,” Jack said, knowing he was confirming Brad’s worst fear, and he was about to make it worse. “It’s on an epidemic level, Brad, and it’s only the Enchanted.”

Brad took a minute to think about this. The “Enchanted” were people that had no connection other than the fact that they lived on Enchanted Ground, hallowed by the feet of Charlemagne himself. Evil could not dwell on Enchanted Ground. The McGee poison would have to be administered while the Enchanted were away from Enchanted Ground, but it would not manifest itself until 48 hours later, creating severe headache and then a vicious surge in the victim’s sex drive for whomever they happened to be with at the time. The name “McGee poison” came from the person’s vocabulary while poisoned. No matter what was said, they would only respond with, “’Taint funny, McGee!”. No one knew where the phrase originated from, and it symbolized the producer’s sadistic nature. That the poisoning was happening on an epidemic level was much worse; the person who was doing it knew precisely who the Enchanted were and knew their schedules well enough to know when to attack them. Brad himself had once been poisoned with McGee, and he knew how dangerous it was, creating problems that often were worse than death. He took a deep breath, forcing the tide of memories back. “I’m glad you called, Jack.”

“You knew I would, Brad. When we need our best, we call each other.”

“What can I do?” Brad rolled up into a sitting position, knowing he would get no more sleep that night.

“I need you over here to work on an antidote. Rion is sailing out here soon. You should sail with him. It’s the best way to protect the both of you.”

“Okay. We’ll be there as soon as we can. Pray us to you.”

“Will do. Good luck, brother.”

“The Enchanted have our prayers. You called Rion?”

“Yeah, he’ll get you on his ship, don’t worry, and he knows the situation.”

“See you, then.”

“See you.”

Brad hung up the phone. Just when he thought things were quieting down a little, it was like Satan felt compelled to remind Brad that he was still alive and well, and as usual, when it rained, it poured. He still wasn’t healed entirely, and this could get dangerous, but the fact that Jack had called told him that Jack was terrified, and the bond that melded them into the perfect fighting team was still strong, stronger than friendship, stronger than blood…even stronger than love. Brad groaned, burying his face in his hands. How would Crystl react? How much was it safe to tell her? And when she knew that he wasn’t telling her everything, how could he keep his secret without hurting her?

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