The Girl, The Gold Ring, And Everything
The Five Of Hearts Series
By Thomas Mc

Author's Note: This story is part of the 'Five of Hearts' series and part three of 'The Girl Trilogy'. Byron must overcome his debilitating fear of large cats (particularly lions) if he wants to make a life with Jennifer. The title should be speak for itself.

Chapter 1

Summer 2012

It was a surprisingly beautiful and temperate late August day and Byron stood at the fork in the pathway, his fists clenched, sweat forming on his brow that had nothing to do with the temperature. His mind was not on the pleasant weather at all; it was focused on the pathway ahead of him. He had spent the last several minutes standing on this spot and trying to work himself up to take the next step. The way was clear but he was unable to force his legs to move. With a cry of anguish and frustration he finally turned away from the path. His back now turned toward that place of tragedy, and the origin of his fears, he trudged away from his intended destination his eyes downcast in defeat. He settled onto the bench outside the bird house in weary resignation and stared at the sign depicting a lion. This part of the zoo was much different looking than when he had visited it as a seven year old child. But the old terror of what had happened here to that young child still hung heavy over the place and over his mind.

Byron had tried many different ways to overcome his fear of large cats. He had stared for hours at pictures in books. He had rented and watched hours of movies that contained lions (sometimes with limited success - - the movie 'The Ghost And The Darkness' had sent him fleeing from the room). He had even managed to sit through the entire length of the musical 'Cats'. He discovered that he liked the music but found the story a bit lacking. He was actually proud of the fact that he could get past the appearance of the actors to follow the story, such as it was, well enough to form such opinions.

He had even made one more trip to New York last June for Jennifer's graduation and to 'confront' Jennifer's family. It had been very difficult for him. His heart had been pounding from the moment he had boarded the plane knowing what was ahead. Throughout the ordeal he had remained steadfast. He had faced her family and kept his fear under control.

He had met Jennifer's leonine brothers for the first time. It had been hard but not as hard as he had expected. He had managed to control his fear in part by telling himself that Jacob and Charles were just actors in lion costumes like the play. It had helped a bit. Vincent, however, still scared him half to death and, despite his little mind trick, it took all of his courage and Jennifer's presence to face him. But he had done it.

After the graduation ceremony Byron had been invited out to a late lunch with Jennifer's friends and family at a nice restaurant in midtown. The only ones missing were her father and brothers. He had almost forgotten about Jennifer's male family members as he sat with her family at the restaurant. He had been able to loosen up and enjoy himself.

But he had not really conquered his fear. He had only pushed it back a little, tricked it by playing games with his own mind. His fear remained and despite his best efforts. He still was unable to enter the large cat area of the zoo.

He had hoped that if he could only conquer that one all important hurtle then the rest of his fears would crumble and maybe he would finally learn to be comfortable in Vincent's presence.

But not today. He hung his head and shook it. Not today.

Byron rubbed his hand across his sweat soaked t-shirt. He could clearly feel the three prominent scars that slashed across his chest and abdomen; a tangible souvenir of the tragic event that was the author of his fear. He closed his eyes and released a deep sigh. There would be other days and other attempts to beat this thing and beat it he would. He had to for Jennifer as well as for himself.

Finally he pushed himself to his feet and headed toward the Zoo's main exit. He had a long drive to get back home. Jennifer would be arriving tomorrow afternoon and he had promised to meet her at the airport.

~ o ~

After Byron arrived home and cleaned up, he fixed himself a quick cold cut sandwich then sat at his kitchen table and brooded over it. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't seem to conquer that one major hurtle. That one section of the zoo always defeated him.

He pulled the small box out of his pocked and placed it on the table in front of him. Inside it was the symbol of all that he hoped for but felt unworthy of obtaining until he could conquer his fear. He opened the box and looked at the object inside for several seconds then, with a sad sigh, closed the box and put it back in his pocket.

He got up from his table and threw the half-eaten sandwich away then headed off to his bedroom. He placed the small ring box in the back of his sock drawer where it had resided for a little over a year now. With a groan of anger and frustration he threw himself into his bed.

~ BnB ~

Byron anxiously waited for the arrival of Jennifer's plane. Things had been a little uncertain between him and Jennifer since last March. The way he had bolted in total uncontrolled panic when he had first met her father had left a large question mark hanging over their relationship. The fact that she still wanted to give it a chance was encouraging. Now it was August and Jennifer was coming to Austin to begin her post graduate studies at the University of Texas.

Byron's mind again wandered over everything that had occurred over the last five months. A lot had happened in that time. He had met (faced) Jennifer's twin brother, Jacob, and learned that he been married for almost two years to a young woman named Linda. He had also learned that Jennifer's other brother, Charles, was apparently very close to Elizabeth, the daughter of The New York District Attorney. During his visit he had been told what he suspected was an abbreviated version of how Catherine and Vincent first met.

Jennifer had finally told him most of the story of what happened during and after the 9/11 terrorist attack. That story had been stranger and more interesting that he could ever have guessed. Through that story he now knew that Vincent and his son's had access to the utility tunnels under Manhattan. He was convinced that there was a lot more about those tunnels than what she had told him. He suspected that it had something to do with the homeless people that were sometimes found hiding in those old utility tunnels.

Byron's attention was brought back to the present by the announcement of the arrival of Jennifer's flight. He glanced at the board which now showed "ARRIVED" next to her flight number. He turned and headed over to where she would be coming out of the security area.

The first person Byron recognized was Catherine then the next second he spotted Jennifer standing beside her. For several seconds all he saw was Jennifer. His attention was drawn to the light sparkling off the pendent hanging from Jennifer's neck. It was the one he had given her for her birthday. He took it as a sign that she still cared about him and he felt some of the tension leach away. Then Catherine and Jennifer spotted him and both broke into smiles as they called out to him. As Catherine and Jennifer got closer he noticed Brigit and Nancy following close behind them. He had been expecting Catherine to accompany her daughter but the two younger sisters were a surprise. He was suddenly glad that he had borrowed his oldest brother's SUV rather than picking her up in his prized 96 Trans Am as he had originally planned. He had decided on the SUV when he learned that her mother might be coming.

After greetings all around Byron led them to the luggage carrousel. While waiting Jennifer explained that they had decided to make a little family vacation out of it. Byron told them that he had the week off and that he would be happy to act as tour guide for them. Catherine thanked him and accepted his offer. During a pause in the conversation Byron made a quick phone call and changed his reservation for three to a reservation for five. Finally their luggage arrived and soon they were all piled into the SUV and on their way.

As they stopped at an intersection Jennifer pointed out the 'Nightwing' bat sculpture. Byron heard a familiar sound and glanced back to see Nancy taking a couple of pictures of the sculpture. "Pictures to show Dad when we get back home." Nancy commented.

The light changed and Byron turned right. Moments later he was commenting. "We are now crossing the bridge where the bat colony lives." He pointed to a tall building just on the other side of the river. "That is the hotel that you said you're staying at. I also have reservations for dinner this evening at one of the best places to watch the bats when they come out. I hope you all like sea food."

"Is that the same place you took me?" Jennifer inquired.

'That's the place." Byron replied.

Jennifer turned to look back at the others. "You guys will love this place." She remarked enthusiastically. "The food is good and the view of the bats at sunset is spectacular."

Nancy chuckled. "Ever since Jen got back she's been going on about that to everyone that will listen."

Brigit giggled. "Yea, I think she's obsessed."

Nancy jumped back in. "She also went on and on about some Bart's Creek swimming hole."

Jennifer frowned back at her two sisters. "It's called Barton Springs and it's a lot more than just a swimming hole." She responded with a bit of a huff.

Nancy and Brigit both broke out in giggles and teased Jennifer a bit more while she insistently proclaimed that they were exaggerating. A minute later Byron pulled up to the entrance to the hotel. Byron and Jennifer helped her mother and sisters unload their luggage then went with them to check in.

Up in their hotel room Byron glanced through the window. "You got a north facing room. You can see the Capital Building very clearly from here."

They all joined him to examine the view. Again Nancy was snapping off pictures of the scenery.

Brigit remarked after a few seconds. "Jen, you were right. It does have a pinkish cast."

Byron chuckled. "Yea, we Texans are proud of our pink capital building. It's similar in design to the US Capital but, like everything else in Texas, it is a bit larger." That got a few giggles from the young twins. Byron then pointed to a clearly visible tower a little to the right of the Capital building. "Over there is the tower that marks the University of Texas Campus where Jennifer will be going to school."

"That tower sure stands out doesn't it." Nancy commented as she lowered her camera.

"It's one of the tallest buildings in the city." Byron remarked. "My family has a lot of history with that place. I graduated there. All three of my brothers graduated from there. Both my parents graduated from there. Both my grandfathers graduated from there." He grinned. "In fact that is where my father met my mother." He paused for a few seconds, gazing at the tower, as a frown passed across his face. "My dad was twelve when that nut job started shooting people from that tower. His mother had brought him to find a birthday present for his father, something with a 'Texas Longhorn' theme. A bullet struck the pavement not three feet from him and, the next instant, another got his mother. He had to drag her to a safe spot behind a low wall." As they all stared at Byron in shock, he shrugged and continued. "It hit her in the ass. We later learned that if she hadn't been standing exactly where she was the bullet would have hit and probably killed dad." He grinned again. "Now-a-days the whole thing has become the 'butt' of family jokes."

After a half second of shocked silence everyone else in the room groaned loudly. Jennifer shook her head with her hand over her eyes. She had heard this one before. In fact she had learned that Byron loved puns, the worse they were the more he liked them, and he was more than capable of firing them off faster than she could keep up.

After a minute they all resumed settling their things in the room.

~ o ~

Once that was done they headed back down and ten minutes later they arrived at the University of Texas campus. Byron helped them carry Jennifer's stuff as he showed them the way to her new dorm room.

Byron glanced at the room number then pushed open the already ajar door. "Well here you are." He remarked as he entered the room.

The room contained two identical sets of dorm room furniture. Two beds, two tiny night stands, two small dressers, two small desks and two chairs. In the middle of the room was a two foot by two foot table and in one corner was a small refrigerator with a microwave sitting carelessly on top of it. Neither of them looked like it didn't really belong in the room and neither of them were plugged in. There was an open suitcase sitting on one of the beds and an empty one on the floor next to the bed. There were several pieces of clothing hanging in the open closet.

After a quick glance around, Byron nodded and placed the large suitcase he was carrying on the other bed. "Not bad." He commented with a nod.

Jennifer shrugged. "It's not home but it's OK."

Catherine glanced at the bed where Jennifer's larger suitcase now lay. "For a college dorm room it's not too bad" She eyed the small two person room critically. "At Radcliffe there was four of us in a room only half again as big as this."

"It's bigger than our room back home." Nancy commented as she looked around poking into all the nooks and crannies.

"It's bigger than what my classmates had when I went here." Byron remarked as he leaned against the nearest wall.

Brigit looked over at Byron curiously. "Classmates?"

"What about you?" Nancy asked Byron.

Byron shrugged. "My father's parents' house is very close to here. I stayed with them while I was going to school. I inherited it and I live there now."

Jennifer pulled a familiar hooded cloak out of her suitcase and hung it up in the closet. It brought back memories of the first time he had encountered her in a dead end alley in New York and he wondered if it might foreshadow anything about her next few years here in Austin.

Continued in Part 2

'Beauty and the Beast' and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. No infringement on copyrights is intended. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans. Original concepts and story elements may be used by other authors as long as appropriate credit is given.