Disclaimer: No infringement to copyright holders intended

Disclaimer: No infringement to copyright holders intended.

Once Again

By TJ

"What?" Richard asked as he stepped forward, willing her to answer.

Caroline looked at Richard wondering why he seemed so urgent for her reply. He looked so serious. "I just thought that's how a wife would react if we were married." Caroline could barely look at him, still upset and embarrassed at seeing him with Julia.

Richard hung his head disappointed. "Look I'd better go…I'll see you. Bye."

Caroline waited for him to leave before she cried in earnest. Oh this is just great! I finally realise I have feelings for him and Julia interferes. He obviously still has feelings for her - his sincere amour. I don't believe this is happening - now what am I going to do? Because I really don't think Julia's the one for Richard, I mean she made a play for him when she thought he was married. Julia doesn't sound like someone Richard would get involved with - surely he could see that she wasn't to be trusted.

Next day

Richard caught the elevator to Caroline's floor and stood nervously outside her apartment, thinking. Last night was terrible, I never meant to hurt her. When he had left he had berated himself, hating to be the one who made Caroline cry. I really hope she forgives me - I was so confused. It was torture having the two women whom I've ever cared about, under one roof. He thought of Julia - whom he had loved so much, that it took three years to get over and seeing her again has brought back so many memories. He then though of Caroline - whom he loved more than anyone else but whose love he would never receive. It's so difficult sometimes being close to her but knowing she doesn't see me as anything other than a friend.

Richard entered the loft and hung his coat on a hook. "Caroline? I'm here."

"Hi Richard. Help yourself to some coffee, it's fresh." Caroline said sounding more relaxed than she felt.

"Thanks, I will." Richard took his time, uncertain if to mention last night.

Caroline sat and watched him, noticing, not for the first time, how his very presence seemed to lift her spirits. "I hope you don't mind working all day, it's just that I've got a bit behind on the strip." Caroline hadn't really fallen behind but she needed to know whether he had made other arrangements - especially ones involving a certain Italian.

"Well actually I'm meeting Julia later, were going out for drinks." Richard said guiltily.

"Oh well then forget I mentioned it. Are you and she thinking of reconciling, then?" She asked trying to sound nonchalant.

"I'm not sure, to be honest. I'm just going to see what happens."

"I take it, she's actually broken up with Marcello, then?" Caroline said trying to make him feel awkward.

"Well I hope so, I don't want to come between two people in love." Richard winced as he remembered the time he had left a love letter for Caroline just before she was going to marry Dell.

"So Julia knows the truth then?"

Richard looked up sharply thinking for a moment that she'd read his thoughts. "Huh?"

"You know, our fake marriage?"

"Oh that, yeah. I told her."

"You did? When?" Caroline asked already sure of the answer.

"Err last night. I caught up with Julia downstairs and saw her back to her hotel." He looked at Caroline to see her reaction. She looked back calmly.

"I see." Caroline was all she said.

Richard looked away feeling terrible and not sure why. "'Look Caroline, I'm really sorry for what happened."

"For what? Making out with Julia? Or for making me look like an idiot?"

"Hey wait! That's not fair! Julia had broke up with Marcello, I wasn't hurting anyone and it's not like I was cheating on you."

"What's that supposed to mean? That doesn't sound like an apology to me. Next you'll want ME to apologise to you for coming downstairs and interrupting you two love birds!"

"Don't be ridiculous, that's not what I meant." Richard said shocked.

"How dare you call me ridiculous!" Caroline said with indignity.

"I didn't mean that! What do you want me to do? We aren't an item and Julia had split up with Marcello, I didn't think you'd care." Richard said biting back his own anger.

"And that's supposed to make everything okay?"

"What more can I say? I'm sorry, I really am. I didn't mean for any of it to happen. I didn't plan on kissing Julia.'" Richard held his hands out in submission he had never seen Caroline like this before.

"Didn't you? Are you sure?" Caroline's eyes flashed with anger. "Because if you were thinking about getting back together with Julia - I'd like to know why the hell you wanted me to pretend to be your wife. I've never been so humiliated than I was last night."

Richard shut his eyes for a moment angry with himself for causing Caroline's pain. "Look this isn't getting us any where, I should go."

"Oh right I forgot, that's your answer to everything isn't it? You don't like something so you run away. Well that's good for you isn't it? It doesn't help me at all but what do you care?" Caroline stood, furious that Richard seemed to have no regard for her feelings.

Richard, who didn't like how the conversation was going, tried to explain. "Caroline, last night.."

"Just go Richard." Caroline cut in sharply trying to hold back the tears. "I hope you and Julia, will be very happy, you deserve each other."

"Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Richard was furious too, noticing the accusation but not sure why Caroline was making it.

"Well you both don't seem to give a damn about anyone else especially me." Caroline laughed but it wasn't a pleasant sound. "She makes a pass at you when she thought I was your wife and YOU don't seem to give a damn that you used and hurt me." Caroline shrugged. "You seem like the perfect couple."

"Now wait a minute!"

"Richard I don't have to listen to you. You're fired!"

"What? You can't do that."

"Yes I can. Get out of here, I don't want to have anything more to do with you. I thought you were my friend, I guess I was wrong."

"You are my friend - my best friend, Caroline please!" Richard couldn't believe things had cascaded into this - losing his best friend and his job.

"Richard if you were my friend then last night would never have happened."

Richard paced trying to make sense out of what was happening. "Caroline I'm sorry really please we have to talk about this."

"What's there to talk about? You used me to get Julia." She stated quietly.

"I didn't use you. You agreed to be my wife."

"Yes, so Julia didn't think you were pathetic. I didn't realise you were gonna use me to make her jealous, so she'd make a pass at you."

"I honestly didn't plan on that happening. I just went downstairs to get some aspirin for the pain in my neck. That's all."

"Oh I see. So you had your arms around Julia because…"

"She said that we had something before and we could have it again. It was Julia who made the pass I was just as shocked as you."

"Yeah you looked it." Caroline was frustrated. She couldn't believe that Richard was seriously thinking of getting back with Julia - it just didn't seem fair.

"Look Caroline I'm a grow man it's up to me whom I sleep with."

"I know and I'm very happy for you." She smiled sweetly her voice dripping with contempt. "Why don't you leave? I'm sure Julia will be pleased to see you."

"Caroline I can't leave things like this. You mean a lot to me I don't want to lose you."

"You have a funny way of showing it. Just go Richard."

"Caroline."

"Richard please leave." She asked tiredly not willing to continue the emotional turmoil. "I'll send you your last pay check." Caroline turned away from Richard and angrily stacked her cartoon panels.

Richard stood angry and shocked, not quiet believing what had just happened. He had never seen Caroline lose it like that, he didn't think it was possible. He grabbed his stuff and left - he managed to wait until he was home before he broke down and cried.

That night

Richard sat and tried to listen to Julia as she described her latest jewellery purchase. He was still upset at Caroline, he had never see her so angry and hurt and it was all because of him. I never meant to use Caroline, I mean, she agreed to the deception - she pretended to be my wife. What the hell went wrong?

Julia was still talking, she hadn't noticed Richard's inattention.

'So I bought this charm bracelet from this jeweller in old town and he said it had magical powers.'

"Hmm." Richard said distractedly.

"Reechard! Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, of course. Magical powers." Julia handed him the necklace, the pendant looked old and valuable. Magical powers indeed! If this thing had magical powers wouldn't it be in better shape? He used a napkin to wipe off some of the dirt, then idly toyed with it in his hands.

"Do you like it? My father bought me a bracelet in a similar style…."

Richard looked at Julia but thought of Caroline. I wish there was someway of straightening this all out. I can't live without Caroline - I love her.

Julia spent the rest of the night talking about expensive trinkets and designer clothes and Richard wished he were somewhere else - with someone else.

I can't believe I thought getting back with Julia was a good idea. She hasn't changed one bit she's still self absorbed and self centred. Hell - the only thing we have in common is the sex and I'm not shallow enough to settle for that.

He thought about the things Caroline had said. Did he really ask her to be his wife to make Julia jealous? He didn't think so, sure he was shocked and jealous that Julia was getting married. Perhaps the thought that she had found happiness after their parting had made him realise that he hadn't allowed himself to open his heart and soul to another. It didn't seem fair that Julia, who had caused him so much pain and grief could find happiness, while he was still afraid to admit he had feelings.

Maybe being with Julia was the safe option - he knew what she kind of person she was and what she liked and maybe he could use that knowledge to finally have a lasting relationship. Because he knew telling Caroline his feelings would either result in ever lasting happiness or plunge him into a dark pit of despair that he might never recover from.

Later that night

The howling wind angrily tossed the trees, making them offer their leaves up as sacrifice.

Caroline slept, tormented by disjointed images and by feelings of loss and betrayal.

Richard slept, tormented by disjointed images and by feelings of loss and guilt.

And on a dressing table somewhere in Manhattan a newly polished pendant glowed.

Morning

Richard walked into Caroline's loft. "Caroline?" He hung up his coat and walked over to the partners desk. I hope she's alright, last night didn't go so well.

Caroline walked down stairs. "Oh, hi Richard."

"Caroline about last night, I'm really sorry, if you didn't enjoy it."

"No it was fine. I can certainly see why you missed her so much - she's stunning."

"Yeah, she is." Richard said dreamily lost in thought, so Caroline's glare went unseen.

"So, Richard what did you think of Marcello? He seemed nice." Caroline smiled at the memory of the first time they met Marcello.

"What are you grinning at?" Richard asked.

"Hey! Hey! Stop looking at her breasts. Go away." Caroline imitated Marcello in her best Italian accent and laughed.

Richard laughed too, kinda shocked. "Yeah, I guess that was pretty weird."

"I'm sure Julia and Marcello will be very happy, they seem so in love. Don't you think?" She asked curiously.

"Yeah." Richard answered unenthusiastically.

"Oh, I forgot to ask you, how did you run into Julia? You never said."

"Er..I was out with Dell and we were talking about picking women up."

"What?" Caroline exclaimed shocked.

"Well I haven't been dating lately and Dell said I wouldn't meet anyone if I didn't at least try."

"And?" Caroline prompted dying to know what happened next.

"I spotted a woman sitting by herself and I decided to try talking to her."

"I wish I'd have been there - I can't imagine you using chat up lines." Caroline smirked at the thought.

Richard glared at her. If you had been there I wouldn't have needed to pick a woman up. He thought darkly.

"And this woman turned out to be Julia?"

Richard nodded.

"Wow! What a coincidence, you must have been shocked."

"To say the least."

"I'm sorry Richard."

"Sorry? What about?"

"You know, you see Julia after all this time and she's engaged. It must be painful for you." Caroline said sympathetically but also needing to know if he still had feelings for her.

"It's not that painful." It's certainly not as painful as being without you. He thought sadly.

"So are we going out with them again?" Caroline asked smiling widely.

"'No, Caroline I don't think so."

"So what are you saying? That our marriage is over?" Caroline said sadly, pretending to wipe away tears from her eyes.

"Yes but don't worry," He playfully glared at Salty, "I'll let you keep the cat."

"Hey! I saw that, leave her alone."

They settled down for the day working quietly for the rest of the day but each thinking about someone else.

Caroline was relieved when Richard had left, her thoughts in turmoil. Since dancing with Richard last night, when she had envisioned herself in bed with him, she had tried to sort out her feelings.

She remembered the times when he seemed to almost care about her. The times when he had painted her a picture of Paris because Del had decided going there wasn't such a good idea. The times when she had wondered at the tension she had felt between them, felt more so when they had to kiss for that movie that was filmed outside her apartment block. It was like there were a lot of instances when it occurred to her that something was going on between them, but she'd dismiss them, mainly because she was sure she wasn't Richard's type.

She asked herself honestly if she loved him - yes she did. Her only problem now was what to do? Could she become a seductress? Could she make Richard forget about Julia - and want her instead? Caroline laughed unamused. It just didn't seem like something she would or could do and for a moment she envied Julia - who obviously could. She got up and decided to drop off some strips at Dell's office suddenly needing some fresh air.

Richard returned home and sat thinking about Caroline and Julia. He didn't really want to admit that seeing Julia again opened old wounds. He recalled the days when they had stayed in bed making love, for their passion had burned deep. Julia had a way of inspiring his art, making him feel that he was capable of doing anything. Her wild ways filled him with excitement and her intense passion equalled his own.

Then there was Caroline. He closed his eyes and remembered the first time he had met her. The door of her apartment opened to reveal a petite red head, her bright smile greeted him and he had felt inexplicably drawn to her. She had been so open and kind that it had put him on the defensive, he had not known how to deal with such a person. He had played on her kindness to get the job and besides a few early incidents had got used to her ways. It hadn't taken him long to realise that her sweet nature and generosity were genuine, that she would help and show kindness to anyone. The amazing thing was that as time had passed he had fallen completely in love with her, and now he didn't want to imagine what his life would be like without her. He knew that given a chance he would choose Caroline but that option didn't seem plausible. He had never seen any indication that her feelings went beyond friendship.

****

No one was more surprised to see Julia than Caroline. Since she'd appeared at her apartment, declaring her engagement was off; Caroline had felt feeling of dread grip her. Was this just the very thing that Richard needed to get back with Julia? Am I going to let that happen? She panicked and called Richard - he needed to be here if he was her husband. He arrived sometime later.

"There you are! Have you been bowling?"

Richard walked into Caroline's loft and was surprised at the accusation but he knew by Caroline frantic expression that he needed to agree with her. He stood amazed that Julia had broken off her engagement to Marcello. A huge smile split his face. This is great - maybe now she and I can resume where we left off. He was equally amazed at the scowl Caroline threw him and listened to her explanation of why Julia had split up with Marcello.

Caroline glanced at Julia in surprise as she announced that she wanted to spend the night. She looked at Richard, who looked just as shocked. "'Julia can I get you something to sleep in?"

"No, I sleep in the nude."

From the stairs a loud 'thud' could be heard.

"That's funny," Caroline muttered, "so do I."

Caroline heard another 'thud' and looked up just as Richard entered her bedroom.

Richard walked into Caroline's bedroom rubbing his hands they still ached from falling on the stairs - twice.

He remembered quite clearly that Julia slept naked and felt a rush of arousal as he pictured her so. He sat on the chair by the bathroom and looked at Caroline's bed and his imagination pictured Caroline, naked, there. He swallowed hard and ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, feeling trapped.

Caroline walked into the bedroom she grabbed her pyjamas and went into the closet to change.

Richard for his part was tore between his desires for Julia and Caroline. But his immediate problem was having to sleep in the same bed as Caroline, he had wished it a thousand times and now it was really gonna happen. Just not in the way I've imagined.

Richard awoke on the floor with a painful ache in his neck - he decided to go downstairs for some painkillers. He crept downstairs quietly he reached the bottom step then hesitated - he suddenly felt the sensation of foreboding. He shook it off and looked in the cabinets as he open the door he was struck by deja' vu and some memory or vision danced at the corner of his mind. It distracted him so much that he forgot about the cabinet door until it hit him on the head. He lost his grip and as it closed on his fingers - he bit into a tea towel to stifle his shout.

"It's okay Richard. I couldn't sleep either."

He turned to Julia banged his shin and limped towards the solitary chair.

"Look Julia I just came down for some aspirin. I have a cramp I my neck from sleeping on the floor." As Julia looked up he added quickly, "above you. It's an expression we have here in America - I wouldn't expect you to know it." He hoped she would except his lame excuse.

"Would you like me to rub it."

"Rub what?" He asked surprised.

"Your neck."

Richard hesitated struggling with the deja vu and the memory that refused to come into focus. "Sure." He was barely aware of what he was saying caught between Julia's touch and the sense that something bad was about to happen. Something so bad that he knew it would change his life forever.

Julia was still talking. "…We could have something again."

Richard jumped up out of Julia's grasp. "No Julia. It would never work, it took me three years to get over you."

"You got over me because I never got over you." She pouted and Richard felt himself begin to forget the pain she'd caused him.

"That didn't stop you from leaving me."

"Well, it was a three million-dollar trust fund but I am willing to give everything up for you." Julia slowly, seductively approached him and Richard felt a sudden pain in his heart so sharp that he gasped.

Richard felt dizzy and could barely focus he knew somehow that this moment was somehow monumental to his life - to his future. He looked at Julia who looked so desirable but he sensed something like a warning inside him. An image of Caroline passed before his eyes, he glanced upstairs to where she slept and overwhelming feelings of love and happiness filled his heart so much so, that he smiled. He finally understood what he wanted - whom he desired.

"Julia I'm really flattered but it just wouldn't work." He said with a bittersweet smile.

Julia scowled and stamped her foot in frustration. "You would choose HER over me? She is not for you - she is sweet and bubbly and draws silly little cartoons for a living. She isn't what you need she can't give you what you want. But I know what you want Richard.'" She stepped forward and grabbed the edge of the blanket that surrounded her body. "I know exactly what you like." She began to untuck the blanket from around her body.

"Julia!" Richard stepped back shocked that Julia could be so brazen. "I think you should go."

"And so do I."

Richard turned to see Caroline, who was half way down the staircase, her hands on her hips, not looking pleased. "Would someone like to explain what's going on?"

Richard looked at Julia and decided to stop being a coward and tell the truth. 'Julia, Caroline and I aren't really married. I asked her to pretend we were because you were getting married and I didn't want you to think I was a loser."

"Richard?" Gasped Caroline confused.

Richard waved Caroline to be quiet, smiling at her reassuringly.

Richard continued. "This isn't my apartment, it's Caroline's - she's my boss. She draws the comic strip Caroline in the City and I'm her colourist. I actually live in an apartment not much bigger than the elevator in this building. I'm not successful - hell I haven't even sold a painting yet."

"Richard, what are you doing?" Caroline asked. Why after all the pretence has he decided to tell the truth?

"It's okay Caroline, I've just finally decided not to be a coward anymore."

Caroline shrugged and to make sure she wasn't still dreaming pinched herself. Nope I'm awake - what's going on here? She turned and watched Richard, surprised at the change in him.

"Julia I was so happy to see you again - I remembered sincere amour and the times we had together. I got caught up in those memories and when you told me you were getting married - it hurt. I was disappointed because I though that you and I could have something again."

Julia looked puzzled. "But what's to stop us from being together now? You are not married and I am no longer with Marcello. This is good news - yes?"

Richard shook his head regretfully then turned to Caroline. "Do you think you could give us some privacy?"

Caroline nodded and turned trying to hide her disappointment at being left out. Great! I always miss the good stuff. But Caroline made her way upstairs.

Richard waited for Caroline to shut her bedroom door before speaking again. "Julia it's hard to say this but I don't love you anymore. I thought I did but tonight has just proven that I'm finally over you. You're the same Julia that hurt me - the same Julia who has little regard for anyone's feelings. I thought you had changed but I was wrong. I also realised tonight that I'm completely and totally in love with someone else."

"Who?" Julia looked upstairs then back at Richard in disbelief. "You mean Caroline? You love her." She asked as if such a thing shouldn't be possible.

"Yes." Richard smiled for it felt good to finally admit his feeling to someone. "I've loved her for a long time but I just haven't had the courage to tell her."

Caroline sat up in bed dying to know what was happening down stairs. Well at least they're not getting back together. Caroline's head shot up as she realised what she'd though. Hey! He said he wasn't getting back with Julia! He told her no. I wonder if there's a chance for us now.

Caroline strained her ears trying to hear their conversation but their voices were too low. Well at least I know they won't be making out. Caroline jumped at the knock on her bedroom door.

"Caroline? Can I come in?"

Caroline sat straighter pulling the blankets over her. "Sure Richard come in."

Richard sat on the edge of the bed by Caroline thinking how adorable she looked in her Pyjamas. "I just came up to tell you Julia's gone."

Caroline reached out and patted Richard's hand. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah I'm fine. Look Caroline I'm really sorry about all this it got out of hand real fast."

"That's okay it wasn't your fault. So what's happening with Julia?"

"What do you mean?"

"Is she going back to Marcello?"

"I really don't know and I don't care. I feel such an idiot - I see Julia after all this time and I lose all sense of dignity."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. You said she was the love of your life and seeing her was bound to effect you. Just be grateful you came to your senses before she had a chance to hurt you again."

Richard nodded then noticed the time. "I should go. It's late."

"Okay. Oh and Richard if you're late tomorrow I'll understand."

Richard walked into Caroline's apartment, feeling a lot better. Even though he hadn't told Caroline of his feelings it felt good that at least he'd realised how much she meant to him.

****

"Hi Richard. I expected you to be in later."

"I couldn't sleep, there's nothing like self discrimination to cause insomnia."

Caroline smiled sympathetically. "Well if you get tired later you can go. The last few days must have been a strain for you."

Richard smiled ruefully. "That's an understatement.' He had thought about taking Caroline out to dinner even perhaps making his feelings clear. He took a deep breath, "Caroline do you think….

The door opened and Annie came in with Dell. Richard stopped talking.

"Annie!"

"Caroline!" The two women hugged each other.

Dell looked on feeling left out, "Hi! Hello! I'm here too."

Caroline and Annie laughed and grabbed Dell for a three-way hug.

"I'm so sorry your pilot fell through Annie. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine - unemployed but fine. So what's new?"

Caroline smiled. "Well I'm married to Richard."

"What?" Annie shouted caught between horror and surprise.

Caroline turned to Richard, smiled and put her arm around him. "Yes we're very happy aren't we honey?"

Richard who was enjoying the look of horror on Annie's face and the shock on Dell's decided to play along. He wrapped his arm around Caroline's waist and pulled her close. "Yes, Caroline we're extremely happy." And to prove his point he stood and before Caroline knew what was happening kissed her.

Caroline not quiet believing she was in Richard's embrace was still for a moment but Richard's lips giving her pleasure so she responded and kissed him back.

Richard didn't know how Caroline was going to react, but nibbling his lips was a surprise - he pulled her closer.

Annie finally found her voice. "Yuck! Err, you guys you can stop now - the jokes' over."

"Annie? Come on, let's leave um." Del grabbed Annie and dragged her out he looked back before the door closed and smiled. "It's about time those two got it together."

Richard broke the kiss - breathing hard.

Caroline opened her eyes and asked breathlessly, "So?"

"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that." Richard smiled in wonder, his arms still around her waist.

"Was it worth the wait?" Caroline joked.

Richard laughed. "Absolutely!" He looked at her conspiratorially. "But just to make sure I think we should have another go."

Caroline laughed delighted. "Good idea!"

They kissed again for longer enjoying the mutual

"Are you sure about this? About us? I don't want to be another mistake - a rebound."

Richard stared at her intently hoping to make her understand. "You're not, believe me. I've wanted this - you - for a long time I've just been too scared to tell you."

"You have - Why?"

"I didn't think you felt anything for me so I suffered in silence. I didn't want to hear you say that you didn't feel anything for me. I knew I couldn't be around you if did."

Caroline hugged him tightly. "Richard, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I love you Caroline, it's you I want to be with."

Caroline felt tears building in her eyes. "You're going to make me cry in a minute."

Richard hugged her hard. "I know I've been crazy these last few days and I'm really sorry. But I was confused but I do love you that never changed. Do you think you could love me eventually?"

"No."

"What?" Richard gasped.

Caroline ran her hand over his cheek and smiled lovingly. "It's impossible for me to love you eventually, when I love you right now."

Richard smiled a smile that had never before graced his face. "Thank God."

Caroline smiled at the relief in his voice and felt blessed that he returned her feelings.

'No Richard." She said as she leaned forward for another heart stopping kiss, "Thank you."

THE END