Chapter 27

The next time I opened my eyes she was sitting in the chair at my bedside.

"DeeDee?" I breathed, hardly daring to believe that she was actually here and unable to stop myself from grinning broadly like a fool. God, she looked gorgeous; even in a simple, loose-fitting blouse with her long dark hair pulled back from her face.

"Hey," she said softly with a ghost of a smile. "How are you doing?"

"I'm good," I told her honestly, trying to pull myself to a more upright position and wincing with the discomfort it caused. "Still kinda sore, but I'll be going home soon – there's no infection and the doctors are happy." I gave a small shrug. "But how are you? How's the leg?" I couldn't see anything from my position in bed.

"Okay," she answered. "A little sore like you said, but I'm getting around." She didn't elaborate so I wasn't exactly sure the extent of the injury and how she was 'getting around'.

Conversation lagged after we addressed the superficial issue of our battle scars and my stomach was in knots just being here with her. While she looked down at her hands twisting nervously in her lap, I took a good look at her face, noticing dark circles and pale cheeks that make-up didn't quite hide. She had obviously lost more of the baby weight but her eyes seemed puffy like she'd been crying.

"There's going to be a memorial service for Steve. His parents and I just finished with all the arrangements and the doctor said he thought you'd be able to come if you – " her voice trailed away and she looked out the window, still unable to meet my gaze.

"I'll be there," I assured her.

She managed a weak smile and wiped her hands across her eyes. "Thank you." She took a deep breath. "I – I can't tell you how hard this has been."

(You don't have to,) I thought but didn't say. Instinct told me not to speak just yet. She looked too uncomfortable, too nervous and I wanted to give her a chance to say whatever it was that she was struggling to get out.

She kept her gaze focused on something outside the window. "Part of me is still so angry at Steve for how he handled that whole situation," she admitted, obviously ashamed and her voice dropped to a near whisper at the words she said that were causing her such pain.

I had been wallowing in guilt for so long that I hadn't taken a second to pull my own head out of my ass to think that she might have some guilt issues of her own to deal with. Part of me couldn't help but feel a little bit validated that I wasn't the only one a little angry at Steve. But then, he wasn't married to me and he hadn't left me with a new baby girl to raise.

I kept watching her; watching her hands writhe in her lap; watching two tears slide down her cheeks. "Hey," I spoke softly, trying to get her attention and then held my breath. Finally she let her eyes meet mine and for several minutes we just stared. I tried to convey my understanding to her – let her know that it was all right – she had nothing to be ashamed or guilty about. I just couldn't seem to get the words out, but the way her furrowed brow smoothed out, I think she might have gotten the message. One of her hands found mine and I squeezed it gently.

I wanted to change the subject, picking what I was most interested in and what I was pretty sure would bring a smile to her face and lighten the mood. "How's Olivia?"

She fought the smile valiantly, biting her lower lip, dropping her eyes, but it was a battle she couldn't win. She shook her head, huffed softly and let the smile take over her face. "Olivia – she's - she's just perfect."

The transformation was breathtaking and as she updated me on all things Olivia, I pasted a goofy grin on my face and nodded and just kept thinking how beautiful DeeDee was and how much I was in love with her.

Chapter 28

Steve's memorial service was a grief-filled, tear-jerking event that I would just as soon forget. The faces of everyone there, including mine were mirror images of the same shell-shocked, devastated expressions.

Except for one.

Precious little Olivia. A tiny angel of new hope dressed in pink and white in a sea of despair and loss wearing blacks, grays and police dress blues. She slept throughout it all, blissfully unknowing and unaware with an aura of purity surrounding her, keeping the gloom at bay. Alive. Seemingly the only truly living thing at this place to honor the death of her father. A man who had lost his life, leaving behind family, friends and co-workers.

Due to my injuries, I wasn't allowed to be a pallbearer, but I walked ahead of the coffin and delivered the eulogy. Standing stiffly at the podium, uncomfortable as hell in my formal uniform that did nothing to make my injuries any less painful, I stared out at the crowd. It was the first time I'd ever spoken at someone's funeral and trying to keep it together when everyone else, it seemed, was crying, had to be one of the emotionally taxing duties I'd had to perform. Then I thought about the events leading up to this day and realized that, truly, this wasn't nearly as incapacitating and without the threat of Lloyd Perry hanging over us, infinitely much safer.

As I stood up there, shaking and stuttering, I found that keeping my focus on little Olivia and her beautiful mother gave me the strength to make it through and at one point I caught DeeDee staring intently up at me, her dark eyes shining with unshed tears. She mouthed the words, "Thank you," at the end and I nodded slightly to show I understood.

We rode together to the grave site and I stood next to her during the twenty-one gun salute, helping to shield Olivia's ears from the loud noise. And then it was over. DeeDee's parents kept watch on one side of their daughter, while I planted myself at the other, with one arm protectively around her waist; discreet but meant to convey comfort and support. Steve's parents were on my other side and we all stood there, accepting condolences and well wishes from everyone attending.

When it became obvious that DeeDee wasn't going to last much longer, her face pale, her eye makeup smeared beyond repair, I announced our apologies and directed everyone else to Steve's parent's house. DeeDee was obviously exhausted, limping slightly to my concern and I knew I had to get her out of here.

Her parents rescued Olivia and said that they would get her settled so that DeeDee could finish up. Reluctantly she handed over the infant after a kiss and hug, murmuring words of love and we headed for the limo.

I frowned when she willingly took my arm and let me help her in the car and I wondered if she was just overly tired or if her leg wasn't healing properly. She scooted to the far side and curled up in a ball in the corner, slipping her shoes off and letting her head drop back against the window. Hoping she wouldn't mind, I gave the driver directions to my house and climbed in next to her. I figured she couldn't stay at her former house she had lived at with Steve and if she insisted on leaving later, I could drive her to her parent's house.

Deciding to forgo the ridiculous question "Are you okay?" - because it seemed to me that giving up Olivia to her parents depleted the last of her reserves and without her touchstone she was unable to muster her will to hide her pain. No more strong façade for others to be fooled by.

I located the mini bar and was grateful to find a small bottle of orange juice, popped it open and handed it to her.

"Thank you," she said softly, sipping slowly.

"You looked like you could use it," I said, staring at her intently.

Refusing to meet my eyes, she continued to drink. "Yeah." She sighed and then let her head fall back again.

Sitting next to her on the opposite end of the seat, I had to force myself to keep an appropriate distance. It was hard. She looked so lost, so sad. I wanted desperately to comfort and console her but didn't have a clue what would be appropriate here, alone after her husband's funeral.

I propped my elbow on the door and rubbed my forehead in an effort to get some divine answer to my questions. Out of the corner of my eye I caught her shivering and trying to hide it. My movements awkward, I managed to slip out of my jacket and spread it across her lap. "Do you want me to turn up the heater?" I asked in concern.

My question seemed to trigger her tears.

Quickly I took the empty bottle from her and set it aside and slid across to her side. Without stopping to second guess whether my actions were acceptable or not, I reached out and put my arm around her shoulders. Very carefully I pulled her towards me. She resisted only a second before allowing me to snuggle her close.

"I'm going to hurt you," she mumbled through her tears.

(Physically or emotionally?) I wondered briefly but did not say because she could never do either in my book.

"No, you're not. This is fine." Unable to resist the temptation, I tipped my head so that it rested on hers, placing a chaste kiss to the top of her head.

We stayed like that for several minutes until we arrived at my house. She looked around in surprise then looked up me, questioning me with her raised eyebrows.

"I thought you could use a break. I can take you wherever you need to go later, but I think some quiet time would be nice right now, don't you?" I tried to not to sound too hopeful.

She managed a smile as she bent down and put her shoes back on. "That sounds perfect, thanks." She started for the front door, and again I noticed how she was limping.

I tipped the driver and hurried to catch up with her as the limo drove off. "DeeDee – your leg -?" I inserted my key and opened the door, reaching back to take her arm and help her inside. She didn't answer me at first as I guided her to the couch.

"Just overdid it today," she said as she sank down on the end of the couch, and slipped her shoes back off. Not hesitating to think twice, I moved in and gently picked up her feet and pulled her around so she could lie across the cushions. She sighed happily. "Oh, thank you – this is great."

I stood over her, nervous, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. I had gotten her here with no real plan of what to say or do next. Kinda flying by the seat of my pants here. "Uh – would you like me to get you something to eat? Turn on the television?" Mentally I cringed. (God, I sound like some teenager or something.)

"Would you sit with me?" She asked almost shyly.

My eyes grew wide, but I nodded and made as if to sit down at her feet.

"How about at this end?" She lifted herself up to make a space for me to sit and when I did after a surprised moment, she reached over for a small throw pillow, put it in my lap and then lay back down on it. When I looked down at her, she was staring up at me.

"Feel up to talking?" She asked softly.

I gulped. "Uh, sure. About what?"

"About us." She answered bluntly. "I need to know if you meant what you said."

"What?" I said in shocked amazement. "What did I say? When?" (What was she talking about? When did I talk to her about 'us'? I didn't know there –was- an 'us'! Was there an 'us'?

"At the hospital," she told me. "That first night after you woke up. When I was in your room. You said you love me and I need to know if you meant it or were you delirious."

I stared down at her flabbergasted. I thought it had been a dream but here she was telling me that she had actually been at my bedside when I said all those things. I felt my face burn with embarrassment.

"You didn't mean for me to know, did you?" She said suddenly, looking away from me and misreading my embarrassment.

"Oh – God – no – I mean – yes – I did mean it – I – I just didn't realize I was actually talking to you. I – I thought I was dreaming! God – DeeDee, I meant every word, but it was so soon – I – I wanted to give you time – time after Steve's death – to – to get through all this." I was close to panicking and I hoped like hell she understood.

She stared back at me, scrutinizing me.

I gathered my courage. "I do love you, DeeDee." I took a deep breath. "I know this is not the right time. I was trying to give you some space, to make sure, but I was going to be here – to help in whatever way I could. You and Olivia – I love you both and I want to be part of your lives in whatever way makes you comfortable."

For several minutes neither of us said anything.

Chapter 29

"Rick, I don't know what to do right now. We both need healing – not just physically, but emotionally as well. So much has happened, so much has changed."

Nodding in understanding, I kept my eyes locked on her face but my left hand slipped off the back of the sofa and I tentatively placed it over her hands which she had clasped on her abdomen.

She stilled when she felt my touch and just as I was about to pull my hand away in disappointment, she took hold of it and clutched it like a lifeline.

"DeeDee?" I was confused. What was she trying to say? I looked at my hand in hers, nestled between her breasts. The feelings of longing and desire that coursed through me was a pleasurable distraction but one that I just couldn't afford right now. I had to be clear on where we were heading.

"Rick – before all of this – you were a friend. Steve's and mine. We had barbeques together, double-dated, went to movies, shared holidays or just hung out together – but we were friends, right?" she asked, anxious and earnest.

"Yeah – " I answered, drawing the word out slowly, still trying to figure out where this was going. My eyes traveled down the length of her body. Her skirt had hitched up to just below her knees and I could see the faded edge of a bruise on the left one.

At this point I was feeling more than a little nervous and almost desperate. I wanted her and Olivia to remain a part of my life but I didn't know how DeeDee was going to respond.

DeeDee went on, determination evident in her tone and demeanor. "Just because Steve is gone – I don't want to lose you as my friend."

Still clueless, I shook my head. "I would never stop being your friend, DeeDee. I would hope that you'd know that."

She gave me a small, wavering smile. "You said that you love me." She said it as though she didn't think I could be both a friend and be in love.

Again I felt my cheeks burn and my eyes closed – afraid to look at her, but I wasn't going to back down. "Yes – yes I do love you. I meant it – no matter how much morphine they pumped into me – I know that I have fallen in love with you. I can be your friend, too."

"Rick, I will be eternally grateful to you. You saved my life; you helped bring my baby girl into this world and saved her life as well."

My heart was pounding in my chest. (Here it comes,) I thought. (The big send off.) My stomach was in absolute knots as I prepared myself for a major disappointment.

"I can't just think about myself now. I have a daughter to consider. I want what's real. Not just the result of those events."

"I hear what you're saying," I assured her, nearly choking. "I do. But what we went through – it's over. It shattered our lives in a million pieces and as I'm picking up mine and putting them back together, I keep seeing you. You and Olivia and me. I can't change what's happened. All I know is what I feel now and what I feel is love."

"I love you, too, Rick."

It was so unexpected, I was sure that I hadn't heard correctly. "What?"

"I think I'm falling in love with you, too, but-" she paused, her hands moving around, twining her fingers through mine. "I have to be sure. For Olivia's sake."

Suddenly I felt as light as a butterfly. "DeeDee –" I was nearly laughing with joy. "I love Olivia! I'm just asking for a chance to show you."

"I know you do," DeeDee whispered. "This is just a little overwhelming - you know?"

I brought our hands up to kiss her fingertips lightly. "I know." I took a deep breath. "Let's just take it slow. See what happens. We're friends -"

"Good friends," she broke in with a smile.

"Great friends," I corrected, grinning.

We both smiled in relief. "Slow." DeeDee said, "Meaning what, exactly?"

I thought for a moment. "Well – let's start with Olivia and you needing a place to live that's not your old house and not your parents. Would you consider moving in with me?"

She gaped at me. "Here? Are you serious? That's what you call 'going slow'?"

"Sure, why not? It's got three bedrooms. No commitments – no romantic entanglements. You'll have your own room."

"For now?" she asked slyly, teasing me.

"Hey – I'll be ready when you are. Not before," I promised. "If it makes you feel better, I'll charge you rent."

She giggled softly and ducked her head. "No romantic entanglement, huh? What if there never is?"

"The ball's in your court, DeeDee. I'm a patient man and I'm not going to force or trick you into anything. I want to take care of you and Olivia."

"I can take care of her."

"I know you can. I don't doubt that for a minute, but why not give me a chance?"

"I don't want to hurt you," she said.

"You won't," I assured her. "The only way you can hurt me is by not letting me be a part of your lives. In whatever way makes you happy – I just want to be there for both of you."

"What would people say?" She dropped her eyes, her brow furrowed. It was sounding to me like she was running out of excuses. Maybe, just maybe, I had her.

"What people?"

"Olivia has two sets of grandparents already."

"DeeDee, don't go looking for trouble. We're not doing anything wrong or illicit. Steve's parents aren't going to be banned, but I'm sure that they understand Olivia's need for a father. They know me – they've known me longer than they've known you."

"You want to be Olivia's father?" She looked up at me and I fought the urge to kiss away her doubts.

"Yes, I do. Very much."

She didn't say a word, but simply pulled herself up and very carefully, hugged me as hard as she could. It didn't hurt a bit – the joy coursing through me was more potent than any drug on the market.

Chapter 30

It was on her first birthday that I learned that Olivia's middle name was Diane. I guess it must be some kind of "guy thing" that I hadn't wondered or asked about it before.

"I thought you already knew," DeeDee stated, sounding amazed and disbelieving as she juggled to keep Olivia's hands from the dirty plates she was taking to the sink.

I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. "Nope. I never really thought about it. She's just been Olivia to me," I said, reaching over to stroke her downy soft curls.

"Men!" DeeDee said, rolling her eyes with exasperation and throwing up her hands only after handing me the baby. "Diane is to honor you!"

"What!" I jerked my head up to stare at her in confusion. "What does Diane have to do with me? It's not part of my name or anyone in my family."

DeeDee just smiled a knowing smile and shook her head again.

"What?" I repeated, perplexed.

She sighed as she came over to hug both of us. "You big lug – Diane is Latin – it means 'celestial hunter' according to the baby name book I read."

It took a moment for it to sink in and I finally understood. I was awed. "Wow." I was actually almost speechless. "That's just – wow." Staring down at Olivia Diane with her dark curls and pink lips that looked so much like her mother it took my breath away. "I love you."

"I love you, too, Rick. Now, more than ever." She looked around the room. "So, you still want us around?"

She said it flippantly and I reached out to cup her chin and make sure she was looking at me. "Now, more than ever," I replied firmly.

Her eyes welled with tears. "Good."

I bent down to kiss her and she responded eagerly. "Have you made up your mind?" I hesitated to ask, but I had to know.

She smiled through her tears and nodded. "Yeah – I have. I'm sure."

I stared at her closely, and then dropped my eyes down to Olivia who was reaching for my tie. I kissed her and brought my gaze back to her mother. "I won't let you down."

"I know you won't."

"I'll be the best father I can be," I vowed.

DeeDee brushed away her tears, smiling brightly. "I don't doubt it for a minute. That's the other reason I'm sure."

"I love you, DeeDee."

"I love you, too, Rick. I'm just sorry I made you wait."

I just shook my head. "I'd have waited forever."