So this is a one-shot that I came up with... so I sat down and wrote it... Thanks for my wonderful friend, Eastendersfan444, for reading and editing this. I taunted her a little with this story as I wouldn't let her read it until I'd written it all... she wasn't too happy with me, I can tell you... but she loved it once she'd read it, so hopefully you will too.
Anyway, no explanations... no introductions... you'll just have to read it to find out what's going on... Enjoy!
Lauren stood outside the building, hugging her coat around her body. When she'd got up this morning, this was not how she'd anticipated spending her time. That all changed when she got a text message from someone she'd not expected to hear from again and then she'd dropped everything and here she was. There were several other people stood with her and she looked around at them all, wondering, if like her, they were feeling a little overwhelmed. The gate was opened a few moments later and Lauren pushed aside the confusing emotions and slowly shuffled forward as her and the rest of the others entered the building.
It took some time before she was allowed into the room, several checks and procedures she had to go through. This was a good and a bad thing, the good being she could mentally try and prepare herself for who she was about to see. The bad being she got more and more apprehensive about facing him. This was different from when she'd gone to see her father. Very different. And they were both different people from the last time they'd seen each other. There was a lot he didn't know.
Finally it was time and again, another queue formed, Lauren somewhere near the back as she subconsciously delayed seeing him. Her eyes scanned the room as she eventually entered the room, the familiarity of it oddly comforting despite its harshness. Her eyes stopped as they locked on his face and she could see the shock on his. Clearly he hadn't been expecting her. There was a part of Lauren that was surprised he'd even come to meet his visitor after what she'd been told. She could hear her heart beating she moved further into the room and she couldn't tear her eyes away from his, her feelings for him returning instantly, as if they'd never left… which she was pretty sure, if she was being honest with herself, was reality.
All too quickly, and yet not quick enough for either of them, she reached him and slid into the seat opposite him, "Hi…" she said softly. He didn't say anything in response. "This was pretty much the last place I expected to find you…" she said, hoping he'd say something soon.
"What are you doing here?" He said, his voice gruff and a little harsh.
"I got a text… it told me you were here…" Lauren explained. Her eyes ran over his face, seeing strain in and around his eyes. "What the hell happened, Joe…" she asked him.
He stared at her, "Life, Lauren…" he muttered, a bitter tone edging into his voice.
The way he spoke to her annoyed her and she reacted, leaning towards him. "Joseph Branning…" she hissed, "Don't be like that with me… Do you have any idea what it feels like to see you in here…? This is just about the last place I ever thought I would see you of all people… How the hell have you ended up in prison, Joey…? How?" She stared at him intensely as silence lingered in the air between them.
Joey sighed, looking down at his hands as they were clutched on the table in front of him, "Would you believe me if I said I didn't do anything? That I'm innocent?" he said.
"You know I would… You may like to project the hard man image, Joey… but you aren't your father… you aren't a criminal…"
"My record would say otherwise…" he muttered.
"So what happened?" she asked.
"I'm not completely sure…" he admitted, "After Al got released from prison we'd all settled back to life together… the three of us… then one of Derek's 'friends' appeared at the door one day. He wanted money and when I told him we didn't have any, things took a bit of a nasty turn. He said Derek owed him money… a lot of it… and now he was dead, we had to pay him instead."
"Why didn't you just tell the police?" Lauren asked him softly.
"He told me what would happen if I did…" he murmured, lifting his eyes to look at her and she saw the fear in them. "I told him we didn't have it… and he said he didn't care… if we couldn't pay up, he would find another way for us to pay him back…" Lauren reached across the table, her hand resting of top of both of his. Her touch had an immediate impact, Joey lowered his head, resting his forehead on their hands. "He left the house and mum and Alice both thought it was over… but I knew he'd be back…"
"What did you have to do?" Lauren asked him softly.
"It was a week later… he phoned… told me there was a job he needed help with…" Joey looked up at her face, "I didn't have a choice, babe… I didn't… he said I had to choose… help him… or say goodbye to the people I care about…"
"Your mum and Alice…" Lauren murmured.
Joey nodded, "I had no choice… I had to help him… I had to… So I went on the job with him… and a few other guys… I was stupid… I didn't know what I was doing…" He chuckled mirthlessly, "I fell into their trap… Derek would've been ashamed of me… all those years as his son and I didn't pick up anything from him… They had me exactly where they wanted me… I was the fall guy… I just didn't know it…"
"What happened?" she whispered, squeezing his hands.
"The job went wrong… or maybe it went exactly how they planned it, I don't know…" He sighed, "It was supposed to be an easy job… nobody would get hurt…"
"Someone got hurt?" she said and he nodded. "How bad?"
"It could've been worse… but it shouldn't have happened…" he said, "One of the guys had a gun… I don't know if it was loaded… he held it to a woman's head… told her to hand over the money…"
"Where were you?"
"A post office…" Joey said. "The gun shocked me… I hadn't expected it at all… they never said there would be guns…" He let out a huff of breath, "You must think I'm an idiot…"
"No, you're a good guy… who was in the wrong place at the wrong time…" Lauren said, "I know you, Joey… I know you…" she whispered, staring into his eyes intently. There was a moment of silence between them until she eventually spoke again. "So what happened?"
"The woman wouldn't give over the money… so he struck her on the head with the gun and she crumpled to the floor…" He closed his eyes, his breath quickening slightly. "They forced their way behind the counter and began to shove the money into bags… I went to see how the woman was… I wanted to make sure she was okay… Her head was bleeding… badly so I pulled off my shirt and held it to her head. They left me there… didn't even try to get me to leave with them…"
"And the police turned up…?" Lauren finished for him.
"Yeah… I'm not sure who called them… it was an anonymous tip… probably them…"
"How was the woman?" Lauren asked him quietly.
"She was taken to hospital… She's was in a coma for several months and when she woke up she couldn't remember anything about what happened… I was charged with ABH… and theft…"
"It doesn't make sense… you didn't have the money with you when they got there… and why would you stay with her to make sure she was okay if you'd hurt her in the first place…?"
"Yeah well, they didn't have anyone else to charge, did they? And when they found out who I was… They assumed that the apple didn't fall very far from the tree… so they charged me… The case was over before she woke up…"
"Wasn't there any witnesses? No CCTV?"
"There were security cameras inside the post office but they were broken when we first went inside… they didn't see anything… so they found me on the scene and charged me with everything…"
"How long?" Lauren asked him softly.
"It's already been a year… I have about nine more months to go… then I'm out… with a tag for another year…"
"And you're keeping yourself out of trouble in here?" she murmured.
"As best I can…" he told her. A buzzer rang and Lauren saw Joey tensing. "You've got to go…" he told her.
"Do you want me to come and see you again?" she asked.
"Do you want to?" he asked and she couldn't miss the hope in his eyes. She smiled at him. He pulled one hand from hers, lifting it and pushing her hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. In that moment Lauren knew why she'd left her hair down that morning. It may have been a subconscious decision but it was a decision nonetheless. And it told her everything she needed to know.
"Then I guess I'll be seeing you soon…" she said softly, pressing her cheek into his hand, closing her eyes as she breathed him in. She looked around the room, glancing at some of the other tables. She saw several other couples saying goodbye to each other. "Can I get a hug?" she whispered.
Joey grinned, "I thought you'd never ask…" he breathed. They both stood and then his arms were around her, holding her tightly against his body. "I've missed you…" he breathed into her ear.
"Missed you too… I didn't realise how much until I came here today…" she admitted to him. People began to move around them and they reluctantly pulled apart. Lauren looked up at Joey as he stood before her, "I'll come and see you again…" she whispered.
"I'm already looking forward to it…" he murmured, his hand pushing her hair back from her face again in his trademark move.
Lauren rose on her tiptoes, following her instincts and pressing her mouth against his, taking him a little by surprise because she felt him freeze. She was about to pull away from him when she felt him relax and start to kiss her back, both of them deepening it naturally. She moaned into his mouth as his tongue brushed against hers.
"Time to go, Branning…"
They pulled apart, both focused on each other. "Can you do me a favour, next time?" Lauren whispered.
"Shave…" she said, smirking at him. Her hand cupped his beard covered jaw, her thumb brushing over his cheek.
"You don't like the beard?" he said.
"Not so much… you look like you could audition for ZZ Top, Joe… and it ages you…"
"Okay." He agreed. "See you soon?"
"Next week? If I can get another visiting order…" Lauren said.
"I don't know, babe… I think you can only visit in a couple of weeks… two visitors every four weeks…" he explained.
"Oh… well, another two weeks then…" she said. She smiled at him brightly, "Don't go anywhere…" He nodded but she could see sadness in his eyes. With a heavy heart she backed away from him, staring at him for as long as she could before turning and leaving the visiting room. It was going to be a long two weeks.
It was easier the second time she went to see him. She was more familiar with the process this time and there was a growing sense of anticipation within her as she waited for them to open the door. She was nearer the front of the queue this time and as soon as she entered the room she smiled when she saw him waiting expectantly for her. He stood and hugged her once she was close enough and Lauren relished every moment she was wrapped in his arms.
They sat at the table, their hands clenching the others as they faced one another. "It's seemed such a long time since I was last here…" Lauren breathed. "I've missed you…"
"Missed you too…" he said, his thumb brushing the back of her hand gently. "Pretty sure it's felt longer for me though…"
Lauren looked at his face, her eyes running over it, checking to see how he really was, "You look better this time…"
"I shaved…" he told her, grinning.
"You look much better…" she reassured him, "I like it…"
"You look pretty good too, babe… but then you always did, didn't you?"
"Now you're lying…" Lauren said, "I looked like death when I collapsed and got taken to hospital… and I know I looked rough when I woke up with a hangover…"
"Well, you look great now… fantastic in fact… the months have been kind to you…" Lauren bit her lip, lowering her head as her cheeks flushed red and she squeezed his hands, giving him her thanks for his nice words. "So what have you been up to since you were last here?" he asked her.
"We don't need to talk about me… how are things for you in here?"
"I'd rather talk about you…"
Lauren lowered her head, closing her eyes, "I don't want to talk about that, Joe… it's not fair…"
"Why's it not fair?"
"Because you're stuck in here…" she said, tears audible in her voice, "I don't want to talk about my life when I'm out there… and you're here…"
"Nothing happens here…" he told her, "Every day is pretty much the same routine… I get up… shower… have breakfast… I spend the morning in the kitchen…"
"What do you do?" she asked.
"Clean and chop vegetables… by the tonne…" he said.
"When you get out of here, you're definitely cooking me a meal…"
Joey smirked at her, loving the sound of what she'd just said. "It might have to be a vegetarian dish… unless I'm able to get the chance to move to another section in the kitchen…"
"Maybe you could work on that then…" Lauren teased him. "What else?"
"I serve the food and then get lunch…" he told her. "The afternoons I spend at the library… I'm studying…"
"You are?" Lauren said in surprise, "What are you studying?"
"I took an A-level in marketing last month… I get the results next week…" he said.
"That's amazing, Joe…" she said, "I'm proud of you…"
"If I pass, I was thinking about starting a marketing degree…" he murmured.
"Let me know how you do when you get your result…?"
"Of course, I'll call you as soon as I get them… I think I have enough phone credits left…"
"I'll bring some in for you next time I come…" Lauren said and Joey smiled brightly at her.
"What made you come and see me in the first place?" he asked her suddenly.
"I got a text from Alice… I was surprised she was contacting me at first… then I read it and I was shocked. She said you were in prison… that you weren't doing that well and I quickly decided I wanted to come and see you… I called her and got the details I needed and then contacted here to see if I could get in to see you… Fortunately I was able to… and here we are…" she explained.
"I owe Alice a big thank you…"
"I was surprised I was on your visitors list… Alice said you'd removed her and your mum…" Lauren broached gently.
"I did…" he admitted, "They both came to see me a couple of times… but it was too painful to see them… mum got really upset each time she left…"
"But for me…?"
"I could never stop you from coming to see me… it hurt when you left last time… but at the same time, I was looking forward to seeing you again…"
"I was looking forward to seeing you too…" Lauren said, smiling at him. "I wish we could see each other more often…" she told him.
"Actually, that might be possible… I spoke to the educational assistant and she said she'd spoken to the governor and told him about how well I'd been doing with my studies… I essentially have done a two year course in eight months."
"What does that mean…?" Lauren asked, slightly confused as to where the conversation was heading.
"She's said that she's recommended I receive a reward for my hard effort and depending on what the governor thinks, I could be able to get more frequent visits…"
"Really?" she said, unable to hide the grin and the hope from her face.
He nodded, "I hope so…"
"So I could see you sooner?" She whispered, squeezing his hands.
"I fucking hope so, babe… Seeing you is pretty much the only thing that I've got to look forward to right now…" He lifted her hands and pressed his lips against the back of her hands over and over, dotting kisses over them. "I made a mistake when I left Walford…"
"What?" she asked.
"Leaving you behind…" he whispered, glancing up at her face.
Lauren couldn't say anything and she wasn't sure what he was expecting her to say. She was lucky in that moment because the bell rang signalling the end of her visit. "I've got to go…" she whispered, biting her lip when she saw a flash of disappointment mar his face before he pushed the emotion away. "Let me know when I can come and see you again…" she told him, squeezing his hands tightly.
"I will…" he breathed. "I'll call you when I find out how I did…"
"You still have my mobile number?" she asked.
Joey grinned, "As if I would forget…" he murmured. He leant forward, kissing her softly, pulling a hand free and brushing it into her hair as he worshipped her mouth. "God, I love you…" he told her as they pulled apart. He swept a thumb across her cheek as a tear rolled down her face, wiping it away. "I'd better go…" he said. He stood, pressing his mouth firmly against hers again as he towered over her. Both of his hands cupped her head as he stood upright again but he dipped and kissed her on the forehead. He eventually moved away from the table and she watched him walk away from her.
"Joe…" she called after him. He turned, frowning as he looked at her in concern. "I love you too…" she told him, biting her lip once the words broke free. A smile lit up his face and she relaxed, knowing she'd said the right thing. It was what he needed to hear… and what she needed to say.
The third visit was just over a week later. Joey had been told he could have three visits every month now, after he'd done so well with his studies. He was also told that if he continued to work as hard and if the governor was told again about him, he could be up for additional privileges. Joey had also called her three days earlier and had told her his result. He had done much better than he'd expected. He'd told her the teaching assistant was also impressed. He'd got an A and was going to look into doing a marketing degree through the Open University, planning to start now and then continue it once he was released from prison.
Lauren sat in the waiting room once more, a little more frazzled this time than in the previous visit and she wasn't sure how the next hour or so was going to go. She was one of the last in the queue this time and the room was already quite full when she slipped through the door. She couldn't read his face as she approached the table, sitting on the chair opposite him. "I couldn't find a babysitter…" she explained, her arm tightening around Louie as he sat quietly on her lap.
"You never told me…" he said, staring at her son intently, his face still unreadable.
Lauren shrugged, "There never seemed a right time…"
"How old is he?" Joey asked.
"Nearly a year old…" Lauren said, kissing the top of Louie's head.
"So… you and Peter…?" Joey guessed. Lauren stared at him. She'd never mentioned her relationship with Lucy's brother before. "I heard Ian and Jane in the background when I called you the other day…" He explained, "I didn't realise at the time… but putting two and two together… it makes sense…" He stared at her, "So was everything you said to me a lie?"
"No, Joey… never…" she said quickly. She slid a hand across the table, covering one of his. "Peter is Louie's son… but we're not together anymore…" she murmured, her thumb stroking the side of his hand. "Not long after I found out I was pregnant, we left the square… the country… We went to stay in New Zealand with Peter's elder brother, Steven. Things between us were good at first… but eventually the loss of Lucy and everything that had happened killed our relationship… He left me… left us…" Lauren said.
"He left you to raise his son on your own?"
"Sort of… He never really bonded with Louie… It didn't help that he wasn't there when Louie was born…"
"How come?" Joey said and Lauren could see she was just confusing matters more.
"I came back over here for dad's trial… I wasn't due for a while and I was only supposed to be here for a few days… but this one decided to come a bit earlier than we expected… and Peter would've never got over here in time… Abs, Jane and Auntie Carol were with me…" she told him, "It was just about the scariest thing I've ever gone through… even with them there… I was so frightened…" She was silent for a couple of minutes and Joey watched her carefully, giving her some time to gather herself together. "When he was a few weeks old I took him over there… but I knew… I could tell that he didn't feel the same way about our son… He left us when Louie was four months old…"
"I always knew he was an idiot…"
"He's still the father of my son, Joey…" Lauren said, a hint of anger in her voice.
Joey looked down, "You're right… I'm sorry…" he told her.
"After he left us, Steven helped me… In many ways he's the father Louie didn't have in Peter…" she said softly.
Joey watched her carefully and he picked up on it, "Just a father to Louie?" he asked. Lauren bit her lip as she shook her head. "Oh…"
"Until a few weeks ago I never doubted my relationship with him… he was everything I thought I wanted…"
"A few weeks ago?"
"Until I came here and saw you…" she whispered. "Then I saw you… and even with that ugly beard I felt more for you than I ever have for him… all those feelings I'd thought were gone returned…"
"So what now?" he asked.
"I don't know…" she breathed. "I guess that's up to you…"
"It's not just up to me… you have a son to think about now…"
"And if I was to be with you…" Lauren said, not able to look at him as she broached the subject, "Would you be okay with raising another man's son? Raising Peter's son?"
Joey knew he was on the verge of losing her if he said the wrong thing but at the same time he didn't want to lie to her and say what she wanted to hear just because he wanted to be with her. "Can I hold him?" he asked, clearly surprising her by the expression on her face.
"Are you sure?"
"Won't know until I try…" he said.
Lauren glanced at her baby boy, "Do you want to go and see your Uncle Joey, Louie?" she asked him. He grinned up at her face, shoving his fist in his mouth. She chuckled, "I'll take that as a yes…" she said. She lifted him off her lap and held him out towards Joey, who took the baby from her, sitting him on the edge of the table in front of him.
"He looks like you…" he said. "Definitely a Branning…"
"He's got my stubbornness too…" Lauren admitted. "Which I don't mind that much until he wakes me up in the middle of the night screaming… Just because he can…" Joey smiled at her as she spoke.
"I said you were Branning… and that just goes to prove it, Louie…" Joey murmured to the small boy. Louie promptly pulled his fist from his mouth and smacked it against Joey's jaw, both the adults laughing at what he'd done.
"Sorry about that… one of the many dangers of a small child…" she told him.
"It's fine… he's just sizing me up… ain't you, mate…?" Joey said, smiling at the boy. "Why Louie?" he asked.
"After Peter's great grandma… Lou Beale…" Lauren explained. "She used to live on the square… many, many years ago… She knew Grandma Dot…" Louie held out his arms towards Joey and he lifted him off the table, holding him against his chest. "You look pretty comfortable…" Lauren said, smiling as she saw the two men in her life together.
"It's not as awkward as I thought it would be…" he admitted. He glanced up at Lauren, "So you and Steven…?" he said softly.
"It'll be difficult… Ian and Jane are still Louie's family… and so is Steven… I can't mess it all up with him… with them…"
"You're staying with them?" Joey asked softly, jostling Louie slightly in his arms when he started to squirm, "Hey, little man… why are you fussing?" he said, the hand not holding him brushing over Louie's chest, causing the little boy to stop and stare up at Joey, a stunned expression on his face. Lauren giggled as she watched the two of them interact.
"I'm staying with them… I didn't really have a great deal of other options…" Lauren explained.
"Where's Abs living?"
"With Grandma Dot… but I didn't want to impose on her because Louie doesn't always sleep through and I'd feel guilty if Dot started losing sleep because of us…"
"I get that…"
"And then Steven made up with his dad and Jane… after Jane ended up in hospital…"
"What the…" he didn't say anymore, glancing down at Louie instead of finishing his sentence.
"I forgot… you've been in here, haven't you…" Lauren said. "It was Bobby who killed Lucy… and just before he was arrested he attacked Jane with a hockey stick…"
"Is she okay?" he asked in concern, "Bobby? Really?"
"She's getting there… she's in a wheelchair right now but she's doing physio and slowly getting her movement back…" Lauren smiled at him, "And yes, Bobby… Peter and the others say he didn't mean to do it… but he still did it… and Jane covered it up…"
"Wow… I've really missed a lot since I left Walford… I wish I'd been there to see you when you were pregnant… I bet you looked stunning…"
Lauren blushed at his words, "Joey…" she murmured.
"I'm serious, babe… of course, I'd have preferred slightly different circumstances…" he told her, staring at Louie but more than aware that her mouth had just dropped open. The buzzer rang throughout the room and Joey sighed. He didn't want them to leave. "I'm sorry, little guy… looks like you've got to go back to your mummy…" he said softly, "but maybe we can convince her to bring you back with her sometimes… so we can get to know each other more… Would you like that?" he asked. Louie giggled, waving an arm around. Joey looked up at Lauren, "I'm going to assume he likes that idea…"
Lauren smiled, "I'll try my best… and I'll think about everything you've said, Joey… I promise… but you were right earlier… I do need to take Louie into account… and I don't want him to lose contact with Peter's side of the family…"
"I understand…" Joey said, passing Louie back across the table. Lauren took him in her arms, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "You'd better go, babe…" Joey said. Lauren stood and Joey did too, moving around the table to stand next to them. His hand brushed the crown of Louie's head as his other arm wound around Lauren's waist, pulling her close so he could kiss her. "I love you…" he breathed against her mouth.
"I know, Joe… I know…" Lauren whispered.
Joey stared at her, understanding the difficult position the last few visits had put her in. "Will I see you soon?" he asked.
"Of course you will…" Lauren replied quickly. She rose on her tiptoes, kissing him softly. "I'll arrange another visit as soon as I get home, okay?"
Lauren smiled at him, "Oh and I brought a little something in for you… to congratulate you on your exam result…"
"You didn't have to do that…"
"I wanted to and I thought it deserved some sort of celebration." Lauren said, "The guard said you would get it later today… once they've checked it over…"
"Thanks, babe." Joey said.
Over the next few months Lauren visited Joey as often as she could. She was his only visitor and as much as she wanted to see him, she knew he needed to see her even more. Once a week, at a pre-arranged time he would call her using one of the phone-cards she would get him and he would use all his credit, as they chatted, laughed and whispered softly to each other.
Lauren was largely able to leave the square without anyone questioning her. She knew Steven was aware of her leaving but he never mentioned it to her so she didn't either. A couple of times Lauren took Louie with her, although it became more difficult once he was crawling and then walking as he would grow restless when forced to sit on her lap for the duration of the visit.
Joey's studies were going well and he'd been rewarded just before Christmas with another extra visit. Lauren took a heavy bag with her this time and inside was presents for Joey. She'd checked on her previous visit and had been told she could bring things in for him, as long as they didn't breach the rules of items she wasn't allowed to take in which she'd made sure they hadn't. She'd spoken to Alice and had met up with her, getting some small presents from her and Joey's mum that she was going to take in as well.
Joey had contacted his mum a few weeks earlier and things were starting to improve between them again but Lauren was sure his mum and sister wouldn't be visiting Joey anytime soon. He'd made that quite clear to them.
Lauren gathered up the things she was taking, pausing when she heard a creak on the stairs. She shut the bag she was taking and picked it up. The door to the bedroom opened and Steven stood in the door. "Do you need a hand?"
"No, I'm fine…" Lauren said, beginning another awkward conversation with the man before her. She wasn't sure what was happening with them at the moment… there were a lot of unanswered questions between them and she wasn't sure she was going to like the answers. "Was there something you needed?" she asked him.
"Yes… do you have time to talk… or are you on your way out?" he asked, walking further into the room, shutting the door behind him.
"I have a few minutes…" Lauren said.
"I need to speak to you about something…" Steven said and Lauren looked at him, seeing guilt in his eyes.
Joey frowned when he saw Lauren walking into the room. He was instantly concerned because he could see she was upset. She sat at the table in front of him and he reached across, covering her hands with his. "You okay?" he asked softly. She shook her head. "You wanna talk about it?"
"I need a few minutes… okay?" she whispered.
"Of course…" he was silent for a moment but then started to fill her in on things from his life while she tried to compose herself, "I got my assignment back from my tutor…" Joey said. "He was really pleased with it… gave me a good grade too…"
Lauren smiled, "Steven dumped me…" she said softly.
"What?" Joey said, surprised by what she'd said. He stared at her, "Are you upset?" he asked.
"I don't know, Joey… I just don't know…" she admitted. "More shocked, I think… and I know I shouldn't be… but I'm hurt…"
Lauren nodded. "He's been seeing someone else…" she told him, "and I know I've been seeing you… but I can't lie… it hurts…"
"Do you know who it was?" Joey asked. "She can't be anywhere near as nice as you, babe…"
"She isn't…" Lauren said bitterly. "It's not a girl… its Johnny… Carter… youngest son of the Vic landlord… They came to the square after you left…"
"He's done a Ben?" Joey said and Lauren had to smile.
"Seems to run in the family…" Lauren said, bitterness in her voice this time.
"How long has it been going on?" Joey asked.
"Just a few days… but he wants to be with him… he prefers him to me…"
"Those Beale boys are all idiots…" Joey stated, "One's a murderer… one's decided he's gay… and the other abandoned the two best things in his life…"
"It must be me…" Lauren whispered.
"It's not, babe… you're the best person I know… and finishing things with you is the only regret I have in my life…"
"The only one?" Lauren breathed. "What about ending up in here?"
Joey chuckled, "It may sound stupid… but being in here… it's not too bad… yes, there are some things I miss… and at least one thing I'd like to be able to do that I can't do while I'm in here… but there are good things too… I'm doing my degree… improving myself so that when I get out of here, I have a chance of doing something better with my life… well, I hope so anyway…"
"You'll do great, Joey." Lauren breathed, turning her hand beneath his and lacing their fingers together.
"Assuming I can get a job with my record…"
"Didn't you have a meeting with solicitor?" Lauren asked him. He nodded but said no more. "How did it go?"
"I showed him the letter I got… but he's not too sure it'll be any good…" Joey had received a letter from the woman he'd been imprisoned for attacking. She'd told him that she was starting to get her memories back from that day… and she could remember that it wasn't him who'd hit her… and that he'd tried to help her after she was hurt.
"Don't lose hope, Joe…" Lauren said, squeezing his hand. Lauren couldn't understand why his solicitor wasn't working to get his sentence commuted.
"He said that there was still the theft charge…"
"But you've nearly served half of your sentence now… and wasn't the ABH the greater charge?" she asked.
Joey shrugged, "I don't know, babe…" He looked at her face, "Don't get your hopes up… okay?"
"As long as you don't give up…"
"Okay." Joey agreed. "So what are you going to do, babe?"
"I guess I'm going to have to move… again…" Lauren said. "Not the greatest of timing though… a week before Christmas…"
"What about Abi? Or Jack?" Joey asked.
Lauren shrugged, "Abi's gone to see mum… and I think something is going on between Jack and Ronnie… things seem… strained…" She sagged forward, resting her chin on their hands, "I don't want to spend Christmas there, Joe… if I do, I'll have to pretend that everything between Steven and I is okay… that we haven't split up… I can't do it, Joe… I can't stay there and pretend we're fine…"
"So move out…" Joey told her. He pushed some hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. "Call my mum… Or I can… I'm sure she would be alright with you moving in there… if that's what you want…"
"She wouldn't mind?"
"Of course she won't… She knows how I feel about you… she always has…"
Lauren stared at him, "She does?" she whispered.
Joey nodded. "Do you want to speak to her… or shall I?"
"I will." Lauren said. She looked at him, "Tell me…" she whispered.
"Tell me… how you feel…"
"You know, babe… you've always known…" he murmured, his hand pushing a stubborn strand of hair behind her ear. She turned her head slightly, pressing it into the palm of his hand.
"Tell me…" she whispered.
Joey saw her face, seeing the doubt on it. "I love you, Lauren Branning… I've loved you ever since the day I first saw you… It's always been you… It always will be…" he murmured. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you… I want us to be a family… I want us start our own family together…"
"You want all that?" she breathed.
"Don't you?" he asked.
Lauren didn't say anything for a couple of minutes and it started to make him doubt himself… and doubt her. "I do, Joe… I really do…" she suddenly told him.
Joey smiled brightly, "We're really going to do this then?" he said.
"It seems like it…" Lauren said, "I'll call your mum when I leave here… sort out the details with her…"
Joey leaned forward, kissing her tenderly, "What do you think about me being Louie's new dad?" he murmured.
Lauren pulled away from him, her eyes wide. "Really?"
"Sure…" Joey said, "I love him as if he's my own… and I know he isn't… that his father could come back at any time and want to see him… that his family are going to be involved in his life… but I want this… I want to be the stable male in his life… I want him to see how much we love each other and to never have any doubts that we love him too… I want the rest of his life to be better than the childhoods we both had…"
"God, I didn't think I could love you any more than I already do… but it turns out I can…" Lauren breathed.
"Is that a yes?" he asked, hope edging into his voice.
Lauren nodded, "Of course it is… I can't think of a better person to be in my son's life…" She replied.
Lauren carried the last of her bags out of the room, passing them to her uncle so he could load them in his car. She turned to see Ian, Jane and Kathy standing near the door to the lounge, reaching over and taking her son from his granddad.
"You'll keep in touch, yeah?" Ian said, his voice breaking as he stared at Louie.
"Of course I will…" Lauren said. "You'll always be involved in Louie's life, Ian… all of you will…"
"Even Steven?" Jane asked pointedly.
Lauren closed her eyes briefly, pushing away the hurt from what he'd done, "Steven and me… we never should've got together… it was a mistake… and I think I always knew that…" Lauren told them. "I was never the person Steven wanted… I was just someone he could… use sounds too harsh but I guess that's what he did… someone he could use to get back into your lives…" Lauren murmured. "Despite everything… I don't hate him… I'd been having doubts about our relationship for a long time before he cheated on me…" Lauren admitted. She looked at Ian, "Don't hate him, Ian… he cares about you all much more than he's ever told you… being here… with you all is all he's ever wanted…"
"And because of him we're losing our grandson…" Ian said bitterly.
"You aren't losing Louie… I just can't stay here… It's not fair to Louie or me… We need to get away from here… for a while at least…"
"We understand, Lauren…" Kathy said, smiling at her. "We all hope you manage to find some happiness…"
"Thanks Kathy…" Lauren said, moving towards her and hugging her with her free arm. She moved to Ian and did the same thing. She turned to Jane last, seeing how upset the woman who'd been there for her when her family hadn't been was. She bent down and hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry, Jane…" she whispered. "We will come back… Keep up the hard work with your physio… yeah?" she said. Jane nodded, unable to speak as she fought the tears. "I'd better get going…" Lauren whispered. "Give Steven my best… and thank him for not making today more awkward than it had to be…" she told Ian.
"We will…" Ian said, "Jack put your Christmas presents from us in his car…" he added.
"I left yours under the tree this morning…" she whispered. She turned, hugging Louie tightly against her body as she moved towards the front door. Jack was standing beside the car, along with Abi, Dot and Whitney. She hugged each of them in turn, smiling when Whitney whispered to say hello to Joey. Once her goodbyes were over she got into the car, strapping Louie into the car seat and then putting on her own seat belt.
"You ready?" Jack asked as he started the engine.
"Yeah…" Lauren said. She looked down at Louie as the car pulled away, moving steadily through the market and out of Walford.
Lauren undid Louie's car seat fastenings, lifting him gently out of the car as Jack began to unload their luggage. She turned towards the house as the front door opened, freezing when she saw who was standing there. She moved without even realising she was doing so until she was at the door and in his arms. "What are you doing here?" she whispered into his shirt.
"I was released this morning…" he breathed into her hair.
"You never said it was on the cards…" Lauren said, lifting her head and staring at his face.
"I wasn't sure… and I didn't want to raise your hopes…" he told her.
"So you're really here…?" she murmured.
"Yes… the assault charges have been reversed and the theft charge was lessened after the victim confirmed I didn't steal the money… I was released with time served… I was only found guilty for being involved but I told them I had known nothing about the gun and was there because I was coerced into taking part…"
"But you've spent eighteen months in prison for a crime you didn't commit, Joe…"
"I just want to put it in the past, babe… and focus on my future… on our future…"
"I like the sound of that…" Lauren whispered, smiling up at his face.
"Our future…" she said.
Joey kissed her softly, smiling as she tried to deepen the kiss, "Why don't you put Louie down…? Alice can keep an eye on him… and we can help Uncle Jack with your things…"
"Yeah… he's already loaded the car for me… We should probably help…" Lauren said, lowering Louie to his feet and watching as he toddled into the house, smiling as he made his way to Alice. They went out to the car once Louie was being entertained and were soon carrying all their things inside and up to the room that Joey's mum had set up for her and Louie.
Joey stood next to his uncle as they both watched Lauren fussing over Louie. "I'm glad you're out of prison, Joey…" Jack said softly, not wanting to draw the attention of anyone other than his nephew.
"Not as glad as I am…" Joey admitted.
"You'll look after her… them both… right?" Jack asked.
"Of course." Joey said quickly. Joey smiled as Lauren lifted Louie above her head, the little boy giggling as she flew him around the air. "They both mean the world to me…"
Jack turned his head and looked at his nephew, seeing the serious expression on his face, "You really mean that, don't you?" he asked softly.
"More than anything…" Joey said softly.
Lauren passed her son over to Alice, who continued to play with him as she walked over to Jack and Joey. "Thanks for everything, Uncle Jack…" Lauren whispered as she hugged him tightly.
"You call me if you ever need anything, okay?" Jack told her, "I'm not a million miles away and I can be here at the drop of a hat…"
"I will…" Lauren said. She watched as Jack got in the car and drove down the street, waving as the car pulled away. She took a deep breath and shut the door, turning and seeing Joey leaning against the doorframe of the lounge. "Hey…" she said, biting her lip.
"Do you know what you're doing to me?" Joey groaned.
"No…" Lauren said, pleading innocence but knowing exactly how to push his buttons. "I'd better go and start unpacking…" she said, starting to walk up the stairs.
"Fancy a hand?" he asked, trailing behind her, not waiting for her to respond.
She walked into the room, her eyes running around it and noticing there were things she couldn't see in the room. Things she'd been expecting. "Aren't you in here with us?" she asked, opening one of the cases and starting to take out her clothes.
"I didn't want to presume…" he said. "Also, my being here came as a bit of a surprise to mum and Alice too…"
Lauren looked at him as she headed towards the chest of drawers, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't want us to do this, Joe…" she said truthfully.
"I didn't want us to…" he stopped speaking when he saw the hurt in her eyes, "Babe, I want this to work… so badly… I don't want to fuck this up… This is far too important to both of us to risk that…"
"Maybe I should stop unpacking now…" Lauren murmured, picking the pile of clothes she'd just put in the drawer back up and heading towards the suitcase.
"Lauren…" Joey said, grabbing her arm and stopping her. "Stop…" he said, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her closer, his nose burying into her hair. "I'm sorry… I just didn't want to make the wrong move… to rush you… but it seems my hesitance has done just as much damage…" he breathed.
"I can't do this if you aren't certain, Joey…" she whispered.
"I'm more than certain… I've been dreaming about this day ever since it started to become a possibility. I wanted to tell you so badly that I might be here… but I didn't want to upset you if it all went wrong…" She didn't say anything and Joey wasn't sure if she'd forgiven him. He spun her round in his arms, the pile of clothes scattering on the floor around them. "Am I forgiven?" he whispered, lifting his free hand and caressing the side of her face. "Please forgive me…" he breathed, kissing her mouth softly. She said nothing so he kissed her again and again, each kiss slightly longer than the one before as his arm that was holding her pressed against his body swept lower so his hand could cup her ass. "Do you know what I've been imagining since the first time you came to see me?" he breathed in her ear.
Lauren shook her head, "What?" she murmured.
"The two of us… together… Of making love to you… fucking you… Hearing you cry out my name as you come…" he whispered. "I can't remember the last time we were together… not properly… There was too much anger afterwards… and bad feeling between us…" he admitted, "I want to remember how great we were together…"
"Joe…" Lauren breathed, closing her eyes, moaning softly as he pressed his hips into hers.
"Do you want that too?" he breathed.
Her eyes opened quickly, dark and soulful as they stared up at him, "You know I do…"
"Now?" he said, his voice husky as he stared into her eyes.
Lauren giggled, "Your mum… Alice… Louie…"
"Will all still be there when we're done…" Joey murmured as he lowered his head and began to kiss the base of her neck. He bent her backwards slightly and she clung to him, putting up no further protest to his suggestion. Joey began to tug at her clothing, dropping them onto the floor, in among the clothes that had fallen earlier. She stood watching him as he moved away from her, quickly stripping his own clothes from his body. She could still see the same definition to his body that she'd loved when they'd been together previously and she lifted her hand, grazing her fingertips down his chest and then stomach. She was standing in her underwear but when his hands rose and cupped her breasts, she reached behind her and unhooked the bra, easing the straps off her shoulders. "Beautiful…"
"Not the same as I used to be…" she breathed.
"You're stunning, babe… and I won't hear another word otherwise…" he reassured her as his eyes ran over her body. "I think these need to go though, babe…" he added, pulling on the elastic waistband of her knickers.
"You think so?" she said, smirking at him. He nodded and then pushed them easily off her hips, both of them easing them off her body. They both froze slightly once they were both naked but it was Joey who moved first, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her against his body.
He kissed her deeply, moaning into her mouth when he felt her respond. Her arms wound around his neck, holding him close, deepening the kiss. She barely noticed as he lifted her into her arms, her legs winding around his waist. He sat her on top of the chest of drawers and then thrust his hard cock into her. She moaned loudly, kissing him passionately as her emotions came to the fore. "Fuck, babe…" Joey panted, quickly effected by being within her. He set a frantic pace, the many months of abstinence urging him on.
Lauren gripped him tightly within her legs, her body climbing to the longed for crescendo as his cock stroked gloriously deeply in and out of her body. It wasn't long before they were both crying out each other's names and Lauren panted as she rested her forehead on his shoulder. "Well… that was surprising…" she breathed.
"A good surprise… or a bad one…?" he asked, his hands stroking her skin softly.
"A fantastic one, Joe…" she whispered, "It just wasn't what I was expecting… Not today anyway…"
"Fuck…" Joey breathed. He pulled away from her slightly, his cheeks colouring as he looked at her face.
"We didn't use a condom…" he murmured, "I'm sorry, babe… I guess I just got carried away…"
"It wasn't just you, Joe…" Lauren said, smiling at him, "Anyway, I'm on the pill…" she said, "But if it happened, would it be a complete disaster?" she asked.
"Louie is still quite young…" Joey said.
"Yes, he is… but I don't want there to be a huge gap between our children… I want them to be best friends with each other… to get on and be there for each other like Abs and I were when we were young."
Joey didn't say anything at first but he lifted her off the dresser and carried her towards the bed. He shoved her case onto the floor, Lauren wincing as she heard the heavy thud as it hit the floor. They lay on the bed, facing each other and Joey kissed her, his hand sweeping into her hair, tucking it behind her ear. "So you said children… how many were you thinking of?"
"I hadn't decided on a specific number…" she said, "I thought maybe we could leave that up to nature…" she added, her face glowing as she looked at him.
"I guess we could…" he said. "So soon…?"
Lauren smiled at him, biting her bottom lip, "How about I come off the pill… and we just see what happens?" she whispered.
"That sounds like a plan…" he breathed. "I love you, Lauren Branning… More than anything in the world…" he whispered, his mouth at her ear and he heard her breath wobble as he spoke to her. "I look forward to our future together… and whatever that may bring…"
Joey opened his eyes, smiling as he looked at the woman beside him in the bed. It had been a year since he'd been released from prison and his life was so much better than it had ever been before. He had almost finished his marketing degree, having manage to squeeze the three year course into just over a year. His grades had been much better than even he could hope for so he was hoping he would be able to get a decent job once he was finished. His university tutor had mentioned a few of his friends who worked for agencies in the city and Joey was going to approach them once he knew how his final exams had gone. It was just a few weeks before he would know.
The door to the bedroom opened and Joey lifted his head, placing his finger to his lips as he saw Louie standing in the doorway. "Sshh, little man… we don't want to wake mummy, do we?" Joey said quietly. Louie shook his head, hovering in the doorway. "Come in, come in…" he added and Louie grinned, quickly running around the room to Joey's side of the bed. Joey reached out for the toddler and lifted him onto the bed.
"Is mama tired?" Louie whispered.
"She is, my little man…" Joey said.
"Mama needs a west, Jojo…"
"You're right, Louie… so we need to be quiet and make sure we don't wake her, okay?"
"Okay." Louie said, sliding under the duvet and snuggling against the chest of his bestest friend. "Jojo…?"
"Has Santy been?" he said, excitement in his voice even though he was trying to be quiet.
"Have you been a good boy?" Joey asked him, not for the first time in the last few weeks.
Louie nodded his head, "Yes, Jojo… I have been mama's bestest boy… she told me so…" he told her proudly.
"Well then, of course, Santa has been… why wouldn't he leave presents for you…?"
"When can I open them, do you fink?"
"Once mummy has woken up… and when we've had breakfast…"
"Okay…" Louie said, silence reigning in the room once more for several minutes. "Jojo?"
Joey chuckled, "Yes, mate…"
"I's hungy… can we haf beckfast now?" he asked.
"Not until mummy's awake…"
"But I's so hungy… my tummy might start eating me…" Louie said, his eyes widening.
"I am sure mummy will be awake before that happens…" Joey told him.
"Mummy is awake, Louie…" Her voice startled them both but Louie quickly recovered, clambering eagerly over Joey to reach his mama.
"MAMA!" he shrieked.
"Indoor voice, sweetie…" Lauren said, hugging him against her.
"Mary Kissmas…" Louie murmured. "Is it time for beckfast now?" he asked, turning his head to look at Joey.
"Why don't you go and knock on Grandma's door… or Auntie Alice… I'm sure they can find some food for you…" Joey said.
Louie sat up, "You's gonna come down for beckfast too, right?" he said, frowning at Joey. "Can't haf pesents till you's had beckfast… you said so…"
"We'll be down soon…" Lauren reassured him.
"Down, Jojo…" Louie said, holding his arms up in the air.
"Okay, little man…" Joey said, lifting him and placing him gently on the floor, "Go careful in the hallway… and hold Grandma or Auntie Alice's hand going downstairs, okay?"
"I rill, dada…" Louie said, scampering from the room.
Lauren smiled as she saw Joey's face, shock written all over it. He looked at her, "Did he really just say that?" Lauren nodded and a large grin broke out over his face. "He called me dada…" he whispered.
"He loves you… and you're the closest thing he's ever had to a daddy… you're his hero, Joey…"
"No, babe… you're his hero… you're the person he loves more than life itself… something I can totally understand because I feel the same way…" Joey whispered. "We should get up or we're going to be accosted again by our two year old boy…" he said.
"I know…" Lauren said, "Want to give a girl a hand?" she asked him softly.
Joey grinned, "Thought you'd never ask…" He turned and sat up, sliding out of the bed and jogging round to her side, pulling back the duvet and holding his hand out towards her. She grasped his hand, taking a deep breath as he pulled her to her feet. He tried to kiss her but she batted him away.
"Need the bathroom…" she said, shuffling towards the door, the bathroom door slamming shut.
Joey grinned, grabbing a hoodie and pulling it on while he waited for her to come back. This was pretty much the normal ritual for the two of them now so he was used to her quickly leaving the room. And as she liked to remind him on a daily basis, it was all his fault anyway. Something he was quite proud of… if he was asked. And he knew Lauren didn't really mind that much… it was just her way of wrapping him around her little finger… as if he'd want to be any place else. He glanced up, feeling her watching him. "You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Joe… we both are…" she said, smiling at him. Joey walked over to her, his arm settling around his waist as he pulled her close and kissed her.
"Love you… both…" he breathed against her mouth.
"Love you too…" she murmured, taking his hand in hers and dragging it across her stomach, holding it in place as their child kicked frantically against it.
Joey bent down, lifting the T-shirt she was wearing and pressing his mouth against the spot his hand had just been covering, "Morning, baby… mummy and I are both looking forward to seeing you… You're the second best thing I've ever done and I can't wait to hold you in my arms for the first time…" he whispered.
Lauren smiled down at him, her hand brushing the hair on the back of his head, "We'd better get downstairs… people will start to get here soon…"
"I know… I doubt they would mind if you're not ready, babe… You are almost eight months pregnant…"
"They may not mind… but I do…" Lauren said pointedly.
"Okay… okay…" he said, getting back to his feet, brushing his hand over her large bump again. "Come on then…" he said, lacing their fingers together pulling her towards the stairs.
"Don't think that just because you've put a ring on my finger you're going to be able boss me around all the time…" Lauren said.
Joey grinned, squeezing her hand, the ring he'd give her the night before digging into his hand. "I thought I should make it official…" he told her, "and your dad didn't have a problem when I spoke to him about it…"
Lauren tugged on his hand, "You asked my dad?" she said, surprise on her face.
"Of course I did… I wanted his approval… the last thing I want is for this to tear the family apart…" he said.
Lauren smiled at him, releasing his hand and winding her arms around his shoulders, hugging him as tightly as she could in her condition. "Every day you just surprise me more, Joe…" she breathed.
"Well, I hope that continues for many more years to come, babe… "Joey told her softly, "For the rest of our lives would be just about perfect…"
"I like your way of thinking, Joe…" Lauren whispered. "I'm really glad I came to see you that day… I didn't expect any of this to happen… but I'm so glad it did…"
Lauren giggled, "We'd better go… I think someone's a bit anxious for his presents…"
A/H: What did you think? I hope you enjoyed it... Don't forget to send me a review... Back soon... with a more substantial story hopefully... Writer's block and real life are bitches...