The evening came to an end with everyone gathered around June's living room as the guest of honor unwrapped some birthday gifts. As Neal had predicted, June absolutely loved the pin Sara had gotten for her and she gave the young woman a warm, sincere hug as she thanked her.
Throughout the course of the evening, June had begun to catch glimpses of Neal's Sara Ellis, the Sara Ellis who was smart, funny, witty and charming. Although she often came across as aloof and cold, Neal knew better; he knew Sara at her most vulnerable - the faraway look in her eyes when she spoke of her sister's disappearance, the pain and sadness evident when she talked about the loss of her parents, the look of utter ecstasy when they were in bed together and she finally let go of all her insecurities. And the more he got to know Sara, the more intrigued he was, her presence becoming more and more important in his life. Although Neal craved control, control over others' reactions and behaviors, control over his own emotions, where Sara was concerned, he seemed to be fighting a losing battle as the lovely Ms Ellis continued to worm her way into his heart.
They sat on the couch, Sara tucked into his side, Neal feeling extremely mellow from the wine he'd had as well as the easy jazz album June had chosen to close out the evening with. Peter and Elizabeth sat nearby, equally cozy, no one seemingly in any hurry to bring the wonderful evening to a close. By midnight, Peter started to make some noise about having to get up early to attack his 'honey do' list and the Burkes stood to leave. Neal gave Sara a questioning look, asking her silently if she was ready to call it a night and Sara stood to thank their hostess for her generosity and wish her a good night.
Neal and Sara slowly made their way up the stairs, hands clasped and as they came to the second floor landing, Sara tugged on Neal's hand, urging him to turn towards her.
'What?' Neal asked softly as he took in the look on her face so calm and serene.
'I just...' she began as she reached out and pulled him to her, kissing him gently yet purposefully and letting her touch linger on his face for a moment.
Neal smiled tenderly as he spoke: 'What's the matter, Repo?'
'Nothing. I just don't remember feeling this happy in a long time' she responded as she continued gazing at him.
Neal cocked his head in the direction of the next flight of stairs: 'Ready?' he asked.
They continued until they reached Neal's apartment and once there, they stopped for a moment in front of the door almost as if he were dropping her off after a date, both of them aware that, on the other side of the door, the emotional closeness they'd been feeling all evening would escalate into physical intimacy.
They stepped in, the room dark except for the moon shining through the skylight and Neal turned to face Sara, slipping his arms around her waist and pulling her in, their eyes locked and finally, he let out a long shivering breath and his lips found hers as he drew her closer. The moment was so intimate and so tender; Neal felt himself totally dissolve in her embrace and he thought once again about what Sara's presence in his life meant to him.
He finally pulled away, gazing at her and tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
'You're so beautiful' he said simply, letting the words float in the air.
Her response, her smile, so simple and sweet, yet so full of yearning, triggered something totally unexpected in Neal.
'I love you' he said spontaneously, surprising even himself as the words spilled from his lips. As startled as he was at the words he'd just spoken, he was even more taken aback by the overwhelming feeling which had lead him to that admission. The last time he had made such a declaration was more than ten years before, to Kate – an innocent and sweet love.
What he was feeling now was completely different; he felt totally vulnerable and exposed as if he no longer had command over his emotions and he was totally overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings which had caused him to speak so impulsively. As disconcerting as the loss of control was, it was somehow liberating and he momentarily let the warm feeling invade him, bringing with it a sense of comfort and wellbeing.
Sara stared up at him, a look of gentle surprise on her face. She could sense his vulnerability and she knew that he had just shared an intensely private part of himself without even giving his brain time to censor what he was feeling. The Neal she knew was in total command of his emotions and more so, he was always in control of whether or not he chose to reveal them. This Neal stood totally exposed before her, sharing an emotion so deep that it left him unguarded and defenceless, something she had never seen before.
'Neal...' she said simply as she let his words wash over her.
He brought a finger to her mouth, silencing her, suddenly terrified that the spell might be broken, that somehow the feelings he'd just shared with her weren't mutual and he kissed her again, this time with intent – the intent to show her how he felt rather than telling her.
They made their way over to the bed and he sat on the edge, drawing her closer, Sara totally mesmerized by the look of pure intensity in his clear blue eyes. She straddled him, her dress riding up her thighs and he pulled her in, reaching behind as he began to unzip her. He gently pulled the dress off her shoulders, the garment lying at her waist and he reached for the cup of her bra, freeing one of her breasts and bringing it hungrily to his mouth. Sara moaned in appreciation, her head falling back. She was feeling slightly dizzy from the wine and she faltered for a moment as Neal steadied her, finally lying her on the bed and removing the dress, pulling it down over her hips as he continued to stare into her eyes.
He stood and walked over to the couch, carefully setting down the garment and Sara giggled softly at the sight of him being so careful with what he knew was an expensive dress. He returned the smile and made his way back, towering over the bed and looking down broodingly at her, her hair mussed and her bra barely hanging on her small frame. He continued to stare, as he slowly removed his tie, his shirt and as he reached for his belt, Sara sat up and pushed his hand away, reaching for the belt buckle and unclasping it as he stood there, slightly unsteady. Within seconds, he had stepped out of his pants, standing there in his boxers, eyes still riveted on her as if he was afraid she might disappear. At that moment, he wanted her more than he'd ever wanted anyone or anything in his life, and once again, despite that uneasy realization, he chose to give in to the feeling and he lay down gently on top of her, bringing his arms around her back and burying his face in the crook of her neck. He took in the smell of Sara, that wonderful mix of soap and perfume that drove him crazy whenever she innocently moved past him when they were out together, or when she stood close to him as they prepared dinner in his apartment, or heaven forbid in the White Collar offices when she was helping on a case; the scent left him totally boneless and pathetic and he began to breathe her in, taking in all that her scent represented.
Sara shuddered as she felt his breath on her neck; Neal had just told her he loved her and she was still reeling from his admission. She pulled his face up to look into his eyes – his eyes never could lie – and she suddenly pushed him off of her, needing desperately to gain some control of the situation. Neal fell backwards landing on his back, totally relaxed as Sara swung her left leg over to straddle him and she urgently removed Neal's boxers, leaving him totally naked and vulnerable, except for the ever present anklet and that beautiful smile.
He kept his gaze on Sara, obviously enjoying her forcefulness and he moved his hands to cup her breasts through her lace bra, the black one, his favorite one. Sara began to move against him, feeling him continue to swell under her and he responded by mimicking her rhythm, his eyes never leaving hers. Neal reached for her breasts, freeing them from the bra and throwing the garment across the room, he pulled her in to his more than eager mouth. She could feel herself start to lose control and Neal moaned at the sight of her so eagerly pressed up against him; he wanted the moment to last and he took in a deep breath to slow himself down.
Sara's movements were becoming more erratic, the noises emanating from her lips louder and more insistent and Neal moved his hand down her stomach, to the edge of her panties, lingering there as she began to protest, arching her back and urging him to touch her – she was almost there and she needed his touch to push her over the edge. Smiling naughtily, he finally let his hand slip into her panties and move down between her legs; instantly Sara responded with a loud moan, increasing the speed with which she'd been rutting up against him and Neal watched with fascination as her face became tense, her eyes closing, her neck stretched out, her whole body convulsing as she finally came with a loud scream.
'Neal! Neal!' she screamed as she finally let go, unable to hold back.
'Come for me, Sara' said Neal, his voice hoarse, as he continued to move his hand against her, Sara squeezing his hand between her thighs, holding on to the very end.
Neal loved Sara like this; totally guileless, unable to disguise the ecstasy as her body gave in to the overwhelming sensation of pleasure, relinquishing all control. In that, they were so alike, both of them needing to be invincible, in control, in charge. But the more time he spent with this woman, the more he let his guard down and surprisingly the more pleasure he took. He had just told her he loved her and watching her now he realized that he did, indeed, love her despite (and a little because of) all her quirks and imperfections, the way she dismissed him when he became maudlin, the brisk sound of her heels as she walked, the sound of her voice, the way her eyes closed in rapture when she tasted his risotto, the feel of her silky skin. He loved it all and he wanted it all.
Neal pulled her in to him, Sara still shuddering and he flipped her onto her back, his need for release growing ever stronger. He pulled insistently at her panties, hearing Sara protest at the roughness – not because of what it was doing to her, which she was clearly enjoying but because those were expensive panties, dammit. He laughed softly at her rebuke and she opened her legs to welcome him, Neal positioning himself, determined to have her right there and then. She felt him thrust in forcefully and she let out a shriek, suddenly coming to her senses.
'Neal!' she screamed.
'What?' he answered, flustered as he momentarily pulled out.
'Condom!' she reminded him, adamant.
'What?' said Neal, temporarily returning to his senses and laughing nervously at his temporary lapse of judgement.
He'd never forgotten about protection before – and he reached into the bedside table, impatiently moving things out of the way as he reached for the box which lay there. He made quick work of the wrapper, his hands slightly shaking and pulled out the prophylactic as he let out an impatient moan.
'Shit!' he said as his nail caught, slightly tearing the top edge of the condom.
'What's the matter?' asked Sara as she looked down at his hands.
'It's nothing' he muttered as he completed the task and hastily returned to his previous position, Sara more than happy to invite him to settle in between her outstretched limbs.
Neal hadn't missed a beat and returned to business, settling in with a long sigh of pleasure, beginning to move against Sara, as his breathing grew ragged and uneven. He rocked into her slowly at first, the pace growing swifter as he began to pant, short gasps emanating from his open mouth, his eyes still on Sara. She loved the sound of Neal's breathing as he began to lose control, loved how his even breathing morphed into quivering breaths followed by erratic, shallow gasps and ending with a loud groan of total abandonment as he finally climaxed.
Neal usually had amazing staying power but whether it was due to his slight intoxication or the intense emotions of the night, he succumbed within moments, giving in as he let his body fall on Sara, arms reaching to hold her tight against him as his orgasm came to an end.
They lay there, with Sara clutching him to her with her long, lean legs urging him to stay there as long as possible. Inevitably, he began to slip out and she reluctantly let him fall back next to her as he opened his arms to welcome her.
'You okay?' he asked.
'Mmm' she murmured as she settled into his side. 'More than okay.'
Neal sat up momentarily to dispose of the condom before settling into their usual post coital cuddle.
'Oops' he mumbled at the sight of the condom plastered to his body without the usual accumulation in its tip, realizing they had just had a potentially dangerous malfunction.
'What?' asked Sara as she sat up and took a look for herself.
'It's fine' said Neal as he removed the condom and disposed of it. 'Anyway, you told me you started back on the pill, right?' he asked as they lay there, his breathing slowly returning to normal.
'I did but it was only a couple of weeks ago. You've got to give it a full cycle to be sure' Sara explained with a frown.
'Oh' said Neal, at a loss for words.
They curled up, both of them silent. It had been a very emotional night and they were both exhausted. Neal pulled Sara in close to him, her leg swung up against his and he began to relax.
'Thanks for tonight' she said after a few moments of silence.
'You did great! I can see that June is starting to come around' added Neal as he brushed the top of her head with his lips.
'Oh, yeah?' asked Sara.
'Yeah, she's starting to see what a wonderful, smart, funny, sexy woman you are' he said punctuating each word with a kiss against Sara's forehead and setting off a flurry of giggles.
After a moment of quiet, Neal spoke.
'You staying the night?' he asked trying not to let her hear the desperation in his voice. Sara didn't always stay over but tonight, in particular, he didn't want to let go of her or the way he was feeling.
'Yeah' she said simply, as she settled in.
'Good' he answered simply. 'I love waking up with you in my arms.'
They grew quiet, both of them beginning to nod off. Sara could hear Neal's breathing slowing and evening out. 'Neal?' she said quietly.
'Mmm' he answered, already half asleep.
'I love you' she whispered, finally admitting it to him and to herself.
'I love you too Sara' answered Neal as he pulled her in tightly against him.
And this time, when the words were spoken, they were slow and deliberate – not a surprise.
The real surprise would come later, about six weeks later.