"Richard, I just don't understand why you have to be so difficult."

The object of her attention looked up from his diligent coloring and frowned. "Difficult? Why am I being difficult if I don't want to do what you want me to do? It's my right." He looked up in time to notice the look of exasperation on Caroline's face.


"No." He finished using the crimson red pencil and reached for the cerulean blue.

"I thought you had a good time on Christmas day. At least, you looked like you enjoyed having dinner with the rest of us, except for teasing Del and his date."

Richard looked at her, debating his next words. "Okay, Caroline, you're right. I did have a good time on Christmas day. Happy?"

Caroline grinned. "I knew it. So why don't you want to come to the New Year's Eve party?"

"Because I already had a good time once this year. I hit my limit."

Caroline stared at him in disbelief. "You only allow yourself one fun event every year-"

Richard was nodding his head in agreement. Caroline just shook hers and tried again.

"The guy giving the party is a new tenant and he wants to get to know his neighbors so he's throwing a combination 'getting to know you' and a New Years Eve party. It'll be fun." She threw her enthusiasm into it. "He lives in the penthouse and I hear he has plenty of money."

"Oh goody." Richard deadpanned. Great, just what he needed. One more successful person thrown in his face to show Caroline what a colossal failure he was.

"There'll be free food." Caroline enticed him. "I hear he's having it catered."

"Who's having it catered?" Annie had slipped in the door and as usual, into the conversation.

"Hi, Annie. I'm trying to talk Richard into coming with us to the New Year's Eve party upstairs."

Annie groaned. "No, don't do that. He'll just ruin it for the rest of us," she protested. "I planned on having a great time, if you know what I mean. We don't need Mr. Depression throwing a blanket over our fun."

A mischievous twinkle entered Richard's eyes. "Count me in, Caroline. I'd love to come." He smiled gleefully at Annie's irritation.

After scouting through her closet, Caroline settled on the sexiest black dress she owned. It was short without being too short and had a deep v- neckline that somehow managed to give the allusion of cleavage with the little that she actually had. The soft velvet clung to her curves and accentuated the glow in her eyes. She stared at her reflection in her long mirror, wishing that Richard might just notice her sexiness tonight and respond to it. Yeah, and pigs could fly.

Caroline stepped downstairs and found Richard and Annie already waiting for her.

"Wow, Caroline, you look great! Doesn't she look great, Richard?" Annie was jabbing Richard in the side. He was well aware of how great Caroline looked but the secret was to not show that he was aware of it. This was a tough act with Annie's almost constant teasing him about it. He just knew she couldn't keep that love letter of his a secret forever.

"Yeah, sure. Let's go, I'm starving." He had quickly covered his admiration with his usual dourness. He didn't miss the disappointed look that crossed her face. That rather surprised him. Surely what he thought about her looks couldn't matter that much to her. Or could it? He shrugged off the idea and led the way to the elevator.

"I'm glad you decided to go to the party tonight, Richard. This will be fun." Caroline smiled sweetly at him. Annie's upper lip curled and her eyes rolled.

"I don't plan on having fun, Caroline. I'm going to eat and leave. It'll be a short night for me." He could see Annie's eyes light up and her mouth open with an intended insult. "Shut up," he aimed at her.

The door to the penthouse stood open revealing groups of people standing around. The sounds of tinkling crystal and china accompanied with loud laughter emanated from its interior. Richard, flanked by one woman on each side, halted in his tracks. Fear hit him as it always did when in large crowds. He started to whip around when Caroline grabbed an arm and started to propel him towards the door.

"Come on, Richard. You can do it."

"Caroline, I've changed my mind. You know I'm not a people person. This is torture to me."

Annie heard this statement and gleefully grabbed his other arm, pulling him inside the door and into the crowds in the center of the huge living room. They stood under an enormous crystal chandelier that had to be authentic judging by the reflections of the light cascading into multitudes of rainbows across the room. The interior was splashed with gold on tables, chairs, lamps and picture frames. The over done French Renaissance gilded style was combined with fifties art deco, the two styles clashing violently. Over at one side of the room they spied a modern black leather sofa grouping with chrome end tables. The three of them stood in the center of the room, staring open mouthed around them.

"Oh my god." Caroline whispered.

"Wow, I guess your place doesn't look so bad after all." Richard aimed this at Caroline. She turned to retaliate and he was nowhere to be seen.

Caroline followed Annie over to the wall of windows at the far side of the room and pointed out the view.

"Wow! You can see half of New York from up here. Isn't this wonderful?" Caroline couldn't believe that this view was from her own building.

"Hmmmph. I think my view of a brick wall is much better." Annie paused, then mused, "I wonder if the guy is married?"

"Where do you suppose Richard disappeared to?" Caroline was starting to worry and couldn't rid herself of a sudden gut feeling of having made a big mistake tonight. Her eyes roamed across the room looking for a familiar tall blonde with glasses.

"The wuss probably ran away."

Richard immediately noticed the art displayed on the walls and made a beeline for one side of the room, forgetting all about the promise of food. He stood studying one large painting with its own spotlight.

Richard was enjoying this evening more than he thought he would. He had noted the classical music as soon as they entered the apartment and his expectations rose one notch. Now he stood admiring the owner's art collection and knew the evening wouldn't be a total loss.

"I don't see a glass of champagne in your hand." This statement was followed by a fluted crystal glass handed to him.

"I'm not much of a drinker." Richard started to explain as he looked into a pair of kindly brown eyes belonging to an older man.

"That's okay. Neither am I." His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. "My name's George." He reached out a hand to Richard. "I see you're enjoying my art collection."

Richard smiled back. "Richard and it's wonderful."

"So, you're an art lover?" George sipped his champagne and Richard followed suit.

"Actually, I'm an artist." Richard watched George's eyebrows shoot upwards. "A starving artist since I've never been discovered," he added quickly and almost apologetically.

"You mean, haven't been discovered yet, don't you?" George corrected him.

"That would be optimism. I have no first hand knowledge of the concept." Richard laughed bitterly.

"I believe in it. I think it takes optimism to be successful. At least, it seems to work." He raised his arms to indicate his surrounding wealth. "Maybe you should try it."

Richard stared at the man. "You must know Caroline," he stated dryly.

George's eyes twinkled. "Follow me. There's something I want you to see."

To take her mind off the missing Richard and the plans she had fantasized for the evening, Caroline headed for the food table. She was admiring the huge display of lobster, crabs, caviar, out of season fruits and cheeses. A waiter pushed a glass of champagne into her hand. She hesitantly tasted something that looked like a miniature puff pastry with some dark mystery substance in the center. At least it tasted better than the caviar. When it came right down to it, she actually liked regular food better. Looking at the lobsters, she had the strangest feeling that those beady little eyes were staring back at her.

She concentrated on eating to avoid eye contact with a tall, skinny guy with greasy straight brown hair who had been watching her. She couldn't believe what a lousy time she was having tonight. New Years Eve was special, at least, it was supposed to be and now she might as well be alone. Except for the skinny greasy-haired guy who was following her.

Just then, a loud laugh erupted from the other side of the room that sounded suspiciously like it might belong to Richard. Since she hadn't heard him laugh much, she couldn't be certain. She wove her way through groups of people until she reached the opposite side of the room and stared at a small group of women surrounding Richard, an apparently tipsy Richard.

One of the women must have said something witty because he was bent over laughing uproariously. Watching him with them brought back vivid memories of high school when she was kept outside the loop of the popular kids. She didn't like it back then and hated it now.

Caroline was so mesmerized by the scene she didn't hear Annie slip up next to her.

"Caroline, isn't this the best party? See that hunky blonde guy-"

"Yeah, I'm watching him right now and it looks like he's having way too much fun." Caroline hadn't taken her eyes off Richard. Now the blonde bimbo on his right was caressing his arm. And those were obviously silicone. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed.

"Caroline, have you lost your mind? I'm not talking about Ritchie." Annie looked horrified. Hearing a sound from her friend, she asked, "Did you just whimper?"

"Annie, why is he smiling so much?" Caroline whined and bit her lower lip. Why couldn't he smile that much when he was with her?

Annie rolled her eyes upwards. "Caroline, you have to let the little baby birdies grow up and fly out of the nest." She looked over at Richard who was apparently having a good time. She sighed dramatically. "They grow up so fast, don't they?"

Annie watched Richard and the small enclave of women surrounding him. "Wow, all those women attracted to Richard and you and I are standing here alone? This is too freak'n backwards." They watched Richard smile timidly at the women, then down half a glass of champagne.

Annie snorted. "Well, there's your answer, Caroline. He's drinking like a fish and probably hasn't eaten a thing. This otta be entertaining."

Richard was astounded at George's private art collection. He was shown painting after painting, each displayed prominently with its own spotlights. Eventually he was led into a library with its own elaborate alarm system where he sat and stared at an original Matisse. This night was getting better and better. He couldn't wait to tell Caroline what he had seen.

Richard knew it was only because George exaggerated about his success as an artist that had the women hanging onto every word he said. One particular woman brayed obnoxiously at anything coming out of his mouth. She kept rubbing up against him like a cat, making him nervous enough to gulp down another glass of champagne. He was starting to feel lightheaded from the alcohol but he was so much more relaxed. In fact, he was so glad Caroline had talked him into coming to the party tonight. Maybe he was more of a people person that he thought.

Richard looked up from all the attention, trying to find Caroline in the crowded room. He wanted to show her that he was more of a fun guy than she realized. It wasn't often that so many women noticed him. In fact, women never noticed him. He swung his head around to scope the room and everything in the room dipped, swayed and spun around. Maybe he should have eaten something.

The stacked blonde next to him giggled again and handed Richard a glass of something so fruity he could hardly taste the alcohol but he knew it was there. He absentmindedly sipped it while still searching for Caroline. It suddenly dawned on him that she may have met someone and left. In fact, it was probably a safe bet since she seemed to be so lonely lately. She certainly hadn't been dating so maybe she glommed onto the first guy that asked. He sighed irritably. Feeling thirsty, he downed the rest of the drink. Well, maybe she wouldn't be the only one getting lucky tonight. He smiled down at the blonde, trying to ignore her inane chattering.

Sometime during the last hour, half of the neighborhood had found the party and were squeezing into the room, driving up the temperature to sweaty and unbearable. At the far end, Caroline was standing at the food table, blindly grabbing food and piling it on a plate. She tried to make her way over to Richard through the crowd but was pressed into surrounding party crashers, pushing the plate of food against her chest. She yelped but no one even looked at her.

Muttering to herself, she picked off the pieces of food from her dress, not wanting to think about the cleaner's ability to clean it and that's when she heard it. The singing. Loud off-key singing that sounded like it came from a karaoke player. Caroline pushed her way through the rest of the crowd, stepping on toes and elbowing anyone in her way.

Richard was in the center of the commotion and it appeared, was leading the singing. Caroline stood open-mouthed at the sight of Richard, obviously drunk, swaying side to side, eyelids drooping and singing YMCA. This was a side of Richard she wasn't familiar with. She also knew she better get him out of here or he would make her life miserable for weeks.

"Hey, Richard. How're ya doing?" She touched his arm and he almost lost his balance. He recovered and grinned at her, his eyes not quite focusing on her.

"Heeeyyy, Car...Car...Car-line." Richard slurred over her name. "Are you having fun too?"

Her eyes widened in concern. "How are you feeling, Richard?"

"I freell great." He pointed his index finger towards her nose and missed, hitting her cheek. "You look verrry pretty. Who's going home with you tonight?" His glazed gaze traveled up and down her body. From anyone else, this would have been offensive.

Caroline's mouth dropped open. "Maybe I should take you home, Richard. Why don't you take my arm?"

Richard squinted in thought. "But if I take your arm, what will you do with only one?" He looked over at the others and roared with laughter at his own joke.

Caroline smiled patiently. "Come on, Richard. Let's go downstairs and I'll make you some coffee. Okay?"

Richard shook his head obstinately, the movement throwing his balance off again. "I can't leave my friends. They wan' me ta sing." He turned around and staggered back to a group of people. One woman handed him a microphone and turned on the music. Caroline watched in shock as he downed a shot of whiskey, cleared his throat and began singing. Since he didn't know the words, he hummed through most of it.

"I don't believe what I'm seeing." Annie had slipped up next to her. "Ritchie smiling and singing. Where's a video camera when ya really need one?"

"Annie, I think we should take him home—"

"What for? Let the guy have a good time for once in his life."

Caroline looked over at her in surprise. Since when did Annie ever support Richard? This evening was full of surprises. Caroline opened her mouth to argue when the countdown for New Years was started. She looked around desperately for Richard but he was lost in the crowd of hysterical partygoers.

The countdown ended. Everyone was kissing everyone else. Drops of champagne were raining down. In the middle of the ear splitting confusion, Caroline felt completely alone. Suddenly through the crowds a grinning Richard appeared in front of her, his blond hair tousled.

"Happy you near!" He shouted, then grabbed her and kissed her hard. When he let her go, which was too soon in her opinion, he grinned down at her. She reached out to him but he grabbed Annie and kissed her too. He disappeared into the crowd again.

She cringed and waited for Annie's predictable outburst but instead heard, "Hmmm, he's not a bad kisser for a geek."

"Annie, let's find him and drag him downstairs before he hurts himself or something."

Annie sighed dramatically. "Okay, it's better that we leave before they start singing Funky Town. I hate that song."

The two pushed their way through drunken partiers and flying confetti, trying to locate the lost Richard. When they finally spotted him, one of the women had him pinned against the wall, both of them laughing. Caroline ran up to them.

"Excuse me." She elbowed the other woman out of the way, who promptly fell on her butt.

"Wow, way to go, Caroline. I'm so proud of you." Annie turned to the blonde on the floor. "Get lost."

"Care-line, there you are," he slurred. "I wan' you to know tha' I am a fun guy. Ask anyone here." He waved his arm around the room and lost his balance. Caroline grabbed him around the waist to steady him.

"Whoa. The room keeps moving. Make the room 'top moving, Care-line."

"Sure, Richard but first I think I should take you home-"

"No, Care-line, I don' think so." He argued vehemently, shaking his head back and forth. "I think I shou' go home now."

Caroline bit her lower lip to keep from laughing. "Okay, Richard. That's a good idea. Let's go." They walked side-by-side slowly towards the door, Caroline's arm around Richard's waist and his arm draped over her shoulder. At this point, he was almost dead weight. Annie stood watching them with amusement.

"Do you mind, Annie? I could use some help here." She grunted under Richard's weight.

"Yeah, yeah, okay, but you owe me." Annie grabbed Richard from the opposite side and he dropped his arm over her shoulders. "I can't believe I have to touch him. Richard, if you actually pick up your feet, we might get somewhere." Annie puffed.

Richard stopped abruptly. "Knock, knock."

"Come on, Richard. You're so heavy." Caroline wailed. They were still down the hall from the elevator.

"Knock, knock." He insisted.

"Oh for pete's sake, 'who's there?'" Annie said.

Richard chuckled, then hesitated. "I don't remember." He looked crestfallen.

"That's okay Richard."

"Bu' I learned this funny joke—"

"Come on, big guy, move your feet. What a way to spend New Year's Eve." Annie wanted to grind her teeth. All three shuffled together onto the elevator, Richard still muttering about being a fun guy. Caroline had to stretch to reach the elevator button for the second floor. Richard's weight had her pinned against the back wall. Several other couples joined them.

"I wan' you two to know tha' you are the best frien's I have-" He burped loudly. The other couples laughed.

"Oh god, kill me now." Annie muttered under her breath.

"-I don' know what I would do without you guys-" His voice became thick with emotion. "-I guess I would be all alone again." He sighed loudly. He suddenly looked at the others in the elevator.

"They really are goo' frien's. They put up with a lot from me." He hiccupped. "'cept for Del. He's a moron." He stated matter-of-factly.

"Out of the mouth of babes." Annie stated. The elevator pinged at the fourth floor and it emptied, leaving the three of them.

Annie looked over at Caroline, which was tough to do since Richard swayed between them. "I say we go up to another floor, any floor, dump him off and jet back down to the second floor. It'll take him hours to find his way home. Maybe even days." She gurgled evilly.

"Annie." It was all Caroline had to say. In one word she could convey all her irritation.

Annie just fixed her eyes on the lit up floor sign above the door. "Yeah, I know. You have feelings for the guy. It's starting to be a drag."

"Shhh. Not in front of-" Caroline gestured at Richard, who was humming to himself.

Annie snorted. "Do you really think he can comprehend anything right now?"

Richard started to giggle. "I can't leel my fips." He was smacking his lips together experimentally.

"When are you going to say anything to him anyway?"

"When I decide to, Annie." She said defiantly. "So far, he thinks I'm pretty and a goo' friend. It's not very encouraging."

Annie made no comment. She knew Caroline well enough to know how this must hurt.

"Hey, I learned a new song ta'night and I know all the words." Richard slurred proudly. "Wanna hear it?"

"Sure, Richard."

Richard cleared his throat. "Ninety nine bottles a' beer on the wall, ninety nine bottles a' beer. Take one down, pass it round, ninety eight—"

Both girls groaned. "-bottles a' beer on the wall. Ninety eight bottles a' beer on the wall, ninety eight bottles a' beer-"

"You would have to encourage him, wouldn't you, Caroline? Can't you get Elvis to shut up?"

"-take one down, pass it round, ninety seven bottles a' beer on the wall-" His voice went up an octave.

"At least he's a happy drunk."

The elevator pinged and opened on their floor. Richard drew a deep breath.

"Ninety seven bot-"

Annie interrupted him. "Two, Richard. Two bottles. You lost count."

Richard stopped and screwed up his face in confusion. "Oh." He started over. "Two bottles a' beer on the wall, two bottles a' beer-"

Caroline juggled Richard while she searched for her keys in her purse. She opened her door and Annie practically shoved them inside.

"-beer on the wall."

"Okay, my job here is done. You're on your own, Caroline." She laughed wickedly.

"But Annie, can't you stay and help me with him?" She was suddenly afraid of this alternate personality deep inside of Richard's body. She was used to the cynical, morose Richard, knew his thoughts and reactions to just about everything. This Richard was new to her.

"Nah. I have enough dirt to embarrass the guy for a least a year. Bye." She threw a wave in the air and skipped out. Two seconds later, Annie reopened the door and stuck her head through.

"You know, since he's so drunk, you could even-" she made a gesture, grinning.

"Annie! I can't believe you would suggest I take advantage of his condition." Caroline was more irritated than shocked. This was not turning out to be the night she had planned.

"Well, it's not like he'd remember." She shut the door again.

As soon as Caroline turned around, Richard stepped in front of her. "Wanna dance?" he slurred. "We never danced ta'night." He grabbed her arms and swung her around several times.

"Wheeee." Caroline couldn't help herself. Now she was having more fun. Richard pulled her close and led her around the living room, twirling them several times and ending with a dip.

A serious look came over him. "Care-line, there's somethin' I need to tell you." He stopped and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "Iss important. Iss verrry important. I-I-" He stopped, face pale, staring off across the room.

"Richard?" They were still standing next to each other.

Richard placed a hand on his stomach and groaned. "I think I'm gonna be sick." He whispered. "Oh no." He ran stumbling around the corner, heading for Caroline's bathroom, slamming the door behind him.

She followed him part way and then stopped, listening to the noise of his retching through the door. She sat down and waited for a while. Occasionally he let out a groan. Still he didn't come out of the bathroom. The evening was just getting better and better. She picked up the television remote, clicked on an infomercial and watched a woman hawking face cream.

What was he about to tell her? That he loved her, or that he thought of her as a sister, or that he wanted to quit working for her, or maybe he won the New York Lottery, or he was an alien from Mars, or maybe he was a serial killer? Caroline gritted her teeth in frustration and threw her remote across the room.

Finally she couldn't stand it any more and approached the bathroom door. "Richard?"

There was silence. Finally the door clicked opened. Richard slowly walked out, obviously concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other and only staring at the floor.

"I am sure I need to apologize for this evening. I don't really remember why, but I think I need to. I'm afraid if I do remember everything, I may have to kill myself," he said slowly and deliberately.

Caroline wisely decided now was not the time to tell him he kissed Annie. She was sure Annie would remind him as soon as she could anyway and many times over, making his life hell as usual.

"I'll go home now, Caroline." He took a deep, steadying breath, still swaying. He still hadn't looked at her. "Thanks for everything. I think."

Caroline grabbed one of his arms. "No, Richard, you can't go home now. I doubt you'd find an empty cab tonight and besides, it's snowing. You'll freeze. Just sleep here on my couch."

She expected him to argue and head for the door as usual, but instead he turned and dropped down on the couch. "Okay," he whispered, "just for a little while." He swung his legs up and dropped his head on one of the throw pillows.

"I'll get you a blanket." She ran upstairs, grabbed an extra blanket out of her closet and ran back down. In the two minutes she was gone, the fun guy had fallen asleep and was snoring softly. She gently removed his glasses and then his shoes. Pulling the blanket across him and tucking it under his chin, she softly kissed his forehead.

"Happy new year, Richard." She whispered.

Caroline couldn't help feeling so protective of him. It just felt natural. She wondered just how long she would wish the feelings would be reciprocal before she finally gave up on him. She slowly sank down on her high backed chair and brought her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. Resting her chin on her knees, she watched him sleeping, wondering if they were growing closer or if it was just her wishful imagination. Sometime later, she felt her neck snap as she realized she was falling asleep in the chair. She wandered upstairs, knowing Richard would wake early and be gone before she got up.

To be continued. . .