By WriterJC

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e-mail: writerjc


This story is an original work of fiction. Names, characters, places and situations are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or situations is entirely coincidental.

Copyright Ó 2001 by WriterJC

Chapter One

Jasmine Springfield glared determinedly at her computer terminal, willing it to go faster. Not to be rushed, the hourglass symbol continued its spin while a small screen continued to flash 'please wait...working'.

"Jasmine? Ready yet?" A deceptively calm, undeniably male voice called from the hallway. Jasmine couldn't mistake the muted footfalls of Barry Edgeman as anyone else as he made his way hurriedly along the blue-carpeted hallways of Alliance Systems. She'd heard them often enough in the past half hour. Within seconds, he would be in her office.

"I'm going as fast as this lame computer can manage," she mumbled under her breath. Barry Edgeman was notorious for cutting corners-and that normally translated into slower, or not upgraded PCs. Jasmine continued, loud enough to carry along the hall, "Just about!" She'd voiced her displeasure often enough, and really wasn't in the mood for the usual lecture that followed.

"Three minutes, just about?" Edgy pressed, now in her office.

Not even looking up as the hourglass had finally vanished, allowing her to make the necessary alterations to the file, she replied, "Edgy, weren't you ever taught that patience is a virtue?"

"Virtue is for people without deadlines that have dollar signs attached to them." Edgy shot back, chuckling at Jasmine's automatic sound of disgust.

Peripherally, she caught him glancing around her office. Sure the place was a mess; print outs were scattered over every available surface as were bits of paper and CD and diskette covers. The break-neck pace that had been set for the day was obviously taking its toll.

"Thank you for working on this project at the last minute, Jazz," he was saying. "You know how important this contract is to the company, but with everyone out sick...well, you know... Thanks."

Jasmine peeked up at him from the corner of her eye, if only to see if the real Barry Edgeman was indeed standing in her office. She didn't think she'd ever heard the words "thank you" pass his lips in the year she'd worked with him.

"Are you sure you aren't coming down with something?" she shot back. They didn't call him 'Edgy' for nothing.

Edgy chuckled slightly, and leaned nearer, monitoring her progress on the last screen. Jasmine shot him a curious look, before digging a pencil from beneath a stack of paper to make a note on a pink post-it pad.

Placing the pencil between her lips for safe-keeping, she moved along to the next item to verify that the input codes would match.

Edgy backed slightly away and grabbed a stack of CD holders from a box near the door. "Here," he offered, watching as she snapped the newly copied disk into the casing.

"We work well together," he observed. "How about we get together sometime."

Jasmine's pen fell to the desk with decided clack. The noise seemed to echo in the then silent office. Jasmine actually startled when her printer started up, and printed out the small password card that would need to be sealed in a separate envelope.

Grasping the paper quickly from the printer, wanting anything other than look at him while she disappointed him, Jasmine stuffed the document in the envelope and sealed it.

Edgy took the envelope and CD from her hands, and waited. Why couldn't he have just taken the hint and laughed it off instead of doing this the hard way? Jasmine hated the hard way. She copped out, instead.

"You know, Edgy, I really don't feel well. In fact, I think I'm getting whatever has been going around. You might not want to get together with me."

Even as she said the words, she realized that they were partially true. She had been feeling a little less than herself since shortly after lunch, most of which was spent working with Edgy breathing down her neck.

Edgy's face broke into a dismissing smile. "S'okay. That just sort of slipped out anyway. Didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." Then waving the CD, he backed out of her office. "I'd better get this down to shipping. Thanks again."

Jasmine sat at her desk for a second wondering if she'd imagined the last few minutes. Then her eye caught the clock-two more hours, and she still had at least twice that worth to do.

When the day finally ended, four hours later, Jasmine was firmly convinced that she had indeed caught the latest bug. Her throat was on fire, and her head felt as if a trio of tap dancing elephants were bearing down on her skull. If there were justice in the world, she would be home with the minimum of delay, after which she could have some soup, some drugs and a warm blanket.

The graying October skies didn't hold much hope of an easy drive home. Bad weather coupled with Friday evening traffic. . . she could feel her headache increasing. And the thin jacket she'd worn did nothing to ward off the distinct chill that heralded coming rain.

She slipped gratefully into her car, and immediately went in search of a traffic report. The last thing she needed was to be stuck in a traffic jam. So far, so good; the announcer on the easy listening station had no accidents to report. Unfortunately, the gas gauge caught her eye, and she suddenly remembered why she'd actually needed to take a lunch. Gas. She was practically on E. And, even more unfortunately, with so many out ill, lunch had not found a place in her day.

By the time she pulled out onto the main road, the rain began to fall. The weather report, on the tail of the traffic report, warned that freezing rain was on its way. All the more reason in Jasmine's mind to get home and get bundled. Gas could wait-at least for a little while. She'd take care of it first thing in the morning. It wasn't as if she had any place to go.

That decided, she got into the lane to get on the freeway. The drive was deceptively easy, until she reached the halfway point. Suddenly a wall of brake lights appeared ahead. The traffic was all but at a stand still. True to form, minutes later, she discovered a radio station which told of the jack-knifed eighteen wheeler that had traffic down to half a lane on the freeway.

Frustrated, Jasmine edged her way along until she reached the next exit, at which point she followed the steady stream of automobiles that were getting off. At the bottom of the exit, she was greeted by yet another long line of brake lights. But at least in this case, she could see a traffic light in the distance in which to place the blame.

She noticed that a number of people who had gotten off of the exit, were continuing in the steadily moving right turning lane. The light ahead was green, but the traffic was backed up through the light. She toyed with the idea of following the line of moving cars; the certainly looked like they knew where they were going. Her decision was made, when after the light had completed its cycle twice, the radio announcer again began to speak. Another accident. At least if she turned she'd be heading in the proper direction.

The new street was unfamiliar. Being new to an area held distinct disadvantages. The next cross street had a familiar name that she'd heard some place. That must count for something. She turned. This unfortunately took her unto a tree-lined road that she would never have placed as being in the city.

The road twisted and wound several times before coming to another intersection. Deciding that she had gone far enough, she made a left turn, hoping that she would eventually work her way back to the main road. Didn't the saying go 'make all left turns and you'll end up where you started'?

Obviously, whomever made that statement didn't live in New Haven. The new turn led into a residential area with long drives and houses set far off the road. Winding further into a wooded area, she could see the lights from large homes shining through winter-bare trees and evergreens.

The sun had long since set, and the 'short cut' was getting her nowhere. Jasmine decided that it would be much better to deal with traffic than to become lost in unfamiliar territory after dark.

She pulled carefully into the next driveway that she came to, unsettled slightly by the sound of ice crunching beneath her tires. The drive sloped a little more than Jasmine realized, and her car choked.

Determined to remain calm on the dark, slippery surface, Jasmine placed her car in the proper gear and restarted. Only, it didn't start.

An icy finger of worry tickled down her spine. She tried again, but the car would not catch. Examining her gauges for a reason for the mutiny, she realized the thing that she was supposed to have done before getting on the highway. Now it was too late. She was out of gas.

Gasping in dismay, she gazed out of the windshield. The house at the top of the drive was completely dark, but that could be deceiving couldn't it? The fact that no vehicles were traveling along the road gave her little choice. Hiking up the long icy drive, wearing pumps and a thin jacket, was definitely in her future.

She ground out a frustrated breath and opened the door. A gust of cold, ice-laden wind seemed to penetrate even to her bones, reminding her brutally of the importance of being prepared. Or at the very least having the sense to keep a blanket in the car in the winter. This really wasn't the day she'd planned for herself, least of all the night.

The house was even further away than it had initially seemed. By the time she reached the door, her fingers were thin sticks of ice and unless she was imagining things, the wind was picking up and the temperature was going down. She wanted nothing more than to find a decent, friendly human being on the opposite side of that door.

With an effort, she unfolded her frozen arms from around her aching body-whether due to sickness or the weather, she was beyond caring-and rung the bell. She bounced slightly on the porch, quietly counting to a hundred before ringing again. It was pointless. No one came. She tried knocking, yelling, and even tapping with her keys. None of it helped. Feeling like crying, she turned and made the trek back down the driveway, praying that the next house along the little road would have occupants.

As she trod along the street on feet that had become frozen stumps, she tried not to think of her poor cat Cosmo, all alone at her apartment, no doubt plotting her demise for not being available to feed him. She tried not to think of the approaching sound that was suspiciously like a car but was too far away for her to find properly on foot. She tried not to think of how cold it was, or of how nice and warm and cozy she would be if she ever saw home again. Basically, she tried not to think.

She was a zombie by the time she reached the mailbox of the next driveway. It was marked with the letters and numbers 12453 Juniper Lane. At least the name of the road was positive and conjured warm thoughts of spring. Dully, she turned and made her way up the long drive.

She was too tired even to sigh with relief when she reached the top of the drive and stepped onto the porch. Smaller than the previous home's, in was bathed in a warm pool of yellow light that seemed at odds with the freezing drizzled that lurked in the darkness beyond. She felt the odd sensation that she'd stepped into a haven.

Blaming her silliness on cold dementia, she managed to ring the bell with a numb finger. Staring sightlessly at the door, she prayed that someone would come.

"Yes?" a female voice, mildly accented, spoke at her elbow. It took a moment for it to penetrate her brain that she was being spoken to through an intercom system. By then, the voice was repeating itself.

"Yes, who is it?"

"Oh, u-uh, this is Jasmine Springfield. M-m-my car is out of gas up the road. Could I use your phone, please?" The hoarse, shivering voice felt disconnected from her person, as if it was someone else's.

Only silence greeted from the other side of the door.

When she was beginning to think that someone was taking her for an ax murderer, the door opened. A tall, dark-haired man was suddenly standing over her. She startled, taking a mental step back-perhaps it was he that was the ax murderer.

"Excuse me? Is there something I can help you with?"

Jasmine's mouth felt like it was stuck together, and her brain seemed sluggishly reluctant to keep up. "M-my car," she said pointing back over her shoulder in the direction of her out-of-commission vehicle. Her half-uttered phrase garnered an intent look from the man. "It's... out of g-gas," she finished lamely.

"Okay," he said, softly, his gaze touching over her bedraggled form. "You look half frozen. Why don't you come in and warm up while you use the phone?"

"No...n-no, really," she objected, hoping that she wasn't gazing too longingly into the rooms beyond. "If you c-could just call a cab for me, I'd be really g-grateful. I wouldn't want to inconvenience you." The offer was generous, but this was a strange man, and he seemed so tall and so dark. And she was so alone. . .

The man nodded silently to himself as if suddenly understanding something, then stepped back away from the door. She heard him murmur to someone. A thin forty-ish woman appeared beside him at the door.

"This is Joan," the man said. "She can take care of what you need." With a slight nod, he walked away and out of Jasmine's sight.

The woman was smiling at her, speaking gently. "Come on in dear and I'll get the phone for you."

Jasmine returned the woman's smile shakily, reflexively. It was an effort to again move her legs. It seemed to take as much concentration as she could command to put one foot in front of the other.

As she stepped into the entrance hall, she had a hazy impression of shiny wooden surfaces, and glowing warm light before it occurred to her that she was dripping. "Sorry," she murmured in mild dismay at the mess she'd already made, and numbly offered to wait outside. Joan's stern words stopped her.

"Out of the question." The woman's serious glare penetrated the growing fogginess of her brain. "Now, follow me. I'm sure I can find something more acceptable for you."

Jasmine followed mutely. With each step the numbing cold in her fingers, toes and ears was giving way to a dull ache as they began to thaw. Worse, the rest of her body felt on fire; each breath burning its way into her lungs.

"This way, dear." The woman was saying as she led her into a ground level bedroom. The impression of this room was comfortably feminine. Pinks, greens, beiges. Jasmine decided that she liked the feeling it gave her.

She focused on Joan who was chattering on in a matronly manner while she sorted through items in a wooden wardrobe. The questions she asked seemed innocuous, but Jasmine felt vaguely that the woman was merely using her search for clothing as an excuse for something else. After all, the wardrobe wasn't very large.

"These should fit you just fine," Joan said finally with a pleased smile as she offered a pair of tan corduroys and a pink sweater.

"No," Jasmine protested hoarsely. "I couldn't." It would feel as if she were invading someone's privacy if she took and wore their clothing. The outfit obviously could never have fit Joan; she was far too short.

Jasmine got another taste of the woman's stern voice and glare. "Sure you can, and it's no bother. We can't have you dripping all through the house while you wait can we?" Jasmine sighed and offered a weak smile. Joan was being reasonable and it would require too much effort to argue.

"Thank you," she murmured instead.

The woman smiled and showed her the bathroom. "When you're done, just come on out to the sitting room." Jasmine thanked her again as she left before stepping into the private area. The same comfortable, feminine impression flowed from the room's design to the bathroom's design. Jasmine was extra careful not to get leaves or mud on the plush pink rug.

Peeling off her damp clothes, and stepping into the soft warmth of the corduroys and the lush, expensively made sweater, Jasmine wondered how she had come to be so lucky. The items were like heaven after her rain soaked garments. If she never saw her own outfit again, it would be too soon.

Feeling mildly better, she pulled a comb from her purse and attempted to do something with her hair. The dark blond which usually shone like gossamer, hang lankly against her head and down her back. It wasn't long before she'd gotten it in better order, after which she tied it back into a loose ponytail, plaited off on the end.

Next, her face. All signs of make-up were gone, leaving her checks unnaturally flushed and her gray eyes puffy and glazed. Clearing her throat, she tried to swallow the soreness away. There was nothing to be done about that at the moment, either. Gathering her damp clothes and bundling them as best she could into her jacket, she set off out of the room.

She glanced out into the hallway. Both directions looked equally unfamiliar.

She went left, telling herself almost automatically. 'Make all left turns...' That was what had gotten her into this mess in the first place. She turned around and went the opposite direction.

At the end of the hall she found herself in a room with several dark leather chairs and a roaring fireplace. The fire was the only source of light in the room and emitted a warm comforting glow that literally drew her in. She couldn't resist extending her chilled hands before the blaze.

A discreetly cleared voice startled her, sending her heart rate into over drive. She spun in surprise, her first inclination to run. The tall, dark man who had answered the door was seated in one of the wing back chairs, watching her with interest. His eyes seemed to skim over every part of her; from the top of her rapidly drying hair to the tips of her pump-clad feet.

"There's a phone over here." He said at last, gesturing to a side table just to his left. "What number would you like?" He picked up the handset.

"Just a cab." Jasmine said, the intensity of his gaze making her nervous all over again. "I don't know any of the phone numbers or companies."

"Do you have any family you could call?" he asked.

"No, " Jasmine shook her head, then realized that she probably shouldn't have said that. After all, she really didn't know this strange man. She didn't even know his name.

The man dialed a number and called for the cab at his address. The person on the other end asked a question, then the man looked to Jasmine "Where will you be going?" he asked.

"1710 Kensington Abbey," Jasmine said. "And to the gas station, and then back this way to get my car."

The mans eyebrows raised a bit. He listened as the other party spoke for several moments. He then turned to Jasmine. "He says it will be at least 45 minutes before he can get here. They are having a busy night."

Jasmine's heart dropped. Forty-five minutes seemed an uncomfortable period of time to be in a stranger's home.

The man hesitated for a second and then asked the party on the line to hold. "You really don't have to go to all that trouble. I can help you."

Hope blossomed in Jasmine's heart. Though torn at allowing a stranger to be so generous, she didn't want to wait another forty-five minutes just to get started. But before she could come to a decision, the man was again speaking into the phone. "I'd like to cancel the taxi. . ."

Jasmine breathed a small sigh of relief. Under normal circumstances, she might have been irritated to have her choice taken away, but tonight-things were different.

Feeling suddenly, uncomfortably warm, she moved a few paces away from the fireplace. A new voice spoke behind her.

"There you are, dear."

Jasmine spun to face Joan, who was carrying an elegant tray upon which two steaming mugs were balanced. "I'm sorry," she apologized meekly to the older woman. "I got lost."

"Well, I've brought some hot chocolate to help warm you." She set the tray on a small side table. A quick look passed between Joan and the man that Jasmine was at a loss to define. When Joan walked out of the room, the man stared long-sufferingly after her, before turning to gesture Jasmine toward the wing back chair opposite the table.

Jasmine settled into the chair, but couldn't seem to relax. Following the man's lead, she did reach for one of the mugs of hot chocolate only to find that her hands were trembling. In fact, the tremors seemed to want to invade the rest of her body as well. Determine to have at least one sip of the inviting drink, she concentrated on getting the mug safely to her lips. The warm brew went down wonderfully, bathing her aching throat and seeping in blissful waves through her body. She closed her eyes for a moment in appreciation.

"What brings you out this way in this weather, Ms...?" the man inquired, startling her eyes open.

"Springfield," she filled in the blank. "Jasmine Springfield. Actually I was trying to take a short cut home and got a little lost. You see, I always thought if you keep taking left turns you'll end up back where you were, but for some reason, it didn't work out that way, and-" Jasmine stopped when she realized she was babbling.

With a self-deprecating chuckle, she continued. "Sorry, I sometimes do that when I'm tired. I just go on and on and-" she stopped herself.

The man looked at her and offered a bemused smile. He had deep long dimples, that completely changed his face. "I'm Joshua," he said, as if suddenly realizing that he hadn't introduced himself. "Joshua Dumas. You can relax in here while I warm up my truck and then we can be on our way. I'll show you an easy way out of here."

"Okay," Jasmine agreed, finding herself returning his smile reflexively. Watching him leave, she wondered that she hadn't seen the warmth and character in his eyes and features before. Tall and broad shouldered, he suddenly seemed very appealing.

With a comfortable sigh, she turned around and settled back into the chair.

Chapter Two

Joshua came to a stop at the doorway of the sitting room. There, cuddled against the side of his arm chair was Jasmine, the most unexpected houseguest he had ever had the pleasure to meet.

Escaped strands of soft blonde hair were beginning to curl-having dried more completely by the fire, around cheeks that looked flushed even in the dimness of the room. She looked completely and utterly helpless, as if she really and truly needed to be rescued. But he knew that in this day and age a knight-in-shining-armor complex could only get him into trouble.

Moving toward her, he gently shook her shoulder.

Jasmine sat up, her eyes going wide. She quickly tried to apologize, but Joshua wasn't having it. When he'd touched her shoulder, he'd felt the burning heat of her body right through her clothing.

"I'm no doctor," he told her. "But it looks to me as if you have a fever, and probably some of whatever bug is going around these days. Sleeping is just your body's way of telling you that it needs rest so it can heal." God, but he sounded fatherly.

Jasmine simply looked up at him as if she were having difficulty focusing on his words. "Yeah," was all she said as she came to her feet and preceded him out of the room. Somehow, despite her being dead on her feet, they managed to make it to the garage where his truck was by then nice and warm. And had a couple spare gallons cans of gasoline in the back.

"Where's your car," he asked as she climbed up into the passenger seat. She rubbed her forehead foggily, trying to get her bearings. "That way," she pointed off to the right. "It's a red Volkswagen."

"Okay," Joshua sighed. He hoped she was going to be able to hang on through this. He really didn't need the added stress of worrying about whether or not she would make it home. He closed the door while she pawed through her purse for the keys.

He found the car just as she'd said, at the bottom of the Immelman's driveway. It made sense that she would end up on his doorstep. The Immelman's were never in New Haven for winter. They'd left for Florida several weeks earlier.

Steering carefully on the icy roads, he pulled in behind Jasmine's car. His passenger was fast asleep, her keys held limply between her fingers. If she couldn't make it from his driveway to the Immelman's without falling asleep, there was no way she could be expected to handle the fifteen to twenty minute-on a good day-drive to her home. On ice, to boot.

Telling himself again how bad an idea this knight-in-shining-armor complex was, he took the keys from her hand and went to put the gas in her car. After that, he steered his truck in the direction of Kensington Abbey. 1710, she'd said.

The two spaces slated for her apartment were empty, so he pulled into one of them. And then he shut off his truck and waited, hoping that the cold would have some effect and wake Jasmine. Nothing.

He reached across the seat and shook her shoulder, gently calling her name. But she barely stirred, only moaning restlessly before drifting back to sleep.

With a sinking feeling, he looked across at the darkened windows of her ground level apartment. Did she live alone? He went up to the door and knocked. There was no sound or movement from inside.

He stood for a full minute before her door denying the inevitable. There was nothing else he could do, no other choice. Feeling extremely uncomfortable, he removed her keys from his pocket and unlocked her door, but kept it shut to keep the cold air from penetrating.

He then went back to the truck and opened the passenger door. Still no movement from the sleeping woman. With warnings blaring like thunder in his brain, he lifted Jasmine into his arms and started back toward her apartment. She immediately snuggled closer to him, burrowing her head in the nook of his arm.

He came to a complete stop, ceasing the constant crunch of the salt that had been sprinkled on the walkway, and looked down. An odd feeling swept him as he looked at this girl who was a stranger. She suddenly looked very familiar to him.

The wind picked up and blew around the side of the building, shaking him from his thoughts. Moving more quickly than perhaps he should have, he walked into Jasmine's apartment.

The light that shone from the parking area wasn't enough to help him find a light switch. But he could make out the heavy outline of a sofa perpendicular to the door. At the end of the sofa, he saw what he hoped was a lamp.

He moved in that direction. The sudden loud shriek, and sharp pain in his right hand startled him so badly that he did the only thing any normal creature with reflexes to do: He completely forgot to hold onto his cargo.

With a muted bump, Jasmine's bottom hit the floor.

Jasmine's eyes opened in startled fright. She was on the floor, and something tall and dark was looming over her. Screaming in horror, she reflexively grabbed a heavy book end from her corner table and swung. She heard the breath go out of the figure in a muffled whoosh before he toppled over her sofa and into the coffee table.

She was fairly certain he'd landed between the sofa and table because the sounds of Cosmo attacking were coming from that general direction.

Shakily, she pulled herself quickly to her feet and turned on the lamp, while at the same time grabbing a baseball from around the corner. When she'd put it there she had never thought she would have to use it.

Carefully stepping around the sofa she called Cosmo off. "Get up slowly," she ordered the human who had thought to invade her privacy. She was terrified out of her mind, but she had to get this man out of her house.

She couldn't see the man's face as he was covered by a pillow and several other objects. "I said, get up and get out!" Jasmine repeated, attempting to put a little more force into her voice. It worked on t.v. "I have protection and I'm not afraid to use it," she added.

A pair of hands raised in surrender from beneath the pillows. "I'm sorry," a weak voice wheezed. "But just everything stop spinning first."

Jasmine froze. That voice. . . it was familiar somehow.

With the toe of a pump, she kicked the pillow out of the way and came face to face with Joshua Dumas.

"Oh!" Jasmine was so stunned, she dropped her bat. Unfortunately, it landed on Joshua's now unprotected head. Which sent Jasmine to a whole new level of feeling like an idiot. Apologizing profusely, she moved the bat carefully aside and helped Joshua to the sofa.

When he was finally settled, though he leaned uncomfortably to one side, Jasmine turned toward him. "I know this may sound like a strange question: But what are you doing in my apartment?"

Joshua managed a grin, shaking his head. "You fell asleep in my truck while I was putting gas in your car. I couldn't wake you. So I brought you home. I think everything was going pretty okay until your cat attacked me." Joshua pointed to the scratches along the side of his hand. "The rest is history."

"Some repayment for you kindness," Jasmine murmured. "I feel awful about all of this. . . "

Joshua smiled reassuringly. "Listen. I'll just take it all as a lesson. It was my fault. I had no right to come into your apartment like I did."

"No," Jasmine shook her head. She wasn't having it. "No." Getting up from the sofa she hunted around for her purse. Finding it, she quickly extracted $20. "Money for gas," she told him

Then quickly looking him over, she dashed to the bathroom for her first-aid kit. She settled on the sofa beside him and took his hand into her lap. As gently as possible, she dabbed at the scratches that Cosmo had made, assuring Joshua that the feline had all of his shots. But that if he needed to go to the doctor or anything, she'd do what she could. Joshua simply smiled through out the entire ordeal, never saying a word.

When she looked up at him, there was a strange expression on his face.

"I really am sorry," was all she could think to say.

"You know, there is a way you can repay me." He finally spoke.

"How's that?" Jasmine asked, not quite guarded, she couldn't understand the look in his eyes.

"Promise me you won't apologize any more for this."

"Right." Jasmine smiled, relieved.

"Now," Joshua levered himself into a standing position. "If I remember correctly, you're sick and need to get some rest." His voice had an oddly strained breathless quality to it for a moment, and then it was gone. "I'll just go get your car and..."

Jasmine shook her head.

Ten minutes later, she found herself agreeing to let him bring her car back to her. It was the least she could do.

After he left, Jasmine fed Cosmo, blew off the entire idea of eating, downed some cold tablets and curled up on the sofa to wait for Joshua Dumas to return. The next thing she knew, it was morning.

A small white envelope had been pushed through her mail slot, and lay innocuously on the floor in front of her door. It contained her keys and the money she had given Joshua for gas.

Sighing, Jasmine got up and took the non drowsy versions of her cold medicines and headed for the one hour cleaners to have the clothing from last night cleaned. Then placing the gas money in an envelope she headed out toward Joshua Dumas's home. She would repay her debt. This time, she drove her car up the curving driveway.

She stepped out of her car onto the slightly damp pavement. The air was a bit brisk, but the ice had melted and the sky was clear, not an ounce of precipitation in sight. In fact, the morning had a feel to it that left Jasmine feeling invigorated.

Feeling a renewed energy, she walked up to the door and rang the bell. Only mild nervousness accompanied her motions-it had been less than 24 hours ago that she'd initially rang the same bell, and it was just after 10:30 a.m. She hoped it wasn't too soon in more than one sense.

The door opened almost immediately to reveal Joan's smiling face. "Hello, dear," the woman said cheerily. "I knew you would be back. Come on in. I'll just go get Joshua."

"Oh, no," Jasmine tried to stop her. "Don't bother him. I just wanted to return the clothing that you were kind enough to let me borrow, and to leave this for him." She held the envelope and the dry cleaning out to the woman.

"Nonsense," the woman waved her words off. "It's only proper that you tell him yourself." With that she turned and left Jasmine standing with her hands full. For a brief moment, she wondered if the woman were up to something. Quickly shoving the thought away, she tried a last protest.

"Is he sleeping?"

"I don't think so," the woman said with a frown. "He's normally an early riser. He's probably just puttering around up there." The little woman bustled off so quickly that Jasmine wondered if she were trying to escape any further questions.

Jasmine turned away from the stairs and gazed over the front room. She had missed most of it the night before, but today, in the proper light, Joshua Dumas's home was beautiful.

Much older than she had initially thought, she wondered if it were one of the first homes built in the area. The lines reminded her of some of the grand homes that had been built much earlier in the century.

She walked across the parquet flowing toward a room which had broad windows along the side of the house. Out of the windows Jasmine could make out what looked like a garden. It was well taken care of, and though many of the plants were dormant lovely evergreen bushes adorned the area. She thought that it would be very beautiful in the spring.

The distant sound of sirens gradually entered into her musings. Mildly confused at their nearness, she suddenly realized how long Joan had been gone. Turning, she found a window that overlooked the front drive. To her amazement, an ambulance was pulling in near her car.

Just then, Joan came dashing down the stairs and toward the front door and allowed the men to enter. They carried a stretcher between the two of them and followed the little woman up the stairs.

Jasmine stood in shock for a full five seconds before she tore up the stairs after them. The dry cleaning at the envelope lay forgotten on the living room floor. She followed the sounds of voices issuing commands using medical terminology that simply rolled over her. Turning at the top of the stairs, she entered Joshua's room.

There spread-eagled on the floor between the two EMTs was Joshua Dumas. He wore the shoes and trousers from the night before, which looked slept in. His unbuttoned shirt fell away from a chest that was battered and bruised, bearing horrible yellow and black marks. Tiny scratches along his arms and on what she could see of his face had reddened, taking on a frightening, angry appearance. Joshua's eyes were closed, and he wasn't moving.

As she watched, one of the EMTs said something in a warning tone and attached an oxygen mask to Joshua's face.

With a sense of unreality, Jasmine's gaze swung to Joan, who stood worriedly by, and then back to Joshua, so still and swollen. All she could think was that this was her fault. She had done this. She had hurt him like this.

There was a rushing wave as the room tilted suddenly. Vaguely, she heard one of the EMTs again speaking. This time his words weren't so much medical terminology, but Jasmine's mind refused to make sense of them.

"Hey, Steve. You've got one going down. . ."

The room continued its wonderful tilt.

Chapter Three

When Jasmine opened her eyes, a red-haired Emergency Medical Technician was leaning over her. He'd placed something horrible smelling beneath her nose. Then helping her to a sitting position against the wall, he pushed her head between her knees.

"Breathe," he said. "Slow and easy."

Jasmine nodded, mutely, unable to take her eyes from Joshua's prone figure. She vaguely felt Joan's hand rubbing along her back, murmuring words of encouragement.

"I'm fine," Jasmine managed, sitting up more fully. It was absolutely ridiculous that someone should be tending to her when Joshua was the one who so obviously needed help. Drawing in a deep breath, she pushed herself to her feet. The EMTs had gotten Joshua up on a stretcher and were headed out of the room and she meant to follow.

"Where are you taking him?" she asked, touching the sleeve of the red-haired EMT.

"St. Elijah's ." He replied with a quick backward glance, before maneuvering the bed down the stairs.

Joan obviously had the same idea in mind as she grabbed her coat and purse from a downstairs closet and headed for the door. She paused when Jasmine headed for her car.

"Are you okay to drive?"

"Yes, I'm okay," she said, refusing to admit to the shakiness she felt. "It was just a shock, that's all." She climbed into the car for good measure-in case Joan decided to argue further. The older woman climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle, but she didn't hesitate to give the younger woman a long, assessing look as Jasmine started the engine.

In the waiting room, Jasmine's tension only increased. When a uniformed policemen walked up to the desk and spoke with one of the nurses, she thought that she would jump out of her skin. What if Joshua had awakened and wanted to press charges? What if they were here for her? What if-

"Jasmine? Are you all right?" Joan's softly spoken words broke into her frantic ruminations. It was then that she realized that she had been staring at the police officer and that her hands were gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that her knuckles had gone white.

"I'm sorry," she released her grasp and turned toward the older woman. "I'm sorry," she murmured again when that didn't seem enough.

"You're going to have to try to calm down. I'm sure he's going to be all right. He's a tough guy." Joan assured her, but a worried gaze lingered.

Jasmine dropped her face into her hands. "It's my fault," she blurted. She looked up cautiously over her hands to see how the woman would react to her admission.

Joan's features were carefully blank. "I think you'd better tell me about it," she said.

"I didn't mean to hurt him. I thought that he was an intruder." Jasmine rambled on, her words tumbling over themselves in her haste to get them out in the open. Somewhere during her explanation Joan began to laugh. Jasmine froze and looked at the woman as if she had lost her mind.

"I'm sorry," this time it was Joan apologizing. "It's just that in a few years, you're going to think this is funny, too."

"No, I'm not," Jasmine denied furiously. "Not if I'm in jail!"

Joan burst out laughing even more loudly, drawing the attention a man across the waiting area. Bringing her tone lower, the woman patted Jasmine's hand. "It's going to be all right. You'll see. And he won't hear of you being so upset about it, either."

Jasmine's eyes dropped to her hands as she tried to swallow the rest of her fears. "He just looked so helpless lying there on the floor."

Joan's smile faded away and she sighed. "Wait here." In a determined motion she got to her feet and headed toward the desk. Jasmine watched nervously as she talked for several moments with the duty nurse.

"They haven't finished their tests, yet." Joan informed her. "But I still don't want you worrying too much. As soon as the doctor is done someone is going to come out here and talk to us. Okay?"

Jasmine nodded mutely, feeling like a frantic child that needed assurance. If only she could just pull it together.

The following ten minutes passed interminably slow. By the time a tall brown-haired woman dressed in a white lab coat approached them, Jasmine had conjured all kinds of ills to have befallen Joshua Dumas at her hands.

"I'm Dr. Rhonda Beckwith," the woman said as she approached. "Are you here for Joshua Dumas?"

"Yes," both Joan and Jasmine replied.

The doctor smiled and settled in the seat nearest Jasmine. "The good news is that he should be just fine. He does have a fractured rib, but that should heal well in time. He also sustained a minor concussion, probably from the fall. There are a few additional tests I'd like to have the results to before we release him, but the prognosis is good. He's resting quietly now. You can both go in, but he's probably going to be in and out so he probably won't remember things very accurately."

Jasmine's eyes shot nervously to Joan. What had the doctor meant he wouldn't remember things too accurately? Were they building an assault case against her?

Joan looked beyond her to the doctor. "Can we go in now?"

"Of course," the doctor smiled and directed them toward the room. "If you have more questions, I'm doctor Beckwith. One of the nurses or orderlies can contact me."

The first thing that greeted Jasmine when they stepped into Joshua's room was all the machines. A monitor mounted over the headboard blinked and beeped. Another machine sat on one side of the bed and containing wires that ran beneath the covers. There was the an IV dripping clear liquids into Joshua's arm through a needed inserted near his wrist.

Joan walked to the foot of the bed in a very no-nonsense manner then looked back toward Jasmine who lingered nearer the door.

Jasmine forced her feet to move further into the room. She came to a stop at Joshua's bedside. She placed a hand on the metal side bar as she looked into Joshua's still features. Dark hair fell over a white bandage over his left temple, covering a wound that Jasmine didn't remember from the previous evening. He had obviously hit his head when he passed out. But his chest rose and fell evenly, and though he was paler than Jasmine was sure was normal, he looked as if he were simply sleeping.

"Not so bad, was it?" Joan whispered toward her.

Jasmine looked sheepishly toward the other woman, and would have replied, but she was surprised when something suddenly touched her hand. Joshua Dumas had grabbed her hand.

She looked with stunned surprised at eyes that were only partially opened. Their hazel green was barely visible through his lashes. She started to pull away; his grip was far from firm, but he made some small sound and Jasmine couldn't do it. She let him hold her hand.

Joan was no help. "I'll just go and see if I can find out anything about those tests and make a few phone calls. Can you stay here with him for me?"

Jasmine dragged her gaze from their still clasped hands and nodded. It was probably the least that she could do. As Joan walked from the room, Jasmine turned back to the man on the bed. His eyes had closed again and he appeared to have fallen back into unconsciousness.

The bandage again caught her eye. The urge to push back the hair that fell over it was great. Looking guiltily around the dimly lit room, Jasmine gave in to the temptation. To her utter shock, Joshua opened his eyes again, not in the dazed unfocused way as he had before, but he looked at her.

Jasmine found herself smiling at him reassuringly. He still seemed a little lost. "Everything is going to be just fine," she assured him softly.

Joshua blinked. "Angel," he whispered so softly that she wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. She started to pull her hand away, and Joshua's grip tightened. That small movement must have caused him some pain because he moaned slightly under his breath. Then, "Please. . . don't leave me. . .Angel."

Jasmine stilled herself. Who was Angel? Perhaps this Angel person was very important to him. Jasmine held on to his hand more tightly. "I won't leave you," she said. "I promise."

Chapter Four

Jasmine startled at a sound from the door. This time she did release Joshua Dumas's hand. After she had promised not to leave him, he had relaxed into a healing slumber which had left her ample opportunity to observe him. Beneath the bandages and the scratches, she had to admit, she liked what she saw. Which was probably why she jumped so guiltily at the sound.

"Is he sleeping?" Joan's whisper floated across the room.

"Yes," Jasmine answered the woman. "What did the doctor say?"

Joan touched her shoulder. "It's only bruising, like the doctor thought. But Dr. Beckwith would still like to keep him at least overnight for observation."

Jasmine nodded, mildly relieved.

"Listen," Joan was again looking at her watch. "I need to get back home to take care of a few things. I wasn't able to make my phone calls earlier-silly me, I can't remember the numbers-they're out of town, you see."

"Sure, sure," Jasmine was already reaching for her coat and purse. "I can drive you home."

"No. No," Joan laughed. "I can get a ride home. I was sort of hoping you could stay here with him for a little while longer."

"What about the nursing staff?" Jasmine asked, experiencing a sudden sinking feeling that this situation was far from under her control. "I'm sure that they could have someone sit with him until you could return."

"No, dear," Joan shook her head. "They only do that if the patient is in the intensive care unit. I'm only going to be gone for a little while. I just didn't want him to wake up alone. I'm sure he probably doesn't remember how he got here. But, of course, if you have something to do this afternoon. . ."

Something about the innocent expression in Joan's eyes bugged Jasmine. She sighed, allowing the feeling to pass. She owed him, regardless of her feelings on the matter. "I'll stay. But I think I'm probably the last person he wants to see right now. He was asking for someone named Angel."

"Angel?" Joan frowned. "He doesn't know anyone named Angel. At least, not that I know of. Are you sure he said Angel?"

"Yes," Jasmine nodded. "As a matter of fact, he said it twice. He woke up for a second, looked at me and said it. And he also asked that this Angel person please not leave."

Joan's expression went carefully blank. "Well, whomever this is. . . I don't know. I'll be back soon. Thanks so much for doing this." And then the woman was gone and Jasmine was again left alone in the room with Joshua. She reached to the side of the bed and retrieved the television remote, careful to mute it as soon as she'd turned it on.

Somewhere between the Cajun cooking show and the lap quilting network, Jasmine fell asleep. She blamed it completely on the cold medicine, as it had caused her to be more relaxed than usual.

She stretched, a bone in her arm cracking against the muffled noise of the television. Her eyes drifted around the room and settled on her ward. Joshua Dumas was looking directly at her.

"You know, I've been sitting here wondering if you were real." He said.

"Actually, I'm your welcoming committee," Jasmine said, mildly abashed. "I'm supposed to be the one to make sure you didn't wake up alone. I seemed to have failed in my duties."

Joshua's brow went up, and Jasmine realized that there were several ways that her remark might have been taken. "You didn't fail. It was wonderful seeing a familiar face."

"A familiar face that you've only seen once before," Jasmine reminded him ruefully.

"Good point," Joshua grinned at her. "But, a welcome sight nevertheless." Then, wincing slightly, he continued. "So, can you tell me what happened? How did I end up here? Everything is pretty much a blur after I dropped your car off."

"You don't remember driving home?" Jasmine asked.

"Not especially," Joshua admitted, ruefully.

Irritation surfaced unexpectedly. How could he be so cavalier about this? "If you don't remember driving home, you were probably in no shape to be driving anywhere! Why didn't you tell me you were really hurt?"

Joshua blinked, surprised. "Well, I didn't think I was really hurt-just a little sore, maybe." His tone became far more serious. "What happened? Was there an accident?"

"No, no accident," Jasmine put his mind to rest on that point. "You did manage to make it home. Somehow." She glowered as she said 'somehow'. "The real problems began this morning when I arrived to return the clothing that I'd borrowed last night.

"Joan went upstairs to get you, wondering why you were sleeping late. Instead she found you passed out on the floor. But no big deal, huh? You were probably just a little sore."

"Am I missing something here?" Joshua asked, his irritation level rising to one on par with Jasmine's. "Because unless I'm mistaken, I'm the one lying here in the bed."

Their gazes locked for several seconds, then Jasmine blew out a breath. "Listen. I'm sorry for jumping on you like that. I was just so scared when I saw you just. . .lying there. So. . . still and helpless. I thought you were dying."

The irritation drained out of Joshua's eyes. "I'm sorry I worried you," he said, softly, earnestly. Then impish amusement appeared as he asked with exaggerated pleading, "Can you ever forgive me?"

Jasmine felt a small smile building. "Of course, I forgive you," she told him, balling her hands into fists to prevent the urge to playfully thwack him one. "Just let me know the next time."

"Next time?" Joshua's brows raised. "Does this mean that you want to clobber me again?"

"Oh, you have no idea," Jasmine's voice was full of laughter and promise. "Right now, in fact."

Joshua laughed out loud at that. Big mistake. His breath hitched and Jasmine could have sworn he went several shades paler. His squeezed his eyes shut tightly as beads of sweat appeared on his brow.

"Joshua?" Jasmine called, reaching for the hand that was clamped in the sheets. Joshua swallowed, but didn't speak.

"Joshua, how can I help? Shall I get the nurse? Just tell me what you need and I'll do it."

Joshua's eyes opened, his lashes spiky with moisture. "Stay," he managed to whisper, breathing again, albeit much more carefully.

"What?" Jasmine asked in a voice low with surprise.

"I don't like hospitals," Joshua explained. "Never have. If you could just stay a little while longer. . ."

Jasmine took a step back from the bed and considered the man lying against the green hospital sheets. His eyes were open and honest, and she felt that for once he wasn't teasing her. There was also a note of vulnerability there that she simply couldn't resist.

"I'll stay," she said. "I promise." There were no excuses this time. Joshua Dumas no longer thought that she was this Angel person. He knew exactly who she was. "Until Joan comes back," she added in the name of self-preservation. Looking into Joshua's eyes convinced her that she was going to need some sort of protection. She was highly susceptible to the man's charms.

"Would you like me to call the nurse to give you something more for the pain?" she asked, hoping to diffuse the charged atmosphere that was beginning to develop.

"No," Joshua told her. "It's passing now." He grinned slightly, again flashing those mesmerizing groves in his cheeks. "It only hurts when I laugh. I wasn't expecting it. I'm all better."

"Right." Jasmine told him. She didn't miss the way each breath was taken with care and the measured way he spoke, but she left it anyway; taking drugs or not was his choice.

Joshua talked and dozed through two episodes of I Love Lucy and was beginning on his dinner when Joan returned.

"What happened to you?" Jasmine asked her in what she hoped was a polite tone. The woman had said that she would be back soon-five hours earlier. Though she had rather enjoyed being with Joshua, it was the principle of the thing.

"I got held up," Joan shrugged indifferently, not at all bothered by Jasmine's tone. "Couldn't have been helped." She smiled warmly, directing her words to the both of them. "But I see that you seemed to have survived."

Jasmine closed her mouth. That she had been afraid to come into his hospital room wasn't exactly something that she wanted to tell Joshua. But Joshua, not catching the double-meaning of the woman's sentence, took it as directed toward himself.

"Barely," he said, with a wicked wink in Jasmine's direction. "I'm going to have to take self-defense lessons from this woman."

Jasmine blushed beet red. "I can't believe you are joking about this," she admonished them both. "You're," she pointed toward Joshua, "all laid up in the hospital-"

"But, I get to go home tomorrow," Joshua inserted.

"Whatever," Jasmine dismissed the comment. "Fact is, you're still here and I'm the blame. And you," Jasmine turned on Joan. "You're just as bad as he is. Why won't you people take this seriously?"

Joshua sighed long-sufferingly, but there was a sparkle in his eyes. "I could do that if you insist on it. What do you think, Joan? Assault with a deadly-what were those things anyway?"

"I believe she said that they were bookends," Joan replied, right on cue with the same note of exaggerated seriousness.

"Yes. Deadly bookends," Joshua picked up the thread. "I hope that aren't special family heirlooms. They would probably be impounded for evidence and then, what would hold up all of your books?"

Jasmine shook her head and began to laugh. The situation was rather ridiculous. "All right," she said. "You win. I surrender."

"Good," Joshua looked at her warmly. Then, more seriously. "The fact of the matter is, Jasmine, that I was the trespasser. I'm sure the law would probably say that I had it coming."

"I would say he did," Joan replied from the other side of the bed.

"Either way," Jasmine took a step back from the edge of the bed. "I am sorry." Turning, she reached for her purse. "And now, I should probably be going. I hope you get better soon, Joshua," she told the man on the bed. "It was good to have met both of you," she included Joan in her final remark.

She hesitated before moving toward the door realizing that this would be the last time she saw either of them. That somehow made her extremely sad. Her eyes settled on Joshua. "Good-bye," she said.

Joan spoke up. "Why don't you let me have your number, dear? That way I can give you a call to let you know how all of this turns out."

"Oh. Okay," Jasmine obediently recited her phone number for the woman as she pulled a small address book from her purse. She left shortly after, her last memory of Joshua looking very pale and tired.

Chapter Five

Jasmine had slipped into a light doze when the sound of her phone ringing startled her awake. After having had disturbing dreams about being hunted by the CIA for crimes committed with bookends, she awoke feeling unrested. So, while waiting for a load of laundry to complete drying, she had turned on the television and promptly fallen asleep.

The phone rang again, spurring her into faster action. She noted ruefully that the dryer had shut off. She caught the phone on what she thought was the beginning of the fourth ring.


"Jasmine?" The voice on the opposite end of the phone connection sounded vaguely familiar. "It's Joan. I hate to bother you again so soon, but are you busy today?"

Jasmine blinked. "Oh, hi, Joan. I'm not too busy. How's Joshua? Has he been released yet?"

"Yes, yes," the woman sounded a little distracted. "He's home and he's fine-physically. But Jasmine, he's driving me nuts. Do you mind coming over to keep him out of trouble? The phone has been ringing off the hook and I just can't keep up with him. There will be a nurse coming tomorrow, but for today I am at my limit. Could you come?"

Jasmine was stunned at the woman's plea. "Oh...well, sure. I can come," she found herself saying. She'd never thought to hear the woman sounding so frantic. "Just give me about thirty minutes."

Jasmine quickly dressed in jeans and a soft sweater. She brushed her hair down out of her ponytail and checked herself in the mirror. She wasn't sure what to expect from a Joshua Dumas that had caused Joan to sound so frazzled, but still she felt oddly energized knowing that she would be seeing him again.

Twenty minutes later, she stood on the front step of the Dumas residence, ringing the doorbell. Joan opened the door almost immediately.

"You're a doll," the woman exclaimed before dragging her into the house.

"Thanks," was Jasmine's bemused response. What in the world was she getting herself into?

"We moved him downstairs into the guestroom," Joan told her as she showed her along a corridor that Jasmine was pretty sure was the one she'd gone down two nights earlier. "He hates that," Joan added. "Now that you're here, maybe he'll act like he has some sense."

Jasmine didn't know that she wanted that onus put on her. But then Joan was opening the door to reveal the pink room that Jasmine remembered. Joshua Dumas lay in the big bed under the pink pastel comforter looking so uncomfortably out of place that Jasmine burst into laughter. The furious glare she received from the irritated man served to stifle her mirth, but an amused smile remained on her lips.

Joan eyed her with widened eyes, obviously surprised at Jasmine's bravado. "He can neither bark nor bite," Jasmine whispered conspiratorially in the woman's direction. Joan grinned back at her before looking pointedly toward Joshua before leaving the room.

Jasmine pulled a chair up to the bed and settled into it. "Well, aren't you going to speak?" Jasmine asked mischievously.

Joshua's angry glare faltered slightly. "Hello, Jasmine. Thank you for coming." Jasmine could tell that he was working hard to hold on to his irritation.

"Hello, Joshua," she said sweetly. "It's wonderful being here, especially since you appear to be such pleasant company."

Joshua's expression turned to a small smile, he sighed before looking apologetic. Jasmine was captivated by the expressiveness of his features.

"Would a less pink comforter make you feel better?" she asked. He looked so at odds with his feminine surroundings.

"You have no idea how much," he told her hopefully. "I've been trying to get to my own room all morning, but Warden Joan won't let me be. I think she had some idea that all the pink would be relaxing. . . maybe calm me a little."

Jasmine fought to keep her smile contained. He looked so much like a young boy who wanted his way but his mommy wasn't letting him. She imagined she understood why Joan needed help with him.

"I'd love to help you out," Jasmine told him. "And just between you and I, I've heard that pink has the opposite effect. Unfortunately, I have no idea where to find such an animal as a decent comforter."

"My room. There's one in my room that I find very agreeable," Joshua told her.

"Great. Now, I just need a map. I couldn't find my way out of here if I wanted to." Jasmine remembered getting lost two nights earlier leaving from this same room.

"Does this mean that I could deny you directions and keep you here forever?" Joshua teased. "Lock you away in my castle until you melted away my beastly exterior."

"Directions, please, Sir?" Jasmine requested. His eyes were entirely too enticing. Joshua relented and told her how to get upstairs without having to go back out to the main foyer.

Jasmine hurried up the back stairs and found Joshua's room without a glitch. The room was darkened, in deference to its owner's absence for the foreseeable future; but everything was in place. There was no sign of what had taken place there only the day before. Jasmine had a brief moment of unease as she relived the scene. Then, shaking it off, she looked beyond the memory.

In rich forest greens with touches of burgundy and golds, Jasmine felt that the room suited him. After an appreciative once over of the furnishings, she gathered the large comforter from the bed. There was also a mystery novel sitting on the bedside table. Jasmine gathered that up too and took the entire bundle back downstairs to the guestroom.

When she arrived, there was a stack of games on the table as well as a tray of lemonade on a stand. Joan had obviously been there.

"At last," Joshua greeted her, happily accepting the book. "I thought that my moodiness had driven you away and you'd climbed out the nearest window."

"Never," Jasmine told him as she pulled the fluffy pink comforter from the bed, Joshua offered a hand to help her. The sheets beneath were pink also. She could easily make out the outline of his long legs stretched out beneath the pastel covering which suggested that he wasn't wearing a whole lot aside from his pajama top. Jasmine decided then and there that Joshua Dumas was simply going to have to live with that as she had absolutely no intention of removing that sheet.

"I think the pink suits you," she teased him as she folded the comforter.

"No, I think it suits you better," Joshua said, eyeing her with interest as she gathered the fluffy mass to herself. "Pretty in pink."

Jasmine fought the blush that worked its way across her face. Joshua continued to watch her as she spread the comforter over him, then making adjustments to assure that it was even all the way around the bed. During her ministrations, Joshua continued to watch her. And she was careful to avoid his eyes, careful to avoid touching him.

Joshua broke the silence, and the mood somewhat. "Aren't you going to tuck me in, Mommy?" His expression could only be described as downright mischievous.

Jasmine found herself laughing at him. She approached and carefully tucked the covers around him. She considered placing a motherly kiss on his forehead, just to see his reaction, but that would have been pushing things a little too far. She settled for simply mussing his hair and calling him John-boy.

"I'm sorry if I embarrassed you earlier," Joshua said more seriously.

"I'm told I embarrass too easily," Jasmine shrugged.

"Allow me to make it up to you," Joshua said. "Would you like to have dinner with me? Not while I'm flat on my back, but when I can at least move around on my own."

"That's really not necessary," Jasmine assured him. But she was unaccountably pleased that he had asked under any circumstances.

"Really. It's the least I can do since you've been so kind and helpful to me. You were with me all day yesterday at the hospital and here you are again. I'm sure you have better things to do than to play nurse to me."

"That depends on your personal feelings toward doing laundry," Jasmine inserted.

"Not too good, let me tell you," Joshua replied, then continued along his former line of thought. "Your boyfriend must be wondering what you're doing spending all of this time with another man."

"No boyfriend." Jasmine told him. She and Nathan had decided four months earlier that they had grown apart.

"That's too bad," Joshua said, blandly. "So how about it?"

Jasmine hesitated. Was she really ready for this? For the entire time that she had been living in New Haven, she had studiously avoided romantic entanglements. Her relationship with Nathan had been exceedingly complicated near the end. She was enjoying the simple life. Besides, there was something about Joshua Dumas, something that warned her that if she were to become involved with him, there would be no simple hurt feelings as there had been with Nathan. There would be broken hearts.

"We could call it a non-date, if it will make you feel better," Joshua said, accurately interpreting her reticence. "Perhaps the return of a favor for services rendered, for your time."

"Okay," Jasmine said, feeling as if the agreement was pulled from her. She definitely wanted to see Joshua again. If they could keep it to just friends, it would be okay. Wouldn't it?

"I'll be out of prison on Thursday, if I'm good," Joshua told her. "How about Friday?"

"Friday is good," Jasmine nodded.

"Good." Joshua quickly changed the subject. "Drink?" He pointed in the direction of the tray sitting on the stand near the bedside.

Jasmine retrieved the tray and brought it over to the bedside where both she and Joshua enjoyed the refreshment. They played table games for the rest of the afternoon, barely noticing when Joan peeped in at odd moments to see how they were getting on.

As afternoon stretched into evening, Joan brought in dinner on another tray. They continued to play games over the hearty sandwiches and soup that made up their evening meal. By the time Jasmine returned home to her apartment, nearly 7 hours had passed.

After Jasmine left, Joan came in to remove the tray that contained the remnants of Joshua and Jasmine's dinner. Joshua was exhausted, but content. Being with Jasmine had been very enjoyable. He was glad that Joan had found an opportunity to lure her back to his home, and told her so.

Joan feigned innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Joshua Dumas. I asked Jasmine here because you were being more than two hands full and I figured that her being here might put you on better behavior."

Joshua didn't believe a word of what she was saying. "I suppose you were right about that," he said, playing along.

"I don't think you should be wearing yourself out like this, though," Joan frowned over him.

"She energizes me, Joan. It's only because she isn't here that I'm tired."

"Yeah. I believe that along with the Easter Bunny and the Loch Ness Monster. You're tired because you were supposed to be resting, not flirting."

Joshua chuckled. "I wasn't flirting. I was losing at monopoly and a whole list of other games. I blame the medication. They made me all loopy."

"I'll just bet it was the medicine," Joan said, clicking out the bedside light. "Pleasant dreams, Joshua."

"You bet." Joshua couldn't help one additional comment just before the door was shut.

Chapter Six

Jasmine awoke Monday morning, totally unprepared for the new week. Laundry was half-done; groceries and her other normal weekend chores were but wishful thinking in hindsight. But still, despite the things that led up to it, she couldn't regret the way she had spent her time the past two days, finding instead that her mood was surprisingly light.

Edgy, though, had obviously had a different experience. As soon as Jasmine arrived, he ran down a laundry list of items he needed to have done by the close of the business day. Though many of her previously ill co-workers were back at work, Jasmine felt that she was getting the brunt of the last-minute assignments. Even when she found herself having a sandwich in her office, having to work through lunch, she was still cheery.

A sound from behind her brought her out of her contemplation of the bit of code displayed on her computer monitor. She turned to see Calvin Povich, a heavyset engineer in his mid-twenties. Calvin had started with the company a few days before Jasmine, and his office was the next one over. She often heard him muttering to himself as he worked at his computer. Many of the other workers thought he was strange, and tended to make fun of him. But Jasmine often felt empathy for the odd young man. Having been a shy child, she knew what it was like to be different.

"Jasmine, could I ask you a favor?" he spoke softly, his powder blue eyes were searching hers as if desperate that she say yes.

"Sure, Calvin. What's up?" Asking a favor was a first.

"I've been having some personal problems. . . lately," the young engineer mumbled quickly. "And, I've. . . uh, sort of fallen behind on a couple of projects. I know you're busy, but could you help me with the Sauderson Mills and the Hefgar Projects?"

"What do you need for me to do?" Jasmine frowned. Calvin was a good programmer. She didn't understand why he should need help from her on such simple projects.

"Just finish it up for me. I've done most of it. It's just the graphics and a few loose ends."

Jasmine couldn't shake the feeling that something more was bothering Calvin. But, she didn't want to pry. Perhaps she could help him by simply doing as he asked. "When do you need it done by?" She offered a reassuring smile.

"Oh, Jasmine, thank you," he gushed, light flooding his once worried gaze. "Thank you!" He reached out and grabbed one of her hands in his. "You're wonderful."

Utterly stunned, Jasmine didn't hear Edgy's tell-tell steps along the corridor. By the time he stepped into her office it was too late. The guilty flush that suffused her face was pure reflex.

"Well, well. Hope I wasn't interrupting anything?" Edgy demanded softly. The man had never been one to hide his colors-or be afraid to inject a little innuendo if the need arose. Calvin had the wisdom to leave the room without another word. Jasmine was impaled to the spot by Edgy's very direct gaze. When she made to defend herself, she heard Calvin enter his office next door and promptly spill what sounded like an entire case of diskette files.

Edgy stared, barely acknowledging the clatter next door. He continued to study her even after the noise had died down. Then, based on some internal clock of his own he began to speak as if the silence had not existed. "You've got to be kidding me." He spoke softly, barely above a whisper. The softness of his tone did nothing to dilute the gleam in his eyes. "Say it isn't so."

"Say what isn't so?" Jasmine played dumb. It was a wimpy tactic, but all she could come up with at the moment. With studied nonchalance, she turned back to her work.

"You and him. . ." Edgy gestured in the direction of Calvin's office.

Jasmine half-turned back toward him. "Calvin and I, what?" she asked, intentionally challenging. It was really none of Edgy's business, anyway. The company had never put any constraints on employees dating. In fact three married couples had worked within the organization for several years. But Jasmine knew what Edgy's problem was. Edgy's problem was that she had turned him down. And Edgy was nothing if not a man of opportunity. He'd spotted his prey and he was going in for the kill.

And one challenge made by a certain Jasmine Springfield did not frighten him. In fact, Jasmine had the distinct impression that he was having fun. The smile the spread across his face confirmed it. "I think we're both adults here," he crossed his arms. "You know what I'm talking about."

Jasmine looked back at him, stubbornly keeping her silence. Sometimes this man really got on her nerves. He was entirely too arrogant, which was why she would never have dated him in the first place. He reminded her too much of Nathan. She wouldn't be told what she wanted anymore. She was a grown woman and she meant to act and be treated like one.

Besides, she had told Calvin that she would help him. Helping would not involved her telling Edgy that the young man was having personal problems that might be interfering with his work. For Edgy the job came foremost, and he would be on Calvin within moments. The distraught young man probably just needed time to work things out on his own, time Jasmine meant to allow him.

"Jasmine. . ." Edgy brought her out of her musings with a sing-song tone of voice. "Are you and Calvin seeing one another?"

Jasmine was becoming tempted to tell him yes just so he would leave her alone. But Edgy knew just as well as Jasmine that Calvin was seeing someone. Julia Carmen DelRego. No one had quite figured how Calvin had managed to woo the lovely young woman, but they had been seen together having lunch in a local restaurant. The rumor mill had kicked into high gear until Calvin had broken down and spilled the news. For a time, the teasing had lessened. She knew how rumors ran. She didn't want anything she might say to Edgy to jeopardize Calvin's chance at happiness.

"Jas-" Edgy's delight was growing beyond the bounds of quiet amusement. He acted as if he could see the way her mind was working.

"Of course," she cut him off, deriving satisfaction from the way his expression froze in surprise. Then, with a malicious grin of her own, she added, "I see him every day when I come to work."

Edgy chuckled under his breath. "Nice. Very nice. Let's cut the crap, shall we?" His eyes met hers evenly.

"Fine by me," Jasmine replied, consciously fighting the withering comment that wanted to follow.

"Are you and Calvin dating?" Edgy asked.

"No." Jasmine replied. "You know that we are not."

"I'm sorry. I'm gonna have to ask you to prove it."

"Prove what?!" Jasmine felt a little anger mixing in with her irritation. "I don't have to prove anything to you."

"I'm sorry, what I meant to say is: Jasmine would you have dinner with me? " He was smug. Jasmine didn't like smug.

"No. Absolutely not." She could be defiant.

"Then consider the word out on you and Calvin," Edgy told her and headed for the door. He made it sound simple. Cut and dried. Everything spelled out in between the lines.

"Edgy, you wouldn't," Jasmine said in a low voice. But she knew that he would.

"Friday night all right?" he asked as if she had agreed already.

"Can't." Jasmine shot back, sighing with defeat.

"Why?" Edgy wanted to know. "You don't have another date do you?" He looked at her in surprise. "I've been watching you for six months, Jasmine Springfield and there is no one in your life." Then as if catching himself, he added, "Except maybe Calvin. But I'm willing to work around that."

"You obviously don't know everything." Jasmine murmured, her mind going to Joshua Dumas and their 'not-a-date'. She found herself silently comparing the two men. Their coloring was somewhat similar, but where Edgy was outspoken and somewhat flamboyant; Joshua was more steady, reserved, dry witted. But Jasmine sensed that there was a lot going on under the surface with her wounded hero. She could see it in his eyes.

"I know enough," Edgy challenged, again breaking into her thoughts. But he relented, only slightly. Or maybe he was testing her. "The following Friday?"

"Fine, then. But just one dinner and we split the tab." Jasmine shook her head in exasperation. What was the point in arguing anyway? One dinner couldn't hurt anything. And as the man had said. She really wasn't seeing anyone. Which did little to explain why a faint sense of guilt invaded her soul when she agreed to Edgy's proposal.

"Hey," Edgy shrugged as he moved foward, his mission accomplished. "Whatever you say."

The rest of the day, and the next two days were too hectic for Jasmine to even think about her date with Edgy, much less try to talk her way out of it. Edgy was Edgy again, and the office was back to its normal controlled chaos. Jasmine could find no time during working hours to commit to the Sauderson Project or to figure the source of her guilty conscience.

As the days passed, it seemed to solve itself anyway. As she hadn't heard from Joshua or Joan, she figured that Joshua had simply been being nice or teasing when he'd offered the dinner date. The guilt was being replaced by a feeling of loss and disappointment. Why was she expecting a call from the man, anyway? It wasn't as if they were seeing one another. She would probably never see the man again.

On Thursday evening, both physically and mentally exhausted, and having resigned herself to working on the Sauderson and Hefgar Projects from home, she stashed the container of diskettes that Calvin had given her away in her purse. She was half tempted to tell him that she just couldn't do it. But he had been so grateful, and... well, she had said that she would. But that didn't mean she couldn't grumble with herself for volunteering so quickly.

Dragging herself from her car that evening and up the walk toward her apartment, she heard the sound of her telephone ringing. A momentary urge to run and try to answer it before it stopped ringing suffused her, then quickly died away as she remembered the way she had dashed to the phone the rest of the week only to be disappointed. The machine would pick it up.

Once inside the warmth of her apartment, she stored the disks in her computer nook, locked the door and hung up her coat before checking her messages. The machine warned her that there were three messages. One from Lissa, a newly married friend from college. Another was from a telemarketing organization. The third was from Joshua.

As soon as the message began, his voice washed warmly over and through Jasmine. An immediate sense of fullness suffused her, as if she had been waiting for just this thing to feel complete.

He was requesting the honor of her presence at his home at seven-thirty on Friday evening. The sentiment sounded so sweet and old-fashioned that Jasmine couldn't help the goofy smile that planted itself on her face. She imagined his hazel eyes meeting hers so seriously as he formally asked the question. But the tiny sparkle in his eyes and the long dimple in his cheek would give away the humor that hid just beneath the surface.

Jasmine's eyes shot open and her smile melted away suddenly as she began to think of the more physical part of the date. What was she going to wear? A mental inventory of her closet came up with nothing satisfactory. There was no other choice. With a sudden burst of energy, completely forgetting her hunger or her exhaustion, she rushed out of the apartment and headed for the mall.

The black strapless affair that she ended up purchasing was much more than she normally spent for clothing. But it was gorgeous and decidedly feminine. The short long-sleeved jacket that was designed to be worn over the dress appealed to her since of logic however. It also allowed her to rationalize that it was worth the purchasing price as she would be able to wear it to formal functions, if necessary. The quivering, illogical side of her refused to admit that she had bought the dress simply because she wanted Joshua Dumas to see her in it.

Friday arrived, and Jasmine was a basket case. Her usual concentration was shot. She had redone, misfiled, mis-stated, and simply gone off into a daze so many times that day that when the day mercifully ended, several of her co-workers bade her good-riddance. A few others winked mischievously in her direction and told her to have a good time. Edgy simply eyed her thoughtfully.

Jasmine laughed it all off nervously and rushed out to her car, some how managing to make it home in one piece. The trip was something of a blur.

By six-thirty, she was nearly ready. Her mass of hair was worn up with many long tendrils falling around her face. She had also taken her time with her make-up, adding a bit of eye-shadow and a richer lipstick. All that remained was to slip into the dress and put on the shoes.

As she did so, everything seemed to change. It was as if a different atmosphere had descended with the addition of the dress. She felt like Cinderella on her way to her first ball. She had to forcibly remind herself that she wasn't looking for a Prince Charming to come rescue her. She was simply having dinner with a gentleman who had wanted to say 'thank you'.

Chapter Seven

Joshua opened the door when she arrived at his home fifteen minutes early. As she looked up at him, memories of that first night, only a week before, washed over her. Back then, her heart had pounded because of fear. Tonight, her heart pounded for an altogether different reason. A reason she didn't want to explore at the moment.

"You look absolutely breathtaking," Joshua told her, his eyes seeming to soak up her image. They stood that way for several moments, just looking at one another. The dark suit and shirt he wore were not missed by Jasmine. He looked pretty wonderful himself.

Jerking as if suddenly recalling his manners, Joshua took a step back and opened the door wider, gesturing that she should enter.

"Thank you. You look as if you are feeling much better." Jasmine told him, noting that the scratches were barely visible.

"I am," Joshua responded. "Much better." He helped her out of her heavy coat and placed it in a closet that Jasmine hadn't noticed before. But she did notice that his stride was off, and he was moving a bit too stiffly. Jasmine decided that he wasn't as recovered as she would have liked.

"How is Joan?" she asked, wondering that she hadn't seen the woman yet. Jasmine would be straight with her about Joshua's condition.

"She's in the back," Joshua answered, seeming to sense that Jasmine had noticed his discomfort. "I insisted on at least answering the door myself. Staying cooped up one more minute would surely have threatened my sanity." He led her along a corridor and into the den where she'd had hot chocolate previously. A table had been set near the fireplace and candles illuminated the room. Strategically placed lamps allowed additional lighting. The faint scent of vanilla touched the air.

Jasmine was awestruck. "Oh, this is wonderful," Jasmine breathed. "You didn't do this for me?"

Joshua smiled, enjoying her pleasure. "I'm glad you like it. And yes, the candles are for you. I thought that they would suit you."

"It's beautiful," Jasmine whispered as she settled into the chair Joshua proffered. Lovely antique candle holders added to the romantic atmosphere.

Joan entered the room moments later pushing a rolling cart. Joshua was just easing himself down into the opposite chair.

"Hello Jasmine," the woman smiled in her direction. "You look very lovely."

Jasmine murmured a thanks just as Joshua was trying to push himself back into a standing position. Jasmine only needed one guess to know what he was about.

"You're my guest," Joshua declared. "I will be doing the serving tonight."

Jasmine and Joan shared a look.

"Why don't I get that for you, Joan?" Jasmine asked. Both women pretended not to have heard Joshua's statement.

"Why of course, Jasmine." Joan winked at her and rolled the cart in her direction. "That's very sweet of you. Here you are."

Joshua eyed them both with a mutinous expression, but began the obviously uncomfortable process of settling himself back into his seat.

"See you later, kids. Enjoy yourselves." Joan shot her employer a pointed look and left the room.

Both bid the woman goodnight. Jasmine's was filled with a satisfied smile, Joshua's was tinged with bemusement.

"Sometimes I think you too are ganging up on me," he looked up at Jasmine.

"Perhaps you're just paranoid." Jasmine suggested, placing the plates on the table.

A dimple flickered briefly in his cheek before he responded thoughtfully. "Perhaps." He watched carefully as Jasmine took the first bite of her food.

"This is delicious," she said, examining the exotic looking dish.

"Thank you," Joshua smiled, beginning to eat his own meal.

"You cooked this?" Jasmine asked in amazement.

Joshua's eyes fairly beamed back at her. "Didn't think I could cook because I'm a man?" he asked.

"No, didn't think Joan would let you get away with it. You must have been at it for a while."

"She can't baby me all the time," he grinned wickedly. "She went out for a few hours. When she got back, I was mostly done."

"How did she take it? " Jasmine asked, curious to see how the woman would take her frustration out on her employer. Their relationship was definitely not what she would have called the norm. Joan was very motherly toward Joshua.

"Not very well," Joshua assured her, obviously remembering just what had taken place.

"You must have known one another for a very long time," Jasmine commented on their easy familiarity.

"I suppose I've known Joan all my life," Joshua admitted. When I was very young, my mother used to travel quite often. Joan took care of us while Dad was working."

"Who's us?" Jasmine was curious. All of the questions that she had felt were too personal on Sunday, begged to be answered. She wanted to know as much as she could about Joshua Dumas. She was hungry for information.

"My sister Julia and I," Joshua answered. "Julia is two years younger. I have another brother, Jeremy. He was born after my mother cut back on her modeling schedule. He's the youngest. He's away at college, law school. But he'll be home in a couple of weeks for semester break."

"What about the rest of your family?" Jasmine asked. She wanted to keep him talking. The rich deep tone of his voice was mesmerizing. She wondered idly if he sang.

"What is this? Twenty questions?" Joshua asked, laughingly.

Jasmine blushed a bit and looked sheepish. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to come off like a reporter on the trail of a story. I just curious. I wanted to know more about you."

Joshua looked across at her, an unreadable expression in his eyes. He seemed to mentally shake himself and then smiled. "I'll make a deal with you. I'll tell you about me, but you have to tell me about yourself also."

"Okay," Jasmine replied. "It's a deal."

He explained that he was an architect by profession, and that his mother and sister were both still in the modeling industry. Both were in Paris and were due to return in a little over a week. He explained that his father had died when he was thirteen, and of how he had tried to be a manly figure in his younger brother's life-that despite his best efforts, Jeremy Dumas still remained something of a terror.

When he had finished speaking, he smiled in Jasmine's direction. "Okay. Your turn," he said.

Jasmine gave him the encapsulated version of her life. Mentioning her sister in college and her brother still in high school and her parents living in a small town several states away.

"Ready for desert?" Joshua asked when she finished speaking.

"Oh definitely," Jasmine returned. She was curious to see what he might have prepared. He really was an excellent cook.

"Coming right up," Joshua rose slowly from his chair and headed out of the room. Jasmine sat for a few minutes alone, admiring the candle light and pondering what manner of goodie was on its way.

After five minutes, she began to worry. Might something have happened to Joshua. He had seemed very stiff when he'd walked from the room. Making a decision, she rose from her seat and headed in the direction he had gone.

After passing several doors, she was forced to decide on a direction. Left seemed to be toward the back of the house. Several turns later and she was lost. Again. She really needed to trade her sense of direction in for a new one.

She came to a room which did not contain a door. The light from the hall shone inside, illuminating a grand piano. Several other objects around the room existed in shadow. Jasmine felt drawn inside. She thought again of Joshua's voice and wondered if he played.

Tracing a hand along the beautiful instrument, she noticed heavily draped windows on one side of the room. Kitchens normally existed at the back of homes. If she looked out the window, perhaps she could figure out which part of the house she was in. It really was ridiculous to be lost in a house.

Moving toward the windows, she stepped behind the heavy drapes. The drapes fell back into place, blocking the light that had shone from the hallway. Jasmine was forced to squint into the darkness. But still, she couldn't tell where she was from her angle. Feeling for the small latch above the window, she swung them opened and looked out.

The cool breeze washed over her exposed skin, bringing with it the chill smell of night. As she leaned out and looked over the edge, she was stunned at how far down the ground was. That was when she began to realize that the house must have been built on a slope.

She began to make out a fountain below next to a small gated area. Most of the other features were lost in the shadow of the house. It appeared as if she were on one of the long sides of the large abode. Perhaps if she. . .

A movement in the curtains behind her brought her out of her contemplations. When they were suddenly jerked aside, she cried out, toppling perilously over the edge of the sill.

A pair of strong arms wrapped around her and hauled her back in. Momentarily dazzled by the light in the room, she barely had time to register her feet being placed back on the floor before hearing Joshua's furious voice.

"What in the world did you think you were doing?" he demanded. His eyes shown green, practically radiating sparks as he stared, waiting impatiently for a response.

Jasmine was too busy trying to catch her breath and calm her racing heart to do anything like force her brain into comprehension mode.

"I want an answer!" Joshua said in no uncertain terms.

"I. . .um," Jasmine closed her eyes in an attempt to center herself. She simply wasn't sure what to do in the face of Joshua's anger. She just couldn't seem to catch up.

"You scared me half to death. You know that?" Joshua relented slightly, running a trembling hand through his hair. "Go . . . sit down," Joshua gestured toward the piano chair across the room. "Before you fall."

Jasmine was only happy to oblige. Her legs felt like rubber every step of the way toward the low bench. She began to notice subtle differences in the light level. Dim and not dim, dim and not dim. She looked up and saw that the lights in the hallway were flashing off and on.

She turned confused eyes to Joshua. "Why" died on her lips and he leaned over her. "Well, are you ready to tell me why you were leaning out of my window?" he asked. His voice was very soft, almost dangerous.

Jasmine blinked. The words spilled from her lips before her brain had a chance to censor them. "I thought that something had happened to you since you were gone for so long. You were in . . . pain, and. . . I came looking for you. To help. I got a little lost. And I saw the piano and then the window and I was just trying to find the back of the house so I could find the kitchen so I could find you."

Joshua's gaze held hers.

Jasmine heard Joan calling from the hallway, but Joshua's eyes didn't release her.

"In here," he called out. Never breaking the contact. Adding, "false alarm", when Joan appeared at the door.

"Oh." Joan hesitated a moment at the door as if she wanted to say something, but thought the better of it. "I'll shut down the system." And then she was gone.

Joshua sighed heavily, relaxing his gaze. He stood up, obviously beginning to feel the strain that he had put on his healing body minutes before. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I overreacted."

Jasmine shook her head, feeling incredibly daft. She still didn't understand what had taken place.

"When you opened the window," he said. "The alarm went off. I thought that there was a burglar in the house. That's why Joan came up, too. The alarm signals in her apartment as well."

Jasmine's mouth formed a silent 'oh'. Feeling like a tremendous idiot, she sank her head into her hands. "I'm the one who should be sorry," she lamented. "My pitiful sense of direction strikes again. This is all my fault."

Joshua chuckled a little, a hand moving to favor his side. "But life is so interesting with you around," he said. Then settling on the seat beside her, "Think you can handle some desert?"

"Truthfully?" Jasmine looked at him. "Too much adrenaline right now. It probably wouldn't be a good idea."

"I understand completely," Joshua assured her. "But perhaps I can help calm you." He slid up the lid from the piano's keys and settled his fingers dramatically over the board. He offered her a little wink before his fingers began to play a few notes from 'the entertainer'.

Jasmine giggled at his antics, but sobered into a smile when he switched to Beethoven's For Elise. "You're very good," she told him. "I was wondering if you played."

"Guilty," Joshua said.

"I was also wondering if you sang," Jasmine dared.

"Also guilty," Joshua told her. He managed to meld the notes of the one song into something that she didn't recognize. He began to sing of love lost and found and the tragedy of one of the lovers never having known it.

"That was beautiful," she told him when the last note died away. "What is it called? I don't think I've ever heard it before."

"It didn't really have a name." Joshua said, looking mildly embarrassed.

"You wrote it?" Jasmine was amazed. "You're very talented."

Joshua shook his head. "It was an emotional outlet. And when I was sixteen, I had all sorts of emotions that needed an outlet."

Jasmine smiled at his attempt to make a joke out of it. This man was full of surprises. The clock in the corner chimed the hour, leading the occupants of the room to the same conclusion. It was getting late.

Joshua reluctantly led her to the door.

"Thank you for a wonderful and 'exciting' evening," she told him. "You're a wonderful cook and a wonderful singer and a wonderful piano player."

"All that wonderful, huh?" Joshua joked. "Be careful. All that flattery will go straight to my head."

"Let it, because I mean every word."

"Thank you," Joshua nodded, mildly embarrassed. "And you are a wonderful nurse, and listener and excitement maker."

Jasmine winced. "Thanks. I think. If you need any more nursing, you know where I am. Just call."

"What would you do if I held you to that?" Joshua asked, his expression turning more serious.

Jasmine looked consideringly back at him. "Joshua, I really enjoyed our not-a-date."

Joshua looked at her for long moments. "Me, too," he said. The instant seemed frozen for a few seconds, and then Jasmine turned and walked out of the door.

Chapter Eight

Joshua stood before the closed door with a crooked grin on his face. A little bumpy in the middle, but his time with Jasmine had gone well, he thought. Turning from the door, he headed toward the living room and settled against the sofa's cushions with a tired but contented sigh, an arm curved automatically around his damaged ribs. Yes, things had turned out quite well despite the constant ache from his side.

He groaned slightly, thinking that he ought to get up and go upstairs and take his medication. But the effort required seemed far too much. He was happy to simply sit and remember the woman that he had spent the evening with.

He was a little embarrassed that he had become angry and over-reacted to her disappearance. And then scaring the poor girl half to death before yanking her back through the window. . . Good grief, what had he been thinking? But she seemed to have forgiven him. He smiled at that. She seemed very forgiving about a number of things.

He wondered what she would think if he told her that their 'not-a-date' had been a real date to him. Would she become frightened and back off? Would she admit that she felt the same way? Joshua hoped that it would be the latter. But hadn't she been the one who had reminded him of the fact before she walked away. Just when he was debating whether or not to give in to the temptation to kiss her.

What was he going to do? He was no good at this type of thing. He had been so focused on other things. Taking care of his younger brother Jeremy and keeping his father's firm afloat had absorbed the majority of his energy for the past seventeen odd years. There had been no time for dating or relationships. Work and his family had come first in his life. The few women who had attempted to get close to him had quickly come to realize where they fell in his priorities and had moved on to greener pastures.

But now, he realized, his family had grown up. Jerry had a couple years remaining in school. His sister had her own life. The firm was doing exceedingly well. And he had settled into a routine. A routine that Jasmine, her cat and a bump on the head, not to mention a few other injuries, had snapped him out of. But so much time had passed; he felt hopelessly out-of-date. Would a modern young woman like Jasmine be truly interested in him?

As he continued to contemplate the surprising new turns in his life, he heard a soft step behind him. He closed his eyes and settled his head against the back of the sofa, knowing without turning that it was Joan. He also knew by the deliberate fall of her steps that she had something to say.

She came to a stop over him and chuckled. "Figured you would be needing these," she said, handing a brown bottle toward him. She followed the bottle with a glass of water.

Joshua took both gratefully. There was no point in hiding the fact that he had not taken his medication. He had wanted to be alert for Jasmine's visit. After swallowing a pill, he handed the empty glass back to Joan.

"Am I so obvious?" he asked.

"Nah," Joan reassured him. "Only I can tell that you're an idiot about that girl." Blunt to a fault, that was his Joan.

"You wound me, Joan," he smiled affectionately up at her. It seemed that she had always been there.

"No, that's your own doing," she shot back. "And I figured you would be doing something foolish tonight. This is the foolish thing I thought I could help you with."

"What's the foolish thing that you can't help me with?" Joshua asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

"The list is long," Joan assured him. "Now, come on. I'll help you upstairs. You look like you could use it." She had already set the glass down and was gesturing that he stand.

Joshua levered himself to his feet and was about to wave her off, telling her that if he could do nothing else, he could manage to get himself upstairs. But he stopped and leaned gently against her. Though she strove to hide it, she was loving every minute of taking care of him and of finding ways of meddling in his love life-such as it was.

It suddenly occurred to him that Joan was the one who had gotten Jasmine to his home in the past. He looked curiously down at the woman. That first night when Jasmine had landed on their doorstep, she had given him that look. The one she always gave when she was trying to make a point. He had brushed it off back then, out of habit-Jasmine and her bookends obviously hadn't waken him up yet. And now, Jasmine and Joan seemed to have become allies. He wondered. . .

"So how was it?" Joan noting his knowing look, deftly steered the conversation before he could ask the obvious question. He let her. They had come to the staircase, and moving upward was a bit more difficult than walking on level ground. Especially when he was pretending not to be in pain.

"We had a great time," he managed somewhat breathlessly. "She likes my cooking." That statement got him a lecture that lasted until they reached his bedroom. Exhausted, he settled on the edge of the bed.

Without asking, Joan helped him out of his jacket. She kept up a constant monologue about the merits of something or other. Joshua wasn't entirely sure what as he must have missed some very important point while he was gritting his teeth. At least whatever she was saying didn't require much comment.

He managed to kick off his shoes and then settled back onto his pillows. He just needed to rest a moment before trying to undress. A few moments was all he needed. He looked up to see Joan put her hands on her hips. She wanted to know whether or not he would be asking Jasmine out again.

He grimaced. "Er, tonight wasn't exactly an official date. That was one of the conditions of her coming. I couldn't think of a way to ask her to see me again."

"How about: 'Would you go out on a 'real' date with me?'" Joan put in. "Do I have to do all of the work?"

"It's not that simple," Joshua sighed. The room was beginning to do a slow rocking motion that he had begun to associate with the drugs. It irritated him because along with the rocking motion, his thinking became sluggish.

"Why not?" Joan wanted to know. "I think you should call her tomorrow and ask her if she'll see you again. That is, if that's what you want." Joshua could barely focus on Joan's look. His eyes were growing so heavy.

"What if she says no?" He had to practically force the half-whispered words passed his lips. His drooping eyelids gave up their battle halfway through the sentence, but his brain picked up Joan's laughing response.

"She wouldn't dare. I can tell about these things. She likes. . ." The rest of the woman's words were lost as Joshua's body gave up the battle completely. He vaguely felt something warm and comfortable being pulled up about his shoulders, and then he knew nothing at all.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ Joan stepped out of the shower and was quickly toweling herself off when the phone rang in her basement apartment. She frowned, wondering who might be calling her at such an hour. The line had been installed years ago, but most of her calls came upstairs at Joshua's.

"Hello?" she brought the receiver to her ear after wrapping on her robe. She almost added 'Dumas Residence' out of habit. But the obviously disguised voice on the opposite end of the line caused a surprised smile to spread across her face.

"Oh my goodness, Jerry!" she exclaimed, excited to be hearing from the young man. The youngest Dumas, though lovable, always seemed to be up to something.

"Darn. You figured me out," Jeremy cheerfully lamented.

"Oh, please. I know all of your tricks, young man. But, I really didn't know you woke up this early on a Saturday. You shouldn't be falling out of bed for another 2 hours."

Jerry laughed on the other end. "A guy's gotta make changes some time. Is Josh around? I called up to his place and got no answer. Don't tell me the old man is out partying."

Joan chuckled to herself. Now that was a funny thought. Joshua had never been the hang out and party type. Unlike Jeremy. Joshua had developed an overgrown since of responsibility at an early age.

"He's probably just sleeping," Joan assured him. The medication usually put him out for a while. And he had taken it very late the night before, not to mention all of the things he'd managed to get away with while she'd gone out.

"He must be sleeping the sleep of the dead," Jerry put in. "I let the line ring ten times. Twice."

"I'll go up and check on him," Joan told him. "Is something wrong?" Jerry was beginning to sound a little frustrated.

"Nothing's wrong," Jerry told her. "It's just that I show up a week early to surprise him and he's nowhere around to be surprised."

"What? Are you here in New Haven?" Now that would be a surprise for Joshua. "We thought you would be going to Florida with your friends first."

"Well, I changed my mind," Jerry said. Joan thought she detected that there was more to the story, but she didn't push it. Jerry wasn't shy. If he wasn't talking at the moment, there was a reason. She knew that he would explain it when he could.

"I'm actually flying over some strange part of the US right now," he continued. "The plane lands at New Haven in about in hour. Tell that Joshua to meet me at the airport or die. I'm on flight number. . . 1728 at 10:02."

"Why don't I have someone else come and meet you? That way you can surprise him by showing up at the house?" Joan thus entered into the conspiracy with Jeremy. Aside from the fact that Joshua probably wasn't supposed to be getting behind the wheel of a car for another week, she thought that he should be the one to explain to his brother what had happened to him.

As soon as she hung up the phone, a though occurred to her. Without hesitation, she picked up the receiver and began to dial Jasmine's number. She didn't really want to catch a cab all the way out to airport. Besides, as far as she was concerned, she was just helping things along with the young woman and her older charge. Despite the fact that he was 31 going on fifty, she still felt the need to look out for him on occasion.

Jasmine picked up the phone on the third ring.

"Hello?" Jasmine, who had been psyching herself up to work on the Sauderson Project, was happy for an interruption. Work was rarely fun from home.

"Oh, Jasmine. Good, I'm glad you're home." Joan's urgently excited voice echoed along the phone line.

"Something wrong?" Jasmine's mind immediately went to Joshua. He had been in a lot of pain the night before.

"No, no. He's fine. At least, I think so. Could I ask you to do a really big favor for me and for Joshua?"

"Sure," Jasmine quickly agreed. The undertone of excitement in the woman's voice was contagious. "What's up?"

Joan quickly explained about Joshua's brother's plan to surprise him. She also explained what needed to be done. Jasmine agreed without a second thought.

Chapter Nine

Twenty five minutes later, she found herself outside of the Dumas residence. The door opened immediately, before she had a chance to ring the bell. Joshua Dumas stood there looking bleary-eyed and confused. She could almost see the wheels turning in his brain as he tried to recall whether or not he'd asked her over. The wheels in hers were definitely working overtime to think of a viable excuse for her presence. Where in the world was Joan?

"Good morning," Joshua muttered, waving her in almost drunkenly. "Am I. . .Am I forgetting something really important?"

Jasmine's mouth opened and then snapped closed. The befuddled picture that Joshua presented solved her problem, not to mention bringing rise to her more mischievous side.

"You mean you don't remember?" she asked innocently. The little boy lost look that crossed his face was almost her undoing. This was really criminally easy, but she was doing it for a good cause.

"Um. . ." he stuttered. "I. . .uh. . ."

Joan arrived, mercifully freeing him from having to come up with a reply. And distracting him enough so that Jasmine could blow out a small breath in relief. Where Jasmine's relief began, Joan's ended.

The woman came to a dead stop. She and Joshua looked at one another with matching deer-in-the-headlights looks. Jasmine had to fight the bubble of laughter that threatened. The situation was rapidly deteriorating and she needed to do something to save it.

Jasmine cleared her throat and spoke up. "Ready to get the package?" she asked the older woman with a quick wink.

Joan looked relieved and nodded readily. "Absolutely. " Already dressed in her coat and carrying her purse, she moved toward the door. If Joshua thought Joan's and Jasmine's exit unnaturally fast, it only added to his deepening confusion.

His mouth was opened as if to ask a question as the two women slipped out of the door.

Once in Jasmine's car, both women burst into laughter. "I feel like I'm sneaking out of the house to meet a boy my father doesn't approve of," Joan admitted. "I thought I was going to pee in my pants when I walked in and saw Joshua standing there."

"What about me?" Jasmine squealed. "He opened the door before I could even ring the bell!"

"What in the world did you say to Joshua to keep him from finding out what we were up to?" Joan wanted to know. "I've never seen him so confused."

Jasmine had to force down another giggle as she remembered his expression. "This is probably cruel," she began. "But I didn't tell him anything."

"What?" Joan looked confused then.

Jasmine explained what had taken place and the loaded question that Joshua had asked. "When you walked in the room, he was trying to talk his way out of whatever it was that he had forgotten."

"Serves him right," Joan laughed with her. "He should be resting, but instead he's pushing himself. Maybe now he'll listen to me."

Jasmine and Joan shared a doubtful look.

"Well, whether he listens or not, I think we're going to be a little late," Jasmine admitted. The digital clock in her dash flashed the hour. "Is Jeremy Dumas a patient sort?"

Joan's sudden bark of laughter answered that question much more clearly than words could have.

Jeremy Dumas stood at a payphone on the ground level of New Haven International Airport rather impatiently trying to figure out who he might call. He couldn't call Joshua-that would ruin the whole surprise. No one answered at Joan's number. Julia and Helene were out of the country. There was really only one other option. He would call Serah.

Serah was more Julia's friend than his, but she seemed to have been around for practically as long as he could remember. She was probably the person that Joan would send to pick him up. But, knowing Serah, she would want to make herself beautiful first. Which meant that she was probably going to be late. He'd just call and hurry her up-or maybe tell her that he would just take a cab.

The phone was on its fifth ring and he was preparing to hang up when Serah's voice came on the line. She sounded all gritty and annoyed.

"Didn't mean to wake you up, Sleeping Beauty," he began sarcastically. The familiar taunting relationship between the two of them fell easily into place.

"Oh, it's you, Brat Boy," Serah returned. "Have some respect for the jet-lagged."

"Jetlag?" Jeremy was surprised at that. "Where've you been?" Serah wouldn't go too far for too long. Not with Joshua around.

"On assignment," Serah snapped. "I know you didn't call to ask about my wonderful career, so tell me what you want and let me get back to sleep."

"Sleep? What do you mean sleep?" Jeremy was thoroughly confused now. "Aren't you supposed to be coming to the airport to pick me up? Joan said she was sending someone."

"Sorry, Brat Boy, wasn't me," Serah returned, but her tone was thoughtful. "Why wouldn't Joshua come to pick you up?"

"I'm surprising him," Jeremy replied. Then, picking up the sound of his name over the intercom, he made ready to cut the conversation short. "Sounds like I'm being paged. Guess my ride is here. See ya. Sorry I woke you up."

He quickly hung up the phone and moved in the direction of the welcoming center, an overnight bag flapping over his back.

Jasmine could have picked the tall, dark-haired young man who approached she and Joan out of a crowded room. He was so like Joshua in appearance that they might have been decade-apart twins if it weren't for Jeremy's melting brown eyes, and his younger, more modern haircut.

As he approached the two women, his eyes seemed to sparkle in time to his ready smile and the confident charm that he exuded. Jasmine knew immediately that she would like Jeremy. His presence brought an energy, an energy buoyed by his infectious good humor.

Joan stepped up to the young man and gave him a motherly hug before introducing him to Jasmine. He turned his friendly smile her way and shook her hand warmly. Within a few minutes they were on their way to the parking lot and Jasmine's car.

As they drove back to Joshua's, Jeremy and Joan chatted about campus life and his reasons for abandoning his trip to Florida. He spoke of how his latest girl had broken his heart and was now seeing a close friend of his. Since all three of them had planned to take the trip, Jeremy had bowed out, not wanting to be an unwanted third wheel.

Jasmine offered him words of sympathy which he accepted. But it didn't take long for his general good humor to return. By the time they pulled into Joshua's driveway, they were all bursting with excitement.

Jasmine just knew that Joshua was going to enjoy this surprise. She could tell that the brothers were close and that a lot of love existed between the two of them. She was happy to be a part of the plan to bring them together.

Joan shushed she and Jeremy on the front step, obviously remembering the way that he had opened the door earlier when Jasmine had arrived. But they managed to gain entrance into the house without incident.

Everything was quiet and still. Joshua was nowhere in sight. Like a troupe of elementary children on a field trip, they wandered through the house surpressing their laughter with stage whispers in search of the master of the house.

They found him in the den, fast asleep in the Lazyboy. He was still dressed in his robe. Jasmine and Joan remained in the background as Jeremy stepped up to his sleeping older brother.

Jeremy whispered softly into Joshua's ear, before straightening and staring down at him.

Joshua stirred. He slowly opened his eyes and focused confusedly on the legs that stood over him. He blinked several times before allowing his eyes to drift upward where they lit on Jeremy's face. His eyes brightened in stunned amazement.

"Jerry!" he exclaimed and shot to his feet and wrapped the younger man in a brotherly embrace. There was a few minutes of back-patting and welcoming words before Joshua flashed a happy look in Jasmine's direction.

"You were in on this, weren't you?"

"Guilty," Jasmine returned his smile with a helpless shrug. Her heart did a little flip-flop at the warmth that flooded his gaze.

Jeremy pulled away from Joshua and cast a curious look in Jasmine's direction before looking back at Joshua. Jasmine wasn't entirely sure what the look was about, and didn't have much time to think about it as Joan spoke up about breakfast. Wanting to give the brothers some time alone, Jasmine volunteered to help.

Twenty minutes later, Joan was up to her elbows in biscuit dough when a soft chime sounded in the kitchen.

"What was that?" Jasmine asked, glancing around.

"Door bell," Joan supplied, already scrambling for a towel.

"Oh, I can get it," Jasmine told her. She had just finished up the small task that Joan had assigned.

At Joan's, "Would you dear?" she wiped her own hands on the towel and headed toward the front of the house. She'd learned that from the kitchen, it was practically a straight shot to the front door.

When she reached the foyer, the chime sounded again. "Who is it?" she asked after touching the intercom button. The red-haired women on the front step was breathtakingly gorgeous and Jasmine hoped that she had the wrong address.

"Oh Joan, darling. It's me, Serah. Let me in." The woman's voice carried over the system.

Jasmine sighed and pulled the door open. If the woman knew Joan, then she probably should let her in.

Serah stopped short as her eyes settled on Jasmine. "Who are you?" she asked with a small toss of her head which sent red ringlets aflutter.

Jasmine tried not to gape at the beautifully cut silk suit the woman wore. She looked as if she had stepped from the fashion pages of a glossy magazine. "I'm Jasmine Springfield," she managed in a small voice, disliking the fact that she also had to look up at the woman. She extended her hand reluctantly in greeting.

Serah looked down a moment before offering an anemic smile. "You seem to have something on it," she pointed out. Her gaze lingered over Jasmine's faded jeans and old sweater before turning away dismissingly.

Jasmine was mortified to find a small piece of blueberry was still attached to her finger. "Oh good grief, I'm sorry," she muttered, wiping the spot away with the towel still held in her hand. "I was helping Joan with breakfast-or actually brunch, now."

"So Joan's hired someone to help around here?" Serah nodded. "This is a pretty big place and can be a overwhelming. I've always thought that Joan could use some help."

Jasmine flinched. "Er. . . actually, I wasn't hired to help. I drove Joan someplace this morning."

There was a brief flicker of something which Serah quickly masked. "So, you're a friend of Joan's?"

"Sort of," Jasmine replied, knowing instinctively that the woman was not going to like her answer. "Actually, you could say that I'm a friend of both Joshua and Joan. I met them both at the same time."

Jasmine wasn't disappointed. Serah's lip curled slightly. "Where is Joshua, by the way? I'd like to see him."

"Well, er, he's not exactly dres-" Jasmine paused, suddenly realizing what she had almost said. Serah was livid. "Uh, he's in the den, with Jeremy."

"Thanks," Serah mumbled and stormed off. Jasmine noted that aside from being familiar with the household, Serah was also familiar with the house.

Jasmine made her way slowly back to the kitchen. It was time for her to make an exit, and she told Joan so. The fantasy moment when she thought that she might have a chance with Joshua was ended. It was time for her to get back to real life. She should have known that a man like him would not be unattached.

Chapter Ten

Joshua shook his head in amazement as his brother told of his latest failed college romance. He had to give it to the kid, he was definitely resilient. Joshua wasn't sure he would even know how to keep up with the drama going on in his brother's life. Whatever happened to the good old days where you had a quiet romance with a nice girl, you married, you lived happily ever after?

"So what are you going to do now that you're a free man?" Joshua asked, crossing his arms as he waited for the response. Knowing Jeremy, it was going to be good.

The young man winked at him. "Oh, there are a few possibilities."

Joshua's gaze turned suspicious. "A few possibilities. . . " Joshua gaped. He didn't mean. . .? "Now, wait a minute," he pointed a finger at his younger brother. "There's no way you're-"

The sound of stalking footsteps interrupted their conversation. Joshua looked up to find Serah Nichols starring daggers in his direction. She never even spared a glance in Jeremy's direction.

"Sleeping beauty," Jeremy murmured wryly under his voice. Joshua was used to their by-play. He hadn't decided whether they truly disliked one another or not, or if the feeling came in waves.

"Bratboy," Serah spared Jerry her usual greeting, but the level of chill in her gaze never wavered. Joshua knew that look only too well. He also knew that he wasn't in the mood for it. He settled back in his chair and greeted her politely.

"Good morning, Serah," he told her quietly. "Would you like to come in, have a seat?"

"Of course. Thank you," she replied with saccharine sweetness as she sauntered into the room. "You look surprised to see me, Joshua." She said once she was settled in a seat.

Joshua shared a look with Jeremy. "I am," he admitted. "I wasn't expecting to see you today."

"Are you saying that I have to have an appointment now to come see you?" Serah questioned.

"I've told you before that you're welcome here," Joshua said patiently. Another part of his life that perhaps needed to change was the way in which he dealt with Serah. The woman was far too used to getting her own way. Especially with men. He had seen her chew up and spit out quite a number of them since they were kids.

"Yeah, you did say that." Serah looked toward her lap and pouted slightly, putting on a hurt air. Then her eyes shot up to meet his, again full of accusation. "I met your little friend."

"My little friend?" Joshua questioned dryly. "You must mean Jasmine Springfield."

"Yes, I mean Jasmine Springfield," Serah returned rudely. "Are there others?"

"Serah," Joshua sighed. "I don't want to argue with you. And I would appreciate it if you would keep your claws sheathed while she is here."

"My, my, my, aren't we protective of the little girlfriend?" Serah got in as Joan appeared to announce breakfast.

"Jasmine isn't my girlfriend," Joshua replied quietly. "But, for that matter, neither are you."

Joshua could feel Joan's eyes practically boring into him when he'd made the statement, but he refused to meet her gaze. It wouldn't matter to Serah either way if she meant to set her mind to mischief. But his reply had served to still the other woman's tongue-if only for a few minutes.

Jeremy was the one who broke the silence that followed. Obviously having found something amusing in the proceedings, he shared a grin with the room at large. "Speaking of Jasmine. . . where is she?"

Joan's face was carefully expressionless as she answered. "Oh, she had to leave. Probably far too much horse-pockey flying around here to suit her taste."

As Jasmine drove her little car away from Joshua's world of large houses and beautiful supermodels, she thought of the differences between the two of them. For starters, she barely knew the man-sure she knew that names of his brother and sister and his housekeeper; the mailman probably knew that too. Those things alone didn't guarantee definite knowledge about a person. And it didn't guarantee that he was interested in her-although, the night before, she had been so sure. . .

She thought back to the way he had looked at her the night before. She hadn't imagined that, had she? She couldn't have. Could she?

Making a sound of disgust in the back of her throat, she thrust the thoughts away. Just cause she didn't have a life, didn't mean that he didn't. She should have known that a man like him would not be unattached. She, with her words about remaining unattached and not being ready for a relationship. Who did she think she was kidding? She was practically glowing for a relationship with one Joshua Dumas, slightly damaged at her own hands.

Sighing at the futility of the situation, she pulled her car into its parking slot in front of her apartment. Thoroughly depressed, she set about the task of housecleaning. Taking her frustrations out on dust bunnies seemed the only option open to her.

The ringing of the phone interrupted her attack of the dust on her magazine rack. Setting the can of furniture polish aside, she moved to answer the phone, refusing to acknowledge the tiny shot of adrenaline that flushed her system in the hope that Joshua's voice would be on the other end of the connection.

It wasn't Joshua.

"Oh, hi Lissa," she replied to the familiar, friendly voice who'd called her, trying not to sound too disappointed.

"Who peed in your Cheerios?" her friend asked in her usual brash manner.

"Nobody. It's nothing. Just cleaning up," Jasmine replied.

"Umm hmm. Okay. Whatever. So what have you been up to? I haven't been able to reach you in like forever. I thought you would have returned my calls by now. Just wanted to make sure you were okay."

Jasmine sighed, a feeling of guilt spreading through her. She and Lissa had been friends since college. They had both even worked together until a month previous when Lissa had resigned after having met and married the man of her dreams.

"I'm really sorry I didn't return your call, Lis. So much has been going on." Starting from the previous week, and not quite ready to talk about Joshua, Jasmine filled Lissa in on Edgy and the trouble with Calvin. When she got to the part about being tricked into going out on a date with Edgy, Jasmine heard the sounds of suppressed laughter echoing across the phone connection.

"Lissa, so help me. If you're laughing. . ."

"I'm sorry. . . " Lissa's voice was lost again in another burst of uncontrolled laughter. "It's just that. . .only you, Jazz. Why don't you go, anyway? You need someone in your life. Besides, Edgy might not be so bad. What have you got to lose?"

Jasmine thought about it. What did she have to lose? She was a free woman, no attachments. But still . . . "I don't know, Lis. I don't think. . . "

"You know what you need?" Lissa cut in.

"No," Jasmine sighed, knowing without hearing what Lissa's answer would be, what her answer always was when she asked that question. Jasmine gave the requisite response, anyway. "What do I need, Lis?"

"To go shopping!" Lissa announced happily. "It'll make you feel better. It'll make me feel better. Face it, it's a win-win situation. Besides, there's this new boutique out on. . . "

Jasmine fell back on her sofa and pulled a pillow over her face. When Lissa got an idea in her mind, it was all over. She prepared herself for a patented Lissa Samson-Michaels all-out guaranteed-to-cure-what-ails-ya shopping extravaganza. Jasmine just hoped that her checking account would survive it.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ The work week began, and things began to fall back into their usual pattern. Jasmine's shopping spree with Lissa, thought considerably lightening her mood, had not erased the image of Joshua looking scruffy and relaxed in his bathrobe, or dressed in the dark suit that he had worn for their not-a-date, or even the casual clothing he had been wearing when she had first met him. So many facets of the one man, and yet all of them felt. . . right. All of them increased the sense of loss she felt when then the image of the more-beautiful-than-should-be-allowed Serah stepped into the mental picture. There was no way Jasmine could compete with her, and besides, she wasn't in the habit of breaking up couples. She would simply have to resign herself to the inevitable.

On Thursday, wondering how she would ever survive the next day, Jasmine arrived home and dropped her briefcase onto her sofa and moved tiredly toward her home PC. The program changes that Calvin had asked her to help him with were due in just over two weeks. The young engineer had been dropping hints on her progress, and Jasmine decided that it was time to bite the bullet and get the work done.

She had just fished out the diskettes when her phone rang.

"I can't go shopping with you," she answered, thinking the caller to be Lissa who had been pestering her all day to go out with her that evening. Certainly the woman was incorrigible. Jasmine nearly dropped the phone when a male voice responded to her announcement.

"I'm devastated. But I'll settle for a rain check."

Jasmine felt the resonance of the man's voice down to her toes, and she couldn't seem to get her tongue in gear to make a reply.

"Hello J-Joshua?" she finally managed, with only a hint of a stutter. Or so she hoped.

"Hello Jasmine," Joshua replied with a teasing tone to his voice. "You must be one busy lady. I've been trying to reach you all week."

"All week?" Jasmine echoed, then mentally ordered her brain to get it together. This wasn't as if she were a teenager speaking with her favorite rock star. Joshua was just a man. . . an attached man who was probably only calling to thank her or be polite or something. "You could have left a message," she added. "I promise that I almost always call back."

Joshua's chuckle echoed across the connection and Jasmine rested her elbow on the edge of her desk, settling into the call. She found her own lips lifting into a smile in response to the imagery she was receiving from that laugh.

"Actually, what I was calling for couldn't be said into an answering machine."

Jasmine frowned, curious. "Why not?"

"Because," Joshua breathed. "I've been trying to work up my nerve - you see, I'm really horrible at this. I - uh, just wanted to get up the nerve to ask you out to dinner - with me- on Friday."

Jasmine's heart soared, and then took and immediate nosedive to her toes. "I can't," she said regretting ever having made a promise to Edgy. At the disappointed tone to Joshua's "oh", she continued on quickly. "I have a. . . meeting." A stab of guilt pierced her at the small deception. "How about Saturday?"

"Saturday it is then," Joshua replied, the smile again in his voice. They talked for several minutes more before Joshua bade her goodnight. When she hung up the phone, Jasmine couldn't resist jumping to her feet and letting out a little whoop of excitement. Now she really did need to talk to Lissa, and she needed to go shopping again. Fast.

Chapter Eleven

Friday came far too quickly for Jasmine. After having no opportunity to talk to Lissa, and having convinced herself that she actually should keep her dinner with Edgy, Jasmine was a nervous wreck by the time she zipped into one of her nicer work suits. She hoped Edgy took the hint, when he saw her in business attire, that the meeting was just that-strictly business.

At promptly seven-thirty, there was a tap on her door. Smoothing the slacks of her suit, and checking her hair in the mirror, she pulled the door open to a very handsome Barry Edgeman. She couldn't remember ever having seen the suit he wore.

"Milady. You chariot awaits. " Edgy put on his most charming smile as he greeted her, extending his arm so as to escort her to said 'chariot'. Jasmine laughed as she took the offered arm, but shot him a teasing look.

"If you treated your employees like this all the time," she quipped. "Imagine how productivity would increase."

Edgy chuckled. "A worthwhile idea. But I don't think you would all fit into my car. . . er, pardon me, chariot."

"Excuses, excuses," Jasmine murmured, setting the tone for the evening. A steady stream of their usual banter continued as Edgy drove to her to Seaside Gardens to see the new greenhouse display. As they strolled among the verdant green, Edgy reached for her hand in an attempt to make the outing more intimate. Jasmine pretended not to notice, and clutched both her hands around her purse.

Edgy didn't comment, but simply smiled his acceptance before suggesting that they go on to the restaurant so that they wouldn't miss their reservations. Jasmine was overwhelmed to learn that he had chosen Gistaldi's Ristorante, one of the more exclusive restaurants in the New Haven area.

The meal was enjoyable, and the work-like banter continued, with Edgy's occasional prodding to move things into more personal territory. Jasmine feigned innocence until, over desert, Edgy looked up over his chocolate mousse and speared her with a look.

"You know, Jasmine. I really wouldn't mind if you called me Barry. I've been told "B" sounds are really easy to get your lips around. Why don't you try it with me? Bar - ry." He drew out the word phonetically as if teaching a child.

"Ed-gy," Jasmine shot back, copying his phonetic example. Then, with a teasing laugh, "So are "E" sounds, and you'll always be "Edgy" to me no matter how many quasi-suspicions looking situations you find me in with Calvin."

"Fine," Edgy smiled charmingly and raised his hands in surrender. "You're incorrigible, you do know that?"

"It's a learned behavior," Jasmine replied. "My first order of business when I started working for you."

"Ooh," Edgy grasped a hand over his heart as if he had been speared. "You wound me, lady."

Jasmine couldn't help laughing at his antics. A slight movement in the corner of the room, though, drew her attention. Remnants of her mirth still remained as she looked directly into the surprised eyes of Joshua Dumas.

She heard Edgy call her name, but couldn't respond as she was locked in Joshua's gaze. As Edgy reached across and took her hand, she turned a distracted look in the other man's direction.

"You've got a little chocolate. . ." Edgy was saying as he reached across the table and wiped the corner of her mouth with his napkin.

Jasmine jerked her gaze back into Joshua's direction, too stunned to respond to Edgy. She watched as the warmth faded from Joshua's gaze to be replaced by chilly indifference. The cold seemed as if it worked its way across the room and spread to her heart, turning all of the blood into her body to ice crystals. Freezing her to the marrow.

Then, almost as if he had never noticed her in the first place, Joshua was gesturing toward one of his companions, obviously suggesting that the group move toward the bar area of the restaurant. The men seemed all too willing to follow Joshua's suggestion.

Jasmine returned her gaze toward the pristine white of the table cloth, her heart in her shoes. She only wanted to lay her head on the table and cry. She should have told him the truth about Edgy from the beginning.

". . . hello? Jasmine. . . " Edgy was calling to her again.

She turned her head and blinked as they finally penetrated her frazzled brain. She forced a smile, "I'm sorry, Edgy. What did you say?"

"I said," Edgy replied with a curious gleam in his eye, "that it was a nice night for a walk. Well. . . if you're bundled. I was wondering if you would like to join me? Should you, I promise to keep you warm."

Jasmine found that she didn't have the heart to return to the game she and Edgy had been playing. There was no more tact left in her heart to divert his advances. "I. . .uh, I'm actually a bit tired. I'd really like to go home if you don't mind. All this chivalry is wearing me down," she added the feeble joke, hoping that he wouldn't ask too many question.

Edgy looked thoughtful for several moments before asking for the check. Jasmine was thankful that the restaurant wasn't very far from her apartment. Just trying to keep up a conversation was becoming a strain. She really just wanted to get home to lick her wounds. Maybe call Lissa and spill the entire story to her.

When Edgy pulled his car up in front of her apartment, he insisted on walking her to the door. Jasmine allowed it and thanked him for a good evening.

"What? No coffee?" Edgy asked, teasingly. "It's only ten o' clock. The night is yet young."

Jasmine sighed, then laughed. "Come on, Edgy. Don't you ever give up?" Then placing her key in the lock she let herself in amid Edgy's joking insistence that his ego was being damaged beyond any reasonable repair. Jasmine found herself amused in spite of herself. Chuckling, she stepped into her apartment and turned to wave goodnight.

To her surprise, she was suddenly grabbed and pushed against the door. The next thing she knew, Edgy's mouth was pressed frantically against hers. Suffocating panic threatened to overwhelm her as she struggled for release, making feeble motions against the chest that held her arms captive. Fear lodged itself in her heart as she suddenly realized how strong he was, and how alone she was. Finally, she managed to kick out with her leg, landing a blow against his ankle.

Edgy pulled away, a stunned expression was spread across his handsome features. "Jas. . . " he began to speak, but Jasmine wouldn't allow it. Suddenly her fear gave birth to anger, and before she could stop herself, her hand came up and impacted soundly with his cheek.

"How dare you? How dare you? Get out!" her whispering voice shook with emotion.


"Now!" she cried, her fists balled tightly as if she would strike again.

"I'm sorry," Edgy murmured as he turned and slowly walked away from the apartment. Jasmine never saw him get into the car because she slammed the door behind him.

Chapter Twelve

Saturday morning found Jasmine in a funk the likes of which she hadn't experienced in her entire adult life. After she had slammed the door on Edgy, she had attempted to contact Lissa. Confiding to her friend would have helped her release some of the anger and frustrated energy that pumped through her veins. But, Lissa hadn't been home. Eventually, Jasmine's more volatile emotions faded away of their own accord to be replaced by a feeling of desolate loneliness. The man that she had wanted to kiss her probably hated her guts and thought of her as a liar, and the man who had been her supervisor and friend. . . well, she didn't even know where to began with that situation. Sleep had not been restful.

Near noon, as she was catching up on an unusual amount of laundry, there was a knock at her door. Continuing on to her bedroom with the basket that she had been carrying, she placed it just inside of the door before moving to answer the door. Jeremy Dumas' face was absolutely the last one that she would have expected. She found herself smiling automatically in response to his irresistible good humor.

"What brings you here? I didn't even know that you knew where I lived."

Jeremy winked at her. "It's amazing the things you can find out with just a little bit of motivation. Aren't you going to invite me in for lunch?"

"How do you know that I even have food in the house," Jasmine shot back, as she pulled the door open to allow him to enter.

"Hey, one of the great things about the U.S. of A. From anywhere in the country, pizza is only thirty minutes away."

"Ugh. College food. Pass," Jasmine teasingly turned up her nose. "Now tell me really. What are you doing here? Did Joshua send you?"

Jeremy frowned, "I promise it was my idea. Why would you ask that?"

"Jeremy. . . " Jasmine shot him a warning look.

"Jerry," he corrected.

"Okay, Jerry," Jasmine repeated, surprised at how easily she called the younger Jeremy Dumas by a more familiar form of his name when just the night before she'd turned Edgy down. Had she led the older man on?

"Good," Jeremy smiled. "Now tell me why Joshua would send me over here."

Jasmine shook her head. "It's a long story. Suffice it to say that I have not had a very good 24 hours. I don't think I should have lunch with you. In fact, under the circumstances, I don't even think you should be here."

"Huh?" Jeremy was genuinely confused. "You wanna talk about it?"

"No," Jasmine shook her head with a chuckle. She felt an incredible urge to muss Jerry's hair. He suddenly reminded her very much of her younger brother.

"I'm a great listener, I'm told." He smiled at her. "A chick magnet, too."

Jasmine gasped at his audacity. "You are horrible!" she exclaimed. "I'll just bet."

Jerry was unrepentant. "Hey, I gave Joshua an entire week to let me know if the two of you were dating. . . "

Jasmine sighed. "Jerry, we're actually supposed to be going on a date tonight." The feeling of desolation from the previous night returned full force. Any relationship she might have had with Joshua was ruined before it had even started.

"I suspected something was going on," Joshua confided with a small grin. "But all is not well in love land is it? I meant what I said about listening. Hit me with it. I'll raid your refrigerator while we talk."

Jasmine laughed as she gestured Jerry toward her kitchen. He made himself at home while she told him about how she ended up on a date with 'a guy from work', and of how Joshua had showed up at the restaurant. She left out the part about Edgy's kiss. She was amazed at how easy Jerry actually was to talk to. She pitied the silly girl who'd tossed him over for his friend.

"How do you feel about Josh?" Jerry said, having created a sandwich out of ingredients Jasmine wouldn't have thought to combine. "If you don't mind my asking," he asked as an afterthought, flashing his dimples in her direction.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world for Jasmine to answer him honestly. "I like him a lot, Jerry. I mean, one minute I think he's just the nicest guy and that's all there is, and then the next, I can't get him out of my mind."

Jerry waggled his brows at her. "Oh really? What do you think about me?"

Jasmine laughed and tossed a piece of lettuce at him. "I don't think you're totally without charm. . . or humility."

"Really? Do you mean it?" Jerry teased around a bite of sandwich. Then lowering his voice, "Listen, I'll let you in on a little secret. I think Josh feels the same way about you. Of course, he's too. . . old guy to 'fess up to his little brother. But I know these things."

Jasmine stared across at him, not sure whether she believed what she was hearing. Especially after the things that had transpired the night before. The doorbell rang, preventing any further comment on either her or Jerry's part.

Telling Jerry to help himself to the colas in the chiller, she went to answer the door. Edgy's face was the next to the last one that she was expecting to see.

Chapter Thirteen

An awkward silence reined for a full ten seconds as she stood staring at the man she'd thought of as her friend. Some panicked part of her brain told her to just duck, and pretend that she wasn't home. But, she had already been seen, and such a cowardly move would only be delaying the inevitable. She and Edgy had to talk.

Pushing open the screen door, she offered a wan smile, but she did not step back to allow him to enter. "Hi Edgy. I didn't expect to see you."

The normally smooth and composed, Barry Edgeman launched into an immediate and frantic apology. "Jasmine, I am so, so, so sorry. Please forgive me. I promise, no. . . I swear, it will never happen again." The pleading in his eyes seemed genuine, and Jasmine was surprised to find that only remnants of her anger remained.

"I'm sorry I was such an idiot," Edgy was continuing. "I got the wrong idea in my head, and I thought. . . Well, you know what I thought. I'm sorry, and that's all I can say. Do you think I could come in and we could talk it through?"

Jasmine shook her head. "No, I don't think that such a good idea. Maybe later."

Just then, Jerry came through from the kitchen. "Jazzy, where do you keep the must-" he stopped short at seeing Edgy on the other side of the screen. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't. . . I can leave if you want. . . "

"No, it looks like you're busy," Edgy threw her a look. "I'll leave. I'll just call later," he offered, a hopeful look in his eyes.

Jasmine looked from one to the other. She knew the situation with Edgy needed to be straightened out before she went back to work, but she didn't want to be alone with him, just yet.

Jerry seemed to understand the situation. "Hey, I'll just go back to riffling through your kitchen while you guys talk. Call if you need me." He offered a quick reassuring smile, and disappeared around the corner without waiting for Jasmine's response. It seemed that Jerry had decided that he would not be leaving. Jasmine wondered briefly if he were protecting Joshua's interests, or if he was just being protective of her. She really didn't care at the moment, it was nice to just have someone in her corner.

"Bottom right cabinet," she replied to his previous mustard question, making a mental note to ask him why he needed mustard when he was having a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Then, turning back toward Edgy, she stepped back and allowed him to enter. Their talk was calm and reasonable, and they came out of it as friends. Jasmine had never thought to see the Edgeman so humble.

When he stood to leave, he gestured toward the kitchen. "I guess I should introduce myself and say goodbye to your brother."

Jasmine's eyes widened, and a bubble of laughter escaped her. She imagined that Jerry must have looked like her brother as he was so comfortable in her apartment. She opened her mouth to correct him, but Jerry chose that moment to appear.

"Hi, I'm Jeremy," he said, extending his hand to the older man. Jasmine didn't miss the sly way in which he had chosen not to reveal his last name. She shot him a look.

Barry introduced himself, and exchanged a few pleasantries before heading toward the door. Just as his hand reached the knob, the doorbell rang again.

Moving ahead, Jasmine opened it. Joshua Dumas stood on the opposite side. He froze as if he had been stunned to silence by what he saw inside Jasmine's apartment. Jasmine flushed with guilt and couldn't seem to get her feet or her tongue in motion.

Jerry salvaged the situation by again shaking Edgy's hand and seeing him out the door past Joshua. Edgy eyed Joshua strangely, but allowed Jerry to push him toward his car. Joshua was obviously still busy processing the information his brain was taking in, and from the looks of things, he wasn't happy about where the evidence was leading.

Jerry, after taking a look at his brother, patted Jasmine consolingly on the hand. "I'll be seeing you," he said, and left in a hurry.

Jasmine was left to face the storm alone.

Chapter 14

"You've been busy," Joshua commented sarcastically after several tense seconds. "Is there anyone else in there that I should know about?"

"No," Jasmine responded softly, figuring she had that one coming. "Would you like to come in?"

"Well, I'm not sure," Joshua crossed his arms, his challenging gaze never leaving her face. "Is it safe?"

Jasmine's mouth twisted in irritation, but still determined that she wanted to explain the situation, she said nothing. Taking a step back, she gestured that he should enter.

Joshua uncrossed his arms and took several steps into the apartment. Though he didn't speak further, Jasmine didn't miss the way he gazed around the room with studied intensity, as if he were looking for evidence of obscene behavior.

"Have a seat?" Jasmine gestured him toward the sofa, then settled across from him in the opposite chair. "I'm glad to see you're moving around better," She tried to make polite conversation. Joshua simply looked at her, unspeaking.

"Okay." Jasmine's irritation level rose another notch. "Would you like something to drink, or eat?"

Joshua remained rudely silent, continuing to watch her.

Jasmine had enough. "Aren't you going to at least say something?!"

Joshua's brow raised slightly.

Jasmine moved to her feet. "I don't have to take this from you. If you have something you want to say to me, just say it! If you are here to make me feel bad, don't bother. I can do that all by myself. So either speak up or get out!" She pointed a finger toward the door for emphasis.

"Yes, as a matter of fact I do have something I want to say," Joshua glared up at her, appearing completely undaunted by her anger. Then gesturing around the room, he continued. "This little scene here for one thing. What is your game? I presume that was the same guy from "work" last night at the restaurant. And Jerry. How in the world did you manage to get Jerry mixed up in this?"

Coming to his feet, Joshua looked down at her, obviously intentionally using his height to advantage. "I've got to give it to you. You put on quite an act. You sure fooled me."

Jasmine stared angrily up at him. She knew that then would be a good time to explain things to him, to tell him that it was all a big misunderstanding, but anger at his unwillingness to even give her the benefit of the doubt got the better of her.

"I-Just what is it that you're accusing me of?" She demanded.

"I don't know exactly," Joshua returned. "The possibilities are endless. There were two of them."

"What?!" Jasmine gasped in disbelief. "How's this? They both stayed the night! Jerry got up and did the cooking." Now chew on that she thought, crossing her arms defiantly.

"You stay away from my brother!" Joshua yelled, pointing a finger in her direction. Jasmine felt sure that if the coffee table hadn't separated them, he would have taken a step closer and gotten in her face.

"Or what?" she demanded, knocking his finger out of the way.

"Or. . . Or I'll put you over my knee and tan your behind."

"Oh, I would like to see you try it," she taunted.

Joshua eyed her, a gleam growing in his eyes. "You deserve it."

"No. Oh no," Jasmine raised her arms in an attempt to ward him off as she backed around the sofa. Joshua kept coming.

Jasmine ran to the bathroom door and let Cosmo out. "Sic 'em, Cos!" she said.

Joshua froze at the sight of the big fluffy animal. The feline went right up to Joshua and began to rub against his leg. Contented purring emanated from the animal.

Jasmine looked on in horror. "Cosmo! You traitor! I said Sic'em!"

"Good Kitty," Joshua laughed, moving forward and backing Jasmine against a wall.

"No!" Jasmine exclaimed as Joshua lifted her bodily and carried her back to the sofa. "Put me down!"

Joshua settled on the chair and dragged her down in front of him. "I want the truth out of you," he said, breathing heavily. His hands were locked on her upper arms, holding her captive at his eye level.

"Let me go first," Jasmine demanded.

"No," he said quietly, his anger lessened. "Not until you tell me the truth."

Sighing, Jasmine let the story come out. She told him everything, even of the way she had felt after disappointing him.

The hands that held her upper arms gentled, though they did not relinquish their hold. "I'm sorry I accused you," Joshua told her.

"And I'm sorry I got angry and that I wasn't completely honest about Friday night."

Joshua offered her a smile. "You're forgiven."

"Does this mean we're still on for tonight?" she asked.

Joshua nodded and chuckled. "Our first argument and we haven't even had an official date yet."

Jasmine laughed, agreeing with him. Then, "Are you going to let me go, now?"

Looking at the hands that still held her arms and then back up into her eyes, Joshua gave a slight shake of his head. "I don't want to, no."

Jasmine looked back, mesmerized by their depths. "You don't have to."

"Jasmine, may I kiss you?" Joshua asked, exerting slight pressure on her arms, urging her closer.

"I thought you'd never ask," Jasmine replied as her eyes slipped shut.

Chapter Fifteen

Joshua's lips touched hers gently at first, but with growing intensity. Jasmine felt as if her world tilted at the wave of emotion that flooded over her. She sway slightly, and Josh's grasp tightened in response, adding yet another sensation to her drugged senses. She didn't want him to let go, to ever stop kissing her. He was her entire focus.

When he pulled away, it took a moment for her brain to convince her eyes to open. Forming a coherent sentence was out of the question.

"I've wanted to do that for weeks," Joshua said, breaking the silence.

Jasmine felt her lips curving into an irrepressible smile as she considered him. "What took you so long?"

Joshua threw back his head and laughed, before wrapping his arms about her and drawing her close. "I like you, Jasmine Springfield. I like you a lot."

"That was really wonderful, Joshua," Jasmine said after sampling the chocolate confection that he had suggested. "Thanks for bringing me here."

Joshua smiled across the elegantly arranged table at her. "I'm glad you like it. It's actually my mother's favorite desert as well. We always come here when she's in town."

"Your mother and sister are due back from France soon, aren't they?" Jasmine asked, scooping up another spoonful.

"Tomorrow afternoon," he replied. "I going to have them over to dinner one night next week. I'd like for you to be there."

"Have them over? You mean you live in that big house alone?"

"Well, there's Joan," Joshua teased.

"You know what I mean, wise guy," Jasmine shot back.

"Yes I do. Julia does occasionally stay in her room there, but she's got her own place, as well. Helene doesn't like the big house very much. She tends to stay with Julie when she's in town."

Jasmine frowned. "Who's Helene?"

"Helene is my mother. She was a rather famous model when we were younger. She preferred that we call her Helene. It's become second nature, and I often forget that's not always the norm.

"The big house originally belonged to my paternal grandmother. She didn't approve of Helene's career. Helene didn't approve of Nana's disapproval," he smiled wryly and shrugged. "They didn't get along. Julie and my mother were sort of. . . allies, I guess you could say. So a rift developed between she and Nana as well. When Nana died, she left the house to Jerry and I."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Jasmine said, not knowing what else to say.

"Oh, it's nothing, really," Joshua assured her. "Nana disapproved, but she never tried to turn us against our mother. We're all really pretty close, and things are as they should be. Julie and Helene don't care for the place; Jerry and I love it."

"It's a beautiful place," Jasmine agreed. "When was it built?"

Jasmine watched as Joshua's face became animated. He told the story of the house's history, of its status as a local landmark, and of the renovations that he had completed only a year before.

"I can just imagine you with your hardhat on in there tearing down walls in the kitchen, putting up dry wall, all that construction stuff."

"You don't know how accurate that image is," Joshua said, launching into a story of his misadventures while helping the contractors with Joan's basement apartment.

When Jasmine stopped laughing long enough to look up, she realized that the restaurant had cleared out. She and Joshua were the only customers left, and the maitre-d was throwing meaningful looks in their direction.

"We should probably go before they kick us out." Joshua suggested.

Later, they stood in front of Jasmine's door as she fished her key from her purse. Unlocking the door, she pushed it open, and invited him in for a few minutes. The night had been wonderful, and she was hesitant to say goodbye.

"It's getting late. . . " Joshua's voice trailed off, his exhalation marked by puffs of white in the cold night air.

Jasmine swallowed her disappointment. "I really enjoyed this evening," she told him, barely able to focus on his face in the dim light that reflected from a street light.

"I did, too."

Jasmine thought she caught just the hint of a smile starting at one corner of his mouth. She sensed the moment that he decided to move closer. She longed for it. When his lips touched hers in a slow, sweet kiss, her knees turned to Jell-O and there was no more thought of the cold that surrounded them. The strength of his embrace warmed her from the inside out.

The arms that had gone around her tightened, drawing her ever closer. This kiss went even deeper than the first, branding her, touching her in a place that was warm and quivery, completely vulnerable to the man that was holding her. All of her defenses caved at his demand.

When he pulled away, Jasmine wanted to cling to him in denial, to make the sensations go on. She felt cold without his touch.

And then, as though he had heard her silent request, he drew her back toward himself and kissed her again with equal intensity. When he pulled back the second time, Jasmine was trembling - the cold had nothing to do with it.

Taking a step back, he took both her hands in his, kissed them. "I'll call you," he said softly.

Jasmine nodded wordlessly, and watched him walk back to his vehicle. As he pulled out of the parking lot, she realized that she was in very deep trouble. Joshua Dumas had stolen her heart.

Chapter Sixteen

Joshua leaned against the cool glass of the patio doors and gazed out into the gray morning. Thick clouds were gathering, heralding the approach of freezing rain and sleet. A perfect day for cuddling before the fireplace. He smiled, wondering what it would take to get Jasmine to join him in such a setting.

"What are you standing out here mooning about?" A deep, amused voice spoke from behind him. "Or should I say who are you standing out here mooning about?"

Joshua shook his head in amused exasperation before turning to face his brother. "What? I can't just enjoy the view?"

Jerry peered over Joshua's shoulder at the gloomy panorama. "It would be a little hard for me to go with you on that one, bro. So how was the date?"

Joshua couldn't help but smile at his brother's none-too-subtle probing. "It went just fine. We had a great time."

"Hold on to that memory," Jerry told him. "Serah's on the phone for you."

Joshua frowned. "What does Serah have to do with my date with Jasmine? What does she want?"

Jerry shrugged. "You've known her long enough. Whatever you do, don't fall for it."

"Fall for it?" Joshua scoffed, his smiled fading at his brother's serious expression. "What do you mean?"

"Hey, nothing." Jerry made a dismissive gesture. "I'll be upstairs if you need some help from your favorite brother - the one who's trying to save your tail."

Joshua moved toward the side table and picked up the extension, wondering at Jerry's odd behavior. Serah and Jeremy had always had their spats and disagreements, but he couldn't remember ever hearing his brother speak so directly and seriously against the other woman. Their bickering was more tradition.

"This is Joshua," he spoke into the receiver.

"Hi." Serah's breathless voice echoed along the line. "I called about the ALS Society Ball - it's next weekend at the Uptown Hilton."

Joshua felt his heart sink. He'd jokingly told the other woman that he would take her months earlier. She was probably calling to call in the marker. "Right. I'd forgotten," he said cautiously.

"I wanted to let you know that I was nominated for one of the awards this time around. You're the first person I've told. Can you believe it?"

Joshua broke into grin, genuinely happy for the woman. The society group wasn't his cup of tea, but it was very prestigious and he had become a member years earlier at his mother's behest. "That's wonderful, Serah. Who's presenting this year?"

"They got the mayor and his wife!" She gushed. "Now I put in both our names as a couple months back when you said that you would escort me. But since you're seeing someone, do I need to contact the committee and decline the nomination and invitation?"

Joshua frowned. "Why would you decline? Can't you go with someone else? One of your other male friends?"

"Joshua, you know how these things work. I'll never get elected in unless I'm escorted by a member. I'd rather take my chances next year than be declined."

"Serah." Joshua sighed heavily. "Jasmine and I have only just begun seeing one another. You know that. . . ."

"I'm not asking you to break up with her, Josh," Serah said reasonably. "I'm not even asking you to take me. I'm asking you to tell me now if you're not going to be able to go. I need to let the committee know something today before the news gets out."

"Right." Joshua nodded in understanding, realizing what Serah wasn't saying as well. Once the press release went out on the year's nominees, Serah would have to make an appearance. The fact that she was to have been escorted by a full member of the society had probably figured into her nomination. And the publicity would mean a lot for her career.

"Listen." He blew out a breath. "I'll talk to Jasmine, see what she says. She may not mind. But whatever answer she gives, that's what I'll do. I want you to understand that, Serah."

"Oh, Joshua! Thank you! Thank you!" Serah exclaimed. "That's all I can ask. Let me know as soon as you can." She blew a kiss across the line and hung up the phone.

It was with trepidation that Joshua dialed Jasmine's number.

Jasmine hung up the phone with a heavy heart. The cloud that she had been flying high on since the previous evening, had crashed down to earth. She had just agreed to allow Joshua to escort Serah to a fancy ball. She felt as though she were Cinderella, and that Prince Charming had just told her he had a hot date.

On the bright side, Joshua had asked her out again. She was to join him for dinner with his mother and sister on Wednesday. She had to see that as a good thing. So what if she would be sitting home all alone on Friday while he was dressed to the nines, hobb-knobbing with the elite? It was just one ball, and he had said that Serah was like a sister. Hadn't she said something similar about Edgy?

Wednesday was long in coming. When it did finally arrive, Jasmine found it next to impossible to concentrate. Seven was the magic number for the number of times she had redone a particularly easy section of code. A tap came at her office door, startling her, sending the magic number to eight as she accidentally "cut" again instead of "pasting".

"Sorry to bother you, Jasmine." Calvin's nasal tone announced his presence. "I just wanted to remind you that the Saunderson Project is due by next Monday."

Jasmine didn't turn. "Right. Thanks Calvin. I'll have it ready."

"I want to thank you for helping me with it." Calvin continued to speak, shuffling his feet uncomfortably.

"Sure." Jasmine looked up and produced an anemic smile.

Calvin returned the smile, then waved uncomfortably before disappearing out of her office door.

Jasmine sighed. She didn't want to take her frazzled nerves out on Calvin. She had promised to help him, after all. It wasn't his fault that her life had gone a little crazy shortly thereafter.

Somehow, she managed to make it through the rest of the afternoon, drive home and dress herself. She had lost track of the number of times she had changed clothes and redone her hair.

When she pulled into the driveway at Joshua's home, she stared in panic at the dark sedan that was parked in the driveway. It looked very expensive. Out of her league. She very nearly gave in to the sudden urge to flee when she noticed a shadow pass before one of the windows situated at the front of the house.

Screwing up her courage, she opened the door and stepped out of the car. The walk to the door was far too short. But it opened immediately, before she could ring the bell. She looked up into the electric gaze of Joshua Dumas.

Chapter Seventeen

Joshua clasped Jasmine's hand as he drew her into his home. He had been on the look-out for her headlights for a full quarter of an hour before she was due to arrive, and now that he had her in his presence, he didn't want to share her. Closing the door behind them, he wordlessly drew her into an embrace and placed a lingering kiss on her lips.

"Hi." He pulled away just enough to allow himself to gaze down into her flushed features.

"Hi," Jasmine responded breathlessly, causing him to doubly regret the fact that the rest of his family was in the den waiting for them. Also, Joan had prepared a meal that was wafting delicious aromas from the back of the house. Duty indeed called. And if he didn't disentangle himself from the intoxicating woman in his arms, not only would duty be calling figuratively, but someone would come looking for him. It'd be just his luck that it would be Jerry. For what Jerry knew, the entire city knew.

Sighing, he released Jasmine and helped her out of her coat. "Shall we?" He gestured her farther into the house to meet the rest of his family.

The den was lit considerably more brightly lit than he normally preferred, and a roaring fire was crackling in the fireplace. Jerry, who stood leaning against the mantle, stood up a bit straighter as Joshua entered the room and introduced Jasmine.

Agelessly beautiful, Helene rose from her seat and glided forward to grasp both of Jasmine's hands. "Bon jour, cherie," she said. "It's so good to meet you." After years of spending most of her time in the U.S., much of her French accent was gone. But Joshua had noted years earlier that it seemed heavier after extended stays, such as her most recent.

"It's very nice to meet you as well, Mrs. Dumas," Jasmine responded with a warm smile.

"Oh," Helene waved off the gesture. "Nonsense. Everyone calls me Helene, and you must do the same." Squeezing one of Jasmine's hands, Helene stepped away and settled gracefully back into her arm chair. "But first, I must let my son finish his introductions." Joshua didn't miss the wink she shot his way.

Turning away from his mother, he introduced Jasmine to his sister, Julia. Julia was a taller, less fragile, somehow less graceful, version of his mother. He didn't have to guess Julia's reaction to Jasmine. In Julie's opinion, few women were good enough for her brother.

"It's very nice to meet you," Jasmine spoke first and extended her hand.

"And you as well," Julie responded, managing politeness, but not much else. It was as much as he'd expected, but he was sure that Julia would grow to like Jasmine. How could she not when he felt so much for her?

"And you know Jerry," Joshua waved toward his brother to fill the silence that followed before it became awkward.

Jerry raised his glass in Jasmine's direction with a mock toast. Jasmine smiled openly at him, Joshua noted. He smiled inwardly - Jerry had never had trouble making friends.

Joshua led Jasmine to an empty seat and prepared a drink for her. He listened happily as his mother and his brother got the conversation going.

"What do you do, Jasmine? Joshua has been so very mysterious." He heard his mother's sly question as he handed Jasmine her drink.

"I'm a software programmer," she told them. "I write for a company here in New Haven."

"I don't know very much about such things," Helene said. "But I'm sure that you must enjoy it very much. Has no one suggested that you try modeling? You have marvelous bone structure and you carry yourself very well."

Jasmine was surprised at the suggestion. "I've always been far too much of a tom boy, I guess. I'm fascinated by technology."

"Oh, but my dear, being a tom boy does not preclude modeling. My dear friend, Serah was such a tom boy. . . "

His mother's words were interrupted by the ringing of the door bell. Knowing that Joan was busy with dinner, Joshua rose to answer it.

Jasmine watched Joshua leave the room with a growing sense of anxiety. The last person she wanted to talk about was Serah, especially when Joshua's mother was using such terms as "dear friend" in the same sentence.

"Helene you're too late," Jerry spoke up from near the fire. "Jazzy's already met Serah, and I'll bet their feelings are mutual."

Jasmine absolutely refused to look at Jerry, she only knew that she wanted to hurt him. He was positively incorrigible. If Helene noted anything unusual in his wording, she didn't mention it, simply sipped at her wine and commented on how much she liked what Joshua had done with the room.

"Oh especially considering his injury," Jerry spoke up mischievously. "He hardly seems stiff now at all? What do you think, Jazzy?"

Jasmine stared at him stunned as the red color seeped into her face. How could Jerry do this? Forget hurting him, she was going to kill him. But Jerry simply smiled sweetly in her direction, completely unconcerned.

Chapter 18

"Injury?" Helene's face was the picture of concern as she looked between Jasmine and her younger son. "Joshua was injured?"

Jerry merely shrugged and looked innocently toward Jasmine. Helene followed his gaze as she focused questioningly on Jasmine.

Jasmine found she couldn't hold the older woman's gaze, but looked guiltily down at her hands. She felt more than observed the change in the atmosphere. When she looked up, her eyes were drawn toward the doorway.

"I hope I'm not too late," Serah said, her hand wrapped possessively around Joshua's arm. With her thick hair cascading about her shoulders, Jasmine thought that woman look stunningly beautiful. And she looked very good beside Joshua. The fact made Jasmine very uncomfortable. With Serah around, why should anyone notice that she was in the room.

"Oh Serah, you look gorgeous. I just love that look on you." Helene was out of her chair and greeting the other woman warmly. Even Joshua's sister joined in the welcome. Jasmine sat quietly in her arm chair, making polite responses to modeling "shop talk" until Joan announced that dinner was ready.

As they moved to the dining room, conversation continued to center around clothing and the modeling industry. Jasmine was quite tired of the conversation. She had just taken a sip of her wine and was beginning to tune out when Helene changed the subject.

"Joshua," she called toward her son at the head of the table. "Jerry was saying something about any injury. . . is there something that I don't know about?" She cast a look in Jerry's direction, obviously not missing the way her younger son looked sheepishly away from his older brother.

Silence descended along the table as Joshua focused on his mother. Jasmine, having swallowed a bit too much wine at the return of the earlier conversation, coughed uncomfortably in the silence.

"Uh. . . it was nothing serious," Joshua told her . "I'm fine. I've completely recovered." He punctuated the words with a reassuring smile.

"So you did get hurt?" Helene's voice rose in maternal outrage. "Why didn't you tell me? I'm your mother, I should have known. I would have come home."

"It was nothing, really," Joshua insisted. "She always gets like this," he turned and said to Jasmine. "She would come home from a shoot just because one of us had the flu. I don't know how she ever got any work done."

Jasmine was grateful for his attempt to change the subject, but Helene wasn't having it.

"Joshua." Helene shot him a warning look, a look Jasmine easily identified with the same kind of look from her own mother. "A mother must know these things."

"Yes ma'am," Joshua said with mock humility. "But you were having a great time, I'm sure. Grandmere must have been very happy to have you there with her. And the cousins - I know they were glad. I simply didn't feel that it was serious enough to worry you with."

Jasmine could see that the woman was wavering, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The fact that she had put Joshua in the hospital wasn't exactly her favorite topic of conversation.

"It was a good trip." Helene nodded, and a small smile of remembrance spread over her features. "And I did need it."

"I envy the both of you," Serah spoke up. "I was exhausted from working with Jon Marcus, but I do seem to remember visiting Josh a couple weeks ago. Broken ribs wasn't it?" The woman's eyes flashed with devilment as she continued. "That was when I took dear Jasmine for a housemaid. Of course, I had no idea that the injury was a secret. Did you Jasmine?"

Jasmine's eyes widened in shock as she felt the weight of everyone's gaze settle on her.

"I really don't -" Joshua began to speak, but was cut off by Helene's raised hand.

"It seems my son is unwilling to tell me what happened," Helene said, her voice tinged mildly with hurt. "Maybe you would do me the honor of explaining it to me."

Jasmine's mouth opened and then closed. Swallowing she cast a quick nervous glance in Joshua's direction before she began speaking. "I. . . it's actually the story of how we met."

Helene's expression changed to one of surprised interest which spurred Jasmine on. She launched into the story, beginning with running out of gas after having gotten lost in the neighborhood.

"I can certainly understand that," Helene sympathized. "I often find myself lost in this city and I've spent a lot more time here than you have."

"Well, your son came to my rescue when I appeared on his doorstep looking like a drowned rat." Jasmine replied.

Joshua picked up the story then, taking them through the drive back to Jasmine's place and his being attacked by both Cosmo and vigilante Jasmine and her killer book ends.

Jasmine picked up the story, and told of coming to visit the following morning to return the things that she had borrowed. The chuckles died away when she told of the paramedics arriving. When she mentioned that she'd come upstairs to find Joshua passed out on the floor, she heard Helene gasp.

"What did you do?" Serah asked, engrossed in the story.

Jasmine offered a wry laugh. "I fainted. So there were two of us down there."

Joshua looked sharply in direction.

"What happened next?" Jerry asked.

"Well, the paramedics brought me around and then we all went to the hospital. Joshua was released the next day."

There was silence for a moment and then Helene got up and rushed around the table. She ran manicured hands through her son's hair and over his chest. "Are you sure you're all right? I can't believe you kept this from me. Even if you didn't want to interrupt the vacation, we've been back since Sunday."

Joshua sighed long-sufferingly. "I didn't exactly want to admit to being beat up by a girl."

Helene shook her head in exasperation before placing a motherly peck on his forehead. "You're incorrigible."

Moving around the table she gave Jasmine's shoulder's a quick squeeze. "But I trust you and your book ends will keep him in line." Laughter followed the older woman back to her seat.

Jasmine decided then and there that she liked Joshua's mother. But she didn't miss the meaningful glances that passed between Serah and Julia.

"Don't forget the benefit is this weekend," Serah spoke up. "Joshua and I will be leaving about sixty-thirty," she added pointedly. Jasmine thought she would die. Did the woman have to rub her face in it?

Helene frowned and looked curiously in Joshua's direction. "So you and Joshua are going together, you say?"

"Yes we are," Serah confirmed.

"Jasmine agreed that since it was a long standing appointment. . . " Joshua attempted to explain.

"But what about Jasmine?" Helene wanted to know

Jasmine looked steadfastly down at her desert plate, attempting to compose herself for a polite response.

"Jasmine's going with me." Jerry spoke up, surprising everyone.

Joshua eyed his brother as if he'd just discovered a traitor in his midst before turning toward Jasmine. "Are you really?" he asked her.

Jasmine looked in Jerry's direction. The young man winked.

"Yes," she said, looking back at Joshua. She knew she should have probably told him that Jerry was just teasing and that she had plans for Saturday night, but it felt good. After all, he'd asked if he could take Serah to the ball. Serah, who he'd said was like a sister. Even after having known Jerry for such a short time, he was definitely like a brother. How could Joshua possibly object?

The fact that he did object was evident in his darkening expression. Dinner ended shortly after.

After having said her good-nights to everyone, Jasmine was escorted to the door by Joshua. The walk toward the front of the house was a quiet one. When they stood before the front door, Jasmine having already slipped into her coat, Joshua spoke.

"Were you serious about going to the benefit with Jerry?" he asked.

"Why? Is it going to be a problem?" Jasmine returned. "Would you like me to tell him that I can't attend?" She looked up into his gaze, not quiet defensively.

Joshua gave her a considering look. "No. Of course not." Giving her a light kiss on the mouth, he opened the door for her.

Chapter 19

As Jasmine drove home, she wondered at her decision to go along with Jerry's joke. It really hadn't been fair of her. But she had been feeling a little hurt by Joshua's decision to escort Serah.

"Fair's fair," she murmured aloud to the empty car as she sat waiting at a traffic signal. "I'm not doing anything wrong." But she couldn't shake the look he had given her as he kissed her good night. Was he re-evaluating their relationship-such as it was? Was he thinking that perhaps she wasn't the girl he thought she was? Had she made a horrible, horrible mistake?

The sound of a car's horn honking behind her jerked her out of her desperate musings. Putting her car in gear, she headed through the traffic light and toward home. What was she going to do?

When she finally pulled into the driveway of her apartment complex - after having driven past it twice, she had firmly decided to contact Jerry and call off the date. How she would explain to Joshua that it was all just a joke, she didn't know. But she had to make him understand that she wanted to be with him, and only him. Only she had to do in a way that he wouldn't think that she was an obsessive raving lunatic. Maybe she would call him and just spill her guts. Tell him that she thought she was falling in love with him. That she couldn't see not having a relationship with him. That being with him felt more right than anything in her entire life. That -

"Okay, so much for not sounding like a lunatic," she muttered, as she inserted the key into the lock of her apartment door. Maybe it would be better to simply call Jerry and cancel. She would have to sleep on how to convince Joshua that she wasn't a flake.

The ringing of the phone put a slight hitch in her plan. Pushing the door shut behind her, she grabbed it up on the third ring. With a quick prayer that the caller wasn't Joshua, she uttered a breathless "hello?"

"For a second there, I thought this was a reverse obscene call," Jerry's amused voice sounded across the line.

"What?" Jasmine was taken completely off guard by the remark.

"The heavy breathing," Jerry clarified with a laugh. "Sorry, couldn't resist."

Jasmine felt like punching him. It was a good thing he wasn't within reach. Her scattered brain was in no condition to deliver a rational response. The best she could do was a warning, "Jerry."

"Okay," Jerry breathed, almost sounding contrite. "I just called to tell you that I'd pick you up at 7:30."

"Ah, yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that," Jasmine responded. "I was going to call you. I don't think we should go to this thing together."

"Why not?" Jerry sounded genuinely disappointed.

"Because. . . " Jasmine's voice trailed off as she searched for the correct words to explain. "Because it just wouldn't be right."

"But it's okay for Joshua to go with Serah." Jerry's words were mildly confrontational. "I thought you were made of tougher stuff than to just cave to this."

Suddenly the emotions of the evening caught up to her and Jasmine felt herself getting furious. "I don't see where this is really any of your business."

The angrily snapped words were greeted with a full five seconds of silence. Enough time for Jasmine regret having allowed the words to slip out. Jerry was on her side. He had been trying to cheer her up. She really had no right to be angry with him.

"Jerry, I'm sorry, I-"

"No, no need to apologize," Jerry said quietly. "But I really think you should go with me. You have to understand, Joshua has had a lot of responsibility for a long time, and he really hasn't dated much. But for a smart guy, sometimes he can be really stupid. All of my arguing with him on the subject wouldn't change his mind about his *duty* to Serah. But the thought of you going to that dance with me-that's getting to him."

"I don't want to play games," Jasmine said. "It's not what our relationship is about."

"You're not playing games by going with me," Jerry insisted. "Joshua isn't playing games by going with Serah. But Serah is definitely playing games, and so am I. I want that idiot brother of mine to understand what you're feeling. And I want him to see what he's missing."

Jasmine's heart sank. "I know you mean well. But if I have to trick him into feeling something for me, it's really not worth it. I won't do that. I'd just as soon let him go."

"Are you just as blind as he is?" Jerry asked incredulously. "My brother is absolutely nuts about you. When he talks about you, he can't stop smiling. It's sickening-"

"Thanks a lot!"

"All I'm saying Jazzy, is that the two of you have something really special going. You're going to have to beat Serah at her own game. If you really love Joshua, you're going to have to show the woman who thinks she's competition that you don't scare easily or she'll just come back with something else."

Jasmine felt hope blooming. "Are you sure about how he feels? Really sure?"

"Oh, please, don't make me throw up!" Jerry exclaimed in mock exasperation. "Of course I'm sure! I've known him my whole life."

"Alright then," she said with a giggle. "We'll do it. But if you're expecting some cat fight that mysteriously involves mud and bikinis, you can forget about it."

"You had to put that thought in my mind," Jerry lamented. "Gads, the imagery. But seriously Jazz, this will work. I know it will. Have faith."

Chapter 20

The night of the ALS Society ball arrived with no call from Joshua. Jasmine wasn't sure what to make of it. It wasn't as if they had never gone more than 2 days without speaking in their short relationship. But the silence somehow seemed different. More strained. It's my imagination, she kept telling herself. Joshua isn't angry. If there were a problem he would talk to me. He's just been busy like I've been.

The past couple days at work had passed in a blur, for which Jasmine was exceedingly grateful. Edgy had sent her out on assignment with Connor Systems as they had lost their accounting server. So her working hours had been busy enough to keep her mind off of her problems-often keeping her through lunch and for several hours of overtime as well. When she'd arrived home Friday night she'd only had energy to fall into bed. But the Connor Systems server was well on it's way to back up and running, and the hour had come for the ball. She was dressed in the royal blue gown that she'd purchased during an impromptu shopping excursion with Lissa. Her hair, amazingly enough, was cooperating. The tiny curls that fell from the upsweep fell perfectly to graze her shoulders. Now all she had to do was to await Jerry's arrival.

As she gathered her keys in a small handbag, her briefcase caught her eye. The small logo on the side reminded her in a rush that she'd promised to help Calvin with his software and that it was due. Her heart sank. The last thing she wanted to do was go in to the office on a Sunday, and she could hardly cancel her plans with Jerry on such short notice. He was several minutes late as it was. Deciding that she would do what she could before she left, then finish up before Monday, she settled at her computer desk. She quickly retrieved the diskette that Calvin had given her and slid it into the drive. As she opened the program, she found herself staring blankly at the code. It didn't look at all familiar. With a chuckle, she realized that she must have placed the wrong diskette in the drive. Removing it, she glanced at the label. That was odd. It didn't look familiar at all - it wasn't even the brand of diskettes that the company used. It must have been mixed in with the diskettes Calvin had given her.

Just then a knock sounded at the door, drawing her out of her musings. Scooting out of the chair, she hurried to the door. Jerry stood on the opposite side bearing a mischievous grin.

"Ready?" he queried. "Josh is going to kill me for being late."

"Of course." Unable to do anything other than smile in response to his infectious good humor, she quickly gathered her purse and headed out of the door after him. She slipped the diskette into her purse along the way. She would call Calvin and straighten it out later.

The Samuel Jefferson Ballroom inside the downtown Hilton was beautifully decorated. A live orchestra played near a small stage, and white-coated servers mingled with the richly outfitted crowd of New Haven's elite. Jasmine felt like Cinderella at the ball. Only, instead of going to meet Prince Charming, she'd arrived with his younger brother.

"You're going to be the belle of the ball," Jerry commented in her ear. "Serah's going to be furious."

"Right." Jasmine let out a disbelieving laugh. "If I'm the Belle, does that make you the beast?"

"Nah, Josh is the beast!" Jerry shot back wickedly. "Me, I'm Gaston!"

Jasmine couldn't help but laugh as he looped his arm through hers and affected a lumberjack stance. In a deep voice he proceeded to mangle several Disney songs at once.

Several well-dressed older women shot them disdainful looks before looking away, noses upturned.

"Guess they skipped Beauty and the Beast," Jerry murmured mournfully, sending Jasmine into another gale of laughter which drew the ire of the nearby women.

Turning her head into his shoulder, she struggled to control her mirth. "Jerry, you are going to get me kicked out of this place. Then Joshua's going to be mad at the both of us!"

"My opinion, this place could stand some lightening up." Jerry was unrepentant. "Besides, it good to see you having a great time."

Jasmine looked up at him, touched. "Oh Jerry. That means a lot. Thanks for inviting me."

"Hey. What are brothers for?"

Jasmine moved up on tiptoe and gave him a sisterly peck on the cheek. If it weren't for his asking her to the ball, she would have probably been at home worrying her heart out over what Serah was doing with her boyfriend. Wondering why any man in his right mind would pick her over someone like the tall red-haired model.

Almost as if by thinking of the woman, she'd conjured her up, Serah appeared on the far side of the ball room in Jasmine's line of sight. But it wasn't the woman who drew Jasmine's attention, it was the man at her side. Joshua's eyes were locked on she and Jerry, and he didn't look at all happy.

Chapter 21

Joshua had halted mid-sentence as Jasmine entered the ballroom. She looked stunning in a royal blue evening gown that made her gray eyes look as if they were tinged with blue. He had not been able to turn away since she and Jeremy had stepped into the room. It had been as if some irresistible force had drawn him in her direction.

When she'd entered the room, he knew that she hadn't seen him. The way she'd laughed and buried her face in Jerry's shoulder spoke volumes about the comfort she felt in his brother's presence. It wasn't until Serah's murmured words that Jasmine seemed to even notice first Serah, then himself.

"Don't they look adorable together?" His heart turned to stone as jealousy, pure and simple, speared through him. He wanted to look toward Serah, to see if the malice he thought he detected in her voice was real, but he couldn't draw his gaze away from Jasmine. Her image seemed to almost burn into his retinas as he continued to stare intently.

He didn't miss any of the tiny details of her reaction. The way her mouth opened in dismay, almost as if she wanted to say something but didn't know what. It reminded him of the way she had looked at him when he'd seen her at that restaurant with Edgeman. Guilty. The flush of red that crept across her features only added to his suspicions. The sparkle went out of her eyes, and for a moment, just before Jerry placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away, he thought he caught something else but couldn't be sure.

The censoring glare Jerry shot over his shoulder clinched it for Joshua. Something cold and ugly settled in the pit of his stomach. He took a step to follow after his brother and the creature in blue who had turned his life upside down. But a hand at his elbow halted him.

"Dinner's starting," the chairwoman told him with a polite smile. "It's time for you to be seated at the nominee's table."

Jasmine settled beside Jerry at the table that had been assigned them and another couple. Jerry kept up a steady stream of polite conversation about local history with the couple, which required little response from Jasmine. She chalked it up to another thing that she should thank him for. After the way that Joshua had eyed her, as if she were someone who could not be trusted, it was all she could do to make it through the introductions.

Dinner arrived, and though she was sure it was delicious, she had no memory of having tasted it. She'd simply forced herself to chew and smile mechanically whenever it seemed appropriate. She couldn't seem to stop herself from casting furtive glances toward the nominees table where one especially tall and dark man sat with his gorgeous date. But he never once looked in her direction. It seemed that he had put her completely out of his mind.

Shortly after desert was served, the floor was opened for dancing. And many among the large group began to mingle. Jerry explained that any new members would be inducted later in the evening, near the end of the festivities. The couple who had shared their table during dinner moved out toward the dance floor, seeming happy to escape the depressing pall that she had cast over dinner.

Taking a deep breath, she vowed to shake it off. She didn't want to ruin any more of the evening for anyone else. When she looked up from toying with her napkin, she found that Jerry was observing her quietly from across the table. He had tried so hard to cheer her. She hoped that he hadn't given up hope. She'd only known him for a short time, but he had become dear to her.

Forcing a smile, she placed the napkin on the table. "If you ask me, this place could use a little lightening up." She repeated his earlier words back to him.

Jerry's face broke into a grin. "That's my girl." Moving to stand beside her chair, he crooked an arm. "Shall we, Milady?" He gestured expansively toward the dance floor.

Jasmine took his elbow with a chuckle and allowed him to lead her out to the dance floor.

Jerry was an excellent dancer, and kept whispering silly comments in her ears about the other people on the dance floor. She found her mood lightening as the music continued on. By the end of the second fast piece she was giggling at him.

Then a slower song began to play. It seemed only natural to allow Jerry to continue to lead her in the slow dance. The slower music, however, could not slow his irrepressible humor.

"Jerry, you're nu-" Her words broke off when she looked up and saw Joshua standing behind his brother.

Chapter 22

"May I cut in?" Joshua asked, his eyes locked with hers. She felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach at what she thought she read in his gaze. Disappointment, and something darker that she couldn't quite define.

Jerry squeezed her hand, drawing her attention back to himself. He then winked reassuringly and relinquished her to his brother. Jasmine knew that the miserable half-smile that she offering him was a weak attempt, but she hoped he understood. She was sure he did as he mouthed the words, "Go get him," as he backed away.

A bubble of unexpected mirth leapt to life and she giggled. The mirth was cut off as Joshua grasped her hand and pulled her body into his. One arm was wrapped around her back, the other held her hand, lightly caressing the skin.

Jasmine looked up at him and gulped. Gone was the little brother feel of the embrace that she had shared with Jerry. Something electric existed when she and Joshua touched. Her heart began to pound as they moved slowly to the music.

Joshua's piercing gaze was still upon her. The disappointment had darkened into something more. She thought she saw a change in them for a moment, but then he looked away, focusing off in the distance over her head.

"You and Jerry seem to be having a good time." He spoke tonelessly, his expression chilly.

Jasmine continued to look up at him, but he refused to look down, continuing to stare ahead. She dropped her gaze to the level of his chest, focusing on his white tux shirt. "Wonderful," she murmured softly, hoping that he didn't notice that slight tremor in her voice. "Jerry's a lot of fun."

When there was no reaction, she figured that she needn't have worried. He seemed very intent on not looking at her, and he held himself so stiffly that she wondered why he'd bothered to ask her to dance in the first place. He didn't have to put himself to any trouble on her account. He hadn't bothered to call in the past couple of days, and he was at the ball with another woman. Why start acting like the dutiful boyfriend now?

"Joshua," she called to him, fully prepared to tell him how she felt about the entire situation. She was tired of playing games. It mattered to her that he'd chosen to come to the ball with Serah. If that made her a clingy, jealous girlfriend, well she would have to deal with it. The truth needed to be out on the table.

She squeezed his hand firmly when he didn't seem to acknowledge her first summons. The glance he spared her was only momentary before he refocused steadily forward. But it was long enough to see hurt in his eyes. A wave of guilt flooded her.

Had she made a mistake in forcing herself in to this party? What could she have been thinking? She was acting as if she didn't trust him. No wonder he was acting as if he didn't trust her. She had probably ruined everything.

She stole another glance up at him, but he continued to focus stoically across the room. Don't worry Joshua, you've done your duty, she thought as she felt the tightness building in the back of her throat.

Breathing a slow breath out through her lips, she told herself that she wasn't going to cry. But she could feel her eyes filling.

Blessedly, the music stopped. Under the sound of the appreciative clapping of the audience, she muttered a hurried thank you and turned away. She could feel Joshua's eyes boring into her back as she weaved her way through the crowded dance floor toward Jerry.

Chapter 23

"Are you sure you're okay?" Jerry asked, glancing toward the woman seated in the passenger seat of the truck. What had happened while Jasmine and Joshua were dancing, he didn't know. And Jazz wasn't telling. He only knew that when she'd returned to the table, she had been very upset even though she had tried to put up a brave front. When Joshua and Serah took the dance floor, it didn't take a mind reader to know that he needed to get her out of there.

"I'm fine, Jerry," Jasmine sighed. "I'm tired and I'd really just like to go home."

"Sometimes talking helps." Jerry tried again. He hated seeing her like this. Worse, he hated seeing Joshua like this. He had seen the look on his brother's face as he had watched her walk away. But then, instead of going after her, he'd inexplicably danced with Serah. First order of business the next day, he decided, was to have a very serious discussion with his pig-headed brother.

"It's nothing." Jasmine finally responded to his question. "There's nothing to talk about. But I'm sorry I ruined the night for you. You didn't even get to see who's going to be inducted."

Jerry made a face as he pulled into the parking lot of Jasmine's apartment complex. "Now that you've ruined my chances of becoming a member of the absolute dullest, snootiest club in New Haven, you must lobby for my forgiveness with hot chocolate or some other similarly warm and oversweet beverage."

"How about tea?" Jasmine asked, a small smile trying at the corners of her mouth.

"You have sugar? In large quantities?"

"As if you need sugar," Jasmine retorted. "But yes, I do have sugar."

"Vodka? Bourbon?"

"You're pushing it."

"Had to try."

Laughing, he climbed out of the truck and escorted Jasmine to the door. Jasmine came to a halt, her hand frozen with the key extended toward the knob. "It's open," she murmured confused. "I know I locked the door."

Jerry eyed her strangely as he tried to recall exactly what had taken place. He had been in such a hurry, he really hadn't paid much attention. "I'm sorry. I can't remember either way. Could someone have come over while you were gone? Anyone have a spare key to your apartment?"

"Yeah," Jasmine responded, pushing the door open. "But she wouldn't just come in without calling, and she definitely wouldn't leave the door open."

Jerry watched as she moved through the apartment, obviously checking to ensure that everything was where she'd left it. It all looked pretty much the same to him. But the way Jasmine came to a dead stop before her computer nook gave him pause.

"Something wrong?" He asked.

"I didn't leave this this way." She pointed to the diskettes that were scattered all over her desk. A couple had spilled unto the floor.

"Could Cosmo have done it?" Jerry offered. His sister had a cat when they were younger, and he remembered how the animal used to get into things.

Jasmine continued to move determinedly through the apartment opening doors. As she opened the door to the bathroom, Cosmo flew out like a shot. The can ran toward the open bedroom door and disappeared in the darkness beyond.

"I didn't leave Cosmo in the bathroom," she said, barely above a whisper.

Jerry opened his mouth to respond, but then stopped when she focused off in the corner. He watched as she moved quickly toward her briefcase and popped the latch. The papers inside were in a disarray.

"Somebody's been here, Jerry. Someone has been in my apartment." She wrapped her arms tightly about herself, and her eyes filled with worry and fear.

"Are you sure?" Jerry asked, moving toward her. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes," Jasmine whispered, looking up at him. "I'm very sure. Why would anyone want to come into my home and go through my stuff?"

"I don't know," Jerry said, drawing her close. "But I think we should call the police."

Jasmine sat on her sofa, arms wrapped about herself and her head bowed. The sound of Jerry leading the two officers who had responded to the call out faded to the background as she remembered their interview. They'd listened, they'd taken her statement, but she'd known that they thought she was imagining things. By the time she was finishing up, she was beginning to wonder if she weren't imagining things herself. Nothing was missing.

All of her jewelry, such as it was, was in its place. She still owned her computer and all of her audio/video equipment, as the policemen had been very careful to point out. She was absolutely certain that they chalked the entire event up to an over-active imagination and too much wine at dinner. But that didn't make her feel any less violated, as if her personal space was tainted and no longer her own.

She sensed Jerry's approach and felt when he settled on the sofa beside her. A comforting arm went around her back. She was reminded of how sweet he'd been the entire evening. At the ball, and then when the police had arrived. He'd even backed her up when she'd said that she had locked the door. She looked up and offered a wry smile.

"Are you going to be all right tonight?" he asked gently.

Her smile faded a little. "I'll be fine." Jerry had done enough for one day. She would probably try to reach Lissa again, even though it was nearly one a.m. Or if all else failed, she would check into a motel somewhere. Though she did not relish being alone in the apartment for any length of time.

"You sure you don't want to come back to Josh's? You really shouldn't have to be alone tonight." Jerry objected. "Why don't you come back to Joshua's? That house is so big, the two of you won't even have to see one another. If you're uncomfortable with that, I could just stay here on your couch."

Somehow, Jerry spending a night on her couch didn't seem like such a good idea. Especially after the way Joshua probably viewed her. But a night alone at a strange motel didn't sound good either.

"Do you think Joshua would mind?" she asked.

"No matter what's happened between the two of you," Jerry replied, "He wouldn't want you to be alone like this. Joshua's a good guy, even though he tends toward the naïve and stupid on occasion." He flashed a grin at her. "Don't tell him I called him that, 'kay? He really wouldn't appreciate it."

Jasmine smiled sadly. "Deal."

"So Josh's it is?"

"Yeah," Jasmine nodded and then went to gather her things. "I just need a minute," she called over her shoulder. Still dressed in the blue evening gown, she threw a few things into an overnight bag, grabbed up her purse and followed Jerry out of her apartment. This time she made absolutely certain that she locked the door.

By the time Jerry swung the truck into the garage alongside Joshua's sedan, Jasmine was truly beginning to feel a little silly. She was a nobody. Why would anyone want to break into her apartment? Cosmo could have messed up her diskettes. And maybe something had happened to her briefcase at work. But then, Cosmo couldn't have closed himself up in the bathroom. It wasn't impossible.

"I'm sorry to have been so much trouble tonight. You were really great." She focused down at her hands. "Maybe I did imagine the whole thing. I'm sure that-" She broke off and released a deep breath. "Just thank you for being a friend. I'm really going to miss you when you have to go back to school." The time had to be getting near even though Jerry hadn't mentioned it.

Jerry's silence spoke volumes. "Yeah, well that's going to be pretty soon here. Classes restart on Monday. I'll be leaving Sunday evening."

Jasmine's heart fell. Mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, everything seemed to catch up to her all at once. The depth of her disappointment took her by surprise and the tears came before she had a chance to try to stop them.

"I'll miss you," she managed to choke out before scrambling for the door handle. She couldn't remove herself from the close confines of the vehicle fast enough. Attempting to compose herself was a loosing battle.

Jerry was out of the truck and beside her almost immediately. "I'll only be a phone call away," he said. "And this will always be home. I'll be back. You're not getting rid of me that easily. I'm just like a fungus."

She let him wrap his arms around her while she gained control of her emotions, laughing through her tears. "You definitely do grow on a person."

Suddenly the overhead lights illuminated and Joshua's voice sounded through the garage. "Come now, Kids. We have got to stop meeting like this."

Chapter 24

Joshua felt frozen inside as his eyes remained locked on Jasmine's stunned teary gaze. He had watched hours earlier as she and Jerry left the ball together. He had left soon after, wanting desperately to speak with his brother. Frustration and uncertainty had warred within him as he awaited Jerry's arrival home. But as the minutes ticked by, uncertainty and frustration gave way to concern.

A phone call to Jasmine's had yielded a busy signal. A call to the phone in the Bronco resulted in a no-answer. Concern gave way to anger. But when he'd heard the truck pulling in to the garage, the anger abated and relief took its place. Until he stepped into the garage to find his girlfriend crying on his brother's shoulder. He had been unable to stop the bitter words.

"Come now kids. We have got to step meeting like this."

Half expecting the pair to jump apart, it only ate at him further that Jerry's arms tightened almost protectively around Jasmine. He noted dispassionately that she looked exhausted. But the jealous, angry part of his mind would not allow him to respond to it. He wanted to know why whenever Jasmine had a problem, it was always Jerry that was with her.

He couldn't stand there, watching them so cozy together a moment longer. Brushing past them, he reached into the opened driver's side door of the truck to shut off the engine.

"Josh?" Jerry's voice sounded a bit nervous. "I'm surprised you're still awake."

His brother's words served only to heighten Joshua's frustration and anger. "I'll just bet you are," he spat, pulling the keys from the ignition. He turned back toward the couple just as Jasmine pushed herself out of Jerry's arms. His eyes raked over her downcast expression. She hadn't spoken a word. Again a feeling of protectiveness rose within him, stronger this time. Again he pushed it aside. She had Jerry, after all.

"I hope you don't mind that I invited Jasmine. . . "

"Water under the bridge." Joshua cut him off, turning back to close the driver's door. A red bag between the seats caught his eye. Unthinkingly he reached into the vehicle and pulled the bag out. Of soft red leather and feminine design, there was something very familiar about it. Almost instantly he realized; it smelled like Jasmine. The engraved JS on the handle cinched it.

He turned bewildered eyes on Jasmine, feeling as if he had been gut punched. A moment's stunned silence invaded the garage. And then fury enveloped him. "Right in front of me!" he ground out. "Right before my very eyes!"

Unclenching his fist from around the bag, he threw it at their feet, unable to stand having it in his possession any longer. "Now I know why you're here. Must give the college boy a proper goodbye!"

"Now, Josh, wait a min-"

Jerry's words rolled off Joshua as he hadn't spoken. All he could hear was the rushing in his ears as he looked beyond his brother to the woman who was the target for his animosity. Now so many things made sense.

Her face washed pale, panic clearly evident in her eyes. She moved toward him, a hand extended beseechingly in his direction. Joshua saw red, and knew that he had to get out of there before he did something that he would regret for the rest of his life.

Jasmine stood staring in shock as Joshua tore out of the garage, engine gunning as he headed down the driveway. She heard as he turned onto the street at the bottom with a reckless screeching of tires.

Silent tears ran hot and fast down her cheeks as she felt Jerry's arm go around her shoulder as he led her into the house. Too numb even to object, she allowed him to lead her. He murmured comforting words about Joshua coming around, and his state of mind and misunderstandings, but she didn't focus on any of it. The sound of screeching tires continued to echo in her mind. It was the sound of her life crashing down around her.

Ironically, the room Jerry showed her to was the pink room where Joshua had been while he was recovering, and where Joan had led her that first fateful night so long ago. There was an odd justice that this was where it would all end. Heaving in a shuddering breath, she struggled to stop the tears. They simply kept coming.

"Are you going to be all right?" Jerry asked her after a moment as he danced from one foot to the other. He clearly had some place he'd rather be than with a weepy female. The thought both saddened and helped her. She managed to stop the tears to a trickle, not wanting to make him any more uncomfortable or to make him feel obligated to stay.

"I'll be fine," she sniffed, wiping at her eyes.

Jerry reached toward her, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Are you sure?" he asked earnestly. "I don't want to leave you if you're not. I could get Joan."

Jasmine shook her head, determinedly. "No. I'm okay. Really. Thanks Jerry. For everything."

"Sure thing," Jerry gave her a half grin, squeezing her shoulders. Then moving toward the door, "I don't want to leave Joshua like this all night. He may be an idiot sometimes, but he's still my brother. I've got to reach him and talk some sense into his thick skull."

Joshua tightly gripped the steering wheel as he sped down New Haven Blvd. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic on the road at nearly two in the morning. A good thing since his subconscious kept treating him to images of Jerry and Jasmine in a passionate embrace.

How could he have been so stupid? How could he not have seen? He knew that they were close, and that Jerry liked her. But he had never truly thought that. . . His mind shut down on the thought.

Hurt and betrayal began to replace the anger and he groaned deep in his throat. Pulling over onto the side of the road, he drew the truck to a stop. "How could I have been so stupid?" he asked himself aloud. "How could I be so stupid as to fall in love with a woman who is playing me for a fool against my brother?"

Resting his head in his hands he suddenly felt incredibly tired and hollow. As if everything alive and vibrant and been burned out of his soul with a hot poker. Images of Jasmine and Jerry continued to assault him and he knew that there was no way he could go back home that night. Not while Jasmine and Jerry were there.

The chirping of the phone caught his attention, startling him out of his thoughts. Only one person would be calling on the cellular phone in the middle of the night.

He listened as it rang six times before it ceased. After several minutes, the ringing started up again. Joshua refused to pick up. On the third set of rings, he was tempted to simply shut the thing off, but something stopped him. Anger again blazed through his veins. There were just a few things he wanted to say to his sorry excuse for a brother.

Chapter 25

Jerry was about to give up on Joshua answering when abruptly the sound of electronic ringing stopped and Joshua's barely controlled "What?!" echoed in his ear.

"Oh so he answers," Jerry shot back sarcastically, saying the first thing that came to mind. He hadn't exactly planned what he was going to say to his brother. While he couldn't recall ever having seen Josh so upset, he was also a bit angry that he thought him capable of sneaking around with a his girlfriend. "Figured you would be hiding out for the rest of the night."

"I was just trying to give you a little private time. Done already? Hope I didn't spoil the mood?"

"What is the matter with you?" Jerry responded, his own anger and irritation getting the better of him. "Are you a complete idiot? Doesn't family mean anything to you? I'm your brother, for heaven's sake. I wouldn't-"

"Could have fooled me," Joshua muttered across the phone connection.

Jerry breathed a sigh of frustration and tried again. He stopped when he heard the background sound of the Bronco's engine revving, followed by the echo of squealing tires. An edge of anxiety crept into his heart.

"Josh, listen to me for once! This is getting scary. We can't talk like this. Why don't you come back home so we can-"

"I don't have to-"

"Dammit Joshua! Quick acting like some heartbroken child whose lost his favorite toy! We need to talk. Man to man. Or are you just too cowardly to face your little brother?" With that he hung up the phone and headed outside to wait. He ignored the ringing that began behind him as he left the room.

Sitting on the brick ledge just beyond the garage, he didn't have long to wait before the Bronco's headlights could be seen at the bottom of the drive. Joshua took the narrow pavement a lot faster than made Jerry comfortable, and he wondered vaguely at all the times his brother had admonished him for doing that very thing. Maybe he would listen in the future. Despite the situation, a chuckle escaped him as he imagined Joshua's expression when he shared that bit of information.

He rose to his feet as the truck rocked to a halt, and his brother cut the lights and engine and climbed out, slamming the door behind him. He couldn't suppress the small, amused grin that lit his features at Josh's angry approach. "You are so predictable," he couldn't resist saying. "I just knew you would come tearing in here."

"Oh, you know me so well do you?" Joshua moved threateningly into his personal space, fists clenching. For the first time in his life, Jerry wondered that his brother might be moved to violence. The smile drained from his face. He no longer found any humor in the situation.

"You want to hit me, Joshua?" he asked, his voice quiet and deadly serious. His eyes locked with his brother's furious ones. "Is that what this has really come to?"

Something flickered in Joshua's eyes, almost like a realization. He blinked and took an uncertain step backward before running a distracted hand through already thoroughly mussed hair. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "I don't know what I was thinking." He paced in a tormented circle as he continued. "Yes, I do know what I was thinking. Why Jerry? How could you do that to me?"

"How could I do that to you?" Jerry spoke the words almost to himself in a tone of disbelief. "I thought you trusted me Joshua. I thought you trusted Jasmine. But now it's coming to light what you really think. You don't deserve her at all."

Joshua froze. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the fact that you idiotically allowed Serah to bring this rift between you and Jasmine over this stupid benefit. And then, instead of reassuring her that there is nothing going on between you and Serah, you leave her hanging to only wonder for the rest of the week. That girl is so in love with you she can't even see straight!

"But that's not the worst of it," Jerry was just warming to his subject. He had plenty more to say. "On the night when she's trying to make the most of the situation, you treat her like she's got the plague. She goes home, finds that someone has broken into her apartment. And when she comes to spend the night in a place she feels safe, you accuse her of cheating on you with your very own brother! Just how much is she supposed to put up with before she turns and walks away? Huh?"

Silence reigned for a full five seconds as Jerry watched Joshua absorb the things he had said. Then suddenly, his brother seemed to crumble before his very eyes. All of the fight went out of him and he settled on the brick ledge, his shoulders slumped in dejection.

"Oh, God. I've been such a fool."

"Yes you have," Jerry agreed, cutting him no slack. But then he reached a hand up and rested it lightly against his shoulder. "A fool in love. I thought I'd never see the day."

Joshua released a sorry excuse for a chuckle, then gazed skyward. "And I never thought I'd see the day where I was asking my baby brother for romantic advice." The words hung in the air for a beat. "Do you think it's too late?"

"No," Jerry shook his head. "It's not too late. She's in the pink room. I'll trust you can take it from here without my help."

Joshua moved slowly through the darkness of his home toward Jasmine. He had acted like such a jerk, and despite Jerry's reassurances, he wasn't sure at all that it wasn't too late. He had accused Jasmine of horrible things and didn't know if he even deserved to be forgiven.

Outside the door he came to a halt. Tapping lightly, he waited for a response from within. Would she ignore him? Or just tell him to go away? When after several seconds there was no response, he shifted uncertainly. Then, coming to a decision, he turned the knob, calling her name softly as he pushed the door open.

She lay motionless on top of the coverlet, curled on her side, still dressed in her gown. She even still wore her shoes as if she had simply collapsed there. Moving closer to the bed, he stared down into the relaxed planes of her face. The light shinning from the bathroom played across her, illuminating the bit of tissue clasped in her hand and the tracks that had been made by tears even as she'd fallen asleep.

It tore at his heart, because he knew that he had been the cause for her sadness. And because he didn't want to think that the relationship that they were developing was to be over so soon, practically before it had begun. He was deeply drawn to her and he couldn't say why. He only knew that somewhere along the line she had become a part of him.

Something Joan has said came back to him. She'd said that he'd make a fool of himself over this girl. Well, she was right. And heaven help him, he was probably going to do it again before all was said and done. But for tonight, he seemed to have been given a reprieve. He couldn't bring himself to wake her.

Moving closer to the bed, he carefully removed Jasmine's shoes and placed them on the floor. Then moving toward the closet, he retrieved a blanket and covered her. He lingered as he pulled the blanket up over her shoulders. A hand trailed over the soft curls that fell over her face. Pushing them back, he stooped beside the bed.

"I love you, Jasmine Springfield," he said, emotion welling up in him. Closing his eyes against the feeling that things weren't going to be alright, he planted a whisper of a kiss against her temple then quietly left the room. Tomorrow, they would talk.

Chapter 26

Jasmine's eyes opened to an up close and personal view of the smooth rich surface of an oak beside table. The sight was so unfamiliar that for a moment her mind utterly blanked, sending her into a panic as she could not recall where she was or how she had gotten there.

But then she remembered. This was Joshua's house, and she was there because she had been too afraid to remain at her apartment alone. Worse, she remembered the awful scene that had taken place in the garage shortly after her and Jerry's arrival.

A stab of remembered shame and hurt pierced her, causing an involuntary moan to escape her lips as she rolled quickly into a sitting position. She might have been fair game last night, but she absolutely was not ready to face Joshua Dumas that morning. Everything that happened was too fresh, too raw to expose again so soon. She just wanted to get home, where should could lick her wounds in private.

Tossing back the soft gray comforter with which she had been covered, she quickly found her shoes and overnight bag. Despite Jerry's assurances the night before that the house was large enough that she and Joshua did not have to cross one another's paths, Jasmine knew better. The laws of probability being what they were where she and Joshua were concerned, she'd probably trip over him before she could get out of the bedroom door. That image didn't exactly help her growing nervousness.

As she started frantically toward the door, a flicker of conscience sent her back to the bed to quickly fold the comforter and neaten. Then, high heeled sandals and over night bag in hand, she hurried out into the dim corridor

Heavy silence of a sleeping household settled about her like a cloak. Feeling closed in, and more than a little like an intruder, she crept along the hall toward the den. Surely everyone must have been able to hear the erratic pounding of her coward heart. The way it thumped in her ears, making her dizzy, she was surprised that very molecules of the air didn't vibrate with her need to escape.

Her initial instinct was just to hurry out the door. But she'd learned from experience that the distance on foot would be foolhardy dressed as she was. So she put one stocking foot in front of the other until she reached the den - and the closest telephone.

She had barely taken a step when something caught her attention, nearly causing her heart to stop completely. There was nothing she could do about the frightened little squeak she emitted. But the small sound didn't seem to affect the shadowy form whose head and shoulders were slumped against the back of a reclining chair. The form merely shifted slightly before drifting back off into the depths of slumber.

Jasmine didn't need to hear the sounds of his soft breathing, or see the way his broad shoulders curved just so to know that it was Joshua. Even the outline of an acoustic guitar leaning against the chair added to her knowledge. It was as if she recognized him on a whole different level, as if her heart knew. And it did. But her heart could not explain what had gone so very wrong between them, or how to fix it.

As she stood there, absorbing the masculine vulnerability of him, sensing the connection that vibrated between them if only they could just take hold of it, she hoped that somehow they could make it right. But how could you make a man trust you? How could she do so after demonstrating to him her own lack of trust? Was she willing to continue a relationship under such circumstances? Did she even have that option?

Her anxious fear of being caught leaving bled away in the face of hopelessness. Stifling an unhappy sigh, she moved quietly through the house toward the small room near the garage. After using the cordless that was mounted there near the door way to phone a cab, she crept out to wait at the bottom of the drive.

Joshua jerked groggily awake at the sound of obnoxious ringing. Disoriented, it took him a few moments to recognize the ringing as that of the telephone. Just as he uttered a gruff hello, he noticed that the lights along the corridor were flashing. Rubbing a hand over his tired features as he struggled to bring himself fully awake, he told the caller from the alarm company the pass phrase.

He had barely returned the phone to its cradle when the flashing ceased, followed by Jerry's appearance.

"What's going on?" The younger man asked, belting his robe. Joshua didn't miss the quick once over his brother gave him. The tux from the night before was long past wrinkled, the jacket discarded at some time and place that eluded him. Judging from the way Jerry focused on his face, he looked as bad as he felt.

Before Joshua could make a response to the first, Jerry let loose another question. "Where's Jazzy?"

Joshua didn't even try to respond to that one. He simply shot out of the room and hurried down the hall. He had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. The feeling was confirmed when he reached the partially ajar door of the room that he'd left Jasmine in the night before. Only the neatly folded gray comforter announced that she had once been present.

"She's gone," he said quietly, belatedly answering Jerry's question. So much for having an opportunity to apologize to her that morning. If she would ever allow him to. He wouldn't be surprised if she never wanted to speak to him again.

"What happened?" Jerry demanded, looking as stunned as he felt. "Didn't you talk to her last night?"

"No," he shook his head, dragging himself from his gloomy thoughts. "She was asleep. I didn't want to wake her."

"Well, obviously she's awake now. Go after her!"

"Jerry." Josh scrubbed a hand over his face and up around his head. He was just so tired, and he didn't know if he had the energy to make his brother understand. "I said some pretty rotten things to Jasmine last night. She obviously doesn't want to talk about it, considering the way she left here this morning. Maybe the best thing for me to do is to leave her alone. I've forced myself on her enough lately."

His brother eyed him with a dumbfounded expression. "What the hell are you talking about? Your problem is that you haven't been together enough, haven't talked enough."

To Joshua's way of thinking, there had been too much talking. That's how he'd ended up voicing all those horrible accusations. "What could she possibly see in me after the things I said to her, anyway?" he asked, heading back toward the den for his instrument. "I'm just not good with relationships, Jerry. You know that. They've all sort of withered on the vine."

Jerry muttered something that Joshua didn't quite catch. He turned. "What did you say?"

Jerry shook his head and blew out an exasperated breath. "I give up," he said throwing up his hands. "If you want to just mope around and feel sorry for yourself instead of going out and getting what you want, I can't help you. The Josh I grew up with wouldn't do that. What are you so afraid of?"

Joshua looked up sharply. Something Jerry said struck him oddly. What was he afraid of? That he loved Jasmine, there was doubt. That he wanted to be with her, there was doubt. Just why had things suddenly gotten so complicated? Why was he both trying to bring her closer and push her away? Jerry was right. Why was he just sitting around feeling sorry for himself, willing to think the worse? Then it dawned on him, searing through his mind like a brilliant flash of light.

"Thanks." A slow smile spread across his face. Handing the guitar to his brother, he started for the door.

"For what?" Jerry asked after him in bewilderment, following his movements toward the garage.


Chapter 27

The apartment was dark and still and no longer felt like home. The overcast skies that Jasmine had only recently shut the door on only seemed to add to the gloominess of her mood. So much had changed since she'd left the apartment the night before. Attending the Ball with Jeremy had seemed like a good idea, and despite earlier misgivings, she had been looking forward to it. But everything seemed so different in the critical light of morning.

Dropping the overnight bag by the door, and placing her purse on the sofa, she trailed through the apartment toward her bedroom. First things first. Off came the gown, before being tossed unceremoniously into the corner. If it hadn't cost so much, she would probably burn it. As it was she didn't think she could look at it without remembering the evening's grief.

Then came the shower, where she scrubbed at her body almost angrily, with fierce determination as if she could wash away the hurt in her heart. Twenty minutes later, skin still tingling and hair falling damply down her back, she trudged barefoot, dressed in jeans and an old sweat shirt toward her computer. Burying her mind in work was her goal. Her heartache was Calvin' gain. She'd make sure her work on his program would be worth the wait.

Joshua pulled into the parking lot of Jasmine's apartment complex and parked beside her car. For several moments after cutting the engine he sat and stared, fists gripping the steering wheel, at her door. The speech he'd hurriedly tried to pull together on the drive over disintegrated on the wind. All the reasoned, logical arguments he'd come up with to convince her to even listen evaporated. He had no idea what he was going to say to her. And he couldn't just sit out in the car all day.

Pushing uncertainties aside, he climbed out of the car and walked toward the door. Halfway there, he stopped and thought to turn around. "What in the world am I doing here?" he asked himself softly.

He was immediately reminded of the night, not so long previous, when he'd returned a sleeping Jasmine to her apartment. She was warm with a fever and he was heavily into his knight-in-shining-armor act. He'd asked himself that very same question then. Jasmine had also done him in with a pair of heavy bookends. The thought made him chuckle. He would gladly face those bookends if it meant seeing her again.

Emboldened by the mental image of her hefting the heavy clay objects at him, he stepped up to the door and knocked firmly.

Jasmine had only just booted the system, when a knock sounded. She was half-tempted to ignore it, but few people knocked on her door at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning. She moved testily toward the door, and got the shock of her life when she saw Joshua's face on the other side of the peep hole.

For a full five seconds she simply stood there gaping through the tiny device. And then suddenly, uncharacteristically, she was angry, furiously angry. How dare he show up on her doorstep so early in the morning, still dressed in the previous evening's clothing looking as if they had been slept in. Looking as if he had a night as bad as hers. With more force than was necessary, she yanked the door open and glared at him.

"What are you doing here?"

A deer-in-the-headlights look passed over Joshua's face. "I. . . uh, came to apologize," he offered, the words sounding more like a question than a statement.

Jasmine eyed him for a moment, feeling herself go all quaky inside as he stood there looking so uncertain. Strong, reasonable Joshua always had it together.

"What for?" she asked, her voice softening only slightly. That little voice in the back of her mind that told her that Joshua should be on the receiving end of one of her apologies prodded at her conscience. But she refused to acknowledge it. The ups and downs of this relationship were beginning to make her seasick. Joshua's showing up contritely on her door step was the final straw.

Joshua gestured around at the cool, gray morning. "Mind if I come in. Just for a few minutes? It's cold, and this really isn't a conversation for all of your sleeping neighbors." He made no mention of the fact that he hadn't bothered to put on a coat and had to be freezing.

Jasmine stepped back, wordless, pulling the door fully open. Her eyes never left him as he moved into the room. He paced to the opposite side of her living room and buried his hands in his pockets before turning toward her. The sorrowful look in his eyes did funny things to her insides.

"Well?" she prompted.

Joshua held her gaze. "I'm sorry for the things I said to you last night. I was out of my mind with jealousy. I don't know what came over me."

Jasmine allowed the words to digest. He looked so sincere, he really meant the things that he was saying. But he had looked so sincere the night before. He really had believed that she and Jerry were carrying on. Today he realized his error, tomorrow what? The same question that rang through her mind earlier returned. Would she be willing to continue in a relationship without trust? As she stood looking at the man across from her, she had her answer.

Folding her arms over her chest, she paced away from that penetrating gaze, hoping for a few moments to gather her thoughts. "I owe you an apology," she finally said, turning back to face him.

Joshua looked surprised. "Why?"

"For doubting you. For going to that Ball in the first place. For making you think that I didn't trust you. For trying to check up on you. For playing games. I don't know. Take your pick. But I am sorry."

"Jasmine. . . I-" Joshua began to move toward her, but Jasmine put up a hand to stop him. His hands lowered to his sides.

"Let me finish," she cut him off. Then, looking away, she continued, "I don't know who you are sometimes. I know that I'm drawn to you in a way that I've never been drawn to anyone in my life. I know that when I look at you I can't help but see what I want to be my future. But I can't live without trust, Joshua. I won't. And bottom line is that you don't trust me."

Joshua looked shocked. His mouth opened, then closed then opened again. "Jas. . . I do trust you. I - why would you. . . ?" His voice trailed off as realization dawned. Moving toward her, he reached out, not quite touching. "I'm sorry for those things I said. It was a moment of weakness. I know I hurt you terribly, but I'd give anything if I could take them back."

"It's not that easy," Jasmine told him sorrowfully, looking downward, not wanting to look at the sad expression that she knew would be present in his eyes.

Several tense moments passed as Joshua simply stood there, not touching and not speaking. Then, he grasped her shoulders, his touch electric even through the thick material of her sweatshirt. Her eyes seemed to rise of their own volition up to meet his. He didn't try to hide the anguish so clear in their depths.

A myriad emotions drifted between them, making Jasmine want to rethink her imperative. If he touched her, and looked at her that way. . . then maybe. . . Jasmine shook her head, attempting to clear it. No. She couldn't. She closed her eyes, gathering her strength to break away.

Then Joshua moved a hand to run it along her check, slowly, casually, as if he were savoring the feel, remembering the touch for another day. He began to speak, softly, quietly.

"After my father died, I made it my responsibility to look out for Jerry and Julia. It was my responsibility to make sure that the family business stayed within the family, that the family house survived."

Jasmine opened her eyes and looked up at him as he continued to speak. His eyes had dropped away and he had taken both her hands in his. His thumbs moved rhythmically over her fingers as he went on.

"So, I never got to be very good at relationships. I think all the women thought of me as dependable Joshua who was too busy with work. Good old Joshua who was taking care of Jerry or Julia, or had to preserve the family home. But I really didn't mind because those things were important to me. They still are."

He ceased his rhythmic stroking, and looked into her eyes. "I'm not blaming those things. But maybe in some small way, they contributed to the fact that relationships have been few and far between. Eventually I sort of developed a reputation."

He drew in a breath, then lifted his hands to either side of her face. "Jasmine, I've never ever in my life gotten the girl. She always went to someone smarter, or more available. I'm not going to lie and say that doesn't bother me, but it's in the past. You're the present, and I really, really need to get the girl. Because I love her, and I don't want to know what my life would be without her in it."

All of Jasmine's resistance melted, and her breath caught in her throat. "Joshua. . . " She had barely whispered his name before he touched his lips to hers.

Chapter 28

When Joshua's lips touched Jasmine's soft, full ones, he felt as if something broke loose inside him. Where initially he'd kissed her to delay the rejection he'd feared was coming, maybe even to try to change her mind, things changed at the moment of contact. It was shattering. It was as if the world suddenly tilted on its axis.

Jasmine gasped as if she'd felt it too, and then she yielded, her lips moving gently against his as she responded. The glory of her actually kissing him back brought on an incredible surge of emotion. It was like coming home. How long had it been since they had been on the same wavelength? How long since they had even really touched?

Moving his hands up her arms and around her back, he drew her closer. Leaning into her, he deepened the kiss. He never wanted to stop. The feel of her body and the way she responded, meeting him passion for passion, all weighed against his rapidly slipping control. His sluggish thought processes were slow to respond when it occurred to him that he didn't have her answer. He didn't know if she had simply been carried away by their physical attraction or if she was truly forgiving him. Suddenly it was very important that he know.

But first he had to find a way to stop kissing her. A difficult task when she'd snaked her arms up around his neck and was causing the most wonderful sensations with her fingertips. A shiver quivered through him, leaving him closer to the edge than ever.

With an effort, he reached up and grabbing her upper arms, put her a little away from himself. The soft cry of disappointment from Jasmine almost broke his will, as it was their lips were separated by mere inches. Her glazed expression and slightly flushed cheeks threatened to derail his thoughts.

"Jasmine," he managed at a whisper, not sure that she could hear above the thudding of his heart. "I. . . uh. . . " He trailed off as her pale eyes focused in his. Then, shaking his head slightly, he took another step back, putting space between them. "I can't think when you look at me like that," he explained with a wry half-smile.

Jasmine's expression changed to one of innocent confusion, then surprise and then, shockingly, satisfaction. She took a slow step toward him and offered a tremulous smile. "Neither can I," she whispered when barely any space separated them. He could feel the heat and energy from her body reaching out toward him, holding him enthralled.

And then she took another step, pressing slightly into him. "But I don't want to think. I just want you to kiss me again."

Joshua, feeling utterly helpless, forgot to breathe as she put her hands on his shoulders, lifted up on tiptoe and softly touched her lips to his. His eyes closed for a second as his senses reeled. Then whispering around her soft caresses, before the thought was completely lost, he spoke.

". . . question. . . you didn't answer. . . my question. . . "

"What question?" Jasmine breathed into his mouth.

"Us. What about us?" Joshua didn't remember how, but somehow his hands had settled at Jasmine's waist, gently supporting. As he moved around to her lower back, his fingers brushed the warm flesh beneath the hem of her sweatshirt. The shiver that went through her brought their bodies even closer together.

"What do you think?" Jasmine paused only briefly to ask. "You're getting the girl."

Joshua sucked in a breath, emotion and longing pierced his being, and then he was lost in the sudden urgency of their kiss. The hands that slipped further beneath Jasmine's sweatshirt to experience move of her warm, soft skin were decidedly unsteady. Her lips were like the nectar that he needed to taste to survive, and the scent and the feel of her were like the oxygen that he needed to breathe. She was all. Nothing else existed save for the frantic drumming of their hearts that set the rhythm and the pace for the dance in which they were joined. He'd barely registered the pounding on the door when Jasmine drew back.

"Someone's here," she murmured distractedly, seeming to have as much difficulty pulling herself together as he was. "I should get it."

Joshua gave a jerky nod, then remembered that he was still holding her. His fingers lingered of their own accord when he disentangled his arms from around her. He decided right then and there that whomever was on the opposite side of that door, he hated them. And if it was Jerry, he was going to have some major explaining to do.

Jasmine stepped backward as Joshua released her. His image and his touch were branded across her heart forever. No one had ever made her feel the way he did - as if he were vital to her very next breathe. And she had never imagined that she might have such an affect on him.

He looked back at her with such an intensity, with such a look of longing and near desperation, that she was tempted to ignore the knocker and move back into his arms.

Something profound had taken place during that kiss. Something in the emotion of the moment that had touched them both. Jasmine wasn't sure that she would ever be the same.

The pounding came again, more urgently than before. The knocking was accompanied by the sound of a familiar voice calling her name. She blinked, as if coming out of a trance and moved toward the door.

Calvin stood on the opposite side, practically dancing with anxiety. "Jasmine! I'm sorry, I-" Calvin broke off as his gaze trailed, full of confusion, over her features. He then focused at a point beyond her shoulder. Jasmine, her gaze never straying from Calvin's face, knew the moment when realization dawned. His already flushed countenance turned beet red.

"I-I-I didn't know," he stammered, locking his gaze back on hers. "I didn't mean. . . to - to. . . "

Jasmine saw nothing else to do but to introduce the two men. Gesturing the engineer in, she pushed the door shut. "Calvin, I'd like you to meet Joshua Dumas. My. . . ," she looked up at Joshua and felt as if heat passed between the two of them before she finished with a lame, ". . . friend."

"Joshua, this is Calvin. He's one of the engineers that I work with."

The two men shook hands and exchanged brief pleasantries, but Jasmine knew that Calvin was extremely uncomfortable. And she was sure she knew why he'd come. The fact that he'd found it necessary to come all the way out to her apartment filled her with guilt.

"You probably need to talk about work," Joshua said after a moment. "I should go. . . "

"No, no, no," Calvin cut him off. "You were. . . here. I don't want to run you off. I just . . . wanted. . . "

"Why don't I make us some coffee?" Joshua suggested then, and went in search of the kitchen.

Calvin relaxed somewhat. "I'm really sorry."

"There's no reason for you to be sorry," Jasmine told him. "I'm the one who's sorry. I know you're here about the program, but it's not done yet. I was just finishing it up this morning." She couldn't fault him for the disbelief that flashed briefly across his face. "I'll be done with it this afternoon and have it for you first thing in the morning. I promise you."

Calvin frowned. "Are you sure? I have a little time. I can finish it myself today."

"No, no," Jasmine shook her head. It was a matter of honor with her now. No matter how much she didn't want to complete the program, she felt obligated. She would finish it, even if she had to work on it all day.

Calvin still looked uncertain. "Jasmine, I. . . "

"Don't worry, Calvin. I promise I won't let you down." She spoke over his misgivings. "My computer is up and running and everything. I really was working on it this morning."

That seemed to placate him a little. "Do you mind if I take a quick look at the diskettes? I want to make sure I gave you the right ones."

"Sure thing." Jasmine led him toward her computer nook and handed over the stack of diskettes. After quickly shuffling through them, he seemed satisfied, thanked her and started for the door.

When Jasmine closed the door behind him, her thoughts were only on getting to the kitchen and Joshua. But he must have had a similar thought, for he was standing directly behind her.

"I thought he'd never leave," he said.

Chapter 29

Joan was drawn toward the family room by the muted sounds pacing. That preoccupation had been Joshua's for the past week. She had hoped that the plan she quietly applauded Jerry for concocting would work. Joshua needed a little shock of jealousy to his system, maybe even a reminder of what he stood to lose. Judging by the sound of all that pacing, Jerry's plan had failed. Her heart sank. Quickening her pace, she determined to have a word or two with the pigheaded boy who had long since become a man.

The sight that greeted her as she rounded the corner into the room stopped her in her tracks. Jeremy Dumas, doing a bang up imitation of his older brother, was pacing back and forward for all he was worth. His expression alternated between excited hopefulness and a concerned frown. The low murmur that she could barely make out also confirmed that he was talking to himself. Joan couldn't suppress the chuckle that bubbled up in her throat. Joshua never talked to himself when he paced. Leave it to Jerry to add his own unique twist to an action that was typical Joshua.

At the small sound she made, Jerry shot her a startled look and immediately stopped his pacing.

"What's eatin' you kiddo?" Joan asked to cover her amusement.

"Oh, Joan." He let out a sigh accompanied by a trademark Jerry grin. "I was just running the possibilities."

"The possibilities of what? Pancakes and waffles at your going away breakfast?"

A sparkle of mischief danced briefly in his eyes. "With maple and butter pecan syrup? With homemade whipped cream?"

"You are awful."

"I know."

"So, what's up?" She took his arm and pulled him toward the sofa. "Tell Joan all. She remains the dispenser of useful and wise advice."

"Yeah, that's what I keep telling you." Jerry allowed himself to be settled. "It's Josh and Jazz."

Joan sobered. "What happened?"

Jerry shook his head and sighed. "It all blew up in my face. Joan, it was awful. I've never seen Josh so angry. Worse, Jasmine got caught in the middle. . . "

Joan's eyes widened. Jerry was making it sound as if the problem was unfixable. She just wouldn't accept that. "Where's Joshua? Do I need to - "

"No, no. It's okay." Jerry assured her. "He went after her a couple hours ago. Finally came to his senses. But the suspense is killing me, Joan! It has been almost two hours. I've gotta know what happened."

Joan laughed out loud. "I'm here worried that they're broken up forever, and you're wanting the make up details."

"You didn't see what happened last night. It really was bad." Jerry then proceeded to tell her everything. Joan was stunned. Joshua had definitely been in rareform.

"Well," she breathed, when he was done, "If she forgives him, that's going to be one heck of a make up. The might not want to be disturbed by the likes of you, you know."

"Me?" Jerry feigned shock. "I'm the original cupid in this relationship."

"You?" Joan demanded. "Who do you think got this thing started before you even came home from school?"

"Okay. So maybe you had the initial vision," Jerry teased. Then, sobering. "Problem is, I don't know that things are going well. I mean, if they're making up then they'll be. . . you know. And if they don't, then Josh is going to go off somewhere to lick his wounds. And Helene and Julia are going to be here soon for my going away. They're going to want to know where Josh is. I'm not going to know whether to gloat or be depressed. And -"

Joan held up a hand and tried to stop laughing. "Okay, okay. I get the picture. But if you're that bad off, why don't you just call? If you get her machine, that's a good sign I'd say."

Jerry barely thought about it at all. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and declared, "You are the dispenser of good and wise advice! Thanks for agreeing with me." With that he was up and off the chair and headed toward the phone. Joan threw up her hands and went off to answer the doorbell.

Jasmine was melting. Joshua's arms were about her as if she were some fragile, delicate thing. His splayed hands mapped her form, slowly, sensuously, as if committing them to memory. His lips tortured and teased her with firm, plundering kisses that destroyed her equilibrium.

She knew that he was similarly affected for his heart pounded beneath his half-unbuttoned tux shirt. And the hands that occasionally found their way to her face and neck and hair held a faint tremor. The interrupting ring of the phone only caused a slight pause, and then if anything, their intensity increased. Joshua became more aggressive. That hands that had only explored a portion of the bare flesh beneath her sweatshirt, began to tug at the hem with purpose. The cessation of the ringing and subsequent sound of her answering machine's message faded into the background as Joshua's hands grazed up her sides, baring skin along the way. She thought her heart might stop altogether when they settled alongside her breasts. The bunched material, rough against her sensitized body, along with the coolness of the air and supercharged energy that emanated between the two of them set her to trembling like a leaf.

Suddenly a familiar voice echoed loudly over the answering machine, freezing them both.

"Hey, Brat boy. Where's Josh?" The words were followed by the sound of shuffling as if the phone had been nearly dropped and then Jerry's soft swearing before the click of the call being disconnected.

Jasmine waited. Serah was still a tender spot, and she feared Joshua's reaction nearly as much as she feared any reaction of her own. She struggled not to show the anxiety and sudden coldness that washed over her.

Joshua moved first, resting his forehead against hers. Breathing still a little on the ragged side, he slowly smoothed down the sides of her sweatshirt. Then, straightening, he settled regretful eyes on her. Gentle hands brushed over her shoulders as he held her gaze for long moments.

Jasmine's heart thumped with uncertainty, yet she was loathe to break the spell. It meant that he was still warming her with his touch, still near. Even if everything suddenly went very, very wrong, she wanted the pretense at least a few moments longer.

Joshua's words, when he spoke sent her heart straight into her stomach.

"I love you, Jasmine Springfield. With all my heart. With all that I am. I want nothing more than to share my life with you until the day I die. Marry me?"

In the vicinity of her stomach, Jasmine could have sworn that her heart actually ceased to beat, and then it was off in an erratic trip-trip that made it difficult to draw air into her lungs.

"What?" she managed. The worry in her heart hadn't prepared her for a proposal. But this was one emotional rollercoaster to which she had no objection.

Joshua smiled and placed an affectionate kiss on her nose. "I said that you'd make me the happiest man in the world if you would consent to marry me. We don't have a ring, yet, and I'm probably doing this all wrong, but. . . I need you in my life. Forever. I wanted you to know."

Jasmine saw him through a blur of tears. "Yes. Yes. Yes. You've got this girl, lock, stock and barrel."

Joshua drew her brusquely into a hug that pulled her off her feet. "Thank you," he whispered roughly in her hair. Then, allowing her to slide toward the floor, his mouth was on hers again. But only briefly.

"As much as it's going to kill me to stop this," he murmured, pushing away, "We must. The family is having a going away breakfast for Jerry this morning. You're welcome to come, but he'll understand if you don't. He'll probably even understand if I don't." Joshua chuckled under his breath. "But I owe him a big thank you for talking sense into me. Then tonight, I'd like to have a special dinner, just the two of us. Me and my future wife."


Jasmine went warm all over as the word resonated through her. Joshua's wife. A feeling of unreality washed over her. Was this really true? Could she be so lucky? So happy?

Then realizing that Joshua was waiting for a reply, she managed to pull herself together. As much as she wanted to attend the breakfast, especially since she knew then that Serah was there, she trusted Joshua, and she needed to complete Calvin's program. She wanted nothing to interfere later. She told Joshua as much.

With a frustrated groan, he gave her another long, drugging kiss and then was gone. Jasmine was left leaning against the door, every molecule in her body resonating, wondering how she was ever going to focus on the project ahead.

Chapter 30

Jasmine managed to pull herself together to at least move away from the door. The next thing she needed was another shower - this time a cold one, if she was going to get any work done. Who was she kidding? Work was the last thing her brain was interested in.

As she passed into her bedroom, she caught sight of the bedside phone and her mind went immediately to Lissa. She had to tell Lissa. And what about her parents, her brother? Her brother would be over the moon, and she was sure that her parents would adore Joshua after they got to know him. Diving happily onto the bed, she grabbed up the receiver and rapidly punched in her friend's number.

While the rings sounded, a spike of conscience sent her to retrieve the no-longer-hated gown from the corner where she had thrown it. The red overnight bag was beneath it and the corner of her purse was sticking out. The view of the bit of blue fabric brought a memory to mind. The diskette. As Lissa's answering machine kicked in, she hung up. The diskette was where she'd left it.

It looked innocent enough, though not her brand nor the company's. She wondered what was on it. Deciding that as the diskette was in her possession as well as in her apartment all bets were off. It wasn't as if the thing was going to cause her computer to explode.

There were several files, non of which looked familiar, but she was fairly certain that the diskette only contained portions of a larger program. Then one file name caught her eye. Where had she seen that file name before? And then it hit her, with the force of a freight train. She'd seen it while helping Connor Systems clean up their accounting server. It'd stuck with her because she'd found it in almost every one of the damaged databases. As the implications began to sink in, her blood ran cold. Could something in the code that her company had written for Connor caused the crash? But as she looked more deeply at what information was available on the diskette, she became convinced that not only had someone from her organization caused the Connor crash, they'd done it intentionally.

Suddenly feeling very vulnerable, she turned and cast a look around her apartment. She remembered vividly the feeling of invasion that she'd experienced when she'd thought that someone had been inside and gone through her things. What if someone really had? What if they were looking for the disk? Worse, what if they came back?

Urgency flooded her sense as she snatched the diskette out of the drive and then grabbed her keys and slipped her feet into a pair of shoes. She had to get out of there, and she had to get out fast.

"You did what?" Five voices demanded the question of Joshua simultaneously.

Joan and Jerry wore pleased expressions, and Joshua wasn't sure, but he thought a conspiratorial look passed between the two of them. The jury was out on Helene. He supposed she looked more stunned than anything. Julia and Serah were a different story entirely. The war lines were drawn and he was clearly consorting with the enemy in their eyes. He was sure that were his mother not present, he would have a full scale tantrum on his hands. But the fact that Serah's vengeance was coming, no doubt when he least expected it, didn't bother him. Because wonder of wonders, Jasmine had said yes.

"I asked her to marry me," he repeated his statement for one and all. "And she said yes." He couldn't hold back the happy grin that seemed to be a new and permanent fixture on his face.

"She's a lovely girl, Joshua, but isn't this a bit sudden?" Helene was the first to respond.

"No, Mother," Joshua said solemnly, using the term so rarely used in relation to Helene. It had come to only be spoken in jest or when the situation was very serious. It got her attention. "I love her. And I need her like I need my next breath."

Helene's eyes teared up. "Oh Joshua, I want you to be happy." She moved forward and took his hands. "I know that you haven't always had the best of it with relationships, but you are a good man. Any woman would be proud to have you as a husband. And as long as you are happy, I will be happy too. I love you." She sniffed and drew him into a hug.

Joshua leaned over and wrapped his arms around his mother. "Thank you," he whispered, feeling a little too choked up to say more. He released her as she pulled back, wiping at the corners of her eyes.

"Now, I am even more happy. I have a wedding to plan!" She announced, laughing.

"Congratulations, Bro." Jerry stepped forward, arms spread wide. Joshua hugged his brother back, unable to hold back the laughter at his brother's whispered, "Three words: Elope. Elope now."

Joan offered congratulatory hugs and "I told you so's", while Julia and Serah only offered lukewarm support of the union. Joshua couldn't remember ever being happier.

While Joan was passing around the celebratory Champagne, Joshua went to answer the door. Pleasantly surprised at the person standing on the opposite side of the door, he pulled it open and dragged the person into his arms and passionately kissed her. The slight resistance he'd initially felt drained away as she responded. But then when they separated, she looked up at him, eyes widened with an emotion that caused a frisson of unease to settle in the pit of his stomach.

"What's wrong?" he asked, suddenly knowing with certainty that something must have happened to send Jasmine rushing to his house with her hair falling wildly about her shoulders dressed in the same sweatshirt from earlier and a pair of old jeans and shoes with no socks and no coat.

Jasmine stared up at him for half-a-second, her mouth open as if she would speak, and then her face crumbled. Joshua's heart fell to his toes. Pushing the door closed behind her, he simply held her and waited until she was able to tell him what was troubling her.

Jasmine 31

Jerry leaned against the door frame watching the couple that were seated on the living room sofa. Jasmine was nodding haltingly at whatever quiet words Joshua was murmuring to her. He smiled at the way Joshua reached up to caress her cheek. He was truly happy for his older brother. Maybe it was even time to start looking around for someone a little more permanent for himself. The idea didn't seem so funny as it had in times past. There was something to be said for the security of finding someone you would love forever, someone you could turn to whenever trouble arose.

Earlier when he'd come out to discover what was keeping big bro from his own champagne toast for so long, he'd found a very upset Jasmine in Joshua's embrace. The sight had stunned him, and his first instinct was to rush forward and offer what comfort he could, but Josh had warded him off with a look. The look had stopped him in his tracks, momentarily uncertain. But then he knew what he could do. Sending his brother a reassuring nod, he'd backed out of the room to run interference with the other womenfolk.

It took a full ten minutes before he convinced the rest of his family that they didn't all need to go rushing into the livingroom, that Josh had everything under control. It took another five to convince them that he, and he alone, should go out and make sure that things were still okay.

As soon as he'd appeared, Joshua had acknowledged him with a look before whispering several more words to Jasmine. The connection between them was so obvious, which was probably why Serah started in so soon trying to undermine their relationship. She'd known that she was up against stiff competition. Jerry could have told her that the race was already lost. Joshua's heart belonged to Jasmine.

He stood away from the doorframe and moved further into the room when Joshua waved him over. He settled on Jasmine's other side and smiled irreverently. "If I was about to become my sister-in-law, I'd be weeping tears of joy, too."

Jasmine laughed in spite of whatever was troubling her, and managed to even get in a punch before Jerry pulled her into a hug.

"Welcome to the family," he murmured as his eyes met Josh's across her back. He winked. "What took you so long?" He spoke knowing that his brother would catch the double meaning.

Joshua half-chuckled and shook his head.

"I'm not part of the family quite yet," Jasmine said, moving away. One of her hands immediately reached for Joshua's.

"Yes you are," Jerry said softly. "Now are you two going to tell me what's going on, or am I going to have to beat it out of you?"

The lovers shared a look, and then as if by unspoken agreement, Joshua began to speak. "Jasmine is going to be staying here for a while. We're going to go back to her place and pick up a few things and then we're going to the police station."

Jerry was following all the way up to the final sentence. He held up his hands. "Hold up. Police station?"

Joshua took a deep breath. "Yeah, you see. . . "

Jasmine couldn't believe what Detective Storm was telling them. After having been in the police station for several hours and having been shuffled from one office to the next, a tall, dark-haired, rather intense man had entered the room. Everything changed after that.

"From what you've told us," Detective Storm was saying, "You aren't sure that your co-worker, Calvin Povich, is actually the person that gave you the diskette."

Jasmine wrapped her arms about herself, thankful for Joshua's comforting presence in the room. Though most of the officers questions had been directed toward her, it was reassuring to know that she could simply look across at him and be the recipient of his reassuring smile.

"I just can't believe that Calvin could be involved in some ring of hackers under investigation by some special task force."

"I'm not at liberty to give many details about the case, but Calvin has had extensive contact with an individual that is high on the suspect list. Unfortunately, we have not been up to turn up much evidence. The fact is, Ms Springfield, you're our best chance of getting information that could lead to arrests in this case."

"What?" Jasmine asked bewildered. "How? I've already given you the diskette." She gestured toward the spot where it lay sealed in a plastic bag on the desk.

"You can find out where it came from? You're already on the inside. You'd simply ask Povich if the diskette belongs to him. He'd likely tell you if he suspects you don't know anything."

Joshua spoke up. "If this guy is a criminal, couldn't this be dangerous for her? She isn't some undercover police woman."

"We'll be nearby," Storm said, shooting Joshua a look before focusing back on Jasmine. "We can protect her if anything starts to go sour." He watched and waited. Jasmine felt as if he was willing her to go along with the plan.

She turned hesitantly toward Joshua. "I don't think Calvin's dangerous. He's really just a sweet shy guy."

Joshua frowned. "A sweet shy guy who showed up at your apartment acting agitated and strange this morning. A sweet shy guy who maybe part of a crime ring. A sweet shy guy who may have broken into your apartment last night."

Jasmine couldn't argue with his logic, but she needed to know. And she truly wasn't afraid that Calvin was capable of hurting her. "I have to do this Joshua," she said softly. "It'll be easy, I'll just ask him if it's his. I would do that anyway."

"I don't want you to do this Jasmine." Joshua's eyes locked with hers. "I think it's too dangerous. They can get a real police person to do it."

Jasmine sighed.

"What about me? I could do it. He's met me."

"Joshua. . . "

"That wouldn't work, Mr. Dumas." The police detective cut in. "We need the element of trust here."

Joshua grimaced, and then his expression turned earnest. "Jasmine. You're going to be my wife." He lowered his voice to a whisper.

"Yes I am." She met his gaze head on. "But I can't go on being afraid to go back to my own apartment. I don't want to live in fear."

"She'll be wearing a wire," Detective Storm added helpfully, and there will be another officer in the building. She won't be alone."

Joshua didn't acknowledge Storm's statement, but Jasmine could see the struggle in his eyes. She knew he wanted to argue further.

"I don't want you to be afraid."

Storm broke the moment. "Are we settled?"

Jasmine turned toward him and nodded. "Yes. I'll do it."

Chapter 32

Joshua wasn't sure what to think. Going to the police had seemed a good idea several hours earlier - before they'd met Detective Storm, who, it seemed to Joshua, only wanted to put Jasmine in harm's way. It scared him.

After Jasmine had agreed to go along with the man's plan, everything had changed. Where she had looked to him, and mentally leaned on him while making her statement, she now seemed more a part of the group that had appeared when Storm led them to a larger conference room. Joshua had been relegated to the background. He felt useless, hardly the 'knight in shining armor' he'd fancied himself to be, escorting the damsel in distress to the local precinct. Turned out the precinct had as much need for the damsel as the damsel had for them.

As Joshua watched her talking with the rest of the team comprised of two women and three other men, he saw a bit of excitement beginning to shine through in her eyes. Though she was still frightened of the unfamiliar territory that lay ahead of her, she had a sense of control and that gave her strength. It was that strength that he saw that confounded his emotions.

On the one hand, fear and worry gnawed at his gut. What if something happened to her? What if Storm or the other officers couldn't protect her? What if Calvin were a psychopath who was willing to keep his little hacker side-business a secret? What could he do? How could he save her? How could he live with himself if he couldn't?

On the other hand, he was so proud of her. She was strong, and smart and that made pride grow in his heart right alongside the fear. What was he supposed to do with that? He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He just wasn't any good at this relationship business. But he was in too deep to back out now. Jasmine was a part of his heart, and for her, he would learn.

He was drawn out of his thoughts by the group breaking up - he'd completely missed the last portion of the conversation. Everyone was standing, gathering gear and notes and heading out of the small room. One of the female officers said a few more words to Jasmine, pointed out of the doorway then turned to leave with the rest of them. Jasmine, nodded, drew in a deep breath and turned her gaze on Joshua.

The look in her eyes nearly stopped his heart. Gone was the self assured visage that she had been moments before. Fear and uncertainty and an almost desperate kind of pleading was visible. Unconsciously he came to his feet and went to her. Suddenly he knew how to save her, knew what she needed. She wasn't afraid so much for herself, or what might happen to her while she worked with the task force. She was worried for them, for their relationship, their future.

Consciously relaxing his features from the scowl that he knew was their and had probably been there through out the meeting, Joshua allowed only the pride and love to shine through. He smiled.

Jasmine's eyes filled, silently thanking him. She grasped his hand, drawing him closer. His arms went about her, giving and receiving comfort. Emotion welled within him and he squeezed a little tighter before pulling back a bit. He couldn't be that close to her and resist one soft, brief kiss.

"I'll be here waiting for you when this is all over," he whispered. "There's still a little matter of a ring."

Jasmine half chuckled. "I love you," she said before kissing him again softly and then slipping from his arms and out of the room.

Joshua watched her go, taking his heart with her.

Jasmine tried to stand very still as Samantha Rich, one of the members of the task force, attached electronic monitoring equipment to her body and clothing. Samantha repeated the plan that Storm had laid out in detail during the conference.

Minutes earlier the call had been made to Calvin, setting up a meeting at Jasmine's apartment. He had seemed almost obscenely enthusiastic, not being privy to the number of ears that were listening in on the connection. And after having been surrounded by the members of the team for approaching two hours, Jasmine almost felt comfortable talking to Calvin while being taped. Almost, but not quite. The little adrenaline rush that had run through her system after the connection was severed was steadily escalating to outright nervousness.

"Steve's going to pretend to be Joshua's brother - you can introduce him that way. Steven Dumas, that way you don't have to worry about trying to remember a new name. They're of similar enough build and coloring that if you say that, he shouldn't question it. Got it? Repeat the name."

"Steven Dumas." Jasmine repeated it obediently, her thoughts rushing once again to Joshua. When he'd discovered that he could be no part of the operation, he'd practically gone through the roof. Storm had made the concession of allowing him to tap into the audio. He'd then began to ask pointed questions concerning her safety. Each of which had been answered steadily by Detective Storm. And then, when he could think of no other questions, he'd settled into a stony kind of silence after insisting that he be allowed to follow as they moved toward the larger conference room to discuss the operation with the rest of the team.

Jasmine been sure that she would have a battle on her hands after the meeting broke up. Instead he'd shocked her. He'd given in, burying all that she'd seen warring his eyes in support of her decision to go through with the plan. That touched her deeply, as much as the fear and worry she could see once he'd dropped the stoniness, allowing her to see the vulnerability beneath.

"He'll be all right, you know." Samantha's no nonsense voice interrupted her train of thought.

"I know," Jasmine said. "He's just worried."

"So are you." Samantha offered a half smile, and gestured toward the door. "Come on. Steven's probably ready to get going."

Joshua adjusted the headphones that the team had provided him. His heart pounded so furiously he could barely sit still. Detective Storm and Jasmine were at her apartment and there was a knock at the door. He knew it was Calvin as Storm muttered the coded phrase along the communications link. The team had two way communication as well as video. The setup that Joshua had been given was one way only, audio only, fed from the on-location back to the precinct to the little room he occupied with one other officer.

He heard Calvin enter the apartment, heard Jasmine introduce him to Storm. He could hear the slight breathlessness to her voice, and she nearly stumbled over Storm's name. If he wasn't half scared to death for Jasmine, he might have chuckled at that idea of having the staid Detective as a brother. Jerry would just love that.

He held his breath as Jasmine entered into the rehearsed dialogue about the diskette. Calvin gave text-book responses, answering just as the team expected him to. Everything seemed to be going exactly as planned.

Then, Storm spoke the coded words that alerted back up to close in. Joshua heard the expected knock. He pictured Jasmine moving toward the door as expected. He then heard Storm introducing himself as a police officer. He heard Calvin's anguished response, followed by the sound of the big man's wavering voice as he began to cry. Joshua sure hoped the tape was still rolling, because Calvin spilled the beans of everyone who was working with him, insisting that his girlfriend had driven him to do it. For the first time in 4 hours, Joshua felt the tension beginning to leave his body. He felt as if he were finally able to breathe again. It was over.

Forty-five minutes later, Jasmine stepped out of the police van and rushed into his arms outside of the precinct. She had never felt so good to him. Being alive had never felt so good.

Jasmine watched tearfully as Jerry hurried up the ramp toward his soon-to-be departing plane. He'd hugged her and whispered something silly in her ear, making her unsure whether to laugh or cry. Moving closer to Joshua, she held on more tightly to his hand. Three days late, Jerry was returning to his studies. Jasmine would not be returning to work for another week, having taken vacation - at Edgy's request - to allow the office uproar to die down.

For reasons completely removed from what had happened with Calvin, she was happy to have the extra time off from work. She and Joshua had done a lot of talking and a lot of loving. She felt secure in the new life that they would share together.

Already Joshua's mother had been in contact with Jasmine's mother. Jerry insisted that there was some type of nuptial conspiracy going on with the two women as they spoke at length every night and had even began fed-exing swath's of cloth back and forward. Jasmine was content to let them hammer out those finer details between themselves.

Julia had grudgingly become involved making a few small suggestions. Jasmine wasn't sure that they would ever be friends, but a bit of the coolness had at least warmed to room temperature.

Joan, wonderful Joan, moved about the house, sharing from time to time that she had known from the first moment that she'd seen the half-frozen, half drowned woman on Joshua's door step that all of her hopes were about to come true. She had finally found the one who would complete his heart and provide a happily ever after for the both of them.

The End

Stay Tuned for the Next Story in what I have decided to call the New Haven Series. The tentative title is to be "My Brother's Keeper", and it is Jerry's Story.