Keep Away

Written by Tey

Written after "Happily Ever After" (Season 2, Episode 20)

Kathleen Eisley packed away all of Charlie's belongings, including the few shirts she had bought him, into a shopping bag. He hadn't really given her anything to keep, save a few flowers when he apologized for scaring her the first time, the night she took too many sleeping pills.

Well, wine would be her comfort this time, she thought as she filled the glass again. If she drank enough, it might drown the pain she felt, the emptiness beginning to carve away at her heart. Before she'd allow that to happen, she wanted a chance to find out the truth for herself. After all, hadn't she invested weeks of her life into this relationship?

Charlie's little black book fell to the table, as if her wishes had been heard, offering evidence she sought. She opened it a few pages and found the desired listing.

Kathleen dialed the number, prepared to let all of her anger out at this Kirsten Bennett, at the audacity the other woman had in wanting her Charlie back. Of course, it wouldn't seem the same to ask the question of an answering machine.

Relieved, as well as upset, Kathleen took her glass of wine to the table, turned on her computer and began her plan. As her carefully chosen words took form on the screen, she wanted to make certain the lesson did not escape the recipient who would read it.

Granted, in the beginning, Kathleen had insisted to Charlie that the relationship didn't exist on equal exchanges. However, when pain entered her side of the picture, an exception to the rule could be made.

As she reread the letter, selecting the best paper to print it on, she acted out the scenario in which she'd break it to him.

The clock chimed midnight before she felt at ease for what she was about to do to him. With everything in place, excluding how she would literally end it, Kathleen enjoyed a peaceful night's sleep, knowing somehow that last line would provide itself.

Charlie Salinger promised Kathleen that he'd be over that night after finishing up at the restaurant. He didn't want either one, the restaurant or the relationship. That didn't stop him from getting involved, though.

He stood at the entrance of her apartment building, glancing at the time, wanting to stall as long as he could. The watch had seen better days, before disaster and disappointment became part of his daily life. Proof of that could be found in the frayed straps or the cracked glass. Sure, the hands were broken as well, but this watch suited him better than anything anyone could have given him did.

Nevertheless, he replaced his own with Kathleen's watch, trying not to be annoyed by the way the strap or the metal cut into his wrist. For an instant, a sickening thought entered Charlie's mind. He dismissed it as quickly as it came, knowing it was the unthinkable sin, the ultimate move for giving up on self, life, and everything.

Maybe his sudden fear came from the fact that he'd found himself in way over his head. Kathleen represented class, intelligence, independence and confidence. In other words, she had everything he lacked. In the pit of his stomach, he knew she wouldn't let him off so easily this time.

Kathleen saw that Charlie kept his eyes towards the floor whenever possible. "One last drink for auld lang syne?" she asked, smiling as if everything was all right.

He shook his head. "I have to meet Kirsten," he said fingers tightening around the bag handle.

"She's out of town," Kathleen said her smile slipping away.

Charlie shifted from one foot to the other. "Kathleen -."

"You want to spare my feelings, I guess. Either that or not tell me what I already know - that I'm no good at dating."

"How many times do I have to say this? Kathleen, this has nothing to do with you. It's me. It's my fault."

She knew he had the last part right. However, she wasn't finished yet.

"I owe you a lot," Charlie continued. "Whatever sort of schedule, or-."

"That's not necessary," she said anticipating the pain he'd soon feel. "Your restaurant won't be there much longer."

She saw the fear etched in his eyes. To watch him in agony more than made up the pain she felt. "Don't expect the lease to be renewed. You have three months, so...."

"Why are you doing this?" he pleaded, tears filling his eyes.

"Charlie," she said, thanking him silently for providing the last line, "this has nothing to do with you." She grunted. "Huh. That sounded so true when you said it."

"You can't be serious, please! Taking the restaurant from me.... God, Kathleen...."

She gave him a sympathetic smile as she dropped an envelope on the chair in front of him. "Just thought you'd like to know what I've sent, certified mail of course, to Joe." Kathleen walked outside to the patio and poured herself a glass of wine. She sat down and watched him through the window.

Kathleen purposely addressed it to Joseph Magnus, the co-owner of the restaurant and had signed it Kathleen V. Eisley, Chairperson of the Eisley Financial Corporation. In essence, it stated factually the steps that would be taken to erase Salingers from its spot, beginning with the termination of the lease.

Charlie crumpled the paper, shaking his head in disbelief. Tears fell freely down his face now, bringing nothing but joy to Kathleen. With any luck, she could make him feel so desperate as to get on his knees and beg for forgiveness.

He stood before her on the patio, shoving his hands, and the paper, into his pockets. "Kathleen, please, stop this. You've every right to be angry with me, so do whatever you want, but not this. Please, not this."

Rather than answering him immediately, she poured some more wine. "How does it make you feel, Charlie?" she asked handing him her glass. "How does it make you feel knowing that something so important to you is about to be taken away?"

"If it was only me you were hurting, I'd say I deserved it. But, this will impact my family, too, Kathleen. The restaurant is much more than a place. It's the last thing we have of our father. The others don't deserve to lose that."

She tipped the glass toward him, wondering if he was aware of his lips covering the lipstick marks she left. "You made me do this. You're the one who was cruel enough to say what you did to me. Words can be daggers. I can only hope you've learned your lesson."

He nodded slowly, like a child understanding why a parent was upset with him. Slowly getting down on his knees, he said, "I know I say things out of fear, things I shouldn't. It's just that.... You deserve every-. "

Kathleen put a finger to his lips. "Can't you see, *you* are everything to me? I don't want you to leave."

She was acutely aware of the seconds ticking by on the watch he wore. Every one sounded like a nail secured into a strongbox or a chisel carving out contracted words on stone.

Charlie kissed her hand before looking up at her. "I won't leave you. Will you forgive me, please?"

The magic words proved to her that all would be right. She loved him and wouldn't treat that so lightly as to let him walk away. Now, he was coming to his senses. "You'll start by taking back those cruel things you said about wanting to break up?" she asked.


"I forgive you."

Julia stood at the office door with two cups of coffee and a bag of pastries.

"Thought I might find you here," she said. "You were out all last night. Something wrong?"

Charlie shook his head. "Too many things on my mind."

"Want to talk about it?" she said setting a pastry in front of him.

Again, he shook his head. "Tell me how things are going between you and Justin."

Ordinarily, Julia would have said no, that everything was fine. Somehow, she knew that she had to tell the truth and that her brother needed to feel needed. "I don't know what's happening, Charlie. Since...." She paused. "Since the miscarriage, this rift has grown between us. He wants to make it better and I know that. But, I don't feel like it. I mean, I want to, but I don't at the same time." She stared at the cup in her hands. "That doesn't make sense, does it?"

"Yes, it does," he told her. "It's where you want to do what's best without unnecessary risks. You want something that at the same time you want to keep away. It's maddening."

"So, am I doing the right thing in keeping Justin at such a close distance?" Julia asked. "How can I guarantee that he won't be mad at me and want to leave me?"

Charlie shrugged his shoulders and said, "I can't answer that. Whatever direction you want this to go is up to you. Do what you feel is best. You and Justin have been friends for some time and I think he'd be there for you for as long as you need him to be." He added, "And you have to ask yourself what you can do to be there for him."

"How? This has been so uneven - him trying to support me, comfort me, and I haven't done a thing for him."

"Invite him over for dinner tonight. You don't have to do anything really, just.... I don't know. I'll even have everything cooked and set. We can waste a few hours just having a bunch of videos playing or something."

Julia smiled. "Promise me you'll make broiled steak with mushrooms and onions."

He smiled back. "Consider it done." Charlie thanked her for the breakfast. "I probably should remember little things like eating, shouldn't I?" he joked.

"That and sleeping," she quipped. "You look terrible, Char. I mean it, you do."

"Just tired, that's all. After this is done, I'll take a long nap and then-."

"Maybe you should take Kathleen up on that Hawaiian vacation." She saw his expression and explained. "Claudia told me all about it. You know, the night of Bai's party. Claudia likes her you know that? I mean, she hasn't quite forgiven you for Kirsten, but...."

Charlie nodded. "Don't blame her. I haven't quite forgiven myself, either, about Kirsten, I mean. With Kathleen-."

"With Kathleen, there's a chance you might be happy. Of course, it's like you said, whatever direction you want...." Julia finished her cup of coffee. "Why don't you invite her over for dinner tonight, too?"

He hesitated. "I don't know, Jule. Hard to say how Bai would react. Or Grandpa Jake."

"Don't worry about them," she said. "Well, I'll pick up the groceries on the way home. Don't stay too long after shift, all right?"

"I won't," he said.

Kathleen walked up behind Charlie when his back was to the door and wrapped her arms around him. He felt as warm as when he slept in her arms the night before. "You're working too hard, you know that?"

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Well, you're beginning to rub off on me habit wise." Charlie turned around and kissed her. "Are you angry with me? For leaving so early this morning, I mean."

She laughed. "Don't be silly, Charlie. It's not as if I get angry with the slightest misstep."

"I know. I just.... Join me for dinner tonight, please? It won't be as glamorous as eating over the sink or anything, but-."

"Enjoy a family dinner? I like that. Promise not to bake a dessert. I'll more than gladly provide it." When she saw that sheepish smile, she knew he knew what she meant.

Things were turning out for the best now that she had him again. As far as she was concerned, the letter she had shown him was a bluff. But, if he drove her to it, the letter, the company and the take away would become a reality.

This was family, Bailey thought as he looked around the table and felt comfortable. Grandpa Jake had agreed to stay with them a little while longer and it felt right. Justin and Julia seemed to be making amends, and Bai could live with that for now.

The one thing he couldn't accept was Kathleen sitting in Kirsten's place. This woman seemed as out of place as.... as a politician who was dead set against having kids.

"So, did I tell you guys I've been accepted to Hampshire State, in Boston?" he announced. "I've applied to some colleges here, too. Should be hearing about them any day now."

Charlie said, "If you were able to get into that school, the others should be easy for you. Way to go, Bai."

Bailey smiled. "Yeah, well I intend to be the first graduate, that's for sure. One of us should have a degree if we're going to keep Dad's business running."

Charlie threw a dinner roll at him. "Dad didn't have a degree. Did that hurt us?"

"Well, it will only be a matter of time before something other than a fire happens to the place," Bailey retorted.

Bailey fixed himself a small breakfast in the kitchen when Kathleen walked in, dressed only in Charlie's robe.

"Mind if ask you something?" Bailey said.

"Not at all," Kathleen said as she helped herself to some coffee.

"What do you see in him? It's not like he has many redeeming qualities or anything. And you two have, like, nothing in common."

She shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe I have a soft spot for the childish kind of guy. He seems to be so strong, yet vulnerable." She chuckled. "He joked how I should let him control my life."

"Charlie? In control?" Bailey asked eyebrows raised.

Kathleen laughed. "I know, I know. Truth is, it's fun being with him. He lets me try things I wouldn't otherwise. There's this uneducated, unrefined roughness to him that's begging to be changed, smoothed. Of course, you probably think I'm out of my mind, don't you."

"No comment," Bailey said, then took Thurber for his walk.

Charlie continued to scrub at his already reddened skin. No matter what he did, it wasn't enough.

"Stop it," he told the reflection in the mirror, before he splashed cold water over his face. He took a deep breath then forced himself to begin the day with a grin.

Charlie watched as Claudia took Owen around to the various dinosaur displays, patiently explaining what each plaque said. It had been a long time since he allowed himself to believe he was on vacation. Who needed Hawaii when the innocence of childhood was rejuvenating enough?

He held Kathleen's hand in his. "Could you be happy with this? A ready made family, I mean?"

She kissed him on the cheek before answering. "I want what you have. I mean, they make you happy, so...."

"So you want to be a part of this circus even after a month?" he asked smiling. "It's a lifetime commitment. Granted, it wasn't exactly optional for me, but, you don't have to force yourself into anything you're uncomfortable with."

She laughed. "Since when was this relationship about forcing the other into doing things? I could learn to really love being part of a family. Especially if it was yours."

He gave her hand a light squeeze at the same time criticizing himself for his unconscious move. Using his siblings to push others away had worked before, with the exception of Kirsten, whom he loved. Now was a dangerous time to test those same waters with Kathleen.

He changed the subject to the upcoming spring break and asked her if there was anything special she wanted to do. When her answer involved his family, he felt as if she placed a second hook into his skin.

Charlie only had himself to blame.

Blame had been such a part of his brother's life Bailey couldn't recall a time when it hadn't existed. Who was the guy kidding in telling them that they were going to Hawaii for vacation? Who was he to think that he'd leave Sarah for something so stupid? However, he went, set on doing everything possible to make things miserable for Charlie.

Another thing Bailey took joy in were the morning conversations he and Kathleen had, before Charlie woke up. In some sort of sadistic way, he loved to find ways to chip away at the so-called bond that threatened to develop.

"So, I've heard all the juicy details by now, right?" he asked her that morning.

She laughed. "I've told you all that's fit to tell. But, it amazes me about Charlie. The way he...."

With each nod accompanying the stories, Bailey added the details to the 'largest book of failures' that had made up Charlie Salinger. Bailey was certain of one thing regarding his own love life - he'd keep the one woman he deserved and never let her go. Thankfully, she already existed for him.

"I wish you'd gone on that tour with us, Bailey. I had a feeling Julia was right about you liking that sort of thing, but, your brother said-."

Bailey quickly held up a hand. "You don't have to remind me of what he said." If anything, the remarks she had shared rang true with the pessimist's voice. Typical paper parent. "Look, I've got things to do to help Sarah set up for the April Fool's Day dance at school, so, I'm outta here."

"Hope your day goes well," she said.

Only if you weren't here when I got back, he said to himself closing the door behind him.

Sharell Reubens elbowed Charlie as he leaned over the bar tallying receipts. "Hey, mister, ya know your button reads 'Happy?'"

He gave her a weak smile. "Yeah, yeah, 'April.' I tell that to 'Fool' all the time."

The moment she saw that far away look in his eyes she slapped him. "Snap out of it, will you?"

"Montgomery sold the building and the new owners don't want to renew our lease." He paused.

"For crying out loud, Chuck, heart attacks aren't what I need right now,"

Sharell said. "Heart-throbs, yes, but...."

"Heart-throbs?" Louis Gonzales repeated as he grabbed a soda from behind the bar. "In that case, I'm your...."

"Fool," Sharell interjected. "Today and everyday, you're our fool. Although, someone may want to wrestle you for the position."

"You get it by default then, boss man. What foolish folly are you aiming for now."

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Buying the building, Louis. Buying the building."

Sharell smiled. "Let's buy it, then."

Charlie laughed for the first time all day. "Did you win the lottery or something, Shar? Or is there something in the books I missed?"

"Hey, we promised we'd do something crazy before we turned thirty, remember? Well, why not let it be this? It would be an investment at least."

Granted, her father always warned her about mixing friends and finances, but if Charlie trusted her and Louis to help him run Salinger's, then the least she could do was trust them to go for this adventure. Besides, knowing these two clowns for some twenty years didn't hurt.

Louis shrugged his shoulders, his usual response to something that failed to rank high on the concern list. "If you can come up with a plan, count me in. Chuck?"

Charlie looked at them for a moment before saying yes.

"That's more like it," Sharell said, already plotting arguments for her family, friends, loan officers. "Mother help us if we can't pull together enough funds."

Kathleen woke up first, knowing she was safe in Charlie's arms. Glancing at the calendar, she noted it was Mother's Day. No big deal, she thought. It wasn't as if she was in a hurry to call her own mother.

True, Charlie had suggested that they drive up to visit her mother this weekend, but Kathleen wasn't in the mood. To go out on a drive today would have meant sharing him with more than just his family.

His family. At last it had seemed that Kathleen had found a place she could call home. So what if there were reminders of others who had loved him? So what if it would take time to erase some of the evidence that slapped her in the face about things she didn't have?

"Honey?" she whispered, combing her fingers through his hair. "Don't you think it's time we packed away a few things?"

He mumbled something in his sleep.

"I'll put the coffee on while you decide what you think we should move, all right?" With that, she slipped out of his arms, got dressed then went downstairs.

"Happy Mother's Day," Claudia said, setting a breakfast of huevos rancheros in front of Kathleen.

She smiled, unfolding the napkin onto her lap. She was surprised to see a handmade card signed by both Claudia and Owen. Kathleen placed a hand over her mouth trying to fight back the tears. In all of her life, the last thing she expected to receive was a card like this.

"I know this might be the last thing you want, but, having you around has been really nice," Claudia said.

Kathleen hugged her. "You don't know how much that means to me, Claudia." Perhaps a chance remained for her to be the mother she wished she had. As far as Kathleen was concerned, her mother was dead to her about the same age Claudia was when her parents were taken from her. That seemed like grounds for a strong bond.

"They're having a Mother/Daughter fashion show at the mall tomorrow. Want to go?" Claudia asked.

"Definitely. We ladies are entitled to treat ourselves, are we not?"

Claudia's smile broadened. "Of course! It would be great just to have a day for two. Three, if Julia wanted to join. Think she might, too."

Kathleen felt herself drawn closer to them increasingly each day. To really make a day of it would seem...perfect. "I think she'd love it."

"They would have loved you," Charlie said, holding Kathleen's hand as they stood in the afternoon breeze, lilies dancing before the headstone.

She stared at the two names, etched in stone before their time. Recalling the photos on the dresser it seemed hard to believe how much she knew about them, knowing she'd never actually talk to them, ever.

In a way, Kathleen felt envious of them. How was it possible, even in their absence, that these two people could provide support for their children? How much love had they showered upon the five of them to carry them through the hard times?

"How often do you guys come out here?" she asked.

"Used to be pretty regular at first," he said. "I don't know. Things came up to where we almost let the visits fade."

She wanted to ask so many more questions, but decided they'd be best unspoken.

"Sometimes, coming out here keeps the fears away," Charlie said. "Silly, I suppose, but, it's as if I can still hear them when I need them most."

"It must be wonderful," she said, "knowing you're never really alone."

Charlie turned to face her. "Hey," he said, "you're not alone, either. I mean, you don't think that you're-."

Kathleen smiled. "Of course not. It's just...." How could she say it? 'I hate your parents because they weren't mine?' 'I'd rather have met your mother than have you meet mine?' 'I want to know love the way you knew it, your family knew it?'

"It's getting chilly out and I promised Claudia I'd give her a make-over," she said.

When she had finished tucking Claudia into bed, Kathleen walked into their room and found Charlie waiting up for her.

"You should be sleeping. You have a long day tomorrow and-."

He reached out to her. "That's tomorrow. I'd rather savor the present."

Kathleen sat down beside him and read the book he had in his hands. Dickenson was her favorite poet. She read one of the poems aloud. "Amazing, what words can do, isn't it? Sometimes, the carefully chosen ones could create pictures more elegantly than an artist or a photographer could. Don't you think so?"

Charlie cast a glance toward one of the framed photos of his parents. "True. However, there are some moments where words couldn't even come close."

Kathleen bit the inside of her cheek. She had managed to have most of the photos placed elsewhere. However, leave it to the remaining one to bother her still. Even if she were to put it on the opposite side of the desk, truly in the corner of the room, he'd be drawn to it and it would haunt her, remind her.

"I should get your clothes ready to go," she said, walking over to the closet.

"You don't have to do that," he said, trying to keep her hand in his.

She rummaged through the shirts without really looking at them. Along with his belts and ties, she knew his selection by heart, knew which items would be worn with which. It would only be a matter of time before she wouldn't have to look at his leather jacket.

"Consider it a trade for trade. Maybe you want to pick out my outfit."

He joined her, and focused on the other half of the closet. Of all the dresses and skirts, blazers and jackets, she saw he didn't find one he liked. From behind the bedroom door, he took down a garment bag and handed it to her.

She gasped when she saw the beautiful black gown she'd only laid eyes upon yesterday. "Charlie! How did you-?"

"Julia told me how much you admired this. We all agreed you're worth it."

Kathleen hugged him tightly. "You're such a sweetheart! I couldn't possibly put it in the closet. It might get wrinkled."

Charlie reached toward the back of the closet on his side and took out a few flannel shirts. "If that doesn't help...."
"This should help."

Julia watched as Justin reworked some of the figures on paper. Despite her worries, he had remained by her side. It took her a while, but as she listened to him more, she found out they did have the same feelings about some things.

"You really have nothing to worry about, Jule. Even if you don't get that scholarship to Stanford, which I doubt will happen, you could get away with at least a year and a half without working."

"I just don't want Charlie to do something stupid like sell Mom's piano or put another mortgage on the house. I mean, he's already talking about re-examining his savings and life insurance policies to prepare for us and Claudia and Owen."

Justin squeezed her hand. "We still have another year before we're kicked out of the doors of Grant High for good."

She laughed. "Are you sure we can't arrange it to happen sooner?"

"I'd still get my diploma, but I don't know about you." He pulled out a few more brochures from his backpack. "Why not aim for Yale or Harvard? Heck, let's aim for Oxford, too." He switched over to an English accent and added; "Jolly ole England's nice this time of year."

This time, tears came with her laughter. She hadn't felt this good since she heard the cassette of her mother's laughter over a year ago. Her mind had already been made up, wherever Justin went, she'd go, too. "Whatever applications you have in there, you better have double, mister."

"How do you think the others would react if we did go away?" he asked.

Julia hadn't thought about how her departure would effect them. All she knew was, in a few months, Bailey would be gone. He'd no longer be close by for her to bother, or talk to. Would Claudia be mad at her? Would Charlie approve? "Let's not talk about that until we have to, all right?"

"There's nothing to talk about, Jake, all right?"

Jacob Gordon followed him into the other room just the same. He overheard enough of last night's phone conversation to know there was something wrong. "Look, if you're in some kind of trouble, then-."

"I'm not in trouble, Jake. Honest." Charlie shook his head as he began throwing dinner together, literally. "Why is it everyone in this family thinks I'm going to fail?"

Jake hadn't expected that. "Did I say you'd fail? I'm just sitting over here offering any assistance I can give. Is that a crime?"

When Charlie didn't answer, Jake continued. "As far as I'm concerned, you're a good parent. Your job is going well and there aren't any flaws in your relationship with Ms. Eisley. How are you failing?"

Before Charlie could answer, Claudia walked into the room with Owen in her arms. "New shirt, Charlie? Almost as nice as your last one."

"What? Yeah. Look-."

"When's dinner going to be ready? It's easier for me to practice on a full stomach than worry about Ross possibly hearing any hunger pangs."

"Ten more minutes, Claude. Want to set the table, please?"

She nodded, stirring the pot before putting Owen down. "You're using Kathleen's recipe, right?" He shook his head. "You should. No offense, but it tastes better than yours."

Jake fought a smile as the remark hit his grandson hard. Personally, he preferred Charlie's - less spicy. Then again, it would only be a matter of time before Kathleen's style would go beyond culinary tastes. "I'm going to be out of town for a few days to visit Lauren. I promised her I'd spend Father's Day with her. You understand, right?"

"Of course," Charlie said.

After dinner, Charlie knocked on Jake's door just as the older man was finishing a phone call. "About earlier...."

Jake held up a hand. "No need to explain. I hear things and blow them out of proportion sometimes. Sharell called here a few times leaving messages about paperwork, applications, etc. Are you two getting ready to start a business or something? If so, I'd like to help out."

Charlie leaned against the doorframe. "It's nothing for you to worry about, really. This is something I'm doing on my own and-."

"Ever heard of silent partners? Now, there isn't much, but, I could give you-."

"No, Jake. Whatever you're planning on giving me might be taken away from Bailey. He deserves to get away from this and start fresh. I won't do anything to jeopardize that. And Julia.... She starts in less than a year, too, and I want to be ready for her. Four years after that, then it's Claudia's turn."

"When is it Charlie's turn?"

He ignored the question. "What I wanted to say was, I hadn't meant to snap back at you. I'm trying to make all these changes in my life, correcting whatever I can, and, it seems there are more flaws in the tapestry than I first thought."

"Careful how you untangle that, Charlie. You might pull the one thread that makes all the difference."

"'What difference does it make?'" Kathleen threw her hands in the air, mimicking Charlie's question. "'What difference does it make?' I had those made especially for you and now-."

"I hadn't meant it like that, I swear. I just.... Fine, I'll wear the cuff links and the blazer." He fumbled with the gold links, dropping one on the floor.

He and Kathleen reached for it at the same time, almost bumping heads. "Honestly, Charlie, you should be more careful."

"I didn't mean to be so clumsy," he said. "I just...." He sat down, hands shaking. "I'm not suppose to feel like this, am I? We'll get along, your mother and I, right? We have you in common and...."

Kathleen crossed her arms and looked down on him. "Charlie, if we're late, it's going to be your fault."

Charlie nodded slowly. "I shouldn't keep you waiting, I'm sorry." With that, Charlie closed the bathroom door to finish getting ready.

Kathleen paced back and forth, fidgeting with her pearl necklace. She dug the toe of her heels into the Oriental rug beside the bed before letting out an exasperated sigh. Things had been going so well for them until now it seemed.

It took a few months, but she finally erased almost every sign of Nick and Diana's existence in the room she shared with Charlie. The photo of the couple embracing found its place on the top shelf inside the closed roll-top desk. The rugs had been carefully selected to match the curtains and new bedroom set she had ordered custom-made.

If she wasn't careful about further changes, he might try to pull away and then-.

"Stop it," she said to herself. "Nothing's going to go wrong."

Julia knocked on the door. "Are you all right? I mean, is there anything I can do before Justin and I leave?"

"What? No, I'm fine. You'd think I'm taking Charlie to meet my mother before we go on a first date or something." She laughed nervously. "We've been together six months and all of a sudden it feels like only six days."

"Are you kidding me? There are times you guys act like you've loved each other for at least six years."

Charlie returned. "Ready?"

Julia whistled. "If you were to ask me earlier if I ever thought you'd dress so sharp, I'd say no."

"So, I liked playing it casual. Where's the harm?" Charlie turned to let Kathleen straighten his tie. "I never said I was smart about some things."

Kathleen wrapped her arm around his. "Ah, but, you're learning. Should we get going?"

"C'mon Chuck, you don't have any more excuses," Sharell said after she and Charlie locked the restaurant doors for the night. "If we don't get those papers taken care of, Dad's going to find a few more surprises for us and you know how I feel about surprises."

"Why don't you tell him 'no' next time he tries to-?" he asked.

She laughed. "Like you've ever said, 'No, Reverend Gregory!' Get real Charlie. This is my dad we're talking about. I'm still trying to figure out how much he's thrown into the pot here."

Charlie nodded. "Fine. Let's aim for an early morning appointment, all right? Have him leave a message at your place and you let me know."

Sharell shrugged her shoulders. "Fine. We'll hopefully have this place secured before Bai starts college, yet."

Julia raided Charlie's closet for something to wear for registration day. She frowned when she only found one flannel shirt hanging.

"Something wrong with your closet?" he asked after putting Owen down for a nap. "Didn't you guys go shopping the other day?"

Julia shrugged. "I want something comfortable and casual to wear." Pointing to his closet, she added, "I recall someone who used to have more of these shirts and a worn leather jacket to throw over them."

"Great. 'Here's the windup pitch folks. Jolting Jule will be expected to deliver her famous 'guilt-ridden' fastball any moment,'" he said sarcastically.

"I'm not picking on you, Charlie. I'm just saying that it seems you're rushing yourself through a lot of changes lately. Did you know you'd be at this point, now, in your life, after letting Kirsten go only-."

Charlie cut her off. "I'm not letting go, all right? Bai would rather see her walk out of here for good and I know that! Claudia loves her so much, and I'll be da-."

"Stop changing the subject, will you?"

"I'm doing my best to make things work around here," Charlie said jabbing a finger at her. "And that means protecting you guys from getting hurt again by any means necessary."

Julia just looked at him, hand absentmindedly rubbing her elbow for no reason.

Charlie sighed. "You came in here to borrow a shirt." He took out the remaining flannel and handed it to her. "Take it."

She thanked him. "To think, Bai's only been gone a few days and already, I'm a wreck."

As if understanding at last, he smiled. "Yeah. But, there's still Claudia."

Claudia watched as Kathleen finished unpacking from her latest trip. "You probably find it very peaceful here, huh?"

"In this place? Yes, I do. Everyone should have a place they can call their own."

She hadn't thought of it like that. "Is that why you keep this apartment? A place to jump to in case of emergency or something?"

"Of course not, Claudia. Maybe when we get married or something, then I can comfortably move in and call your house our house. But, I'm one of those who wants everything to be perfect before taking that final step."

"Charlie once told me 'It's best to look only once at the mistakes, learn from them then move on. Otherwise, you'll be walking in circles.' He has his faults, Kathleen, and he knows about them."

Kathleen rubbed the back of her neck. "That's something I can't figure out. Why is your brother so hard on himself? It's as if he voluntarily put himself on some kind of high wire without a net and he won't let anyone else help."

Claudia shrugged. "You two seem so perfect for each other. He knows it I'm sure."

"I'm sure he does. That's something you and I will have to work on about him - building his self-confidence up. He's been making changes on the outside, but, we need to determine if the same is true on the inside."

Why wouldn't it be? Hadn't Kathleen been a wonderful listener as Claudia final vocalized her fears about death and losing people? Hadn't she been the one to open Claudia's eyes to the wealth of possibilities that lay before her? Considering how wonderful Kathleen had been to her and Julia, it was hard to imagine that the same couldn't be true for Charlie.

Julia rummaged through Charlie's desk, determined to find his copy of the book, 'Of Mice and Men,' not to mention some new pens. In the far back part of the left drawer, she found a crumpled piece of paper. Curious, she read it. She felt the blood rushing to her face as her teeth clenched.

She went to her room to get her key to his security box. Inside, she would find the record books for the various accounts and-

The only things inside were the birth certificates, papers related to the house and the two safety deposit keys: one for the family, one for Charlie.

Knowing she had authorization to access his box, she took the key, put everything else back in order, then left.

Charlie arrived home to a quiet house, remembering that Jake had taken Claudia and her friend Artie to a chess competition in L.A. Owen was spending the night with Ross and Tess, and Kathleen wouldn't be back until tomorrow. He went upstairs content on getting a good night's sleep. He had no need to turn the bedroom light on.

"Were you ever going to say anything?"

He jumped. "What the-!" He slammed the light switch. "Julia, last time I checked, the attic room was yours. This room is still mine."

She threw the crumpled ball of paper at him. "Is that the reason why she's around? Is that why you're bending over backwards keeping her happy?"

He didn't have to ask what paper she found. "Why are you even-?"

"I want to know! As your sister, I have a right to know when you're in trouble!"

The last thing he expected was to hear his sister shrill. Calmly, he said, "It's not like I'm selling my soul to the devil, Jule."

"No, just your body," she retorted.

Charlie stared at her. "Julia!"

"All right, that was crude," she admitted. "But, do you realize you're digging yourself deeper into the grave? Or, are you going to be sensible enough to abort this relationship now? I mean, did you even think about this, Charlie?"

"Yes," he said trying to calm her down. How was it that his siblings seemed to demand, no expected to have some sort of say in any or all of his relationships all of a sudden?

Julia persisted with her interrogation. "How long did you think about it, Charlie? For how long, huh? A minute? An hour? The day before she-."

"I thought about it when she showed me that," Charlie said pointing at the paper on the floor. "I thought about it and knew there was only one option. When I said yes, I knew with eyes wide open what I was getting myself into. I knew that this was better than what she proposed."

"Why? I don't get it, Charlie. You've been miserable all this time while Claudia and I have been...." Julia looked at him. "You did this because of us, then, didn't you?"

He knew she'd never understand. The one levelheaded sibling now would be Claudia and he wasn't about to let Julia confuse the entire issue with her. Charlie waited. "You think I'm making a mistake, don't you?" he asked. She nodded. "If you cared for me as much as I do for you, you'd let me then. Let me deal with this situation and keep the consequences away from you."

"What's with the finances, then, huh?" Julia showed him the record books from his checking and savings accounts along with his life insurance papers and a contract. "Could you explain to me why all of a sudden you'd clear out everything you own?"

He shook his head. "You'd never get it."

"I'm not stupid, Charlie! Tell me!"

"The restaurant's secured," he said looking back at her. "Sharell, Louis and I bought out Montgomery. The restaurant is going to you guys, no snags attached, courtesy of the SRG Corporation."

Julia only stared at him. "How long has Salinger's...."

"Since last month or so. Would have been sooner, but...."

"You could have let Jake help," she said. "Or us. Isn't there enough in our accounts to-."

Charlie sighed. "This was *my* mistake. I already lost family funds once and I'm not about to do it again. As for Jake...." He couldn't help but laugh after Emmett gave him the detailed listing of contributors and their amounts. Fifth on the list, after Salinger, C., Reubens, S., Gonzales, L., and Reubens, G., was Gordon, J. "He found a way."

"So, end it with her now, Charlie. Let Halloween night be the night you end the curse she's-."

He laughed louder. "Why? I love her, Julia. I really do. And if you think about it, you and Claudia have been doing so well together with her. I can't spend the rest of my life looking for someone to make me happy and be the perfect mother figure for you when she's already here, can I? What good would it do for me to go from one relationship to another, hurting you guys each time, huh?"

Julia was crying. "You don't love her, Charlie."

"Yes, I do. Really, I do! She's done so much for me, Jule, that-."

"Like what? Show me one thing in this room that belongs to Mom and Dad! Show me one item in your closet that was yours before she came in! How do you know you love her after all of this time, she's-."

Charlie did his best to keep his emotions in check. "You're only seeing what you want to see, now that you've read a letter that is *months* old. You know nothing about her, then, if you can turn on her so quickly. You know nothing about the parents she left when she was fifteen. You know-."

"I know what I need to know, Charlie!" Julia got up to leave.

"I don't know what to do," he told Kathleen. "It's as if the more I try not to hurt my family, the more I'm likely to do the opposite."

She put an arm around his shoulder, brushing her hand against his clean-shaven cheek. She was glad that he felt comfortable enough to confide in her. One of the things she made him be thankful for was the fact he did have someone he could turn to. He, in turn, listened to her worries and fears.

"They care about you. You have been acting strange these past few months, so of course you'd cause them worry. And your grandfather.... How could you possibly let him leave here? Weren't you thinking?"

"I hadn't meant to, that's the thing. I hadn't expected him to decide that he'd up and leave to live closer to Lauren."

She made a clicking noise with her tongue. "Who's next, Charlie? Who else are you going to push out of your family's life? Joe? Ross? Sharell?"

"No, of course, not. Joe has been an uncle to us for so long. I can't imagine him leaving us. And Ross, he's.... He's Claudia's best friend and confidant. She's still learning from him, and I hope that last for as long as it can."

"What about Sharell?" she asked, hoping he'd dismiss her soon.

He looked at her. "She's one of two other people who can put up with Terrill's mood swings. I can't risk the business going downhill if there isn't a mediator-."

"So," she said bitterly, "you're keeping her there, then, along with Louis?"

"You want me to dismiss them?" he asked, a bit of agitation in his voice.

Perhaps she was asking for a bit too much this time. "No, you don't need to do that. I just hadn't realized that you haven't been able to control Terrill, yet, that's all. I can tell you that in all the time I've known him, he's never been a problem for me, personally or professionally."

Kathleen pulled the covers back and gently pushed Charlie toward the pillow. "Do we really have to go to Joe and Frannie's this holiday? Couldn't we just get away for a while to some distant cabin, instead?"

He nodded. "I shouldn't have expected you to have to put up with the traveling to get to their place, I'm sorry. We could go to Tahoe, if you want. There's this cabin that my parents used to rent. We could try that, if miracles still happen this time of year."

"Right now, it would be a miracle if we could just enjoy not only a quiet evening, but a lovely morning as well, just the two of us."

Charlie reached over to turn off the lights. "Maybe we could make arrangements for when Bailey comes home for break. Let the kids do something, just the four of them. Then, we could-."

"We could focus on how this whole thing started," she said.

"When this whole thing started, I hated it and I don't understand why, now, I mean," Bailey said as he and Julia poured drinks for their friends. "Have you ever seen him so happy? He's such a changed man, I don't think even Kirsten would believe it."

"They would have been married a year now, Bai," Julia said. "How can you be okay with this when it's moved so quickly?"

Justin joined them at the table. "My parents dated for less than that before getting married," he said. "Five months, I think. Or was it less?"

Bailey gestured in Justin's direction. "See? There's nothing wrong with this. So, leave them alone already."

"What if he does ask her to marry him, Bailey? Do you really want to take a chance that she'd seek revenge in such a way-."

Justin spoke up. "Are you trying to doom their relationship now? Even if it is as bad as you think it is, playing 'rescuer' will only make things worse. Giving him ultimatums to leave her or else would just give him that much more stronger a reason to stay."

"That is *so* stupid!" Julia said. "If I ever found myself in a situation where a friend wanted to control my every move, who I spent time with, what I'd wear, when I'd talk to family, then, I'd send him straight to H-."

"But," Justin said, "you're not in that situation. You can't assume that he'd do what you'd do if you have no idea of what he sees in the relationship in the first place."

Bailey nodded. "I'm with Justin on this. Butt out, Jule. If anything, not only would you tick Charlie off, but you'd also be taking away a confidant for Claudia. Do we really want her to get used to the idea of losing people?"

Here it was the last day of January, and they were back where they started from: a boring birthday party with boring people who couldn't go away soon enough.

Kathleen kept her fake smile on her face, thankful that Claudia, Julia and Owen were there this time with Charlie. More support to keep her sane.

At last, when only the mess remained, she allowed herself to relax. "Claudia, did you want to open one of the presents?"

She seemed surprised, but said yes. Inside was a gold bracelet with various charms. "It's from Rosemary," Claudia said.

"Why don't you keep it. I've never been one for bracelets," she lied. Truth was, she hated it.

Charlie walked in with a birthday cake. "Every birthday girl deserves a birthday cake," he told her."

She smiled as the others sang 'Happy Birthday.' After she blew out the candles, Charlie got down on his knees as he took her hand in his.

"Of all the things you've given me this last year," he said, "nothing could even come close. I know the first time we met your need to control things around you seemed stressful to me. Yet, you've shown me there weren't flaws in such things. You've tolerated my shortcomings with more tolerance than anyone outside of my family has. There's only one thing I could think of giving you for your birthday.

"I'm giving you all of me," he said then handed her a small jeweler's box.

It was all she could do to keep from crying. Inside was an engraved engagement ring: 'To Kathleen, the love of my life.'

"Will you marry me?" he asked.

Tears rolled down her face as she said yes.

The wedding took place February 14th, Valentine's Day. Reverend Gregory Reubens had conducted a quiet yet elegant wedding ceremony. Everything was perfect in the small church, flowers, music, everything.

Perhaps now, Kathleen Victoria Eisley Salinger could keep away the fears that had constructed her own prison walls. Perhaps now, she could enjoy all of that which she had been missing for so long.

As Charlie carried her over the threshold of the house, she knew at last that she was home.

Charlie watched her sleep from across the room. It was four in the morning, but he didn't care. As far as he knew, she was the one who could keep him balanced. He didn't expect Bailey or Julia to understand. Why should they, given the changes in their lives?

He had erred against them too many times those first two years. Maybe it wasn't too late for Claudia. Goodness knew, there was still time with Owen. All he wanted was to keep a sense of safety, security for the others. Losing parents shouldn't have meant a loss of that as well. Maybe in time, they'd see her as he did as the one who could keep away chaos.