Fran stood in the foyer, admiring the elegantly decorated Christmas tree, clad in clear and frosted ornaments, white blinking lights, and glittery tinsel. She drew in a deep breath and expelled a blissful sigh as the fresh heady scent of the pine tree filled her nose.
"My favorite time of year."
She had come to love Christmas as much as the rest of the Sheffield household. The spirit of the holiday mixed with the frantic thrill of shopping and decorating the Christmas tree seduced her right from the start.
"Oy, I feel like I've been possessed by Gentiles!"
Fran chuckled to herself as she made her way into the kitchen. Pushing the swing door open, the aroma of rum cake nestled in the oven greeted her senses. Her mouth watered, anticipating the feel of the velvety dessert gliding across her tongue.
Walking over to the refrigerator, she opened both doors and stared inside. Fran blew out a bored sigh then closed the doors to the sub zero. Even though there was a multitude of dishes on the shelves, there wasn't anything in the refrigerator that tempted her.
Her thoughts drifted to the kids. Fran was proud of her children. She shook her head, awed by the transformation in their personalities.
Maggie's a beautiful, social butterfly, Brighton's not as mischievous as he was when we first met, and my little Gracie, while still advanced for her young age, is happy and outgoing. What a difference five years make!
She wanted to be part of their family. She belonged with the family, to care for them and love them as her very own, not just as their nanny.
"Maybe one day they will be," she murmured absently.
Making his way down the backstairs, Niles paused when he heard Fran's plaintive declaration. He shook his head, knowing that the root of her problem was Maxwell Sheffield.
"Maybe who will be what Ms. Fine?"
Even as Niles asked the question, he had a good idea of what she was thinking. They shared many late nights over the past two years, discussing and dissecting her feelings for their employer and Maxwell's reluctance to advance their relationship.
She jumped, startled by his soft questioning voice. "Niles! Next time put a bell around your neck!" Fran returned his warm, friendly smile. "I was just thinking. Fantasizing really."
"Spill it girlie!"
Fran wanted to keep her turbulent emotions to herself. She leaned and counted on Niles' friendship right from the start. As much as she didn't want to cry on his shoulder again, the words flew from Fran's mouth before she could rein in her thoughts.
"Oh Niles, I just love this family so much. I mean I love those kids as if they were my own, and do I really have to say how much I love Mr. Sheffield? I just don't know how much longer I can wait. I can't blame him for the way he feels but it's just tearing me apart emotionally. I just don't know what to do anymore."
Niles looked at Fran sadly and replied, "Ms. Fine, you know you're part of this family, not legally but you will always be the children's mother, and you know deep down that Mr. Sheffield loves you too. I will always be your best friend; nothing is going to change that."
Fran's heartache sliced into his soul. He wished he could erase her sadness and make her pain go away. Niles wanted to march into Maxwell's office on countless occasions and shake common sense into him.
Didn't the man know what he was carelessly throwing away?
"Oh Niles, you always know how to make me feel better. Come here and give me a hug!"
Niles took two steps toward her and gave her a big bear hug, picking her up off the floor. As he sat her back down, Fran's smile widened.
With a light peck on his cheek, she said, "Niles, you're the greatest friend a girl could ask for!"
Maxwell ran a frustrated hand through his thick dark locks. He had just hung up with Justin Graham, a man who often tried to override his vision of what made good theatre. CC's acerbic nature was better equipped to handle the brash millionaire and her bout with the flu could not have come at a worse time.
Setting his glasses on the desk, Maxwell leaned back in the chair and massaged his temples. The pounding inside his head multiplied within the last few minutes. As he pressed the button on the intercom, Maxwell stopped and listened to the conversation between Niles and Fran.
When he heard the click of Fran's heels on the stairs, Maxwell released the button. He didn't know what to think. Although he knew Fran loved his children dearly, he didn't realize her feelings for him were so strong.
How could I not have realized how much she loves me? Every time I've kissed her or she's kissed me, I could feel the depth of her love.
"Okay, okay, I know she loves me," he conceded to the empty room, "but I've never actually heard her say it before."
Maxwell rounded his desk and walked out of his office. He was so preoccupied with thoughts of Fran and relieving his raging headache that he failed to see her as she entered the living room.
Reaching out to impede Maxwell, Fran pushed her melancholy thoughts aside and forced a bright smile on her face.
"Hi Mr. Sheffield."
"Hello Ms. Fine."
A flippant remark threatened to leave her mouth at his unenthusiastic response until she noticed the pained expression on his face.
Fran's face drew tight with concern. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."
"I have a bit of a headache."
"Is there something I can do for you?"
"No, thank you." Maxwell trudged toward the stairs then turned back to Fran. "Ms. Fine?"
"Yes Mr. Sheffield?"
"On second thought, would you send Niles up to my room? I'm going to lie down for a little while."
"Okay. I hope you feel better."
"Thank you Ms. Fine."
Fran watched him climb the staircase then disappear from her sight. Heading back toward the kitchen, she pushed the swing door open and stood in the threshold.
"Yes Ms. Fine?"
"Mr. Sheffield wants to see you upstairs."
"He has a headache and went to lie down."
Turning the fire down on the gurgling pots, he pulled a tray from the cupboard, filled a carafe with water, and took the backstairs to check on Maxwell.
Niles tapped lightly on the door then stepped inside the dimly lit bedroom. The lights were off and the curtains drawn to darken the room. He could barely see Maxwell's still form lying in the center of the bed with his arm across his eyes.
"Mr. Sheffield?" Hearing Maxwell's acknowledged grunt, Niles stepped closer to the bed and switched on the lamp. "I brought you some aspirin and some water."
Maxwell reluctantly sat up. Tossing the pills in his mouth, he gulped down the glass of water and put the empty tumbler on the tray.
"Do you need anything else sir?"
"No, thank you Niles," Maxwell replied. "I just want to rest for a while."
Maxwell turned off the light and listened to the soft click of the door closing. He tried to will himself to sleep but the thoughts swirling in his head wouldn't allow his mind to rest.
He could still hear Fran's voice as she spoke with Niles, the timbre of her words edged in sadness.
"…I just don't know how much longer I can wait. I can't blame him for the way he feels but it's just tearing me apart emotionally. I just don't know what to do anymore."
Is she thinking about leaving us? She can't. The children couldn't bear it if Ms. Fine decided to leave the family.
Maxwell clutched his pillow, scrunching it beneath his head.
When are you going to admit the truth? You are the one who can't bear the thought of her leaving. You are terrified that if she left, your life would be empty and meaningless without her.
Images of Fran flashed in his mind. Maxwell smiled, remembering how the children took to her immediately. They had been desperate for love and affection and she had been more than willing to return it.
Ms. Fine ingrained her presence in our family right from the start. I will be forever grateful to her for everything she's done.
Maxwell's smile broadened, thinking of his own interaction with Fran. She always found a way for him to see things in a different light. He had come to rely on her strength, unique wisdom, and friendship over the past five years, even if it countered his own.
She has truly been a good friend and a wonderful mother to the children. The curved form of his mouth faded, flattening across his face. Did I just refer to Ms. Fine as the children's mother?
As their family bond strengthened with each passing year, so did his allure for her. He tried denying his attraction to her, preferring to strengthen their budding friendship instead. He tried ignoring his desire for her, opting to channel his cravings into a platonic association.
Ms. Fine is a beautiful woman. Any normal, healthy male in a five-mile radius would want her.
Maxwell wouldn't, couldn't allow himself to think of Fran outside his affiliation as her employer. He still loved Sara and he forced himself to function within the confines of their defined roles.
Sitting in Nigel's nightclub, listening to Eartha Kitt croon softly in the background, and drinking champagne made for the perfect romantic setting. His normally conservative persona was relaxed, his inhibitions lowered.
Their ill-fated plane ride across the Atlantic changed everything. In the face of death, he allowed his veiled emotions to flow freely. Only when they landed safely did his words come back to haunt him. Instead of letting their relationship develop, Maxwell decided to take the coward's way out and renege on his admission of love.
He knew his retraction was the reason behind her caustic personality. However, when he lay alone in his bed at night and allowed himself the guilty pleasure of replaying their time in Paris, one thought constantly surfaced: why didn't she ever tell him how she felt?
His mind rewound tender and sensual moments between himself and Fran: the soft gentle kiss as they rehearsed Romeo and Juliet; the dance they shared at her camp reunion.
Maxwell remembered how vulnerable Fran looked just before he met her mouth in a searing kiss when she was in the throes of her shopping addiction. He smiled as his mind continued to peruse their shared memories.
Their kiss on the stoop where they agreed to be just friends; the desk clearing kiss during his father's visit; their kiss to show the tabloid reporter that they were a hot couple.
When exactly did we become a couple?
Looking at everything in the stark light of reality, he began to comprehend the true meaning of their relationship. Fran not only loved him, she was in love with him and had been for quite sometime. Her behavior was more of a wife and mother than an employee and nanny.
A light tapping on the door shook him from his musings. The light from the hallway splayed across the carpet as Niles stepped inside the bedroom.
"Mr. Sheffield, will you be joining the rest of the family for dinner?"
"What time is it?"
"It's five thirty sir."
Maxwell switched on the lamp and checked his watch. He ran his fingers through his hair then looked up at Niles.
"I'll have dinner in my room tonight."
"Are you still not feeling well sir? Perhaps I should call your physician."
"That won't be necessary Niles. I need some time alone to think about a few things."
"Very well. I'll bring a tray up in a few minutes."
The house was oddly silent as Fran made her way down the hallway. She checked on the kids, seeing if Maggie, Brighton, or Grace needed anything before she settled in for the night.
Fran stood in the doorway to her room. She hadn't seen Maxwell since their near collision earlier that afternoon. Tossing her purse on the bed, Fran continued down the hallway toward Maxwell's room. She tapped on the door, entering as she knocked.
"Mr. Sheffield? Are you awake?"
Fran found herself staring face to face with her half dressed employer. She caught him when his arm was in mid-flex reaching out to grab the black pajama top from the bed. Fran's pulse began to quicken as her eyes roamed every inch of his body.
Maxwell stared at Fran as he held the silky shirt between his fingers. His eyes dropped to her mouth, following the path of her tongue flicking across her lips.
The idea of her mouth, her body under his sent a surge of desire through his body. Maxwell struggled against the need to close his eyes. Shaking the amorous thoughts from his mind, he cleared his throat and slipped into his pajama top.
"Is there something I can help you with Ms. Fine?"
Fran looked blankly at him, unsure of his question. Drawing a quick breath, she closed her eyes to regain her composure.
"I just wanted to make sure you were okay." Fran crossed the room toward him and pressed her hand against his forehead. "How are you feeling?"
Maxwell gently removed her hand from his brow. Tucking her arm under his, he escorted her to the door.
"Much better, thank you." Lifting her arm, Maxwell heard Fran utter a slight gasp when he pressed his lips to the back of her hand. "Good night Ms. Fine."
Stunned by the gentle caress of his mouth, Fran could only manage a whispered, "Good night Mr. Sheffield," before making her way back to the safety of her bedroom.
The cruiser dingy bobbed gently in the water. It was a perfect day for sailing: the sun shone brightly overhead, the sea was calm, and a gentle peace swaddled Maxwell as he sailed toward an unknown destination.
Blackness suddenly engulfed the atmosphere. A bolt of lightening streaked across the dark sky and a clap of thunder broke in the clouds. Heavy winds blew, pitching the small sailboat around the rough choppy waters.
Maxwell fought desperately to regain control of the craft. His hands were slick and he couldn't get a decent hold on the lines. Thick foamy waves crashed against the boat, threatening to capsize the vessel.
As quickly as it appeared, the rainstorm dissipated. The violent waters receded and the seas were calm once again. Maxwell pushed his damp locks from his face. Wiping his eyes, Maxwell blinked a few times. A broad smile crossed his face. In the distance, he could see the outline of land.
Maxwell's eyes snapped open. He grasped for the security of the bed, his fingers sliding over the cool silk sheets. Pushing himself up in bed, he turned on the lamp and tunneled his fingers through his hair.
That dream. It was so vivid. What did it mean? Maxwell began to flip the covers over but changed his mind. No. I don't think I should involve Ms. Fine. Something tells me she's at the root of the dream.
I don't want to involve Niles in this either. He'll just tell me it's about Ms. Fine. Gracie? No. How would that look, a grown man, her father no less, consulting an eleven-year-old child about a dream?
Maxwell snapped his fingers. Tossing the covers aside, he climbed out of bed and entered the en suite. He knew just the person that could help him.
Maxwell found Yvonne sitting at a table near the front of the bakery. Entering the bustling café, he threaded his way through the crowd. He kissed her cheek then slid into the empty chair across from her.
"Good morning Dr. Rodriguez. I see your breakfast eating habits haven't changed," Maxwell said looking at the broken muffin and cranberry juice sitting on the table.
"Why would it? Good morning to you too by the way."
"I don't know. I thought maybe you'd add something more…expansive to your repertoire."
"Are you going to insult my eating habits or are you joining me for breakfast? I recommend the cranberry scones. They're not as good as Niles' but they're still delicious."
Arching his eyebrow, Maxwell's mouth formed a mischievous grin. "Can't I do both?"
"You're still a pain in my backside," Yvonne replied swiping a lock of dark hair behind her ear.
"I've missed you too. I'll be right back."
His laughter swelled around them as he rose from the table. She turned her head slightly, watching Maxwell scan the menu before stepping up to the counter. He returned a few minutes later, placing the scone and a cup of tea on the table.
"How have you been Yvonne?"
"I'm okay. Right now my life is consumed with my practice."
"What happened with you and James?"
"James felt the need to be with someone who was…less focused on their aspirations. I can't really blame him. We had different outlooks on what we wanted in our lives."
"Don't be. He wasn't the right person for me. I only wish him the best." Yvonne took a sip of juice. "How have you been Maxwell? How are the kids?"
Maxwell broke off the edge of his scone and popped it in his mouth. He took a quick sip of tea before answering Yvonne's question.
"They're great. Margaret is looking at colleges, Brighton is more focused on his education, and Grace has cut back on her therapy sessions."
"That's wonderful Max. I'm sorry I haven't seen them in a while. They probably wouldn't remember me."
"Brighton and Margaret might. I doubt if Grace would."
"Do you have a picture?"
"Of course." Fishing a picture from his wallet, Maxwell passed the photograph across the table.
"Oh my god, they've changed so much!" Yvonne shook her head. "Maggie looks so much like Sara."
"I know. I was awestruck at the resemblance the first time I saw her in a full-length gown."
"Is Brighton still a little prankster?"
"Not so much anymore but he still has a devilish streak."
"Like father, like son?"
Maxwell laughed. "I don't know what you're talking about. Besides you're the one who always got us in trouble."
"I plead the fifth on the grounds I may incriminate myself."
Yvonne studied the children then handed the picture back to Maxwell.
"Brighton favors you a bit."
"Really? You think so?"
"Definitely. Grace is just adorable. They really are beautiful children. Sara would be proud."
"How are Niles and CC? Are they still at each other's throats?"
Maxwell rolled his eyes. "Constantly."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up together." When he stared at her, Yvonne shrugged her shoulders. "They exhibit classic love-hate tendencies." Their conversation quelled for a moment. Breaking off the edge of the blueberry muffin, she asked, "So what can I do for you?"
"Can't I just want to see an old friend?"
"Don't play dumb with me of all people Maxwell." Yvonne titled her head to one side. "There's something different about you. You've changed."
"Have I?" He stared into his cup of tea. "I suppose I have."
"So? Who is she?"
"I'm not dating anyone."
"But there's someone you're interested in." He lowered his eyes, nibbling on a broken piece of his scone. "Maxwell?"
His eyes reluctantly met hers. Slowly he nodded. "Her name is Fran Fine."
"Who is she? Where did you meet her?"
"She works for me. She's the children's nanny."
"Is there something going on between you two?"
"Not like that. We've become…close over the past few years." Maxwell took another picture from his wallet and handed it to her.
"She's very pretty Maxwell." Yvonne studied him for a moment. "Are you in love with her?"
"I think I am. I've fought my attraction to her for the longest time."
"Different reasons. I still love Sara. Ms. Fine is the most unlikely person I'd ever fall for."
"In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter how unlikely she is for you? Max, you should see your face and your eyes at the mere mention of her name."
"I care for her Yvonne."
"What are you afraid of? Are you worried that the kids won't accept the two of you as a couple?"
"Just the opposite. I don't think the children would object if I became involved with Ms. Fine."
"Are you worried about what Sara would think?"
"Max, I told you a long time ago that Sara wouldn't want to you to be alone the rest of your life. She'd want you to move on."
"I don't want to forget her nor do I want the children to forget their mother."
"How does Fran feel about all of this?"
"She encourages the children, well me and the children, to talk about Sara. She's always been there if one of us needs to talk, ready to lend a shoulder for us to cry on."
"If she's encouraging you all to be open with your feelings, I don't see the problem."
"Of course you'd say that. You're a psychologist."
"Maxwell, it isn't healthy to suppress your feelings. You create more problems than you conquer by stifling your emotions."
"If you know that then why aren't you doing something about it?"
"That's the reason why I asked you to meet me."
"I don't understand."
Maxwell stared blankly at her for a moment. Shaking off his reverie, he blew out a light breath then explained his dream in detail.
He found Yvonne's silence unnerving as she finished the last of her juice. Maxwell tried to gage her reaction but he was unable to read her body language.
Yvonne folded her arms across her chest. The controlled yet desperate need to understand what the dream meant radiated from Maxwell. Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, Yvonne chose her words carefully before she spoke.
"Your dream signifies an important event or events in your life. The key is the motion of the water."
"What do you mean?"
"The motion of the water signifies specific things. Calm water means peace; rough choppy water means discord. There was something in your life that was harmonic, which had a sudden disruption. As quickly as the disturbance occurred, your life settled and became peaceful once again."
Maxwell let her observation roll back and forth in his mind. Finishing the last of his tea, he rose from his chair and cleared the trash from their table.
"Are you ready to go?" Maxwell asked when he returned.
Yvonne flicked her wrist and checked her watch. "Yes. My first appointment is scheduled for ten."
"Did you drive here this morning?"
"Drive downtown? Are you crazy? I caught a cab."
They exited the café and walked down the street in silence. Maxwell stopped at the corner. He stuck out his arm, attempting to flag down one of the many cabs zipping down the streets of Manhattan.
A taxi slowed down and stopped in front of Maxwell. Stepping into the street, he held the door open for her.
"Thank you Yvonne," he said placing a light kiss on her cheek. "You have given me quite a lot to consider."
"Anytime Maxwell. You know I'm always here when you need an ear to bend."
"And I appreciate it. I'll talk to you later. Maybe we can get together for lunch or dinner."
"That sounds good. Or maybe I'll swing by and catch one of your shows."
"All you have to do is call if you ever need tickets. You know that."
"I do. Take care Max. Good luck with Fran."
Maxwell clutched a bouquet of gerbera daises in his right hand as he walked along the curved graveled path. He hadn't visited Sara in a while. Maxwell knew he needed to move on with his life. Letting his feelings for Fran stagnate wasn't healthy for either of them.
Kneeling to the frozen ground, Maxwell laid the bouquet at the center of the marker. He laid a gentle kiss against the granite headstone and traced her name with his fingertips.
"Hello sweetheart. I'm sorry I haven't visited you in a while. Things are very busy at the theatre and personally, my life has become a bit complicated. I know it's not a decent excuse but it's the only one I can offer."
He ran his fingers through his hair and smiled. "You know why I've come here to talk to you. I divided my feelings for a long time. Her enigmatic personality drew me in but I was still in love with you. I fought my attraction for her. Of course the harder I fought, the deeper I fell. That's not exactly a secret is it sweetheart?"
Maxwell shook his head in awe and amazement.
"You know I still love you. I will always love you Sara but I love Ms…I love Fran too. I wish I knew what to do. I can't let her leave. My life would be dull and colorless without her. The children have changed tremendously and it's all due to her influence.
She's made us a family again. But she doesn't truly know that. So what do you think Sara? Should I take the risk? Should I finally level with her and tell her how I feel?"
"Tell her how you feel."
Maxwell fell backward, stunned by the soft voice beside him. He shielded his eyes with his hand against the stark sunlight. He heard a light chuckle followed by an out stretched hand.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
Maxwell rose from the ground and greeted the woman who stood before him. The crisp wind blew strands of her thick silvery hair across her face. She wore a cream-colored sweater and navy pants that matched the long heavy wool coat.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop on your conversation."
"That's quite all right. Maxwell Sheffield."
"Monica Gibson," she replied meeting his hand. "I've seen you here a few times before. Sometimes alone, sometimes with children. I've also seen you here with a dark haired woman."
"That would be Ms. Fine. She's my children's nanny."
"She's a beautiful young woman. I can see why you'd be attracted to her."
"Ms. Fine is a wonderful friend; a sheer delight."
Monica shook her head and smiled. "I wish you could see how your face lights up when you talk about her. I can see she means a great deal to you."
"That she does."
"Then why haven't you told her?"
"I did once but I panicked and retracted my statement."
"Why for heaven's sake? Do you know how rare it is to find love once, let alone twice?"
"There are other circumstances involved Mrs. Gibson."
"Please call me Monica."
"Only if you call me Maxwell."
She slipped her arm in the crook of his elbow and patted him on the arm.
"Maxwell, let me share something with you. God has blessed me with the privilege of living on His earth for seventy-eight years. In that time, I have held on to good, solid common sense. My husband Frank and I were lucky. We had a long loving marriage, over forty years until he passed away three years ago last April.
Frank was not my first husband. My first husband died in the Second World War. I was a young widow left to raise our two sons. I met Frank five years later. He was a kind decent man. He helped me with chores around the house; he got to know my boys and took them under his wing.
When the Korean War broke, he enlisted. We wrote to each other then after a while, I didn't hear anything from him. I was frantic with worry. I loved him but never told him. I didn't want to face the pain of losing another man I loved to the death and destruction of war, and feared that I already had.
When I got word that he was on his way back home after being wounded in battle, I vowed that I would tell him my true feelings. After he recovered from his injuries, he came to see me. Before he could get a word out, I told him I loved him.
Frank pulled me into his arms and cried. He told me he had come to ask for my hand in marriage because his love for me gave him the strength to survive. We were married a month later. I won't say our married life was always happy but I will treasure our time together until the end of my days. And so will our four children."
"Thank you Monica," Maxwell said leaving a light kiss on her cheek. "I think you were the sign I was looking for."
She smoothed her hand across his cheek and smiled.
"I'm not a sign; I'm an old woman who understands your pain and heartache. It took the love of friends and family for me to realize that by not taking a second chance on love and happiness, I would be missing one of life's greatest pleasures. And that Maxwell is a sin in itself."
Niles entered the living room at the same time Maxwell opened the door from the entryway and stepped inside the house. Handing Niles his coat, he walked over to the foyer table and sorted through the mail.
"Ms. Babcock called for you. Several times. Demanding to know your whereabouts."
"CC knows I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself."
Niles arched his eyebrow. Who was this man and what did he do with Mr. Sheffield?
"She asked that you call her the minute you came in."
"Whatever it is can wait until morning." Dropping the remainder of the mail on the table, Maxwell said, "I'll take dinner in my office."
He heard his employer humming Tosca: Recondita Armonia as he happily strolled from the living room.
Hidden Harmony? Niles thought as he entered the kitchen. As he prepared Maxwell's tray, various ideas bounced wildly around in his head.
He's been out all day, his whereabouts unknown. He blows Babcock off – Niles smirked. She wishes.
Dismissing his secret insult, he continued to grab at random thoughts. He blows Babcock off and when he comes home, he hums an Italian love song. Niles' eyes widened in shock.
Could it be? Is the man finally ready?
Just as the idea entered his head, Fran entered the kitchen from the backstairs. Watching his friend gaze into the refrigerator, a devilish grin formed on Niles' face.
"Ms. Fine, would you mind doing me a favor?"
"Sure Niles. What can I do for you?"
"Would you take this tray to Mr. Sheffield's office?"
"Is he just coming home?"
"Yes. He's taking his meal in his office."
"To borrow a quote from the man, there's a shocker." Fran fluffed her hair then smoothed her hand over her skirt. When Fran caught Niles staring at her, she smiled. "What? I don't want to look like a schlub when I bring the man his dinner."
"Of course not Ms. Fine." Holding the swing door open of her, Niles waited until she was out of earshot. "That's exactly what I counted on."
Maxwell leaned back in the chair with his eyes closed, enjoying the silence that engulfed the house. He welcomed the stillness. It was during these times he reflected on his life. Many late nights he sat in his office and contemplated Fran's place in his life.
He had known for some time that he wanted her to be in his life. Over the years, her role changed from being his children's nanny and friend to forbidden thoughts of having her as his lover.
During the course of the last six months, his vision shifted and he began to see her in a different capacity. His visit to the cemetery was the first step in solidifying their future.
The soft tapping of high heels striking the floor shook Maxwell from his musings. He opened his eyes to the sight of Fran entering his office with a tray of food.
"Good evening Mr. Sheffield. Niles asked me to bring this to you."
"Good evening Ms. Fine. Thank you. That was very kind of you to do so."
Setting the tray on the edge of his desk, Fran began to exit his office when Maxwell stopped her.
"You're not going to stay Ms. Fine?"
"You want me too?"
"Of course I want you to. Please sit down and keep me company. I hate dining alone."
Arching her eyebrow, Fran folded her arms across her chest. "Since when?"
"It's a perfunctory necessity at times that I've come to accept; however, I would like the pleasure of your companionship while I eat."
"Well, when you put it that way…"
Maxwell watched the sway of Fran's hips as she walked over to the couch. Mesmerized by the simple action of her hand smoothing her skirt over her hips, his eyes took in the gentle motion of Fran crossing her legs.
"So how was your day Mr. Sheffield?" When he didn't respond, she waved her hand to catch his attention. "Yoo hoo, Mr. Sheffield?"
Snapping out of his reverie, Maxwell said, "I'm sorry Ms. Fine. I was just thinking."
"What were you thinking about Mr. Sheffield?" Mumbling to herself, Fran said, "As if I didn't know."
"What did you say Ms. Fine?"
"I said I'd like to know. What you were thinking about."
"Oh. I was thinking…would you join me on the terrace for dinner? It's much more congenial than sitting in the office."
Fran smiled as she rose from the couch. "That's a great idea but there's one problem."
"What's that Ms. Fine?"
"It's eight thirty at night, it's a little too chilly to sit outside, and it's winter."
"It's not winter until after the twenty first Ms. Fine, but I see your point. Will you join me in the dining room instead then?" Taking a few short steps, she reached out to lift the tray from his desk. "No Ms. Fine," he replied picking up the tray, "I'll get this."
Maxwell followed Fran out of the office and into the dining room. Setting the tray on the table, he held out a chair for her to sit down. As she settled in her seat, he closed his eyes and breathed in the intoxicating scent of her perfume.
"Would you care for something to drink Ms. Fine?"
"Yes that would be great."
"Anything in particular or should I just surprise you?"
With a quick wink, Fran replied, "Surprise me."
She waited until Maxwell left the dining room before plucking a slice of roast beef from his plate. Licking the aus jus from her lips, Fran contemplated her employer's behavior. She sensed a change but what that change was, she wasn't sure.
It wasn't the fact that he was gentlemanly toward her. He had always been but Fran suspected something else triggered his actions. She waved her hand, dismissing the idea.
Maybe I'm just imagining the whole thing.
Fran reached out to snag another piece of beef when she heard the swing door open. Quickly consuming the sliced meat, she flicked her tongue across her lips. She folded her hands on the table and sat back in her chair.
Balancing a plate, two glasses, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the serving dish, Maxwell took slow calculated steps toward Fran. Placing the tray on the table, he poured them each a glass of wine.
"Sorry for the delay. I thought I'd fix you a light snack."
"You fixed me a snack?"
"All right," he conceded, "I had Niles fix you something. Don't I get points for bringing it to you myself?"
"Yes you do." A delicate smile graced her features. "It was very sweet of you to bring me a nosh Mr. Sheffield. What did you bring me?"
"Just a variety of fruits, cheeses, and little dessert."
Her smile widened when he set the plate in front of her. Maxwell pushed the trays toward the middle of the table then quickly returned to his seat. Settling next to Fran, he picked up his wine glass and held it out to make a toast.
"To a lovely companion and a wonderful evening."
"Mr. Sheffield," she teased, "have you been in the wine a little early tonight? What's gotten into you?"
Maxwell bit the inside of his jaw to keep his focus off the wicked reply that threatened to leave his mouth.
"I have not been drinking nor has anything gotten into me. I'm just in a good mood."
"Apparently. Mazel tov Mr. Sheffield."
Maxwell spotted a droplet of gravy on the corner of Fran's lips. The idea of kissing her, of tasting both Fran and the aus jus, sent his mind spiraling into a forbidden realm. Taking a quick sip of wine, Maxwell dismissed the illicit thoughts from his mind.
"Yes Mr. Sheffield?"
"Did you happen to sample a piece of roast beef from my plate?"
"Why do you ask?"
He handed Fran a napkin and tapped his lips where the bead of aus jus clung to her mouth. Blotting her lips with the crisp linen cloth, Fran smiled sheepishly then picked up a slice of Fontina cheese.
"So Mr. Sheffield how was your day?"
"Not bad. I spent the day – " He abruptly stopped his automatic response to her.
No need to tell her where I've been. She'll find out soon enough.
"Mr. Sheffield? Are you okay?"
"Oh. Yes Ms. Fine. I'm all right. As far as my day is concerned, I spent the first part of the morning consulting with a colleague and the rest of the day researching a potential new project."
Not a complete lie, he thought. It was close enough to the truth for now.
"How was your day Ms. Fine? Anything interesting happen?"
"It was okay. After the kids came home from school, ma dropped by to kvetch."
She watched Maxwell over the rim of the goblet as she sipped the hearty red wine.
This quiet intimate evening is going so well. I don't want to spoil it with Ma's harping about his lack of commitment and her need for grandchildren.
Maxwell's voice broke the haze of insecurity that settled over her. Setting the glass on the table, Fran popped an apple slice in her mouth.
"Ms. Fine? What was your mother kvetching about?"
"Nothing really important."
They made small talk for the remainder of the evening, discussing a variety of topics from the children to his latest play. After they finished their shared meal, Fran held the swing door open as Maxwell carried the trays to the kitchen.
They worked in sync, loading the dishwasher and returning the serving platters to their proper place. Once they finished, Maxwell led Fran to the living room.
"Thank you for keeping me company Ms. Fine."
"You're welcome Mr. Sheffield. I'll let you get back to work."
Maxwell had to think fast. He wanted her to stay but couldn't find a legitimate reason that Fran would believe. Scanning the room, he said a quick silent thank you when he spotted his inspiration.
"Actually, I was going to watch a little television before bed."
He picked up the remote and switched on the television set. Flipping through the channels, Maxwell didn't see anything that grabbed his interest.
"Wait!" Fran said seizing his arm. "Go back a couple of channels. Stop!" She grabbed the remote from Maxwell and settled on the sofa. "Oh good, it's still early in the movie."
Sitting next to her, Maxwell asked, "What movie is this Ms. Fine?"
"It's called Dead Again. Emma Thompson plays this woman with amnesia who shows up at an orphanage and Kenneth Branagh plays this private detective trying to help her but they also play Margaret and Roman Strauss.
Someone stabbed Margaret to death and a jury convicted Roman for her murder. On the day of his execution, Roman summoned this reporter named Gray Baker, played by Andy Garcia, to jail. The guard in the cell wrote a book later on saying that Roman made a confession to Gray Baker.
It's got all these great twist and turns in the plot. The flashbacks in the movie are in black and white. As they start to piece together her past, Mike and Grace begin to fall for each other. A real thriller."
"You don't seem like the thriller type Ms. Fine."
"It's a romantic thriller Mr. Sheffield."
Fran spent the movie nestled in the crook of Maxwell's arm. She felt his body shift and assumed he was uncomfortable at the romantic scenes between the two main characters but was pleasantly surprised when he drew his arm around her.
Maxwell gave her shoulder a light squeeze of reassurance during the climatic scene between the protagonists and their adversary. He lost track of the movie, preferring instead to study the woman beside him.
There was no one like Fran. She had the unique ability to create and solve havoc within the same breath. At times, she was a paradox: sweet and innocent with a gentle sensibility and intelligence countered by her over the top, sultry, irrational, and impulsive nature.
The extraordinary blend in her personality, her being, drew him to her. At the center of it all, underneath the superficial layers and facets Fran showed the outside world, was a strong, sensitive, and caring woman who wanted, needed, and deserved love. Maxwell hoped he could live up to her expectations.
The shift of Fran's body leaning forward to turn off the television snapped him from his musings. Setting the remote on the coffee table, she ensconced herself in Maxwell's loose embrace.
"Wasn't that movie great? I never get tired of watching it. Of course that Kenneth Branagh's not bad to look at either."
He arched his eyebrow and pulled his arm away from her. "It was a good movie. I'm glad you found it Ms. Fine."
"I'm glad I found it too. It had everything: a little drama, a little mystery, a little romance. Don't you agree Mr. Sheffield?"
"Yes," he replied, "I completely agree."
The husky tone of his voice surprised Fran. The timbre of his words wrapped around her, infusing itself in her soul. Time suspended around them as Maxwell reached out for her, unaware that she was gravitating toward him.
He traced the contours of her face with the back of his hand. Tipping her chin upward, his thumb caressed her cheek as his fingers cradled the side of her neck.
"Ms. Fine," he murmured leaving a whisper of a kiss on her lips.
Fran felt Maxwell begin to pull away. Sliding her hands over his shoulders, she tangled her fingers in his soft ebony tresses. Fran held his mouth to hers, burning with the slow heat of their shared kiss.
Her lips parted under the gentle teasing of his tongue against the crease of her mouth. Locking his arms around her slender frame, Maxwell used his weight to pin her body to the sofa. His lips followed the curve of her arched neck down to the hollow of her throat.
Maxwell drew in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her perfume dabbed in the valley of her breasts. He brushed his thumb across her lips and met her mouth in a tender kiss.
"What perfume are you wearing Ms. Fine?"
"It's called Pleasures Mr. Sheffield."
"Indeed it is," he whispered and captured her lips with his again.
Fran pushed against his chest to break their kiss. She stared at him, awed by the desire reflected in the depths of his eyes. Maxwell held her gaze; he ran his hand over her thigh then stopped at the curve of her waist.
He saw the taut peaks of her breasts outlined against the cashmere v-neck sweater. Fran's features blurred when Maxwell bent down to claim her mouth once more. Tracing tender kisses over her neck, his fingers slipped beneath her sweater, inching across her bare skin. He reached out to cover the satin bra cup when they heard an unexpected yet very audible gasp.
Maggie stood frozen in the middle of the living room. Knowing how her father and Fran felt about each other and seeing an actual display of their affection shut down all of her rational thoughts.
Maxwell snatched his hand from underneath Fran's sweater and pushed himself off her body.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. Good night."
Maggie turned and fled the living room. Running his fingers through his hair, Maxwell paced the floor and blew out a harsh breath.
"Oh my god!"
"Mr. Sheffield," Fran said rising from the sofa, "it'll be okay."
"How can it be okay when Margaret walked in on you and me…you know."
"What, making out?"
"Did you have to put it like that?"
"Well it's not like we were having sex!"
"Please keep your voice down Ms. Fine. Do you want everyone in the house to hear you?"
"Just calm down Mr. Sheffield. We'll wait until morning to discuss this with Maggie."
He shook his head vehemently. "I'm not so sure we should wait until morning. We have to explain what happened as soon as possible."
"And what exactly are you going to tell Maggie? That we were caught up in a moment that should have never happened?" When Maxwell didn't respond, Fran folded her arms across her chest. "You regret what happened, don't you?"
"Ms. Fine, it's not that simple."
"It seems simple enough to me."
Fran headed for the stairs but Maxwell reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
"Ms. Fine, let me explain."
"I don't think there's anything left to explain Mr. Sheffield. Please let go of me."
"Be reasonable Ms. Fine. You've got to understand my position here."
"Don't you think I understand how embarrassing it is to be caught, especially by one of the kids? It's not the end of the world Mr. Sheffield. The only thing we were doing was kissing."
"It was a lot more than kissing Ms. Fine."
"Then what was it Mr. Sheffield?"
Maxwell's gaze fell from Fran, unsure of how to explain his thoughts. He wanted to tell her how he felt, to elaborate on the feelings she brought out in him but it wasn't the right time. He needed to talk to Maggie about what she saw.
Fran watched the myriad of emotions cross his face. Part of her wanted to relent and ease his confusion but she also wanted him to explain what their shared evening meant.
Was this just another game to him? A guilty pleasure that he allowed himself until he was caught?
She threw up her hands at his continued silence. She needed to get away from him. She needed time alone to think about everything including her future in his life.
"Good night Mr. Sheffield. We can pretend this never happened."
"Ms. Fine, we can't pretend nothing happened."
"Sure we can. It's easy. It's how I've gotten through the last year and a half."
Fran misread the dark emotions reflected in his eyes as anger. Sinking her nails in her palm, she closed her eyes and steeled herself against his impending argument.
Wait a minute. I've heard all his excuses. What's the point of fighting when nothing's going to change and he won't see reason?
Maxwell opened his mouth to speak but Fran cut him off.
"Never mind Mr. Sheffield. I'm sorry I brought it up. I'll talk to Maggie in the morning."
He wanted to stop her, to talk things out with her but his words stalled in his throat. Maxwell stood rooted to the floor watching Fran disappear up the staircase. Instead of one woman to explain himself to, now he had two.
With the exception of a few glimpses around the mansion, Maxwell hardly saw Fran in the last two days. He needed to talk to her and iron out their misunderstanding. The mood of the house was different when they weren't speaking.
He turned toward the terrace and leaned back in his chair. Closing his eyes, Maxwell replayed the other night in his mind. A delicious shot of pleasure and need coursed through him remembering how her body felt underneath his.
Maxwell couldn't stop his wandering mind from continuing the scenario of what could have happened if Maggie hadn't walked in on them.Would I have taken the risk and made love to her in the living room?
He remembered feeling her stomach contract as his fingers crept under her cashmere sweater and the pliancy of her mouth beneath his. Maxwell drew a deep breath. The memory of her perfume filled and overwhelmed his senses.
His arousal stirred under the recollection of his hand nearing her bra. Maxwell remembered the softness of her skin as his hand reached out, anticipating the feel of her –
"Dad? Are you busy?"
Maxwell opened his eyes at the familiar sound of his eldest daughter's voice. He turned to find Maggie standing just inside the doorway.
What are the odds that Margaret would interrupt both my fantasy and reality of being with Ms. Fine twice in one week?
Brushing the illicit thoughts aside, Maxwell waved his daughter into his office.
"What can I do for you sweetheart?"
"May I have a couple hundred dollars?"
"You have credit cards Margaret, why do you need money as well?"
"I'm going shopping, and Brighton and Gracie are coming with me. I would have asked Fran but she's not here."
Maxwell tried to control the worried thought that crossed his face.
"No. Fran left over an hour ago."
"Do you know where she went?"
"Somewhere with Sylvia I guess."
He recognized the hurtful sound in his voice and cleared his throat to dismiss it. When he looked at Maggie, Maxwell could see a look of apprehension in her eyes. Knowing she was worried about the awkwardness between himself and Fran, he gave Maggie a reassuring smile.
Fran's God knows where and Niles is out of the house grocery shopping.
Maggie could see the shift in her father's thoughts reflected on his face. She didn't normally see that look, at least coming from him. There were only two people that Maggie knew of that seemed to be calculating at any given moment.
Knowing her father didn't pick up the devious expression from her brother, she smiled inwardly and wondered if he realized how much of an influence Fran had on his life.
"Where are your brother and sister?"
"Waiting for me in the living room."
His lips curved upward into a grin. Maxwell realized that this was a rare opportunity and decided to take advantage of the situation while he had the chance.
"Go get your brother and sister. I want to talk to all three of you."
Brighton and Grace followed Maggie into their father's office with a reluctant curiosity. She couldn't offer any details as to why he wanted to see them.
"The only thing I can tell you," Maggie said, "is that he got this goofy look on his face just before he told me to come get both of you."
Maxwell was standing at the terrace doors with his hands clasped behind his back. When he heard the last shuffled footstep, he turned and walked back to his desk.
"Before you three go traipsing off to the mall, I want to talk to you."
"Is something wrong daddy?" Grace asked.
"Not necessarily wrong sweetheart. There's a change in the household I'm considering and I want your opinion."
Brighton tilted his head in a sideways glance. "This is about Fran, isn't it?"
Maxwell glimpsed down, drawing light circles with the edge of his finger. Raising his eyes to meet his son, he breathed out a light sigh.
Maggie took a few cautious steps forward. "Dad, does this have to do with what happened the other night?"
"It's uh – " Maxwell looked at his children and sat down under the weight of their gaze. "Yes."
"Please don't fire her daddy," Grace pleaded.
"I'm not going to fire her."
"If you're not firing her, then why do you want to talk to us about Fran?" Brighton asked.
Maxwell rose from his chair and began to pace. He could feel his children's eyes following each step. He had to stop stalling and tell them what was on his mind.
If I can't be up front with the children, how can I be up front with Ms. Fine?"
"You all know that Ms. Fine has been apart of our family for the last five years. In that time, as we've grown closer, I've come to – I've come to harbor certain feelings for her."
Maggie folded her arms across her chest and blew out a frustrated breath.
"Daddy, are you trying to tell us that you're in love with Fran?"
Maxwell began pacing the floor again when Grace walked over and stopped him in mid stride. He looked down at his youngest child and returned her smile.
"Yes, I love – I'm in love with Ms. Fine."
"Don't you think you should at least call her Fran dad?" Grace asked.
Maxwell chuckled. "I will sweetheart. What I wanted to talk to you all about was since I will be acting on my feelings for Ms. Fine – I mean Fran, I wanted to be sure that you all are going to be okay with it. I don't want to do anything that doesn't meet your approval."
"That's why you wanted to see us?" Brighton replied in irritation. "Dad, you and Fran are already married."
"What do you mean?"
Maggie shook her head in wonder. Could dad be anymore dense or blind?
"Dad, you've treated Fran like your wife and our mother almost from the beginning. She's gone to premieres of your plays, you've gone on dates, and we spend family time together. She's the first person you look for when you enter a room and if she's not around, you want to know where she is."
Brighton picked up the thread of Maggie's statement. "That's true dad. If Fran goes out on a date, you get all goofy and jealous until she comes home. What I don't get is what took you so long to realize how you felt about her."
"Margaret, Brighton, there are some things you wouldn't understand."
"What wouldn't we understand?" Maggie asked. "You loved mom. We loved mom too and when she died, we missed her terribly. Then Fran came into our lives and turned everything around. She made us a family again."
Reading the resistance on her father's face, Maggie paused then tried another tactic.
"Do you think mom would want you to throw away your chance at happiness? I know that you'll always love mom just like we will but we love Fran too. What's worse than being in love and having no one to share it with?"
Grace tugged softly on Maxwell's sleeve. "Besides daddy, we already think of Fran as our mom."
He looked at his children in awe. "You do?"
"Well yeah dad," Brighton replied. "She's been there for us and loved us no matter what we do."
"So you three have no problem with me pursuing a relationship with Fran?"
Maggie and Brighton looked at each other and shook their head. Grace bit back the laughter that threatened to burst from her body.
"No Daddy, we don't have a problem with you pursuing a relationship with Fran. We want you to. Even though I really don't remember mom, Fran will never let us forget her."
Maxwell closed his eyes in acceptance. With a wide smile, he hugged each of his children. Opening his wallet, Maxwell stuffed a wad of money in Maggie's hand.
"Go. Have fun shopping."