AN: Thanks for sticking around and liking the first two chapters. I've got a lot planned for this story, and its themes are going to be more than just simple love/hate, in case you haven't already noticed. I know that there are complaints that Brian's being too nice, but, again, you're only two chapters in! You didn't really think you'd seen all there was to see of Brian's character, did you? Be patient, and all will be revealed... One final note: I don't normally write stories in first person or from one person's third person POV (in fact, the stories I've posted on FictionPress, besides this one, are my only first-person stories), so if you don't like the idea of third-person that sees most of the characters' POVs, sorry, but that's the way this story is going to go. I think it makes for a richer story if you know more about the characters' inner workings. You may not agree, but I hope you'll still give Lark Valley a chance. With that said, I'll end this ridiculously long author's note and let you get on with reading more! Thanks and, as always, let me know what you think!
The following day, Brian spent time with his mother, went for a drive through the town with AJ, and worked on de-stressing himself from the craziness his life had been for a few weeks. Despite the fact that his family kept him busy throughout the day, his mind was on the night to come and Madison. If his mother or AJ noticed that he was quieter than his normal exuberant self, they didn't say.
At a quarter to eleven that night, Brian dug his notepad out of one of his bags and tucked it and a few pens into his pockets. If he was going to get any information out of Madison, he would have to look legitimate. He still didn't entirely understand why he felt so compelled to meet with her. After all, she'd been one of the biggest reasons why he rarely returned to this town. It belonged to her and the rest of the wealthy society. But, if that were true, he thought, then why was she working at Mick's and looking so bone-deep exhausted?
"Hey." AJ leaned against the doorway to Brian's room and studied his brother. "You heading out?"
Brian grabbed his wallet and tucked it in his back pocket. "Yeah. Don't wait up, Mom," he added with a grin.
"Haha." AJ sighed. "Look, Bri, I know you were really hung up on Madison for years, and then, one day, it was like it vanished like that." He snapped his fingers. "I don't know why or what happened, but she's not the same as she was ten years ago."
"I know. Don't you think I could see that?" Brian ran his fingers through his streaked blond curls. "I'll be okay, AJ. Don't worry about me."
"I won't. I'm not. I'm worried about Madison."
"Huh?" Brian frowned. "What are you talking about?"
AJ lifted a shoulder. "Whatever you're going to talk to her about and whatever your purpose for doing it, don't hurt her. I meant it when I said she's been through a lot. Be careful with her."
Brian remembered her biting words years earlier and rolled his eyes. "Have you ever known me to hurt another person on purpose?"
"No," AJ replied after a moment. "But then, you wouldn't mean to hurt her, either. Just be careful, okay?"
He'd be careful, Brian thought, a few minutes later as he drove down the road into town. It's not as though he made it a point to kick sick puppies or something. When someone was as obviously not well as Madison was, he was going to take extra care with them—even if she didn't deserve it.
When he got to Mick's, it was still fairly crowded for eleven o'clock on a Wednesday night, and he wondered how anyone got to work the next morning. He headed over to the bar and hopped onto a stool.
"Well, well, well." The bartender grinned at him. "We've got ourselves a celebrity in here tonight. Brian Gallagher, how the hell have you been?"
It only took him a second before he connected the familiar voice to a name. "Well, hell. Joey Bateson! I can't believe it's you. How long has it been?" He held out a hand to man who'd once been a good friend of his throughout high school.
Joey shook Brian's extended hand and shook his head. "Oh, about ten years, now. The last time I saw you was at the train station when you were headed off to New York for school. Now, look at you."
"Yeah, you, too. Bartending, huh?"
Joey grinned. "Nope. I own the place."
"What? No kidding? What happened to the Murphys?" Brian remembered well the family that had first opened and run Mick's Place. They'd made it into a Lark Valley institution and had taken great pride in it.
"Dan and Iris Murphy died in a car crash a few years ago, and their son didn't want to keep running the place without them." Joey shrugged. "So I offered to buy it, and he agreed. I guess we both made business our lives, huh? Heard your bookstore's a pretty big deal."
Brian smiled with pride. "It sure is. It took me a couple years, but it's taken off in the last year or so."
"So how come we don't have Gallagher Books in Lark Valley? I bet the town would love it if there was."
Brian frowned. He hadn't really thought about opening a store in the Valley, and it occurred to him that it would be smart to open one here. Joey was right. The town would puff its chest with pride and give him great business. "I'll consider that, Joey. It would be nice to have a store here."
"Great. So what can I get you?" Joey worked the taps and served other patrons as he kept up the conversation with Brian.
"Just Sprite, thanks." Brian scanned the room and spotted Madison mopping up a spill at the far corner of the pub.
Joey passed him a glass and followed Brian's gaze. "Got your eye on Madison Whitewood, Gallagher?"
Brian frowned slightly before turning back to Joey. "No, not anymore. I'm just wondering what happened to her? She used to be way different than she is now."
"Jared Whitewood's what happened to her." Joey's eyes frosted at the mention of the man. "The son of a bitch put her through the wringer."
"But why is she working at the pub? What happened to all the Taylor and Whitewood money?" Brian couldn't imagine Mr. Taylor being pleased at the thought of his daughter waitressing.
"Hell, Brian. It's not my place to say, but let's just say that business isn't always nice and tidy." Joey moved away then to attend to his other patrons, leaving Brian to mull over his words and study the way Madison moved. Once upon a time, she'd had such grace and spirit, but now she just looked exhausted. Her shoulders slumped, and there were dark smudges under her eyes.
"Brian?" Madison made her way over to him, a cautious smile on her face. "I'm glad you came."
"Of course. I wouldn't miss it," he replied with an answering smile.
She stowed the mop behind the bar. "Give me just a minute. I just need to clock out."
Joey looked over at her. "Hey, Maddie? Why don't you take the rest of the night off? You look beat."
"Oh, no. Joey, it's okay. I'll be back in fifteen minutes."
He put his hands on her shoulders. "Maddie, I want you to clock out and go wherever Brian's taking you and relax. We're closing up soon, anyway. I think we'll survive without you here." When he saw the skeptical look in her eyes, he lowered his voice. "Honey, if you need the money, you know I'll give it to you."
Her eyes widened at that. "Joey, I can't. It's fine. I'll go home after I meet with Brian." She squeezed his hand. "Thanks."
"No problem. You give that little boy of yours a hug now from me. Okay?"
She smiled at the thought of her son. "Sure thing." Grabbing her purse from the employees' room, Madison headed back out to where Brian sat nursing his glass of soda. "Okay, I'm ready."
"Are you taking the rest of the night off?" Brian asked, sliding off the stool and digging out a few bills from his wallet.
Madison nodded. "Yeah. Joey's a great boss. He usually knows when it's time for one of us to take a break."
Brian studied her for so long that she felt the blush creeping its way up her neck. "Yeah. I can see that." He held out a hand and waited until she'd put hers in it. "Why don't we go for a walk? That way I can see the town, and you can unwind a little."
The night was balmy, and the stars shone brightly in the darkened sky. The moonlight silvered the trees and grass, and Brian was reminded of that momentous night years ago. What, he asked himself for the thousandth time, was he doing with the woman who'd broken his heart? Was he just asking to be shattered again? He had no answers and figured he'd let curiosity lead him until he knew, one way or the other, if he should see Madison again.
They walked in silence for several moments, and Brian took the time to study the new buildings that had been built since he'd been gone. Madison was quiet, her hand cool yet frail in his. After a few minutes, he realized that he would have to be the one to speak first.
"You said you'd read the series so far," he began, hoping that talking about his novels would put her in comfortable, familiar territory.
She nodded, her eyes fixed on the ground a few feet ahead of them. "Yeah, I have. I own the series. You have a great talent, Brian, and your books are some of my favorites. I always make time to read them."
"You don't have much time to read?"
"Not really." She sighed a little. If only he knew. "I work two jobs, which doesn't leave much time for anything else really."
Brian frowned. Two jobs? No wonder she looked exhausted. "You must be tired," he said quietly. "Do you want to just sit and talk?"
"Oh, no!" Madison shook her head, afraid that he would think her selfish if she told him she wanted to put her feet up more than anything. "You said you wanted to see the town. We won't be able to see much if we sit."
"Madison, I already went for a drive earlier today. I've seen it, and, if there's something I missed, I can go exploring again." He tipped her chin up to look into eyes that were nervous and tired. "Let's have a seat. That way, I can write notes and you can relax. Okay?"
She nodded and followed him over to an empty bench outside of a closed café. "Thanks, Brian." Her voice was meek and quiet, and he wanted to shake her and demand to know what Jared had done to her to rob her of the spirit he'd once fallen in love with. But, he knew he had to tread carefully. He didn't want to scare her off, and he recognized abuse enough to know how easily the victim could fall apart.
"No problem." He pulled out his notepad and pen. "So, tell me. What's been your favorite book out of the series so far?"
Madison pondered this for a moment, even as the muscles in her feet contracted as she stretched out the cramps. "I think it would have to be the first one. A is for Arson."
"Really? Most people usually like H is for Homicide." Brian doodled on his pad, pretending to write. "What made you like the first one?"
"I don't know. I guess it's just the introduction of the characters. Sure, you get to see Lieutenant Harris's character grow through the rest of the series, but you did a great job of putting out just enough information about him in the first without giving away his entire life's story." She paused. "And his conflicted emotions when he starts to get involved and falls in love with the mysterious and wealthy Ava Wallace. I love how he struggles with love because he's never known it before."
Brian sat back and stared at her, amazed. She really had read his books, and he could tell that she loved his characters. "Wow." He smiled. "That's very flattering. Joshua Harris is practically a part of me, and it's gratifying to know that he's been well-received." He didn't mention the fact that he'd based Ava off of Madison. That he'd still, somewhere deep down, been stuck on her, no matter how positive or negative his feelings for her had been.
"You write really well." Madison returned his smile tentatively. "You never wrote for the literary magazine in high school."
He remembered that she'd been the editor, which was precisely why he hadn't submitted his work. He hadn't wanted her to see it and throw it out. "I wasn't ready to share my work with the world then."
"Well, I know me and all of your fans are very grateful that you do now." Madison folded her hands together and placed them in her lap. "So, um, you said you wanted my help for research."
"Yeah, yeah. Of course." Brian leaned forward a little. "I've been gone almost nine years now, and, from what I saw driving around, there's a few things that have changed, physically, about the town. That information is easy enough for me to gather. What I need to know is, how have the people changed? Are the same families throwing the huge summer balls? Are there still spring musicals and fall plays at the high school? Who moved into the Valley, and who left? Things like that." He shrugged. "I figured you'd be a good source of information. After all, the way I remember it, your family was usually at the center of attention. So, can you help me?"
Madison twisted her fingers in a gesture of nerves. "Well, I can tell you one thing that's definitely changed."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"My family's no longer the center of attention. We quit being that a long time ago when my father's company went bankrupt and lost all of our money." She stared down at her hands, ashamed to look into his face and see pity.
The sympathy in his voice surprised her. "I'm sorry, Madison. That must have been hard for you."
"A little." She looked up then. "We had to leave the old house, move to the other side of town. It was hard for me then. It was the summer after sophomore year of college, and we realized that there wasn't enough money to pay the rest of my way through Brown. So I dropped out, and, when Jared Whitewood offered to marry me, I accepted."
"Did you love him?" He found he needed to know more than anything else and berated himself about definitely not being over her.
Madison sighed and shook her head. "I was in love with the idea of marrying the heir to a fortune. I'd been born and raised in a family that valued class and status, and marrying Jared, especially when all of our money was gone, was a surefire way to hold onto the status." She bit her lip. "But, no, I was never really in love with Jared. The way he was that night you punched him? It was the way he usually behaved, and I figured it out too late."
Brian wanted to press for more details, but knew that he might lose her if he asked for too much too fast. "Okay, so the Taylor family lost their status and wealth. Then what? Did another family move in and take your place?"
She smiled at his question. "Yeah. Yours."
"Huh?" This, he hadn't been expecting.
"Your mother and your brother, whenever he was in town, moved into one of the mansions out by my old house. No one quite knew how that had happened, but it had. Your mom started throwing lovely parties, and, for the first two years, Jared and I attended them." Madison remembered how pretty, warm, and inviting Brian's mother had made her home and her gatherings. "I really enjoyed them and her. She's quite a woman."
Brian managed a smile. He'd had no idea that his mother had become the social bee of Lark Valley. She'd never asked him to help her pay for social gatherings, and he knew that she no longer waitressed the way she had before he'd made it big. Had AJ helped her pay for her parties? He looked over at Madison and the way her head bowed, not meeting his eyes. "Yeah, she is. That house was bought with the money from my first royalty check. I figured I owed it to my mother to make her life easier because she'd always taken care of me even when the going got rough." He paused, and Madison's gaze lifted to his face. "So, why did you stop going to her parties?"
And just like that, the shutters went down in her eyes, and he knew he'd lost her. At least, for that night. "We became too…busy," she said finally. "There just wasn't enough time. I'm sorry for that, but it's just the way it had to be."
"Okay." He glanced at his watch and noted it was a quarter after midnight. He wondered how long she'd been up. "It's getting pretty late. Why don't I take you home? My car's back at Mick's."
"Oh, no. My mother's supposed to pick me up from there at one."
Brian shrugged. "Call her and let her know that she doesn't need to. Why drag her out unnecessarily at such a late hour?"
She thought it would be pointless to explain that they'd done this for two years now. She doubted he would understand. Besides, she really wasn't in the mood to answer questions about her painful past. "Okay. Thanks, Brian."
As he took hold of her elbow and led her back the way they'd come, he wondered how he could wrangle another meeting out of her. She must have some free time during the day, he thought.
"Listen, Madison. Do you have any time off during the day this week when we could meet up and discuss this a little more?"
"Uh, I have afternoons between two and six off." But those were the precious hours she spent with her son. She looked up at Brian and sighed. He really was a nice man, and, talented as he was, he seemed to truly want her help. There was a basic kindness in him that she'd recognized off the bat, and she wondered why she'd never known that such a thing could exist in a man. The realization that it should had come years too late. "I can give you from two to three tomorrow," she added.
Brian nodded. "That's fine. Why don't we meet at that new diner in town? Sunset Grill?"
Madison chuckled. "You definitely don't want to do that."
"They're not known for the best service in town. Come over to Alex's Place on Third and Maple. It's got the most incredible apple pie you'll ever taste." The smile on her face this time lit up her eyes, and his breath caught in his throat. Every feeling he thought he'd long since buried fought its way back to the surface. This was his fairytale princess, bruised though she may be. And he still wanted her.
She saw the look in his eyes and recognized it. Her heart bounded into her throat, and she couldn't look away from his eyes. There was something here, she thought. Something that she hadn't felt in too long to count.
And something that she simply had no business putting herself through again, she reminded herself. Especially considering her son. She had to ensure Michael's happiness first, and she couldn't risk it again.
When she took a deliberate step back, Brian sighed. "Third and Maple, huh? I think I can find my way there."
"Great. My shift there ends at two, so I'll just wait for you."
They'd reached his car, and Brian unlocked it and, holding her door open, let her slide in. As he drove, she gave him directions, and he quickly realized that they were heading to the side of town that he'd grown up in. It was too surreal for him, he thought. It felt as though they'd switched lives, and he wondered if she realized it and resented him at all.
He stopped in front of a home smaller than the one he'd grown up in but just as tidily kept. "I like it," he murmured. "It looks cozy."
"It is." She smiled. "It's home." Madison climbed out of the car then turned back to him. "Thanks for the ride home, Brian. It's nice getting to know you and help that creative genius."
"It's nice of you to give me that help so easily." He smiled back. "I'll see you tomorrow."
She nodded. "Good night, Brian."
He waited until she was inside the house before he drove away. Lark Valley was definitely starting to feel like the Twilight Zone, he thought. He just had to figure out how he felt about all the changes.