Title: Caroline and Sin City
Genre:Romance / Drama
Summary:An innocent business trip to Las Vegas turns into a "situation" that Richard and Caroline are hesitant to get out of.
Disclaimer:"Caroline in the City" belongs to Barron/Pennette, CBS, NBC and Three Sisters Entertainment. Use of these characters is strictly for entertainment purposes. I can only dream about one day getting paid to do this. Do not redistribute without express permission from the author.
Notes:Thanks again to Caroline for reading this through and helping me spruce it up (and for helping me dress Richard! g).
Caroline's hand hesitated inches above the doorknob. As excited as she was about her idea, she was nervous about how Richard would react. The sensation unnerved her and she paused. 'Don't be silly,' she told herself. 'There's no reason to assume that he'll think it anything more than a business trip.' With that, she grasped the knob and opened the door with a flourish.
"Hello, Richard," she sang out, a thousand-watt smile plastered on her face. He looked up from his work and nodded a return greeting before returning his attention to the panel. Caroline shrugged off his inattention and placed her keys on the fish tank before continuing across the room.
"I just got back from my meeting with Del." The casual remark was met by a grunt from her assistant, who refused to avert his gaze. She scooped Salty out of her chair and sat down, placing her hands on top of her drafting table. She stared at Richard, hard, but didn't say another word.
"You're going to burn a hole through the top of my head if you don't cut that out," he grumbled, dramatically capping his pen and placing it to the side.
"Ah!" she teased, "He does live and breathe!"
"If you're going to regale me with yet another stirring chapter in the never ending saga of 'The Amazing and Idiotic Things Del Did Today,' you can save it -- I'm not interested." Richard stood and straightened his slacks before making his way to the kitchen.
Caroline bit back a retort and watched him, turning her chair so as not to miss a step. Suddenly inundated by thoughts of Richard in -- and out -- of those particular slacks, she shook her head in an attempt to break the spell. "It's nothing like that," she finally said while he filled a glass with water. "In fact," she paused and grinned, continuing in a poor imitation of Marlon Brando, "I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse."
Richard raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips in an attempt to control a smile. "And if I do refuse? I don't think anyone would notice you carrying a horse's head up to my apartment."
Caroline rolled her eyes and agreed, "You're probably right." Waiting for him to rejoin her at the partner's table, she took delight in prolonging the suspense.
He sat down and sighed, as if dreading her response, "Well? What is it?"
Looking down at her hands, which were now clasped together and in her lap, she began to explain, "I have to go to Las Vegas next week . . ."
Turning back to his work, he interrupted, speaking in his characteristic, uninterested, monotone. "I know -- the trade show."
"Right. Well, Dell was supposed to go with me, but he had to cancel at the last minute." Caroline was trying to gauge his reaction, but he wasn't giving her much to go on. His head remained bowed over the panel, his eyes glued to the sky he was coloring.
"Goody for you," he finally said.
Plowing forward, the words tumbled from Caroline's lips. "I got him to agree to let you take his ticket."
That seemed to get his attention. His head shot up, a look somewhere between shock and fear dancing across his eyes before the shield went up once more. "What?"
Caroline stood and walked slowly and deliberately around the desk toward the window, resting her hands against the windowsill. "Well," she smiled, watching Richard from the corner of her eye, "We *do* have the card deadline to meet and this way we don't have to work a lot of extra hours this week. You can keep me company while I'm there and we can get some work done."
Richard's lips twisted into a sneer. "Wow, Las Vegas *and* I get to work, too?" One hand flew to his chest as he feigned excitement, "Be still my heart."
She rolled her eyes and turned, leaning on the sill, arms crossed in front of her. "Come on, Richard, It'll be fun. You do know what that is, don't you?"
"Yes, but 'Sin City' isn't in the category of things I would define as fun."
Putting her persuasive tactics into overdrive, she played her last card. "It's all paid for; airfare, room, food, entertainment. It's a company expense."
"Caroline, I . . ." He was starting to fold.
"Please? These things can be so boring. You can keep me entertained."
His expression softened as she poured on the doe-eyes. "Well . . ."
"I promise we'll have a good time."
"Okay." He seemed to deflate as he finally gave in, raising his hands in resignation.
Caroline skipped to his side and quickly wrapped her arms around him, giving him a quick squeeze, and then jumped back just as fast. She knew he didn't like to be touched, but the moment called for it. "Great!" she said as she turned, but not before catching the puzzled expression he was giving her. "The flight leaves first thing Monday morning so try to be here by six -- we can share a cab to the airport."
"You're taking Darth Gloom?" Annie shrieked. "Get out!"
"I'm out!" Caroline replied, a grin lighting her face. "It took some convincing, but he's coming with me."
Annie curled her feet beneath her, watching from over the arm of the couch as Caroline poured them each a glass of wine. "I don't know why you're taking him. Won't that cramp your style? There's lots of eligible bachelors wandering the streets of Vegas, you know."
Caroline wrinkled her nose at the thought. "I just broke up with Joe, Annie. I'm not on the prowl for some gigolo." She crossed the room, carrying their drinks. She handed Annie her glass before curling up on the couch next to her. "Besides, I thought it would be nice to do something nice for Richard for a change."
"You call dragging him to the middle of the desert on a business trip 'nice'?" She took a sip of the wine, swallowed and nodded her approval before continuing. "Remind me not to ask you to do anything nice for me."
Caroline smacked her best friend on the knee. "Don't be silly. We're not going to work the entire time. Maybe we can take in a show or something."
"Richie doesn't strike me as the Wayne Newton type, hon."
Snorting back a laugh as the image of Richard at a Wayne Newton concert appeared briefly in her mind, she shook her head. "No! We're staying at the Bellagio. There's plenty there to keep him entertained."
"Like you?" Annie suggested offhand into her wineglass.
"What?" Caroline was taken aback by Annie suggestion. "I'm not doing this to come on to him. Richard has no interest in me and we're just friends."
"Umm-hmm." Annie nodded and smiled as she drained the glass and leapt to her feet. "Call me when you get a chance," she told her as she walked to the door. "You'd better get some sleep. You've got a long weekend of packing ahead of you."
Caroline nodded and watched as Annie grinned before shutting the door. An image skittered out of her subconscious. Richard. She smiled and finished her drink, rising and carrying both empty glasses to the sink before heading upstairs to bed.
Monday morning came too soon and Caroline was hurriedly shoving her last minute items into a carry-on bag. She heard the door open and Richard's voice calling her name from the foot of the stairs. For the first time, she noticed a catch in her throat at the sound of her name. There was something in the way he said it that made her insides tremble. Now that she was consciously aware of this affect on her, it almost disconcerted her. She could hear his footsteps on the stairs and realized that she had taken too long to answer.
"I'm coming," she called out, shoving her toothbrush and toothpaste into the shoulder bag and zipping it shut. As she turned, she jumped, finding him leaning against her bedroom doorframe. For a moment, he was smiling, but his expression quickly masked to exasperation when he noticed she was facing him.
"Ready?" he asked, hesitating at the door, behaving as if they were already an hour late, when they had plenty of time.
"Yeah," she replied. "This is it. The rest is already downstairs."
"Okay." He turned from her and started down the stairs. "I'll get the bags down to the cab while you finish up."
She followed him closely; mesmerized by the way he filled out the black jeans and tee shirt he had worn for the trip. He reached for the coat he had hung on the rack and draped it over his arm while he picked up the three suitcases and one garment bag she had stacked in front of the door. His biceps flexed under the short sleeves of his shirt as he lifted the luggage, and Caroline found it hard to breathe. She knew what he looked like without a shirt on -- and it was very nice -- but she'd never really noticed how very strong he was.
Richard wasn't paying any attention and had already made it to the elevator before she remembered to exhale. With one final glance around the apartment, she flicked off the lights and closed the door behind her.
The ride to the airport was a silent one. Caroline was inwardly fretting about Richard and mentally cursing Annie for even bringing up the subject. He was looking out the window, 'Probably listing all the things he'd rather be doing,' she thought. The cab pulled to the curb and they got out, Caroline paying the cabby while Richard hailed a skycap and dragged their bags out of the trunk.
They checked their bags, received their boarding passes and walked to the gate, neither one breaking the silence. Caroline glanced at her watch, noting that they were, in fact, very early for their flight.
"It's going to be a while before we can board," she said, reaching for Richard's arm. "Do you want to get some coffee while we wait?"
He turned to her and nodded, then looked down to where her hand was resting on his arm. Usually, there was a sleeve there to block any connection, but his arm was exposed, the morning being too warm for his coat. The electricity was palpable and Caroline quickly withdrew her hand. Was that why he always reacted the way he did when she touched him? Was that what he felt? 'Good Lord, Annie,' Caroline thought as they walked to a small café on the concourse, 'I am gonna *kill* you for putting these thoughts in my head!'
They ordered their coffee and walked in silence, again, to the gate, sitting across from each other in the hard plastic chairs. "You're quiet," she finally said.
"Tired," he replied, his characteristic unenthusiasm coming as no surprise. He stretched his long legs into the aisle between the rows of seats, "You know I don't get up this early."
"I'm sorry." She took another sip of coffee and sighed.
"Not your fault," he replied, also taking a sip of his coffee. "By the way," he paused as she looked up. "If we're supposed to be working, where are all the supplies?"
"I had Del ship them to the hotel. We'll get them tomorrow then we can ship them back when we get ready to leave."
Richard mouthed a silent 'Oh' and nodded, returning his attention to the curls of steam rising from his Styrofoam cup.
'Supposed to be working?' Caroline wondered what he had meant by that. He was being quiet, which wasn't unusual for Richard, but this was too quiet. She didn't want to get him worked up, though, by asking what might be wrong. 'He said he was tired,' she reasoned. 'Leave it at that.'
They boarded the plane and settled back for the seven-hour flight. Richard took the aisle seat and Caroline settled against the window, an empty seat between them. The stewardess went through her pre-flight instructions, and then they were off. Before long, Richard was asleep, leaving Caroline alone with her thoughts.
She watched him for a while, studying the rise and fall of his chest under the taught fabric of his shirt, as he breathed slowly. He had removed his glasses and she was captivated by the tenderness she saw around his usually guarded eyes. He was smiling slightly in his sleep, seemingly having a pleasant dream, or so she hoped, and she found herself wanting to see more of that genuine smile. He was always so cynical, pessimistic, negative. The only time she really ever saw him smile was when he had one-upped Annie or when she caught him looking at her.
He smiled when he looked at her -- when she wasn't watching. Now, what did that mean? She chuckled softly at the thought but her laughter died in her throat when Richard's eyes flew open. He looked around, startled, until Caroline placed her hand on his arm.
"It's okay, Richard. We're on the plane." Again, she felt the electricity caused by the contact of her fingertips against his skin, and didn't move so quick to pull away this time.
He licked his lips and nodded, shifting a little in his seat. With a glance down, he smirked. "I'm okay," he explained. "Just a little disoriented." He stared at her hand.
Swallowing hard, she gently pulled her hand back, brushing her fingers along his arm as she did. He never removed his eyes from where her hand had been, staring at the spot until his eyelids fluttered closed and he drifted back to sleep.
'Why am I letting him get under my skin like this?' she asked herself, pressing her fingertips to her lips, catching the scent of his soap on her skin. She tingled for a moment, then shook the feeling away. "You've got the right idea," she whispered to her sleeping assistant and leaned her head against the window, willing herself to fall asleep.
Their flight behind them, they were being whisked through the busy streets of Las Vegas, headed for the Bellagio. It was two in the afternoon, local time, but their stomachs were still in the Eastern Time zone. Caroline heard a rumble and giggled as Richard placed a hand over his stomach.
"Sorry," he shrugged.
"We're almost there," she said. "We'll get settled in and then get something to eat."
"That sounds like a great idea. I'd hate to starve to death in the middle of the desert."
"We're hardly in the middle of the desert, Richard. Look at all the hotels." Her eyes scanned the streets, soaking in all the sights. She started reading signs and gasped, "Goodness, look at all the quickie wedding chapels!"
"How romantic," he quipped.
"You don't think so?" She turned away from the window and took in his dour expression. "Don't you believe in love at first sight?" she teased.
"Sure," he explained, batting his eyes. "I believe in that, fairies and that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings."
He raised his eyebrows as an invitation for a retort, but she just sighed, shook her head and turned away from him. "Do you always have to be so cynical?" she asked.
"Do you always have to be so cheerful?"
"There you go."
An awestruck Richard stared at the splendor of the Bellagio hotel lobby while Caroline checked them in, filling out the proper paperwork before receiving their room keys from the concierge. A bellhop appeared a moment later, helping them with their luggage while taking them up to their rooms. On the brief, four-floor elevator ride, Caroline handed Richard one of the room keys, explaining that they would be in separate, but adjoining rooms. An arch of the eyebrow followed from Richard, but he remained silent.
In fact, aside from his commentary on love at first sight, he hadn't said much of anything at all. Caroline was starting to doubt her intentions and was considering giving him an easy out and an early flight home.
Richard had gone into his room and Caroline into hers. As she milled about, unpacking and admiring the room, she heard a slight tap on the adjoining door. She couldn't help but smile as she disengaged the lock.
He had a grin on his face as he handed her carry-on bag to her. "This got left in my room by accident," he explained.
"Oh." She took the bag from him and stepped back. "Come on in," she offered and he nodded, following her over to a small loveseat. He sat while she unzipped the bag on her king-sized bed and started to sort out her toiletries.
"Did you know that this hotel has an art gallery?" he asked while she walked from the bed to the bathroom.
"Yup," she called over her shoulder.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She stopped and turned, a mischievous smile on her face. "Because I wanted the reason you came to be to keep me company, not so you could go look at an art exhibit."
This seemed to unnerve him and he shifted on the couch. "I know I give you a hard time, Caroline . . ." She interrupted with a snort and he held up his hand. "Please, let me finish. I want to thank you for asking me to come with you."
Touched, she smiled and softly said, "You're welcome," and any thoughts of him being upset with her or resenting her for talking him in to the trip were wiped away.
"Now," he said, standing and walking toward the door, "Can we eat? I mean, I know I'm a starving artist, but this is getting ridiculous."
Caroline sat at the table in the convention hall, doing the "meet and greet" portion of the show. She would smile, shake hands and make polite comments to the other attendees, but her mind was on the fourth floor.
Dinner had been pleasant enough. Richard even seemed to open up and relax a little. A smile would work its way onto his face and actually linger there for a few moments from time to time. After dinner, they toured the hotel, making note of the amenities that they each wanted to explore throughout the week. At that hour, the art gallery was closed, but the gaming tables were in full swing. Richard walked an avoidance pattern while Caroline craned her neck to see more.
"You're not seriously thinking about going in there?" he had asked her.
"Sure," she'd replied, wondering what his aversion to social gambling might be. "What's the harm in it?"
"Are you serious?" He had laughed and stopped, pointing to the masses of people seemingly having a wonderful time. "They're all pathetic."
"I don't think so," she had softly disagreed. "They're having fun."
"I don't call that fun." He had started walking again, making a beeline for the elevator.
"Well, maybe I do," she had shouted.
"You're not tethered to me," he had pointed out as he held the elevator door open for her, waiting for her to join him. "If you want to go waste your money with the other mindless masses, be my guest."
The subject had been dropped at that point and the short ride to their floor had been a quiet one. They had walked the hall to their doors and each said a soft "goodnight" to the other before entering their respective rooms. The adjoining door was still open and Caroline had walked over and gently closed it, leaving it unlocked, before changing and falling into a fitful sleep.
By the time she had awakened and dressed, the delivery of their supplies had arrived and Richard was already furiously at work in his room. She told him that she was going to the trade floor and he'd nodded.
Now, she stood, doing something she normally tolerated, sometimes enjoyed, but her mind was constantly straying to Richard. 'Why do I care what he thinks,' she internally debated. 'It's not like I'm tethered to him.' "Ha," she said out loud, surprising a gentleman that had been walking toward her. With a nervous smile, he turned and greeted the group at the table next to Caroline's.
The tension of the day and the enigma that was Richard Karinsky had given her a whopper of a headache and she was thrilled when she noticed some of the other attendees breaking down their displays for the night. On automatic pilot, Caroline straightened up her table and stepped out of the conference hall into the lobby. A short search located a house phone and she placed a call, charging it to her room.
"Speak to me,"
"Annie?" Caroline's best friend sounded like she had been asleep. "Is that you?"
"Care," Annie replied, the sound of a yawn coming across the wire. "Yeah, it's me. How's Vegas?"
"Weird." She sat in an armchair and wrapped the phone cord around her finger. "Were you sleeping?"
"Nap," she replied by way of explanation. "How's it weird?"
"Richard." Caroline sighed and closed her eyes, leaning against the overstuffed back of the chair.
"Say no more."
"Really, he's acting strange. He's quieter than usual."
"And that's a bad thing?"
Caroline smiled in spite of herself, then shook her head and explained. "He nearly tore my head off when I acted like I might want to go to the game rooms."
"I dunno. Look, maybe Richie wants you to do things *with* him, and he doesn't like to gamble, eh?"
"Maybe, but does he have to be so difficult about it?" She ran a hand through her hair and sighed.
"Who are we talking about?"
She stood and started to pace, before continuing. "One minute I get the impression that he doesn't want to be around me and that he's angry that I dragged him all the way out here. The next minute, he's thanking me for asking him along. I'm getting mixed signals here."
"Look, Care, he likes you, okay? It's just hard for him to express it."
Caroline's heart jumped at the thought. "You really think so?"
"Who's a better judge of character than me?"
She rolled her eyes and smiled. "You win. I think I'm going to go upstairs and order a massage. My neck feels like it's a mass of knots."
"That sounds like a good idea. Relax and enjoy yourself. Don't worry about Richie. He's a big boy and can take care of himself."
"Thanks, Annie. Love you."
Caroline hung up and walked to the elevator, rubbing her tense neck muscles and mulling over what Annie had just said. Richard liked her. "Well, he sure has a funny way of showing it," she complained to her reflection in the mirrored elevator.
"Richard, I . . ." Caroline stopped in her tracks, one hand still on the knob of the adjoining door. Richard was standing at the edge of his bed, a bath towel wrapped loosely around his waist, his wet hair tousled and his chest glistening with a few droplets of water. "What are you doing?"
"Some would call it practicing good hygiene," he dryly answered, one hand dropping to his waist and grabbing a secure hold on the towel.
Caroline placed a hand in front of her eyes, using it as a blinder, as she walked across the room to where Richard had set up his temporary work area. "Ignore me," she said, as she flipped through the cards he had worked on throughout the day.
"It's a little hard," he replied and her mind immediately traveled to areas south of where it should have been.
Trying hard to keep her composure and her eyes averted, she said quicky, "These look great, keep up the good work," and, switching hands to keep Richard behind the blind, walked back to her room, shutting the door securely behind her. In three steps she had thrown herself face down on her bed, burying her head under a pillow.
'Dear God,' she thought, 'He is gorgeous. Richard. *Richard* is gorgeous. Why didn't I see it before?'
A moment later, she was started by a knock at the door, and then heard it open. "Can I come in?" Richard asked.
"Mmmph," she replied, staying under the pillow.
"Are you okay?" He asked, sounding much closer than she thought he would be.
With a shrug, she pulled her head out from under the pillow and smiled. "Sure. Why shouldn't I be okay? I should have knocked. It was rude of me to just burst in there, thinking you would be dressed . . . I mean, working." She took a breath and looked up. He had slipped on a pair of slacks and a shirt, but was barefoot and the shirt wasn't tucked in. It looked as if he had run his fingers through his hair and she found herself wishing she could do the same.
"No, I should have locked the door," he apologized, his hands shoved deep into his pockets.
"Then, I guess we're even?" She sat up, dangling her legs over the side of the bed as he walked to the foot and sat down. 'Except, you haven't seen *me* topless,' she thought and blushed, thankful he was facing away from her.
"Even," he agreed. "How was the show?"
"Boring." She kicked off her shoes and stood up, walking around to the foot of bed to sit next to him. "I think Del does this to me on purpose."
"No, that would require too much thought and planning on his part." He smiled when she laughed. "What's the plan for this evening?"
"I don't know." A hand went to her neck and she rubbed her shoulder. "I was thinking about calling down for a massage. My neck is killing me and I think I'm getting a headache."
"Why don't you let me?" he asked, a hint of hesitation evident in his voice.
Caroline slowly turned to Richard, a slight smile playing on her lips. "You?"
"Yeah, I could save you some money and you won't have to wait as long." He shrugged, wiggling his fingers in front of her.
"Okay," she agreed, wondering if it was such a good idea. She slid down the edge of the bed to the floor and positioned herself between his knees, leaning back against the bed. After a moment, she felt his fingers slide under the collar of her shirt and make contact with the skin on her shoulders and neck; she couldn't contain the moan that escaped her lips.
"Oh, my God, that's amazing," she confessed, leaning further back into his wonderful, strong fingers.
"You *are* tense," he commented, working on one spot, and then shifting to another. "You need to relax."
"This is helping." Caroline smiled, wondering what she enjoyed more, the feel of his fingers against her skin or the amazing neck rub he was giving her. "Where did you learn how to do this?"
"My mother insisted that I learn -- said it would be a good skill to know. I think she just wanted someone to rub her feet."
"You do feet?" She smiled at the thought of Richard rubbing her feet after a long day at work. "I wish you had put this on your resume."
"Oh, yeah, it's a perfectly appropriate skill for an out of work artist," he quipped, and she could hear the smile in his voice.
"Seriously, Richard, this feels amazing." Caroline tipped her head to the side, leaning her check against his fingertips. As she slowly lifted her head up, he softly caressed her cheek and jawbone, sending shivers down her spine.
Then, just as quickly as the moment began, it was over. Richard pulled his hands back and leaned back on the bed, pulling his leg up and over Caroline's head. In a snap, he was on his feet. "Better?" he asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Um, yeah," she replied, confused by his hasty retreat. 'Moving too fast?' she thought.
"Good." He took another backward step toward the adjoining door. "I'm going to order some stuff up from room service so I can get the cards done tonight. Do you have anything more to work on?"
"Yeah," she replied as she stood and rotated her neck, still tingling from his touch. "I've got a few more things I need to draw before I can say I'm done. Can you order something up for me, too?"
Richard nodded and smiled politely. "Sure." Then he turned around and beat a retreat for his room, leaving Caroline awash in her conflicting emotions.
"Ugh." It was almost four o'clock and Caroline was watching the clock's hands slow down with every passing moment. Another day of 'schmoozing' was almost done and she was looking forward to a night of nothing. She and Richard had spent most of the previous evening working diligently on the cards and had finished close to midnight, agreeing that this would free up their time for the remainder of the trip. There was a little left over for Richard to work on throughout the day, but he had been determined to finish early and head to the gallery.
Caroline had spent most of the day daydreaming about Richard. Annie was right. He did like her, that much she could tell, but was it deeper than that? The way he had touched -- no, caressed -- her face, spoke volumes. But was she translating his actions correctly? Her greatest fear was that if she was to take things a step further, she might ruin their friendship.
So, she sat at her table, all day, talking with other cartoonists and marketing professionals, trying to do a good job for Del, but her heart wasn't in it.
Finally, after an unbearably long day, Caroline walked to her room, looking forward to a pleasant night with Richard. When she stepped in, she saw a note taped to the adjoining door.
The gallery closes at five so I'll be back after that. If you're here, maybe we can get something to eat. If not, well, you're not tethered to me, remember? The cards are done and packaged up, ready for shipment.
She smiled, remembering their conversation about the gaming tables and decided he was probably telling her to go ahead and give them a try. Twenty minutes later, she had left a quick note for Richard and was seated in front of a slot machine, a cup of quarters between her knees and a margarita in her hand.
She had lost track of time when Richard laid a hand on her shoulder. Slowly, she took her eyes off the machine and focused on her assistant. He raised an eyebrow, 'Probably wondering how many drinks I've had,' and said, "Any luck?"
She lifted the cup of quarters and shook it, demonstrating how pathetic her luck had been. "Why don't you give it a try?" she slurred. "I'm about done."
"Oh, no," he protested, holding his hands in front of him. "There's no way I'm going to sit here and waste the rest of your money. You're doing just fine without my help."
"Please?" she begged. "Just once?" Pulling a quarter out of the cup, she dangled it in front of his clasped hands.
Finally, he relented. "Okay," he grumbled, snatching the quarter from her hand as she cheered. She moved off her stool and he took her place, dropping the coin in the slot and pulling the lever.
They both watched the dials spin and stop, one by one. Caroline clapped Richard on the back when five dollars in coins poured out. "You won!" she shouted and kissed him on the cheek.
"I did!" he agreed, smiling from ear to ear, and scooping the coins out into Caroline's cup.
A waitress approached and asked if they wanted a drink. Richard shook his head no, but Caroline asked for another margarita. "Go ahead, Richard, get a drink, they're on the house as long as you're playing."
The waitress nodded and he agreed to a margarita as well. They received their drinks and Richard kept playing, winning small jackpots. The drinks kept coming and Richard kept winning. Caroline was glued to his side, amazed at his luck, almost jealous that he was doing so much better than she had been doing.
It was getting close to midnight and they were laughing, Caroline hanging onto Richard's free arm while he played the machine. He was two hundred dollars ahead and ready to call it a night when one last crank of the arm produced triple cherries.
Lights flashed and bells rang as Caroline shouted into his ear, "You won the big jackpot!"
Richard leaped from the stool, nearly knocking it over in his haste, and picked up Caroline in a bear hug, swinging her around and around as she laughed.
The casino owner walked up to them, holding his hand out in congratulations. "Congratulations, Sir," he said. "If you'll come with me, please?"
They followed him to a back room, where they filled out some forms and were handed stacks of cash, at Richard's request. They walked out of the casino, arm in arm, with a bag containing Richard's winnings; a tidy ten thousand dollars. Caroline wasn't sure if it was the buzz of the alcohol or the thrill of winning that was making her so giddy, but she didn't care.
Richard stopped walking and swung Caroline around until they were face to face. "Let's go shopping," he suggested, planting a kiss on the tip of her nose. "I want to buy you something."
Feeling lighter than air, she agreed, and they stepped out into the night.
Caroline slowly opened her eyes. The sunlight was streaming through the curtains in her room, causing the thumping in her head to reverberate. Sighing, she snuggled closer to Richard and tried to go back to sleep.
"Oh, my God," she shouted, sitting up, a little too quickly, and she grabbed her forehead in pain. A quick glance down told her she was fully clothed, still in the outfit she'd worn the night before. Richard was, in fact, lying beside her, a look of contentment on his face. She reached out a shaky hand to wake him and froze.
There was a ring on her finger. A wedding ring. A check of Richard's hand made a matching set. "Oh, my God," Caroline repeated, this time more pronounced, and he heard, rousing from his slumber.
He blinked a couple of times and opened his mouth to speak, but closed it as his eyes widened. Realizing where he was, he, too, quickly glanced down to see what he was wearing and breathed an audible sigh of relief to see he, too, was clothed.
"Next time I decide to go ten rounds with Jose Cuervo, stop me," he whispered, slowly sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "I'm going to get some aspirin for breakfast. You?"
He was halfway to the bathroom when Caroline found her voice. "We got married," she croaked.
Echoing from the bathroom, he said, "What? I couldn't hear you. Where'd this ring come . . . shit." He peeked around the corner at Caroline who was sitting, dumbfounded, in her bed. She held up her left hand for his inspection and he hung his head, backing into the bathroom.
"Will that be a double on the aspirin?" he called out.
"Richard . . ." Caroline started to get out of bed, but the room began to spin and she had to lean back against the mattress.
"Shit!" he called out again.
"What could be worse than this?" she whispered, dreading the answer.
"I don't know about you, but I have a new, permanent, decoration on my arm." He walked out of the bathroom and handed her two aspirin and a glass of water before showing her his right bicep. Tattooed there, roughly the size of a sliver dollar was a red heart with 'Caroline' running through it. Sputtering, she nearly choked on her water, handing Richard the glass while checking her own arms.
"Nothing," she replied. "That must have been your thing. I need to take a shower." She smiled at him, surprised at how well he seemed to be taking all of this. Finding her feet, she walked to the bathroom and closed the door, stripping off her clothing. It was then that she caught a glimpse of something in the mirror. There, on her right cheek, roughly the size of a silver dollar was a red heart with 'Richard' running through it. She ran her hand lightly over it, flinching, and was thinking about what Annie would say when Richard's voice through the door made her jump.
"Annie would be so proud," he said. "Apparently we were married in the 'Velvet Elvis Chappel of Love'."
Caroline stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped snugly in a bathrobe. The gravity of the situation was beginning to sink in and she was dreading having *this* particular conversation with Richard. As she looked around the room, she noticed that the bed sheets had been straightened and the door to Richard's room was wide open.
"Richard?" she called out, walking over to the door while toweling off her hair. "Are you in there?" She stepped though the door to find him setting a table with breakfast from a room service cart. He looked as though he had showered and dressed.
"Right here," he replied, turning to face her with a nervous shrug. "I figured we'd have some things to talk about so I took the liberty of ordering breakfast. I hope you don't mind."
Caroline smiled, thankful that he was taking the first step toward figuring out what had happened the night before. At least he wasn't going to pretend it was nothing. "No, I don't mind at all. I'll throw something on and be right back." She backed into her room and pulled the door closed.
While carefully selecting her clothes and dressing, she found herself holding her left hand up, smiling at the ring on her hand. It was a beautiful, medium width, plain gold band with small diamonds set within it all the way around. Looking at it gave her a thrill, which she tried to contain. 'It's not real, after all,' she told herself as she squared her shoulders and returned to Richard's room to face the music.
He was seated at the small round table and gestured for her to join him. He politely stood and helped her into her chair, scooting it in, before returning to his seat. She smiled, in spite of herself, and thanked him. They ate quietly at first, nursing their hangovers and sipping on black coffee.
After a short while, Richard cleared his throat and Caroline looked up. "I think we have something to talk about," he said, holding his left hand up as evidence. "Do you remember anything about last night?"
She sighed and pushed her plate away, picking up her coffee cup and settling back into her chair. She thought for a moment, pulling one leg up and tucking it beneath the other. "I remember playing the slots and you coming down to join me," she began. "After that, things get a little fuzzy."
"You were already a bit lit when I showed up," he explained. "I don't know how much you'd had to drink, but you we're acting like you do when Annie's been mixing the drinks."
"Oooh," Caroline said with a cringe. "That can't be good."
"You talked me into playing the last of your quarters and I was winning, and drinking, too," he continued, obviously having recalled most of the evening's events on his own. "I found this." He reached to the side and picked up a slip of paper from the room service cart, handing it to her. "It looks like I came into some money."
Caroline took a moment to read over the receipt, detailing a win of ten thousand which was distributed in cash. "Wow," she breathed as her eyebrows shot up. "That's one heck of a win!"
"I agree," he said. "That explains where I got the money for the rings."
Caroline closed her eyes for a moment and tried to remember what had happened after he had won the jackpot. "I remember leaving the casino with the money," she said. "You wanted to buy me something, so we went out."
"Mmm-hmm. And we went shopping for tattoos," he continued, handing her another receipt. "Luckily, these things have the date and time stamped on them, so I've been able to at least follow the trail of money."
She took the tattoo receipt and cringed, thankful that she couldn't recall going through with that particular aspect of the evening.
"The receipt shows two tattoos. Unless I got another one in places I can't see, which I doubt, you must have gotten one, too?" He tipped his head to the side in question and she nodded.
"In places I could only see in the mirror," she verified, smiling when he blushed. "Aw, come on, we're married now," she teased.
He grinned and rolled his eyes. "That's the next receipt and where the bulk of the money went." He handed her one last piece of paper; a receipt from a jeweler, and Caroline whistled at the total.
"You certainly don't skimp, do you?" she asked, looking at her band one more time. "I wonder if you'll be able to get your money back."
"Probably not, but I'm not worried about it." He waved away the thought with his hand. "Besides, it looks good on you. Keep it."
"Oh, Richard, I couldn't," she started to take it off, flattered by the gift, but uncomfortable with the cost.
He looked up and set his jaw. "I insist," he simply said, and she could tell there would be no arguing.
"Okay." She slid it back on, and marveled at the comfortable fit.
"At least we didn't sleep together," he said, breathing a sigh of relief. "That would have been a disaster."
Caroline's heart dropped to the floor and she silently watched him pick up his cup and take a sip of the coffee. He seemed truly relieved. Before she could stop herself, she slid her chair back and ran from the room, hot tears burning her eyes.
"Caroline?" she heard him call after her, but she was too upset to face him. What was that supposed to mean? 'That would have been a disaster.' Was she that terrible, that he couldn't fathom sleeping with her? The tears gave way to anger and she slammed her bathroom door.
A moment later, she heard a hesitant knock.
"Go away," she shouted, trying to wiggle the now constricting wedding band from her finger.
"Caroline," he begged, "Let me explain."
The ring slid off and she opened the door, tossing it at him. He caught it in surprise and took a step back as she flew past him to the bed. "Explain what?" she shouted. "How I'm so hideous and pathetic that you can't bring yourself to touch me?"
Her words touched him and she could see the pain in his eyes. "No," he said softly, taking a tentative step toward her. She stood her ground and he was soon by her side. "That's not what I meant, at all." He placed a hand on her arm and she realized he was shaking. "All I meant was that would be an awful way to spend the night with you -- in a drunken haze."
A sob caught in her throat as the meaning of his words came clear. He quickly pulled her into his arms, holding her close. "I'd hate to lose such a good friend over a drunken roll in the hay," he continued.
The tears flowed freely now and he held her at arm's length, placing his hands on either side of her face, gently wiping her tears with his thumbs. "Please stop. You're breaking my heart."
"I'm sorry," she choked out. "I don't know what got into me. I guess this is just a lot to take in."
He cracked a smile. "You could say that again." She couldn't help but smile in return. "That's better," he said, taking her hand in his. She gasped as she felt the cold metal band being slid onto her finger. "I meant it when I said I wanted you to keep this."
"Richard, I . . ." But her words were silenced by his fingers on her lips.
"Enough," he said. "Look, I don't want to spend the rest of my honeymoon arguing with my wife. Why don't we go check out the local sights and relax a little." He waggled his eyebrows at her and she laughed. "We can worry about getting this marriage annulled when we get back to the city."
"You're taking this awfully well," she remarked.
"One of us has to."
Caroline sighed and nodded, surprised at the disappointment she felt when he mentioned an annulment. Deep down, she wondered if it would be so bad to be married to Richard.
Caroline fell into the room, laughing, followed by an equally boisterous Richard. She gasped for breath as he walked past her and she closed the door behind her. He took a deep breath and removed his glasses, wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes. She leaned against the door, watching him, feeling an odd stirring inside.
"You know," he said, plopping down on Caroline's bed, "I don't think I've had this much fun in ages."
Caroline shook off her reverie and hopped onto the bed next to him, lying back with their heads almost touching. "I don't know why you insisted on telling that nice couple in the elevator that we had met on an Everest expedition."
Richard chuckled and sighed. "They weren't buying it until you jumped in with that lovely frostbite anecdote."
"I didn't know anyone could blush such a deep red," Caroline commented, laughing at the memory. She and Richard had spent their free day acting like the newlyweds they were, putting on a show for everyone they met. For each person, there was a different story about how they had met and fallen in love. Before long, it had become a contest, with each trying to one-up the last outrageous story. It had been Richard's idea, and she knew it was his attempt to keep her from obsessing about the situation.
Caroline took a deep breath and stretched her arms over her head, sneaking a peek at Richard out of the corner of her eye. He was inches away from her; she could smell his aftershave; and had his eyes closed with a dreamy smile on his face. She resisted the urge to roll over and plant a kiss on his lips, and instead sat up and reached for the room service menu and the telephone.
"Do you want to order something up or go down to a restaurant for dinner?" she asked, realizing at once that her voice sounded strained. He opened his eyes and looked at her, and she could tell that he'd heard the change in her tone.
"Whatever you're more comfortable with is fine with me," he answered, his eyes boring into hers. There was a certain animal intensity in the way he was watching her and she felt – not unnerved – but, excited. She decided to play the doting wife, continuing their game from that afternoon.
She spoke with a husky timbre and stuck her lips out in a pout, "Well, dear, if we stay here, we can be all alone."
Richard, still staring at her, seemed unaffected by her display. He sat up and leaned a little closer. "That sounds perfect," he whispered.
Caroline could hear every beat of her heart as it pounded in her ears. His lips were so close and inviting. Surely they had already kissed when they'd taken their vows the night before, but the memory was fogged in a drunken haze and she realized that she wanted to relive it as soon as possible. Her breath was starting to come in shallow little gasps as he leaned forward even closer. She watched him, her head swimming as his eyes wavered from where they had been locked with hers to her lips and back again.
There was a question in his eyes, one that Caroline was afraid she was going to misinterpret. His signals were crystal clear, though. He *was* going to kiss her -- and she was going to let him. The tip of her tongue flicked out and wet her lips in anticipation. There was nothing she wanted more at that moment than to feel his arms around her and his lips pressed against hers. She nodded, ever so slightly, as if giving him permission. He saw this and the corner of his mouth turned up in a slight smile as he closed the distance between them.
The phone, still in Caroline's hand but long forgotten, rang shrilly, startling both of them. Richard leapt to his feet and was to the adjoining door in two long steps. Caroline started to protest, asking him to come back but realized, as the phone continued to ring, that the moment had been lost. She answered, knowing she sounded curt, but not really caring.
"Care? Is everything okay?"
Annie's voice was a welcome life-preserver in Caroline's tossing sea of emotions. She glanced up at Richard, who had opened the door. He motioned that he was going to go out for a bite and left before she could say another word.
"Yeah," Caroline finally replied, throwing herself back on the bed. "Everything's just fine."
Feeling a little self-conscious, Caroline had left Richard alone for the remainder of the day and they didn't speak of the near-miss-kiss for the remainder of the trip. It was as if the moment was frozen in time, never to be mentioned. After the interruption, he'd run off to eat, leaving Caroline alone to talk to Annie. There was so much she'd wanted to tell her, but they had been sworn to secrecy so she told Annie, instead, that they'd spent the day together, walking around the city and taking in the sights. The rest could wait until she returned home.
A promise was a promise, but Caroline knew she needed someone to talk to. There was something between her and Richard; something apparently Annie had seen coming and a third party opinion was what was needed, as far as Caroline was concerned.
They had packed for the return flight the following day, sending the finished cards and supplies by courier to Del's office. The conversation was light and cheerful, not nearly as bleak as it had been on their arrival, but it was still strained. Also, something Caroline had filed away to mention to Annie, whenever she brought up the annulment, Richard brushed it off with a "no hurry." This struck Caroline as odd, but she chalked it up to his commitment to keeping her sane about the whole mess -- at least until she could talk to Annie.
"Home sweet home," she mused as Richard brushed past her with her bags dripping off each arm. Everything was in place and looking spotless, which meant Annie had used it for a party again. Caroline couldn't complain. At least she got a free cleaning out of the deal.
"I've got to get back to the cab," Richard said, interrupting her thoughts. "I'll see you in the morning?"
"Yeah," she replied. "Don't worry about getting here too early." She grinned and stretched. "I plan on sleeping in."
"What's new," he quipped, rolling his eyes. "Looks like we're already back to normal."
"Normal?" Caroline laughed. "I'd hardly call our situation normal."
"What situation?" Annie asked, peeking around Richard with a mischievous grin.
"Nothing," Richard quickly bit while making a lunge for the elevator. His eyes never left Caroline's and they were imploring and reminding her of her promise to keep everything a secret. Without a word, the doors closed and he was gone.
"Okay, he's gone," Annie said, closing the door behind her. "What's going on? You sounded strange when I called you yesterday and now this," she indicated Richard's cryptic exit. "Spill the beans -- you know you will eventually. You might as well do it now and save yourself the hangover."
"Ugh," she said, watching Annie as she stepped over Caroline's luggage, making her way to the refrigerator. "Don't remind me about hangovers."
Annie's eyes lit up and she closed the fridge door. "Do tell," she prodded, leaning on the counter. A look of shock crossed her face. "Oh, you two didn't do it, did you?"
Caroline paused, as if considering her answer, causing Annie to squirm in a most satisfying way, before answering. "No, we didn't. It was a close call though. But I promised I wouldn't tell so you have to promise me that you'll keep this a secret!"
"I swear," she said, crossing her heart and raising a hand in oath.
"I mean this, Annie. If Richard finds out, he'll never speak to me again." Annie nodded and Caroline waited for the imminent retort. When none came, she forged ahead. "First, I want you to look at something. I can't see it very well and I want to know if it's healing."
"Healing? Do I want to look at this?" Annie wrinkled her nose as she walked around the counter to join Caroline at the couch. With a grin, Caroline unbuttoned her jeans and unzipped them, sliding them down her right rear a few inches. She heard Annie's intake of breath and knew she'd gotten her attention.
"Oh, my God," she said, reaching out to run a finger lightly over Caroline's tattoo. Then she started to laugh. It was slight at first, and then it came bubbling forth uncontrollably. She nearly doubled over and had to sit on the couch to keep from falling down. "Richie's name is on your ass?" she asked between gasps. "How the hell did that happen?"
Caroline didn't find the situation near as amusing and was pulling up her pants. "We got drunk. He's got my name on his arm."
"Oh, that's perfect," Annie howled. "It's permanent?" Caroline nodded and Annie shook her head, finally noticing that her friend wasn't as amused as she was. "Did it hurt?"
"I have no idea," she admitted. "I told you, I was drunk."
"Is that what you two were so worked up about?" Annie rolled her eyes. "I know a guy who can fix that to look like anything you want it to." She watched Caroline as she sat on the couch next to her. "You are planning on having it fixed, right?"
"I don't know," she confessed. "I've always thought about getting a tattoo and it *is* pretty . . ."
"With Richard's name in it – hello?" Annie picked up Caroline's hand and took her pulse. "Are you feeling okay – OH, MY GOD."
Caroline flinched when Annie grabbed her wrist and twisted her hand around. With a start, she realized that she hadn't taken off the wedding band. It was a gift from Richard, and she planned on wearing it, just not on her left hand where Annie was now staring at it. She tried to pull her hand back, but Annie wouldn't let her.
"Tell me this isn't what I think it is." Her eyes slowly traveled from the gold band to Caroline's face. Caroline smiled, meekly, and shrugged. "Are you serious? Get out!"
Nodding, Caroline pulled her hand out of Annie's slackening grip. "I'm out," she replied, rubbing the marks Annie had left behind.
In a flash, her friend lunged for her, wrapping her in a bear hug. "Congratulations!" she bubbled. "I'm so happy for you two. It's about time, you know."
"Whoa!" Caroline gently pushed Annie back to her side of the couch. "It was a mistake. We were drunk and we're going to have it annulled."
Realization dawned on Annie's face and she pursed her lips. "Oh, so this was the situation you and the Dark Lord were talking about when I came in."
"Yes, *this* is the situation we were talking about and I promised Richard we would keep this a secret so *don't* say a word, okay?" She stood and walked to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator. "Do you want a soda?" she asked.
"No," Annie answered. "Why are you having this annulled?"
Caroline couldn't believe her ears. She turned to Annie and shot her a surprised look. "Maybe because we were drunk off our asses when it happened? I don't know, Annie. Why do you think?"
"You like him, he *seems* to like you . . ." Annie let the rest of her statement hang in the air. "It's not rocket science, you know. I'll bet you that if you give it a few weeks, you'll change your mind."
Her head back in the fridge, Caroline snorted. "Yeah, well it's gonna be a few weeks, anyway. I checked while we were still in Vegas and it takes that long to draw up papers. We're just going to . . ." She stopped and popped her head up. "What did you mean by 'it's about time'?"
Annie opened and closed her mouth, much like a fish out of water. "I . . . did I say that? I meant . . . I meant it's about time you got married, that's all."
"Umm-hmm." Caroline narrowed her eyes and looked at Annie suspiciously. "Why do I get the impression there's more to it than that?"
"It's your personality," Annie replied, turning her back on the inquisition. "You're neurotic. I'm telling you this because I'm your friend, you know." Caroline crossed the room, popping open her can of soda, and sat down again.
"I almost kissed him," she said, taking a sip as Annie's eyes lit up.
Caroline settled back into the cushions and closed her eyes, smiling broadly. "It was like the best romance novel you've ever read," she sighed. "I could see him thinking about it and inching closer to me. My heart was pounding and I couldn't breathe, I was so nervous."
"And?" Annie was on the edge of her seat.
Caroline picked up a pillow and tossed it at her friend. "That's when the phone rang and he ran out!" she said.
"Who called?" Annie asked, but shrunk back at Caroline's look. "Oh – sorry."
"Enh," Caroline shrugged. "It was probably for the best. I don't know how I'm going to work next to him, though. I've been replaying the whole scene over and over again."
"Maybe you should re-enact it?" She waggled her eyebrows at Caroline and tossed the pillow back.
"And scare him off?" Caroline caught the pillow and tucked it under her knee. "I don't think so. I'm just gonna pretend that nothing has happened. There's no reason we have to be all weird. He's been so good about all of this. You know, he went out of his way to see that I didn't freak out and to keep me upbeat about it."
"Gee," Annie snorted. "Almost like he didn't mind being married to you, huh?"
Caroline sat in thought for a moment, considering Richard's actions. "Yeah," she whispered, "Almost."
"Are you gonna tell him the papers are here?" Annie looked over the annulment agreement and folded it neatly, sliding it back into its envelope and handing the envelope over the table to Caroline.
"Of course I am," Caroline hissed as she placed the envelope into her purse. "I mean, we need to get this marriage annulled. It's been two weeks already."
Annie looked at her and Caroline felt as if she could see right through her. "But you like the thought of being Mrs. Karinsky, don't you?" It wasn't a question so much as a statement of fact.
"Oh, Annie, I don't know," she replied, returning to the present. "I like it enough, but it's not real. We're only playing."
"But you're hoping that if you give it enough time, he'll want to stay married." Annie popped a pretzel stick in her mouth and motioned to the bartender to bring them another drink.
"Maybe," she conceded.
"Admit it. You're falling for him -- hard." She picked up the fresh bottle and took a sip. "There's nothing wrong with that."
Caroline fretted with her napkin. "But this is Richard."
"You could do worse," Annie cryptically replied.
She sat in thought for a moment, playing with the label on her beer bottle. The past two weeks had been nice. Not wonderful – but not terrible either. Richard's sour mood had been replaced by something close to tolerable. He never mentioned Las Vegas, the fact that they were man and wife, or the annulment and neither did she. She had chalked his silence up to him not wanting to upset her, but Annie's insistence that there was something 'more' had her wondering if she should try to talk to Richard. The memory of their 'almost' kiss still replayed in her mind, skipping over and over like a record with a scratch.
"That's it," she said as she hopped off her barstool. If she could explain her feelings to him in a way that wouldn't scare him off, maybe they'd have a shot.
"What's it?" Annie asked, watching her as she walked to the door.
"I've got to talk to him," she said over her shoulder. "I have to see how he feels about me. Maybe if I take the first step, he'll feel comfortable and open up to me."
"Call me!" she heard Annie shout as the door closed behind her. She took a deep breath and began the short walk that she hoped would begin the rest of her life.
Caroline tried the door and was surprised to find it unlocked. She knew it wasn't Annie, who she'd left in the bar with more than half a bottle to finish, and Richard was off for the evening. As she opened the door, she was met with the sight of a knock-dead gorgeous brunette and Richard's sing-song "Honey, you're home!"
Introductions were quickly made and they vaulted up the stairs to Caroline's bedroom where, as soon as the door was closed behind them, she hissed, "What is going on here?"
"That's Julia," Richard explained, pacing as he wrung his hands.
"Julia," she repeated, wondering why the name rang a bell. "Julia . . . oh! Julia? *The* Julia?"
Exasperated, he whined, "Yes, *the* Julia."
Feeling a tad jealous, Caroline sneered, "What's she doing here?"
Richard sat on the edge of Caroline's bed and rested his head in his hands. "She's in town with her fiancé. We ran into each other and we started talking. Before I knew what I was doing, I had told her I was married. I didn't want her to think I was still pathetically pining away for her."
"Well, Richard, it *is* true," she pointed out. At his pained look, she clarified, "The married part!"
"Yeah, well, she invited herself over, to meet my wife and I couldn't very well take her to my place, so I brought her here. You weren't supposed to be home."
Not sure how to take that, Caroline replied with an exaggerated, "Oh."
"It's not like that. I just thought it would be less complicated if you weren't here."
"So, now what?" She placed a hand on his arm and he looked up at her.
"We pretend we're happily married. Maybe she'll go away."
They walked back down the stairs, arm-in-arm as Julia watched. Caroline could see why Richard had been so smitten with her. She was a vision with her long black hair and the body of a Greek goddess. She suddenly felt very small and plain standing next to her.
"Oh, Richard," she said, her voice dripping with a thick Italian accent. "She's adorable."
'*She's* not a puppy,' Caroline thought while clenching her teeth and gritting out a smile.
"That she is," Richard oozed, his arm now around her shoulder. "When I met her, I just knew she was the one."
Caroline's smile softened at this comment and she took a step away, walking toward the kitchen. "Does anyone else need a drink?" she asked, reaching for a bottle of wine.
"No thank you, Carolina," Julia replied. "I should be going. I just wanted to see Richard one last time before . . ." then she broke into a fit of sobs.
Caroline just stood there, her mouth agape as the woman nearly doubled over. Richard was beside himself and looked to her for instruction. Caroline nodded toward Julia, indicating that he should walk her to the couch.
"Julia, what's wrong?" Caroline asked, walking around the bar to join Richard.
"Oh, it's nothing," she hiccupped between sobs.
"It can't be nothing," Richard prodded, handing her the box of tissues from the chest. "Tell me."
"Tell us," Caroline agreed, making an unconscious emphasis on 'us.'
"I came here tonight to see Richard, yes, but also to tell him goodbye. I will be going back to Rome tomorrow, without my Marcello." Julia dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and looked from Caroline to Richard. "I caught him with another woman and we had a terrible fight. We will not be married now and seeing the two of you so happy together makes me realize how much I will be missing."
Caroline turned around and rolled her eyes. She walked to the kitchen and poured Julia a glass of water, listening to Richard's attempts to console Julia. When she walked back to the couch and handed Julia the glass, the woman took it from her hand and smiled.
"Thank you, Carolina. Richard is so lucky to have you."
"Yes, he is," Caroline replied, placing a hand on Richard's shoulder.
"I hate to impose," Julia started, and Caroline had to make a conscious effort to keep her tongue in check. "Could I stay here tonight? I just can't face Marcello."
"I guess so," Caroline replied before she could catch Richard's eye. He looked horrified. "You can sleep on the couch," she continued, shrugging at his look.
"Oh, you are too kind," Julia gushed.
"Yes, too kind," Richard agreed.
"Let me get you some blankets," Caroline offered, stepping back. "Do you want to borrow something to sleep in?" Richard was following her up the stairs and she thought she heard him falter when Julia turned down her offer, replying that she slept in the nude. She didn't know what made her say it, but Richard definitely faltered when Caroline threw back, "Me too."
They'd got Julia settled in and had gone through a few uncomfortable moments upstairs before agreeing to sleeping arrangements. Caroline quickly drifted off to sleep but was awakened in the middle of the night. When she stretched, she realized that she was alone. Wondering where Richard had gone off to, she got up and quietly opened her bedroom door.
She was halfway down the stairs when she saw a sight that froze her in her tracks.
Quickly, Richard pushed Julia off of him and took a step back. Without thinking, Caroline took off down the stairs and rushed toward him, slapping him hard across the face. "How could you?" she shouted, barely registering Julia's hasty apologies and quick retreat.
Richard's shock was apparent and he held a hand to the cheek that she'd slapped. As if coming out of a trance, Caroline realized what she had done and covered her mouth in surprise. Richard looked over her shoulder and saw Julia's retreating form. Before Caroline could stop him, he ran after her, but was too late. The elevator doors closed before he could reach her. He turned and stared across the hall at Caroline, who was standing still, her mouth still covered with one shaking hand.
He crossed the hall and slammed the door behind him. "Why did you do that?" he asked, trying to control his temper.
"You were kissing her!" The jealousy that had consumed her was still coursing though her veins and she was struggling to stay in control.
"Yes, I was," he calmly replied, rubbing the now reddening spot on his cheek where Caroline had made contact.
"Why?" she asked, swallowing back the tears.
"Did you see her?" he replied, flinching as soon as the words tumbled out.
"Oooh!" Jealousy was quickly replaced by anger and she felt a certain degree of satisfaction when Richard took a cautious step away from her.
"Why'd you hit me?" he asked, quietly.
She hesitated. Should she tell him that she was jealous? Should she tell him she couldn't control herself? "It seemed like something a married woman should do," she found herself saying. He looked at her, crestfallen. Had he wanted her to say something else?
"Go after her," Caroline conceded, waving him away as he took a step closer. "She's your 'sincere amore,' go to her."
Her heart broke into a thousand pieces when he slowly turned and left.
The door opened and Caroline glanced up to see Annie walking toward her. She was sitting on the couch, her knees pulled up to her chin, reliving the evening and wondering where everything had gone so horribly wrong.
"What was all that yelling about?" Annie asked, closing the door behind her. "I just got in when I heard World War III going on in here." Caroline turned to face her and Annie stopped, her tone instantly serious. "Honey, what happened?"
"I hit him." She spoke quietly, her hand still stinging.
"What do you mean?" Annie sat next to her and put a hand on Caroline's knee. "Tell me what happened."
Caroline relayed the entire evening, culminating with a play by play of the final confrontation. By the time she had finished, the tears were flowing freely and Annie was holding her, rocking her back and forth.
"I don't know what came over me," she sobbed. "I saw him kissing her and I snapped."
"Honey, you love him."
"I know. What am I going to do?"
"Care, I'm telling you this cause you're my best friend and because I think of Richie as my best friend, too. You need to tell him before things really get out of hand."
"It might be too late." Caroline coughed and reached for a tissue. "I told him to go after her, Annie."
"He'll be back," she said, patting Caroline's back. "I mean, he needs this job, right?" As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. Caroline starting sobbing again.
"Oh, God. I'll have to look at him every day!"
"Would that be so bad?"
Annie and Caroline both jumped at the sound of Richard's voice. "Sorry," he explained. "I let myself in."
Annie looked to Caroline and smiled weakly before standing. She passed Richard and patted him on the arm before letting herself out.
Caroline turned away from him, focusing on their desk. "So, how much of that did you hear?"
"Oh, a few words here and there," he confessed as he walked around the couch. He sat next to her and clasped his hands together.
"Why are you here?" she asked, sniffling and wiping her nose, disgusted with herself for allowing him to see her this way.
"I ran after her," he started, taking a deep breath. "I chased her down and caught up with her in the lobby of her hotel. We talked and she told me how much she had missed me and how wrong she was for leaving me. Then, she begged for me to take her back, to marry her, right then and there."
"Oh." Caroline felt another wave of sobs coming on.
"I told her no," he said.
"How wonderful for you," Caroline rambled, jumping up and rushing to the kitchen, trying to put as much distance as possible between her and her broken heart. "I suppose you'll want to take some time off for . . ."
"I said I told her no," he interrupted, raising his voice to be heard over her chatter.
Caroline paused and looked across the bar; the words registering as a grin slowly formed on his lips. He stood and walked toward her, reaching for her. She stood still, trying to wrap her mind around what was happening. When he was standing in front of her, she found her voice.
"You told her no?" she whispered.
"I told her no."
"Why?" she asked. "I thought she was your 'sincere amore,' your true love?"
"I told her I couldn't marry her because I was already married. To you." He put a finger under her chin and tilted her head up. She met his eyes and her breath caught in her throat.
"But, that was a mistake. I have the annulment papers in my purse." She started to turn away from him, reaching for her bag, when he took her by the arms and pulled her to him. Before she could say another word, he lightly pressed his lips to hers, gently kissing her. All the apprehension and confusion melted away in that moment and she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him even closer.
He broke the kiss but didn't move away, still holding her against him. "I love you, Caroline," he confessed. "I have for a very long time. I was just afraid to say anything. I didn't know what you'd do if you knew. I was afraid you'd reject me and I'd lose you."
Her head was pressed against his chest and she could hear the pounding of his heart as he poured out his soul to her. He did love her! All the pent up emotion from the evening broke loose and she began to speak.
"I can't breathe without you, Richard. When I saw you kissing her, it was like nothing else existed except you and what was standing in the way. I've never felt such hatred and jealousy before in my life. When you left, you took my heart with you. I love you, too." As she spoke, his arms tightened around her until she thought she might burst.
"You have no idea how long I've waited to hear you say that," he said before capturing her lips with his in a slow, passionate kiss. They kissed each other, savoring the moment and the feel of the other in their arms.
"What do we do now?" Caroline asked. "I mean, we're kind of doing things backwards, don't you think?"
Richard laughed, a rich, full, joyful sound, and caressed her face with his hand. "As long as you're with me, Caroline, I don't care what we do, or where we do it. You are my life."
Caroline smiled, looking up into the eyes of the man she had married. In the back of her mind, that nagging voice of doubt wiggled in and made her wonder what might have happened if she hadn't gone to Las Vegas with Richard. What if they hadn't been married when Julia came back? Would things have been different?
All the doubts were erased when Richard, once more, placed his lips over hers with a kiss that defined 'sincere amore.'