Title: Interludes and Everafters
Disclaimer: All characters and situations belong to Columbia Pictures as well as who knows who else, but the actual arrangement of words remains my own. No profits are made and my intention is not to infringe on the rights of the proper holders of copyright, but rather just to have a wee bit of fun by taking the characters out for a spin. Really, I'll have them back before midnight.
Summary: Can a brief interlude between Oliver and Grace lead to a lifetime of love?
Rating: Probably about a PG-13 for mild sexual situations.
Interludes and Everafters
"Sleep well, my love," Grace Farrell's voice was whisper soft to go with the delicate, impossibly light kiss she pressed to a small forehead. Dead to the world, Annie never woke, nor felt the soft ruffling of covers as Grace straightened them around her nor the light touch of the gentle hand that smoothed the wild tangle of her hair. A part of her heart breaking over the loss of what might have been, she stayed there for a long time, simply watching the child that might have been hers had things turned out differently sleep the night away. Pulling her thin silk robe a little more tightly around her slender frame, she slipped out. Her attention still with the child sleeping peacefully in her bed, she didn't realize she wasn't alone in the corridor outside Annie's bedroom until she ran full force into a solid body and felt her upper arms grasped supportively by strong hands.
"Mr. Warbucks," Grace gasped as she realized with whom she'd collided. "I-I was just checking on her," she stammered with a nod toward the now-closed bedroom door. The scent of cigar smoke and expensive cologne swirled around him, teasing her nostrils and leaving her all too aware of lateness of the night and the sheer quality of her robe.
"I...uh...Miss Farrell—Grace," Oliver corrected himself almost immediately.
And when, some distant part of Grace's brain wondered even as the rest of her thoughts were involved in noting the precise shape and color of his eyes, had he gone from Mr. Warbucks in her thoughts, to being Oliver?
His hands moved ever so slightly where they cupped her arms, the gesture almost but not quite a caress.
In the garden, she realized, reminded of that tiny moment when he'd caught her forearm to keep her from leaving after he'd initially denied her request to keep Annie. In that instant— just as now— she'd been intensely aware of the heat and texture of his palms, warm and still work-roughened in spite of the years that separated him from the boy who'd once worked on the London docks to survive. "Sir—" she began as she realized she'd taken long enough to respond that she was probably starting to look utterly daft.
"Oliver," he corrected before she said any more.
"Oliver," she agreed, a nervous smile tugging at her lips.
He glanced past her shoulder, staring at Annie's bedroom door with a worried frown. "How is she?"
Grace followed the line of his gaze, her momentary breathlessness fleeing in the face of the reminder that they would likely soon lose the child that had brought everything to the verge of change. "She had a hard time falling asleep," she admitted, "but she finally did. I think the excitement of the day caught up with her."
"Ah," Warbucks murmured, his voice a low mumble that sent a shiver down Grace's spine. "I should let her sleep then," he decided out loud.
They both fell silent, staring at the closed door, then Grace swung her head around as she abruptly became aware that sometime since their unintentional collision her hands had come to rest on the broad plane of her employer's chest and she could feel the steady thud of his heart. So many things had changed in a very few hours, and it suddenly occurred to Grace that it wasn't just losing the child that frightened her. She was terrified that without Annie's bright smile and lively presence everything might go back to the way it had been before. And that suddenly seemed like a very sterile existence.
She rubbed her thumbs very lightly against his shirt. It was hand tailored from the finest Egyptian cotton, but it was the slight flex and play of muscle underneath the fabric that drew all of her attention as it occurred to her that before that morning they'd never really touched beyond the tiniest brushes of their fingertips when passing papers back and forth. And then she had a rather intense epiphany that those moments had made her—if not him—so painfully aware of the tiny arc of electricity caused by even that minuscule contact that she'd carefully avoided anything more, well aware that those feelings were dangerous in the extreme and to be avoided at all costs.
And dear lord, what would she do if she had to go back to avoiding him like that?
It would be like returning to some deeply buried prison after finally experiencing the sun.
No, she didn't want to go back to that hidden, carefully restrained interaction. What she really wanted was press close and feel his arms wrap protectively around her, then lean her head against his chest so she could hear that steady beat of his heart while they held and comforted each other.
Oh, that wouldn't do. That. Definitely. Would. Not. Do.
"I-I should get back to bed," she stammered, suddenly self-consciously aware of how increasingly inappropriate her thoughts were becoming with each passing second. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day and..." too choked up to finish as she was reminded of what lay ahead, she trailed to a halt, shaking her head ever so slightly. She started to turn away, only to freeze as he maintained his loose hold on her arm and his voice, low and rough with emotion, reached her ears.
"Are you all right?"
She froze, struggling to make her voice work in order to answer in her normal calm, collected manner. "I—" She couldn't do it. Her voice shattered painfully, the rough creak bringing it to a halt while the tightness in her throat made it almost impossible to start again.
The gentle, worried note was her undoing. "No," she admitted. Later, she would never remember which of them moved first, only that he tugged lightly and she flowed closer, and suddenly they were clinging to each other as though their lives depended on it, each of them instinctively seeking comfort and shelter in the other. Given their history, it should have been a surprise, but somehow it wasn't, just like it seemed perfectly right and normal when she hid her face in his shoulder and he buried his face in her hair, making her aware of the warmth and tempo of his breathing. "What are we going to do?" she croaked helplessly.
He was silent for a moment as he struggled to formulate his answer. He'd been alone for so many years that having the promise of a family held out just long enough for him to realize how very much he missed those ties only to have it yanked away again was threatening to shatter even his world famous composure. "We will," he began when he finally mastered the faint quaver that threatened to make his voice unsteady, though the words still came at odd intervals as he struggled to say what he knew was needed, "do our best to give Annie exactly what she wants...her proper parents..."
"And what about..." Grace began only to trail off as too many options flitted through her mind. The future? Them? This? What they felt? What they wanted? A myriad of questions went unfinished. Still holding her close, he stroked her hair lightly, then she felt the tender press of his lips against her temple and the heat of his breath on her skin.
"I don't know," he admitted, and this time he couldn't quite control the faint tremor that shook his voice. Feeling utterly lost and uncertain wasn't something with which Oliver Warbucks had much experience, leaving him on very unsteady ground for the first time in many years. Pushing that thought aside with conscious effort, he closed his eyes, focusing instead on the lithe figure pressed so close and the sweet, faintly floral perfume that clung to her. It helped wash away some of the pain, and he stroked her hair gently, drawing a kind of primal comfort from the texture of cool silk under his hand. "But we'll find a way to get through this...for her," he whispered at last.
Swallowing hard, Grace fought the urge to rail against the idea of letting Annie slip out of their lives. It just seemed so very wrong. "But they just left her there," she rasped at last, angry and hurt for everything the child had suffered for that decision. "And if they could do that, how can we trust—"
"Because it's what she wants," he ground out, his voice a low, pained rumble that barely began to express his own inner conflict between the need to give Annie what she wanted and the sheer terror at the notion of handing her care over to people he neither knew nor saw any reason to trust. He felt the shudder that slid through his secretary in response to the rigid note in his voice, and when he spoke again, he softened his tone, making it as soothing as he could. "I promise you, I am not going to let anything happen to her." That Annie couldn't be his child didn't end his responsibility to her in his mind, and he needed Grace to understand that he wouldn't simply walk away. He tucked a finger under her chin to draw her head up until their gazes locked and held. "Whatever happens," he promised, "I'll make certain that she's always provided for...and never wants for anything."
"A part of me hopes we can't find them," Grace admitted, ashamed of that thought when he was so focused on the girl's needs over his own.
Heaving an understanding sigh, Oliver nodded. "I know," he breathed as he tugged her close once more. At any other time in his life he would have walked away and buried himself in work, but loving the child had cracked open some long dormant part of him and for the first time in a very long time he needed human contact. "I've had the same thought."
If Grace had been thinking clearly it would have occurred to her how strange it should seem that two people who were usually far too busy to even look at one another should stand so comfortably wrapped in each other's arms. But she wasn't in the mood to think. Better to just enjoy whatever she could for as long as she could. Like how good he smelled—like good brandy and sandalwood soap---and how safe she felt ensconced in his arms, her cheek resting against the fine cotton of his shirt. Then she felt the heat of his mouth brush a butterfly kiss to her temple and along the line of her cheekbone. Which was not so safe, but oh-so-very good.
By all rights she should have said her goodnights and run like hell. Society had definite views on secretaries and billionaires, and they weren't flattering, particularly if one was the secretary. But for once, Grace Farrell didn't feel like being the responsible good girl who walked away from temptation and ignored any regrets over experiences unlived. She'd done it before, but she just couldn't do it this time. Then again, she'd never faced this sort of temptation before. Oh, there'd been eager boys and even a few interested men of the world, all of them offering the moon but probably out for whatever they could get. But there'd been no one like him and no situation like this.
Without pausing to consider her actions, she tipped her head back, instinctively turning toward the heated caresses that glided along her cheek until their mouths brushed. It began with the barest flutter of lips. She was surprised that, unlike the rest of him, his mouth was so soft, so inviting. Even knowing she should pull away, she leaned into the caress, silently encouraging him to explore further. In moments the floodgate between them cracked open as the self-control they hadn't even been aware of maintaining shattered into pieces. No sane thought was allowed or words spoken. Nothing that might threaten the moment.
Had she shown even the slightest reticence, the logical part of Oliver Warbuck's mind would have asserted itself and taken command. He was a man who'd rediscovered his emotions and taken a hard hit to the heart of them all in the same day, but he wasn't that far gone. A single word and he would have let go and sent her to her bed alone without a word of protest. But instead of pushing him back, she wound her arms more tightly around the strong column of his neck and arched into the solid plane of his chest, her mouth warm and inviting under his. Iron-willed or not, he was still human. As he tasted her sweet breath, he surrendered to needs long sublimated into empire building, threading long fingers into dark silk hair even as he slid his other hand down the sleek curve of her spine, stroking softly and feeling the jump and play of firm muscle through the thin silk of her robe.
It was pure pleasure and neither of them wanted it to end.
It was the distant creak of a foot on a stair that momentarily broke the spell and brought his head up. Hawk-sharp eyes glared down the length of the dark corridor as he felt Grace stiffen in his arms.
Time, he realized in an instant, had completely slipped away from him. "Punjab," he exhaled so softly that Grace could barely hear him, "or the Asp."
Taking a breath, she leaned her forehead against his chest as she realized what he was referring to. One of his bodyguards always ran a late night security check of the mansion. If they stayed where they were, he would be on them in a minute or two. Not allowing herself time to consider her actions, she reached up to rest her hand along the hard line of his jaw. "My rooms," she breathed.
Heat flared in his eyes. "Grace?" he exhaled, his deep baritone little more than a low rumble that rose ever so slightly in question at the end.
By way of answer, she tugged his head down as she arched up to meet his mouth at the halfway point. It was the softest of kisses, tenderly molding her lips to his and promising a hundred kinds of heaven if he just took the chance.
The soft creak of a foot on the stairs reached his ears, closer this time than the last. No time to pause and consider, and he was nowhere near strong enough to turn away.
Grace let out a startled gasp as she was swept up into strong arms, and she steadied herself by wrapping an arm around the back of his neck. The kiss broke for only the barest portion of a second and no words were spoken that might have shattered the spell.
She was no lighter-than-air fantasy, nor even one of the ethereal maidens with equally unformed minds and bodies so often sicced on Oliver by mothers eager for his fortunes. Instead she was solid and warm in his arms, a very real creature of bone and sinew, eager for his touch and careless of the things that drew the attention of so many others. It wasn't his money she wanted, it was him.
Her door was unlatched and pushed open with only the slightest touch.
The approaching creak on the stairs was only moments from rounding the corner into the corridor when he stepped into her rooms. The door thudded shut harder than he would have liked. Neither of his bodyguards would miss the sound, but hopefully whichever one was checking things would just think it was Grace headed for bed after checking on Annie.
And then his bodyguards were forgotten as her lips parted company with his to trail butterfly kisses along the side of his throat, each tiny bit of contact leaving an indelible burn in its wake. Gasping as though struck, he lost his grip on her legs and her lower body slithered down the length of his until her feet hit the floor. For a moment, the only thing keeping them upright was the brace of the door at his back. And then Oliver regained his balance and tightened his hold, turning into the soft caresses to recapture her mouth.
Her heart hammering violently in her chest, head swimming, Grace didn't allow herself to consider what she was doing, just let instinct take over, arching into the hands that slid over her body, exploring as though on a quest to discover new ways to make her shudder and tremble. Then her robe slipped from her shoulders and tumbled away, forgotten, soon to be accompanied by his jacket and tie.
Other things followed in their own time, tossed aside between kisses and caresses in the journey through the large suite: diamond cufflinks scattered, shoes flew, his shirt was tossed over a chair, and finally her nightgown pooled on the floor.
As the last happened, Grace froze, a tiny shiver working its way over her skin, trepidation in her eyes—not fear, but nervous embarrassment.
For an instant, Oliver didn't move, didn't breathe or blink. His heart might not have even beat. He just stared. And then she was in his arms again, warm and supple and very much the stuff of any sane man's fantasies. He should back away, he knew, let her go for her own sake and do things the proper way, but he was an ambitious man who'd spent his entire life pursuing the things he wanted with single-minded passion, not breaking the rules, but bending them to their very limit and never backing away when pursuit was an option. Now it was her he wanted, and he could no more back away now than he had when lesser objectives were at stake. He could only pursue his goal with the same fire previously reserved for business ventures. His hands claimed, his mouth demanded, and his body pressed forward.
And she met him every step of the way, twining her body with his, her nails scoring his back, teeth grazing the point of his chin as she shuddered and trembled in his arms. She was perfection made human as she clung to him, wholly sharing herself, alternately submissive and aggressive, shy yet all knowing, sweet and silken and so wonderfully real.
When he finally collapsed in her arms, sated beyond measure, his skin running with sweat, lungs bellowing air, he buried his face in her shoulder as he struggled to catch his breath while the arm draped loosely around his neck tightened fractionally and a graceful hand stroked his shoulder.
No words were spoken that might splinter the fragile air that always accompanies the forbidden, but soft kisses continued, each one a silent vow in place of spoken promises.
Finally, he rolled to one side, and she flowed close, arching up to share more of the kisses that neither of them could resist before finally snuggling against his side, cheek pillowed on his shoulder, one arm draped across his chest, smiling tenderly as he continued to pet her hair and back with a gentle hand until she drifted off to sleep.
Grace awakened to the awareness that something had changed, and then she became aware of the warm weight of a man's hand on her hip and she remembered everything. It took her an extra moment to realize that she was alone in bed, that he was sitting on the edge of the mattress. Rolling onto her back, she peered up at Oliver, a deep blush suffusing her cheeks as she felt his dark gaze slide over her like a caress before rising to stare deeply into her eyes. He had partially dressed while she slept, though his jacket was still missing, and he hadn't bothered with cufflinks or a tie, so his sleeves flopped loose around his wrists and his shirt hung open at the throat.
Realizing she was staring, she dropped her gaze, suddenly intensely self-conscious in spite of everything they'd shared.
Amazed at her ability to remain shy, he found himself smiling and feeling fiercely protective. Even after waking and realizing he needed to leave before morning light, he'd been unable to go as long as she slept. Instead, he'd stayed and sat at her bedside, simply watching her for the longest time, thinking about things: himself, her, what was, what might have been, what still could be. He didn't have all the answers, maybe not even many, but he knew damn well he didn't want this to be all there was between them.
The problem was, he didn't really know how to say any of it. He was good with business deals, not...this...
"Grace," he began at last, amazed to hear a tiny quiver in his voice.
"Yes?" she whispered tremulously, her voice rising with hope at the end.
He drew a breath, started to speak, had no idea what to say that would even begin to express what he was feeling and wound up with, "It'll be morning soon." Which was a statement of the obvious if ever there was one. "And I really should be going." Equally obvious, but apparently not the right thing to say judging by the way she flinched and her shoulders deflated.
"Oh...of course, I..." she didn't finish and wouldn't look up at him.
Realizing his mistake, he tried to find some way to explain. "It's just that I wouldn't want anyone to realize I'd been here." Oh, that should help, some small inner voice mocked his total inability with women.
She flinched and paled, and even that acid-toned inner voice of his winced at the hurt in her expression. "Of course," she said again, then added, "I understand...and...and...I wouldn't want you to think that I would ever—"
"Grace," he interrupted, wanting her to understand that his caution was for her sake, not his own. "I just—" he began, but buried in her own nervousness, she never heard him.
"—demand anything of you. That's not why I...well, I...I just—"
"Grace," he repeated, more firmly this time and tucked a finger under her chin to draw her head up until their eyes met.
This time she fell silent and appeared to be listening.
Good, maybe he could get a hang of this talking to women thing after all. Eye contact seemed to help the matter, so he decided to stick with that tactic. "There are things we need to discuss." There keep it serious and straightforward, just like any business deal. Surely she'd appreciate that. "It's just that this situation is very complicated," he added, his voice doing a very un-Oliver-Warbucks creak at the end.
She paled and looked away again. "You don't owe me anything, Oliver."
Damn. Clearly he hadn't gotten it right yet. "Of course I do," he snapped impatiently.
Every last bit of color drained from her face. "No," said very, very softly, hurt threading through her voice, "you don't."
He pulled up short as he realized what he'd unwittingly implied. "No," he exhaled sharply, then added an apologetic, "I'm not very good at this." Reaching out, he curved a heavy hand along the line of her jaw, cupping her cheek in his palm to guide her head back around.
She allowed the gesture, but refused to meet his gaze.
"What I'm trying to say," he tried again, his voice as soft as he knew how to make it, "is that I...I care very much for you," he stammered, once again sounding very unlike himself to his ears. Where was the commanding billionaire who knew exactly what to say and how, he wondered, and was there any way to get him back for this? "I've been a blind idiot," he added, "not to have noticed before how very beautiful you are...or how much I've come to value your place in my life." How was it his collar felt too tight when the blasted thing wasn't even buttoned? He swallowed hard. It took effort.
Not knowing what to say, Grace continued to stare at the folds in the sheet, afraid to meet Oliver's gaze for fear of what she might see. If it was regret, it would break her heart. "Thank you," she said very softly. "You know I love..." she started to confess the truth only to panic at the last minute and skid to a halt for a long second before finishing with, "...my job."
He wasn't sure how to take that and froze for a long moment before deciding he needed to forge ahead. He'd never been known for cowardice and he had no intention of going down that road now. "Things are difficult, right now," he murmured, "up in the air while we search for Annie's parents," he added before continuing, "but once we know..." He couldn't finish the thought and shifted gears sharply, the words tumbling out in a rush almost before he knew what he was going to say. "I guess I'm asking if you'll agree to be my wife."
Her chin snapped up, pale grey eyes going wide as she stared at him in shock. "I-I...are you serious—"
"Very," he assured her, almost relieved to have made the decision. Now that he knew what he needed to do, it made it all much simpler. He might not be terribly good at, or experienced with emotional matters, but he was good at pursuing a plan once he had one. And now he had one. Grace in his life. Permanently. There. Everything after that decision had to be easier.
Contrary to what he expected, she shook her head, her chin trembling. "You don't have to, you know," she insisted, not wanting him if he was simply doing what he felt was right. "I would never want you to feel you'd been forced into anything."
He actually smiled at that. Amazing how the strangest things could relieve a man's fears. He should have been scared to death. Instead, he was almost light-hearted. "When has anyone ever forced me to do anything?" he asked.
"Never," she admitted. "But—"
"I love you," he said before she could get another word out, the confession surprising him almost as much as it did her.
She fell silent, so shocked she was barely able to draw a breath.
"I think perhaps I have for quite some time," he added, quite astounded by the discovery. Leaning forward, he kissed her tenderly, then remained close, his forehead almost touching hers. "I...we," he quickly amended, "need to take care of Annie first...but after...or perhaps you don't want..." he exhaled as it occurred to him that perhaps the feelings were one-sided. Suddenly very aware of the difference in their ages, not to mention temperaments, he wondered if perhaps she'd just been being kind or let emotion overwhelm her in taking him to her bed. Perhaps she now regretted her impulsiveness. "Some women might consider me too old...too staid...or loud, or—"
She laid soft fingers over his lips to stop him from continuing to catalogue his worst points. "You're perfect," she disagreed, a nervous smile touching her lips. "I've thought so for a long time."
He considered her slightly mad for feeling that way, but he was grateful as hell that she did. He snatched another quick kiss, then pulled back. "I have to go," he repeated in an effort to shore up his willpower. "For your sake," he added, not wanting her to think he was at all ashamed or regretful, but rather that he realized gossip would hurt her and was trying to be protective. "You understand?" He wanted to be certain she believed that was his only reason for leaving.
She nodded, resisting the urge to cling.
Another soft kiss and then he pulled back. "It'll be all right," he murmured as much to reassure himself as her. "Trust me to take care of you both," he pleaded.
She flashed a genuine smile. "Always," she assured him.
"We'll get through this." One more delicate kiss, then gritting his teeth, he stood. If he didn't go now, he never would.
"I love you," she whispered almost inaudibly.
Strangely, it gave him the strength he needed to step away. She loved him. He wanted to shout it from the rooftops and soon enough he would, but until then, it was time to put someone else's needs ahead of his own. He didn't have a lot of experience with that, but he could learn. He was almost out the door when he remembered something he'd intended to mention and turned back. She was sitting up in bed, the sheet drawn demurely over her chest, the fabric pale against the tempting perfection of bare shoulders. For a moment, his brain misfired and he was struck utterly dumb, but finally he summoned the mental acuity to remember his point. "I...uh...couldn't find one of my cufflinks," he told her. "I wouldn't want Annette or one of the other maids to find it..."
A tiny, shy smile curved her mouth upward. "Don't worry. I'll look in the morning. I'm sure it'll turn up."
He bobbed his head in a faint nod, so busy drinking in the sight of her that he barely heard her. "Good...that's good," he stammered, then realized he really did have to go this time. "Till morning," he breathed.
Go, he reminded himself firmly, noting that even knowing he had to leave, actually doing so was proving a challenge. Finally, he summoned the willpower to step through the door and pull it closed in his wake. Then he stood there for a long moment, head down, one hand braced lightly on the surface of the door, fighting the urge to go back inside.
"Sahib." Punjab's voice was little more than a bass rumble, but it brought Warbucks' head up and he spun as his bodyguard emerged from the shadows a short distance away.
"I...you're...here..." he gasped, the words coming unevenly before he regained some measure of control. He indicated the door at his back with one hand. "I was just...speaking...to Grace...Miss Farrell, that is...about business...that's all..." The words came out in an uneven stammer that made absolutely no sense. "Just business...that's all."
Punjab said nothing, just watched him silently.
"What are you doing here?" Oliver abruptly asked, hoping that perhaps a shift in subject would make him feel slightly less foolish. It didn't help at all.
One dark eyebrow arched higher on his bodyguard's forehead. "One cannot guard a man by standing at a door behind which he cannot be found."
"Ah." Oliver took a deep breath, uncertain what Punjab was thinking, but feeling defensive all the same. "This," again indicating Grace's bedroom door, "isn't what it probably looks like," he felt the need to try and deny the obvious.
Punjab continued simply staring.
Amazing what an effective interrogation technique silence could be. "But it would probably be best if you not tell Grace—Miss Farrell," he instantly corrected himself, "that you're aware that we were...having a meeting...here...after hours."
"She will learn nothing from me," Punjab assured his employer, his tone giving no indication whether or not he believed the lie. At least not until he quietly added, "However, I would never wish to see her hurt in any way." He had become quite fond of the young woman, and while he had nothing but the highest regard for his employer's ethics, Oliver Warbucks was still very much a man, and Punjab was well aware that even the finest man could become somewhat irrational when a beautiful woman was involved.
"I assure you," Oliver felt the need to insist, "neither of us wishes that."
Punjab tipped his head to one side in acknowledgment as he gestured his employer down the hallway ahead of himself.
"I've asked her to marry me," Oliver added, uncertain exactly where the sudden need to explain his private life to Punjab came from, but caught in its grip all the same.
The taller man looked over and for the first time his mouth split into an approving smile. "Excellent."
The next day began on a sour note that only got worse as couples by the hundreds began lining up outside the locked gates of the Warbucks Mansion. Pushing and shoving, their avarice was written on every greedy face turned upward toward his balcony. The sight was enough to make even a jaded soul like Oliver Warbucks shudder in horror. God forbid Annie should be exposed to it.
Which was why he'd agreed to take the child to Washington D.C. to meet F.D.R.. Oliver shook his head disgustedly. Only for Annie could he imagine willingly putting himself in the presence of a man he considered little better than a Marxist. But Annie worshiped him, and it seemed little enough to suffer through the meeting to make the girl happy.
A sad sigh escaped his lips as he realized that not long before it would have seemed an imposition of near-torturous levels. Now, it seemed minor in comparison losing the child he'd come to think of as his own.
Not since burying his brother had he faced anything even close to as difficult as the notion of turning Annie over to one of the fortune hunters below. Even if her parents were in that mob, he couldn't imagine that they deserved the child, but he couldn't see a way to avoid handing her over if that's what she wanted. He was still searching for some way out of the predicament when a gentle hand alighted on his shoulder. He turned to find Grace standing a short distance away, her eyes sad enough to break his heart.
She offered a wan smile and nodded to indicate the rear of the house. "Annie and the autocopter are both ready," she informed him, her voice soft and worried.
Taking a deep breath to nerve himself up, he nodded. He could do this. He started to step past her only to pull up short as her hand landed on his forearm.
"Oliver, I..." her voice cracked and she trailed off, swallowing hard in an effort to maintain control.
He knew just how she felt.
"Take care of her today," Grace said when she'd regained her composure.
He nodded, not trusting his voice enough to respond.
"Oh," she said abruptly and ducked her other hand into a skirt pocket, "I found this when I got up this morning." A deep blush suffusing her cheeks, she caught his hand and tucked his missing diamond cuff link into his palm. "I didn't want the other one to be lonely," she added a little shyly.
Intensely aware of the feeling of her skin against his own, he closed his fingers on the cufflink. "Be careful today," he said very softly. The cufflink clenched so tightly in his hand that he could feel the diamond pressing into his palm, he reached out with his other hand and stroked her cheek, drawing strength from that small contact. "I'll be thinking of you."
They parted, she staying on the balcony where she was, he moving on to lead Annie to the autocopter. The girl was standing with Punjab on the steps leading to the backyard where the vehicle awaited them, the rotors already slowly spinning in preparation for takeoff. As he stepped forward, he glanced down at his hand, opening his fingers to stare at the cufflink Grace had returned. The diamond was cold while the gold setting was still warm from contact with her skin. Annie bounded ahead, staying well away from the autocopter, but thankfully out of hearing, giving Oliver a chance to do what he suddenly realized was needed. Turning to Punjab, he handed the jewelry to his manservant, who frowned ever so slightly. "A ring," Oliver said simply, confident that Punjab would understand his meaning, "something as elegant as she is...I need it by the time we return."
Punjab's answering smile made it apparent he grasped the import of his employer's command. Ducking his head ever so slightly, he pocketed the stone. "It is good to see the building blocks of happiness now, when hearts are heavy," he said softly, then stepped back.
Knowing he could trust the other man to see to the task, Oliver hurried after Annie, quickly loading her into the strange vehicle. When she was safely strapped in place, he joined her, but not before glancing back toward the house in time to see a slender figure step out onto the rear balcony, silently watching as the autocopter took off.
She remained there until the autocopter disappeared into the distance.
The day that followed was a surprisingly good one for Annie, full of new experiences, including a chance to meet her hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and tour the White House. The night, however, wasn't so good, full of adventure to be certain, but not necessarily the kind that most ten year-old girls are eager to experience; an evil villain, a kidnaping, murderous threats, and a last minute rescue worthy of a Perils of Pauline Saturday afternoon serial.
For the adults in her life, Oliver Warbucks, Grace Farrell, Punjab, the Asp, and the rest of Mr. Warbucks staff, the day was pure hell from the morning show of avarice at the mansion gates through to the daring mid-air rescue that returned the child safely to Oliver Warbucks' arms. From there it started to improve—it would have been hard to do otherwise—but it still wasn't the easiest of times for any of them. After all, they'd had a hell of a scare, and once that was over, there were still issues about the future that hung in the air.
Annie, however, survived it all with remarkable aplomb and when it was over, she buried her nose in Oliver Warbucks' shoulder as Grace Farrell wrapped her arms around both of them, and Annie knew then that she was home. She already knew exactly who her parents were, and she didn't need the locket to find them when they were right there holding her safe and sound.
Meanwhile, for the first time in longer than Oliver Warbucks could remember he felt tears burn his eyes as Punjab handed Annie into his care, and he clung to the small frame of the child who had dug her way so thoroughly into his heart with fierce strength. Then he felt the warm press of surprisingly strong arms as Grace enfolded both of them in her hold, reminding him that the child wasn't the only one who'd made her way into his heart. Still holding the trembling child tightly in one arm, he slipped the other free and pulled Grace into the circle of his protection and love, then Annie reached out so she was holding onto both of them, binding them all together.
It was the lightning bright flicker of flash bulbs going off that yanked the tiny group out of their relieved daze.
The press had arrived.
Still holding onto both of them, Oliver turned a pleading look toward Punjab as reporters and photographers closed in on all sides. "Get us out of here," he begged.
And somehow Punjab did. All without breaking any cameras—or jaws. Quite how, neither his employer nor the others would ever be certain—though Annie would long suspect the Asp had some idea of the trick from his silent, unreadable smile whenever asked.
In any event, they soon found themselves safely ensconced in the library of the Warbucks mansion. Oliver Warbucks stood behind the couch where Annie sat while Grace took up a position at her side as the chief of police personally took Annie's statement—no one less would do for the ward of Oliver Warbucks after all. Then, after the police chief had the full story, he quietly explained the Miss Hannigan had already confessed to her part in the kidnaping, and also told them the origins of the locket and how she'd come into possession of the other half.
Blue eyes dropped to the floor and Annie nodded slowly. "I guess I shoulda known they were dead," she said very softly, then felt the comforting weight of Grace Farrell's hand on hers and Oliver Warbucks' palm on her shoulder. "D'ya think maybe they were coming back for me when...y'know?" she questioned after a beat.
"I'm sure of it," Grace insisted as she traded a worried gaze with her employer.
"No doubt whatsoever," Oliver Warbucks agreed.
Annie nodded slowly, silently mourning the parents she'd never known, yet grateful to find that she had a family anyway. Or at least she hoped she did. Mr. Warbucks had seemed awfully happy she was okay, and Miss Grace had even cried. But still, she couldn't quite be certain.
A few more things were said, and then when it was obvious the police chief was finished, Punjab led him out while Warbucks moved around the couch to kneel down in front of her.
"Are you all right?" he questioned, his normally gruff voice soft and worried.
Annie nodded again. "I guess it feels strange," she admitted at last. "I mean, I never really knew them...but at the same time, they were my parents...and it's sad...y'know?"
Patting her hand clumsily, Oliver sighed. "I'm sure they'd be very proud of you," he assured her, then glanced at Grace, who offered a tiny, encouraging smile. "Just as I am," he added.
Blue eyes fell, then rose again, glinting with uncertain lights. "I know before that I said I wanted my real parents," Annie said hesitantly, uncertain how well he might receive what she wanted to say. After all, she'd turned his offer down before, but then she hadn't realized that parenthood wasn't about who gave birth to you, but who loved you. "...but I don't...I mean...it's not just cause they're dead that I...I was just wondering if maybe I could still be your little girl...and I understand if you don't wanna adopt me anymore...but—"
"Annie," Oliver broke in before she could say anymore, "I would like nothing better than for you to be my child." He flashed a glance at Grace who was watching the scene with the gentlest of smiles, and their gazes locked and held for an extra beat. As the moment stretched out, he felt his heart hammering against the inside of his ribcage. All the years he'd fought so very many things—money, property, respect—and everything he really wanted was right here in this room. "But first," he said very softly as he remembered another promise and the effect it could have on them all, "there is one thing." He turned a meaningful glance toward Grace and saw her tiny nod of agreement before continuing, "I think you should know that I've asked Grace...that is, Miss Farrell," which seemed all wrong when he considered the nature of the news, "actually, I mean Grace under the circumstances," he corrected himself, then abruptly noted the child was starting to fidget. "That is, I've asked her to marry me—"
"Took ya long enough," Annie said wryly before he could get any further, which startled him into silence. "I mean, I've been working on getting you two together since I got here."
"You have?" both adults said at the same time as they shared a shocked look.
"Well, sure," the child said immediately, her mouth turned up in a huge grin. "Anybody could see you're perfect for each other."
Anybody except everyone else other than Annie, Oliver thought wryly, though he didn't say a word.
"Heck, I've been tryin' to get you to notice each other since I got here."
Grace was blushing furiously. "Well, thank you, Annie..." She flashed a quick, shy glance at Oliver. "Mr. Warbucks...I mean, Oliver..." She couldn't quite contain a broad smile. "We've come to care very much for each other—"
"Love each other," Oliver corrected gently, smiling as Grace's blush deepened several shades.
Annie just grinned.
"Love each other," Grace agreed, looking up and holding his gaze, her expression utterly adoring.
Annie's wide blue eyes flicked back and forth between the two adults. "So does that mean you'll be my mom?" she asked at last.
Grace reached out, suddenly hesitant and a little uncertain of herself. "Would you like that, honey?"
"Would I ever," the girl exploded, and vaulted into Grace's arms. "With you 'n' Mr. Warbucks for parents, why, my life would be perfect."
A joyous laugh escaping her lips, Grace returned the hug with one of her own, holding onto the child tightly. And then Oliver was there, his arms around both of them. He ruffled Annie's hair tenderly, then leaned close, his mouth brushing Grace's. "I take it that means both of you are amenable to making things official."
There was no question of either answer—more emphatic agreement has rarely been heard.
Annie whooped out, "Heck yeah!"
And while Grace was a bit more demure, she was no less sincere with her drawled, "Very amenable."
Then there were the details to hammer out—a group effort, they agreed, since they would now be a family. First would be a party to celebrate Annie's adoption because it was the easiest to organize, and the paperwork just needed approval from the governor himself. The wedding would take longer since the guest list would have to include some of the most important and powerful people in the world, but also because it took time for a man like Oliver Warbucks to arrange enough time off to have a decent honeymoon—and he and Grace were both definite about wanting a long honeymoon—a point that involved a great deal of blushing on Grace's part, several uncomfortable collar pulls by Oliver, and nearly constant giggling from Annie. The plan however was soon set: a party for Annie, then several weeks later, the wedding, then two weeks for Oliver and Grace alone at Niagra Falls, and then another month in Europe with Annie, Punjab, and the Asp joining them.
Finally, in spite of her excitement, an exhausted Annie was close to passing out, and so her new parents ignored any protestations and readied her for bed and tucked her away.
"Is there anything else we can do for you?"
Snuggling down into her bed, Annie considered the question as she tugged the covers up around herself, then finally offered a sleepy smile. "A little brother or sister would be nice," she mumbled through a yawn.
Blushing even more fiercely than before, Grace busied herself with neatening the child's blankets, while Oliver chuckled ever so softly.
"We'll see what we can do about that," he murmured, ignoring the soft gasp exhaled by his new fiancé.
"Mm, tha' woul' be nice..." Annie mumbled, the words trailing off as her breathing grew slow and steady and she slid off to sleep.
Grace leaned down and pressed a tender kiss to the child's forehead, then straightened, fingers twining with Oliver's.
Hands still bound together, they slipped out on silent feet and ambled along, too lost in each other to pay much attention to their surroundings. Exhaling a happy sigh, Grace leaned against Oliver's shoulder, enjoying the strength and solidity of him as she allowed him to lead her along until they found themselves in the gardens where the sweet smell of flowers and fresh grass hung in the air, and the stars glittered overhead like millions of tiny diamonds.
And when he drew her into his arms to steal soft kisses, she allowed that too. More than allowed it, leaned into it, wound her arms around his neck, molded her body to his, and thrived on it. So much so that when they finally came up for air, they were both breathing hard and shaky in the knees.
"May I assume," he exhaled, "that the lady approves?"
"Definitely," she agreed and fluttered the softest of kisses onto his mouth, then said more seriously, "But what about you? Are you sure about this...about marriage? I mean, I'm not exactly—"
"You're exactly what I want," Oliver interrupted, sliding a hand down to gently caress the curve of her hips. "I have no regrets and no doubts." And then he remembered the favor he'd asked of Punjab that morning. It seemed like another lifetime. "Except maybe..." he trailed off as his hand brushed his jacket pocket and felt something unexpected there. Strange how he knew what it was even before he slipped the tiny, velvet covered box free. Punjab had to have slipped it into his pocket sometime since his arrival, though he had no idea when. Or perhaps it really was all magic. At the same moment, he realized the Grace had tensed ever so slightly.
"What?" she whispered.
"I wish I'd given you this sooner," Oliver exhaled as he flipped the jewelry box open for her to see. Magic indeed, he decided as he stared at the delicate contents of the tiny box.
Three rings, in white gold, the bands twisted in a delicate filigree that caught the moonlight and glittered like faceted gems. The diamond from his cufflink was set in one and with it was a matching wedding band while the third ring was clearly meant for a man, the metal thicker, the pattern heavier, matching the other two perfectly yet still somehow masculine. Oliver had only hoped for something simple to mark their engagement, but not this.
Pale grey eyes wide, Grace could only stare for the longest moment, then a funny little smile curved full lips. "All of them?" she questioned dryly.
"Well, I think one's mine," Oliver admitted, "but this," he drew the engagement ring from the box, "is yours, I believe...if you'll have it."
"It's beautiful," she breathed.
"No moreso than you."
She looked up, her expression a little worried. "I don't need diamonds...just you." She never wanted him to think it was his money she coveted.
He smiled, instantly dismissing any fears. "This diamond," he explained, "is the one from my cufflink...the one you returned." And then he covered her mouth with his own, taking his time to taste and explore before pulling back ever so slightly. "It seemed apropos...to remind you that you had my heart that night."
"How?" she asked, then a smile tugged at her lips as she answered her own question. "Punjab."
Laughing, he nodded and tugged her close once again, removing any distance that had snuck in between them. "Will you wear my ring?" he asked formally.
"Forever," she responded and held up her hand for him to slip the engagement ring into place.
Laughing at the pure joy of life, he kissed her again and she kissed him back, and they held each other until a new day began.
And they all lived happily ever after...
Well, except for the South Sea pirates, and the Nazis, and the smugglers, and the time Rooster escaped and tried to kidnap Annie...
And...well...those are stories for another time. But even then, they were still happy enough because they were together.