EPILOGUE

SIX MONTHS LATER

Amy left her office building just as the sun was beginning to set. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and watched the beautiful sight; pink,, blue, purple and gold swirls of hope and promise that never ceased to take her breath away.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

She closed her eyes, savoring the sound of his voice. "What are you doing here?" She asked softly, turning towards him.

"I came to pick you up," Mark said, just as softly. He reached for her and they stood holding each other, just enjoying the feeling of being together.

It had not been an easy road back. In fact, if it weren't for Michelle, they may never have found their way back to each other at all.

"Do you love him?" Amy asked Michelle, a week after the fateful birthday party.

"Are you kidding me? Of course I love him," Michelle replied. "But not in the way you're thinking. I love him as a friend, Amy. He was there when I needed someone, and he helped me work through the pain and turmoil over Tony. I don't know what I would have done without him."

"But you're not attracted to him?"

Michelle looked thoughtful. "I was attracted to the fact that he was Tony's brother, but that's all, Amy." She sighed. "What about you? Do you still love him?"

Amy bit her lip and nodded, the tears in her eyes evident. "I'm sure you heard about mark walking in and seeing me kissing some other guy."

Michelle nodded.

"Well, what you didn't hear, because Mark didn't stick around long enough to see, was that I pushed him away. I wasn't having an affair, Michelle. I was asking for advice about mark and my colleague saw my weakness as an opportunity to make a move. That is all there was to it."

Michelle put her hand over Amy's. "I believe you. And I'm sure Mark will come around once he knows the real story. I know he still loves you, Amy, but he doesn't want to admit it."

It took Michelle three weeks to wear mark's defenses down. "Listen to what I'm saying, Mark. She was not cheating on you. She has always loved you. It's always been you."

Mark sighed, tired of hearing the same story over and over again. He wanted to believe it, but something was holding him back. Then, he woke up in the middle of the night and realized why he couldn't believe that Amy still loved him. He had allowed himself to fall unwittingly in love with Michelle. With growing fear, he knew that if he went back to Amy, he would lose the love he had for Michelle; a sweet, untarnished, innocent love that kept him calm and at peace with the chaotic world around him. Michelle had become his anchor, and without her he would be lost.

He called Michelle that night to voice his fears.

"I love you too, Mark," She said softly, when he confessed his feelings. "It's a love of a child for another child. You are not in love with me, you love me. Those are two very separate emotions. We've both been burned and we found solace in each other because we shared the pain and heartache, which made it easier for both of us to deal with.

"Go back to Amy," Michelle advised. "I will always be here for you as a friend, but she is the love you need."

Mark finally took her advice and called Amy to make arrangements to meet and talk. He wanted to make sure they felt the same way about each other, that they had a future to work towards.

Ad now, six months later, he knew with certainty that their future was together. As he held her in his arms, he also knew he would never let her go again.

###

Michelle stood in the center of her living room, watching the movers carry out the rest of her boxes. From across the room, Tony glanced over and gave her a shy smile. She smiled back, wishing that he didn't have the effect he had on her still, wishing that she had the strength to tell him to get out of her life for good.

No, she took that back. She didn't want him out of her life, despite his many flaws and mistakes; she loved him.

Two weeks after the disastrous party, Michelle received a strange phone call from Claudia's sister late one night. Kara asked if Michelle would be willing to meet her for a drink. Against her better judgment, too curious to refuse, Michelle accepted the invitation.

As she entered the restaurant, Michelle found herself traveling back through time, when she and Claudia used to meet for drinks. She recalled the time she confided that Tony had been talking in his sleep. With a shudder, she pushed the old memories away.

She spotted Kara in a corner booth and was struck by how much she resembled her sister. The realization both angered and comforted her. Kara waved, and Michelle walked towards her and slid into the booth opposite the stunning woman.

"Michelle, I want to first thank you for helping my sister the night of the party. I think you may have saved her from plummeting into a black hole of despair. If it weren't for you and Amy, I'm not sure what she would have done."

"She would have survived," Michelle said firmly. "She's a very strong woman."

"That she is," Kara agreed. "Anyway, I am really glad you two are keeping in touch again. She's always considered you one of the best friends she's ever had."

Michelle relaxed slightly, smiling. "I've always felt the same about her." She said softly.

The two women sat for awhile in silence, neither knowing how to begin or what to say.

Finally, it was Kara who broke the silence by clearing her throat. "This is not easy for me, Michelle. You know about Tony and me. You know we've been seeing each other."

Michelle closed her eyes and nodded. "Yes, I know."

"The night of the party, I wanted Claudia to be there so that I would have some support when everyone found out we were officially a couple." Kara paused, looking down at her hands. "Needless to say, that plan backfired horribly, as did my relationship with Tony."

Michelle opened her eyes to stare at the beautiful vixen sitting across from her. "I thought you two were really in love," She said, not attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice.

Kara looked up from her hands. "I was. Look, Michelle, you don't have to listen to a word I'm saying. You are free to get up and walk away from me forever."

"No, please do continue," Michelle said. "I am always extremely interested in what my husband's mistress has to say."

Kara sighed, ignoring the bitterness in Michelle's tone. "He loves you Michelle. It's always been you, but he never realized it until you were gone.

"We have seen each other a few times lately, but I swear to you it has been completely innocent. He talks about you all of the time, about how he destroyed the only good thing in his life. I tried to be there for him, but it hurts. I didn't mean to fall in love with him, but I assure you my love is not reciprocated in any way." Kara shook her head sadly, not bothering to wipe her eyes as she shared the painful truth with a woman she barely knew.

"Of course, you don't have to take my advice, but I think that if you at least agree to talk to him, you will see how much he has changed. And how much he needs you, Michelle." She choked back a sob. "I am trying to do the right thing here. Despite what you think, I am not a horrible person."

Michelle studied the beautiful woman for a long time. "Thank you," She finally said. "And I don't think you're a horrible person. I did for awhile, but I can see you're ore like your sister than I would have ever imagined."

Kara smiled softly through her tears. "That means a lot to me, Michelle. I wish you both a magical future together." She got up from the booth and, without looking back, exited the restaurant, leaving Michelle alone with her thoughts.

She waited several weeks before she took a chance and called him. When he answered the phone, she heard the exhaustion in his voice and felt a rush of sympathy for the man she once loved so deeply. "Tony, it's Michelle."

The phone call was the beginning of a very slow and painful reconciliation between them. Together they attended weekly counseling sessions, and through those sessions, Michelle began to understand what made Tony the way he was, and how hard he was trying to work through his issues.

Slowly, they were making progress, as Michelle learned to trust him again and they got to know one another all over again. Michelle thought she had never seen this side of Tony before. He freed him self finally from the overbearing shadow of his mother, and, in doing so, he freed Michelle from constant heartache. They still had a long road ahead of them, but for the first time in their marriage, Michelle had hope that they might actually make it.

###

Tony stood in Michelle's living room, his eyes fixed on his beautiful wife as she directed the movers. He marveled at her beauty and grace, and cursed himself yet again for almost losing the best thing that had ever happened to him. He said a silent prayer, so grateful he was that Michelle finally decided to give him a second chance. As his therapist constantly reminded him, this was extremely rare given the circumstances, and he should cherish every moment. It was advice that Tony took to heart, as he vowed he would never disappoint her again. It was a promise he made every single time he looked at her.

She glanced up and caught him watching her, a soft smile playing on her lips. She had the most beautiful and forgiving smile he had ever seen. He couldn't wait for the day to be over; for the movers to be done delivering boxes from Michelle's apartment to the home they once shared. She had finally agreed to move in with him again, which was a huge step forward.

He crossed the room quickly, closing the distance between them in seconds, and pulled her into his arms. He kissed her softly on the lips and held her, rocking back and forth as the movers worked around them, oblivious to the affectionate couple whom they simply assumed were newlyweds. And in a way they were. Tony would never again take their relationship for granted, and after years of striving to be the perfect son, he let go of the impossible goal and savored the fact that it was so much more satisfying to simply appreciate everything he already had.

###

Kara lit a cigarette as she jumped out of bed. She located her clothes strewn on the floor, picked them up, and began to dress, her mind deep in thought.

As usual, her thoughts drifted to Tony, as they always did late at night. She imagined him lying in bed with Michelle, his arms wrapped protectively around her, making her feel safe and content. Kara smiled through her tears, knowing that she had done the right thing in the end. She knew she could have kept Tony as her own, and eventually he would have gotten over his heartache for his wife, but it would have been dishonest and Kara would not have been able to live with herself.

It still stung sometimes, and Kara spent many nights alone and lonely, but deep down she felt good about herself and that was important. So things didn't work out with Tony. She had experienced firsthand the joys and pain of love, and she was not eager to repeat that experience anytime soon.

"Where are you going?" The handsome man stirred and sat up in bed, watching Kara dress.

Kara put on her shoe and barely glanced in his direction. "Sex is over, honey. I'm going home."

The man laughed softly. "So that's it? Your game is to fuck 'em and leave 'em? I thought that was a guy thing."

Kara shrugged. "That's just a sexist cliché, Eric. I have every bit as much of a right to fuck for pleasure as a man does." She looked at him and admired his well-formed physique and dark eyes. Hastily she looked away before his eyes drew her in. She had no interest in a relationship that could leave her vulnerable to getting hurt again.

Eric leaned over and grabbed her cigarette case, extracted one and lit it, inhaling deeply and watching the smoke spiral out as he exhaled. "Do you mind telling me why you're leaving me in the middle of the night?"

"I just told you."

"You're only interested in the sex."

"That's right." Kara stood up from the chair and stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray on the bedside table.

"God, woman. Someone must have really done a number on you." He shook his head sadly.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Kara asked, glaring at him now, her hands on her hips.

"To make you so worried about caring for someone that you feel this urge to sneak out in the dead of night."

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," Kara said, but she sat back down on the bed beside him.

"So," He said, reaching for her. "Why don't you try explaining it to me instead of leaving?"

She moved out of his reach and stood up again. "I can't do this, Eric. Love only brings pain, and I don't ever want to go through that again."

Eric got out of bed, located his jeans and quickly pulled them on. "You know, you're absolutely right." He told her in a mocking tone. "The best thing you can do is to avoid any potential relationships so that you can avoid love for the rest of your life. Don't care, and you'll never get hurt."

She rolled her eyes. "It's not that dramatic, Eric. And don't start your psychological evaluation of me. We've only been on three dates. You haven't earned that right."

"Whatever are you talking about?" He asked with feigned innocence. She couldn't help the grin that spread across her face. "OK, OK, you made your point, alright? Still, I don't want to stay here tonight."

"That's fine with me," He said, slipping into a sweatshirt and grabbing his keys from his dresser. "Let's both escape into the night and go grab some coffee. You can tell me all about your wise and not-at-all ridiculous views about love and relationships."

Kara shook her head in complete amazement. "No one has ever offered to take me out for coffee at four o'clock in the morning before."

"See, woman? There's a first time for everything. There may even be a chance that you may someday put down your guard and trust someone enough to let them see past that cool, distant exterior of yours."

"And would that someone happen to be you?" She asked coyly, on their way out of the bedroom.

He reached out and grabbed her arm, turning her to face him, his face serious. "I hope so, Kara. I really hope so."

###

Claudia took the long way home from work, driving through the streets of Minneapolis, admiring the beautiful fall colors that blossomed all around her. Soon those colorful leaves would turn brown and fall from the trees, eaving the bare branches to shiver in the cold winter wind.

For some reason, the thought did not depress her. She knew that this was a part of life, that the trees would come back to life in the spring, new leaves taking the place of the old ones. It was a cycle, just as love was a cycle. And sometimes it ended, but there would always be a new beginning; a chance to heal old wounds and begin to live again.

Claudia knew the scars she had from her relationship with Mauro would never completely heal, but, in time, she knew the pain would start to ease; that someday she would be able to go longer than a few hours without thoughts of him invading her mind.

It had taken her a long time to reach this point; a point where she was able to function normally again. Michelle and Amy had been wonderful, calling her nightly to make sure she was alright, surviving, recovering, moving on. They were there to offer support and understanding and advice and a shoulder to cry on. And Claudia did a lot of crying. In a way it was cathartic. She was never good at expressing emotions, and to let everything spill out was refreshing and she felt lighter and more hopeful than she had in a long time.

Kara had been amazing as well. Claudia would never forget how much her sister helped her through the first few weeks after the party; insisting on returning to Minneapolis with her, forcing her to get up each morning, to sleep at night, to eat, and to live.

"I know you're in horrible pain right now, Claudia, but you have to believe it will get better. In the meantime, don't let his actions destroy your life."

Kara had never played the big sister role before, and Claudia found it comforting to be taken care of by someone, to be treated like a helpless child and to be cared for in a way that forced her to continue on when all she really wanted to do was huddle under the covers and cry for her lost love.

She was surviving.

Mauro had called her a few times over the past few months to apologize for blindsiding her, for destroying her trust, and for a lot of other things. He pleaded with her to meet him and talk. Claudia thought about it, and her heart began to pound wildly. He was not "engaged" anymore. The blonde had been a rebound relationship that hadn't lasted a month after the party.

Claudia wanted to meet him, but she told him she needed to think about it. She knew his announcement was not meant to hurt her; that he had no idea she was in town and that he thought she didn't care anymore about him or their relationship.

The truth was, she did care. She did love him, but he never truly believed her, and Claudia now realized he probably never would. Perhaps someday she would meet him, but not now. She was still in the process of healing, and seeing him would only bring back all of the pain and heartache.

She lived her life alone, but she did not live in fear anymore. Her biggest fear had always been being hurt by a man; it had happened several times now, and it had not been able to conquer her. That knowledge kept her strong.

Pulling up in front of her building, she noticed that a silver Mercedes had taken her parking place. Cursing under her breath, she parked up the street and walked back, shivering in the crisp fall air.

Lost in her own thoughts, she did not see him until he was standing right in front of her.

"You're late, Counselor," He said, smiling.

"Someone stole my parking place," She retorted, smiling back.

"I have seniority," Rob said softly, extending his hand to offer her a single red rose. "I was in the neighborhood, and I thought you might want to go look at the changing leaves with me."

Claudia accepted the rose, placing it under her nose and inhaling its sweet scent. "I took the scenic route home. I already saw the changing leaves."

"No, you haven't," Rob said, shaking his head.

"I certainly did."

He opened his passenger door and gestured for her to get into his car. "You haven't seen the beauty of fall leaves until you have seen them from the balcony of the Starwood Bistro."

"Isn't that a very expensive restaurant near the falls?" Claudia asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Yes."

"Rob, are you trying to ask me out on a date?"

He looked at her with kind, compassionate and understanding eyes. "I'm asking you to come and look at the leaves with me, Claudia. Whatever happens after that is entirely up to you."

Claudia found herself drowning in his intense gaze, and she was suddenly aware of Rob's feelings for her. "In that case, I would love to go look at the leaves with you, counselor."

Rob helped her into the car, then went around to the driver's seat and got in, turning to look at her. "Do you realize I have been waiting almost three years to hear you say that?"

They smiled shyly at one another, each of them understanding the hidden meaning behind his casual words.

XX##XX

A/N: This was the very first full-featured story I ever attempted. I was still in college at the time, and I was just beginning to learn about the art of writing well. This story has many issues and problems, and it was my first journey into what I now understand as "Suspension of Disbelief".

Thank you for your patience and interest as I sorted through six hundred pieces of hand written paper and transcribed them to my computer. For the most part I left the original story unchanged. I hope I grown as a writer since then, but without this story I would not have continued on this path to end up where I am.

Like all of my other work, there is some truth behind these words; some real life hidden between the fiction. I'll leave it to the reader to make up their own minds, and to interpret the story as they see fit.

Thanks so much for reading. -Dita