Long-winded author's note at the end; you have been warned.

Chapter Twelve

Devon tried to focus on business as they returned to the car and headed back into downtown Atlanta. Under the accelerated timeline, Devon had a lot to accomplish and little more than a weekend to get everything else in order. He had numbers to run, matters to settle still with the university and his remaining students, and resources to shuffle in preparation for his takeover. He'd need to put even more monetary skin in the game than he had now just to ensure that his wife wasn't footing the brunt of his family's bill in their new venture. As for Chastane, her leadership transitions were well underway, the infrastructures already in place from her last leave of absence.

His wife, indeed his biggest distraction. Devon leaned back and watched Chastane, although she likely wouldn't notice it. The moment she'd taken her seat, Chastane had dug into her purse and returned to the photo Brian had given her. She sat, arrow straight, her eyes firmly focused on a single image.

Of all the things Devon has planned for in facing Brian again, the subject of Chris Darborough never showed on the radar. A brilliant stealth maneuver, Devon had to give Brian that. It certainly distracted them from what would have otherwise been a very concise meeting, albeit more uncomfortable. Then again, Devon had to admit that his feelings toward Brian now had grown more convoluted. Not to mention it added yet another item to Devon's ever growing to-do list.

How many more people had their family's held hostage over the years? It grew increasingly difficult to distinguish between the offenders and the victims, or maybe there was a little bit of both in all of them at this point. Even Chastane was showing a new type of duality, even though hers would always be muted in comparison. But it was still there.

She'd been so far removed for so long, pulled in only in Chris's absence, and she still got sucked in. Maybe luckiest among the billionaire brats club had been Chris himself. He'd escaped.

No matter how many other things Devon needed to attend to, the day was blown. He needed his wife's undivided attention for the business decisions, and frankly, his own thoughts had gone too far astray to conquer any solo tasks. Chastane was probably in a similar place. She would remain fixated on this new discovery about her family. At least this time, it was a more positive discovery in a long line of disastrous ones over the years.

Devon simply contented himself to stare at his beloved, making the association with Chris that he'd never allowed himself to do previously. Chastane was a lot like Chris, in many ways that struck him as uncanny now considering the two never met. He wondered briefly why he'd never willingly made the comparison himself, except that Devon had chosen not to dwell on his first best friend's death, and by extension Devon had stopped thinking about Chris himself. But maybe…maybe it was time to separate those two things. He at least owed that much to his first organic friendship. To the memory, and to a good man. A man who may have died too early in life, or he might have gotten out just in time. And Devon definitely owed it to Chastane.

"Hey," he called out gently. Chastane looked up, reluctantly, from the picture in her hands. "Want to go on a field trip?"

Chastane's brow furrowed. "Where?"

Devon didn't answer her. He just shrugged and leaned over to the intercom and gave the driver a new address. Chastane didn't argue and went back to the picture. She only looked up again when they stopped, her mouth curving down.

"A storage building?"

"Diedra's idea," Devon replied vaguely as he exited and opened his unit. He heard Chastane walk up behind him a few minutes later as he walked along a row of perfectly stacked and marked boxes. It took him only a minute – he knew every item he'd packed, as well as where they'd been placed. He'd kept this one close to the top to avoid damaging the contents. Once he'd taken the few odds and ends stacked on the top away, he grabbed it and took it back to the car. Chastane, now looking both confused and annoyed, returned to her seat.

"Do you plan to let me know where we're going now?"

Devon considered both her and their destination for a moment. "I assume you never replaced the DVD player."

Chastane opened her mouth, but then she closed it and just shrugged as though she didn't see why it mattered. It didn't. Devon already knew the answer. Chastane rarely watched movies and never watched TV. When their old one stopped working a few years earlier, she'd declared she would replace it when she needed to. Most likely, the need never arose.

Devon nodded. "My place then." Chastane's features went slack for a moment, and her face flushed slightly. He couldn't resist, especially since she didn't decline outright. "Unless you'd prefer a hotel…"

This time she gasped, and her cheeks went from a light pink to a bright rose color. "If that's an old porn collection, I'm gonna smack you."

Devon smirked and rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Chastane, I would hope you'd know me better than to think I'd proposition you after the day we've had. At least not with cheap pornography." He might have laughed, but Chastane's sudden shift from embarrassed to crestfallen knocked him mentally off kilter. "What?"

Chastane turned her eyes away and looked out the window. "Propositioning is for prostitutes. Not your wife."

Devon sighed. "Reminding me again how lucky you were not to have spent much of your youth around either of our families."

"All it reminds me of is how little we really ever knew each other at all."

A hard argument to counter perhaps, yet Devon felt the fight rise up within him anyway, from a place he'd thought extinguished during the process of his illness, their combined losses, and her leaving him. Chastane's presence alone, right now, brought it back with a vengeance. All that he'd learned to cherish so deeply and would do anything not to lose. Everything he wanted to rebuild, in whatever way he could manage, with whatever time Diedra could grant him with his newest treatment. And frankly, not knowing the details of each other's pasts wasn't the same as not knowing one another. Devon still believed no one alive knew him better than his wife, and vice versa.

"If that's true," Devon said, "then this is probably long overdue."

That comment seemed to have some effect; Chastane's scowl shifted into a look of sincere curiosity. "Seriously, what's in the box?"

"A few photo albums and my half of the home movie collection from when Majorie and I were younger." Chastane's amber eyes widened, and she leaned forward. To answer her unspoken question, Devon simply offered a quiet, "You'll see."

Chastane stared at him for another minute before nodding. She slipped the photo back in her purse and began watching the scenery outside. Her brow furrowed as the driver pulled off the interstate into the heart of downtown Atlanta. "I thought you hated the idea of commuting to the university from downtown."

Devon shrugged.

Chastane rolled her eyes. "Did you even look at the place before you moved in?"

Devon knew she referred to the argument he'd used when they'd shopped for their Buckhead condo. He'd drug her with him to a realtor, intending for them to move in together without telling her beforehand. He finally let her in on it and naturally Chastane had resisted. He'd told her plainly that if an apartment was just for him, he'd have an assistant set something up. Which is exactly what he'd done ten years later.

The driver pulled into the underground parking garage and parked at the curb by the complex entrance. A doorman greeted Devon and Chastane both by name – Devon appreciated how nonchalant the man behaved considering the internet buzz revolving around them the past few days that remained largely unconfirmed – took the box from Devon's hand, and ushered them to Devon's private elevator without going through the building's lobby. True, Devon hated the commute, but his assistant had taken his only requisite of discretion seriously indeed. One look confirmed that Chastane was equally impressed.

The elevator reached the top floor and opened ten steps from his front door. "No wonder you've been able to keep the paparazzi off your back," Chastane muttered as the doorman handed Devon his box back and bowed them out. "Maybe I should just move in with you again."

Devon almost dropped his package, and he completely missed the last number on his security code. He heard a slap and twisted around so fast he cricked his neck. Chastane's hand was clapped over her mouth.

"Sorry," she squeaked between her fingers. "I shouldn't have said that out loud."

Devon reminded himself not to read anything into it, yet his mind was already translating her comment into Chastane-speak. The process worked backwards from his normal dealing with people. At her most deceptive, Chastane spoke in half-truths. Usually she just blurted out things that he'd over the years classified as too-truths instead. Just one more thing she had in common with her brother. Chris got in his fair share of trouble back in the day for a similar lie impediment.

Not 'I'm kidding' or 'I didn't mean it like that'. Just the insinuation in her comment made him both nervous and homesick to a degree he hadn't experienced since leaving his hotel purgatory. Devon countered with a depreciative snicker that indicated none of his current thoughts.

"It's fine. Besides, you'll change your mind when you see the interior."

For the lie he told in the first part, he knew the second part was absolutely true. And as soon as he did get his security code right, opened the door, and gestured for her to go in first, Chastane's frown proved him absolutely right as soon as the motion detector kicked the lights on. To his former assistant's credit, the apartment was spacious and tastefully arranged. The furniture matched the modern internal architecture perfectly. Very color-coordinated and streamlined. The whole thing almost had a zhen arrangement to it.

"You're right, there's no way I could live here," Chastane confirmed after wandering around the living room for a moment.

Devon choked back a laugh and dropped his box in front of the entertainment center. "Well, proper electronics go a long way to make it bearable."

Chastane spun on her heel and snorted in the direction of the television that took up almost an entire wall. "Since when do you watch TV?"

"Since I started avoiding the paparazzi." After a moment under his wife's scrutiny, he admitted, "it came with the apartment. I've never even turned it on. Happy?"

Chastane cocked her head and chewed on her lip for a second. "I think… maybe comforted would be a better word."

Fair enough.

Devon opened the box and began shifting through the slim cases. Many of the videos had been taped before digital, so he'd had to have them transferred from their VHS tapes. On a screen so large, he already knew they'd likely have a quality similar to an old projector screen. When he mentioned it to off-handedly to Chastane, she started chewing on her lip again. Then, with only a nod he suspected wasn't actually meant for him as a warning, she grabbed the box from the floor and marched down the hallway. Still crouched down, he watched as she seemed to do a game show type inspection of the four closed doors to choose from.

Another nod to herself and she picked his bedroom on the first try. Devon closed his eyes. Of course. At home, on the rare occasion he did watch a movie, they never did it in the living room. She'd guessed, correctly, where his smaller screen and another DVD player would be located. This time, he felt his heart rate go up more than it should. Devon knew he was anxious, sure, but his heart racing didn't have anything to do with being sick this time. Rather than going in immediately, Devon bought himself a moment to regain his composure by going into the bathroom opposite and taking his evening pill cocktail. It was a couple hours early, but Devon suspected a little reinforcement wouldn't hurt anything. Already he was regretting giving Diedra the remainder of the sedative from his old combo. He'd have taken one of those too, just to take the edge off his nerves.

The realization of how long it had been just made his heart beat harder.

For Christ's sake, get yourself together. This is about Chris right now. Nothing else.

Devon repeated that a few times under his breath. It helped, if only a little. But it was enough to convince him to leave the refuge of the bathroom and go into his bedroom. Chastane sat on the edge of his bed. Apparently she'd pulled the photo album that had been wedged along the edge, because she was slowly flipping from one page to the next.

She didn't look up when he came in. "God," she said softly, "you're so young."

Devon meandered over and looked at the current photo array. Just like in his office, where a stranger would think his entire family consisted of only two other people in the world, these photos only showed three at a maximum as well. All of these were before Chris and he had been introduced to Brian. He grinned despite the pang of sadness that surged in his gut. "We were six in that one."

Chastane looked up. "That long?"

"Families like ours live in very small worlds," Devon replied as he sat down beside her. "I can't even remember a time when I didn't know Chris. We went to the same schools, got stuck going to the same parties with all the same people, and played with the same two or three other children most of the time."

"What was he like? I know Brian said he was a good guy, but –"

"He was," Devon confirmed before she could question Brian's assessment further.

Devon didn't know how long he talked after that, but for the first time since Chris's death, he spoke, completely unfiltered, about Chris Darborough. By extension, he also told Chastane about her absent family more broadly. He described the Darborough's more matriarchal bent which Evelyn developed even further after her husband's passing in the sixties when she refused to remarry. Rather than marrying more money, she took a fortune in stock investments, liquidated it, and created her own empire in real estate. About how Chris would have been the first Darborough she considered worthy to take up her torch, even over her own children. How she'd gotten Chris emancipated at sixteen specifically to make that happen without his father's influence.

How much Chris had despised the whole structure of things, for all of them. He described Chris's philanthropic leanings, and how he'd introduced Devon to his first taste of a world outside the rich kid bubble. Somehow Chris had showed an atypical social awareness early on. Perhaps it was because Ken didn't pay enough attention to what interests his son pursued – Chris loved photography and videography as the technology developed. Devon explained that by the time Evelyn tried to intervene, it was too late. Chris had bucked the system openly in his younger years. A combination of age, a brilliant discerning mind, and many brainstorming sessions between the two of them helped Chris realize that he'd have to dismantle it from within. But Chris, like most of them, had learned the game that had to be played while others called the shots. So Chris had chosen to get inside the system to do just that. Chris, unlike most of them, was in line to achieve freedom much sooner than anyone else, with no internal family competition or oversight.

At some point they switched to the videos. Devon described the times and settings, and then he simply let Chastane watch each one, her eyes wide as though she could swallow each instance from the past with her amber eyes. It would have taken days to get through them all, so Devon chose particular ones he knew featured Chris in front of the camera most. Once in a while, at Chastane's request, he'd choose one that featured Majorie and himself more, with Chris commentating in the background. Once in a while she would grin at one of Chris's comments that sounded so much like something she herself would say, although Devon didn't know for sure if she recognized it for that alone.

The sun had long set when Devon offered to order dinner. When Chastane suggested they just eat whatever he had in the fridge, Devon smirked and confirmed that, like the television in the living room, his kitchen had seen almost no mileage since he moved in.

When she raised an eyebrow, he smirked in response. "Me, cook? I have coffee though."

Chastane returned his grin. "Coffee would be good for now."

Devon brewed the coffee and returned with two cups. By then, Chastane had replaced the video they'd been watching from Chris's seventeenth birthday party and had begun digging through the last few videos on top. She came to one and frowned.

"This one still has tape on the edge," she muttered, raising the case for him to see. "Have you watched this one before?"

Devon sucked in a breath. He hadn't. That was the last video Chris made, sent via courier to Devon while he was finishing his last year of high school. It had arrived the same day Devon got the news of the car accident that killed Chris and his mother. He knew his expression must have been telling, because Chastane's features dropped.

"Unlike Majorie and me, Chris was allowed to graduate high school early, so he was already in college at NYU," Devon explained. "He was double-majoring in business and media production. He would send Majorie and me a few of his projects. Documentaries and short films mostly."

"So what's this one about?"

"Well, if I remember correctly," Devon said, "it's titled The Families and he sent no duplicate to Majorie, so I would guess it's in the parody category. He was probably making fun of my sister. He did that on occasion. But I'm not sure. After he died, I never made myself sit down to watch it."

Devon could see it all in Chastane's face. The desire to see more of Chris, even if it wasn't actually him in the footage while simultaneously battling with her genuine sympathy for Devon's loss, not wanting to tread on something that may be sacred ground to him. But the entire evening had been a rediscovery for Devon already, and he was surprised at himself, that the montage so far had been cathartic to a pain Devon had long pushed to the edges of his mind. Breaking open that case tonight, with Chris's sister of all people with him as the audience seemed more than appropriate.

When Chastane handed him the case, she looked surprised when he slipped his thumbnail along the clear tape to open it.

"Are you sure?" she asked, a little too hopefully.

"Yeah, I'm sure. And it's probably long overdue."

He placed the DVD in the player and sat back down. This time as soon as he hit play and set the remote down, Chastane curled up against him, taking both his hands into hers. He was grateful for it as the image came up on the screen. Except it wasn't a produced movie from what he could tell initially. In fact, Devon realized he was looking at Chris's old dorm room as the backdrop. The sounds of muttering and angle adjustment came through before Chris came into the frame. The camera was apparently on a tripod right behind Chris's work desk, so when Chris sat down, it was just a head and shoulder shot. Chris looked to the side just a little, seemed to be happy with what he saw, and then looked straight into the camera.

Chris waved at the camera and offered the same impish grin Devon cherished from his memories. "Hey, Devon. I know this isn't our usual, but I couldn't put this in a letter or risk calling you. So I did this instead. You'll watch this eventually, although, knowing you, it might take you awhile. If I'm right, then I'm dead, and you've been told you're marrying my sister."

Devon was marginally aware of Chastane releasing his hands and sitting up straight. His mind had been taken hostage by a single string of increasingly damning thoughts.

Chris knew. He knew he was going to die. He knew someone was going to kill him. Someone killed him. Which of our families did it? Not Evelyn; she couldn't afford to lose an heir. Ken? Perhaps, but not likely and certainly not on his own. That leaves only one other person…

As Chris began speaking again, Devon listened while piecing together things he remembered from that time. His father's sudden decision to let Majorie go to school in Europe, effectively ending the supposition that she and Chris might be forced to get married. Chris's will that caused an uproar because, thanks to his emancipation, he'd had full legal control of his assets. Chris had bucked the norm by giving his money away to charity and to non-familial beneficiaries. Devon himself had been a quarter, which he'd promptly had his accountant forward to the same organizations Chris favored.

At the same time Chris had plainly asked Devon to keep watching and not do anything stupid. Chris followed that by explaining that he'd found his sister. Not just her name – "It's Chastane McAllen. I don't think even Brian couldn't forget that one." – but a whole host of information. Chris had discovered her living situation too, or lack thereof to be more precise, since she was homeless at the time. And apparently Chris had actually seen her, or at least a picture. Chris beamed as he said, "Dude, I know you've gone out with models and all that, but wait until you see my sister. She's a kid right now, but she's… don't take this wrong, I know she's my sister and all, but damn, she's beautiful. Give her a few years, and she's gonna be a straight knockout by the time you two get married."

Chris also predicted, in part, how the events would unfold after his death. Chris worked under the assumption though that Chastane would be brought into the Darborough family over the remainder of her adolescence and introduced to Devon earlier rather than later to ease the transition into their inevitable betrothal. Proving Chris had never met Louise in person. And obviously the Robert wrinkle couldn't have been foreseen by anyone, even someone as intuitive as Chris. Otherwise though, Chris was almost on point with how things would have gone, had Robert not seduced Chastane as a teenager. He was even correct about Evelyn's own last will and how the arrangement would be set up to stabilize Chastane financially, pre and post marriage.

And then Chris stopped for a moment, his face thoughtful. "I don't know how long it's been or if you've met her yet, but if you can show this part Chastane when she gets the news, there's something I want to tell her too. Hopefully it'll make things easier. Just pause this, or start her right here."

For the first time, Devon looked at his wife. He could see the trails left by tears she must have cried during her brother's monologue. Both of her hands covered her mouth, and she leaned forward even more.

"Okay." Chris took a deep breath and waved again. "Hey, Chase. I heard that's your nickname, so I hope that's okay. Anyway, I know this is kinda surreal, and that we've never actually met, but I'm your brother, Chris. Well, half-brother. Anyway, if you're watching this, then you're engaged to Devon. You probably don't know what to think about what's been happening, and if you're as normal as I heard, you're probably confused and pissed and feeling trapped, even if you've been around us for a while. I want you to know, it's gonna be okay."

Chris frowned. "Well, I guess the whole thing's not okay, but for you, it will be. I want you to know that Devon's my only real family. I didn't have you as a sister, but I've had him as a brother all my life. And you may not think so right now, but he's more like you than anyone else I know. He'll take care of you."

Devon swallowed hard as another tear streaked down his wife's face. He was fighting his own internal ache, like he'd stretched his insides out too much over the past couple hours. So he turned back to the screen.

Chris paused again, shifting in his chair before he continued. "If things go the way I figure they will, he'll ignore you more than anything. He's doing that because that's what his family expects, and it's safe for both of you without being cruel outright. But look at his brothers, and I'm betting he's not treating you like they treat their wives. Devon probably introduced himself by saying something about it's in his nature not to give a shit about how you feel, but that's crap. He does care. He cares almost too much sometimes. If you feel like you're being used, it's twice as bad for him. Our family doesn't need the Dunns. And Devon…he's so fucking smart, but his dad will only really bring him in as part of his family because he can be married to you, not the other way around. Remember that when you deal with him.

"And I won't pretend that, under the circumstances, you guys will ever have a normal marriage. For one, Devon's anything but normal, but not in a bad way. So it may not be the fairy tale his sister lives in all the time, but he'll be your friend if you let him. He'll treat you well. It's not even that he promised me he would when we talked about it years ago. That's who he really is. At his core, he's just a good person. You'll see.

"And who knows? There's a chance you guys might even hit it off, if you're willing to ignore the whole ancient betrothal thing and just get to know each other. Devon isn't like the rest of them, Chase. Him and his sister can actually love someone besides themselves. If I had to call this my final wish, it's this: just keep it honest, and give Devon a chance. If there's anybody who deserves to know what it's like to actually be happy with someone, it's Devon."

Devon wasn't sure when it had happened, but at some point Chastane had begun sobbing. She's buried herself in the crook of his neck, and he had both arms around her, rocking her slowly as he kept his gaze focused ahead. He had indeed promised Chris, years ago, that should he be matched with Chris's sister, he'd treat her decently, just as Chris had promised the same should he marry Majorie. But this went beyond that. Even now, Chris was being the rebel and advocate Devon remembered so well.

On the one hand, Devon regretted not watching this sooner. On the other, Devon was grateful. Chris's plea for inaction withstanding, if Devon had seen this immediately upon receiving it, he honestly couldn't imagine what he may have done at the time.

"Anyway, I've said my peace, as much as I can anyway, so the rest of this is for both of you," Chris said, looking tired compared to when he began. "I'm not sure how things will fall over the next few years. But if something bad happens, you guys aren't on your own. Devon knows about my fourth BF. Chase, if I could find you, then Devon can find him. If you guys need me, he's your guy. I love you. Both of you. I'm always around, even if I'm not there."

Despite the mental miasma inside Devon's head, that final statement cut through like a floodlight. My fourth BF

Chastane, sniffling into his shirt collar, seemed to be on Devon's brainwave. "BF? Best friend?"

Devon shook his head, recalling the name immediately from the reading of Chris's will. "Beneficiary. Chris quartered his assets. Two went to charity. One went to me. But the fourth went to a person I'd never met, and no one else had either from what we could tell. I always assumed he was someone Chris had met traveling, someone Chris thought he owed a personal debt of some kind to. Evelyn was furious, but she couldn't do anything about how Chris distributed his money. She was the one who gave him the keys to his own checkbook in the first place. She'd locked his father out, but in the process, locked herself out as well."

"So you think… what?"

"I think," Devon replied, "your brother was making sure you had an insurance policy in case something went wrong."

Chastane pulled away from him, but only a few inches. "He said it was for both of us."

"I would hardly need financial support, with or without my father or the company, even back then. I was already well invested in my own ventures. Besides, he couldn't know what type of relationship we'd have. You heard him; he hoped at best we could get along well enough not to make one another miserable. No, whatever he set aside, it was meant for you."

Chastane turned back to the screen, now black. "Well it might have been nice way back when, but I don't need it now. Honestly, I don't want anything from these people now. Every time the Darborough family gives me something, the cost just gets higher."

"It's not about the money," Devon growled. "It's the fact that Chris arranged an emergency fund for you with someone else."

Chastane gasped. "Someone else who may have known what was going to happen to him."

"And, possibly, who's responsible."

"Devon…" He could hear it, an edge of fear creeping into her already shaky voice.

"My meds are holding. I'm fine."

Chastane grabbed his hand. "Okay, but that's not what I'm afraid of. What are you going to do?"

Excellent question. They were, frankly, a couple decades removed from the event himself. Yet Devon felt like it could have been yesterday that he'd gone to the double funeral, staring at the closed, empty caskets because the car Chris and his mother had been in had burned inside and out so thoroughly there was too little of them left to actually bury. So Devon just reopened his remaining family's tab on crime and forthcoming punishment.

"I'm going to have Rose find a man named Joshua Wilson. And then we'll go pay him a visit."

Chastane cleared her throat. "Okay, aside from the fact that that's one of the most common names imaginable, what will you do after that?"

"Rose will find him, I promise you that." Devon considered Chastane's question. What would he do afterward? Perhaps she was overly concerned, between his overall mental health, his brother's death at his hands, and his threat to Brian hours earlier.

Devon did a quick soul search and realized, yes, his first inclination actually was to kill the person responsible for Chris's death. Not even as a matter of justice. This was about self-satisfaction, of guaranteed resolution with no middleman. Maybe his therapist was on to something, warning him about the sociopathic inclination to murder becoming more prominent once he felt responsible for one already.

Once he pushed past that, rationality and the perspective of his wife's presence in his apartment took over. Not only could he not take another life without going completely crazy, such an act would be detrimental not only to his company but to his marriage. And he'd just gotten that back, sort of. More than he'd hoped for since Chastane filed for divorce at least.

And of course, if he could prove a premeditated crime had been committed and who had done the deed, he could turn them in to the authorities. Chris and his mother had died in Georgia, where there was no statute of limitation on murder, and the death penalty remained on the books. Devon would be more than happy to sit in the gallery for this one and let the state do the dirty work so that he could maintain his sanity.

"I think I need to download a new app just to keep a proper tally of everyone going to jail for the DA," Devon stated to finally answer Chastane's question. "This list is starting to get a bit ridiculous, even for us, don't you think?"

Chastane's entire body relaxed. She offered a halfhearted snort. "Looks that way." She straightened up and wiped the remaining moisture from her face. She glanced at her watch. "It's late."

"Yes it is," Devon agreed, checking his own. It was nearing midnight. "And I've blown off the school as long as I can. I'll have to go in tomorrow to wrap up my remaining advisory transfers. I imagine you have a similar logjam in your own schedule at this point. In the meantime, I'll get Rose on finding our missing man."

"Tomorrow," Chastane said firmly.

Devon considered her request for just a second. He didn't want to wait even until Chastane left, but apparently he'd have to. So he nodded. "Tomorrow." He left out the part about the next day beginning in fifteen minutes. Instead he said, "Do you want me to have the car meet you out front, or would you rather go back to the garage?"

"It doesn't matter."

Devon snickered. "Well, the press may not dog us as much as they once did, but it doesn't mean we should feed them unnecessarily. Especially now."

Chastane shrugged. "I already made the big news for the week." She cocked an eyebrow. "I'm guessing you haven't been following the net streams lately."

"Of course not; I never do." Devon pulled out his phone to text his driver. "Anything good?"

Chastane shrugged. "Speculation about your resignation from the school and chatter about us being seen together mostly. Of course the whole us thing blew up when someone leaked that I fired the firm handling my end of the divorce."

Devon sighed and glanced sideways at her. "Eva can't be so busy yet that she can't put out a statement to set that one straight."

Devon had intended to finish his text. His wife's tiger eyes stopped him, offering her confession even before she spoke it out loud.

"She doesn't have to, since it's true."

Devon forced air into his lungs despite the tightening in his chest. Sure, Chastane had been making some hints, and certainly her attitude lately indicated that she was well on her way to recovering the parts within her that had broken over the years, and as a result had recommitted to the obstacle course of their marriage. And she'd said she still loved him. Still, there had seemed to be so much still in the way, and so much time had already passed… He hadn't known if he could trust it at the time. He'd hoped of course, but speculation was one thing. Confirmation was something different entirely.

Chastane stared right through him, like she could see that darkness in him and meant to penetrate it. "We both know you were planning to call Rose as soon as I left, and you won't sleep tonight anyway."

Devon opened his mouth to respond, but realized he'd either have to admit she was right or lie if he did, and he didn't like either option. Instead he fell further into her orange eyes, like they could be a sunrise that would spread light into him all over again, just as she had when they met.

"What about you?" he asked, enraptured by her gaze, stirring his addiction to this woman all over again.

She bit her lip before standing up and closing what little distance was between them. "I think, right now," she replied softly, "I just want to feel what it's like to be wanted by you again."

It took him less than a second to forget that he was afraid to touch her. That self-imposed line he'd drawn for himself was little more than a mark drawn in sand during a hurricane. Much like their first time together, Chastane had said just the thing, was looking at him in just the right way, to blow through as though it had never been there at all.

Author's Note:

So there comes a point in every long story where the writer gets the equivalent of driver's eyes. For anyone who's driven long distances (or written a long story without an outline), you'll know what I'm talking about. You look at asphalt and dividing lines for so long that you become numb to changes in scenery, you don't notice brake lights as fast, etc. You become lulled, and reaction time suffers. That's when you miss the sign for your exit, or worse, you don't realize traffic ahead is at a dead stop and you're going to get stuck. This happens to me when writing novels. I get to this hazy midpoint, and it's easy to get lost or distracted. Or forget where I was headed originally, so I have to stop and recheck my map to get back on course.

I'm there. Right now. So the next official chapter or two will be that course correction of sorts. But that's what first drafts are for; I lay the slippery gravel down first, then the smooth layer goes over that.

I say "official" chapter, because before that, I believe I'll add a special chapter in. For those who read the first book here on FP, you may remember that story too had a "special" which was Devon's TV interview. It's not in the print book, obviously. In this forum though, it was something fun, and a way for me to expand and offer a few things I knew about my character that I couldn't effectively put in the story at the time. (And reviewers got to ask questions, which was kinda cool for me as an author.)

In this instance, the idea came from two places at once. One internal, one external.

Internal: You don't know this yet, but the time will come when Devon and Chase are forced to answer a difficult question for Dr. Mancelli. If things had been different - no Robert debacle, Chase's brother was still alive thus changing Chase's inclusion in the Darborough clan, or if there'd been no set betrothal at all - would Devon and Chase have married or, more importantly, would they have fallen in love? And what would that relationship be? Could it have even happened? It's a fair but complicated question. And it helps them realize that their relationship doesn't have to be textbook normal, or even textbook healthy, to work for them. (Although we already know that, duh.)

External: There have apparently been a couple of people who decided to do "alternate universe" versions of the first book. I'm not naming names because, a) I haven't asked permission to share their info, and b) so far what I've read isn't very impressive, and therefore I don't want to endorse them. I probably shouldn't judge, and I'm actually very flattered anyone even bothered. But these are my babies, so when Devon is rewritten as a vampire, I get a little irked. (Related note: I have read one good fanfic from someone who apparently got tired of waiting for my second book to start. As soon as I get that author's permission to do so, I'll share a link if he/she allows. There can't be too many others out there, but if anyone knows of one that's good, send me a link. I actually love good fanfiction and highly endorse the practice on the whole. :)

So I think the special addition to this FP version of the book will be a short story of sorts, to explore that alternate reality. Namely, if Chase had been brought in as another heir rather than the only one left, if there had been no Robert mediator, and if she'd been notified of the betrothal around age sixteen or so. It'll be snapshots really - hardly a full story - but I think it'll be interesting nevertheless. Kind of like that special chapter at the end of a manga, where the mangaka mixes it up a bit with their characters, just because they want to. Or they too are curious about the possibilities they can't explore in their cannon. Or they need an extra week or two to figure out where their story was supposed to be going, and how to get it pointed the right way again.

Until then, thank you for sticking it out with me. :)