CHAPTER TEN

The Medical Office of Michael Burton, MD

Sunday, April 18, 2004

1:00 PM

Mike and Nancy were at Mike's office. They had come in to meet with Vicky Parsons and go over things with her prior to Parsons joining the practice. Nancy didn't need to be there, but she had finagled her way into the meeting. Despite acknowledging to herself that this was an issue *only* because Parsons was young and attractive woman, she hadn't gotten over it. Being present for the meeting made Nancy feel better.

They were waiting in Mike's office, but with the door open so they could hear when Parsons' knocked.

"Well, Nance," Mike said with satisfaction, "here's where I start getting some more time to be home with you and Sarah."

Nancy smiled at Mike, happy that his reason for all this was herself and their daughter. Nancy walked over to where Mike was sitting and leaned down to kiss him. They kissed for several moments, when a voice startled the two of them.

"Well," Dr. Jerome said, his voice dropping with sarcasm, "excuse me, Dr. Burton, Mrs. Burton. I thought this was a medical office, not a motel room."

"Um, Dr. Jerome," Mike stuttered in surprise. "What ... what are you doing here?"

"I was driving by and noticed your car in the parking lot," Dr. Jerome said, glaring at Mike. "I decided it was time you and I had a little talk, Zippy."

"Dr. Jerome," Nancy began, tired of Dr. Jerome's continued attacks on Mike's intelligence and physical appearance. "I don't think ..."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Burton," Dr. Jerome said, "it's your husband's lack of thinking that concerns me."

Nancy snapped her mouth shut with click, startled that Dr. Jerome had interrupted her. He had always shown her courtesy, if nothing else.

"Now listen," Dr. Jerome said, "you lumbering ox, I thought I made it clear when I caught you with Bozo the clown that I was not going to stand for you partnering with some half-witted freak that got their medical degree from a cracker jack box."

"Yes," Mike said through clenched teeth, "you did say something to that effect. But, *with all due respect*, Dr. Jerome, you don't ..."

"Don't you dare sit there and tell me that I have no authority to tell you who you can and can't hire, you brainless escapee from the Children's Zoo!!" Dr. Jerome fairly screamed at Mike. "I made this practice what it is today, and I will not stand by while you parade an endless procession of fruitcakes through this office!!"

"While I was quite shocked to find that you had enough brains to realize that you needed a partner," Dr. Jerome said scathingly, "I'm still going to make it my job to make sure that you get someone in this office who is qualified enough to counter balance your infantile efforts at playing doctor!"

"Well, Dr. Jerome," Mike said looking at the figure standing behind Dr. Jerome, "perhaps you'd like to meet the doctor *I* have chosen to be my new partner, then?"

"Oh, please," Dr. Jerome said sarcastically with a wave of his hand, "bring this paragon of the Hippocratic oath forward."

"I'm right behind you," Vicky Parsons, MD, said with scorn. "...Uncle Walter."

Mike and Nancy's jaws dropped open at Parsons' last two words, while Dr. Jerome whirled around to face Parsons.

"Vicky!" Dr. Jerome exclaimed in surprise. "I had no idea that you were one of Dr. Burton's candidates. It's wonderful that he's chosen you!"

Jerome turned to face Mike and Nancy again and said, "I am truly, truly surprised, Dr. Burton. For perhaps the first time in the entire, sad period that I've known you, you have actually shown real intelligence. Are the neurons in your brain finally sta..."

"That's enough!!" Parsons yelled.

Dr. Jerome whirled around to face Parsons again, his face paling at the fury written on her face. She stepped forward and poked Dr. Jerome in the chest and said, "You know, Uncle Walter, I didn't become a doctor just because of Dad, but also because of you. I saw how you cared about your patients, how much knowledge of medicine you had stored up in that head – that bald head – of yours!"

"As I started practicing medicine on my own," Parsons continued speaking and poked Dr. Jerome in the chest again, "I heard stories about what an acerbic little man you were. But I didn't believe them. Those stories couldn't possibly be about my 'Uncle Walter', my godfather. He was just such a sweet man. People must have been confusing you with someone else."

Mike and Nancy shared a stunned look – Dr. Jerome was Parsons' godfather!?

Parsons took a step forward, forcing Dr. Jerome to take a step further into Mike's office, and poked him in the chest again. She continued her tirade, "But now I see that those stories were true. I've been here almost since the beginning of your little rant and I have to say ... I'm appalled and deeply embarrassed at this moment to think that I looked up to you."

Dr. Jerome looked crestfallen at that last remark, and dropped his head in shame.

"I was ecstatic when Dr. Burton called me and let me know he thought I would make a great partner in this medical practice," Parsons continued. "I didn't say anything to him about being your goddaughter. I wanted to earn this on my own. Now it seems that telling Mike that information probably would have *prevented* him from asking me."

She looked over at Mike for a moment, before returning her heated gaze to Dr. Jerome and said, "Now, Uncle Walter. I think you're done here. (Dr. Jerome nodded in silence). Mike and I have some things to discuss, the least being whether or not he still wants me as his partner. You and I *will* talk later."

Dr. Jerome nodded again. He turned to Mike and Nancy and said, "Good day, Dr. Burton. Always a pleasure, Mrs. Burton."

Mike, Nancy, and Parsons watched as Dr. Jerome walked out of the office. They heard the front door open and close. Parsons turned to look at the Burtons and blew out a breath.

"Well," Parsons said, "that was interesting."

Mike and Nancy just stared at her in shock.

"Sorry about that," Parsons continued. "When I got here, the door was open and I heard voices. I couldn't believe when I heard Uncle Walter talking to the two of you like that. I'm so ashamed ... and I'm very sorry."

Mike nodded, still unable to speak.

"I'll understand if you want to withdraw the partnership offer, Mike," Parsons said quietly.

Mike looked at Nancy for a moment.

The response came from Nancy, who smiled and said, "Are you kidding?! You're perfect!"

***

The home of Molly Hudson

Sunday, April 18, 2004

6:00 PM

The sound level in Molly's house was pretty high, which was surprising considering there was only a handful of people. But almost everyone was talking and laughing. *Almost* everyone - Ryan Knoll sat sullenly in a corner of the dining room, his arms crossed in front of his chest.

Molly and Shawn kept sending concerned glances over at him and the others had all tried at various points to engage him in conversation. The only one who'd gotten a normal response from him was little Sarah. Despite whatever was bothering Ryan, he couldn't bring himself to take it out on a cute little four-year-old.

Mike was going through his fourth rendition of Vicky Parsons "ripping ol' Dr. Jerome a new one." Nancy elbowed him when he used that phrase and told him - again - to watch what he said around Sarah. But Mike's euphoria over seeing Dr. Jerome reduced to a quivering mass wouldn't be dampened, even with Nancy's admonishment.

Ed and Carol were listening to Mike tell his story with their arms around each other's waists. Carol was still concerned about Ed's lack of a proposal – 'Not that he *has* to propose,' she told herself yet again! – but she had certainly been enjoying the return to normalcy she and Ed had experienced.

Ed's own thoughts at that moment were actually about proposing to Carol. Ed has also noticed the return to normalcy. Carol hadn't exhibited any neurotic behavior in a few days – 'Well,' he thought with a mental grin, 'at least not any neurotic behavior I would associate with Nick's visit!' He had the engagement ring with him and had decided that he would ask later, during a walk he'd suggest they take before going home.

Shawn was on the floor playing with Sarah ... and enjoying himself immensely. He had just been introduced to Sarah's imaginary pony, Clyde. When Clyde declined to give Sarah a ride, Shawn offered his own services. After giving Sarah a moment to climb up on his back and find a good grip, Shawn was off on all fours around the dining room. Sarah squealed "Giddyup!" and kicked her "spurs" into Shawn sides, eliciting a small "Oomph!" Everyone laughed as Shawn pranced around giving Sarah a ride – even Ryan smiled...

... if only just a little

Molly watched the scene in her dining room with a feeling of contentment – well, mostly. She noticed how Mike and Nancy seemed really relaxed and she was glad that Mike had a partner that he – and Nancy, now – felt they could trust. Ed and Carol were joined at the hip, which Molly considered to be a very good thing. And she wasn't at all worried about Ed proposing – he would get to it in his own time and in his own way.

Molly smiled with deep affection as Shawn "galloped" around a corner with Sarah bouncing slightly on his back – she liked the look of Shawn with a youngster. Then she smiled inwardly, realizing that she was doing the same "forward thinking" with Shawn that Carol was doing with Ed.

Finally, Molly's gaze slid over to Ryan. As soon as he had gotten to her house, he had plopped down in that chair and just sulked. Truth to tell, she was getting a little tired of it, but wasn't sure what to do about it. She was still contemplating it when a bell sounded in the kitchen. She slipped into the kitchen to check on things.

Before long, the group was seated around the dining room table. The meal consisted of a large pot roast in rich, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, corn, peas, salad, and fresh-baked rolls. Dinner conversation was a lot quieter than the pre-dinner clamor as people stuffed their faces hungrily.

"So, Mike," Ed asked as he helped himself to some more potatoes, "when does this hot, young doctor start working?"

Carol punched him playfully on the arm.

Through a mouthful of pot roast, Mike said, "She'll begin in two weeks. On May 3rd."

"Good, good," Ed said strangely.

"Why?" Nancy asked curiously as she sipped her wine.

"Oh, nothing," Ed said, "I just need a physical and I figured ..."

Carol cut him off by shoving a roll into his mouth and said, "Don't even think about it, Ed!"

Everyone laughed.

"Hey," Molly said suddenly, "I forgot to mention. Nick made a sizable donation to the Stuckeyville High School library."

"Great!" Nancy said.

"Yeah," Molly said as she passed the corn to Shawn, "but Nick did put one caveat on the donation."

"Oh?" Carol asked, half-expecting the answer.

"Well," Molly said, "we can do pretty much whatever we want with the money, but we do have to use some of the money to buy *all* of Nick's books."

"You're kidding," Mike asked, a forkful of peas halfway to his mouth.

"Why," Carol said with a shake of her head, "doesn't that surprise me?"

"Because Nick is a pompous, ass ..." Ed began saying. Nancy threw him a dirty look and glanced towards Sarah. Ed finished, "... --- piring writer."

"Nice save, buddy," Mike said. Everyone laughed.

---

The dinner plates had been cleared. Dessert plates, dessert forks, and mugs for coffee and tea were set on the table. Molly and Shawn were in the kitchen getting the desserts out.

Molly had laid the desserts - a lemon meringue pie, a raspberry cheesecake, and a bowl of chocolate mousse - out on a large tray that was sitting on the counter. Shawn was getting cream and sugar together, which he put on the second tray with the coffee and tea pots.

Molly had just gotten a couple of serving utensils out of the drawer when she turned around and stopped cold ...

Shawn was on one knee in the middle of the kitchen floor. In his hands was a small, opened jewelry box – Molly noted absently how small the jewelry box looked in Shawn's large hands.

And, of course, inside the jewelry box – sparkling and flashing in the kitchen light – was a diamond ring. Molly stood there for a moment, her eyes fixed on the jewelry box. She finally jerked her gaze off of the ring and up to Shawn's face. He smiled hugely when she finally looked at *him*.

Very carefully, Shawn said, "Molly Hudson ... will you marry me?"

For one of the first times in her life, Molly found herself speechless. Shawn's eyes twinkled, knowing that she was speechless – and enjoying having caused it. Finally, Molly was able to quietly say, "Yes."

She stepped forward and Shawn carefully placed the ring on her finger. He smiled as he did it, then stood up. They looked at one another for a moment, then Molly looked at the ring. Suddenly, Molly dropped the utensils that she had still been holding in her right hand, leapt into Shawn's arms and kissed him – quite passionately.

When the others heard the crash of the utensils on the floor, they all stopped talking.

"Everything okay in there?" Carol called.

When they got no response, they all started to stand up and find out what was going on. As they opened the swinging door into the kitchen they saw Molly and Shawn kissing, Molly hanging in Shawn's embrace.

"Ahem," Ed said after a moment of surprised silence.

Molly and Shawn broke apart, Molly's heels clicking on the kitchen floor as her feet returned to the ground – at least literally.

Molly turned around to face them all - including Ryan - and said, "Um, I guess Shawn and I have an announcement to make."

She lifted her left hand up to show the ring and said, "We're engaged!"

There was another moment of surprised silence before people rushed forward to congratulate them. Ed got to Molly first and gave her a *huge* hug. He broke off to let others congratulate Molly, then shook Shawn's hand heartily. Mike and Nancy said their congratulations as well.

Carol was next. She had been surprised into momentary paralysis. She had been so focused on Ed proposing to her, that Shawn's proposal to Molly just blindsided her. As she moved forward to congratulate the couple, she was *really* happy for Molly and Shawn.

But there was a small part of her that was upset. Upset that Shawn had proposed before Ed. She knew that Shawn and Molly had been "dating" longer than she and Ed, but with the long history she and Ed shared she couldn't shake the feeling that she should have been first. Inside, she cringed at that thought, knowing it was wrong. After all, she had already been engaged once – so why should this be such a big deal?

'Because,' Carol thought, 'after all Ed and I have been through – reaching a point where we were both ready to date each other, then dating each other – I just assumed the next step would be marriage!'

None of the inner turmoil showed on Carol's face as she threw herself at Molly, hugging her fiercely and congratulating her. She did the same for Shawn.

And Ryan still stood holding the door between the kitchen and the dining room open. He looked stricken. He couldn't believe this. He had made his feelings about his father dating clearly known. So, how could this be happening?

At almost the same moment, the others realized that Ryan was still standing there. They turned as one to look at him, standing in the doorway. The same basic thought flashed through all of their minds as they looked at his face – 'Uh-oh!!'

Shawn was the first to speak, "Ryan."

Ryan looked at his father, but couldn't make himself speak.

Then Molly repeated what Shawn had said, "Ryan."

*That* opened the flood gates!

"Yes ... Mom?!" Ryan said with a mixture of sarcasm and anguish.

Molly flinched at Ryan's tone.

"What?" Ryan asked in the same tone. "Isn't that what you want me to call you? Or am I going to have to keep calling you Ms. Hudson, because I think calling you Molly is out."

"Ryan," Shawn said, "I know that you're upset, but I want you to be happy for us."

"Happy for you?" Ryan asked incredulously. "What about me? Do I get to be happy?"

Shawn and Molly both opened their mouths to speak, but Ryan continued, "And what about my mother? Didn't she deserve a chance to be happy? But, I guess I shouldn't worry, cause I've got a new mother now. This is *just* what the kids at school have been busting me about!"

"Ryan," Molly said, "I'm not trying to replace your mother."

"Good," Ryan spat angrily. "Because you can't even come close!"

Everyone flinched that time.

Ryan looked like he was going to say more, but he suddenly turned around and walked back into the dining room, letting the door close behind him. Everyone stood there for several moments, unsure of what to do.

They all started when they heard the front door slam. Molly and Shawn dashed into the dining room and towards the front door. They threw open the door and ran onto the porch. They looked both ways and saw Ryan running down the street to the left.

"Ryan!!" Shawn yelled after his son.

"I'll go after him," Molly said, "his issues are with me."

"No," Shawn said, "I should go."

"No," someone else said, "I'll go."

Molly, Shawn and the others turned to look at Carol in surprise.

"I lost my mother when I was 12," Carol said simply. "And I had some real issues after I found out Dad had re-married. I think I have the best understanding of what he is going through."

Shawn looked at Molly, uncertainty written in his eyes. When she nodded at him, he turned to Carol and said, "Okay."

Carol started to walk down the steps when she felt Ed's hand on her arm. He said, "Do you..."

She shook her head before he could finish asking if she wanted him to go with her. She *always* liked having Ed with her, but this wasn't her choice. Ed simply nodded in return and let her go. As they watched Carol get into the Explorer and pull away, the joy of Molly and Shawn's engagement was gone.

***

A local park

Sunday, April 18, 2004

8:30 PM

Carol drove down the street. Her last view of Ryan from the front porch was of him making a left two blocks up, so she followed suit. She didn't see him on that street, so she drove slowly through the next intersection and looked both ways; she still didn't see him.

When she got to the next intersection she slowed again and looked both ways. When she looked right she caught a glimpse of what she thought was Ryan a block away. If it was him, he was just making a right turn. She made the right then drove to the next intersection. When she looked right, she didn't see anyone.

'Now what do I do?' Carol thought to herself. With a sigh, she made the right turn. As she started down the block, she saw a small playground off to her left – and a lone figure sitting on one of the swings. She pulled into an open parking spot on the street and got out.

As she walked across the streets and towards the park, she thought she could hear him crying. She suddenly realized that she didn't really know what she was going to say to him. With a shrug, she completed the walk to the park.

"Ryan," Carol said softly as she got closer to him.

Ryan jerked as if shocked and looked up. When he saw it was Carol, he said, "Ms. Vessey ... please just leave me alone."

"Sorry," Carol said as she sat on the swing next to him, "can't do that."

"Because you're Ms. Hudson's friend," he stated, not questioned.

"No," she replied, "because I'm worried about you."

He looked up, surprised. He had expected her to admit she was there because of Ms. Hudson.

Carol grabbed the chains of the swing and kicked off a little, letting herself swing back and forth slightly.

"You know," Carol said, sounding surprised, "I can't remember the last time I swung on a swing."

Ryan was off balance. He had expected someone to come after him, his father or Ms. Hudson. But it was Ms. Vessey and she wasn't trying to talk to him about what he was feeling. She was just sitting – well, swinging – with him. Ryan didn't know what to do, so he began swinging himself.

They just sat there, swinging back and forth for a few minutes.

"I lost my mother when I was 12 years old," Carol said softly, startling Ryan. He whipped his head to look at her. She just shook her head to the question on his face.

"No," Carol said with a small, sad smile, "I'm not kidding you. It was ... hard."

'Hard' was such a simple word, but the way Carol said it made it clear to Ryan that she *did* understand what it was like to lose a parent at that age.

Carol continued, "It was me, my younger sister, Stella, and my Dad. Dad threw himself into his work after Mom died. I wound up kind of playing mother to Stella."

Carol stopped talking for a moment and just let Ryan absorb what she'd said.

"Do you still miss your mother?" Ryan asked.

Carol looked over at him, tears in her eyes, and said softly, "Every day, Ryan ... every day."

"Does it ever get better?" Ryan then asked, almost pleading with her to say yes.

Carol thought for a moment, then said, "It depends on what you mean by better. Do you stop missing your mother? No. Does the pain lessen? Somewhat. But it also has a way of just kind of sneaking up on you and hitting you when you least expect it. You find out that the smallest things can make you remember them and the loss ... the grief, hits all over again."

"Oh," Ryan said as he looked at the ground by his feet.

"But," Carol said, making Ryan look back up at her, "you do learn to get on with your life. To ... well, I was going to say to get back to a normal routine, but things aren't normal after you lose a parent. But you do learn to make a new kind of normal. One in which you no longer have that parent but can be happy."

"But, by being happy, aren't you, like, trampling on their memory?" he asked.

"Let me ask you a question," Carol said. When he nodded, she continued, "When your mother was alive, did she want you to be happy."

"Well, yeah," Ryan replied, surprised that Carol even asked the question.

"Then what makes you think she wouldn't want you to be happy now that she's gone?" Carol asked with raised eyebrows.

Ryan looked thoughtful for a moment. Finally he spoke, a little acidly, "So what you're saying is that I should go back to Ms. Hudson's house and congratulate my father on moving on with his life?"

"No," Carol shook her head and said, without a trace of annoyance in her voice, "that's not what I'm saying. That's a separate issue."

"Then what are you saying?" Ryan demanded.

Carol sighed, then said, "What I'm saying is that its okay to mourn your mother. To feel grief over her passing and for all the things that she will never get to see of your life (Ryan's eyes filled with tears at those words). But with all of that, you have to remember that your mother wants you to be *happy*, Ryan! Its all a mother ever wants for her child."

Ryan turned away, a little ashamed of the tears that he shed for his mother at that moment. For her part, Carol looked away as well, giving Ryan time to compose himself, while she continued to swing slowly back and forth.

A few more minutes passed. When he was ready, Ryan said, "You said that my father and Ms. Hudson being ... engaged (he had trouble saying the word) was a separate issue?"

"Yes, it is," Carol said. She looked off into the night for a moment, then asked, "Do you remember Principal Martino?"

"Sure," Ryan said, "you were supposed to marry him."

"Right," Carol said a little sadly. "Well, I hadn't told my father that I was engaged to Den ... Principal Martino. Anyway, a little while before the wedding, my father came back to town. When he found out I was engaged he was a little upset. We argued and I learned some things."

"Like what?" Ryan asked curiously.

"Like the fact that my father had re-married a year before that and I never knew it," Carol said quietly.

Ryan's head whipped up to stare at Carol in shock. 'She's got to be kidding this time!' he thought. But as he looked into her eyes, he knew she was telling the truth.

"My father and I," Carol said, "were very close when my mother was alive. After she died and Dad threw himself into his work, we started to drift apart. Dad thought he had to work extra hard to compensate, that he had to protect Stella and I from everything. Over the years the rift got bigger. Eventually we called each other, but we never really *talked* to one another – it was more like we talked *at* one another."

Carol sighed, then continued, "When Dad came back to town, I went to see him. He was out, but his *wife* was in."

Ryan winced and Carol nodded as she saw his expression.

"I was ... upset," Carol said blandly, "to say the least."

"What did you do?" Ryan asked, completely lost in Carol's story.

"I had a big fight with my father," Carol said with a snort. "Which didn't really help the situation any."

Carol gave a meaningful glance at Ryan, who nodded in understanding.

"Did you work it out?" Ryan asked, intensely interested in the answer.

"Yeah, we did," Carol said with satisfaction ... and a small smile. "But it wasn't easy. I had to realize two very important things before I could deal with Dad being re-married."

"What two things?" Ryan asked, intent on Carol. A grenade could have gone off next to him and he wouldn't have noticed at that point.

"One," Carol said and raised her index finger, "was that my father was just as important to me as my mother had been – is – to me."

Carol looked at Ryan for a moment, seeing if that point had sunk in. She wasn't sure, but she thought so.

"And second," she said, raising a second finger to join the first, "was that my mother wanted my father to be happy, too. *Even* ... if that meant that he re-married."

Carol could tell that was a bigger pill for Ryan to swallow, but he was at least considering it.

Ryan swung back and forth for a few minutes, before he turned to Carol and said, "Ms. Vessey? (Carol raised her eyebrows) Do you get along with your stepmother? Do you like her?"

"Yes, actually I do," Carol said, surprised herself at the answer. "She's a really nice lady and she loves my father very much. When it comes down to it, *I* want my father to be happy. If my stepmother makes him happy, then I will handle it."

Ryan repeated his question from earlier, this time without the bitterness, "So what you're saying is that I should go back to Ms. Hudson's house and congratulate my father on moving on with his life?"

"No," Carol answered his question the same way as before. She leaned over and put her hand on his arm. "I'm saying that you should go back to Ms. Hudson's house and congratulate both your father *and* Ms. Hudson on being *engaged*. Give them a chance to be happy. Give *yourself* a chance to be happy."

Ryan just sat there for a few more minutes, deep in thought. Carol had given him a lot to think about and he wasn't sure he had completely resolved anything, but she was right. He *did* want his father to be happy and he truly *liked* Molly. They deserved a chance ... and so did he.

Ryan starting swinging more briskly. Carol just watched as he swung further and further. At the front end of one of his arcs, he let go and flew off the swing. He was airborne for less than a second, but it felt like he was so much lighter when his feet hit the ground.

He turned to look at Carol and said, "Are you driving or do I have to walk back?"

Carol laughed and stood up. "Come on," Carol said as she slipped her arm inside his, "I'll drive."

As they got to the Explorer, Ryan said slyly, "You know, I do have my license."

"Not a chance. Get in." Carol said with a smile.

---

Everyone was in the dining room. Nancy had been a little upset that Mike had a piece of both pies as well as some of the chocolate mousse, but Molly had been relieved to see someone eating the desserts. Eventually they all had some small bit of dessert.

They all jumped when they heard the front door open. Shawn stood up, concern etched in every line in his face. Molly stood up too and took Shawn's hand in hers.

They were all relieved when Carol *and* Ryan walked in together. It was obvious that Ryan had been crying and it looked like Carol might have shed some tears herself.

Ryan looked sheepishly around the room, acknowledging the mess he'd made of their evening. He finally turned his gaze to his father. They stood that way for a few moments before Ryan walked towards his father.

Carol stayed where she was. She cupped her right elbow with her left hand as she raised her right hand and tucked it under her chin. She gnawed her lower lip in concern as she watched Ryan walking across the room. She honestly didn't know what he was going to do or say.

Ed raised his eyebrows at Carol, silently asking her if Ryan was okay. She gave a small shrug in response.

Ryan stopped about two feet away from his father. He looked up into his father's face, then slowly extended his hand. He said softly and sincerely, "Congratulations, Dad."

Shawn's eye misted momentarily as he took Ryan's hand. He only shook Ryan's hand for about a second before he pulled Ryan into a rough embrace, which Ryan returned. The two Knoll men broke apart after a moment.

Ryan turned to Molly and said, "I'm sorry about the things I've said, Ms. Hudson. I can't promise that I'm completely okay with this, but I can promise that I won't be such a jerk to you again."

"Thanks, Ryan," Molly said with tears in her eyes.

"Oh," Ryan said, "and congratulations! He's a little rough around the edges (Ryan jerked his thumb in the direction of his father), but he's a good guy!"

Ryan grinned as everyone laughed. Molly pulled him into a hug which he surprised both of them by returning so fiercely.

***

The home of Ed Stevens and Carol Vessey

Sunday, April 18, 2004

10:00 PM

Ed and Carol walked into their house holding hands.

"What an evening, huh?" Ed said.

"Yeah," Carol said.

"You'll have to tell me what you said to Ryan," Ed said with a smile.

"I think," Carol said slowly, "that I'll leave that between Ryan and I. Is that okay?"

Ed thought for a moment, then said, "Yeah, but I will admit to intense curiosity."

"Deal with it," Carol said teasingly.

Ed kicked off his shoes, then sat sideways on the couch, one leg on the couch and the other leg on the floor. Carol positioned herself in front of him, her back resting on his chest. Ed wrapped his arms around Carol and closed his eyes.

"I'm really happy for Molly and Shawn," Ed said.

"Yeah, me too," Carol said, but with a little less enthusiasm than Ed had. Ed didn't notice.

"I wonder how quickly they'll get married?" Ed wondered aloud.

"Um, don't know," Carol said blandly, "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

"I guess you'll be the maid of honor," Ed said. With his eyes closed, he didn't see Carol's wince at the word "maid".

"Might be," Carol said evenly. "We'll just have to wait and see."

"This wedding should be a blast," Ed said.

Carol ground her teeth. 'What is he *doing*?! Is he purposely trying to upset me, because if he isn't then he couldn't do a better job if he tried!'

"Mmm," is all Carol responded.

"I wonder how Ryan will react to any younger brothers or sisters?" Ed asked.

Carol stood up suddenly, surprising Ed, her inner turmoil bubbling over and out.

"Carol, are you okay?" Ed asked in concern.

"I'm fine," Carol snapped.

"I'm not sure I believe that," Ed said.

Carol glared at him, then said, "Nothings wrong, Ed. Everything about our lives is just fine. Everything is just smooth sailing, staying the course. No need to change anything!"

Ed looked at her in confusion. She wasn't making any sense to him. He stood up, walked over to her, and said, "Carol, what's wrong. *Something* is bothering you. If I've done something wrong, tell me so I can fix it."

"No, Ed," Carol said, "you haven't done anything wrong. You haven't *done* a single thing!"

Ed blinked at the vehemence of her last statement and started to open his mouth to say something, but Carol said, "I'm going for a walk. I need to get out of here."

She grabbed a light jacket from the closet and headed for the front door while Ed stood there in shock.

"Don't wait up for me!" Carol said as she walked out of the house.

Ed watched in confusion as the front door closed behind her.

---

Carol had been walking for a little while now and so far all she'd succeeded in doing was calming down a little. Her thoughts were still an emotional cyclone.

'Nick was right. Ed and I are in exactly the same place as Nick and I were three and a half years ago! Ed and I have been dating for over a year - we celebrated our first anniversary last weekend - and he's never spoken to me about wanting to get married."

Carol turned right onto another street. She wasn't even sure where she was – she had been studiously ignoring street signs and where she was walking.

'Maybe Ed doesn't want to marry me,' she thought. 'Maybe he's afraid of us turning out like he and Liz.'

Carol sighed and dug her hands deeper into her jacket pockets. Although it was spring, the evenings were still chilly. She thought about turning back and heading home, but she wasn't ready to face Ed yet.

She continued walking for a while.

'Doesn't he see that I want to be his wife?!' Carol thought. 'That I want to spend the rest of my life with him, have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren with him!?'

As she continued walking, she got her bearings and realized that she was several blocks away from home. She started heading back, not knowing what time it was but knowing it was getting late.

Her thoughts traveled back to her conversation with Ryan early that evening as she got closer to home. About Ryan having a choice of continuing to be a sullen, angry kid because his father was marrying Molly, or dealing with it and giving himself, his father, and Molly a chance to be happy.

Carol turned the corner and saw the house she shared with Ed up ahead. She stopped walking and just looked at it. She could see the light on in the living room. She realized that Ed must be up waiting for her. She didn't know what she was going to tell him. She didn't want him to ask her to marry him just because she raised the issue. She wanted him to ask her to marry him because its what he *wanted*.

She continued walking towards the house. She walked up the porch stairs and opened the door quietly. She could hear the television in the living room. Carol removed her coat and hung it on the banister, then slipped into the living room.

Ed was asleep on the couch. He had obviously been waiting up for her, but had fallen asleep during the news. She looked down at Ed. The man who had pursued her heart for three years only to win it when she thought she might lose him forever. She didn't know how she had ever denied her feelings for Ed. He meant *so* much to her now. Her friend, her confidant, her lover.

She wanted to be able to add "her husband" to that list, but she knew she had a choice to make. Either live with the fact that Ed hadn't – might never – ask her to marry him, or don't. She knew she couldn't make any choice but to live with it ...

Or *could* she, she thought suddenly.

She reached down and grabbed the remote from the coffee table and turned the TV off. The sudden absence of sound woke Ed.

He blinked bleary eyes open and saw her standing there. "Carol?" he said.

Carol walked over and sat down next to Ed, then said, "Remember a year ago when I found you at the Smiling Goat, during the whole Carol-Ed-Frankie thing?"

"Yeah," Ed answered.

"I told you that there were a few carefully chosen things I wanted to say," Carol said, "and that I would appreciate it if I could say them without interruption."

"I remember," Ed replied.

"Good," Carol said, "Cause I need you to do the same thing right now. Let me talk without interrupting me. Can you do that?"

"Of course, but ..." Ed said.

"No buts," Carol said. With a small smile, she continued, "And try to do a better job this time than you did last time, okay?"

He snorted softly, but nodded.

"Good," Carol repeated. She stood up and walked across the room, turned around and walked back towards Ed. She stopped in front of him and looked him in the eye.

"Okay," Carol said. "I know I've been a little ... 'off" lately (Ed raised his eyebrows, but said nothing). Nick coming back to Stuckeyville threw me for a loop. Not because he was physically back in town, but because in a weird way he was back in my life."

Carol paused, waiting for Ed to say something so she could pounce on him for speaking, but he just smiled smugly at her with closed lips.

Carol chuckled, then continued, "When Nick and I were together it was all about Nick. I was just along for the ride, not really having much of a say. Nick always put himself – his needs, his wants – ahead of me. Needless to say, this did not help my self-esteem."

"But then I broke up with Nick and he left Stuckeyville," Carol said, "and for the first time in my life, I didn't have a boyfriend. Sure, you were pursuing me, but we weren't dating. You were a great friend to me right when I needed it. I started to find my place, my footing."

"Of course, I backslid a little when I started dating Dennis," Carol said. She paused as Ed snorted, but when he gave her an innocent look, she continued, "Then Dennis was gone, too. And finally you and I got together. And everything was ..." She paused catching herself, "Everything *is* great. But then Nick sort of came back in and messed me up for a little while," Carol admitted. "I started to feel like I wasn't worth anything again – like I needed to prove something to him, to myself. I was upset because Nick was married, with kids, while you and I aren't even engaged!"

Ed started to open his mouth to speak, but Carol cut him off with a raised hand and said, "Not finished."

Ed's mouth snapped shut with a click. Ed leaned back and slipped his right hand into his right pocket and left it there.

"Then tonight I got upset because Molly and Shawn got engaged," Carol continued, "and you and I aren't."

Carol could tell that Ed really, *really* wanted to say something, but she wasn't going to let up on him so easily.

"Your comments – your innocent comments – about Molly and Shawn's wedding plans got to me, because ..." Carol stopped and rolled her right hand in the air, then continued, "you and I aren't planning our wedding."

Carol took a deep breath, while Ed looked like he was going to pop. She even amusingly thought she saw his ears bulging in his efforts not to speak. Ed pulled his hand back out of his pocket.

"So I went for a walk," Carol said. "To think. So I thought about it all and I came to a decision. I decided that I was going to tell you what I was feeling. And I decided that I don't want you to propose to me."

Ed's mouth fell open in shock. Carol ignored it because he wasn't actually speaking.

She stepped closer to Ed and then kneeled down on her right knee.

".... No, I don't want you to propose to me," Carol said as she looked into Ed's blue eyes and smiled.

"Edward Jeremy Stevens," Carol said, "will *you* marry *me*?"

Ed sat there speechless for a moment before he finally smiled hugely and tried to speak. Unfortunately, only a squeak came out.

He cleared his throat and tried again, "Yes, Carol. Yes, I will marry you!"

Ed then leaned down to kiss Carol.

When they finally broke apart, Ed said, "So, where's my ring?"

"What?!" Carol exclaimed.

"Well," Ed said seriously, "I think it customary for the proposer to give a ring to the proposee."

Carol looked at him in shock, then pushed him back onto the couch. She straddled his lap, shook her finger at him, and said, "Oh no! You're not going to get away with this. I don't care if I *am* the one who proposed. I still expect a nice, big, fat, engagement ring, buster!!"

"But ..." Ed said.

Carol cut him off, "No buts!"

"Oh, alright," Ed said petulantly. After a moment a large smile creased his face as he held up the engagement ring – the ring he had been carrying around in his pocket for weeks – and said, "Will this do?"

It was Carol's turn to stare at Ed in shock.

She couldn't believe he had a ring!

"But," Carol said, "that means that you *did* want to ask me to marry you!"

"Yes, I did. And I do, Carol," Ed said, "I tried a couple of times, but things always got in the way. It really doesn't matter who asks who. What matters is that we both want this."

Ed grabbed Carol's left hand with his left hand, then slid the engagement ring on her finger with his right hand.

Carol looked at Ed and smiled. She leaned in and kissed him. They kissed passionately for several moments, then separated slowly. As Ed looked into her eyes, he said, "Do you think with should move this upstairs?" Ed's meaning about "this" was clear.

"Actually," Carol said coyly, "we should call Molly ... and Mike and Nancy. We need to share to good news!"

Ed could tell she was just teasing him, but he decided to join in on the fun. He didn't say anything as she slowly reached over to grab the cordless phone. She watched Ed's face the whole time, waiting for him to make some sort of move to stop her.

She picked up the phone and started dialing. Ed's hands started playing along her lower back and moved upwards.

Carol stopped in mid-dial and looked at Ed with a look that left nothing to Ed's imagination as to what she was thinking. Carol threw the phone aside and said, "On second thought, I'll tell them in the morning."

Carol started kissing Ed again. After a moment Ed stood up. Ed disappeared up the stairs, holding Carol's slim form easily in his arms.

The Beginning....