Sunday, May 23, 2010

Part Four

Bobby stood outside of the shop, staring through the window.

It was hot outside, and even though he was sweating, he couldn't quite bring himself to go inside. Entering would mean a commitment. A commitment that he was sure about in his head and his heart but hesitant, somehow, because of his history.

He knew all this logically. He knew his fears came from watching his own parents, seeing the struggle and feeling the pain he had lived through for years. Watching his mother suffering with schizophrenia, comforting her through the struggles of her illness. Feeling the distance between himself and his father. Knowing both of them could hardly be in a room with him, let alone with one another.

Next week was her birthday. They had been together, a close part of one another's lives, for over a year. He could recall life before her, but not the way his life was now. Before, he had been a great detective, a devoted son, a good person. Now he was grounded. Now he was more.

He thought about the night that they had lain in bed and she had asked him what his lifetime dream was. The fact that he told her the truth spoke volumes for how much he trusted her. He had never trusted anyone, including his family and closest friends, that much before. He had never confided that dream to anyone. He had always figured it was exactly that--a dream--but not meant for him. Not a goal or a possibility. But she had turned all that on its ear. She had needed him, allowed him in, and in turn he had entrusted her with his most private memories, his most vulnerable feelings. And she treated them as delicately and reverently as if they were her own. She had never betrayed him and he knew she never would.

He thought about how shattered she had been a year ago, holed up in the Wyndham, hardly able to get out of bed or face the world. How when he had visited her, his greatest desire had been to help her be able to smile, to laugh again. And somehow it had moved to something more intimate, more important. To sorting out what had happened to her and moving through it. To learning to trust and to love someone again. And in helping her, he had learned to help himself. To move forward and see himself as someone worthy of love and of his dream. Somehow, that dream had moved into a goal. A reality, a possibility.

Now he stood here, looking in the window, thinking about if she would say yes. Looking at the rings,as though the answer lay in choosing the right one. He knew her, knew her tastes, and he could look all day but he still knew which ring she would choose for herself--the small, simple marquis cut with a gold band in the corner. She deserved one like the five-carat diamond she kept locked in her jewel box. The one her rocker boyfriend had given her that she never wore. One that he wished his detective salary could afford, if for no other reason than to let her know how much she meant to him. But she wouldn't want that anyway. She liked small and simple, and he knew that it was far more important to please her than to please his own ego.

He thought for a minute about this birthday present and what she would say about it. He supposed he could just give it to her, as he gave her every other present, as though it were no big deal and just a token of his affection. For a moment, he thought about both of them pretending it really wasn't what it was. That it was just a ring, just a regular old birthday present that you would give your lover. Then he imagined telling her the truth. That he loved her more than life itself and didn't want to imagine living another day without them being married. That as frequently as he had nightmares about his childhood or someone hurting her, he had even more dreams that involved them together, making love or having babies or just living life.

The ring sat in the window, the light hitting it and refracting to bring his attention to it once more. It was simple and small, but beautiful, much like Vanessa herself, he realized. Taking a deep breath, he moved to the door and opened it, walking inside.

The store was quiet and cool. He approached the counter, heart beating quickly, resting his hands on the glass. A young woman was placing a necklace back into the case, and she turned to him.

"Can I help you, sir?"

"Yes," he said firmly. "The small marquis cut ring with the gold band in the front window--I'd like to purchase it."


She met him at Tiger Lily, a new restaurant in midtown with a lush, beautiful patio. She saw him sitting at a small table in the corner, nearly hidden by the garden surrounding him. He was wearing a polo shirt and a pair of dark wash jeans, looking a bit uncomfortable but incredibly handsome. She felt her heart skip a beat as she remembered curling against him snugly the night before, listening to his soft and loving words. He told her every day that he loved her, and showed her even more frequently. Last night they had turned the TV off after watching a movie and she had pressed closely to him. He had murmured into her ear, "I love you...I always will..." and she knew he was telling the truth.

After work she had gone home to shower and change. She had chosen one of her favorite halter sundresses--one that she hadn't worn since before the assault--and checked herself out in the mirror. She had to admit, even though it was a bit tighter than before due to the extra pounds she was carrying, she looked attractive. Pretty, least that's what Bobby would say. She had pinned her hair up and put on the lightest makeup she had, then touched her lips with just a bit of sheer gloss. As she finished, it occurred to her that she rarely dressed up for Bobby. He never asked her to, and was as comfortable with her in a pair of running shorts as he was when she was sporting a cocktail dress. They spent most of their time in casual circumstances anyway. Her mind briefly floated to seven months before, when she had chosen and worn that red Christmas dress. The look on his face had been classic. She didn't think she'd ever forget it--he looked like a teenager just opening Hustler for the first time.

Now she was at Tiger Lily, and the warm breeze was taking the edge of the heat of the day. She worked her way through the crowd of people and servers, and sat across from him. "Hey."

He looked up, trying to make the fact he was checking her out less noticeable. It didn't work. He knew he had failed by the time his eyes reached her face and he saw her lips curve into a knowing smile. "It's okay," she said nonchalantly. "I wore it for you anyway. I hope you like it--I didn't always fill it out quite like this."

He smiled. "You look always do. But I do like the dress." He took a sip of his wine. "So what do you think? It's a nice place, huh?"

"I love it...kind of amazing to find something like this in the middle of the city." She glanced around, taking in the exotic plants and flowers. "I feel like I'm in some incredible garden."

"I was hoping you'd like it. Have you seen the menu? I've heard they garnish with edible flowers."

She was impressed. "How'd you hear about this place?"

"I read about it...they put some interesting stuff in the paper, you know."

She snorted. "You and your papers...sorry, I'm still not reading them." She picked up the menu and began to examine it. After a minute, she took a sip of the wine Bobby had poured for her and said, "This menu is pretty eclectic...I've eaten in a lot of different places but I'm completely unfamiliar with some of these things..."

He was watching her carefully, and it was making her a little nervous. "Don't worry," he told her. "No matter what you pick, I think it will be just fine."

Her eyes met his. "Is everything okay? You look like you're uncomfortable with something."

"No," he said quickly. "You know me...I'm just always moving...I'll try to slow down."

"What are you ordering?"

He lay his menu down. "I'm thinking I'll probably go with the chicken tikka...maybe some naan..."

"Hmm...I was thinking about the greek vegetarian plate."

He laughed. "It's like a global trip for your mouth."

She grinned, looking up at him. "It all sounds good. Thanks for bringing us here." She took another sip of her wine. "I was surprised that you weren't home earlier. Were you out having fun?"

He chuckled. "Eh, I guess it depends on how you define fun. I had some errands I needed to run. It was a productive day, anyway. How was work?"

He had gotten the day off due to a grueling case that had Alex and him putting in massive overtime through the last few weeks. They had finally wound it up and Deakins had told them to take a long weekend. As much as he enjoyed having a day to lounge around, he was less than pleased with the fact that Vanessa still had to go into work. He had tried desperately to persuade her to call in sick, offering everything from coffee to oral sex to try to get her to give in. At one point she actually hesitated. Then she seemed to remember something, kissed him, and went to shower. Forty minutes later she was kissing him goodbye and leaving.

"Work was...well, I've been building that profile for the Anderson case...I got some new information and I think it's going to be very helpful. So I guess I could say it was productive."

The server arrived with a plate of hummus, pita, and vegetables. They placed their orders and Bobby thanked her for the appetizer. "I thought you'd like it," he explained as they both grabbed a carrot stick to dip.

"You know me well," she said. "This is pepper hummus?"

"Yeah...they had a whole variety...garlic, pine nut, red pepper...looks good, huh?"

After they finished the appetizer, the server brought over a small cup of sorbet to "cleanse the palette". Vanessa tried to keep herself from laughing. "This is a little different than our usual pizza and beer, Bobby."

He suddenly felt unsure. "I know we've never done something like this before...if you don't like it..."

"Don't be ridiculous! I love it! How can you not love a place that gives you dessert before dinner?"

He relaxed then, and the server arrived with their meals. They both began to eat and the food was fabulous. "I can't believe this place has been missing all my life," Vanessa finally said, mouth half full, as she finished chewing her falafel. "How's yours?"

"Great," he told her as he took a forkful and offered it to her. She tasted it and had to agree; it was rich in flavor and spice. She savored it slowly, and watched a smile spread slowly across his face. "You like it," he stated simply.

"Yeah, I do." She turned her plate to him and offered him some dolmades. "Try it."

They shared their plates, enjoying the mutual experience. He pulled his chair closer to her and let her feed him bites from her plate. "You like it too," she murmured, then put the fork down. She picked up her napkin and wiped the side of his mouth before leaning over and kissing him.

He sat still for a minute, enjoying the pleasure of her kiss, before pulling back. "Um...we...this is a little more public than we usually go."

"Look around you,'re in the middle of a beautiful garden and nobody else is close enough to care."

For the first time, he realized that what she was saying was true. He had asked for a corner table for some privacy and they had definitely given him that. The plants and flowers obscured their view of others as effectively as it obscured others' views of them. With the exception of one table to the left, in which they could see legs, there was no one else visible.

She was smiling at him and her hand had slid on to his knee and up to his thigh. He smiled back, conspiratorially, and for a moment his thoughts sunk into the figurative gutter.

Before things could develop any further, the server appeared to take their plates away. Vanessa caught his hand in hers and brought it on top of the table. "Thank you for doing this," she said softly. "This has been lovely. I love pizza and beer with you, Superfriends, baking and cooking and running and everything. And this has been just as wonderful as all of those things. It's so special."

The server arrived with finger bowls before their dessert. She removed the lid from Bobby's, then removed the lid from Vanessa's.

Vanessa's finger bowl held no water. Instead, rose petals covered the bowl and in the middle rested the ring he had purchased earlier in the day.

She was still holding his hand and he was watching her intently. He swore he could hear his own heart beating outside of his body, loud and fast and powerful.

Vanessa's surprise showed on her face, but only briefly. When the server had lifted the cover, she had initially been confused until she saw the ring. Small and gold with a tiny, marquis cut diamond. She knew he had bought this with his own salary. It was sparkling and clear and oh, so beautiful. She couldn't stop staring at it.

"Beth." His voice was quiet, soft, and her eyes shot up to meet his. He looked unsure of himself, nervous, and suddenly this whole evening made sense. His anxiety, his choice in restaurants, his quiet demeanor, his hyper awareness of others around them. He had her eyes now, and she wouldn't let go.

Their hands were still together, but now he was holding hers, stroking it and hoping once again he could communicate all of his love for her with his hands. "I've thought about this for days, weeks, probably months even, trying to figure out what I wanted to say to you and how I wanted to say it. There are so many things I want to tell you right deep my love is for you, how important you are in my life, how I can't imagine a moment without you. Everything about you is beautiful to me."

He stopped speaking for a minute and his eyes dropped to their hands, still together. "I know it feels like we're always focusing on your assault, your healing. But somewhere in there, somehow, I healed too. I'm a better person with you in my life. When I'm with you, I know that I'm who I'm supposed to be. I don't know if that makes any difference or not, but I wanted you to know that. I want to spend the rest of my life as your partner, your lover, your friend. I want to marry you and have children with you and love you." She could see the tears in his eyes, and she squeezed his hand. "I will do anything to make you happy. I'll get on my knee and ask right now if you want me to...I'll get on my knee in the middle of the squad room if you want...would you ever consider..." he caught his breath, stopped the words from spilling so hastily out of his mouth. "Would you marry me?"

She was still looking in his eyes, eyebrows raised, holding his hand. "Are you done?" she asked. "Did you say all you needed to say?"

He swallowed his heart back down from his throat and nodded slowly. If not now, maybe later. He could hang on to it.

"Good," she said softly, fighting back her own tears. "Of course I'll marry you, Bobby. I'd marry you tonight at city hall if you asked me to. You mean the world to me. I've never been loved before, the way you've loved me." She pulled her hand out of his and wiggled her fingers. "I'm just really, really ready for you to put this ring on my finger. It's beautiful."

His hesitant look spread into a massive grin as he picked the ring up from among the flower petals. "Hold your fingers still," he commanded, then slipped it on her finger gently. He felt his breath hitch and the tears fill his eyes again. He cleared his throat and said gruffly, "It looks lovely on you."

She caught his hand in hers. "Bobby," she whispered. "This is the absolute best moment of my life."

He squeezed her hand before whispering, "Me too." He reached up and caught her face, then kissed her. His stomach fluttering, their tongues touching and dancing. "I don't ever want to let you go."

Her face was close, so lovely, and she whispered, "You don't have to." Then she pulled her chair next to his and rested her head against him. She'd never been so sure of anything in her life.


"So how do you want to do this?" Bobby was running a finger up and down her arm as they lay in bed. The ring was sparkling on her finger, and they both seemed rather enamored of looking at it there.

She chuckled. "I guess the way everyone does it--you know, with some justice of the peace and a marriage license..."

"Very funny," he responded, not bothering to hold back his grin at her sarcasm. "Big wedding? Small? Long engagement? Or..." he rolled over to face her. "You got plans tomorrow?"

"Oh, you're good," she told him, blocking his kiss with her index finger. "Small wedding...not too far from now..."

"You've thought about this," he stated, surprised.

"Uh, yeah," she replied. "I have."

He flopped over on his back. "I was afraid you might say no."


"Yeah." He interlaced his fingers and rested them on his chest. After a minute, he turned his head to look at her. "I'm glad you didn't though."

She reached over and touched his hair, smoothing the curls out of his face, then tracing his ear down to the lobe. "I think we're inextricably tied at this point. I'm so happy to make it legal."

He couldn't stop smiling. Some part of him was announcing to himself that he was pathetic, whipped, had no masculine pride whatsoever because he knew that he would do whatever she told him. Huge wedding in three years with everyone she'd ever known? Done. Helicopters scanning the wedding site? No problem. Cinderella dresses and tuxes with tails and tall hats? Got it. He tried to keep himself from laughing aloud at the image.

She had reached over and caught his hands in hers. "I don't want a big wedding," she told him. "Actually, the only people necessary are you, me, and whoever marries us. I guess a couple of witnesses, but we could always grab someone who's around."

He laughed. "You want our witnesses to be random bystanders?"

She shrugged. "Or we could ask your mother and Ava."

"Okay...random witnesses. Where are we going to do this? City hall? That church we went to a few times?"

She thought for a moment about the church they had attended on Christmas Eve, how nice the people had been, how they had gone back a handful of times. "Well, the church trumps City Hall, anyway," she mused. "Although I have another idea...someplace you haven't been before, but i think you'll like it."

"Oh yeah?" He was playing with her fingers now against his chest.

"We could go check it out this weekend, if you're up to it...I'll make all the arrangements."

"Hmm...what do I need to pack?"

She grinned. "Yourself, genius. And maybe a couple changes of clothes, and a swimsuit."

"Aha...a clue..."

"Don't read too much into it."

He was quiet for a minute, watching her fingers as he manipulated them around his own. "So this means we're going to have to find a way to break it to our families at another time."

She looked up at him. "Is that going to be too upsetting for your mom?"

He shook his head. "I think it will be okay. She thinks you're my handler anyway...we can always tell her that you married me as some sort of covert operation." She began giggling and he leaned over to tickle her until they were both laughing and gasping for breath.

"That's really not funny, Bobby," she scolded him. "Although I am trying to imagine the look on Ava's face when she finds out I married...and married YOU...without consulting her first."

"She'll be thrilled. You know how much she loves me." He tugged at the bottom of her tank top. "She's going to be convinced I'm such a hot lover you couldn't say no. It's all I can offer you, anyway. Definitely not money or's got to be good lovin'."

"You're a dork," she told him, giggling as she kissed his chest, then curled up on his bicep. He smelled clean and soapy and fresh like summer. They lay like that for several minutes, until he spoke again.

"Hey Rayden?"


He turned his head toward her once again. "Thanks for saying yes."

She smiled, a bit shyly at him, but snuggled closer. "You're welcome, Goren. Thanks for asking."


They had been driving for about four hours when he finally turned to her. "How much longer?" he asked, then letting his sly smile peer out from one side, he teased, "I'm hungry...I'm thirsty...I have to go to the bathroom..."

She rolled her eyes. "I'll be happy to pull over for you at any time and you can piss in the woods."

He snorted. "Gee thanks. You're a real peach."

"Two hours. Two more and we'll be there."

"Really? Are you going to tell me where we're going yet?"

"No. But I'll give you a hint."

"Okay," he said, crossing his arms. "I'll bite. What is it?"

She bit her lip. "We're going somewhere that you would need a couple of changes of clothes and a bathing suit!"

He shook his head and sighed. "I should've known better."

"Yeah, you should have..." After a minute, she decided he had been patient enough. "North Carolina."

"North Carolina?" He sounded shocked, as though she were proposing a trip to Alcatraz.

"Yes...the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Ever been there?"

"No...did I ever mention I hate the beach?"

"Didn't your grandparents own a beach club?"

"Yeah. I hate the sand. It gets everywhere. It's gross."

"Okay. You stick your hands in dead bodies for a living. I've seen you squish eyeballs, pus, and all sorts of weird bodily fluids out of people. And you're telling me you can't handle some sand???"

"I didn't say I couldn't handle it...I said I hate it because it gets everywhere. Like after you've been to the beach. it's in every crevice of your body, and you can shower for three days and there will still be sand in your bed."

She snorted. "You keep ruining this and sand will be the only thing in your bed." She was quiet for a minute, then said, "Besides, I don't swim in the ocean. Do you know the pollutants out there these days? I stick to the pool."

"Oh!" He suddenly sounded more excited. "Does this mean we're going to some resort?"

"Well, I wasn't planning on camping out on the beach...yes, there will be a pool and a clean bed with no sand. It's up to you to keep it that way, junior."

"You're so funny. Junior. I can't believe you just called me that! Besides, we both know if anyone brings sand into the bed it will be're probably working some sort of 'From Here To Eternity' fantasy."

"Heh. Shows what you know...Montgomery Clift was my favorite actor in that movie."

"That surprises me. I really thought you'd be more a Burt Lancaster type."

"Do you look like Burt Lancaster?"

'No," he said, "but I don't look like Montgomery Clift either!"

She laughed. "True...and I'm no Deborah Kerr.."

"Yeah, but this isn't my fantasy."

"It's not mine either!" she objected. "So what IS your movie fantasy? And don't tell me something like Die Hard!"

"What's wrong with Die Hard? Or Die Hard Two? Or Die Hard With A Vengeance?"

She shook her head. "Are you flexing your balls right now?"

That made him laugh. "No, but I could if you wanted me to." He paused for a moment. " fantasy...hey, I don't know that I think about things like this."

"Well then..." she said sharply, "take a guess."

"You're a little demanding...some classic romance? Is that what I'm going for here?"


"What was that movie with Madonna and her husband on the beach? That would be it."

"Her husband wasn't even IN that movie! He was directing it!"

"Same difference. Beach sex. It's all good, as long as it's not my bare ass in the sand."

She couldn't help but laugh. "You're hopeless. And I promise you no sex in the sand."

He put his hand on hers. "I appreciate that...and by the way, From Here To Eternity is one of my favorites too. Not the beach scenes, but the rest of it."

"The rest of it is pretty sad."

"Yeah, but it's still better than sand up your ass."

Suddenly she pointed to the sign noting the Wright Brothers Bridge. "We're almost there."

"This is kind of exciting," he said. "I've never been here it super crowded like New York?"

"It's cleaner. I think you'll like it." They crossed over the bridge and drove through several small towns on the northern islands, before arriving at Corolla.

"Corolla," he said aloud. "At least it doesn't say Rodanthe. Like that movie. I heard that was terrible."

She had parked the car and was staring at him now. He looked back at her. "What?"

"Do you want to go back to New York?"

"No! I just don't want to go to Rodanthe...but this place looks really interesting." He opened his car door and headed to the front door of the inn. "You coming?"

She couldn't believe him. He was so smart alecky. It was one of the things she loved about him, his quick wit, and even though she now knew that he hated the sand, she was still positive that he woud love this place. It was where she had always felt most at home. Where her mother would bring her as a little girl, playing at the beach and enjoying watching the horses, running free. She had always thought it was absolutely the most beautiful place on earth. And now that she was older, she still thought that. Even after traveling to millions of places, touring for years, her favorite place to be in the world was the Outer Banks.

She followed him out, grabbing her back, and entered the inn. It was small and homey, with tasteful local decor. She saw him smiling and realized half of what he said in the car was just an act. It made her want to do it in the sand, with him on the bottom.

They checked in quickly and went to their room, a small cabin in the back of the property. It was surrounded by a white picket fence, which Bobby seemed to like, and they entered the studio. There was a large sitting area, a small breakfast nook, and a bed toward the back of the cabin. "I didn't realize there was a pier," he noted,nodding toward the small pier to the left of their cabin.

"Oh, yeah...I think that's where I get to drown you if you're driving me nuts," she told him, elbowing him in the gut.

He smiled absently then looked out the window toward the pier. "I should have brought my fishing gear."

"I didn't know you fish."

"Not often...but occasionally. I'm not very good at it."

She walked up behind him and hooked her finger in one of his belt loops. "Somehow I doubt that."

He turned around and looked at her. "You really love this place, don't you?"

"Yeah. My mom used to bring us here a lot as was the most peaceful place on the planet to me. I still think it's the most beautiful."

He opened the front door and sat on the stoop. Motioning for her to sit next to him, he said, "So tell me everything...why it's so wonderful...I want to see it too."

She sat down next to him. "My dad was always gone. Business trips. Mom would get lonely on the weekends, so she'd pack us up in the car and we'd come down here and spend the weekend. Sometimes we would go on nature walks or swimming, but more often I just explored on my own. I learned how to go crabbing when I was ten...and I was pretty good, too!"

He chuckled. "How do you do that?"

"Well," she explained, "you tie a chicken neck into the middle of a crab cage, lower it down into the sound, and wait for the crabs to come. Then when they arrive, you scoop them up in your crab cage and store them in your bucket." She laughed suddenly, remembering her summer pasttime. "They're pretty wiggly until you cook 'em."

He reached over and held her hand. "What else did you do?"

She sighed. "Took a lot of walks on the beach. My favorites were in the late fall or early winter, when nobody else was around. It was beautiful. You'd find all sorts of things around...shells and driftwood and even sand crabs...I used to love to watch the sand crabs. I'd spend hours combing the beach and then walk home to wherever we were staying, and my mom would make us some hot cocoa. It was one of the things she was able to do. Not a lot, but something special." She shifted her legs so that her knees were touching and she could rest her arms on them. "Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of sand either...but I feel closest to God here. I always felt when I was here that God had been here too. Before me, but with me too. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah," he said. "I think so."

"Do you seen Him?"

Bobby looked around him, at the sand dunes, the dune grass, the natural forest, and the water, and he realized he knew exactly what she meant. "It's blessed, isn't it?"

"I think so...but it's probably my own experiences, you know?"

He was quiet for several minutes, taking in the scenery as the sun began to set over the water. Finally he said, "How long do you suppose it takes to get a marriage license here?"

She turned and smiled at him. "Not long, probably. We could check tomorrow."

He picked up a stick and began to draw in the dirt next to the step. "I know you had said we would just come and check it out...but I don't want to wait. I want to be your husband. Say, yesterday."

She laughed.

"Really," he pressed, "how do you feel about it?"

"Yesterday would have been fine with me...but since it's already passed, I can settle on the next few days."

He tilted his head toward hers in the sunset. "You're beautiful," he noted, as though he were observing this fact for the first time.

"Thanks," she told him. "I wouldn't want my husband to think I"m ugly."

"Beth, I've never thought that. But the more I love you, the more you take my breath away."

She met his eyes, full of heartfelt sincerity, and she rested her head on his chest. "I want to be with you forever like this."

They sat silently,her head on his chest and his hand gently stroking her back, watching the sun set over the water, before rising and going back in to the cabin.


They had found a local pancake house late the next morning and indulged in a huge stack as well as some bacon and sausage. "Bacon is deadly," she told him. "I could eat a pound by myself."

"That's so hot," he grinned. "Thinking of you eating a pound of bacon. It's like food foreplay."

"Ugh. If I ate it, the last thing I'd be thinking about would be foreplay." She took another pancake. He watched her smear it with butter, then cut it up and eat it.

One of his eyebrows went up. "Is there a reason you're opposed to syrup?"

She laughed. "I'm a bread whore. No syrup, that ruins the flavor. See, people who eat pancakes with syrup do so because they love syrup, not pancakes. The pancakes are simply the vehicle in which to eat the syrup. People like me, who eat them without the syrup, we enjoy the purity of the pancake. You should try it. It's amazing."

He had sat still, watching her, one eyebrow still raised, trying not to make a face. "Uh, okay. I think I'll stick with my syrup, though." As if to stress the point, he circled his plate one more time with the syrup bottle. He placed the bottle back on the table and after cutting his pancakes, made a hearty sound of "mmm." He closed his eyes, pretending to cherish the taste. "I guess as long as you're comfortable, knowing what you're missing," he said casually after swallowing. "This is true maple syrup and really quite good."

She bit back a laugh. He worked so hard to bait her sometimes that she felt it was almost cruel not to give in to his melodrama. Almost. "I'll do my best without it, but it will be hard," she told him.

He grinned at her and took another bite. She thought he was extraordinarily handsome this morning, in his jeans and a white linen button down shirt. She had chased him out of the bathroom before he could shave, and he was sporting heavier stubble than usual. For a moment she fantasized about running her hands over his face, twisting her fingers in the curly waves of his hair. No matter how she thought about it, he was amazingly beautiful.

They had spent the morning going to the Dare County municipal building and applying for a marriage license. It was surprisingly easy and they were walking out with said license twenty minutes later. Since neither of them had been married before, the process was fairly simple. Bobby had paid the fee and the older woman at the desk had wished him good luck, and winked at Vanessa. A secret they shared--that Bobby was hot. Even the older marriage license woman knew Vanessa was marrying a hottie. It made her secretly thrilled.

Now all they needed was a minister. Apparently there was no justice of the peace on the islands, so they would have to find a man--or woman--of the cloth to do the ceremony. Part of her couldn't wait to be Goren's wife. She had never loved anyone the way he loved him. Everything about him, from his hands to his sweetness to the way he soaked his pancakes in half a bottle of maple syrup delighted her. She sometimes wondered if it were infatuation that made her feel this way, but then she reminded herself that they had known each other for years. That they had been dating for over a year. That he knew things about her that nobody else knew, and he loved her just the same. That she couldn't begin to imagine her life any more without him. And then she thought about the night he had confided in her, his lifetime dream, a wife and a family. She hadn't told him then, but she had craved a stable family her entire life. She wanted the same--a husband who loved her for herself, and children. Beautiful children with curly dark hair and long, elegant fingers and tall statures. Like him.

"You okay?" he asked suddenly, swallowing another bite of pancakes.

She took another bite of her bacon. "Yep. Just thinking."

"About what?"

She hesitated a moment, then replied, "About how if we had kids, and they looked like you, they would be incredibly beautiful."

He froze for a moment, regarding her face. Deciding she was serious, he said softly, "Funny...I always wanted them to look like you."

"They'll have my love of bacon and your love of syrup."

He chuckled. "Too bad you don't like sausage. It's good with syrup too."

"All that sugar is going to kill you."

"If the fat in the bacon doesn't kill you first."

She suddenly took another look at her slice of bacon and decided to put it down, her face curling up into a not-so pleasant rejection of the food.

"Hey," he objected. "I was only kidding! It's not like you eat the stuff every day!"

She picked it up again, but this time to wave at him. "So where are we going to find a preacher?"

He shrugged. "At a church?"

"Well, that's very logical of you, Robert," she teased. "You have a preference of churches?"

"There's a United Methodist church on the way back to the want to try there?"

This time she shrugged. "Why not?" She sat back in her chair and enjoyed watching him finish his pancakes, allowing her mind to wander to the pleasures of a honeymoon, and how much she would enjoy this entire time with him, looking so relaxed and beautiful and just damn fine.

When he finished, he licked his fork with relish, smiled at her, and picked up the check. Once he returned to the table, he went to pull her chair out. "Minister next," he said confidently, and she stood up and, not willing to resist another second, gently ran a hand across his stubble. Yep. All good.

"Minister it is," she replied. How one man could be so beautiful to her she didn't know, and right now she didn't care to try to figure it out. Just looking at him was enough.


They approached the Duck United Methodist Church quietly. There was only one car in the parking lot and the building seemed silent. Vanessa wasn't overly surprised, seeing as it was Saturday, but felt her heart fluttering anyway. Bobby unconsciously clutched her hand, and she took comfort in the fact that he was nervous too.

The front door was open and they walked inside, peeking into the empty sanctuary. It was a small worship area with a few stained glass windows. A newer podium was at the front of the church, and Vanessa recognized that layout as a traditional one for a United Methodist church. Bobby glanced down at her, before turning his attention back to the empty room. "Hello?" he called loudly. "Anybody here?"

There was no answer and he shrugged to her but didn't let go of her hand. Instead, he led her up the aisle. "Look," he said, smiling slightly. "You could stand here and I'll stand next to you, and we'll marry ourselves."

She squeezed his hand and shook her head. "I already told you this morning," she reminded him. "We're getting married on the beach."

"I know, I long as I don't have to get sand up my ass."

"That's not a traditional part of a United Methodist ceremony." An older gentleman had rounded the corner and was smiling at them. "I'm Owen Schuster. Can I help you?"

Vanessa fought a grin after watching Bobby's face turn bright crimson. "Hi, Mr. Schuster. We're actually looking for the minister...we'd like to get married."

Owen continued to smile at her, and reached to take her empty hand in his. "Well, my dear, that would be me. And I happen to do many weddings. You know, all of the couples I marry are very unique. We can talk about what you would like and customize your ceremony however you would like. Some people like more traditional weddings and others like, erm-" he glanced at Bobby, who was still completely red "-different types of ceremonies. I'm a fairly liberal minister and I would want your wedding to be a special day for the two of you. Have you thought about what you'd like?"

Bobby was still frozen, looking as though he expected Satan himself to appear and take him down at any second. Vanessa followed the minister to a pew and sat next to him.

"Actually, I know exactly what I want...what we want," she began. "We want to be married this evening, just the two of us and a couple of witnesses, on the beach. Sunset would be ideal to me, but certainly we can do another time. We've written our own vows and have the marriage license. We just need you to show up."

Owen watched her closely. "I'm sorry, I didn't even catch your name."

"It's Vanessa. Vanessa Rayden...and this is Bobby Goren."

Owen's mouth slid into a slow smile. "I know were Liz Rayden's daughter. The one who went on to oldest daughter thought you were amazing and my oldest son wanted to...well..." he looked at Bobby and cleared his throat. "They were both big fans of yours. My, I remember your mother. She came to church every Sunday when she was here." He patted her hand. "Liz was such a lovely woman. I'm sure she'd be thrilled with the happiness you've found."

Vanessa found herself completely caught off guard. "You knew my mom?"

"Yes, were so young when she passed...I'm sure you don't remember but I came to her funeral. It was such a sad time for you and your sister. Your mother would have been so proud of you that day...your poor little sister was so beside herself, and there you were, trying to be a little momma to her, holding her while she cried. My heart nearly broke for the two of you." He looked up to Bobby now, fully, and smiled. "You're a lucky man. If this one is half the woman her mother was, you'll have a wonderful marriage."

Bobby felt a bit self-conscious but was intrigued by this man who had known Vanessa's mother so well. "She's amazing," he answered honestly. "I never thought I would meet someone so wonderful."

"She is, that...I remember many a time when her mother would visit and tell me how proud she was of her girls. How much Vanessa enjoyed beach combing. How her girls made her smile when nothing else could. " He turned back to Vanessa. "Your mama loved you so much. I know she wasn't always able to tell that to you, but she did. I hope your father was able to communicate that to you after she passed."

Bobby felt it, felt the tension in the room rise at the mention of Vanessa's father. "Mr. Schuster," he said gently, "thank you so much for sharing your memories of Liz. I know they mean a tremendous amount to Vanessa."

Owen looked from one to the other and recognized he had broached a sensitive subject, and probably one best not mentioned on a wedding day. "Of course," he said kindly, then squeezing Vanessa's hand again, told her, "Any time you want to talk about your mother, you visit with me. Lovely woman. I still miss her." With a firm shake of the hand he was squeezing, he stood and smiled at them both again. "So...the sun sets at 8:37 this evening...should we plan on 8:30? And which beach?"

Bobby and Vanessa looked at each other. "Um, we're staying in that too far away?"

"For Liz's little girl? I'd go to Rodanthe for you!"

Bobby and Vanessa both burst into laughter. "I don't think that would be necessary," Bobby reassured the minister, and Vanessa replied, "Corolla will be just fine."

Vanessa and Owen decided upon the exact location, and then Owen turned to both of them again. "You need two witnesses in Dare County. Do you have two friends?"

Bobby hesitated for a moment, then decided to just come clean with the minister. "To tell you the truth, this is kind of a spur of the moment thing. We had just come down to scope out the area but we really want to go ahead and get married."

Vanessa chuckled, low, and said, "We had just planned to grab a couple people roaming around."

Owen shook his head. "You can do that, but this is a ceremony in front of God. Is there anyone you can think of that would take this seriously...witness your covenant the way God intended?"

Vanessa looked at Bobby, who was looking at her, as they both realized they hadn't thought of this commitment in quite that fashion, and that Owen was right.

Suddenly Bobby said, "What about your son and daughter? You said they were familiar with Vanessa, and surely as the children of a minister, they would understand the sanctity of the ceremony."

Owen looked at Vanessa, whose face had burst into a smile, before he allowed himself to grin. "I'm sure they would be honored. It might cost you an autograph, though."

She laughed. "That's a small price to pay...I'd be happy to."

"Then we're set...8:30 at Corolla Beach, across from the inn." He reached over to hug her, and said softly, "Your mother would be so proud today."

"Only because I got my act together and found such a great man." She glanced at Bobby to see him looking at his feet, flexing them again, but a soft smile was on his lips, and she knew he was flattered.

They walked out of the church into the July air. Hot and humid. They could hear shoppers a couple blocks down.

"Eight-thirty," he echoed. "You want to go swimming?"

"Yeah, but I can't." She looked at him sideways, and stroked his hand absently for a minute. "I need to get a dress."


She arrived back at the inn just before six.

She knew they had promised not to make this a huge fancy affair, and Bobby had tried his best not to scoff too heavily when she had mentioned getting the dress. She had quickly and gently reminded him that very little of the traditional wedding fare was important to her, but she did want something to wear that would be special to her. The truth was that she very rarely bought or wore dresses but she so appreciated the look on his face whenever he saw her in one. She knew he would never say so or even suggest that she wear more dresses. But it was their wedding day, and she figured he deserved to see her in something beautiful and sexy that he would remember forever.

It hadn't taken too many shops to find the right one. After all, she wasn't looking for something traditional. And she had found the perfect one an hour into her search. It was loose cotton, with spaghetti straps that crossed in a low back that ended just above her hips. The fabric had a soft touch and look to it, inviting the wearer to be drawn to touch it. The flow of the dress was soft and ended just below her knees in the front, but tapered down halfway to her calves in the back. Simple, just what she wanted, but it seemed to accent everything she was hoping for. Her breasts, her waist, her hips all gave the dress its shape. She loved it, and more than that, she knew Bobby would too.

He entered the cabin a few minutes after she did, wet from the pool and grinning. "Is that it?" he asked, trying to grab the bag from her. "I want to see!"

She blocked him with her free arm. "No!" she told him firmly. "You'll see it in a couple of hours. Until then, you'll just have to wait." Taking him in for the first time, she felt herself smile. God, the man was sexy. His wet hair was tousled and he was a bit darker than he had been earlier, from being out in the sun. He had pulled a tee shirt over his chest and she fought the urge to pull it off of him. His swim trunks were a plain classic navy but were slung low on his hips, and she could imagine the trail of dark hair from his navel, down. Later, she thought. Focus, Vanessa, and not on that! "So," she teased him, "how many girls did you pick up while I was gone?"

He stuck his tongue out. "None. I wasn't interested. I'm taken, or did you forget already?"

"No. I haven't forgotten...but you're looking particularly...well, nice today."

Now he was looking at her confusedly. "In my bathing suit and a tee-shirt?"

"That, and before...pretty much all day..."

He grinned. "Well, since you're so hot for know, we have a couple of hours..."

"Uh, no."

He sighed. "No, no, no...I hope I get to hear yes soon!"

She smiled and went to hang the dress in the closet.

He was pleased that she found him so attractive today. He guessed that she usually did, but she didn't always tell him so. Not that he expected her to carry on about it, but he was twelve years older than her and she was a goddess, so it didn't hurt to know she was attracted to him. He figured now was as good a time as any to tell her what he'd been up to. "I found a photographer."

Her face perked up. "No kidding!"

"Yep!" He grinned at her excitement. "He's going to meet us there at 8:30. He can film the ceremony and take some candids too, if you want."

She hopped onto the bed. "I want. I want very much."

He stood next to the bed and pulled his shirt off, then shed his swimsuit, before laying a towel down on the bed next to her and sitting down nude, like some sort of Roman God. "Thanks for telling me you think I'm attractive."

"Are you serious? You know were active talk around the water cooler way before we got together."

"Well," he reasoned, "there's attractive and then there's goddess from another universe. So it's nice to know that you have the same feelings for me that I do for you."

"Bobby." Her voice was suddenly serious. "We're getting married in a few hours. I'm no goddess, first off...and do you really think I don't find you attractive?"

He leaned back on the bed. "No...I guess I just didn't think you were as attracted to me as I was to you."

She shook her head. "Goren...if we weren't getting married in a couple hours, I'd be showing you a thing or two."

He reached over and touched her hair. Long and dark and soft. "I guess you can show me later."



Bobby adjusted his shirt over his khakis. If he were marrying anyone else, he knew he'd be in a tux in a church, sucking in his gut and hoping he didn't look like as much of a monkey as he felt.

But here he was, in his linen white shirt (washed from earlier...he wasn't that tacky), a nice pair of khakis, and a pair of tan flip flops. He messed with the buttons on his shirt for several minutes, trying to figure out how low to go without looking like a porn star. He wanted her to think about him, how attracted she was to him, how glad she was to be marrying him, but she didn't want her to think all he had was sex on the brain. After all, this was their wedding.

He settled with the first three buttons unbuttoned and combed through his hair again with his fingers. It was shorter now, but every once in awhile a wayward curl appeared and he tried to comb it back into place. At last he stood examining his appearance. For a moment, he wondered how he had ever gotten so lucky. What she saw in him, a forty-three year old detective with as much gray as brown in his hair, fading tone to his muscles, even resistance to emotional openness, he didn't know. His doubts were creeping in, moreso than ever before. More than when he stood in front of that jewelry window. He wondered briefly what kind of husband he would be. He didn't know. His dad had been a son of a bitch. He couldn't imagine he would be that way, but God, that's what he knew. What if marriage turned him into an abusive bastard? Was that a possibility?

He heard the bathroom door open but he didn't look over. Instead, he stood, gripping the edge of the dresser, wondering if this was really the right thing. For both of them.

She stood next to him, looking into the mirror at his face. God, she was beautiful. Her hair was cascading over her ears and the nape of her neck. Curls over her head. The dress--oh God, the dress--she filled it out perfectly and he could feel himself becoming aroused just looking at her. He could see the shape of her breasts through the cotton, he hips defining the curve of the bottom half of the dress. He had a sudden urge to just grab her and pull it off, and fuck the beach. In fact, they could fuck right here and forget everything about anything more than this.

Her hand covered his. "I'm scared shitless too," she said. And he knew she was, knew she had read his tell.

He exhaled heavily. "We aren't our parents," he said, to her and to him. "We love each other more than anything. We'll be fine."

"Yes," she agreed softly. "We'll be fine. We both want this."

And looking at her in the mirror, he knew she was right. This was what he wanted. More than anything. Her. As his wife. And children. Their children.

He turned to face her. "I love you with my whole heart and if you're sure this is what you want, then we should go now. It's time."

"I'm sure." She took his hand and they headed to the door. Suddenly she paused.

"What is it?" His heart was pounding, afraid that she was changing her mind.

But instead she said,, "I just wanted to look around one more time...the next time we walk in here we'll be married."

He pointed to her bare feet, manicured toenails and ankle tattoo. "And we'll be sandy."

She smiled. "Yeah."

He smiled back, a shy, quiet smile, that told her how much he loved her despite his fear. "Let's go," he said. "We shouldn't be late for this."


They walked along the path beside the inn at twilight, holding hands, taking their time. He could smell her perfume mixed with the scent of the ocean. She was tracing her index finger back and forth in his hand. Suddenly, he stood still. Reaching down, he picked a white lily from the inn's garden. She started to open her mouth to scold him when he pressed a finger against her lips, then tucked the lily behind her ear. She smiled softly at him and they continued along the path to the beach.

Owen was waiting for them near the water, along with his son and daughter, whom he introduced as Tea and John. John had brought a guitar and offered to play a song for them after the ceremony. Jason, the photographer, geared up to film.

Owen asked if they were ready to begin, and Bobby nodded. Vanessa stood next to him as Owen began the ceremony. For several minutes they followed Owen's directions, with several "I do's" and "I will's" before arriving to the vows.

Bobby went first, Holding her hand in his, he was suddenly struck with how tiny her hand was in his own. He cleared his throat. "Vanessa," he began, "the life I know now didn't begin until I fell in love with you. In retrospect, I see that everything I experienced before was in preparation for this moment. I never knew I was capable of loving another person to the extent I love you. You have opened so many doors to me and taught me so much about myself. My greatest fear is in disappointing you and my greatest desire is to contribute to your happiness, every day of my life. My promise to you is that every day I will do my best to enrich your life, to make your life happier and to support you in everything you do. I love you more than I ever thought possible. This ring is a symbol of my promise to you." He slipped the band on her finger.

Her breath caught and for a moment she didn't think she would be able to speak. She could see the emotion in his face, how much he loved her, how intense this moment was for both of them. She took a deep breath and suddenly spoke.

"Bobby." A pause, a moment she needed. "You are my light, my hope, my dreams wrapped up in a person I love more than I ever imagined. You're so beautiful to me and my greatest wish is that you could see yourself how I see you. I promise you that I will do my best every day to remind you of what a gift you are, not only to me, but to everyone in our world. This ring is a symbol of my love for you, and a symbol of all I believe about you. You are my love, my passion, and I vow to stand by you for the rest of our lives."

And they were married.

His first kiss, upon Owen's direction, was gentle, soft, almost hesitant. His heart was pounding out of his chest and he wanted so much, more than anything, for her to know how much he cherished her. After a moment, they pulled apart, in time to see John put on his guitar and say softly, "Is it okay to play a song for you?"

Bobby turned to him. "Would you play 'Overjoyed' by Stevie Wonder?" John nodded and began to play.

He pulled her close to him in the sand, and even though there were a handful of people around, he felt it was just them. Pressed together, her whispering in his ear how much she loved him, how this was more than she ever dreamed, and he fought the tears in his eyes from showing themselves to her and instead buried his lips in her neck as they swayed to the music. In his head, he kept hearing her name. Vanessa Goren. Mrs. Goren. And it sounded like music.

The song ended and they gently pulled apart to thank their guests. Owen slipped Vanessa his business card and refused payment for his services. "I did it for Liz," he said gently when Bobby tried to pay him. Vanessa signed autographs for Tea and John, then encouraged John to continue with his music.

Bobby took her hand and led her up to the inn and into the restaurant, where they dined in a quiet corner on seafood and wine. The food was delicious but her mind was elsewhere. Her heart was incredibly full and she wanted to cry out, yell to the world how much she loved this man. How she would love him forever. After watching her for several minutes as she pushed her shrimp around with a quiet smile on her face, he said, "Let's go," and she followed him.

The cabin was quiet, and he turned off the lights and opened the curtains, giving an beautiful view of the moon over the sound. He moved closer to her, running his hands slowly down her arms before reaching down and gently removing the dress. She stood only in her panties, and he cupped her face in his hands before kissing her, long, slow, sensuously, the way he had always fantasized he would kiss his wife.

She worked his buttons on his shirt until he shrugged it off, bare chested, then undid his pants and he stepped out of them. His hands cupped her breasts softly, tenderly, sliding fingertips over her nipples until they hardened and he heard her catch her breath. He wanted her, God how he wanted her, and he lowered his mouth to gently encompass a nipple, sucking, tasting, teasing.

Her hand stroked down from his neck, over his chest to his belly, then followed his line of hair from his navel down. She slipped his boxers down, unsurprised that he was erect. If he wanted her half as much as she wanted him, then that was a given.Her fingers traced the hairline down to his erection and gently encased it, stroking the shaft to the tip until he pulled his mouth off of her breast and groaned onto her lips.

Somehow, some way they found the bed. He had always imagined this would be a joyful moment and was surprised at the intensity, the humility, the responsibility he felt, as though she were incredibly precious and breakable, even more than the first time they had made love. More than anything, he wanted to be lost in her. He needed her, needed her to know how much he felt for her, how beautiful her body and mind and soul were and how much he loved all of her. His hands moved over her slowly, gracefully, teasing her lovingly until she was gasping for him. Then he lowered his head down, below her belly, and pressed his tongue against her softly, rhythmically, until her hips followed him and she cried out his name.

She had clutched him desperately; his hair slipping through her fingers as she tried to hold him in one position. But she couldn't control him. She knew she never would be able to and his freedom was part of what she loved so deeply. She came so quickly she hadn't had time to think, to do any more than react to the deep pleasure he was intent on giving her. His body moved up hers languidly and he kissed her long, slow, deep. When their kiss broke and she saw his eyes, she could see his longing and desire for her, and a moment later he was pressing into her, deep and hot and firm.

She had forgotten her promise from earlier to show him something, to be the leader in this. It didn't matter anymore. All she could focus on was his rhythm, a rhythm so deep and primal that nothing else mattered. It was almost as though they had never made love before; almost as though there were some need for him to claim her as his own. She found herself thinking that she never, ever wanted to experience this with anyone else; that she suddenly understood all of the reasons people married; that she never would be able to look at another man for the rest of her life without remembering her husband and his love for her. His thrusts were firm and rhythmic but without rush; she wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist before whispering in his ear, "I love you more than life. You're so precious to me."

He hadn't anticipated that. Before her words he felt in control, that he was in charge of this interlude and bringing her undeniable pleasure. But when her body wrapped around his and she whispered into his ear the phrase he needed more than his own breath, he knew he was only moments to succumbing to her. His lips pressed onto hers firmly and he tried desperately to maintain the control he had shown before, but it wasn't to last. He clutched at her fiercely, knowing he was losing control, but her legs and arms urged him on until he couldn't be sure if the words were in his mouth or his brain: her name, over and over mixed with gasps and moans and sighs of pleasure, both his and hers. He knew she grabbed him and held on, crying out his name, but he was barely aware as his own body took over and all that existed anymore was her whispered name and the white hot spasms that shot pleasure through his entire body.

She held him. Not wanting him to move away, not wanting this evening to end. His face was pressed into her shoulder and he was shuddering, still gasping for breath, before he finally withdrew and lay next to her. His face stayed buried in her for several minutes before he pulled himself up and looked at her.

"Why did it take me so long to find you?" he whispered, and she could hear the shudder had moved from his body to his voice.

She caught his hand in hers. "You're my husband now," she told him softly, "and that's all that matters."

He pressed her closer, wanting to block out the world and everything but his wife. Sighing, shuddering against her, he said the only phrase that made sense in his mind: "You're my everything."


He tossed the last duffel bag in the trunk of the SUV. "Well, all set...we're packed and ready...we should be back before six tonight."

She smiled at him lightly. "Okay...can I drive?"

"Would either of us have it any other way?" He tossed her the keys, looking cocky. "After all, you're the one who drove us to you can drive us back." He winked at her before heading to the office to pay the bill.

Climbing into the car, she set the radio to her favorite station and kicked up the air conditioner. That was so much better--it had to be at least ninety degrees and it was barely ten o'clock. Her mind kicked in, reflecting over the last several days when they had agreed to get married, then agreed to come here, then agreed to get married right away. She shook her head at herself. If she were one of her friends, she'd be giving lectures about taking time and being sure. But she was sure. She had never been more sure of anything in her life. She knew he was too. She felt it last night, when he had committed to her on the beach, held her as they danced, made love with her afterward, and slept with her cradled in his arms, as though he was afraid to let her go. She didn't resist, seeing as there was nowhere else she could imagine wanting to be anyway.

"You ready?" he asked, climbing into the passenger seat.

She grinned at him. "Eames has you so're convinced you belong in the sidecar!"

"Hey, I prefer to be the...well, passenger seat driver!"

She laughed. "Whatever, you want to grab breakfast before we leave?"

"Eh, maybe a cup of coffee."

They stopped at a Starbucks before the bridge off the islands. Vanessa waited in the car while Bobby ran in to purchase her favorite and something for himself. He returned five minutes later and handed her the iced mocha. "I got you a piece of coffee cake too...for later, if you want," he told her.

The drive back up the coast was peaceful, and smattered with small bits of conversation as they both drank their coffee. They were halfway back to New York when she offered to stop for lunch, and he agreed. They found a small diner just off the highway and pulled into the parking lot, then got out of the car to enter.

After following the hostess to a small table, they both sat down and took a look at the short menu. "So," Vanessa snickered to him, "what'll it be? A burger, a salad, or a cup of soup? Oh wait...I think there's a chicken sandwich."

"Uh, the burger, I'm guessing," he said noncommittally, as the waitress approached. "Hi." Bobby smiled a boy-am-I-glad-to-see-you-smile, then handed her the menus. "Two diet cokes, a burger for me, and honey? The chicken?"

Vanessa couldn't believe his nerve. "Sure," she replied. "That sounds terrific, baby."

The waitress looked from one of them to the other cynically. "What d'ya want on 'em?"

"She wants cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayo, and I'll have cheese, mustard, and relish. Dijon mustard, if you have it. Thanks."

The waitress nodded. "Gotcha."

Vanessa sat back and crossed her arms. "Is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of our married life? You ordering for me, like I'm five or something?"

He looked confused, then tilted his head to the side in a classic Bobby Goren move. "Sorry...I, uh...I was just trying to"

She looked at him carefully, suddenly realizing that he was telling her the truth, just trying to be efficient. Knowing him, probably trying to get them back to New York earlier. She shook her head. "Sorry. got the order right anyway."

He looked uncomfortable. "You're having second thoughts. Already."

"No!" She spoke louder than she meant to and immediately lowered her voice. "I have absolutely no regrets. No second thoughts. I just was trying to figure out why you suddenly felt the need to order my chicken!"

He was twisting his hands, another typical Bobby Goren move, but one that only she was familiar with. He never showed it at work, but at home he often twisted his hands when he was nervous. "I was just trying to be expeditious...I do have to work tomorrow...and I was hoping we'd make it back to New York before it was too late. I just thought it would be pleasant to spend some time...alone, I guess. With my wife."

She sighed. "I'm an idiot."

"No...I didn't communicate very well...ah, here she is..." he motioned to the waitress who handed them each a diet coke and tossed their food in front of them.

She tried not to laugh, even going so far as biting her lip firmly, until she noticed that he was grinning and shaking over his food.

"Well, this is definitely something to remember," she finally choked out.

He told her, "Wait a minute...I'm gonna go grab the camera...we need a picture of this place. And this food." He got up quickly, leaving her to stare at his soy burger covered in a piece of cold cheese and doused in yellow mustard and relish on a junior bun. She looked down at her own sandwich, a frozen chicken patty with cheese, shredded lettuce, a slice of greenish tomato, and her own junior bun. She could hardly wait to eat.

Bobby returned with the camera and quickly snapped pictures of both of their meals as Vanessa tried desperately not to crack up. When the manager approached asking if there was a problem, Bobby looked him in the eye and spoke as if it was the most natural thing in the world to take photos of one's diner meal. "You see," he continued after explaining the camera, "we just got married yesterday...this woman is amazing...I want to remember every minute I spend with her. Your diner is part of that miracle. Would you mind taking a picture of us together?"

Next thing she knew, Vanessa was tossing her sandwich back on the tray (the few bites she had eaten--sans green tomato-- were not half bad) and being pulled up next to her huge husband to be photographed by a grinning manager. After taking their picture, the manager insisted on feeding them on the house, as well as offering a huge banana split as dessert. Bobby held his hands up, insisting that they pay just like any other customer, and as much as they appreciated it, they were heading back to New York and didn't have time for dessert. Vanessa watched her husband in this curious conversation as she ate her chicken sandwich. By the time he sat back down, she was almost finished.

"Hey," she told him, "I could have eaten that banana split!"

"It's for two," he explained, as though that should somehow dissuade her.

"Maybe he'll give me a diet coke to go."

The manager did better than that. Fifteen minutes later Bobby and Vanessa were back in the SUV, both sporting hand spun milkshakes. As they pulled on to the highway, Vanessa burst out laughing. "You could talk your way out of a paper bag, you know that?"

Bobby was sporting a grin around his milkshake straw. "That's my job, isn't it? To talk circles around people? And I'm pretty good at know that."

She looked sideways at him, trying to keep her tongue in her mouth. "You profiled that guy!"

He didn't say anything but continued to sip his milkshake, fighting back a grin.

"Bobby!" She couldn't help but laugh. 'That was mean. That poor guy never stood a chance!"

He tapped the side of his cup and swirled it with his straw. "I love chocolate. Don't you?"

"Please tell me this is a one-time thing."

He grinned. "Okay," he said. "Honestly, it was a one-time thing. I was worried he'd throw us out before we got to eat. But you have to admit, it was kind of fun."

"Goren." She picked up her cup and swirled it around. "I do love chocolate, you nut." She took a sip, and then tapped his cup with her own. "Don't ever change."


Eames was thumbing through the casefile, frustrated. It looked as though they had no good leads, and what's worse, her timely partner hadn't arrived yet, which meant she also didn't have her coffee. As she was debating making herself a cup of sludge from the workroom, Goren and Rayden rounded the corner, him holding two cups and her with that icy thing she called coffee. They were talking and laughing, as though there were some huge secret between them that was hysterically funny. As they approached the desk, he told her he'd see her later and she nodded, saying, "Morning, Eames."

"Morning," she mumbled and started to take the cup of coffee from Goren. He smiled at her, handing her the cup, until she grabbed his hand. "Bobby!" she exclaimed angrily. "What the hell--"

He glanced down to the ring on his finger. "Oh that," he said casually, taking his hand back. "It was a busy weekend."

She sat back, crossed her arms, and glared at him. "I'm you're partner. Senior partner. And you don't even tell me you're getting married? Nice."

"Hey! i brought you coffee still...nothing's changed," he objected. Leaning closer to her, he said, "Look, we just went to check out this place on the coast...we ended up getting married. Just the two of us. Don't be hurt. We didn't tell anyone except the preacher, and we only told him because he had to know to show up."

That made her crack a smile. "You two really did this without telling anyone? Ava's gonna shit a brick...I don't envy Vanessa, telling her."

"Me either."

"Who's telling Deakins?"

"We flipped. Vanessa lost." She couldn't help but hear the glee in his voice.

"You're some gentleman...leave your newlywed wife to tell the boss...what a guy."

He snorted. 'Call it my sense of self-preservation kicking in. We all know it will come easier from her anyway. Deakins would kick my ass, but he looks at her as his little girl."

Alex glanced over his bulky shoulder, to the Captain's office. She could see the two of them engaged in conversation, Vanessa leaning over Deakins' desk and he looking rather concerned. "Maybe you're right," she said offhandedly. "He's looking at her like she's a delicate flower. He definitely doesn't look at you that way. Come to think of it, he doesn't look at me that way either."

"Yeah," Bobby chuckled into his coffee cup, "because you'd kick his ass."

She glared at him. "Are you going to be a smart ass all day or help to solve this murder?" She tossed the file to him. "The fine people of New York are waiting for your brilliance, loverboy."

"Okay, okay..." he started to flip through the file. "Do we go see the M.E.?"

"Starting at the beginning," she mused. "A very good place to start."


He was leaning against the building as she walked out. "Hey," he said, "What'd Dad say?"

She approached him slowly, smiling. "He said he wished us all the best and he would run interference with the brass...after everything we both have been through, it should be okay."

He slipped an arm around her waist. "I knew it was a good idea to let you talk to him." He guided her to a taxi. "He always did like you best."

"Oh please," she retorted, "it's only because he worries about me. He's still not convinced I've recovered from Forrester."

They had climbed into the cab and he rested his hand on her thigh. They were silent for several minutes before he said, "Have you?"

"Have I what?"


She turned her head slowly to look at him. His head was tilted downward, as though to catch her eyes, but she could see something in them...guilt, asking the question. "Probably as much as I ever will be," she confessed. "Maybe this is a question you should have asked a week ago, before we...well, you know..."

His hand roamed from her leg to her hair. "It doesn't make a difference to me in that respect," he replied. "I would marry you in a heartbeat, no matter what."

The cabbie pulled up to their building and Vanessa paid him as Bobby exited the cab. She followed him upstairs quietly. His question had thrown her, although she couldn't blame him for asking, especially after her meeting with Deakins. Deakins was still tempted to tiptoe around her to some extent, even now. The short conversation in the cab made her wonder if Bobby still saw her as a victim, as needing his protection. If that was his motivation for their relationship, if maybe she had fooled herself into thinking that this love, this need between them was based in more than protection.

"You're quiet," he said, after shedding his jacket and tie on the chair.

"Do you still see me that way? As a victim?"

Her question surprised him, and he knew it showed on his face before her was able to recapture his stoicism. "That's a complicated question...I mean, you were a victim," he began, but seeing the pain on her face made him stop quickly. "If you're asking if I think of you as helpless, or as damaged, or even as scarred, the answer is no. I see you as intelligent, talented, smart, beautiful...I could go on but I think you get the point. When I think about you, I don't think about the fact that someone assaulted you. That's an event in your life, and granted one that brought us closer, but it's not who you are."

She stepped closer to him, wrapped her arms around his body, breathing in his scent. Cologne, soap, mixed with a tad bit of sweat from the summer heat. "I don't know that I'll ever get any better than this...the dreams will still be will the scars..."

"I have dreams too, you know," he told her. "And the scars...we've been over that a million couldn't be more beautiful to me any other way."

She stayed pressed against him for a long time. His hands tangled in the back of her hair. He could smell that coconut shampoo and it reminded him of when they first became intimately involved. He would never tire of that smell on her, and now instead of being so intoxicating it was comforting, inviting.

At last she pulled away and smiled awkwardly at him. "I need to call Ava...I can't avoid it any longer."

"Do you want me to sit with you?" He hoped her answer was no but he felt it was the least he could offer; she was already planning a trip upstate with him over the weekend to talk with his mother.

"No," she said firmly. "You cook dinner while I call. With my luck, we'll probably finish at the same time." She rolled her eyes, trying to make a joke. He smiled at her gently and headed to the kitchen.

He heard her say hello to her sister and then did his best to press the rest of the conversation out of his brain. He knew Ava wasn't going to be happy but her behavior seemed to worsen if she knew Bobby was around. Hopefully she would be a kinder, gentler Ava if he wasn't in the room. Like she would know that, he corrected himself sarcastically. For the first time probably in his life, he realized how lucky he was to be dealing with his mother instead of a real, cognizant relative like Ava. At least his mother's poor behavior could be blamed on something beyond her control. Poking through the freezer, he pulled out a couple frozen chicken breasts and stuck them in the microwave, then started water boiling for pasta.

He knew that telling his mother about their marriage would be a bit tricky, seeing as she still believed Vanessa was his personal security guard, but he thought they could talk her into believing it was in his best interest without much problem. Not like Ava. He didn't know if Ava would be more upset that Vanessa had "settled" for someone that Ava believed to be less than what Vanessa deserved, or the fact that they had chosen not to include her in the ceremony. They hadn't even bothered to tell her until two days after the ceremony. A twinge of guilt hit him in the gut as he thought about the tenuous nature of the sisters' relationship and how this would definitely be a slap in the face to Ava. If she hated him before, her hatred would probably be doubled by now.

He listened for a moment but didn't hear Vanessa's voice grow louder or angrier. She sounded calm, as though they were having a regular conversation about families or shopping or whatever it was they talked about. On second thought, scratch families, he thought. That was probably the most loaded topic Ava and Vanessa could discuss.

He pulled the chicken out of the microwave, and after drizzling olive oil in the pan, place the chicken and some garlic into it and deposited the pasta in the water. He nearly jumped when he heard Vanessa behind him.

"Smells terrific," she said. "What are we having?"

"Balsamic chicken...pasta...salad," he responded, pushing the chicken around in the pan. "How'd it go with Ava?"

Vanessa laughed and pulled out a chair at the table. "Do you want the good news or the bad first?"

"Oh, let's go for the good."

"She said she knew it was bound to happen. She saw it in your eyes. Your eyes, not mine. Apparently you have an amazing hold over me."

He snorted. "Yeah, I'm shocked by that." He peered over the pot of spaghetti. "So what's the bad news?"

"You're not gonna like it. I mean, really. It's really going to make you unhappy, but it's the only way I could get her to not be torturously horrific about everything."

Now he turned to look at her, feeling the anxiety rising in his chest. "Vanessa...what did you promise your sister?"

She was fiddling with her phone, turning it back and forth in her hand, not looking at him. Finally, she said, "I promised her that she could plan and hold a wedding reception in our honor--"

"Oh, God!"

"--in two weeks..."

"Ah, we have to? Who the hell is she going to invite to this? Please tell me it will be small..."

"She's renting a hall and inviting everyone in the squad...friends...she wants a list of people from us by Thursday to contact. And she said if you don't put anyone on the list she'll walk up to every panhandler in Manhattan and invite them as your guest."

He bent from the waist, nearly stomping. "Dammit!" Ava was better than he thought.

"I know...she's good. Watch out, your chicken's about to burn."

He turned the chicken just in time and put the finishing touches of a balsamic glaze on top. She got out the plates and he filled them, making no more comments until after they sat down.

Resignedly, he finally said, "There's no way out of this, is there?"

She sighed. "I could always tell her no...and then we could both spend the next several years listening to how we cut Ava out of everything, how we never cared for her, how she and I were about to become close before you came along and fucked everything up..."

"Fine," he said, taking another bite of his pasta. "We'll do it...and I'll even try to look happy...but know that on the inside my guts are clenched and my intestines are tied in sailor knots."

She nearly choked. "Sailor knots, huh?' She took a sip of her water. "I promise I'll take care of you. And keep in mind that our friends will be won't just be Ava and her entourage." She reached across the table and caught his hand. "I know you don't want this and I don't either. But this is her gift to us--she's paying for it--and she's trying, Bobby. She really is. She was actually relatively pleasant on the phone. And she promised that she wouldn't invite my dad if I didn't want him there."

"That's very big of her."


He immediately felt guilty, guilty for making such a statement, guilty for his resistance to Ava's offer and her need to follow through. Jesus, Vanessa put up with his schizophrenic mother and never complained. The least he could do was to show up for a damn party. With his wife.

"I'm sorry," he said, putting his fork down and taking her hand back in his. He caressed her fingers gently for a moment. "Of course I'll go and I'll do it willingly. I'm sure your sister can throw a party--she's got impeccable taste. Everyone will enjoy themselves and then we can call it a night. Ava will be happy, our friends will be happy, and as long as you're happy, then I'm happy too."

"I appreciate that, more than you know." He knew she did. He didn't have to look at her to know her eyes held tears.

"Hey!" he said suddenly. "We never had wedding cake! Do you think Ava will take care of that?"

She grinned. "I think we could pick that out and Ava would be just fine with it...I'll call her tomorrow to set it up."

"Good." He sat back from the table and tossed his napkin on his plate. "I love cake."


"Are you sure she said two?" he asked as they stood in front of the cake store Ava had directed them to.

"I'm positive...she's only ten minutes late...we could always go inside." It was another ridiculously hot Manhattan afternoon. Stifling. She could feel her underarms starting to sweat, and knew Bobby had to be dying in his suit jacket.

He suddenly started to laugh. "Isn't this how you always wanted to spend your birthday? Happy thirty-first!"

She smirked at him. "You gave me my present first thing this morning, remember? And it was a great one...I was hoping for a repeat tonight..."

He leaned closer to her. "No need to's a done deal. And I have something a bit more...materialistic...for you as well."

They saw Ava approaching at the same time, talking on her cell phone, wearing a sleeveless pink sheath dress cut at the knee and large white sunglasses. Bobby swore the woman got more beautiful--and colder--every time he saw her. As she approached, he heard her say, "Okay, honey...gotta run, I'm at the bakery...kiss to you too...Buhbye..." She shut her phone and tossed it back in her purse. "Vanessa, you look beautiful!" she announced, embracing her sister warmly before turning to Bobby. "Well, I guess we're related now...welcome to the family, Bobby." She held her arms out to hug him, and after hesitating for a moment, he reached around and embraced her. He felt, briefly, like a shark in a net.

"Should we go inside? Marisa is waiting for us." Ava opened the door, and after glancing up at Bobby, Vanessa followed her. Bobby closed the door behind him.

The shop smelled of sweet sugar. Bobby found himself surrounded by huge pieces of edible artistry. Despite his feelings for Ava, the woman had class. This Marisa lady was an amazing cake designer. "How do you know Marisa?" he asked absently, examining one cake that appeared to be made of seashells. Upon closer inspection, it was entirely sculpted of ganache and sugar.

"We went to college together," Ava explained. "Marisa's the best...she did my cake and I refer everyone to her. She usually has a six month waitlist...but she fit the two of you in as a favor. There you are!" Ava had pulled up her sunglasses and perched them on top of her head and was now reaching out to embrace a young woman in a chef's coat. "Nessie, Bobby, this is my wonderful friend Marisa...the best cake artist in the city!"

Vanessa, then Bobby, shook Marisa's hand. "Congratulations," she told them. "I hear you just got married! That's wonderful. Ava says you need a cake by next Saturday evening."

"Yes," Vanessa affirmed. "I don't have anything really specific in mind, other than I love fresh flowers...were you thinking of anything?" She had turned to Bobby, who was holding her hand and staring off at the cakes around him.

"Hmm? No, not really...I just love cake," he confessed. Vanessa and Marisa laughed while Ava tried not to roll her eyes.

"Well," Marisa said, "Why don't we start off trying out some different flavors and then we can decide upon the design?"

After tasting a multitude of samples, the four of them agreed upon a vanilla almond flavor. Vanessa wanted a white frosting. Marisa was busily taking notes as Ava continued texting on her phone. Looking up at Vanessa, she said, "Sorry...I'm still working while I'm here...I have a client whose house is supposed to be finished in two days."

Bobby put on his most sincere look. "Well, we can understand that...we have a murder that's supposed to be solved as soon as possible too."

Vanessa elbowed him in the gut as Ava made a face. Marisa looked up, a bit confused, then said, "You're a police officer?"

"He's a detective," Ava sniffed, as though she could hardly hide the disdain.

"Now Ava, don't be like know I keep the world safe for people like you," Bobby teased.

Ava hmphed and continued to text.

Marisa smiled at him. "My dad was a cop. It's a hard job. I appreciate your work, detective." Turning to Vanessa, she said, "I know you mentioned flowers on your cake...what if I decorated it with edible flowers? Most people won't eat them, but that way you don't have to worry about it if they do. Are you thinking traditional round layers or something else?"

"Something else," Ava interrupted, continuing to type.

"I'm not asking you, Ava bunny," Marisa said, laughing. "What do you think, Vanessa? We could do rounds, or squares, or something more spread out..."

Vanessa had no idea, and said so. "I've never done this before...I don't know what in the world is the best shape for this thing...I just want something pretty and tasty with no plastic people on top."

"You know," Marisa commented, "I've done cakes with special candles on top, instead of those gross little people..." she stood and dug through a drawer, then returned with a small green candle shaped in a Y. The bottom of the y had a wick. "It's inserted upside down and symbolizes two people coming you like it?"

"I like it." Bobby had picked it up and was rolling it around in his hand. Vanessa had almost forgotten he was there, he had been so quiet.

Marisa smiled. "So does this all sound good to you two?"

Vanessa nodded. "It sounds fantastic...thank you so much, Marisa."

Marisa smiled, then turned to Bobby. "Now for a groom's cake...tell me what you like and I'll get it done for you."

Ava interrupted. "Uh, Mari, we don't need a groom's cake..just this one."

"This is on me," Marisa said, winking at Bobby. "Every good detective deserves a reward. What's your favorite flavor?"

He shook his head. "It's not cake is plenty..."

Marisa leaned forward. "Detective Goren, I would consider it a personal favor if you let me do this for you. In honor of the work you do...and my dad."

He hesitated for a moment, before assenting. "Chocolate's my favorite...any kind you'd like to do...I'm not picky at all."


"Being a smart ass." That one came from Ava.

Vanessa smacked her in the elbow. "Reading, classic cars, running, me." She smiled at him. "Did I leave anything out?"

"Yeah," he grinned, "the beach."

"Oh yeah...that's a new one."

"Oh Lord," Ava moaned. "Please, please don't make me ill...I have to work a long day here."

Vanessa couldn't resist it. "I thought you'd be thrilled now that we aren't committing fornication."

Marisa covered her mouth, stifling a laugh, as Ava glared at her sister. "Mari," she said, "if my sister doesn't learn to control herself better you need to cut her cake in half."

"Ava, I love your sister and brother-in-law already. And you know you do too." She grinned at both of them. "I think I have everything I need. If I have any questions, I"ll call you, and feel free to stop by anytime to see how the cakes are coming along."

"Thank you," Vanessa nodded at Marisa as Bobby shook her hand again. Ava stood, tossing her phone back in her purse.

"Thanks,'re the best, baby doll. See you next Saturday?"

"You bet."

Bobby opened the door as Ava and Vanessa exited. Ava turned to face them. "Well, it sounds like you both will have a successful cake. I've taken care of the hall and the decor. Can you email me your list of invites?"

"Sure...we're working on it," Vanessa told her. "Are you going to call?"

Ava looked shocked. "Are you kidding? My secretary is going to be working overtime to get invitations out overnight. Get them to me by Thursday and I'll have them out by Friday. Oh, don't look so horrified...she gets paid well to do this stuff." She sniffed. "Probably better than you, detective."

Bobby replied, "Thanks Ava...I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever looking for another job."

"Oh, speaking of which..." Ava dug through her purse and pulled out two different postcards. "Not about your job, Bobby, but about invites...I narrowed it down to these two...which do you like?"

One was trendier, sage green with brown detailing at the top and brown lettering. Not too formal or traditional. The other was a soft ivory, with lilies and silver lettering in a fancy font. Bobby found his snarky side wanting to vote for neither, but he kept his mouth under control and turned to Vanessa. "Whatever you like the most," he said, stroking her back.

"The ivory," Vanessa told Ava. "The other one reminds me of a baby shower."

Ava actually chuckled at that. "Cool," she said. "I'll swing by and have them printed up today." Turning to Bobby, she said, "I promise I'll be respectful and spell your name correctly."

"I appreciate that," he told her. "Can I hug you again?"

"Um, no. Once a day is enough right now." She pulled her ringing phone out of her purse again. "Gotta run...thanks for meeting me...go catch your murderer. Hey Paige," she answered, and with a slight wave, she turned and headed down the street in the opposite direction.

Bobby and Vanessa stood looking after her, then at each other. He shrugged. "Somehow I got a cake out of this. It's been a good day."

"I agree," she told him, and she leaned past him to hail a cab.


She was working at her computer doggedly, trying to catch up on the profiles she was behind on from their trip. She had finished the Anderson profile and sent it off to the detectives working the case, but for every one she finished there seemed to be three more. New York in the summertime always seemed to bring out the crazies.

Bobby had come back and immediately hit the field with Eames. They really were working on a murder case and Deakins was breathing down their necks almost harder than Carver was. She and Bobby had planned to meet for dinner at seven at Tiger Lily for her birthday. She smirked to herself,thinking about how it had been almost a week ago today that they had gone for the first time. But when he had asked her where she wanted to go, that was it, and he had agreed immediately. Glancing up at the clock, she saw it was just after five.

The knock on her door startled her. It was Turner. God help her if he was coming to ask her out again.

"Hey," he said. "There's this guy out here looking for you...he's got flowers...should I send him in?"

She suddenly felt her heart warm at the thought of Bobby sending her flowers at the office. He was braver than she thought. "Sure," she said. "Send him in."

She continued typing at her computer until she heard the footsteps pausing at her doorway. "Thanks," she said, not looking up. "Do you need me to sign?"

In the silence that followed, she turned to look at him and immediately stood, feeling her heart catch in her throat. No. This was not happening.

"Happy birthday," he said. "I thought I'd try something different this year...something more personal, I guess."

Her hands were clenched on the desk. He looked young, younger than she had imagined he would. He was sporting a wedding ring. Ava had never mentioned that but somehow she wasn't surprised.

"I don't want anything from you." She heard her voice croak. It was the best she could do.

He shifted his weight but didn't step forward. "I know you don't," he told her. "But I want something from you. I want you to know...I've messed up...I just want you to have a good birthday. And congratulations on getting married."

"If you mean that," she said firmly, angrily, finally her voice returning to her, "then you'll leave and you won't come back."

He laid the flowers down in the empty chair by the door, then pushed his hands into his pockets. Bringing one of them back up, he tossed a card on top of them. "It's my business card," he told her. "If you change your mind, you can call me. I'd love to talk with you, any time." He paused, then looked up, straight in the eye. "I've changed, Vanessa. I want to do right by you. I know I've made mistakes but I want to fix them."

He lowered his eyes, then nodded at her. "Happy birthday, sweetie," he told her, then turned to leave her office. She watched him walk across the nearly empty bullpen, then head toward the elevator,

"It's too late, Daddy," she said to nobody. "It's too late to fix it."

Somehow she found her chair and sat, unable to move or think, and that's where Bobby found her over an hour later. The words were almost out of his mouth, was she ready, when he saw this. Recognized it. The same look as the day she had returned to work too early. And the flowers in the chair, with a business card laid neatly on top. He picked it up.

"So he came by."

She didn't answer him. He hadn't really expected her to. He picked up the flowers and sat in the chair.

"Throw those out, will you?" She was still staring at the ceiling, but her hand motioned to the door. He stood and walked out, into the bullpen. Baxter was still at his desk.

"Hey, Baxter, you wanna take these home to your wife?"

"Aren't those for YOUR wife?"

"Not from me," Goren clarified. "You want 'em?"

Baxter shrugged. "Sure. Emily will love 'em."

Goren handed the flowers to Baxter before heading back to Vanessa's office and closing the door. The business card was still in the chair, and he picked it up, tucking it into his breast pocket. "I gave them to Baxter for his wife."

Her head was still facing the ceiling. "That's nice," she commented. "I hate him."

"I know."

"I'm letting him ruin my birthday."

"Yes. You are."

"Dammit," she grumbled, pulling herself straight up in the chair. "Why the hell today of all days?"

"Because he's a selfish bastard. He's thinking about what would make him feel better, not you. But it's your job to think about what would make you feel better...and I'm willing to bet it's not sitting here."

She shook her head. "I can't handle Tiger Lily tonight. It's too much."

"So," he stretched his legs out in front of him. "What's it gonna be?"

A silence settled between them for a few moments. He didn't push her. He knew she would work it out if he was patient. Finally she said, "Fruit and cheese. And dessert. In bed. And my presents. Both of them." Her eyes moved from the desk, where she had been staring, to his, looking for confirmation.

He smiled. "I'll call it in down the street. We'll pick it up on the way home." He stood up to head to his desk, but stopped and turned around. "Happy birthday, Beth. I love you."

She watched him go to his desk and place the order. Suddenly she felt renewed and began to throw her stuff into her bag. By the time he was off the phone, she was locking her office door. When he turned around, she said, "Let's go, hot stuff...we have a birthday to celebrate."

"You bet," he said, smiling. They headed to the elevator.

"Goren? Thanks."

He caught her hand in his. "Just wait til you get your presents. Birthdays are always good with presents."


He handed her another piece of smoked gouda and a pear. "Open," he commanded, and she did, giggling as he fed her the fruit and cheese.

After swallowing, she asked, "How many people do you suppose are eating naked in bed right now?"

"Not enough," he told her, before spreading some goat cheese onto a piece of artisan bread. "Want it?"

She shook her head no and he helped himself.

"So, where's my present?" she asked, grinning at him.

He grinned back. "Under the covers," he replied. "I thought you would probably want to wait to have it until after you ate, but if you want it now..."

"Very funny," she snorted. "Ava was right...your biggest hobby IS being a smart ass!"

He chuckled. "Relax, relax...that's your OTHER present. I have one for you...just give me a second to get it." He got up and headed to the closet. She watched him carefully, admiring his nude form as she always did, anticipating her "other" present, as he had so tactfully referred to it. He reappeared from the closet with a flat, rectangular package wrapped in lovely paper.

"You realize that before I met you, I usually wore clothes when I gave people presents." He was grinning as he handed it to her.

She reached over and touched his belly, then said, "It's okay...I like this format anyway." She took the package from him and pulled the ribbon off of it before he caught her hand.

"Hey," he said. "I don't know how much you'll like this, so if you don't, I'll get you something else if you want...I just want you to be happy."

She reached up, stroked his stubble. "I am happy. With you. Happier than I've ever been in my life."

"Just checking."

She continued to open the package. It was a frame, and she flipped it over, wondering what in the world he had gotten framed. Certainly it was too soon to have the photos back from their wedding.

It wasn't a photo. It was a lily. A pressed flower. The lily he had picked, that she had worn in her hair during their wedding ceremony. She didn't have to ask--she knew. It was beautiful.

"The woman who did it--she preserved it so it should keep for years. I wanted you to have something special from that weekend, to hold on to. I know everything happened so fast and most things that brides have, you didn't get...I hope this makes up for that."

"It's beautiful," she murmured. "There's nothing to make up for, Bobby. I did everything I wanted to do. I love this. Thank you...I want to hang it in our bedroom."

"You show me where and I'll make sure it gets there." He smiled at her, then twirled her hair. "You sure you like it? If you don't, I can get something else-"

"Don't you dare!" she exclaimed. "It's perfect." She gently laid it beside the bed, then leaned over to kiss him. "Do you remember the first day I met you? When you were so cocky?"

"And you fed me my balls in front of the squad room? Yeah, I remember that."

"I have a confession to make. I thought you were sexy."

He started laughing. "No you didn't."

"Yes," she admitted. "I did...if you hadn't been such a butt I probably would have considered befriending you earlier."

"You liked my came around."

"Remember when I came to your apartment in the middle of the night, in that storm?"


"Did you think I was nuts?"

He shook his head. "No. I thought you were terrified. I thought you couldn't get away from Forrester's memory."

She snuggled closer to him. "I thought I was nuts...until you sat with me...until you told me I wasn't crazy." She was quiet, tangling her fingers in his chest hair. "I think that was the night I started to fall in love with you."

He paused, running his hands absently up and down her back. "You remember the night you were teasing me about Angie? I didn't mean to get upset...I just know that I realized that night, that you understood me. More than anyone ever had before. You understood how I thought, who I was. And then I started to see that you accepted me for it. I don't know if I knew for sure that I was in love with you, but I knew I loved you. And it grew. Every day. And it still does."

She leaned up, seeking his lips and settling into a slow, sexy kiss. Realizing she could stay like this for forever, once again.

"Mrs. Goren," he whispered to her, sexy and soft, "are you ready for your other present?"

She smiled into their kiss. "Whenever you're ready to give it to me," she told him softly. "I'm ready."


He arrived at the CPA office at 10:25. His appointment was at 10:30.

The secretary greeted him, friendly, and he told her he was there to see Ryan Rayden. She nodded and said that Mr. Rayden would be with him momentarily.

Bobby had a seat in the waiting room. Magazines on the coffee table, mostly news magazines, and a daily newspaper. He picked up the paper and thumbed through it. Honestly, he was too distracted to pay attention to the paper. A minute later he heard a deep voice call his name.

"Here," he replied, pulling himself up to his full height. "You must be Mr. Rayden." He knew it was without confirmation. Vanessa looked astoundingly similar to her father. Same dark hair, almond shaped eyes, long eyelashes. He looked to be in his early fifties.

Ryan Rayden extended his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Goren," he said genially. "Follow me."

Bobby let Ryan lead the way back to a private office and had a seat as Ryan closed the door.

"So," Ryan began, "I understand you're here for some tax help...I'm happy to do whatever I can."

Bobby shook his head. "Actually," he said, tossing the business card from the day before on the desk, "I'm here about this."

The business card lay on the desk. Ryan made no move to touch it. Instead, he stared at it for a moment before looking up at Goren.

"Goren," he finally said slowly. "Detective Robert Goren. You married my daughter last weekend."

Bobby interlaced his fingers and sat still, staring at his wife's father.

After a couple minutes, Ryan spoke slowly. "I think...I think this is between my daughter and me."

Bobby shook his head. "No. Not anymore. You showed up at her office on her birthday, of all days. Did you really think that wouldn't be upsetting to her?"

Ryan hesitated. "I was hoping she would take it in the manner it was intended...a loving gesture by her father."

Bobby took a deep breath, trying to unclench his gut. There was something about this guy..."Perhaps if it weren't the first loving gesture you've offered her in years, it might have been met with a different reaction. You do realize that you've hurt her...tremendously...probably more than anyone else?"

"Detective," Ryan spoke more confidently now. "That's a bit melodramatic, don't you think? Ava has kept me informed of Vanessa's...well, recent cannot possibly compare our relationship with the man who assaulted her."

Goren laughed, a dry, sarcastic laugh. "Of course not. Although I would speculate, and I wouldn't be alone, that if you hadn't happened Forrester might not have happened either."

Ryan's face was red, and Bobby couldn't tell if he was angry, embarrassed, or a combination of both. "I don't need you to tell me how to parent my children."

Bobby's face stiffened and he caught his breath. "Do you have any idea what you've done to your daughter? At what point do you stop making excuses for poor behavior and recognize that you denied her the love she needed to develop into a full human being?" He felt his anger rising. "She was entitled to that. Every child is, and if you don't know that, then you most certainly do need someone to tell you how to parent your children."

Ryan sat straight in his chair, tapping his pen on his blotter. "Do you have any idea the life my daughter lived before you? The behavior she displayed? The men-" he stopped himself, apparently somewhat aware of who he was talking to and not wanting to stress his relationship with his daughter any more.

Bobby's back was straight as well. "Yes, I do know her behavior. I know she spent years sleeping with whichever man paid her attention, just looking for someone who would love and accept her. I know she abused drugs to convince herself that these men cared and to forget that you didn't. And I know that you took the opportunity to point out her shortcomings, to rub her face in her failures, but never bothered to show up when she was getting straight, or when she was going to school, or when she was succeeding. What do you call that? Tough love? Or just being an asshole?"

Ryan pushed his chair back. "I think I'm going to have to ask you to leave now, detective."

"Why is that?" Bobby asked. "Because I hit a nerve? Because I told the truth? Let me tell you something about Vanessa. You've missed out on a relationship with one of the most amazing women I've ever met. Not only is she beautiful on the outside, she has a heart of gold. She'd give you the shirt off her back. She's incredibly intelligent and successful. In fact, she's pretty much known as the best damn profiler in the NYPD. She went through her entire educational program in six years. Six years. And as for your concerns that she was somehow doomed to be promiscuous, once she got clean she abstained until me. Over five years. I guarantee that's longer than you, isn't it?"

Ryan continued to stare at him, and so he kept going. "This woman that you threw away, threw away when she was a child, has turned into one of the most incredible people I've ever known. She had to be to survive what she went through. She had no family to hold her, to help her survive. She had to do it on her own. She spent a week in the hospital recovering from a concussion and multiple lacerations, as well as a sexual assault, and none of you bothered to show up. Not once. But here she is. Functional and loving. Married. Despite you and the way you treated your wife in front of her, she dove in and married me. The truth? You threw her out because she bonded with her mother. You let your anger at your wife separate you from your little girl. She was helpless and needing you, and you threw her away. And she survived it. That makes her stronger than you, or Ava, or even Liz. And the worst thing you've done? You've driven a stake in between your daughters over loyalty to a father who isn't even worth the fight. Those girls need each other, and you're still the one contention between them."

Ryan finally spoke. "Are you done?"

"Yes." Bobby stood. "I really don't give a shit what your plans are for reconciliation. But don't impose your plans on days that are special to your daughter. She deserves much better than that. If you ruin another one of her birthdays, I can guarantee you'll be hearing from me again."

Ryan stood too. "Detective, don't threaten me. You do and I'll make a call to your captain."

"Feel free," Bobby told him. "My captain spent plenty of time with your daughter over the last year as well. I'm sure he'd be thrilled to have the chance to share his experiences with you."

He started to turn toward the door, when he heard Ryan say, "Vanessa was always Liz's daughter. It was difficult between us. I made mistakes and I want to make up for them." He sighed. "I know I've been a shitty father to that girl. I said things that never should have been said. I did things I shouldn't have done. But I want her to know that I love her, I've always loved her. I don't care if you believe that or anyone else, but it's the truth...she has two half-siblings and I want her to know them, if she wants to. I want her to know that I know my mistakes and I love her anyway. I've been in therapy." He ended his statement confidently, as though the addition of a therapist to the mix fixed everything.

"Vanessa would say therapy is a good start. I guess maybe it is if you know how to use it." He opened up the door before turning to Ryan one more time. "I sure hope your two other kids are luckier than your first two. Even Ava--daddy's little girl--is scarred from the things you've done. Work out whatever you need to work out with Vanessa. Just don't do it on days that she deserves special consideration. Those days are about her, not you."

His blood was pounding in his ears as he left the office and took the elevator down to the first floor. Once outside, he reached into his pocket and lit a cigarette, taking a long draw. He didn't remember the last time he had been this pissed. Actually, he was the night he held Vanessa through that damn thunderstorm. He had been determined then not to allow the pain to continue for her and he was determined now. Ryan could kiss his ass. He'd be damned if Ryan would ever ruin another birthday for Vanessa.

He finished his cigarette and climbed back in to the SUV he had borrowed from the department. He thought about last night, how they had ended up eating in bed and making love, how despite Vanessa's best efforts to cover her feelings she had held him tightly and cried afterward. He'd like to believe it was because of his powers as an incredible lover or something, but he knew better. He knew the tears were from pain, not from pleasure. And he hadn't questioned it, hadn't demanded answers. He'd only held her and promised her better birthdays in the future.

He knew none of it was his business. But he couldn't help himself. She deserved happiness and love and peace, and if Ryan Rayden couldn't give it to her, then he needed to stay the hell away, the same as he had for the past ten years.


He entered the house that night to complete quiet.

A few of the lamps were on, but otherwise everything looked undisturbed. He saw no sign of his wife and wondered if she had even made it home yet. Maybe she was working late, finishing a case. He pulled out his cell and was about to dial when she appeared in the doorway.

"Hey," she said, and that was all.

He looked her up and down. Sheer black babydoll. He couldn't help wondering what had brought this on. Beautiful, glossing over every curve. He swallowed hard. "Hey."

She didn't move toward him, but said, "Last night wasn't the best...and it's been on my mind all day. Can we get a do-over?"

In that thing? You can have as many do-overs as you want, he thought, before his conscience got the better of him. "I would love that," he said honestly, "but I need to talk with you about something first...and it might change your mind."

She sighed, pressing her arms behind her on the door frame. "Then could we make love first and then talk? I promise to make it worth your while."

Like it ever wasn't. Like there was ever a time he wished they hadn't. "No," he told her. "We really need to talk first...and, uh, you may want to change."

She saw the insistence in his face, and knew no amount of seduction would make it go away, so she headed to the bedroom, throwing on a tee shirt and a pair of shorts. For whatever reason, he hadn't followed her to the bedroom. She knew then it was serious--he was afraid she'd jump him in bed or something, probably. He was determined to have this talk with her, and her instincts made her nervous about it. Seeing as he wasn't about to approach her anywhere but the couch, and really wanting to get whatever this was out of the way, she went back to the living room. She sat next to him.

"This better be good," she told him. "I've been planning all day."

He smiled at her, dreading this conversation even more than he was five minutes ago. "I, uh, I need to tell you about something I did today."

"Okay. I'm listening."

He rubbed one of his ears, wishing to God that he didn't have to tell her this tonight. That babydoll was his favorite. Excellent memories and visual to match- "I went to see your father."

She was staring at him, much as Ryan had when he was sitting across from him, and he felt the need to explain himself. "I, uh, I wanted to make sure he understood not to try to work out his issues on days that are special to you....I think he gets it now...but I didn't want you to find out from him or Ava or somebody else."

She was completely floored. " went to see my father? How'd you even know where to go?"

"His business card." He paused. "I had to do something. I probably should have talked with you first but I was afraid you'd tell me just to let it go. And I couldn't."

She didn't say anything for a moment but stared at him, eyes large and mouth open. Finally, she said, "Well that's pretty fucking cool...I wish I could have been there to see that."

He was surprised. "You think so?"

"Yeah. He's an asshole. I would've loved to see you tell him so."

"I kind of did. I more or less told him it was his loss and you deserved way better than him, and he could pretty much figure on not being such an ass around you ever again."

She was still looking at him curiously. "Bobby, that's hot. That's like, really, really good foreplay."

He smiled. "Does this mean you'll put that babydoll on again?"

She stood up. "Give me five minutes before you head back."

He stayed on the couch, reflecting on their conversation, wondering if she really did think he was hot to stand up to her father. He decided to believe her. After a few minutes, he wandered to the back of the house and into the bedroom.

She was draped over the armchair, head leaning back, hair tousled. "I"m hotter for you now than I was a half hour ago," she told him. "Make it good, Goren...I want to look back on this and remember it fondly."

Good god. What the hell was she thinking? Just seeing her draped like that made his mind go to so many places he didn't know where to start. Like some sort of adult amusement park, he found himself thinking, scanning her body.

Regardless, she had just put the ball in his court. She had told him to make it good. She was wearing his favorite babydoll. He was going to control this, tonight.

He smiled at her. "Trust me, beautiful," he said, "it's going to be a long, fabulous night."

And it was, as he toyed with her, played with her, loved her repeatedly. Lay behind her and stroked her, whispered to her, until the shapes and colors of the room blurred in her brain. Listened to her cry out, feeling her reaching orgasm repeatedly, sucking her neck and watching her eyelids flutter over and over until she was finally gasping to him "No, no, no more...I can't..."

"Yes," he told her softly, "you can," as he stroked her body, building her back up again expertly. He knew her body better than she did, and took great pleasure in bringing her slowly, delicately, until she was begging him for release again. When he finally entered her, she was incredibly ready for him and moaned immediately, wanting him, wanting to come and to feel him enjoying her. She ground her hips against him restlessly, moaning his name. After a few minutes she pushed him back. "Stop," she gasped, which was exactly what he didn't want to do at the moment.

"Baby, please...I know it will be so good..." He was moaning in her mouth.

She pushed him back on the bed, off of her, and he lay flat, gasping for breath. "I want to do something...I promise you'll like it...I want it to feel so good..."

"I already feel so good..." he argued, but his argument ended quickly as he watched her slide down his body and gently cover his erection with her mouth. She slowly slid the head in past her lips, then farther, and he could feel her sucking softly, rhythmically on him. His shock at her willingness quickly gave way to intense pleasure--too much, too soon. He was afraid he would climax quickly and he tried to push her away.

"No," she told him firmly. "I never thought I'd do this again and I want to...please, Bobby, please, just enjoy it..." She slid him back into her mouth, and after establishing a rhythm, she glanced up at his face. His eyes were closed, mouth open, and she could hear him panting, gasping for breath. His excitement made it all worthwhile. She felt him holding back, trying not to thrust , but she wanted him to, to enjoy every second to its fullest. She began to run her mouth up and down him, and realized how excited he was, how much he could tell her a million times this didn't matter to him but in the end, it was so intensely good to him. His eyes were watching her now, and she could hear him whispering her name intermixed with "Oh God."

He'd never dare even fantasized about it. It had seemed wrong, given everything she had gone through. Yet here she was, loving him, her wet mouth surrounding him, sucking on him, stronger now than before, then intensity surrounding him like an incredible wave of pleasure. He was doing his best not to thrust into her mouth for fear of scaring her, but God knows it was difficult. She was so beautiful. He'd never imagined he would see this in a million years. He thought about how she had said that confronting her father was hot and how he wished he'd told the bastard off ages ago.

He felt her grasp his hips but keep her mouth still; against his better judgment he rocked forward softly and when she didn't pull away he did it again. '"Oh God," he gasped, thrusting into her mouth again, but he had to stop. He knew he was too close, and it wasn't fair to her. He pushed her away firmly, whispering, "too close..too close...God..." His hand started toward his erection but she caught it and mounted him quickly. She heard his breath hitch again as she moved on him, grinding, sucking on his neck, and his orgasm overtook him in seconds. He clutched her, groaning her name, before the both collapsed on the bed.

A minute later his lips were moving down her body; lips, tongue, kissing, sucking, nipping her body, her belly, then her hip as she tried to block him with her hand, whispering, "no, you don't have to; its too much, Bobby," but he wasn't dissuaded. He wanted to taste her, to pleasure her, to watch her climax again. To please her as much as she had him. His tongue found her clit, wet and ready for him, and his gentle assault on her began. Soft, gentle licks mixed with circling her sex and sucking, glorious sucking that made her cry out every time he pulled her clitoris between his lips or his teeth. Her hands clenched his hair as she moaned passionately, a sound that was more erotic to him than the actual touching. God. God she wanted him as much as he wanted her and he never wanted to stop, wanted to keep feeling her edging closer, wanted to keep teasing her until she couldn't take it anymore and would know he was the one, the only one, who could ever do this for her. He felt her hips thrust to meet his mouth but he never hesitated; she was on the edge, the precipice, where he wanted her. He moved his tongue lower, wanting to taste her, be inside her, and arched his tongue firmly to enter her until he heard her crying out and saw her fingers move to pleasure herself.

He caught her hand in his own, pulling it aside and pinning her hips to the bed with his forearm. "Come, sweetheart," he told her, before running his tongue over her again rhythmically and taking her sensitive nub into his mouth, suckling firmly. He felt her trying to buck upwards, heard the desperate moaning from her mouth, and slipped two fingers into her vagina, thrusting quickly. She was thrashing against him, crying out, 'Please, Bobby...please, please please..." until he felt her body contract around his fingers, thrusting upward, voice crying out his name as though he were God. He felt like a sex god, knowing he had brought her so thoroughly to such a strong orgasm. Her hands were combing through his hair and she continued to chant his name softly, whispering, "Bobby, Bobby..."

He rested his head against her thigh, letting his hand stroke her gently for a moment as she shuddered against him. Her fingers were still entangled in his hair, and he wondered how he ever got this lucky, lucky enough to be with the one person who had the ability to make these acts mean more than just what they were. More than getting off. Someone who loved him so much that she wanted to move past her pain just to pleasure him. He thought about that, thought about how difficult a decision it must have been. Knew that he would have never, ever pushed her to do it. Wondered how she could love him so much.

He pulled his body up beside hers and she immediately wrapped herself around him, tangling a leg between his and pressing her face to his chest as she always seemed to do. He tangled his fingers in her hair and lay quietly. Everything he was, was now part of her. He was sleepy, relaxed, feelings that had been unfamiliar until the last year. Finally, lips pressed against her hair, he murmured to her. "Are you sorry?"

"No." It was muffled in his chest, but she didn't move. After several more moments, she lifted her head slightly. "I feel free."

His eyes bore into hers, both with tears, and he cupped her face in his hands. "You are, baby," he whispered. "You are."


She never wore suits in the summer. Too hot. Of course, the heat wave was continuing. Ninety-six today. She felt for everyone at work, dealing with the nutcases who would be out more agitated than usual.

Bobby had gotten up at the regular time, showered and dressed and woken her with a gentle kiss, the same as he had done for months now. She knew his mind was on the night before, if for no other reason than he was male, but he didn't mention it. When she told him she was calling in, he had looked at her questioningly for a moment, but then nodded. "Are you sure you want to go alone?" he had asked, catching her hand in his.

She chuckled. "You got a turn...I think I should too." He had smiled at that and leaned down to kiss her again. He was looking at her, a mixture of empathy and concern, and she felt the need to assure him. "I don't regret a minute of it, Goren. Don't look at me like that...I knew exactly what I was doing. And if I recall correctly, it was...nice...for both of us."

He sighed, shook his head. "If you get in too deep with this, you call me. I'll take care of it."

"He's my father, Bobby. I can manage him."

He gave her a short nod, then stood to leave for work. As he began to leave the bedroom, he turned around. "Beth-about last night-" he paused and she wondered what was going to follow. "It was the best sex of my life. Truly. No pressure though."

He was so serious, so gentle in his statement, that it made her giggle. "Glad you enjoyed it...let's just say it was mutual."

This brought a boyish grin to his face, and with a nod, he left the room.

Now she was dressing in her suit. Gray slacks, creme colored sleeveless blouse. Cowl neck, conservative enough to hopefully keep her dad's thoughts off the fact that he thought he was a slut. She applied two coats of deoderant, hoping she wouldn't sweat through her jacket or stink if she took it off. She pinned her hair up in one she had come to think of as the "professional 'do" and applied her makeup carefully. She was supposed to be meeting him downtown for lunch, not far from his office. Ironically, he had called her the evening before and left a message. She had returned it as soon as she woke up and they had agreed upon lunch at a small cafe. Vanessa knew the place and it was pleasant enough.

For a moment, she wondered why she was putting so much effort into looking appropriate for her father. After all, he had never knocked himself out for her. He'd taken every chance to remind her that she looked like her mother, was her mother. Not as sweet, not as beautiful as her sister. Not as lovable. He had made fun of her clothing, made fun of her hobbies, even gone so far as to tell her she wasn't worth the breath she took on this earth. She bet he thought she didn't remember that, seeing as she was stoned. But she did. She had never forgotten.

Turning to see Bruce on the bed, laying on the messy covers left over from last night, she sighed. "You're getting a bath when I get home," she told him, "just like these covers." She stroked his head gently. "Wish me luck, pretty boy."

The cab ride to the cafe took about twenty minutes. She paid the cabbie and checked her watch. She was five minutes late. She'd prefer to be five minutes early--the thought of walking in on him, with no preparation, made her nervous. She tried to imagine the flipside, of being early and watching every person come through the door. Maybe there was something to be said for being late after all.

She entered the cafe and saw him immediately. No flowers this time, but he was tugging at his wallet, as though checking for his credit card. She approached the table and stood silently.

Looking up at her, he stood awkwardlly. "Vanessa," he stumbled. "I'm glad you could make it."

She forced a smile at him and had a seat in the chair he had pulled out for her. The server was immediately upon them, taking a drink order. Ryan began to order a white wine for both of them, but Vanessa dismissively waved one of her hands. "Just water with lemon for me," she told the server. Looking at her father, she explained, "I'd rather do this level-headed."

He nodded. "Of course." He changed his order to an iced tea, and the server headed off to the kitchen.

"So," she began,shrugging out of her jacket, "What did you want to talk about?"

He cleared his throat. "Your husband came to see me yesterday., was concerned about me contacting you on your birthday."

"Yes, he told me he had spoken to you. Given our relationship, showing up on my birthday probably wasn't the best of ideas. In fact, it was rather upsetting to me."

The server arrived with their drinks and they placed a lunch order, her a salad and him a club sandwich.

"I didn't mean to upset you." He settled his napkin in his lap. "I was trying to mend bridges."

She laughed, and she knew it sounded sarcastic, condescending. "I don't think they make bridges that long. Or that wide."

His eyes had shot up sharply when she laughed, and it hadn't escaped her attention. "Your husband says you're the best in the NYPD. Your sister says you are doing well for yourself." He cleared his throat again. "I'm glad to hear that. I'm glad things are going well for you, Vanessa."

"Me too," she responded. " are things with you?"

He sat back and a genuine smile almost spread across his face--almost. "Fine...I've got an office downtown that's doing well. I remarried about six years ago and have twins. They're three, the same age as Ava's Justin." He pulled a picture out of his wallet. "I mentioned them to your husband. They're your half-siblings. It would be nice for you them...if you wanted to." He handed her a picture of a boy and a girl, posed at Easter with a bunny between them. Dark brown curls and eyes, olive complexions. They were beautiful.

She handed the picture back to him. "What are their names?"

"Jacob and Ella."

"Well, they're beautiful. How's your wife, then?"

He looked uncomfortable. "Uh, fine...she's into jewelry design. Fairly successful."

She knew that look. "Younger than me, right?" His silence was her answer and she shook her head. "Some things never change."

"She's a good person," he said defensively. "It's clear there's an age difference between you and your husband as maybe those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

The server arrived with their food and placed it in front of them, then asked if she could get them anything else.

"No," Ryan replied dismissively. "I think we have more than enough."

She stared at him for a long moment, recognizing that anger working its way to the surface. Wondering what in the hell had possessed her to give this man one more moment left of the air she had to breathe on this planet. She could be profiling, examining bodies in the field, interviewing witnesses. Hell, she could be having sex or window shopping. She could be taking a shit. Any of it would be more productive than this waste of time.

He stopped eating his sandwich and looked up at her. "All I want is for us to fix this," he said. "Whatever we need to do. I want you to know your brother and sister. My wife wants that."

She choked down the lettuce in her mouth. "Your wife?"

He put his sandwich down slowly. "Yes, my wife...she wants the kids to know you and Ava."

She felt ill. "This wasn't even your idea, was it? This is something your wife planned. At her bright young age, she knows more than you do. I should have known."

"Look," he said, low but angry, "Don't make a scene. We both know I could have done better but so could you. You were...difficult. I did the best I knew how. That's all anyone can do."

She sat back. "I'd say that you shouldn't have had children, but then you would tell me that was Mom's idea, not yours." She slipped on her jacket. "Clearly, this isn't going to work. You still have no interest in being any kind of father to me. What do you want me around for? To brag to your younger kids? As an occasional babysitter? To play house like a happy family so you can forget the things you've said and done?" She shook her head. "You know, maybe you were right. Maybe I am an idiot. Clearly there was something wrong with my thinking to assume you would want to actually make things better between us because it would be the right thing to do."

His voice was angry, seething. "I told you not to make a scene," he hissed. "You never could control yourself. You've always been out of control. This farce of a wedding is just another example, isn't it? What, he talked his way into your pants so he must love you? It's what you tell yourself, isn't it? If you're as successful as everyone perceives, why the need to run away and get married so quickly? I know, your prince charming, right? Rescued you from the horror you suffered? Your problem is that you're just like your mother--selfish, self-centered, weak--and you expect others to make up for that and fix it." His face took on a nasty look. "I heard all about your assault. It happened the same way I always knew it would--you teased the poor guy, didn't you? Led him on and then turned on him when he got all hot and bothered. Just like your mother."

She was still during his diatribe. She was five, watching him leaning over her screaming about the mess of her room, hitting her with his belt, his face red with anger. Eight as he held Ava and stroked her hair, calling her the "good girl" after literally having pushed her away from him. Ten as the plates flew in the front room and him calling her mother a whore. Fifteen, screaming at her about poor Ava being exposed to her mother's death. Twenty, as he raged over her as she lay stoned in some hotel bed, calling her a loser and an embarrassment and disowning her as his daughter. And now, here, telling her once again she was worthless and weak, that Forrester's actions were her fault.

His face was still red with anger, veins bulging in his neck, when she leaned forward. "This is the only time I'll get to say this, so I hope you'll listen. You're emotionally abusive. You have the propensity to physically abuse children. You're egocentric and have a personality disorder. I'm sure your therapist can explain all of that to you. I will not put myself in this situation again. I don't exist to make you or anyone else happy. And since you and I don't make each other happy, we should stay away from each other."

She stood from the table but he grabbed her wrist. "You're my daughter." His words were factual, as though the biological bond between them should be enough to make her sit down and submit to his will.

"Yes...but I've never been your little girl," she said, and the sadness she felt was almost betrayed in her words. "I will say, though, that you paid me a huge compliment by calling me my mother's daughter. Mom was an amazing woman and it's too bad you couldn't see it." His hand was still holding her wrist and she glanced down. "I'd like you to let me go now." The multiple meanings of the phrase weren't lost on either of them, and after another second he released her wrist and glanced at her sorrowfully.

"I'm only who I am," he said. "I can't be anybody else."

She shook her head at him. "Neither can I." And she left him there, with her barely touched salad and his half-eaten club sandwich, and didn't look back. She hoped she never would.


She was busy doing laundry when he got home that evening. "Hey," she said as he leaned to kiss her, "good day?"

"Good enough," he replied, helping to toss the dry clothing into a clean clothes basket. "Guess what I did today? You'll be so proud of me."

"Um...let me let Eames finally take the lead on a case?"

"Ha ha," he said sarcastically. "No. I bought a suit for our reception."

That had definitely caught her by surprise. She knew he had an affinity for fine clothing and owned a handful of Armani suits, ones he had invested in with his army pension. But she didn't remember him ever buying one since they had been together. She wondered briefly if this was his way of showing her he was committed to this reception. She grinned at him and then said, "I can't wait to see it on honestly wear a suit better than any man I've ever seen."

He shrugged. "They always seem short in the's at the tailor's right now but should be ready in a couple days." He began folding the clothes, standing next to her. "So...I see you washed the bed linens."

"Did you really want to sleep in that? It was developing its own personality."

He laughed at that. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He paused for a minute, folding a shirt, and then said, "How was your dad?"

She had known the question would be coming and had thought all day how she was going to handle it. To this moment, she still hadn't figured it out. After a minute, she said, "It didn't work out well."

He stopped folding and looked at her. "What did he do?"

"Nothing...we just wasn't good and we agreed to go our separate ways."

Bobby turned back to the folding and finished the shirt he was working on, and grabbed another one. "I want to know what he said to you."

She started the dryer and headed back into the kitchen, calling behind her, "I took care of it. Let it go, Bobby. If I wanted a bodyguard I'd have gotten a more vicious dog."

He appeared around the corner. "Let's go for a beer. Pizza's good too. Whatever you want."

She shook her head. "You think you'll drag this out of me...what if you don't?"

"So what if I don't? I still get to have pizza and beer with my wife."

"Fine," she grumbled. "Let me grab my shoes."

A minute later she appeared in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops. The thought he could strip her out of those clothes in less than sixty seconds made them appealing on their own. She eyed him up and down in his suit. "Maybe you're the one who should change...because I'm not putting on a suit to go eat pizza."

He looked down at himself and realized she was right. "Okay...just a minute..." He didn't even bother going to the bedroom but dug through the clean basket of clothes, tossing on a pair of bermuda shorts and a tee shirt. He grabbed a pair of flip flops by the back door and announced he was ready.

They walked a block to their favorite pizza place and took their regular seat in the corner Since she had moved to this neighborhood, they had eaten here at least once a week. It was one of their favorite places because the server, Jenny, was always on top of it and they pizza guys were nice enough to split the pizza into two types, right down the middle--spinach for her, meat for him.

Jenny had made her way over quickly, greeting them. "Hey are my favorite cops?"

"Good," Bobby said. "I'll take a, Ness?"

"Same is good for me...I think we're going with the regular, right?"

He nodded. "Large, half meat, half spinach. And try not to get any of that stuff on my side this time!"

"Just for that," Jenny replied sarcastically, "I'm decorating yours with fresh spinach leaves and pine nuts."

They all laughed, and she returned almost immediately with the beer. "Anything else right now?"

"Nope," Vanessa replied. ""We're good."

Jenny left the table and Bobby caught Vanessa's hand. "I still love these rings on your hand," he told her, stroking her fingers.

She took a sip of her beer. "You want to know."

"Inquiring minds and I need to decide if i get to fulfill my fantasy."

She looked amused. "Oh really? Which one is that?"

"Beating that son of a bitch down."

She looked down, shook her head. "He's just who he is, Bobby. He's always going to be the man who raised me. The one who can't see past my mistakes or acknowledge his own."

"What did he say?"

She looked at him, debating about what he needed to know, how to explain thirty years worth of conversation--or lack of it--to adequately express her feelings. "He's married. His wife is younger than me...I don't know how much...I'm guessing Ava's age. He has two children. Twins. Three, I think he said. His wife wants him to make nice so we can all be a happy family." No longer delicate, she took a long swig of her beer. "It just won't work. He has maybe a smidgeon more self-awareness than he had when I was a kid." Her fingers were tracing abstract patterns on the wooden table. "I'm concerned that he could be physically abusive to those kids...I know he's emotionally abusive..and I told him so."

Bobby sputtered on his beer. "You told him he was emotionally abusive?"

"Yes I did. And that he had a propensity to be physically abusive." She finished draining her beer, and then said, "When I was five he beat me with a belt to the point I could hardly sit. I don't even remember why. I know it's nothing compared to your dad, but I never forgot it."

He watched her twirling the empty bottle on the table. "He's not coming to this reception, is he?"

"I think we pretty much cleared that up...we both agreed we are probably better off staying apart."

"Good. I don't want him there. I don't want him anywhere near you. And I know you'll tell me I'm being a male chauvinist pig but I don't care. I'd as soon as let Forrester at you as him."

She smiled wryly. "He brought that up too."

Bobby's face hardened, his mouth in a tight line. "And?"

"Let's just say he thinks I have some incredible hold over the opposite sex." Hearing Bobby's foot begin to tap the floor, feeling his knee jiggling, she said, "Don't worry about it. He is always going to think what he's going to think. We all know what happened. Hell, even Forrester admitted to it. Let my dad live in his own little fantasy world."

Bobby was staring down at his beer now, clutching the neck of it. "Look," she said softly, "It's not worth it...please don't let it ruin our night together...that's the last thing I want is for that bastard to have one more minute's control over my life."

His face stayed down but his eyes met hers. "Does this mean I don't get to go kick his ass?"

She grinned. "No. If there were to be any ass-kicking, I would get the pleasure. You can't take that away from me."

Her hand was stroking his. He was still angry, furious actually, but tried for her to let it go. "Okay, okay," he said. "But if you ever change your mind, let me know. I know where he works."

She laughed. "Yeah, and he knows where you work too."

Jenny arrived with their pizza and put it between them, spinning it to place the spinach in front of Vanessa and the meats in front of Bobby. Sure enough, there was a fresh spinach leaf and a few pine nuts on top of his half.

"Very funny,'re awfully confident about that tip, aren't you?" Bobby teased.

"Detective, you're the best tipper who comes in here. Another beer?"

Vanessa nodded, and Jenny left the table and returned momentarily with two new beers.

Bobby held his up to hers, toasting her, and then said, "I'm madly in love with you, you know that?"

She smiled and slipped her foot, out of its shoe, along his leg. "I know. And I feel the same." She picked up a piece of the spinach pizza. "Bite?" she offered.

He held a hand up. "I love you madly but I'm gonna have to's a little scary."

She grinned and dug in.


He could hear her screaming. It was dark, small, and he realized he was hiding in a closet. With any luck the lock would hold this time.

Her words were nonsensical, almost incoherent, something about spies and his father and his whores and money. They were always yelling about money and whores.

He had asked Frank once what a whore was. Frankie had shook his head and just said, "Dad has girlfriends...that's what she's talking about."

The noise was horrific and he snuggled in the closet, trying to make his ten-year old body smaller against the shoes and behind the clothing. He heard slamming and his father stumbling up the stairs. He knew he was drunk, and if he was stumbling up, he was looking for the boys. He closed his eyes and prayed to the God his mother always talked about.

The door swung open and he felt himself wrenched up by the arm. "Useless!" his father had screamed, tossing him to the floor. "Do you think this house cleans itself? Get down there and clean up that goddamn mess."

"I didn't-"

The stinging slap across his face was the answer, and he tasted the blood on his lip. "Now, I said! You'll do it now or you'll be doing it after I wear your ass out!"

He slowly made his way downstairs. Halfway down he could see her pacing, yelling at no one. He tried to sneak into the kitchen but she saw him, and her eyes became large. Large and her skin turned red. Horns began to protrude. Just like they had talked about in church. She was the devil, and she was reaching for him.

"Bobby." She called his name. She had no mouth but he heard her anyway. "Bobby. Wake up, honey."

His eyes flipped open upon command, The darkness surrounded him and he knew he wasn't in Canarsie. He was at home, safe, with his wife. She was stroking his arm. Horribly embarrassed, he choked out, "I'm sorry...all this father talk..."

"It happens to the best of us," she whispered, then lay back down next to him. He turned away from her, something he hardly ever did, but she didn't push him to turn back. He felt the hot tears slip down his face. His anger with her father had seeped in, bringing the ugly remnants of his own dad up to the surface.

After a few minutes, she felt him move again, slightly, and he whispered, "Do you think I'm doomed to be like that? That kind of a man? That kind of a father?"

She turned toward him. "Do you think I'd be with a man I thought was doomed to that?"

He stayed curled away from her, face against the pillow, like a child. "Schizophrenia is inherited, you know. And my environmental background, who knows what I could pass on--"

"Yeah," she interrupted. "So are depression and anxiety. Are you saying you don't want to have kids?"

She felt him shudder. His silence was painful for both of them. "My dad...I was in a closet...he found me, beat me, sent me down to my mother." She could hear him swallow audibly. "She was turning into Satan."

Vanessa pressed a hand against his back, then traced his spine gently with her fingers. "Your father and father and mother...they don't mean we'll become them. You know?" Silence. "Bobby." Her fingers ran up, then down slowly. "Look at what we both came out of, and somehow we've ended up to be functional, compassionate, decent people. You and I of all people know how this could have turned out. Who we both could have been."

He rolled over then, facing her. "I don't want to hurt our kids...I don't want to curse them to lives of mental illness."

She stroked his hair. "Nobody does. But you're past the age for the typical onset of schizophrenia, and I've managed my anxiety and depression issues with therapy. They would be safe with us, if we decided to have them. And can you imagine the medical treatments available should a child of ours have one of those problems twenty years from now?"

His eyes were watching her, deep and dark, the long lashes making him look so much younger than forty-three. "It was a dream," she reiterated. "It's not a prophecy. For anyone."

"You're late." She didn't know he had realized that, and she bit her tongue just in time. "Do you think you might be?"

She shook her head. "Two days, Bobby. Anything can cause you to be two days late. I didn't realize you had memorized my schedule."

He didn't respond, didn't move. He thought about his own fears, of passing those along to any children they might have, of fucking up. His biggest fear--fucking up.

She moved closer to him, reading his face as being afraid, vulnerable. "I'm not pregnant," she told him again, "but if I was, this child would be incredibly lucky to have you as a father. You're an amazing man. I've seen you with children...I've seen how you are. I see you, not who you're afraid of becoming. You."

He finally gave in, leaned against her chest, let her hold and stroke his back. "I want us to have a child," he confessed. "It's incredibly selfish but I do."

She didn't answer him, knew she didn't need to, but continued to hold him close until they both drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, she woke him, early. She was definitely not pregnant.


"Ma," Bobby said softly, touching his mother's arm. She was sleeping, on her back.

Vanessa stood behind him. "Maybe we should just let her rest for awhile."

He shook his head. "She'll be pissed as hell if she knows we've been here and didn't wake her up. Trust me on this." Gently shaking her shoulder a bit harder, he said again, "Mom...wake up.'s me, Bobby."

Frances' eyes opened then, still glazed with sleep, as she glanced at him. "Oh. Bobby." She tried to sit up, to rouse herself quickly as though they had caught her napping on the job. "I missed you last week."

Her statement was neutral, not accompanied by the usual anger and angst Vanessa had come to expect during these visits. In fact, Frances seemed relatively relaxed and, well...normal, today.

Bobby had pulled his chair next to his mother. "I missed you too, Mom. You remember Vanessa?"

Frances smiled. "Of course I remember her...she's your girlfriend. How long has she been coming with you now, Bobby? Certainly long enough for me to recognize her." She nodded at Vanessa and then said, "It's wonderful to see you again, honey."

Well, this was new. Frances usually preferred to live in the reality of Vanessa being some sort of secret service agent to Bobby's president. Vanessa had secretly figured this would be a quick visit and it would go how they had planned it in the car--

"So what are we going to tell her?" he had said.

"That we're undercover...and the best way to keep you safe was to marry you. Then I can be watching you all the time."

He had laughed. "And what if you DO get pregnant? What then?"

She grinned at him. "Then you were so wonderful to guard that I let my guard down. Trust me, she'll buy it."

--but now those plans were pushed aside. Here sat a completely oriented Frances, and they were going to have to tell her the truth. They had gotten married and not only not invited her, they hadn't told her either. Suddenly the afternoon seemed like it could get a lot longer and more painful.

"Should we go in the front room?" Frances was asking. "It's a nice place to visit."

Bobby shook his head. "Ma, first I need to talk with you about something. It's the reason I wasn't here last week."

Frances' face immediately darkened. Vanessa knew that look--fear. The fear she had for her son's job, the danger he faced. Apparently, Bobby read it quickly too. "I'm just's a good thing, nothing about my job."

Her face returned to normal. "So what's this great news that kept you from visiting last weekend?"

He looked at Vanessa for a moment, then back at his mother. "Well, I asked Vanessa to marry me, and we decided to go ahead and do it. We took a trip last weekend and got married."

Frances looked at Bobby, then to Vanessa, then back at her son, her mouth partly open. "You got married? And didn't tell me?"

He had been afraid of this, ever since he saw she was lucid. "We didn't mean it like that...we didn't tell anyone, including Vanessa's family."

"And your job? They just let you take off with no explanations?"

He sighed. "I had some time coming...I had been working overtime from a case..."

Frances' brow furrowed and she narrowed her eyes at Vanessa. "Are you pregnant?"


"No," Vanessa replied evenly. "I'm not pregnant. I married your son of my own free will and I'd do it again tomorrow or any other day he asked. He's an amazing person."

"Well shit," Frances said, reaching for Bobby, "Congratulations, baby."

He hugged her until she pushed him back and reached for Vanessa. "He's a good boy," she said, patting Vanessa firmly on the back. "Don't forget that."

"I won't," she promised as Frances let her go.

"Now Bobby," Frances said, playing with the edge of her bed linens, "is it okay to go into the front room NOW?"

He smiled at her. "Sure." He helped her up, get her slippers, and they followed her to the front room.

Frances stopped at several tables, introducing the couple as newlyweds. Vanessa could see Bobby's cheeks beginning to flush--if there was one thing he didn't like was tremendous attention being brought to his personal life--but he was a good sport and smiled and said 'thanks' to the heaps of congratulations they received.

They sat in the sunlight for awhile, chatting about their recent vacation. Frances talked avidly about Bobby's boyhood at his grandparent's beach club, and how he had complained about sand since he was a small boy. Bobby stuck with his contention of sand being gross, until even his mother shook her head. "It's just part of the world,'ll have to either avoid it or get over it. And since you married yourself a girl here who doesn't mind it, maybe you should try to make friends with the beach a little bit."

To that he visibly shuddered. "If Vanessa wants to spend time at the beach, she's more than welcome to, and I'll just meet her back at the hotel room," he replied.

"That's not very romantic," Frances told him, "and it's certainly not the tone you want to set for your marriage."

Bobby thought about the tone of his mother's marriage, but he bit his tongue.

"Well," Vanessa interrupted, "I don't spend a lot of time on the beach, so it's really a nonissue. Bobby was willing to walk down there to marry me, which is all I really wanted. It was a beautiful weekend, wasn't it?" She turned to look at him, and the tenseness in his face disappeared.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It was."

They agreed to play cards, and Frances directed Bobby to go see Sheila for a deck. He left the front room to go to the nurse's station. Sheila was filling out paperwork but stopped when she saw him.

"Hey Detective," she greeted him. "I hear congratulations are in order."

Sheepishly, Bobby said, "Well, it was time. Could I get a deck of cards?"

Sheila smiled at him and reached in a drawer in the desk, withdrawing the cards. She placed them on top of the desk, by his hand. When he reached to take them, her hand covered his. "Nice ring."

He looked up at her, surprised. Married for a week and already another woman hitting on him. How was that possible? He regarded her for a moment; pretty, young, sweet. Not his wife. "My wife thinks so," he responded, pulling his hand back from under hers.

She let it go, and smiled at him again. "Lucky woman," she commented. "Just bring the cards back when you're done."

He left the desk, completely shocked at Sheila's display and feeling as though he had somehow done something wrong, something that would be hurtful to Vanessa. Seeing her sitting next to his mother, both engaged in a light conversation, he decided to push it aside. "Here they are," he said as he reached the table.

After several games of gin rummy, it was time to go. Bobby gathered the cards, and after hesitating, asked Vanessa if she would return them to the desk while he got his mother situated in her room. Frances protested, saying she didn't need to go back to her room, thank you very much, she was fine right where she was.

Vanessa smiled. "I'll return the cards and let the two of you sort this out."

She approached the nurse's station again. Sheila was on the phone, and Vanessa waited for a moment for her to hang up. Once she did, Vanessa handed her the deck of cards.

'Here they are," she said. "Thanks for the use of them."

Sheila smiled. "Miss Frances seems to be having a good day today. Maybe it's the good news."

Vanessa looked at her wryly. "I think her day was good before that...she seems to be very alert today."

"Well, either way," Sheila commented, "you got yourself a winner there, didn't you?"

She saw it, the slight jealousy on the younger woman's face, but she couldn't resist. "Yes. Yes, I really did."

Sheila kept up her smile, never deviating, and told her, "Well, hopefully we'll see you around here more often."

Vanessa's eyes met hers, and she nodded, then turned to go back to the front room. After a couple more hugs, they were on their way out to the car.

"You drive?" he asked her. She wasn't surprised. He was always completely worn out after visiting with his mother. She took the keys and started up the car.

His thoughts drifted around in his head, of his mother's acceptance of their marriage, her thoughts that Vanessa must be pregnant, of Sheila's reaction. If there was one phrase to describe the entire afternoon, he thought, it would be 'what the fuck?'.

"Ness," he said after several minutes, "I think Sheila hit on me."

"What did she do?"

"She put her hand over mine and told me I had a nice ring."

Vanessa snorted. "Yeah, that's a hit. Did you tell her I picked it out for you?"

"No." He opened his eyes, a bit worried. "I told her I thought it was nice too, and then I left the desk...quickly..."

"She told me I hit the jackpot with you."

Now he laughed. "Well, you did, right?"

She snorted again. "Nurse Feely needs to keep her hands to herself," she said grumpily.

"Mmm," he acknowledged. "Don't worry. All I could think of was how to get out of there with the cards. I'm thinking of bringing my own deck next time."

She chuckled quietly, trying to imagine Bobby slipping under Sheila's radar. "I don't think it will help. She has your number."

"No...I never gave it to her! I mean, I know it's on file, but-"

She laughed. "That's not what I meant." Seeing his alarmed look, she reached over and stroked his thigh. "Relax, Bobby...I only meant she knows it makes you uncomfortable when she does that. What she does with that information is up to her."

He shifted in the car seat uncomfortably. "Well...what would you do with it?"

She shook her head slightly. "You forget...I was out of the dating pool for a long time."

"Before," he insisted. "Before, when you were dating..."

"And I was an addict? Oh, I would have tortured you tremendously. Made you think about what you gave up every time you saw me. I was really a bitch," she added.

He thought about that. "Don't take this the wrong way," he said quietly, "but I'm kind of glad I didn't know you then."

She exhaled heavily. "Me too."


He was adjusting his tie in front of the mirror, thinking about how it blended into his suit too much, didn't make enough of a statement. He stood there, regarding himself, feeling a bit foolish. He'd always cared about his appearance, but this was going a bit overboard. He couldn't recall the last time he spent so much energy into picking out the perfect tie. The suit had turned out wonderfully, and he had to admit the tailor did an incredible job, considering his measurements. Not every guy was as tall as him, with monkey arms. But his sleeves actually fit for once. He glanced down at the gold band on his finger. Two weeks since he married her and not one regret. Sure, a few moments of fear or confusion, but given his past, that could be expected. But she felt like his other half. What he had been looking for his whole life.

"Ness," he called her from the bathroom, "I can't pick out a tie."

"And I can't pick out panties...maybe we can help each other!"

He snickered to himself, thinking about her ridiculous sense of humor. Opening the bathroom door, he said, "Let me see the problem..." then replied, "ohhhh."

She was wearing white. A beautiful white silk dress, cut in a low vee in the front and the back, with a more flowing skirt. He knew her penchant for colored panties. He happened to share it.

"Do you not have any, uh, white ones?" he asked.

"Granny panties...ones I bought before we, well, became closer friends." She turned in the dress. "I guess I could go commando..."

He smiled at that thought, then realized there would be two hundred people there and all he needed was some creepy perv trying to look up his wife's dress. That was for him, not anyone else.

"Do you want me to run to a store and pick you up some?" He checked his watch. "I think we have time."

She turned around. "Could you? That way I could finish my hair and makeup...I'll be ready by the time you get back. And Bobby..." He turned to face her. "That suit is beautiful...go with the sage tie."

He shot her a knowing look. "Thanks. Be back shortly."

She heard him leave the room, then the condo, and turned back to the mirror. Only she could forget to buy the appropriate panties to go under this dress. Good lord. It was all because she'd been rushing when she bought it. If Ava knew she only spent two hours looking for this dress (including try-on time), she'd kill her. Vanessa began to pull the hot rollers out of her hair. She still couldn't believe she was doing this for her sister. Clearly, it was for Ava, because it certainly wasn't for her or Bobby. They had been perfectly happy before the mention of any reception. She knew this was harder on Bobby than it was on her.

Bobby. She was still trying to figure out how that whole thing happened. As much as she loved him, as happy as she was to be his wife, part of her felt as though she had managed to trick fate. She had never loved anyone so much in her life, and sometimes it scared her. She hadn't told him, but many nights after he drifted off she would lay and watch him sleep, feeling his breath shallow, in and out, on her head or her face. Thinking about how much she loved him and chasing away the fears that he could be taken away from her. She didn't want to live her marriage in fear but in joy. She worked hard to focus on the joy so the fear couldn't enter in.

She heard him re-enter the house, and a minute later he was in the bathroom again, carrying a small bag from the lingerie store down the street. He gave her a sly smile and said, "I hope these will work."

She pulled them out of the back and involutarily heard her breath hitch. "Are you kidding? A thong?"

He grinned at her. "Consider it a favor for your husband."

She glared at him. "You know I don't wear these."

"Well," he said smugly, "tonight you do." He rested his hands on her hips, then pulled her closer to him. Pressing his lips against her ear, he whispered, "Want some help getting them on?"

Truth was, she did. She'd rather let him take this damn dress off her than go to the reception. If she had to spend two hours of her life with this dress, she'd much prefer it being with her husband having fun with it. And she almost never denied him, never wanted to. But the clock was ticking and she knew, just knew how livid Ava would be if the honored couple showed up late.

She took them from his hands. "I think I can handle it." He had pulled back from her, looking down with his skeptical eyes. "We can't be late," she explained, as if to say, this isn't because of me...don't think this is what I want. He didn't answer her but stepped out of the bathroom.

She quickly donned the thong and followed him out of the bathroom, slipping into her shoes. "Ready?"

He turned to her and smiled. "Yep. It'll be good...I get chocolate cake." Then he froze for a moment. "You're wearing it...the ruby from your mother."

"Of course I am," she replied. "You fixed it for me and I love it. It's a perfect time to wear it. I like it with the dress, don't you?"

His smile was slow as he took her in, from her high-heeled sandals to the white dress, the curves of her bodies and the ruby necklace. Her beautiful face. "Yes," he said honestly, "I like it."

Outside the building, he guided her to the limousine that Ava had insisted upon. After climbing inside, she started to say something about Ava's overdoing everything, but Bobby hushed her. "She's done this for you. Let's just enjoy it, okay?"

He caught her off guard. This relaxation with a gift from Ava was strange for him. "Okay," she said, still looking at him confusedly. He leaned over to kiss her softly, but a moment later his tongue was softly tracing her lips and his hand was holding the side of her face.

Now she understood. "You want to get laid in this limo," she said, softly giggling.

"No," he insisted. "I just want to make you come."

"Later," she said, but maybe not firmly enough, or maybe he knew her better than she thought, because he didn't stop kissing her, and a minute later his hand had wandered down her body, over her thigh, and to the crotch of the panties he had just bought her.

He felt her shift, unsure as to whether it was a shift away from him or for more contact. "It's a twenty minute ride...plenty of time...I promise no one will ever know..." He continued to kiss her and gently slipped his hand inside the fabric, touching, stroking. "You're so beautiful beautiful every night...I love you so much..."

She was having trouble concentrating and leaned into him. "You shouldn't do this...everyone will be able to tell...they'll smell it on us..."

He chuckled, low. "I love you. I want you to feel good."

"You know-" her eyes were closed and she was fighting desperately against pressing herself more firmly against his dancing fingers, "-there are other ways to make me feel good."

He kissed her forehead. "Maybe I wasn't specific enough. I want you to feel good sexually."

Now she did press against him, feeling a bit wanton. "This is wrong. Really wrong."

"It'll relax you before we get there."

God, where did he learn these things? She refused to believe he read it in a book. He must have had some red hot lovers in his day. One day she'd ask him about it, but not now...she squirmed against him, trying for more contact. He read her immediately, moved faster and firmer against her until she heard sounds in her own throat, different but familiar, and she felt the thrill rip through her body as she tightened her thighs around his hand. He caught her moan in his mouth, his tongue stealing it from her.

A minute later he slipped his hand from her as well as his lips. "You're absolutely evil," she told him, turning to notice his complete and thorough grin. And she grinned back to him--she couldn't help it.

"Here," she said as she dug through her purse for hand sanitizer. "You smell like a whorehouse."

He chuckled. "Been to a lot of whorehouses, have you?"

"Enough ride alongs to recognize one," she responded. Then, looking worried, she asked him, "Do I smell like it?"

His smile softened from a conniving grin to a loving smile. His hand ran through her hair gently and said, "You look and smell beautiful...just like you are."

The limo had pulled in front of the hall and the driver exited the door. She looked at Bobby one more time. "I love you. Don't ever doubt that."

He took her hand in his and kissed it. "I don't."


As they approached the entryway, they ran smack into Ava. "Finally!" she said, then gave Vanessa a skeptical look, which slipped into a look of disgust at Bobby. "I don't even want to ask why you're late," she said sharply.

"It's only five minutes...and it was the limo driver--we left on time," Vanessa explained. Bobby continued to grin at Ava until she made a face that all but confirmed she knew what had happened in the car.

"In case either of you would care to freshen up, the restrooms are to the left," she said, nodding behind her. Looking at Bobby directly, she hissed, "And for God's sake, wash your hands...people are going to want to greet the two of you in a couple of minutes."

Vanessa grabbed the sleeve of his jacket, leading him off toward the restroom as he continued to watch Ava with that ridiculous grin. "She figured it out," he whispered conspiratorially.

'I told you this would happen," she said, not nearly as amused as he was. "Now we both smell like a whorehouse-"

"Or Ava has an overdeveloped sense of smell...or she just knows us."

Vanessa made a face. "Just go wash your hands, all right? I'll do the same and we'll pretend this never happened."

He caught her by the shoulder, pulling her close. "Fine," he whispered, "we'll wash up to be socially acceptable...but I for one am NOT going to pretend that didn't happen." He was running his finger under her bra strap, up and down her shoulder blade. For the second time that night she cursed him silently. How the hell was she supposed to concentrate when he was doing this to her?

She pulled away from him and entered the ladies' room. Once she was convinced she was presentable, she exited, to find him waiting for her just outside the door. "Ava's ready for us to make a grand entrance," he told her, leaning toward her ear. "I think she intends to announce us as, well, something....I would assume Mr. and Mrs. Goren, but that might be too painful for her..."

Vanessa elbowed him in the gut. "Ow!" he cried. "You better quit that!"

"Then stop acting like some out of control sex fiend on crack!" she told him. For some reason, that struck him as hilariously funny. Sex fiend on crack. Well, she would know...he had no idea.

"Really?" he asked, trying not to laugh quite so hard. "Is this what sex fiends on crack act like? Because I just figured they'd be banging one another in the bathroom right now, as they passed the pipe."

The image of doing just that, the stress of her sister's expectations, the pressure of the night, suddenly just got to her. She started to laugh, and once she started, she couldn't stop. He couldn't either, and they both were nearly doubled over with the image of sex in the bathroom while passing a crack pipe at this event, when they heard their names announced:

"Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goren..."

"Shit!" he suddenly said, trying to wipe the tears from his eyes. He tugged at her arm and said, "Come on..."

"Wait!" she gasped, still laughing, trying desperately to control her watering eyes. "I can't go like this..."

He suddenly said, stoically, "We can and we must...we have been summoned..." which made her start laughing all over again as he pulled her--no, dragged her--into the main reception hall.

He was holding onto her hand, both of them still laughing, as she stumbled behind him trying to keep up. Fucking sandals, she thought, as she nearly tripped entering the room. Her first thought was, my God there are a lot of people here. Her second was, they all think we're batshit crazy. And the giggles started all over again.

He looked back at her, having somewhat recovered from their recent loss of control, only to see her collapsing into giggles once more. The crowd was clapping and he had never felt more ridiculous than he did at this moment. And of course, she was laughing her ass off over God knew what. He pulled her up close to him and whispered, "Did I miss the joke?"

"They think we're batshit crazy, that's the joke," she told him, and watched his grin turn into laughter once again.

Suddenly Ava took the microphone, and Vanessa forced herself to think of the most horrific crime scenes imaginable to regain her composure. Bobby regained it quickly too, and she wondered if he used the same strategy she had.

"Thank you all for attending our reception this evening to honor Vanessa and Robert. We're all so pleased you could be here. I know it means a tremendous amount to both of them..." Bobby knew it was wrong, but his mind was already wandering away from his sister-in-law's speech to the actual room. Scanning it, he had to admit Ava had done an amazing job decorating. Candle arrangements on every table, tiny icicle lights that glimmered from the ceiling, and she'd even gone all out and purchased the most amazing flower arrangements. He'd never seen anything like them, but he knew Vanessa would love them; nothing traditional but instead wildflowers and unusually beautiful plants throughout the room. In July, of all times. And there was a band. Did they even ask for a band? He had no idea. In the middle of the room there was an incredible ice sculpture of a swan, surrounded by fruits and cheeses. He had to wonder if Ava knew Vanessa that well or if Ness had pulled a few strings.

"So if Bobby and Vanessa don't mind humoring us all for a few minutes, everyone can feel welcome to form a line to the left to greet them as a new couple; then we'll eat! Thank you again for coming."

"You're welcome," Vanessa muttered, and he felt himself choke down the laughter.

They stood in line for what seemed like forever, saying hello and thank you and oh what a surprise it was to us too, to everyone who went through the line. Vanessa didn't know that she knew so many people, nor did Bobby. She had to hand it to Ava, though--she had been true to her word, sent out beautiful invitations and invited many of Bobby's old colleagues as well as his friends and army buddies that he stayed in contact with. It was kind of exciting, to meet so many people she had heard about but never seen. She wondered if he felt the same.

When the line finally came to an end, he looked at her and smiled. "Are you hungry? I'm famished."

She grinned. "You know I'm going after that fruit and cheese."

"Go get it, girl. Make it worth your while...they have goat cheese and smoked gouda... I check it out while your sister was talking."

"What about you?" she asked as she headed over to the swan.

He surveyed the room. "Italian," he said firmly. "Veal parmigiana."

"That's gross...they kill those poor little calves."

"I know," he said, clearly longing. "Just at the peak of deliciiousness."

She shook her head and loaded up on pineapple, strawberries, apples, pears, and grapes, as well as plenty of cheeses, then went to find a place to sit.

Fortunately, Ava had thought of everything and even labeled a groom and bride's table. Vanessa felt a little silly, sitting at the table by herself, until Bobby arrived. His plate overflowing, he commented, "Like king and queen over the land! Guess we better enjoy's not likely to happen again."

"No," she responded, spearing a strawberry with her fork. "I don't ever plan for this to happen again."

He shot her a sharp look, then said, "With me....or with somebody else"

She bit into the strawberry. "With anyone else. I could do this with you quite frequently. You know just how to start off the party mood."

He knew she was referring to the tryst in the car, how good they felt together, how far they had come from her fear driving her movements and his trust in her. He was her hero. On some level he knew that, and wondered if she knew how much a hero she was to him as well.

"Here," he said, handing her part of his plate, " i picked up some marsala chicken for you and a fantaastic bread soup. I think you'll love it. Whoever Ava got to cater this really understands italian cooking."

She speared a piece of gouda and offered it to him. "I would love to share some of your food...just no veal," she said adamently. "I don't eat little tortured animals."

"Chckens are little tortured animals."

"Not the same, "she replied, then took a bite of the marsala. The dance music was starting but they paid it no mind. Instead they sat feeding each other slowly, taking time to enjoy the pleasures on their plate. Bobby watched each small bit of food cross her lips and felt the tenderness he had kissed her with earlier. Watching her eat was at the very least a sensual, if not sexual experience. The way she tasted the food, rolled it around in her mouth, enjoyed it as though he were a five-star chef turned him on. Whenever he cooked for her at home, she always acted ike he was amazing. And he was man enough to eat up the let them boost his ego both in the kitchen and in the bedroom.

After several moments she turned her attention to him. He was still playing with his food, eating bits of veal parmigiana and feeding her small pieces of chicken. "So," she said, swallowing her chicken, "when are you going to dance with me?"

He laughed and wiped a bit of sauce off the corner of her mouth. "The rock and roll writhe dance you're so fond of, or some real dancing?"

"With rock and roll you make more body contact."

"But real dancing is sexier," he argued, then lowered his voice, catching her ear. "I don't have to be pressed against you to let you know I find you desirable, do I? Haven't you known all night?"

And she had. Not from the car, or the panty debacle, but from everything else he did--the way he looked at her, complimented, her, held the door for her, laughed with her.

She looked back at him, steadily, and said, "Of course I have. You're my best friend and I can read you like a book."

He looked immensely pleased at that, then stood from the table, offering her his hand. He approached the band leader, and a moment later the music took a different turn. Jazz. He caught her other hand and led it to his shoulder, then pulled her onto the dance floor.

She followed his lead as she had so many months before, the first time they had done this, and despite all of the thoughts, the temptation, the want, he was the consummate gentleman with her. And he looked at her more lovingly than he ever had, she thought, as he spun her around and caught her back safe in his arms again.

The next song started up--a more latin feel-- and he moved her into a tango. He knew she was uncomfortable with the steps, but he felt okay with that. She was beautiful moving. He loved to watch her echo him and she wasn't half bad at picking up pretty quickly. Halfway through she started to giggle, though, and he knew the two of them would never make it to the end, because he felt the laughter working its way up from his stomach to his lungs and his throat.

"I know this is bad form, but would it be all right if I cut in?" They both stopped, looking surprised and a bit sheepish, to see Deakins standing there with an arm out for Vanessa. She obliged him, shooting a regretful look at Bobby, as he reached for Angie, Deakins' wife, and began to spin her across the room.

"I'm not so good at this," Deakins apologized as they began to dance, "but I wanted you to know that I at least tried to get one good dance in with you."

She laughed. "Me either...I always count on Bobby to lead. I kind of suck at this stuff!" Somehow they made their way around the dance floor, managing not to look too noticeably clumsy. The song ended and they clapped for the band, then Deakins touched her shoulder.

"You deserve this happiness, Vanessa," he told her firmly. "Don't ever forget that." And with a wink, he returned to his wife, leaving her standing alone, but only for a second.

Baxter caught her next, then Little, and by the time she finished dancing with an entire entourage of men, she noticed that Bobby was across the room, dancing with Eames. She wondered briefly how long they'd been dancing. She hadn't noticed. They seemed deep in conversation, and she excused herself to get a glass of champagne.

The bartender smiled kindly and poured her a glass, and as she sipped, she felt Ava slip up next to her. She turned to look at Ava, glass to her lips, and was surprised to see her smiling at her. Vanessa swallowed a large mouthful of the bubbly liquid.

"Are you and Bobby having fun?" she asked, still smiling. "It seems to be going well."

Vanessa grinned. "It's absolutely lovely, Ava. And we're having a wonderful time."

Ava took a glass of champagne as well, and turning toward the dance floor, commented, "He seems close to his partner."

"Yes," Vanessa said. "He is."

"Different, though, than you." Ava turned, met Vanessa's eyes. "I haven't been fair. The way he looks at you...he absolutely adores you."

Vanessa nodded. She took another sip of her champagne. "He says I'm his everything. And he's mine."

Ava sighed. "That's how it should be." Silence for a moment, then, "I heard he had words with Daddy."

'Please," Vanessa started to hold up a hand, "not tonight-"

Ava caught her hand. "You're my sister. You believed me about Mom. The least I can do is understand that you're not coming out of left field with this." Ava could feel Vanessa's tension, and she squeezed her hand again. "I want you to know that no matter what, I'm here for you, and I want to accept you for who you are--not who I wanted you to be." Ava's lashes were heavy with tears. "I did this for you, initially, to prove to you that I would love you no matter what, but I want you to know that I will try my best to love your family, just like you love mine. And I'll believe you and listen to you and be your sister because no matter what, we can't afford to lose each other."

Vanessa felt herself stop breathing, holding her breath, processing the words from her little sister's mouth. Holding Ava when she was tiny and their mother was ill. Walking her to school on first days because nobody else was there. Holding her as their mother was wheeled out of the house. And holding her in the kitchen, as Ava cried, hiding her tears from Justin. Suddenly, more than anything, she wanted her sister. She reached forward and grabbed Ava firmly, embracing her tightly and feeling Ava's arms reach around her. And she realized, in that moment, that the connection she needed with her family was there, in her arms, grasping her tightly. Family that loved her, as crazy as it sometimes was. But it was hers.

After a moment, Ava pulled back and grabbing a cocktail napkin, wiped Vanessa's face. "Go," she laughed. "This is your reception! Have fun--go get your husband back from his partner."

Vanessa started to laugh but choked on it. "I love you, Ava...I always have." She shuddered for a moment, then wiped her own eyes. "I guess I'll go interrupt the dance."

"Do it, girl," Ava laughed, and watched Vanessa turn resolutely, albeit a bit tipsily, and head toward Bobby and Alex. Ava was pleased, watching her sister's awkward gait in the heels after too much champagne, knowing that she would never forget this night. She sighed to herself, feeling complete that she had given her sister a wonderful night, and knowing she had said what she needed to say. Knowing she had withheld the conversation she and Ryan had had a few days ago, when Ryan had told Ava that her sister was a bitch and not worth the air she breathed. The moment when she realized that Vanessa suffered just as she had, that her father really did have it in him to be a complete bastard.

Vanessa reached Bobby awkwardly and stood aside, watching Eames speaking earnestly to him. She couldn't make out the conversation but it didn't matter; she could tell Bobby was listening carefully and whatever Alex was saying was important to both of them. Finally, she said, "Hi...I'm back!"

They both looked a little startled, but then Alex smiled at her and moved to the side, and Bobby's face lit up like a Christmas tree. He pulled her closer again, then kissed her firmly, clutching her face on either side. She could taste the veal on him and wondered if he could taste her champagne. When he pulled back, he smiled. "You and Ava have been having cocktail hour, haven't you?" he chuckled softly.

"Umm...a bit...but it was a good one...."

He touched the corner of her eye, tracing a tear track. "I can tell."

The band leader had approached the microphone and announced it was time for the bride and groom to dance, and the band launched into "Overjoyed":

Over time, I've been building this castle of love
Just for two, though you never knew you were my reason...

He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her waist as she encircled his neck. "Who told them about this?" she asked teasingly. "I thought this was private..."

"The beach was private...but it's not like we own the song..." He kissed her temple gently.

And though you don't believe that they do
Dreams can come true
For did my dreams come true when I looked at you
And maybe too, if you believed,
You too might be overjoyed, overloved, over me...

"Robert Goren," she whispered in his ear, "you're my fucking hero," to which he chuckled heartily and swung her into a deep dip and kissed her, with all the passion and madness and love he had felt all evening for her. They could hear the crowd gasp and titter and even laugh as glasses clanked and a few of their more vocal (or drunk) friends called out "yeah!" But none of it mattered. He wanted them to know, to see. He was tired, so tired of hiding who he was. And with her he didn't need to hide anymore. With her, he was just...Bobby.

She clutched him in the dip, relishing in the kiss, not wanting for him to ever let go of her. He was beautiful, God, so beautiful. She knew it was Baxter yelling and catcalling and she made a mental note to kick his ass when they were back at the office. But she didn't care, not really, because Bobby was all, in this moment, that mattered. And she kissed him back, hard, as he pulled her up off her feet to meet him at his height, and she was suddenly so glad that she didn't have to hide. Hide anything. How she felt and who she was, he had brought it out in the open and she was only herself and that was enough. She knew that now.

He gently lowered her to the floor and held her softly until the song ended. A butterfly kiss on the nose, a promise of more to come, and she smiled at him.

"I liked the champagne," she said after a minute, and he laughed.

"It tastes good on you," he replied, then said, "I liked the veal...sorry about that."

She giggled. "S'okay...should we cut the cakes?"

Bobby glanced up and saw Ava in the corner talking to Marisa. In front of them were two cakes...beautiful cakes, from where he was standing. "Yes," he told her. "I think that's a great idea."

They approached the cake table, and Marisa looked up at them, smiling. "Hi, you two! Having fun?" she asked as she finished arranging everything on the table.

Vanessa's breath was taken away by the cakes. The bride's cake was beautiful; a four-tier, square cake with a cream frosting decorated with an artistry of edible flowers, topped with the intriguing y-shaped candle they had discussed. She had never dreamed of such a cake when they talked. And Bobby's wasn't so shabby either--two layers of dark chocolate covered in chocolate flakes.

Bobby spoke first, summing it up for both of them. "Marisa, this is so special. You've completely outdone yourself. Thank you."

"Well, you haven't tasted it yet," she joked, but her eyes indicated her pleasure in their excitement. "Hopefully you'll like it when we cut them open."

Ava nodded, looking at Bobby. "Are you all ready? You know it's time for toasts and those things...and don't worry...I've rounded up the appropriate people."

At that, Bobby did begin to look nervous. Who the hell did Ava ask to toast them on his behalf? But Vanessa had smiled and said, "Yes, let's do it...I'm ready for this cake!"

Ava signaled the band to finish up, and after the current song, the band leader made an announcement that it was time for a toast to the couple. Servers ensured everyone had a glass of champagne, including the couple. Bobby leaned over to Vanessa and whispered, "You know you can't down that glass until after both the toasts, right?"

She rolled her eyes. "I had no intention," she told him, and grinned as Eames stepped next to her.

After a moment, somebody passed Alex a microphone. "Well, I guess I get the honor of starting the toasting," she joked, and everyone chuckled. "You know, in our line of work, it's hard to find someone who understands what's involved in the job and wiling to put up with all of it. So when you find someone who gets it, you tend to hold on. You guys found each other as friends, and through you being yourselves, you developed into something beautiful. I couldn't wish for anything more for my partner or my friend. You two are an inspiration for all of us to be honest with ourselves and one another, and to trust and love others even when it's difficult. I wish you the best of a long and happy life together." She held her glass toward them, tilted it, and drank. A murmur of "cheers" followed through the room as well as a sweet smattering of applause.

Bobby was deeply moved by his partner's words. Knowing she had lost a husband, that she knew what that was like, made her statement even more precious to him. When she leaned in to hug him, he whispered, "Thank you," and he saw her nod, smiling, before returning to her seat.

Ava had taken the microphone and he braced himself; one never knew what would happen when Ava began to speak.

"When I first met Bobby, I honestly wondered what in the world my sister was thinking. They seemed so different from one another, from their ages to their lifestyles. And I'm ashamed to admit I gave both of them a hard time about it for quite awhile. I was worried for my sister and mistakenly thought that I could tell what was best for her. Bobby has proven me wrong time and again. In my entire life, I've never seen two people so devoted to one another. I've never seen two people who are so determined to hold each other up, to rejoice in one another's successes and comfort one another in life's difficulties." She turned to Bobby, looking him in the eye. "The way you look at my sister, hold her hand, treat's the definition of love. And I'm so glad you've found it in one another." Ava's voice choked softly as she raised her glass. "May you live a long and happy marriage together, with one another to lean on and rejoice in. God bless you both and your marriage."

Applause, "cheers', and clinking of glasses before long drinks of champagne, and Vanessa found herself encompassed in her sister's arms. "I'm so happy for you," Ava whispered shakily. She moved on to Bobby, who welcomed her in a tight hug and she whispered, "Congratulations" to him before handing him the microphone. He stood there, stunned, for a moment, before she nodded to him, and he understood. He was supposed to say something now. He was supposed to speak of his wife.

"Wow," he began. "I didn't realize I'd have to talk." Laughter, and he grinned, trying to relax, and glanced at Vanessa, who was already trying to keep herself in check. "I guess first I want to say thank you to everyone for's really very humbling, I think for both of us, that so many of you came out for us. I want to thank Ava for all her hard work in putting this night together, and Marisa-" he nodded to the chef behind the table "-she's an amazing cake artist, so if you ever need a cake, go see her." He heard himself nervously tittering, and took a deep breath. "I guess, really, all I have to say is to my wife. Thank you for believing in me, in us. In loving me, and I hope you will always remember that I love you more than I can ever express. Like I always tell you, you're my everything. And I mean that."

Vanessa could see his discomfort and leaned forward to reassure him. She took his hand in hers, squeezing. This was the part she hated the most about receptions. It was nobody's business what they said to one another. He handed her the microphone. "Great," she snarked. "Thanks for the mic." Everyone laughed and he smiled, shy but relieved the pressure was off.

"I guess I'd just echo Bobby's sentiment of thank you for coming and how humbling it is to have so many people here tonight." She took a breath before continuing. "You know, I spent a lot of time over the last year and a half hiding from people, but I could never hide from this guy." She elbowed Bobby, who looked at her and grinned. "I never anticipated this to happen and if you had asked me a year ago if this would be a possibility I would never have believed it. Yet here we are." She turned to him. "I love you and you know you've enriched my life in ways I can't begin to express. I feel like I won the life lottery," she laughed, and he laughed with her. "So let's eat cake!" Amidst loud clapping, Bobby leaned over and kissed her, firmly, then whispered, "Yeah, that's what I meant."

Marisa assisted them in lining up the knife and the cut into the bride's cake, taking the first slice. Marisa helped them move it onto a small plate, and Bobby took a fork, cutting a frosted corner off. He held it up to her, eyes twinkling, and waited until she opened her mouth to slip it in gently. She did the same for him, feeding him a piece of the best cake he'd ever had, and they both followed it with a sip of champagne before he caught her by the chin and kissed her again, soft and sure and no longer shy. Marisa had already moved her people out to start slicing and distributing cake, and Bobby pulled Vanessa out of the way for a moment, then put their plate down. He cupped her face in both hands. "I sucked at that speech," he confessed, stroking her face."

She chuckled softly. "Who the hell cares? All I care about is what you say to me in moments like this." Their laughter suddenly silenced and they felt as though they were alone in this room of hundreds.

"You're the best thing to ever happen to me. You've given my life meaning. That's what I meant to say," he breathed softly to her, pressing his forehead against her own. She smiled, then leaned forward and met his lips. Her hands slipped down from his head to the nape of his neck.

"I love you," she breathed into him, and he continued to hold her close. Shutting the world out around them. After a few moments, she began to chuckle. "You've waited all this time for your cake. You better get it while you can."

He smiled and left her for a moment to grab a piece of the groom's cake, chatting with guests, looking incredibly more comfortable now than he had a few minutes before.

She suddenly realized, standing amidst her friends and loved ones, that she had never seen herself this way before.

She surveyed the room, her friends and coworkers and his friends mingling together, eating and drinking and celebrating this moment in their lives. This moment that she never thought would happen, and yet here she was. For a moment she thought back to his actions in her old living room; the moment in which he reached down to her broken body, her broken soul, wiping her face and assuring her that she would be okay. Neither of them could have ever anticipated the truth in those words--that she would be better than okay. She would be complete, and so would he. Somehow, giving to each other gave them the courage to give to themselves. To trust and to love and to stop settling for less than what they wanted. She saw herself as a whole person, capable and caring and worthwhile. She had never seen that before this past year. He was worth it all, and for the first time in her life, she realized she was too.

He approached her with the chocolate cake, giving her a small bite. "Good, huh?" he asked, smiling at her.

"Yeah," she said, grinning at him, then wiping a small crumb from the corner of his mouth. "It's all good."

She had never seen herself that way before. And now she did.