Thirty-five thousand feet. Amazing, she thought, as she gazed out her window at all of the white cottony clouds that the Boeing 757 sailed through. Here she sat, far above the world and all of its troubles. Every now and then, she could get a glimpse through a hole in the clouds of the earth below, and it looked so beautiful, so untouched. Hard to believe so much anguish could be down there in what looked like paradise. She sighed deeply, and turned away from the window. She looked in surprise to see that a magazine, long forgotten, lay unopened on her lap. She ruefully picked it up, and reached down under the seat in front of her to stuff it back into her carry on bag. She was finally returning to Salem, after having spent the last 3 years of her life away. Butterflies swirled in her stomach at the thought of Salem. Or, rather, WHO was in Salem--at least she thought he was still in Salem. Brady Black. The man she'd been in love with ever since she had decided that boys were not disgusting creatures that should never have been put on this earth. She smiled sadly at the memory of his handsome face and gorgeous smile, that devilish twinkle in his amazing blue eyes. After she left Salem, they'd been in touch almost every day by e-mail and, in addition, they wrote letters almost weekly. Normally, distance served to make a relationship drift. Not them. They'd become closer than ever, and she'd really come to rely and depend on Brady, whom had been a dear friend of hers for years before they'd ever admitted their feelings for each other. All of that had come to a sudden, screeching halt last November. She'd really worried when Brady had not replied to her e-mails for over 3 weeks, and then she'd become frantic when her last letter returned unopened. She'd been about ready to just pack her bags, head straight his house, and demand an answer from him when she'd received a very cold, very nasty e-mail from him. She'd never forget what he'd said:
"I know I haven't gotten back to you. Sorry about that. I've been doing some thinking. I don't want to hear from you again. Don’t love you, and I think I was too young at the time I told you that to know what the hell I was feeling. Probably hormones--you are beautiful, you know. I'm sure I was more in love with the idea of dating someone than I was with you. We don't have anything in common anyway. I don't want a relationship with you. Don't try to contact me. I won't take any phone messages from you, I will return any mail you send to me, and I have already blocked your address from my e-mail account. I mean every word I say. Have a good life. --Brady"
Absolutely devastated, she'd cried for days after his e-mail. She grieved for him as if he had passed away. It was so cold, so unlike the Brady she thought she knew and loved. Love. That was the problem. All of the harsh words in the world couldn't turn off her feelings, although sometimes she thought that hate won out over any feelings of love that she held for him. He had done a number on her, and even now, 7, almost 8 months later, her heart still felt raw from the pain and anger. She once again stared out the window. Above all else, she mused, at least Brady Black was not the reason she was returning to Salem. And, she'd make damn sure he never thought that he was.
Shawn. Think about Shawn. His kind, loving eyes. How they sparkled when they looked at her. How he'd get all flustered when she said something he did was sweet. His wonderful smile that just made her heart sing with joy. Belle sat in the now-familiar closet, her slender arms curled tightly around her legs. She rocked back and forth, trying to comfort herself by desperately trying to think of the positive things in her life. Anything to get her mind off of--HIM. She shuddered, trying to forget how he'd practically thrown her back down the basement stairs after he'd caught her on the phone. The rage in his remorseless eyes was so palpable, so deep and terrifying, and so cold. His thick, meaty hands clamped on her now-bruised arms. He had dragged her back to the chair in that dark, awful room in the basement. The shadows created by the dim light from the single bare bulb in the ceiling only made him seem bigger, his movements more sudden and violent. He'd advanced on her, his thin lips curled in a sadistic leer that made the blood run ice cold in her veins...NO, Belle! She shouted to herself. You won't think about HIM. Think of Shawn. Your best friend. Think of your family...Brady. Oh, God. Brady. She was surprised to find tears dripping down her cheeks. She didn't think she had any left. She sniffed and looked up at the ceiling of the closet. Not that she could see anything. She cringed as she heard those same heavy footsteps coming down the hallway. They rapidly approached the closet, and the door flew open and banged against the wall. Belle squinted up into the light. The man reached down and grabbed her already bruised arm.
"Ok, little beauty," he said coldly. "It's show time. You're my ticket to better things, and I'm cashing you in." He smiled at her, and ran a large hand through her hair. She whimpered and cringed away from his touch. His smile instantly vanished, and his eyes narrowed dangerously.
"I would think you learned your lesson last time, little beauty. You DON'T make me mad, isn't that right?"
Belle nodded, too afraid to speak.
He smiled wolfishly at her. "Ah, that's more like it. You're mine, little beauty. Always mine. Don't forget that. Ever." He stroked her cheek, and it took all of Belle's willpower to not flinch away from his greasy touch. She refused to look at him, though. She closed her eyes, and told herself for the millionth time that awful night to focus on Shawn.
He yanked her to her feet and hauled her out into the hallway. Belle's eyes flew open as she felt herself go airborne for a split second. The whole night had seemed so unreal, so out of focus, and she had to stop hysterical giggles from erupting as she noticed he'd changed into clean clothes. No more dirty white tank covered in her brother's blood.
Belle struggled to keep up with his frantic pace as he raced up the stairs and into the filthy kitchen, his iron grip on her arm tightening as they rounded the corner into the living room. Suddenly, he threw her onto an old lumpy couch. She couldn't make out much of the living room, because no lights were turned on, but it was very small, and every bit as trashed as the kitchen. She landed on some greasy bits of paper, and somewhere in her subconscious she noticed how the scratchy upholstery on the couch rubbed against the bare skin on her legs. He leaned over her and breathed into her face, and she had to steel herself against his stale breath.
"Now, little beauty," he sneered. "You will do EXACTLY as I say. Remember that knife I plunged into your crippled boyfriend?"
Belle nodded, her eyes wide with terror.
"Well, I may just have to use that on you if you don't cooperate. Got it?" His eyes once again took on that wild, excited shine, and Belle's heart pounded with fear. She turned her head away from him so that she faced the back of the couch.
"I will kill you," he whispered into her ear. "I will kill you if you try anything. Anything at all." Suddenly, he yanked her head by her hair and forced her to face him. "Don't make me mad!!!!" He screamed into her face, and grabbed her with one arm around her neck, forcing her to walk in front of him to the front door.
Shawn badly wanted to stretch out his long legs. He'd been curled on the floor in the back of his dad's car for a few hours, and they felt cramped and stiff. After they'd left the house, his dad had gone by the hospital to pick up John. Shawn felt terrible for him--Brady's surgery had been taking much longer than expected, and John was absolutely torn about leaving the hospital. Bo had assured him that if he needed to stay, that Belle would be very well taken care of--he'd see to it himself. John had said, no, that Brady was not expected to even regain consciousness until late tomorrow, and Marlena and Hope were going to wait at the hospital in case something were to happen. John wanted to be there when they got Belle away from that monster--she'd need her father. So, they'd driven for quite a while, and finally stopped. From the bits of conversation Shawn heard, they parked outside a small ranch house. The police had the place completely surrounded, men in position, hiding in the bushes that surrounded the house and in unmarked cars placed in various strategic positions on the street. He could hear the buzz of conversation from his dad's police radio, and it scared him. Apparently, no one could get the man to answer his door or his phone. The entire house was dark, and his car, a rusted black'78 Ford pickup truck, sat in the driveway, indicating that he was actually home. Shawn's heart hadn't stopped pounding since he'd found out his Belle was in trouble. This endless waiting was killing him--all he could envision was her terror-filled blue eyes. How could anyone do such a terrible thing to someone with Belle's sweet spirit, he wondered. She had to be ok. She had to. He wished for the thousandth time that he had not left her and Brady alone. Damn! If only....
Suddenly, Bo grabbed the mic to the police radio in his car.
"Damn, son of a bitch!" He swore.
"Bo, we have to get her out of there, NOW!" John cried, his voice frantic and panicked.
"Ok. I'm on my way. John, listen to me." Bo's voice was even, yet commanding. "I know this is your daughter, but you have to let the hostage negotiator do her job, ok? Any sudden wrong moves on our part could mean serious danger for Belle. All right?"
Shawn guessed that John nodded his head, and the two men left the car. Shawn took the opportunity to stretch out his legs. Damn, they were sore! He kneaded his cramped muscles, and slowly kneeled so that he could see out the window. To his horror, a tall, large man with a skinny long dark ponytail stood on the front porch, his arm clamped around Belle's neck, and pressed a large hunting knife into Belle's throat. He didn't know which image disturbed him more: seeing Belle with that man's arm wrapped around her throat, or the glassy look of defeat in her eyes. He had to do something. Now. He knew he couldn't get close to her, but he had to get out of the car. He couldn't just sit still and let this maniac hurt Belle. He very slowly opened the car door and quietly slipped out onto the street. He closed the door so that it almost shut, knowing that he couldn't make a sound. He crawled up to the front of the car, and noticed he was right at the end of the driveway. He saw the old pick-up truck in the driveway, and he decided to crawl underneath his dad's car where he wouldn't be seen.
Susan, the hostage negotiator was calmly talking to the man. A petite 40-ish brown haired woman with an iron will, she stood in the middle of the front yard, as close as the man would allow her. "Ok, Mike," she said calmly, eying the firm grip he had on Belle. "I'm here to help you. Now, you've told me your name. That's good. Now, can you tell us what you need for us to do so that you can let Belle go?"
Mike stared at her, a small glimmer of reason in his eyes. "Let her go?" He mumbled. He paused. "Yeah. I need you to call off all of these damn cops. You hear me? Get them outta here! I'll kill her!!!" He tightened his grip on Belle, and she quietly whimpered.
"Ok, Mike," Susan said calmly. "We'll see what we can do."
John stood out of Belle's line of sight, his face white and pinched with worry. He'd never felt so helpless in his life. He was her father, damn it! He had always told her he'd be there for her, to protect her, and he couldn't do a damn thing. He clenched his fists, wanting to tear that bastard to shreds for putting his baby through such terror. Hang in there, sweetheart, he thought. We'll get you out of there just as soon as we can. He tiredly ran a strong hand through his dark hair and watched as the hostage negotiator calmly talked with the monster that held his daughter captive.
The minutes ticked by in the tensely charged atmosphere. Susan finally got Mike to accept that the police weren't going to go away, and now he seemed to be focusing on his own escape. Shawn guessed it had been close to an hour he'd been hiding under the car. The whole scene was like something out of a nightmare, he thought. The man, Mike, he heard them call him, had yet to let go of Belle. He'd been pacing the entire length of the front porch, dragging Belle back and forth with him. She had stopped whimpering, stopped giving any sign that she was even aware of what was going on around her. Shawn shifted, trying in vain to get more comfortable in the cramped space under his dad's car.
"To hell with all of you!" Mike suddenly shrieked. "I don't give a rat's ass about your ideas, Susan." The rage glittered fiercely in his steely gray eyes. "Listen to me," he hissed. "I'm leaving. Now. I'm taking this little beauty with me. No one, and I mean NO ONE is going to stop me. Any move towards her or me, and I slit her throat."
"Mike," Susan said gently. "Don't do this. This is going to be a mistake. We can work this out, but we have to do it together."
He laughed softly, the insanity ringing in his voice. "Don't give me that shit," he said, still laughing. "Do you think I'm stupid? DO YOU?"
That was it! Shawn quietly slid out from underneath his dad's car, praying that everyone would be so focused on the drama going on on the front porch that no one would notice what he was doing. He quickly crawled over to the pick-up truck, trying not to let his panic overcome his ability to think clearly. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his pocketknife. He flipped open his knife and effortlessly sliced the back two tires of the truck. He slid around the passenger side of the truck, praying that he would have a few minutes longer of anonymity to accomplish his task. He reached over to the passenger side front tire and slit the rubber, jabbing it much harder than necessary. But, he figured, it was the next best thing to taking his knife to the man that had hurt his Belle. He debated whether or not to risk trying to get around to the driver's side front tire. Too risky, Shawn, he thought. They could easily see you, and then it would be all over. He slipped back to his dad's car, and crouched down to wait, heart pounding, by the trunk.
"Out of my way!!!" Mike screamed, and picked up Belle. He threw her effortlessly over his broad but well padded shoulder and headed for his truck.
John, not even thinking, let his paternal instincts take over, and started to run after his daughter, but Bo grabbed onto his arm and held him back. John turned on his friend, his eyes dark with fury. "What the hell?" He demanded, trying to yank his arm out of Bo's strong grasp. "That's MY daughter that he has. I'm not letting him take her anywhere!"
"Listen to me, damn it!" Bo hissed. "He has a knife. Lord knows, he may even have a gun. He's hinted around that he might. I know it seems like you should run after her, but we can't risk him hurting her. He will, John. You know he will. That bastard is sick enough to do just what he's threatened."
John nodded, his strong shoulders slumping in defeat. Bo clapped him on the back, trying to reassure him where no reassurance could be found.
Mike threw Belle into his car and jumped into the driver's side. "Don't even try to follow us," he warned loudly. "I see any headlights behind me, and I'll start throwing pieces of this little beauty out the window." He laughed shrilly at his last statement, and slammed the door shut.
Belle stared out the window in front of her, dimly aware of her surroundings. She was in a car, she thought. How strange. Why was she in a car? She looked over to see her captor turning the key in the ignition. She watched, disinterested, as he put the truck in reverse and began backing out of the driveway.
"Just you and me, little beauty," he sang gleefully. "We're getting outta here. You're mine, and I'm going to make sure it stays that way!" He finished backing the truck out of the driveway and put it into drive. "Get ready to fly, little beauty," he whispered, and smiled at her, his gray eyes full of a mixture of anger, lust, and excitement. They began to accelerate down the street.
Suddenly, the truck lurched sideways, and Mike had to slam on the brakes. It was enough to shake Belle out of her stupor.
"Damn it!" He shouted. "What the hell?" He looked around the truck, trying to figure out what had just happened.
She looked at him, and realized that for the first time his attention was not solely focused on her. She very slowly slid towards the passenger side door and grabbed the handle. NOW! She thought to herself, and cranked the handle with all of her might. She threw the door open, jumped out of the truck and ran, thinking only that she had to get away from HIM. Her life depended on it.
"Get back here, little beauty!!!" The man screamed as he took off after her. "You don't want to make me mad!!!"
Belle didn't even bother to look behind her. Her heart pounding in her ears, she concentrated on keeping her feet pounding the pavement. As his gasping breath closed in on her, she summoned up strength she didn't know she had and picked up speed.
"Stop! Hold it! Let her go!" A tall skinny uniformed officer pointed a gun towards Mike. Three police officers immediately ran to him, and they tackled him down to the ground as he flailed and tried to get away. They wrestled his thick arms behind his back and cuffed him. Two of them held him down as the third officer frisked him for any hidden weapons he might have.
"Belle! Isabella!" John ran to meet her on the street. His feet couldn't get him to his daughter fast enough. He didn't even want to think about why her shirt was ripped and hanging in pieces, barely covering her.
Belle's eyes widened. "Daddy!!" She screamed, tears racing down her cheeks. She'd never seen such a welcome sight in her whole life. John closed the gap between him and his daughter. He reached down and pulled her into an enormous hug, his deep blue eyes filled with love and relief for his youngest. Belle shivered, and he tightened his strong arms around her. "Shh! It's ok, Izzy, it's ok. Daddy's here. You're safe now."
John kept murmuring comforting words to his daughter as they walked, arm in arm towards the waiting police cars. Someone had a blanket ready for Belle, and she soon found herself in the back of Bo Brady's car, her father with his arm still around her, softly stroking her hair.
Bo shook his head as he watched an officer read Mike his rights and help him into a waiting squad car, ducking his head with his hand as Mike folded his large frame into the backseat.
"How did that happen?" Bo wondered out loud. "Three flat tires? How did he manage to have THREE flat tires at once"
Shawn stood up from behind his dad's car, and smiled at his dad. "He had a little help from me!"
Bo could only stare at his oldest son. "Shawn? SHAWN DOUGLAS BRADY!!!!! What the hell are you doing here? How did you get here?"
Shawn shrugged. "I snuck in the back of your car and came along." He gazed earnestly at his father, who was really gearing up to let him have it. "Dad, I left her alone on the pier with Brady. I HAD to help her."
Bo, just thankful that Shawn was ok, gruffly slung one arm around his son's shoulders and hugged him. "Ok, son. We will discuss this later. You could have been hurt. You could have been killed. Thank God nothing happened to you." He grinned at his son, pride gleaming in his eyes. "That was some quick thinking, son. I think you may have saved Belle's life. You did your old man proud, even if I'm going to have to ground you until you're 30 for this stunt."
Shawn smiled back at his father and opened the front door of the car. He didn't care if he was grounded until JT graduated from college. Just as long as Belle was ok. That was ALL that mattered. He turned around to see her. Her hair was a tangled mess, sweated up and matted to the side of her head. Her blue eyes were red from crying, and her face a pale ghost of its normal lively self. He didn't care. He'd never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life. He leaned over the back seat and reached for her.
"NO!" Belle screamed, and burrowed into John's arms. "Get away from me!!!" Her eyes were full of pain and fear, and it broke Shawn's heart.
John smiled gently at Belle and patted her arm. He looked at Shawn and gave him a fatherly smile.
"Shawn, she's just in shock. She's been through an awful lot, and I think she's not even sure where she is right now."
Shawn nodded, uncertain. His perfect girl had to be all right. He didn't know what he would do without her. He turned back around in his seat and fastened his seat belt, ready to go home.
His steel-gray beady eyes shone as he reached for her. "Now, now, little beauty. You're mine. All mine." He laughed softly, his whispered chuckle full of malice. "I'm going to make sure that you NEVER forget that!" He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close to him. She frantically tried to turn her head away from him, but his hand snaked up and squeezed her chin. His vice-like grip forced her to face him, and she closed her eyes, wanting to shut out forever the desire she saw in his angry blotted face.
"No," she said, her voice trembling. "Please. No. NO NO NO NO NO!!"
Belle groggily opened her eyes, and saw the welcome image of her mother's blurry concerned and loving face. Marlena smiled softly at her daughter and brushed her tangled blonde hair away from her forehead.
"Mom?" Belle whispered, blinking as she tried to get Marlena's face to come into focus. "Mom? I had the worst dream. This awful man had me in his house, and he wouldn't let me go. I've never had such a bad nightmare." Belle rubbed her eyes, and gradually her vision cleared. Why did she feel so fuzzy, so out of it? She just couldn't wake up.
Marlena had to look away at Belle's words. It had been a long, horrible night for them all. John brought home a completely traumatized and catatonic Belle around 2 A.M. He briefly told his wife about what they knew for certain that Belle had gone through, and what he guessed had happened. Marlena had never seen John so close to the edge in all of their years together. He was frantic, pissed, furious, and scared beyond belief for both of his children. She had tried to get him to stay home, get some rest, so that he could at least get some rational perspective, but he insisted that he needed to be at the hospital for Brady. So, Marlena had led Belle, torn clothes and all, upstairs to her room. She changed her into her pajamas, gave her a sedative, and sat with her daughter, holding her hand, as she used to do when Belle was small until she fell asleep. John called around dawn to let her know that Brady had made it through the surgery, and that Craig Wesley was going to meet with him shortly to discuss in more detail the outcome of the surgery and what it meant for Brady.
Belle's quiet sobs shook her out of her thoughts. She was sitting up, one strap of her lavender tank pajama top hanging off of her shoulder, and her narrow shoulders shook as she cried. Marlena sat down on the bed next to her, and put her arms around Belle. Belle started, and pushed Marlena away. "Don't touch me!" She cried, her fearful wide blue eyes focused on some remote, far away point. Whatever Belle saw, it was not her bedroom, and it was not her mother.
Marlena slowly withdrew her arms from around her daughter, not wanting to frighten her further. Oh, Belle, she thought, pain squeezing her heart, what did he do to you? "Shh! Sweet Girl, it's OK. It's Mom. Mom's here. It's OK. You're safe now. You're all right. Everything's going to be OK."
She gently crooned the soothing words over and over to her daughter until finally Belle looked at her with recognition. Fresh tears filled Belle's anguished eyes, and she could only helplessly look at her mother, fat tears spilling over onto her grimy tear stained cheeks. New bruises were beginning to form on her cheeks and jaw, showing dark blue shadows underneath Belle's delicate fair skin. Marlena very slowly reached up to caress Belle's jaw, and Belle briefly flinched away before allowing her mother to stroke her cheek.
"It wasn't a dream, was it, Mom?" Belle asked softly, sniffing between sobs. "Oh, God! It wasn't a dream. It was real. I wasn't dreaming."
Marlena shook her head, fighting back the tears threatening to spill out of her warm brown eyes. "No, honey. It happened. But you're home, and you're safe with Daddy and I." She reached out to Belle once again, and this time Belle collapsed into her Mother's protective arms and just sobbed. Marlena held her, stroking her hair, shedding some tears of her own. "Shh. Belle, it's OK. It's OK."
Belle jerked away from her and shook her head. She hugged her knees to her chest tightly, rocking back and forth in pain. "It's NOT OK!" She sobbed. "Don't you see? He k-killed Brady. I saw him kill my brother. Brady was so scared, and he was hurt, and I couldn't help him. He tried to save me, Mom, and now he's dead. He's my brother. Mom! I--"
Marlena gently took a hold of Belle's arm. "Belle! Listen to me. I need you to listen to me!!" Belle sniffed in surprise, shook her head and blinked at her mother. A few remaining tears streaked down her cheeks.
"Brady is not dead, honey. He's very seriously injured, and he's been in surgery all night. Daddy called early this morning to tell us that he made it through the operation. That's good news. Brady is not dead. OK?" Marlena smiled and wiped away Belle's tears with her thumb.
Belle smiled for the first time, a slight sparkle softening her red-rimmed blue eyes. "He's alive!!!" She threw her arms around her mother. "Oh, Mom! I thought he was dead. There was so much blood. His eyes.... he was so scared. I've never seen him so scared." The light in her eyes immediately dimmed. Belle looked down at her lap and began playing with a corner of her comforter. "It was awful. All I could think was that I had to leave him there. All alone and bleeding and scared. I couldn't even call for help."
"Shh! I know, honey. Brady knows that you did all that you could. I'm sure he does." Marlena rubbed her back as she spoke.
"No--I didn't. You don't understand! He--"
Marlena wrapped her daughter into a big hug, and she just held her there, thankful beyond words that she still had this beautiful girl to love and hold. She held her at arm's length and smiled through her own tears at Belle. Belle's forlorn gaze was almost too much to bear, she thought.
"You listen to me. This is NOT your fault. None of this is your fault. Brady would not want you to think that either, OK? Daddy found him in time, and he's getting the best possible medical care. We have to leave the rest up to the doctors, your brother and God, OK?"
Belle nodded, and for a while she just sat there, with her mother's arms around her, feeling safe for the first time since her hostage ordeal. "Mom. I think I want to take a shower," she said quietly, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.
Marlena smiled lovingly at her youngest daughter. "All right, Sweetie. I'll be downstairs if you need anything." She planted a kiss on the top of Belle's head and stood up. "I love you, Sweet Girl. Daddy loves you, and Brady loves you."
Belle didn't return her mother's gaze, and only nodded in reply. She glanced at the window after her mother left the room. The sun shone brightly through the cracks in her mini-blind, dancing on the cheerful pale yellow walls and cream-colored carpet of her room. But the day felt dark, ugly, and hopeless to Belle. She threw the covers off her bed, grabbed some clothes out of her dresser, not even caring if her clothes matched, and shuffled into her bathroom.
John had completely lost track of time. He'd been sitting by Brady's bedside ever since he'd come out of surgery. His eyes burned from lack of sleep, but he knew he'd never rest until his son was awake and able to talk to him. Brady hardly resembled the handsome young man that had stormed out of the penthouse the day before. His unnaturally pale skin created a contrasting background for the many tubes and wires that were hooked into his muscular body. Monitors of all kinds softly beeped and hummed as they constantly measured Brady's vitals. All of his more superficial wounds had been stitched, dressed and covered in bandages, and most of his chest and upper arms lay hidden beneath a white carpet of gauze. Brady was damn lucky to be alive, Craig had informed John. He had sustained serious internal damage in his entire abdominal cavity, and the surgical team had really struggled to stop the internal bleeding from his injuries. It was still touch and go, but at least Brady had survived the surgery, and that was a very positive sign. John sighed and rubbed his whisker stubbled chin. Come on, son, he thought. Just open your eyes. Just look at me, let me know that you're going to be all right. He propped his elbows on the bed beside his unconscious son and gazed at Brady. You've spent way too much time in the hospital this year, kid, he thought sadly. Somehow, somewhere, someone has got to cut you a break. They have to. John closed his eyes, only for a moment, and was soon fast asleep.
"Dad?" Brady's hoarse whisper startled him awake. John's eyes flew open, and a huge grin spread across his handsome chiseled face.
He leaned closer to his son and gently touched his forehead. "Hey, kid. How are you?"
Brady looked at his dad, his deep blue eyes groggy with confusion. "Where am I?"
"You're in the hospital, son. You've had some surgery, but you're going to be all right."
Brady wrinkled up his nose. "I should have recognized the smell," he said sleepily. "Why did I have an operation?"
John paused, not sure of what to say next. He didn't want to upset his son, and possibly cause him more harm, but he also didn't want to lie to him.
"Do you remember anything?" John asked, rather than answering Brady's question.
Brady closed his eyes, and John thought he had fallen asleep. "No," he said after a while. "Wait. I remember I was at the pier. Belle..." His eyes shot open, and he grabbed for John's hand.
John gently restrained Brady's arm and said, "Belle is fine. She's home with her mother right now. You just rest, OK? You've been through a lot, and you need to take it easy."
Brady shook his head. "She's in trouble, don't know why... she is.... have to find her, Dad." His speech became slurred as exhaustion started to overcome him.
John patted Brady on the arm. "Easy, son. She's all right. She's in bed at home. I promise, son. I'll have her call you soon, OK? Now, I'm going to go get the nurse and let her know that you're awake. Just rest."
John stood up, and before he could get to the door, Brady had already fallen asleep.
Belle stared at her reflection in her full-length bathroom mirror. As the steam from the hot shower swirled around her, she gazed at her bare skin. Instead of seeing a happy, well-adjusted 17-year-old teenager, a stranger she couldn't bear to look at stared sadly at her. Numerous dark bruises were scattered up and down her torso, arms, and legs. As the steam from the shower collected in the small bathroom, it began to fog her mirror. Soon, the bruises just looked dirty. That's what she was. Dirty. She began rubbing her arms, trying to get the dirt off, but it wouldn't come off. She couldn't get rid of the horrible feel of his fingers crawling on her skin. Tears running down her cheeks, she reached into the shower and turned the water as hot as she could get it. She stepped over the side of the tub and immersed herself in the steaming water. Hot water rolled over her body, and she allowed her mind to go blank, the hypnotic drumming of the water on her back a welcome sensation. She grabbed her loofah sponge and squirted a palm-sized dab of vanilla shower gel onto it. She began to frantically scrub her skin until it turned bright red. Have to get it clean, she thought wildly. It won't get clean. She didn't even notice when her skin became tender and sore. It wasn't working. The dirty feel of his hands would never go away. She dropped the loofah, not noticing the clatter of the wooden handle as it hit the side of the tub and bounced onto the bathroom floor. Belle slowly sank onto her knees in the tub and covered her head with her arms.
"No!!!!" She cried. "It won't go away!" She curled under the pounding stream of water, unaware of its tiny sharp bites on her sensitive red skin.
That was how Marlena found her. She had begun to worry about Belle when after nearly an hour the water still ran in the shower, and had come upstairs to check on her. Oh, God, she thought, closing her eyes briefly at the sight of the bruises on Belle's slender body. My poor baby. I shouldn't have left her alone. Marlena quickly turned off the water, her heart aching at the sight of Belle's raw skin. She found a fluffy light blue over-sized bath towel and held it out to her daughter.
"Come on, baby. It's time to get out of the shower." She kept her voice calm and soothing as Belle numbly climbed out of the tub and allowed her mother to wrap the towel around her shivering body. Belle refused to look at her mother, or even say a word. She stood woodenly as Marlena applied baby powder to her sore skin, and then dressed her like a child in the shorts and t-shirt Belle had dumped on the bathroom floor. Her mother brushed her wet golden hair and gently led her into her bedroom.
"How about if I bring you an aspirin and some tea?" Marlena asked. Belle sat on the side of her bed and didn't reply. "Belle?" Marlena asked, her concern mounting by the second.
Finally, Belle nodded, just wanting her mother to go away. She looked in disgust at her reddened skin, a sign of how dirty she felt. As she glanced around her room, a framed picture on her nightstand caught her eye. It had been a beautiful, warm and sunny summer day. She and Shawn stood on the deck of his parents' boat, the "Fancy Face II." She had jumped onto his back, leapfrog style, and both were laughing wildly into the camera. Belle felt a ghost of a smile cross her lips as she stared at his twinkling chocolate eyes and unruly brown hair. Shawn. He'd never want anything to do with her now. She picked up the picture, one of her most treasured possessions, and threw it as hard as she could against the wall, watching numbly as the glass shattered. Shattered, into a thousand pieces. Just like her life.
"It's gotta be under here somewhere," Belle muttered, shoving aside books and a few unlucky stuffed bears that had been relegated to the dark recesses under her bed. "Ha!! I knew it." Stretching as hard as she could, her fingertips grabbed onto the bill of a black baseball cap. Actually, it was Brady's favorite baseball cap, and if he knew it had fallen under her bed he would NOT be pleased with her. She smiled at the thought of her brother and pulled the hat out from under her bed. She shook the dust off of the hat as she stood up and pulled it onto her head, shoving her uncombed blonde hair up into it. It had been 3 weeks since that awful night, 3 weeks of frightening anxiety and vivid nightmares. She had steadfastly refused to leave the house, and her parents had thankfully not forced her to return to school. She just didn't think she could face anyone, least of all Shawn. Some days she didn't even want to get out of bed or even leave the safety of her room. She tugged the tail of her baggy T-shirt over her hips and looked around the room for her house keys. There! They lay in a clump of brightly colored linked key chains on her desktop. Belle frowned as she noticed the blinking light on her answering machine. She crawled up onto her bed, reached over to her desk, and pressed the "message" button.
"Belle. Hey, Perfect Girl. It's Shawn. Look, we really missed you at school this week. You know, the last week of school and all. Things just aren't the same without you around. Um...I guess what I'm trying to say is I miss you. Call me when you get this message, OK? Uh...yeah. Talk to you later. Bye."
Belle hit the delete button, as she had to every message from her friends since that awful night, and paused before grabbing her keys. She refused to allow her heart to melt at the seductive warmth in his deep voice. No, Shawn, she thought. You have no idea how very wrong you are. I'm not perfect, and I'm not the same anymore. I can't talk to you. I can't see you. I can't. She stuffed the wad of keys into her pocket. Or, rather, Brady's pocket. She had taken to wearing her brother's clothes because she just felt better knowing that she had a little bit of him close to her. She didn't realize that it was her way of hiding how dirty and ashamed she felt under all of the layers of his clothes. Well, girl, she thought ruefully. It's time to face that world. She had a special trip she had to make, and the thought of leaving the house gave her butterflies in her stomach. Just do it, Belle! She told herself. Belle closed her bedroom door, hurried down the stairs, and headed out the door to the elevator before she could change her mind.
Brady lay propped against several pillows in his hospital bed. He stared briefly at the tiles in the ceiling of his private hospital room. He knew exactly how many there were--458 1?2, if you counted the little one in the corner by the bathroom door. Funny how this room had almost 100 less than his old room the last time he was stuck in this stinking place, he thought morbidly. Suck it up, Brady, he told himself. After all, how could he have forgotten how great it was to have endless hours to watch crappy reruns on cable? Yeah. He was going to live, all right. Dr. Wesley had told him numerous times just how damn lucky he was. He was finally beginning to experience some relief from the intense throbbing pain he'd been enduring since the stabbing, and Craig had assured him that his stitches were healing very well and would be coming out soon. Frankly, he'd never known that so many stitches could exist on one person. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the memories of that horrible night, memories that were so vivid, so real that sometimes it was all he could think about. The mad glee in that man's face still made him shiver, still haunted his waking hours and his dreams. He could still see the silver gleam of the knife glinting in the moonlight as the man briefly let it hover over Brady before he plunged it into him. And, worst of all, he could see the terror in Belle's eyes as she saw her older brother being stabbed. The only comfort he held onto was that Belle had gotten away safely from that horrible monster, but he still couldn't help but feel responsible. If only he hadn't let his temper get the best of him...
The soft creaking of the door to his room interrupted his dark thoughts. Carl, Brady's physical therapist, popped his head around the doorframe, his gentle smile hiding his concern for Brady. He and Brady had developed a very close, unique trusting bond as therapist and patient over the months that they had worked together. In Brady's eyes, Carl was one of the few people that truly understood the many challenges he faced, and what it really meant to deal with a disability at such a relatively young age. Carl also knew that Brady was different from most people. Yeah, he sometimes had a foul mouth and a rotten attitude. In fact, when he had first started working with Brady, he had been one of THOSE patients. He had been the one Carl dreaded seeing every day at work, the one he'd grumble about to his wife at the dinner table. But Brady had bit by bit started to trust him, and began to let Carl help him. Not that anything by any stretch of the imagination was smooth sailing where Brady Black was concerned, but that kid had such a quick wit and obvious intelligence that it became very apparent there was much more to him than he let on. Carl also suspected that behind Brady's smart mouth lay a world of hurt that went far beyond his frustration with his spinal cord injury. He just needed the right person to bring him out of his depression and anger. And, unfortunately, the recent traumatic turn of events had not helped Brady's state of mind at all.
"Hey, man." Carl said, pushing a wheelchair into Brady's room. He noticed that the dresser was full of fresh flowers, and that many colorful get well cards lined the wall in two neat rows next to Brady's bed. "Ready to get that lazy butt out of bed and do a little bit of work?" He asked, referring to the fact that Brady had hardly been out of bed in the three weeks since the stabbing.
Brady didn't answer his therapist, and instead turned up the volume on the TV. "I'm not in the mood." He growled, and he began flicking through the channels on the television, staring intently at the screen.
Carl sighed, and rolled his eyes in frustration. They had gone through so many scenes just like this right after Brady had been shot, and he knew he had to put an end to this right now. He calmly walked over to the TV and unplugged it.
"What the hell?" Brady demanded, wincing as he sat straight up in bed. "I said I don't want to go to therapy, damn it. Go find someone else to torture."
Carl wordlessly parked the wheelchair next to Brady's bed and set the brakes. "It's your choice, kid," he said quietly, his deep brown eyes caring but firm. "You can do this willingly, like the determined person I know you to be, or you can revert to pouting and I'll just carry you into the damn chair if I have to. What's your pleasure?"
Brady collapsed back against his pillows, his broad chest heaving with anger, his intense blue eyes glaring daggers at the huge gentle man towering over his bed. He knew from personal experience that Carl was a man of his word, and would not hesitate to just dump him into the wheelchair. Frustration simmered in the pit of his stomach, and Brady clenched his fists at how helpless and powerless this made him feel.
Carl's eyes softened as he correctly read Brady's angry scowl. "Look, Brady. You know this wheelchair is not a permanent thing. We have to proceed from here very carefully because of your disability. Remember, you're just beginning to recover from pretty substantial surgery, and if you didn't need to rest your upper body as much as possible, we'd at least have you standing on crutches. But, for now, we'll just put that on hold. Now, let's get you out of bed and into that chair. We have a few tests to run this afternoon, and that should be plenty of activity for you for today."
"Whatever," Brady muttered, and grudgingly allowed Carl to help him into the chair.
Deja vu, Brady thought sardonically an hour later as he once again lay in his bed and stared aimlessly at the 458 1?2 tiles on the ceiling of his room. They'd done tests on his back and legs, and none of it looked good. The unwelcome weight of discouragement hovered very close because he'd lost quite a bit of strength in his right leg, most likely from swelling around his spinal cord from the numerous nasty falls he took that night on the pier. He hadn't felt this bleak since the shooting, he thought. The dark heavy cloud of depression seemed to cover him, smothering all that might have been good about his life. Ah, things that were good in life. Like the most amazing pair of cinnamon brown eyes that could read right into his soul. Her smile, soft and sexy--just thinking of it made his heart pound. How her long brown hair would tickle her slender waist...get a grip, Black, he chastised himself. That chapter of your life is over forever. You made damn sure of that. Yeah. What a hell of a knight in shining armor you are.
Brady shook his head and reached for the remote, intending on checking out the latest sports news, when his door once again cracked open, and Belle quietly walked in. Or at least he thought it was Belle. The remote slipped through his long fingers and clattered noisily onto the tile floor, but Brady didn't notice. What he did notice was Belle's eyes, and how bleak, dull, flat and lifeless they seemed. He pushed himself up to a sitting position and took a second good look at his little sister. She wore his favorite black baseball cap, and he could barely see a few escaped strands of her blonde hair poking from underneath its cupped bill. She was practically swimming in one of his gray pocket T-shirts and knit shorts that he used to wear to run in. What the HELL was going on with Tink? She never left her room without make-up on, much less the house. Her pale face looked wan in the bright artificial light of his room, and he could see clearly the large dark circles that had formed underneath her eyes. He also knew how she lived to shop for all the latest styles, and he highly doubted wearing clothes 4 sizes too big was the latest fashion rage at Salem High.
"Tink?" He asked softly as she silently crossed the room to his bed, picked up the remote, and laid it on his bed tray. She offered him a shaky smile, and Brady didn't miss the dewy tears forming in her wide blue eyes. Belle stood stiffly by his bed and looked towards him, but not at him. Alarm bells sounded inside of Brady, and he patted the bed next to him. "Have a seat, sis." He suggested, and Belle shook her head.
"No, thanks." She said flatly. "I'm OK here."
"All right," Brady said slowly, wondering where her strange behavior was coming from.
Belle crossed her arms tightly over her chest and allowed her eyes to wander around her brother's hospital room. It was much the same scene they had all endured last fall, down to the flowers she had sent to him every day to cheer him up. This was harder than she thought it would be. She desperately wished she were back in the safety of her room where she didn't have to face anyone. What did Brady think of her now? Did he look at her differently after all that had happened, she wondered? Or did he still think of her as his baby sister whose biggest problem was trying to figure out what dress to wear to the Last Blast dance. Come on, Belle, she thought. This is Brady here. He loves you, remember? Say something, anything!!
"Brady, I--" She bit her lower lip, trying desperately not to cry. "I'm so glad you're OK!"
Brady gazed at her with such unconditional, d
eep love, and that was all it took. Belle burst into tears and leaned down to hug her brother. He gently patted her back as she sobbed.
"It's OK," he whispered, trying not to cry himself. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you." He smiled at Belle, his icy blue eyes warming affectionately as she sat down next to him on the bed. He gently wiped the tears from her cheeks and cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at her.
"So," He said casually. "Care to explain this latest fashion trend you've got going on?"
Belle dropped her gaze from his. She self-consciously tugged at the T-shirt she wore and sniffled. "No."
Brady was actually speechless for a moment. He closed his eyes, brows creased, trying to find some sort of rational explanation for his sister's actions. "OK. Let's examine the facts, shall we?" He questioned her, not failing to notice the slight trembling of her clasped fingers folded in her lap. "Since you're wearing MY clothes, which, by the way, are way too big for you, perhaps you could, you know, give me a hint?"
Belle jumped off of the bed and shoved the bed tray into the wall, sending the remote and a glass of water flying to the ground. She whirled on him and glared at him, her cheeks bright red with anger. "Do you have ANY idea what it took for me to come here to see you, how hard it was, and all you care about is that I'm wearing your clothes? You're not the only one who had a crappy night at the pier, you know." She angrily swiped a few escaped tears away and walked over to the narrow window, her back stiffly facing him.
Brady blinked at his sister's retreating back, and his thoughts whirled a thousand miles a minute. The hair pricked on the back of his neck in alarm, and his mouth began to feel dry and full of cotton. Obviously, he was missing out on something important. He felt as if he were in a raging river, desperately trying to grab onto that one log that was always just out of his reach.
"All right, Belle." Brady said softly. "I'm sorry. What do you mean 'I wasn't the only one who had a crappy night at the pier'?"
Belle stood silently in front of the window, staring at all of the cars littered about the parking lot 10 floors below, the warm afternoon sun sparkling off of their colored tops. Amazing, she thought, how the brightly colored quilt of cars down there seemed to mock her despair in their cheerful rainbow of color. She couldn't understand what Brady's problem was. Yes, he'd been in the hospital, and was badly hurt. But she never would have thought he would let anything stop him from knowing for himself if she was OK after what happened to her that night at the pier. He'd never called home, never asked their father about her as far as she knew, and that really hurt. He was the one person she wanted to pour her heart out to, the one person that had been through part of that awful night with her, and he didn't even seem to care.
"Are you that dense?" She demanded, turning around to face him, her eyes bright with tears. "Do I have to spell it out for you? And here I always thought you were such a smart guy. How would you feel if you were held hostage all night by some monster who you thought had just killed your brother in front of your eyes?" Belle stalked over to his bed, the anger she'd been holding towards him spilling over with her words. She yanked his cap off of her head and threw it down next to him on the bed, glaring at him as she ranted. "He shoved me into a closet and left me there for hours. For hours! I had no idea where I was, I thought you were dead, I didn't know if I was going to die, and all I had was time to think about every awful thing that could happen to me...and you!!! He was so awful, and terrible, with his hands on me, and his cold eyes and his stale breath, and he...he..." Belle covered her face with her hands and sank down onto the bed next to her brother.
Brady could only stare incredulously at his little sister. She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face into her arms. His heart shattered into a thousand pieces as he finally realized that Belle had not managed to get away from that bastard, but had gone through much much more than he had. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said hoarsely, "Oh, God, Belle. He held you hostage? Dad told me that you were safe, and I didn't know. Oh, my God. I didn't know. I swear I didn't know." He looked up at the ceiling, trying to blink back tears.
Belle looked up and stared at Brady in surprise. He hadn't known what had happened to her! The shock and horror on his face told her that he had had no idea what she had gone through, and his eyes deepened to azure blue with pain for her. She grabbed his hat, stuffed it back onto her head, and really studied her brother for the first time since she'd come into his room. His face was thinner, pale and drawn with pain and exhaustion. White gauze peeked out from beneath the short sleeves of his hospital gown, covering the stitched up slash wounds on his chest and shoulders. She also noticed that his crutches were nowhere to be found, and instead a wheelchair was parked next to his bed. The adrenaline began pumping through her body as she began to imagine what sort of reasons he would once again need a wheelchair. Oh, no, she thought. This was not good, not good at all.
"Brady," she began hesitantly, not knowing where to begin. He was extremely sensitive about his disability, even with her.
"Did he hurt you?" Brady asked, his deep voice simmering with barely concealed rage.
"Answer me, damn it!" He demanded, his eyes mirroring the fear that was beginning to overwhelm his sense of reason.
Belle jumped at his harsh tone of voice, and that was all the answer Brady needed. She didn't know how to answer him, because he obviously needed rest, not anxiety over her. "I think I shouldn't have come," she whispered, her blue eyes full of emotion.
Brady shook his head and stared at Belle's wounded eyes. He clenched his fist under the covers, trying to get a grip on the intense anger building inside. "He hurt you, didn't he?"
Oh, Tink, I'm sorry, he thought. Sorry for what hell you went through. Sorry. Sorry I couldn't do a damn thing to save you...
The depression that he had been trying to fight off enveloped him like wildfire. This was all because of him, he thought bleakly. If he had been like he was...before...that sick bastard wouldn't have gotten past putting a hand on Belle. Because he was crippled, he hadn't been able to save his baby sister. He'd been helpless, useless against that man. He'd put her through hell, and that bastard had taken away that spark, that spirit that made Belle so special, so unique. He ran his hand through his hair and steeled himself to do the right thing. He loved his sister, and he'd make sure she never was hurt again because of him. Ever.
"Belle," He said harshly, trying to mask the emotion in his voice. "I want you to listen to me. I'm trying to recover here, and your drama is not helping. Why don't you go home and cry to Marlena and leave me in peace. I don't need this right now."
Belle stared at him, her eyes wide with hurt. Brady was a lot of things, but he was never nasty to her. "Brady," she said softly, her voice trembling. "It's me. Belle. I'm here for you, don't you understand?"
Brady sighed in frustration and glared at Belle. "Listen to me," he snarled. "Did I ask you to be here for me? No!!! This isn't some episode of "Sweet Valley High" where all of the world's problems are solved in 30 minutes or less. You have to learn to grow up! Not everything is fair in this world, and it's about time you figured that one out. I don't want you here. I don't need you to hold my hand, and I don't want your pity. Go HOME. GO!!!!"
Any color left in Belle's face flooded into white, and she shakily stood up. She backed away from Brady's bed, her blue eyes brimming with disbelief and pain. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she turned and ran out of Brady's room, blinded by the tears flooding down her cheeks.
Brady watched Belle stumble out of his room, and he'd never felt so worthless in his life. How could you do that to the one person in this world that loves you for who you are, he asked himself harshly. And then he remembered her haunted eyes as she told him how she'd been held hostage that night, how that monster's hands had been on her.... I'm sorry I had to hurt you, Tink, he thought. Sorrier than you'll ever know or believe. But I'm poison to you. You did the right thing, Brady, he tried to convince himself. You have to protect her the only way that you can. Yeah, right! Another voice sneered. And that's why you'll never forget the betrayal in her eyes as she looked at you as long as you live. And that's why the tear that slipped down his cheek meant nothing to him at all.
Belle didn't remember how she got home. It was all in a fuzzy pain-filled haze. The next thing she knew, she stood in the elevator, sagging against the wall, riding it up to the penthouse. She barely noticed the tiny ding of the bell as the elevator passed each floor. Finally, she reached the top floor, and stepped out into the hallway in a daze, heading for the safe sanctity of home. All she wanted to do was crawl into bed and never come out again.
"Hey, Perfect Girl. Don't you think it's about time we talked?" Shawn sat on the floor outside the penthouse door, muscular legs crossed, his chestnut hair grazing his forehead in unruly waves. Belle stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. Oh, no, she thought. I have to get out of this. I have to get him to leave me alone.
Belle eyed Shawn warily, unconsciously tugging on the tail of her oversized gray T-shirt. It broke Shawn’s heart, to see her in the clothes that were so big they barely stayed on her slender frame, and to see how remote her expression was. Belle, HIS Belle was so full of spirit and fire, and the girl that stood before him with the hauntingly frail grip on life was only a shell, a carbon copy of her former self.
Ever since that horrible night that she had been abducted, Shawn had called her every day. He had sometimes left 2 or 3 messages every day for the first week until it had become increasingly obvious that Belle was not going to return his calls. He’d felt defeated, sad, and depressed. He wanted to help her, to show her that he still cared for her, but she apparently wouldn’t see or talk to him or any of her friends. He had a pretty good idea of what she had experienced, and didn’t blame her for being traumatized. Hell, HE’D been traumatized just seeing that man’s grip on Belle, with the long, razor sharp blade of that hunting knife pressed against the soft, creamy skin of her throat. It had taken every bit of will power he had (and some he didn’t know he had) to not run straight to the penthouse and see for himself that she was ok. His mother, he grudgingly admitted, was right. Belle needed space, and lots of it. She needed time to begin to sort out the myriad of emotions caused by the trauma of that terrible night. But, damn it, 3 weeks was long enough to go without any word from his Perfect Girl.
So, there he sat for the past hour, in front of the door to the Blacks’ home, waiting for someone to arrive. He didn’t care who it was, because there was no way he was going to leave. Admittedly, he HAD been a little nervous that John might be the first one home, because it might have been difficult to convince Belle’s protective father that he needed to see his daughter. Fortunately, Belle was the first one home, but Shawn was not prepared for the virtual stranger that stood shaking in front of him. She reminded him of a wounded, frightened doe, her big blue eyes searching for any means of escape, and he very slowly stood up, trying not to startle Belle.
“Hey,” he said softly, entreating her with warm liquid brown eyes and a crooked little half-smile. “It’s me, remember? You know, your old buddy Shawn.”
Belle barely heard his words through the pounding of her heart. She blinked at him, knowing on some level that Shawn would never hurt her. But then, she’d KNOWN that Brady wouldn’t hurt her, either, and look what had happened. She busied herself by searching through her wad of keys for her house key. Her hands wouldn’t stop trembling, and she lost her grip on the keys. She watched them tumble to the carpeted floor of the hallway as they landed with a dull thud. “Oh!” She said, and bent down to retrieve her keys.
Shawn bent down as well, and as he reached to grab the keys for her, his hand brushed lightly against her knuckles, sending a jolt down her spine. She jumped back and snatched her hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She cried, and hugged herself tightly, trying to keep all of the pain and anger she felt at bay. She stared at the ground, afraid to meet Shawn’s worried gaze.
“Hey,” he said softly. He schooled his face into a neutral expression, wanting to hide from her how much this was tearing him apart. “Look at me, Belle.”
She slowly raised her head and looked at him with such utter despair that he had to literally chew on the inside of his mouth to keep from going to her and wrapping her in an embrace that would never let her go.
Shawn raised his hands, palms facing her, in front of him so that she could see them. “I’m only trying to pick up your keys for you, Belle. I won’t hurt you.” Shawn kept his voice low and even as he bent down to retrieve Belle’s keys. “Your hands are shaking. Why don’t you let me open the door for you?” he asked kindly as Belle stood silently next to the wall, her arms still tightly crossed. She nodded, and he walked over to the door and opened it. Belle darted inside the penthouse, and Shawn slowly followed her in the door.
She curled up on one of the couches, and reached up to fiddle with the bill of Brady’s baseball cap. Shawn stood uncertainly in the doorway, not sure whether or not he should actually go inside. He wasn’t completely sure Belle fully realized that it was him that stood there. “Belle?” he asked, and she turned slightly so that she could see him. He studied her face, and, to him, she looked beautiful. She wore no make-up, emphasizing her pale skin, her hair was shoved into the cap on her head, and he could only see a few tangled strands that had escaped its black confines. Her cheeks bore the telltale tracks of recent tears, and her eyes were red and puffy from crying. But she was his Belle, and she was beautiful.
“Belle, I’m going to come in and sit down, ok?” He asked, and after a slight pause, she nodded. She hugged her knees to her chest and watched him as he crossed the room and took a seat on the couch opposite hers. He sighed, trying to decide where to begin. “I wanted to talk,” he finally said, his chocolate eyes full of warmth and caring.
Belle sighed, wanting to believe he actually still cared for her. “I don’t want to talk,” she answered dully. “Please leave.”
Shawn knew she’d been through hell, but why did she have to be so damn stubborn? Woah, Shawn, he thought. Tread easily here. He counted to 10 before answering. “I will leave, but first I have a few things I want to say to you.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. She waited as Shawn propped his chin on his hands, and he smiled gently at her, making her heart pound. Stop it, Belle! She chided herself. You’re only asking to get hurt, feeling that way about him. He doesn’t know the truth, and, she thought, he never will. She dropped her gaze from his and stared intently at the beige carpet.
“I know you went through hell that night, Belle, and I won’t lie to you. I can’t totally understand all that you’re going through right now. But you’re my best friend, and I care about you. I want to help you. Help you through this.” He paused, seeing if she even heard what he was saying. He thought he saw a slight glint of hope in her eyes, so he continued. “But I can’t help you if you won’t even talk to me.”
Belle shook her head. “Please, Shawn,” she whispered, her voice raw with emotion. “Don’t ask me to do this. Not now. I--I can’t.”
Shawn looked at her thoughtfully. He had to get through to her. It broke his heart to know that she had been hurt so badly that she was terrified just to be in the same room with him, and he had to help her rebuild her trust. And that meant he had to put all of his feelings for her aside. Right now she needed him to be her friend, no strings attached. And that’s what he’d do for her. He would wait as long as it took to have his Perfect Girl back.
“I’m not asking you to do anything, Belle,” he answered carefully. “That is, I’m not asking you to do anything except maybe to stop hiding from the world a little.” He was pleased to see that she stopped staring at the floor and looked up at his words. “You’ve got so many people that love you and care about you. Your friends...Meems, Chloe, Phil, all of them are worried, and want to help. You have a wonderful family that loves you, and a big brother that would move mountains if he could to make your pain go away.”
At Shawn’s mention of Brady, a small tear slid down Belle’s cheek. “My big brother wants nothing to do with me,” she said heartbrokenly.
Ironically, even though Belle was obviously upset about Brady, Shawn wanted to jump up and down with joy because she was actually participating in a conversation with him.
“I’m sure that’s not true!” Shawn argued, and he clasped his hands under his chin as he spoke. “Brady may be a major pain in the ass, but he adores you, Belle.”
Belle shook her head, swiping yet another tear away in annoyance. Come on, Belle, she thought. You’ve cried way too many tears as it is. Enough is enough! Get a backbone and stop being such a baby. “No, he doesn’t want me anywhere near him. He told me so. He was so cold, so ruthless, and he meant every word he said.” She stared dully at Shawn, the sparkle in her eyes replaced by deep pain as she remembered how nasty Brady had been to her.
Shawn felt a surge of white-hot anger, and he ground his teeth furiously. Damn!! Yes Brady was his cousin, and was in the hospital. And, yes, Brady had had the kind of year that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. But right now he wanted to kill him. Throttle him with his bare hands for hurting Belle. Hadn’t Belle been through enough without adding all of this to her already full plate? He didn’t know what exactly had been said between brother and sister, but he knew enough to see that Brady had hurt Belle deeply when she needed her brother’s unconditional love and support.
Shawn jumped up and began pacing back and forth in front of the French doors that led to the balcony. Belle couldn’t help but notice how his light blue T-shirt contrasted nicely against his dark hair, how it hugged his broad shoulders. She mentally shook herself, knowing that that part of her life would forever be over. Never again would he be hers, and she had to face that. Shawn angrily swiped his hand through his thick chestnut hair, unaware that he had just unleashed that unruly wave of hair into his eyes that Belle found so appealing.
“Belle, I don’t know what the hell Brady’s problem is. I don’t know why he can’t get out of this “poor me” state if that’s what it is long enough to see that he needs to be there for you. But you’ll get through this.” He stopped pacing and turned to study her. Did he actually see a slight spark of interest in her eyes? Encouraged, he sat down once again on the couch and smiled ruefully at her. “I’ll get you through this. And,” he muttered, rolling his eyes, “hopefully I won’t have to kill your brother in order to do it. But I want you to listen to me. He leaned forward so that he was closer to her. “I am NOT going anywhere, no matter what you say. I am not here to judge you, or to hurt you.”
He desperately wanted to take her small hands in his, to reassure her that he did mean every word he said. But, he knew that it was too soon for that. Instead, he offered her another dazzling smile. “I’m just here for you.” He said simply. “And I’m so sorry that you had to go through what you did.”
Belle felt as if she were in a cage, locked away from the world. Why couldn’t she just jump into his arms and let him know how very much his beautiful heartfelt words meant to her? Instead, all she could do was stare at him wordlessly as he poured his heart out to her. She just couldn’t make the words come. She couldn’t speak, and she could barely force herself to meet his sweet caring gaze. She nodded again and watched as he stood and walked over to her. He gently sat next to her on the couch, careful to move slowly enough so that he didn’t frighten her. He reached into his jeans pocket and removed a small package wrapped in a plain piece of lined notebook paper.
He smiled, slightly embarrassed at her questioning glance as she took the little package from him. “I’m a guy. We’re not supposed to know how to wrap presents. Anyway, I kinda thought it would be something you’d like.” He reached out and softly touched her shoulder, and Belle flinched reflexively. Shawn quickly looked away, wanting to hide from her how much her gesture hurt. He had to remind himself that she was in pain right now, and that she wasn’t herself. He smiled at her and stood, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Well, I guess I’d better go. Make sure you open that, ok?”
Belle watched as he quickly walked to the door, opened it, and with a sad smile, disappeared out into the hallway, closing the door behind him with a soft click. She returned her attention to the small package sitting on her lap. She turned it over, noting how Shawn had tied it together with a bow using kite string. She pulled the bow and watched as the thin string slid loose and fell to the floor. As she carefully unwrapped the paper, her heart stopped at what lay underneath all of the folds of paper.
Inside, Shawn had written a short note to her:
“Belle, This has gotten me through many tough times. JT’s illness, my mom’s troubles, you name it. I figured since it helped me that it would help you. Please accept this and wear it. I know it will make you feel better. Shawn.”
Belle looked through tears in her eyes as she stared at the object in the package. Shawn’s gold cross and chain lay in a small pile of gold, sparkling against the stark white paper. She picked up the chain, watching as the cross swung gently back and forth, catching reflections of color from around the room. Shawn never took off his cross, she marveled. He had once told her he would never remove it, no matter the circumstance. She quickly undid the clasp and hung the chain around her neck, fingering the smooth surface of the cross as it hung over her chest. She held it up once more to admire it, not so much for its simplistic beauty, but for the beauty of the gesture that lay behind it.
“Thank you, Shawn,” she whispered, rubbing the cross against her cheek. “Thank you.”