Chapter Nine: Conflict

"Well, here goes nothing."

Nancy paused at the entrance to the big Carrowville cemetary, chewing on her bottom lip as she scanned the rows and rows of stone markers that dated back through the two hundred years the town had been in existance. Some of the stones were worn, others, nearer the bottom of the gentle slope were newer, and, after a moment of hesitation, she headed for them, picking her way along the path. As she walked, she scanned the name on each grave. Occasionally she spotted one with the name 'Sheppard', and absently she wondered if one of these marked her boyfriend's father. Then, as she caught sight of the names 'Mulhavy' and 'Sheppard' together, all other thoughts fled from her head.

She swallowed hard, making her way carefully between the stones to the one that had caught her eye. Gently she crouched beside it, reaching to brush back the overhanging leaves of a nearby tree.

"Sian Mulhavy Sheppard." She murmured. "So here you are. Hi, Sian. I guess you're probably wondering why a complete stranger is hanging all over your grave. And I'm not totally sure why I'm talking to you, because I don't believe in all that God stuff you and Robin and everyone here is so involved in. But Rob's so keen on me staying here, and I don't think I can until I've spoken to you...even if it is just words to a stone."

She settled herself on the grass, self-consciously removing the dead flowers from the holder and replacing them with the nosegay of fresh ones she had picked from Mary Jane's blooming garden.

"There." She said softly. "That's my peace offering. I don't know if you really are there at all, or if you can hear me. But on the off chance that you can, Sian, I want you to know something. I know you died and it sucks that you and Robin lost your chance to grow old together. But he's a good man and well, he's too young to spend the rest of his life in mourning. He still loves you - I know he does. More than he probably admits to himself some days. I'm not stupid. I know its there and it probably always will be. But..."

She sighed, idly running her hands along the base of the stone. "But I love him too, you know. And he's important to me. So I wanted to come here and, you know, settle it all between us. It might take him time to really move on, but I wanted you to know that he matters to me and I think he's worth the work. I'm not just leading him astray. I do care about him. It's hard not to - but then I guess you understand that, huh? I guess he got to you too."

Her fingers hit something hard and she frowned, reaching down to pull it out. It was caked with dirt and gently, she dusted it off, turning it towards the light as it glinted in the sun.

"It's a ring." She murmured. "Is it yours, Sian? Your wedding ring, maybe? Or something else?"

"Actually, it's my ring."

Robin's voice startled her and she dropped the ring onto the ground, swinging around guiltily. "This is the last place I expected to find you, Nancy. What's going on?"

Nancy blushed.

"I...I guess I felt it was time your wife and I had words." She said awkwardly. "I know it's crazy, but well, you know things have been bugging me big time. And...and so I wanted to explain to her. You know. That I'm not just messing you around. That you do matter to me, and I want to be there for you while you deal with everything else."

Robin looked stunned. Then a soft smile touched his lips.

"What did she say?" He asked gently. Nancy shrugged.

"Not sure." She admitted sheepishly. "But it's quiet here, and I don't feel..."

She faltered, then,

"Being here doesn't feel like being in town." She said thoughtfully. "I feel like there, people judge me. I don't think that here. I don't think Sian hates me the way that her brother does. I think...I think she's at peace, and it kinda makes me feel that way. Does that sound mad?"

"No, not mad." Robin shook his head. "I used to come here for the same reason."

He frowned, pursing his lips as he remembered.

"After I beat up Calvin Reynolds and got sent to jail, a lot of people looked at me funny, too. When I got back here, not everyone wanted to know me. It was violent, I know, and they were worried about the person I really was. I guess they thought maybe I'd been permanently warped in the accident. Brain damage - or something like it.  I'd never really flared up like that before. But then, I'd never really been unhappy before. And Sian had always been the stopper on my temper. Without her, I went a little crazy."

He bent to pick up the ring, turning it over in his hand.

"I brought this here the day I got out of prison." He remembered. "It was my wedding ring. I gave it to Mary Jane when I was sent down - I didn't want it to get lost while I was locked away. I always knew I would bring it here, when I could. So I did. I thought I buried it deep, but I guess the rain washed the soil away. She was buried with hers - I sort of felt they should be together."

"I'm sorry I dug it up." Nancy looked embarrassed. "I'm even vandalising your wife's grave now...I'm sorry."

"No, it's all right." Robin leaned over to kiss her on the head. "I heard some of the things you said, before you knew I was there. That you loved me and you were willing to work at it. That meant a lot."

Nancy blushed again.

"That was a private conversation between Sian and me." She objected. "Eavesdropping is rude."

"So now you're both ganging up on me, huh?" Robin looked rueful. "Sian hated listening at keyholes, too. Maybe you're more alike than I thought."

"I doubt it." Nancy cast a glance at the smooth white marble gravestone, running her hand along the name. "Coming here does make it real though. What you went through, I mean. I don't think I properly perceived it before."

"Well, now you know her as someone real. Not just a name." Robin said lightly. "I'm glad you two have met. Even if it is a bit surreal for you."

"I'm not sure it's surreal." Nancy admitted, as she watched her boyfriend drill a deeper hole, pushing the ring firmly into it and covering it with soil. "Hey, what happened to your hand? You're all bruised."

Robin lifted his fist, spreading his fingers and glancing at the purplish marks across his knuckles. He grimaced.


"Rob! What did you do?"

"Anton and I had a little disagreement." Robin admitted unwillingly. "Where I took exception to him calling you names."

"What?" Nancy's eyes became big. "You hit him? Oh great. I knew that if I told you it'd cause a problem! Now everyone's going to hate me twice as much!"

"You didn't do anything. He shouldn't have said it." Robin said with a shrug. "Besides, yelling at him, I realised a few things for myself, too."

"Such as?"

"I'm always going to love Sian." Robin admitted. "I think it'd be kinda hard for me not to. But I also realised that that's okay, you know? That there's enough of me to love both of you, because she's a memory and you''re not."

He squeezed her hand. "Can you live with that? She's always going to be a part of my life. Can you deal with it?"

"It's harder to walk away from a memory than a live person." Nancy said soberly. "And even harder to compete with a ghost."

"You're not competing." Robin shook his head. "What I feel for her and what I feel for you is different. It's not less, it's just not the same. She was my wife, my high school sweetheart, my first love...all of those things. She's wrapped in nostalgia for me for the rest of time, whatever I do with my life. You..."

He touched her cheek gently.

"You're Nancy, the girl who's rude about my music and who wears jeans and a sweater to press conferences and who feels her melodies right down to her soul." He said softly. "That's why I love you. And that's why I wanted to bring you here. Meeting the family is a big deal in Carrowville, you know. I wanted you to meet mine. I knew they'd love you when they finally did."

"I'm not sure Carrowville is quite ready for me to make frequent trips here." Nancy leant back against him thoughtfully. "Especially if you start punching out friends."

She grinned.

"But I do appreciate you'd do that for me." She added. "The last guy who swung his fists to defend my honour was my brother and we were back in High School."

Robin looked rueful.

"I won't tell my Ma if you don't. Nor Mary Jane." He said sheepishly. "She'd be livid with me if she knew I'd lost my temper - especially with a Mulhavy. I mean, well, our families have always been real close, and..."

"I won't say anything." Nancy promised. "Honestly, I don't want to be the reason to cause a rift."

She got carefully to her feet, brushing soil off her jeans.

"I guess maybe it will be all right - going to this party." She added. "So long as you're sure you want to be there with me, and aren't just proving a point to yourself by having me here. Honestly, I did wonder about that. If you were forcing yourself to think you loved me because you wanted to put Sian behind you."

"I wondered it too, for a while." Robin acknowledged. "But I don't wonder it now, Nance. And I knew my mind before I asked you to come here. I'd not put you through it otherwise."

He stood, slipping his hand into hers.

"I'm glad you'll stay for Mom's do." He continued. "But if you want to go back to LA the next day, well, we'll go."

"I don't want to rip you away from your family." Nancy shook her head. "I'll stick it out till we said we'd go back. After all, Carrowville is part of you just like California is part of me. And I guess I can deal with that. Even if it is different."

"Good." Robin grinned. "Then shall we head back to Mary's? She wants to talk to you about your outfit for the party anyway. I think she has it in mind to play dress-up - she always missed out on having a sister."

"I guess I can stomach that." Nancy rolled her eyes. "For your sister's sake, though if that's the case I'm going to disappoint. I'm not a girly dress-up kinda girl - I completely missed the Barbie gene."

"That's one of the reasons I like you." Robin admitted. "But Mary Jane is very hard to say no to. Come on. Maybe she can help you decide which dress you should wear to Carrowville's high society!"

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

It was all ready.

Madeleine carefully counted out the last wad of crisp green bills, fingering them apprehensively as she made sure the right total was there. Beside her on the couch lay a black canvas bag containing the rest of the money and, very carefully, she pushed the final bundle inside, chewing on her lip as she tried to zip the bag shut.

"Going shopping?"

Stefana lounged in the doorway and Madeleine sent her a dark look, pushing the sides of the bag together with some force and then dragging the zip across.

"What do you want?"

"That's a lot of cash - what gives?"

"I'm helping my Aunt, not that it's any business of yours." Madeleine snapped. "Her accounts are frozen so she can't cash a cheque - I promised to let her borrow some money."

With a final tug, she got the bag closed.

"Anything else while you're poking your nose into my life?"

"Yes, actually." Stefana nodded her head, coming to perch on the edge of the chair. "You've been wrong in the head lately, you know that? You yelled at me over nothing the other day...and you know what? I was sitting down in the studio going over the chords for the new song. I kinda looked over the lyric again while I was at it. I don't suppose this sudden mood swing has anything to do with the fact my brother's suddenly talking to Sirena again, does it?"

"What?" Madeleine stared.

"Well, you've been in a weird mood ever since we played Connie's show, more or less." Stefana shrugged. "It's blatant you have feelings for him, you know. If it wasn't obvious from your stupid, barely disguised song outpourings, it's kinda written all over your face sometimes. He breaks up with Emily, you move in and drag him out for late night actually thought you had a shot with him again, didn't you? And now he's all up after her again and you're bummed."

"Stefana, do you ever hear how much crap you speak?" Madeleine demanded. "If I was so keen to get back together with Luca, do you think I'd have told him to call Emily and mend broken bonds? Come on - how warped do you think I am?"

"Fairly warped, most of the time." Stefana said acidly. "I know that song was about my brother, Maddy. And Mari and I have both thought for a while you still had feelings for my brother. Why else are you so obsessed about your weight and your diet and working out at the gym every Sunday afternoon? What's that about, if you're not trying to impress someone?"

"I didn't realise that you'd kept me under such close scrutiny." Madeleine frowned. Stefana shrugged.

"Don't have to." She said simply. "It's obvious. Blatant, like I said. And it isn't going to happen, Maddy. He broke up with you. It was a long time ago and he's over it. Just because he and Emily split up, it doesn't mean that he's done with her - unfortunately. He's still hung up on her, and you just look desperate, trying to get his attention."

"And I suppose you never tried to get Aaron's attention, when he and Copper had their problems?" Madeleine shot back. Stefana grimaced.

"I was stoned out of my head most of the time. Drugs make you do mad things."

"So does being in love with someone you can't have, surely?"

"So you admit it, then? You are trying to get him back?"

"No, Steffi, I'm not trying to get your brother to go back out with me." Madeleine's anger drained away and she sank back against her seat. "Whatever I may have felt for Luca...that was over when the poem was written. In college. It ended and I want to see him happy. That's all there is to it."

Stefana pursed her lips.

"Are you sure about that?" She asked softly. "Because it's not how it's coming across."

"I don't care what you think." Madeleine got to her feet, scooping up the black bag. "Right now I have other things to worry about. But I'd appreciate you butting out of my life...and stop putting innuendoes and aspersions on the things I do, all right? Else we'll be having words about it and they won't be pretty ones."

"Was that a threat?"

"No, Steffi, it was a request." Madeleine returned impatiently. "Now get out of my way, huh? I have to go."

She pushed past the guitarist, opening the lounge door and heading out into the main hall, stopping dead as she registered Clay at the bottom of the stairs. He cast her a quizzical look.

"You and Steffi don't fight so much these days." He observed. "What was behind that?"

"You heard it?" Madeleine looked uncomfortable. Clay shrugged.

"Bits." He said. "The bits which no normal human being could avoid hearing."

"Well, she has some odd ideas and sometimes I want to wring her damn neck." Madeleine sighed, leaning up against the newel post. "She thinks I want to get Luca back, if that ship hadn't sailed a long, long time ago."

"Stefana doesn't know everything that happened in college, or how badly Luca upset you when he broke up with you." Clay said matter-of-factly. "Maddy, he and I both know that that's in the past now. You guys are friends and it's behind you. Right?"

"Right." Madeleine looked wistful. "Way, way behind me. Even if I did think I had a shot - and believe me, I don't think anything of the sort - but even if I did, I wouldn't. There are some things best left for dead. This is one of them. I almost wish I hadn't let you use that poem now, though. It's set Steffi off on a tangent and I worry about what she'll say to other people. To Luca, even. I have enough on my mind with Tante Regine and...and her burglary. I don't need Stef's brand of stirring it to add to my headache."

"Want me to talk to her?" Clay eyed her keenly. Madeleine hesitated for a moment, then shook her head.

"No." She said finally. "But I appreciate the offer. Talking about it will only make her more convinced she's right. Just drop it, Clay. Hopefully she'll get a clue and realise that life doesn't work that way."

She offered him a half-hearted smile.

"Thanks, though." She added. "It's nice to have one friend who isn't completely on my case about something right now."

"Not a problem." Clay assured her. "You can always count on me to be that."

Madeleine scooped up her car keys, slipping her sandals onto her feet.

"I may be back late." She said, adjusting the strap of the heavy bag across her shoulder. "Im going...I'm going to Tante Regine's. Don't wait up for me, huh?"

"All right." Clay grinned. "Drive safely. And don't worry about Stef, huh? The girl's an alien."

Despite herself, Madeleine returned the grin with a faint one of her own.

"I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks so sometimes." She said wryly. "Bye, Clay. Thanks again."

She pushed open the door, stepping out into the cool darkness. After a moment of hesitation, she locked herself out, making her way down the steps towards her waiting car. Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered exactly what she had to do.

"But right now it's the only option I have." She reminded herself, unfastening the driver's door and climbing inside, dropping the bag onto the passenger seat. "I don't like lying to Clay about where I'm going, but even if I told him the truth there's nothing he can do about it. And he'd only ask questions - they'd all only ask questions. What has Maddy got to hide? Nothing, as far as they know, because I've always kept myself level and squeaky clean. I don't do scandal...but then, none of them know about this."

She put the car into gear, reversing neatly out onto the main road.

"And if I have a say in the matter, that's exactly how it's going to stay!"

Prologue: Flashback: University of Connecticut, Winter 2009
Chapter One: Starcrossed
Chapter Two: Tante Regine
Chapter Three: Flashback: University of Connecticut: Winter 2011
Chapter Four: The Poem
Chapter Five: A Shock
Chapter Six: Nancy Confesses
Chapter Seven: Flashback: Break Up
Chapter Eight: Blackmail
Chapter Nine: Conflict
Chapter Ten: Flashback: Assanti Meddles
Chapter Eleven: Pay Off 
Chapter Twelve: Stefana Gambles
Chapter Thirteen: University of Connecticut: Finals Week
Chapter Fourteen: Cracks
Chapter Fifteen: A Tiny Piece Of Truth
Chapter Sixteen: Flashback: Forever Changed
Chapter Seventeen: Secrets Will Out

Chapter Eighteen: Fall Out

Chapter Nineteen: Flashback: A New Life

Chapter Twenty: Darren Admits

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