What have I done? What have I done? WHAT HAVE I DONE? The words chased themselves around in her head. The simple factual answer being she'd torn out the heart of the only man who'd ever truly loved her, then gleefully danced all over it. In the process destroying his and Taz's relationship. She'd done that without even trying. What kind of hideous monster was she? That look she'd seen in their eyes when they were with each other. The unquestioning love. A love that transcended all else, because it was spiritual as well as emotional. That was until she'd turned up and poisoned everything once again. Her contagion just kept on spreading. Destroying everything of beauty. Why didn't he shout at her? They'd been driving around now for two hours. John hadn't even been cold towards her. Neither had spoken much, but he'd been directing her patiently around the streets. Stopping off here and there to talk to Taz's friends. Getting back in the car with a shake of his head as he updated her on things. The only time he'd shown anything approaching anger being when Trisha told him she'd called all the local hospitals to check if anyone matching Taz's description had been admitted. His ire had been directed at himself, for not thinking of that. They could have been gadding about all this time, while Taz was hurt and lying in a hospital bed. Or worse. Please berate me. Call me names. I deserve them. She could tell him of course. Tell him what she was. John probably wouldn't judge her. He definitely wouldn't, but it would be out there. She'd know he knew. "Please stop it." He spoke gently. Steph looked around. Checked the road ahead and in her mirrors. "Stop what?" John was scanning the street while he spoke. "Stop rewriting the narrative. Stop casting yourself as the villain in this. You've really done nothing wrong." He was talking rubbish. It made complete sense, but it was still rubbish. This was a conversation now though. They hadn't had one yet today. "I need to explain... I owe you an explanation. Things aren't... they don't... I mean I didn't mean..." "You're still doing it. Maybe it's the creative part of you that makes it necessary. You were doing it the first time I saw you. That day in the garden. I could see it written all over your face." She still didn't agree with him. "How would you know? All I was doing was hating you" "Because that's what I did when Arabella left me. It had to be my fault. Something I'd done. Something I hadn't done. Some awful flaw in my boring personality. I hated myself, but it showed as anger and hate of everyone and everything. After I'd worked through it, do you know what I found out? Her mother told me. They're still in contact. Part of the reason my wife left was because she thought she was the problem. In her mind the only thing wrong with our little family was her. The truth is it was neither of us at fault. Except in the sense we should never have married in the first place. We were never in love with each other. We were in love with the idea of being in love. Besides which, you didn't hate me. What you hated was a projection of what you assumed I was. The first impression, based on seeing someone. It's very strong and entirely illogical. You hated your ex for what he'd done to you. You judged me as him. I don't know what he did, but he certainly screwed you up." John huffed as he took a break in the longest speech she'd heard from him. "One thing I do know is he undermined you. Isolated you from family and friends. Made you dependent on him. He was the one making all your decisions for you. Am I right?" It was like he was looking inside her head. Misconstruing what he saw obviously. Or was he? "I suppose it's possible you're right." He twitched, sitting up. False alarm, he'd spotted a young girl who looked a bit like Taz. John thumped the dash in frustration. "He hurt you badly Steph. You can't deny that. You think you're mortally wounded. Damaged beyond repair. But you're not. You deserve to be happy. Believe me on that. You are not to blame for any of this. I am." "But.." John cut her off. Damn. Why wouldn't he let her speak? Though nothing she wanted to say would change anything, she needed to put him right. he hadn't lost anything. She was nothing. He sighed. "The past few months I've been looking into adopting Taz. It's a complicated process given our unusual circumstances. Fostering her was hard enough. A lot of exceptions were made to allow for it. Me not knowing if she wanted to be my daughter being another complication. Then I didn't want to suggest it in case it wasn't possible. No point raising her hopes only for them to be dashed. The irony is that I've got all the paperwork now. All I need is for her to give me permission to go ahead. She's very smart and very intuitive. Must have noticed how distracted I was. Me trying to act normal, very badly, tipped her off something was brewing." His phone rang. He answered it before the first ring ended. She couldn't hear the other side of the conversation. As he hung up, John scoped out the surroundings. "Who was that?" Internally Steph was cursing herself. They were trying to find a young woman who was hurt and alone, yet here she was dwelling on her own relatively minor misery. All of it self inflicted and not due to some deranged harpie with a fertile imagination and no morals. "Marcus. He called in a few favors from some banking friends. It was completely illegal, but he found out Taz used her ATM card, on Beechfield Road, in the early hours of this morning. It's about 15 minutes away by car. We need to take a break first though." "Why?" "Several reasons. You're still hungover. I can hear your stomach grumbling so you need some food. And you've almost rear ended three other cars in the last few minutes. There's a greasy spoon over there. Let's get a drink and a sandwich. We'll have to be quick though." She hadn't brought her wallet. She hadn't brought anything really. Apart from her phone and the mismatched clothes she was wearing. Catching her reflection in the windows was a bad move. She looked like well trodden shit. Steph had some bed head going on to. She used the facilities while John got the food and drinks. Ten minutes in there and she looked almost human with her hair wetted down. What did it matter what she looked like? Why was she so shallow and self obsessed? How could he have fallen in love with this? Nothing to worry about there now though. She'd done a great job of finishing that off before it even started. Offering up another prayer for Taz to be safe, she went back to their table. He was watching her as she returned. "You're a good person you know." "How the hell can you say that? You don't know what I've done in the past. How can you know what I'm really like?" There was some barely contained hostility in her voice. He didn't deserve it, but she was that loathsome and worthless. Her stupid, drunken, misunderstood remark had saved John from a fate worse than death. Having anything at all to do with her. "Because Taz and Bella both like you. Now shut up and eat up. I want to be out of here in ten minutes or less. We need to get over to Beechfield Road." They were immature, what did they know. "I still can't understand why you're not angry." That slipped out past her firewall of thoughts. "Oh I'm angry. At that useless, manipulative prick Brendan and myself. I pressured you into something you didn't want to do. That's down to me." She so wanted to tell him, but doing so would make her much worse in everyone's eyes. Brendan understood how inept and talentless she was. He was still an asshole though. Before they got back to her car John's phone rang again. He put it on speaker. It was Karen. "I've found her John." "Fantastic. Is she okay?" He was grinning. "Physically she's fine as far as I know. Taz is at the Greendale police station I'm afraid. She got picked up for shoplifting." Right at that moment the sky darkened. Black storm clouds were looming overhead as large drops of rain began to splash down from the heavens. "Oh shit. That could be bad." His good humor had evaporated. "Don't get too wound up treacle. I'm a few minutes away. Head on over and I'll be there waiting for you." The downpour intensified as they jumped into their vehicle. John slapped himself, really hard across the face. "Okay brain get into gear." He chided himself. "Why would she need to shoplift if she took money out of an ATM less than 12 hours ago? Think, think, think." "Is it that important? She could have spent it or lost lost it or even had it stolen... Oh right that could be a problem. Karen said she was physically okay though." Steph offered. "It's important to me. This is completely out of character for Taz. How much damage have I done to her? I like as much data as I can find." He growled. "It's Bella's birthday next week! Taz promised her something special. It'll be Barbie related I'm sure. Christ, how on earth was I lucky enough to find someone so wonderful. She probably spent her maximum daily withdrawal amount on it." His eyes were shining with unshed tears. She wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she was toxic. He shook himself out of it. "She's gone hungry just so her little sister could have a nice present. Come on. This might not be as bad as it seems. Karen's in our corner, that counts for a lot."