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23.12.2018

FOX SPENT A LONG TIME READING, MAKING HIS own notes, checking back over specific passages Quinn had marked in the journal.

He juggled and mulled, and read more.

No guardian ever had succeeded in destroying the Dark. Some gave their lives in the attempt. Giles prepared to give his, as no other had before him.

No precedent for whatever mumbo-jumbo Dent had used that night in the woods, Fox considered. Which meant he couldn't have been sure it would work. But he was willing to risk his life, his existence. Hell of a gamble, even considering he'd sent Ann, and the lives in her, to safety first.

He has gone beyond what has been done, what was deemed could be done. The blood of the innocent is shed, and so it will be, my love believes, dark against dark. And it will be my love who pays the price for this sin. It will be blood and fire, and it will be sacrifice and loss. Death on death before there is life, before there is hope.

Ritual magic, Fox decided, and used laundry and housekeeping chores as he had juggling. Blood magic. He glanced at the scar on his wrist. Then, and three hundred years later. Blood and fire at the Pagan Stone in Dent's time, and blood, in a boyhood ritual in theirs. A campfire, the words he and Cal and Gage had written down to say together when Cal made the cuts.

Young boys-the blood of the innocent.

He toyed with various ideas and strategies as he thought of them. He climbed into bed late, on righteously clean sheets, to let himself sleep on it.

It came to him in the morning, while he was shaving. He hated shaving, and as he did many mornings, considered growing a beard. But every time he attempted one, it itched, and it looked stupid. Talk about pagan rituals, he mused as he drew blade through lather and over skin. Every freaking morning unless a guy wanted the hairy face, he had to scrape some sharp implement over his throat until-shit.

He nicked himself, as he nearly always did, pressed a finger to the wound that would close again almost before it bled. The sting came and went, and still he scowled in disgust at his blood-smeared fingertip.

Then stared.

Life and death, he thought. Blood was life, blood was death.

Dull horror embedded in his brain, in his heart. Had to be wrong, he told himself. Yet it made terrible sense. It was a hell of a strategy, if you're willing to shed innocent blood.

What did it mean? he asked himself. What did it make Dent, if this had been his sacrifice?

What did it make all of them?

He twisted and turned it in his head as he made himself finish shaving, as he dressed and readied for the workday. He had the Town Council breakfast meeting, and as town lawyer, he couldn't get out of it. Probably for the best, he decided as he grabbed his jacket, his briefcase. It was probably best to let this stew. Probably best to wait, think, before he broached the idea to the others. Even to Cal and Gage.

He ordered himself to put his head into the meeting, and though painting Town Hall and new plantings at the Square weren't high on his current list of priorities, he thought he'd done a good job of it.

But Cal was on him the minute they walked out of Ma's. "What's going on?"

"I think Town Hall needs a new coat of paint, and damn the expense."

"Cut it out. You left half your breakfast on your plate. When you don't eat, something's up."

"I'm working on something, but I need to fine-tune it, to look at it some more before I talk about it. Plus, Sage is in town. I'm meeting her and the family for lunch at Sparrow's, ergo, my appetite's already dead."

"Walk up to the center with me, run it by me."

"Not now. I've got stuff anyway. I've got to digest this, which is an easier proposition than the lentils I'll probably get stuck with at lunch. We'll roll it over tonight."

"All right. You know where I am if you want to roll it sooner."

They separated. Fox pulled out his cell phone to contact Shelley. There, at least, he'd worked out his approach. As he talked to her about coming into the office, listened to her latest idea of retribution on Block, Derrick Napper passed by in his cruiser. Napper slowed, grinned, and lifted his middle finger from the steering wheel.

Fox thought, Asshole, and kept walking. He closed the phone as he reached his office door.

"Morning, Mrs. H."

"Good morning. How was the meeting?"

"I suggested the image of a naked Jessica Simpson as the new town symbol. It's currently under consideration."

"That ought to get the Hollow some attention. I'm only in for an hour this morning. I called Layla, and she's fine coming in early."

"Oh."

"I have an appointment with our real estate agent. We sold the house."

"You-when?"

"Saturday. A lot to do," she said briskly. "You'll handle the settlement for us, won't you?"

"Sure, of course." Too fast, he thought. This was happening too fast.

"Fox, I won't be coming in after today. Layla can handle everything now."

"But-" But what, he thought. He'd known this was coming.

"We've decided to drive out to Minneapolis, and take our time. We've got most everything packed up, and ready to ship out. Our girl's found a condo she thinks we'll like, only a few miles from her. I've drawn up a limited power of attorney for you, so you can handle the settlement. We won't be here for it."

"I'll look it over. I have to run upstairs. I'll be back in a minute."

"Your first appointment's in fifteen minutes," she called after him.

"I'll be back in one."

He was true to his word, and walked straight to her desk. He put a wrapped box in front of her. "It's not a going-away present. I'm too mad at you for leaving me to give you a present for that. It's for everything else."

"Well." She sniffled a little as she unwrapped the box, and made him smile at the way she preserved the paper, folded it neatly before opening the lid.

They were pearls, as dignified and traditional as she was. The clasp was fashioned as a jeweled bouquet of roses. "I know how you are about flowers," he began when she said nothing. "So these caught my eye."

"They're absolutely beautiful. Absolutely-" Her voice cracked. "They're too expensive."

"I'm still the boss around here." He took them out, put them around her neck himself. "And you're part of the reason I can afford them." His credit card had let out a single short scream on being swiped, but the look on her face made it all worthwhile. "They look nice on you, Mrs. H."

She brushed her fingertips over the strand. "I'm so proud of you." Rising, she put her arms around him. "You're such a good boy. I'll think of you. I'll pray for you." She sighed, stepped back. "And I'll miss you. Thank you, Fox."

"Go ahead. You know you want to."

She managed a watery laugh and rushed to a decorative wall mirror. "Oh my goodness! I feel like a queen." In the glass her eyes met his. "Thank you, Fox, for everything."

When the door opened, she bustled back to her desk to log in his first appointment. By the time he escorted the client out again, she was gone.

"Alice said you and she had said your good-byes." Understanding shone in Layla's eyes. "And she showed off her pearls. You did good there. They couldn't have been more perfect."

"Stick around a few years, you may cop some." He rolled his shoulders. "Gotta shake it off, I know. Listen, Shelley's coming in-a quick squeeze-in."

"Are you going to tell her about what happened with Block?"

"Why would I?"

"Why would you?" Layla murmured. "I'll pull her file."

"No, I'm hoping we won't need it. Let me ask you something. If you loved a guy enough to marry him, and he screwed up big time, would that just be it? Say you still love him. One of the reasons you fell in the first place was because he wasn't altogether bright, but pretty affable, and he loved you back. Or would you give him another chance?"

"You want Shelley to give him another chance."

"I'm Shelley's lawyer, so I want what she wants, within reason. Maybe what she wants is marriage counseling."

"You asked her to come in so you can suggest she might want to try counseling." Studying him, Layla nodded slowly. "After he beat the crap out of you?"

"Extenuating circumstances there. She doesn't want the divorce, Layla. She just wants him to feel as crappy as she does and more so. I'm just going to give her another option. The rest is up to her. So, would you give him another chance?"

"I believe in second chances, but it would depend. How much did I love him, how much did I make him pay before giving him that second chance. Both would have to be a lot."

"That's what I figured. Just send her back when she gets here."

Layla sat where she was. She thought of Alice's damp eyes and beautiful pearls. She thought of Fox bleeding in the kitchen, and the pain that leeched every drop of color from his face. She thought of him playing guitar in a noisy bar, and running toward a burning house to save the dogs.

When Shelley came in, eyes glittering with fury and misery, Layla sent her back. She thought a great deal more as she answered the phone, as she finished the Monday morning business Alice had begun.

When Shelley came out again, she was weeping a little, but there was something in her eyes that hadn't been in them when she'd come in. And that was hope.

"I want to ask you something."

Here, Layla thought, we go again. "What is it?"

"Would I be a complete fool if I called this number?" She held out a business card. "If I made an appointment with this marriage counselor Fox said is really good? If I gave that idiot Block a chance and saw if maybe we could fix things between us?"

"I think you'd be a complete fool if you didn't do whatever it takes to get what you want most."

"I don't know why I want that man." Shelley looked down at the card in her hand. "But I guess maybe this could help me find out. Thanks, Layla."

"Good luck, Shelley."

What was the point in being a complete fool? Layla asked herself. Before she bogged down in what-ifs and maybes, she pushed back from her desk and marched straight back to Fox's office.

He hammered at the keyboard, brows knitted. He barely gave her a grunt as she stepped to his desk.

"All right," she said. "I'll sleep with you."

His fingers paused. He cocked his head up, aimed his eyes to hers. "This is excellent news." Swiveling, he faced her more fully. "Right now?"

"This is so easy for you, isn't it?"

"Actually-"

"Just 'sure, let's go.' "

"I feel, under the circumstances, I shouldn't have to point out that yes, I am a guy."

"It's not just that." She threw out her arms as she whirled into a pace. "I bet you were raised to think of sex as a natural act, as a basic form of human expression, even a physical celebration between two consenting adults."

He waited a beat. "Isn't it?"

Stopping, facing him, she made a helpless gesture with her hands. "I was raised to think of it as an enormous and weighty step. One that carries responsibility, that has repercussions. That because sex and intimacy are synonymous, you don't just go around jumping into bed because you want an itch scratched."

"But you're going to sleep with me anyway."

"I said I was, didn't I?"

"Why?"

"Because Shelley's calling a marriage counselor." And now, Layla sighed. "Because you play the damn guitar, and I know without counting that there's another dollar in that stupid jar even though Alice is gone, because you said fuck. Because Cal told Quinn you wouldn't press charges against Block."

"All of those sound like fairly good reasons to be pals," Fox considered. "They don't sound like reasons to have sex."

"I can have any reasons I like to have sex with you," she said, just prissily enough to make him fight off a grin. "Including the fact that you've got a great ass, that you can look at me and make me feel like you've already got your hands on me. And just because I want to. So I'm going to have sex with you."

"As I said, this is excellent news. Hey, Sage, how's it going?"

"Really good. Sorry to interrupt."

With her stomach already sinking to her knees, Layla turned. The woman who stood in the doorway had a big O'Dell grin on her face. Her hair was a short sweep of fiery red around a pretty face made compelling by a pair of golden brown eyes.

"Layla, this is my sister Sage. Sage, Layla."

"Nice to meet you." In snug jeans tucked into stylish boots, Sage stepped forward to offer a hand.

"Yes. Well. I'm just going to go out to reception and beat my head against the wall for a few minutes. Excuse me."

Sage watched her walk away, then turned back to her brother. "Very nice package."

"Cut it out. It's too weird to have you checking out the same woman I am. Besides, you're married."

"Marriage doesn't pluck out the eyes. Hey." She spread her arms.

He rose, walked into them, and banding her with his, lifted her off her feet for a quick swing. "I thought I was meeting you at Sparrow's."

"You are, but I wanted to drop by."

"Where's Paula?"

"She's taking the meeting that gave us the excuse to come East. In D.C. She'll be up later. Let me look at you, Foxy Loxy."

"Looking back at you, Parsley Sage."

"Still enjoying small-town law?"

"Still a lesbian?"

She laughed. "Okay, enough of that. I guess I should come back later, when you're not having sex with your office manager."

"I think that's been postponed due to acute embarrassment."

"I hope I didn't screw it up."

"I'll fix it. Mom said you weren't clear about how long you're staying."

"I guess we weren't. It sort of depends." She blew out a breath. "It sort of depends on you."

"You and Paula want to practice small-town lesbian law, and want to go into partnership with me in the Hollow." He got them a couple of Cokes.

"No. Partnership might be a factor, depending on your definition."

He handed her the Coke. "What's up, Sage?"

"If you're busy, we can talk about this tonight. Maybe have a drink."

She was nervous, Fox noted, and Sage was rarely nervous. "I've got time."

"Well, the thing is, Fox." She tapped her fingers on the can as she wandered around the room. "The thing is, Paula and I have decided to have a baby."

"That's great. That's terrific. How do you guys do that? Do you call Rent-a-Penis? Sperm R Us?"

"Don't be an ass."

"Sorry, there are jokes here waiting to happen."

"Ha ha. We've thought about it a lot, talked it through. We actually think we'll want a couple of kids. And we decided, for the first one, Paula will get pregnant. I'll, you know, take round two."

"You'll be great parents." Reaching out, he gave her hair a quick tug. "The kids'll be lucky to have both of you."

"We want to be. We're sure as hell going to try to be. To take the first step, we need a donor." She turned back, faced him. "We want it to be you."

"Sorry, what? What?" The Coke, fortunately not yet opened, slipped right out of his hands.

"I know it's big, and strange." Smoothly, she bent to retrieve his Coke and hand it to him while he simply goggled at her. "And we won't hold it against you if you say no."

"Why? I mean, lame jokes aside, there are, like banks for this kind of thing. You can make a withdrawal."

"And there are very good places, where donors are very well screened, and you can select specific qualities. That's an option, but far from our first. You and I are the same blood, Fox, the same gene pool. The baby, the baby would be more ours because of that."

"Um, Ridge? He's already proven himself in this department."

"Which is one of the reasons I don't feel right asking him. And, while I love him like crazy, both Paula and I zeroed in on you. Our Ridge is a dreamer, an artist, a beautiful soul. You're a doer, Fox. You're always going to try to do the right thing, but you get things done. And you and I are closer personality-wise, physically, too. Same coloring." She tugged on her hair herself now. "I went red, but under the dye, my hair's the same color as yours."

He was, he realized, still stuck back on the term donor. "I'm a little weirded out here, Sage."

"I bet. I'm going to ask you to think about it. Don't say yes or no yet because it's a lot to think about. After you do, if it's no, we'll understand. I haven't said anything to anyone else in the family, so there's no pressure there."

"Appreciate it. Listen, I'm oddly flattered that you and Paula would, ah… want me to sub for you. I'll think about it."

"Thanks." She pressed her cheek to his. "I'll see you at lunch."

When she left he stared down at the Coke in his hand, then crossed over and put it back in his little fridge. He didn't think he needed any more stimulation. One thing at a time, he decided, and went out to Layla.

"Okay," he said.

"Your sister was very friendly, positively breezy. She behaved as if she hadn't heard me announce I was going to have sex with her brother."

"It's probably that natural act, celebration of human expression thing. And she had stuff on her mind."

"I'm a grown woman. I'm a single, healthy adult." In a gesture that smacked of defiance, she shook back her hair. "So I'm telling myself there's absolutely no cause for me to be embarrassed because… Is something wrong?"

"No. I don't know. It's been a really strange morning. It turns out…" How did he put this? "I told you my sister's gay, right?"

"It was mentioned."

"She and Paula, they've been together some years now. They're good together, really good together. And…" He paced to the window, back. "They want a baby."

"That's nice."

"They want me to provide the Y chromosome."

"Oh. Oh." Layla pursed her lips. "I guess you have had a strange morning. What did you say?"

"I don't remember, exactly, with all the going blind and deaf. I'm supposed to think about it. Which, of course, I'd have a hard time not."

"They both must think a great deal of you. Since you didn't say no, straight off, you must think a great deal of them."

"Right this minute, I can't think at all. Can we close the office and go have sex?"

"No."

"I was afraid of that."

"Your last appointment is at four thirty. We can go have sex after that."

He stared at her. "It continues to be a really strange day."

"Your schedule on this strange day says that I'm to make a conference call for you on the Benedict case. Here's the file."

"Go ahead on that. Do you want to come to lunch with me, over to Sparrow's with the family?"

"Not for a million dollars."

He couldn't blame her, all things considered. Still it was an easy hour for him with his brother and Ridge's wife and little boy, with his sisters, his parents, filling Sparrow's little restaurant.

Layla went to lunch when he returned, and that gave him room to think. He tried not to watch the clock while he worked, but he'd never, at any time in his life, wished quite so much for time to fly.

Naturally, his last client of the day was chatty, and didn't seem the least bit concerned about billable hours, or the fact that it was now ten minutes after five. The price of small-town law, Fox thought as he fought the urge to check his watch, again. People wanted to shoot the breeze, before, during, and after business. Any other time, he'd have been perfectly happy to kick back and talk about preseason baseball, the O's chances this year, and the rookie infielder who showed such potential.

But he had a woman waiting, and his own engine was revving.

He didn't precisely drag his client to the door and give him a boot to the sidewalk for good measure. But he didn't linger.

"I thought he'd never shut up," Fox said as he locked the door behind him. "We're closed. Shut down, don't answer the phone. And come with me."

"Actually, I was thinking maybe we should consider."

"No, no thinking, no considering. Don't make me beg." He solved the matter by grabbing her hand and pulling her toward the stairs. "Marriage counseling, burning buildings, nice ass-in no particular order-just to refresh your memory."

"I haven't forgotten, I just-when did you clean?" she asked when he drew her into the apartment.

"Yesterday. It was an ugly business, but fortuitous."

"In that case I have the name of a cleaning woman, Marcia Biggons."

"I went to school with her sister."

"So I'm told. She'll give you a chance. Call her."

"First thing tomorrow. Now." He leaned in, took her mouth while his hands skimmed down from her shoulders to her wrist. "We're going to have some wine."

Her eyes blinked open. "Wine?"

"I'm going to put on some music, we're going to have some wine. We're going to sit down in my fairly clean living room and relax."

She let out a breathless laugh. "You've just added one to the list of why I'm here. I'd love some wine, thanks."

He opened the bottle of Shiraz a client had given him at Christmas, put on Clapton-it just seemed right-and poured two glasses.

"Your artwork shows off better without the mountain of clutter. Mmm, this is nice," she said after the first sip when he joined her on the couch. "I wasn't sure what I'd get, seeing as you're more of a beer guy."

"I have deep wells."

"Yes, you do." And gorgeous, thick brown hair, wonderful tiger's eyes. "I didn't get a chance to ask if you'd read our notes, or the marked-" She swallowed the rest of the words when his mouth met hers again.

"Here's what we're not going to talk about. Office work and missions from gods. Tell me what you did in New York for fun."

Okay, she thought, small talk would be good. She could talk small with the best of them. "Clubs, because I like music. Galleries because I like art. But my job was fun, too. I guess it's always fun to do what you're good at."

"Your parents owned a dress shop."

"I loved working there, too. Well, playing there when I was a kid. All the colors and textures. I liked putting things together. This jacket with this skirt, this coat with this bag. We thought I'd take over one day, but it just got to be too much for them."

"So you went to New York, left Philly behind."

"I thought I'd go where fashion rules, on this side of the Atlantic anyway." The wine was lovely, just slid over her tongue. "I'd get some polish, some more experience in a more specialized arena, then open my own place."

"In New York?"

"I flirted with that for about five minutes. I was never going to be able to afford the rent in the city. I thought maybe the suburbs, maybe one day. Then one day became next year, and so on. Plus I liked managing the boutique, and there wasn't any risk. I stopped taking risks."

"Until recently."

She met his eyes. "Apparently."

He smiled, topped off their wine. "The Hollow doesn't have a dress shop, or fashion boutique, or whatever you'd call that kind of thing."

"At the moment, I'm gainfully employed and no longer thinking about opening a boutique. My risk quota's been reached."

"What kind of music? Do you like to listen to?" he added when she frowned at him.

"Oh, I'm pretty open there."

He reached down, slipped off her shoes, then brought her feet up into his lap. "How about art?"

"There, too. I think…" Her whole body sighed when he began rubbing the balls of her feet. "Any art, or music, that gives you pleasure, or makes you think-or better makes you wonder; it's-it's what makes us human. The need to create it, to have it."

"I grew up soaked in it, various forms. Nothing was out-of-bounds." His thumb, just rough enough to thrill, ran down her arch, back again. "Anything out-of-bounds for you?"

He wasn't talking about art or music now. Her stomach jittered with lust, fear, anticipation. "I don't know."

"You can tell me if I hit any boundaries." His hand went to work on her calf muscles. "Tell me what you like."

Flustered, she stared.

"That's okay. I'll figure it out. I like the shape of you. The high arch of your feet, the muscles in your calves. They draw my eye especially when you're wearing heels."

"That's the point of heels." Her throat was dry; her pulses skipping.

"I like the line of your neck and shoulders. I'm planning on spending some time on those later. I like your knees, your thighs." His hand slid up slowly, barely touching, then again, just a little higher until he found the lacy top of her stocking. "I like this," he murmured, "this little surprise under a black skirt." He hooked a finger under the top, eased it down.

"Oh, God."

"I plan on going slow." He watched her as he worked the stocking down her leg. "But if you want me to stop-I hope you won't-just say so."

His fingers skimmed over the back of her knee, down her calf, her ankle, until her leg was bare, and her skin humming. "I don't want you to stop."

"Have some more wine," he suggested. "This is going to take a while."