A/N: TraSan, your last comment had me howling! Yes, he is being a chowder head, but I doubt Vanessa will put up with it for very long. ;-)
Well, this is it – the last chapter. Hope everyone enjoyed the story and the conclusion meets your expectations. Thank you to EVERYONE who read - and reviewed; special thanks to Pandora Jazz, TraSan and Cheryl! Even when I was having a tremendously bad day, your reviews ALWAYS made me smile:-)
Under The Influence
One week later, Vanessa was back home in the apartment she and Joe shared, having made considerable progress in her recovery. Surrounded by a cocoon of pillows, Vanessa smiled as she gazed at the multitude of brochures spread out on her lap, not missing the few that had fallen between the cushions of the couch. Plucking them out of their hiding place, she looked at the photos of serene bikini-clad sunbathers, and young couples sharing a kiss on the beach under the romance of a full moon. She sighed contentedly, thinking that very soon it would be she and Joe who were sharing moonlit kisses in a tropical paradise.
"I can't believe it's been a year since we went to Antigua with Frank and Callie," she called out to Joe in the kitchen. "It doesn't seem like it was that long ago." She smiled as Joe suddenly appeared at her side with a glass of iced tea.
"Thanks." She took the glass. As her hand brushed up against Joe's, he quickly pulled back as if he'd been the recipient of an electrical shock. Frowning, Vanessa took a sip of the tea, watching her boyfriend carefully. "Are you okay?" she asked shifting her long legs and causing a few brochures to fall to the floor.
In a flash, Joe bent down to retrieve them. As he leaned over to place them back in her lap, Vanessa attempted to kiss him on the cheek, causing Joe to abruptly pull away once again. Walking to the opposite end of the coffee table, Joe took a seat in the chair – as far away from Vanessa as he could possibly be without leaving the room altogether.
"I'm fine," Joe replied, lifting his own glass to his lips for a drink.
Furrowing her brow in concentration, Vanessa added Joe's latest bizarre actions to the list. Ever since she'd been released from the hospital, Joe had been acting very peculiar. Always demonstrative and overly affectionate, Joe was often teased by friends and family alike for not being able to keep his hands, or his lips, off Vanessa. However, since she'd come home, Joe had been quiet and moody, kissing her only occasionally and making a concerted effort not to touch her at all unless she specifically asked for his help with something.
"This vacation will be even better," Vanessa said, trying to draw him out. "Because I won't have to share you with Frank. I'll have you all to myself." She winked and grinned wickedly.
Joe almost smiled at the memory of the enchanted island vacation. Sadly, he wondered if he would have spent less time with Frank and more time with Vanessa had he known it would be their last vacation together.
Getting nothing more from Joe than a half-hearted attempt at a grin, Vanessa decided it was time to stop tip-toeing around him and get right to the point. Pushing the brochures onto the floor, she put her glass down on the end table with a dull thud and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Okay, start talking," she ordered. "Something's bothering you and I want to know what it is…now!"
Joe stopped in mid-gulp, his eyes widening in shock, taken completely off guard by his girlfriends heated request.
"Well…I'm waiting. Let's hear it!" Vanessa demanded, more angry at simply being left in the dark than she was at Joe himself.
Realizing there was no way out, Joe smiled wanly. "Can I have a minute to kinda collect my thoughts? I wasn't planning on doing this for another week or so."
Vanessa lifted her arm slightly so she could clearly see the watch on her wrist. "You've got sixty seconds," she replied in a clipped voice, "starting now."
Vanessa's eyes vacillated between her watch and her boyfriend, certain this was the longest sixty seconds of her life. Joe, on the other hand, was sure the minute went by much too quickly.
"Time's up," Vanessa announced and proceeded to stare at Joe, refusing to be denied an explanation.
'Just do it,' Joe thought, realizing he'd never been so nervous in all his life. He suddenly wondered how he was going to cope, how he was going to survive the next sixty plus years without Vanessa by his side. 'Stop it! I know this is the right thing to do…I think…'
"Okay, now that's two minutes. Exactly how many thoughts do you need to collect?" Vanessa asked wryly.
"Sorry," Joe mumbled.
"You'll be making the biggest mistake of your life!" Joe heard Frank's angry words and tried to push them to the back of his mind. "Use the common sense God gave you!"
Shaking off his brother's comments and ignoring how 'right' they felt, Joe sat up and straightened his shoulders.
"Before I say anything else I have to tell you…I have to make sure you know…you're the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you, Van. More than I've ever loved anybody in my life.
Vanessa felt tears in her eyes at the tender words. But the words of love didn't mask the ominous tone in Joe's voice.
"All this stuff that happened with Ryan, it made me realize something. Something I wasn't willing to admit until now. I mean I always thought I could handle anything that came up. I could always keep you…safe. And now, especially now, I know that's just not true," Joe said miserably.
Vanessa saw the flash of guilt in his eyes. A look she had become all too familiar with over the years.
"It wasn't your fault," she said softly as a tiny rivulet of fear poked its way into her heart. There was something different about that look this time, as if Joe had resigned himself to something; something that was tearing him apart. "That's what this is about, isn't it? You think it's your fault that I got hurt. Because you were here and couldn't prevent it."
Joe shook his head and looked away. 'You know me so well, Van. How am I going to get along without you?'
"Well, you're wrong, Joe," Vanessa said, gingerly shifting on the couch, getting a little closer to Joe.
"Am I?" Joe looked back. "I was right here, Vanessa, in the same room and I couldn't stop him."
"You couldn't stop him because I distracted you. That's the only reason. But I refuse to take the blame and I won't let you do it either. The only person who is to blame here is Ryan," she said, moving a few more inches.
"It still doesn't change the fact that you were hurt."
"True, but it still wasn't your fault," Vanessa said adamantly.
"What about all the other times?" Joe challenged her.
"What other times?" Vanessa replied warily. "I've never been stabbed before."
"No, but how many times have you had a gun held to your head? How many times have you been taken hostage? How many times have you been kidnapped and offered back to me in exchange for evidence or information? And what's gonna happen when some crackpot decides to hurt me by really hurting you? Don't tell me that could never happen, because we both know that's not true," Joe said his voice calm and steady. "As long as you're with me, you will always be in danger."
"Joe, you've always come through. No matter what's happened you've always gotten me out of it," Vanessa responded, not liking where this conversation was heading.
"So far. But one day the odds might catch up and I may not find you in time."
"Given your track record, I'm willing to take that chance," Vanessa said confidently.
"Well, I'm not," Joe replied quietly. "I want you to be safe, Vanessa. Always. And the only way I can be sure that will happen is if I'm no longer a part of your life. As soon as you're better, I'm moving out."
Vanessa stared at him shocked, hurt, angry and deeply touched. Joe was trying to break up with her. And he was doing it not because he didn't love her anymore – but because he did, more than he ever had before. Sliding down the couch another inch or so, Vanessa was now seated directly across from Joe, staring into his eyes.
"No," she said, calmly yet firmly. "Absolutely not."
"Excuse me?" Joe asked a little stunned. He'd expected yelling, screaming, rage, fury, anger, maybe some tears but not this.
"I said no. You are not breaking up with me," Vanessa repeated. "I had to fight off half the girls at Bayport High and even more when we got to college to keep you. If you think you're going to dump me now over something some criminal who couldn't find his way out of a paper bag might do sometime in the next sixty years…well, you've got another thing coming, pal." Vanessa crossed her arms over her chest, daring Joe to challenge her.
"I see," Joe replied, trying not to smile. Sighing, he looked at the determination on his girlfriend's face and heard Frank's prediction loud and clear. "She'll give you the fight of your life. And she'll win!"
"I know how hard it is for you, when someone tries to use me against you," Vanessa said, a gentleness in her tone. "And I know how scared you were when Ryan stabbed me."
"Do you?" Joe asked skeptically.
"I imagine you felt pretty much the same way I do when I get those middle of the night phone calls from Frank or you father," she said softly.
"I know what I do is dangerous," Joe relented, "but it's my choice."
"You're right," Vanessa concurred. "And being with you is my choice."
Reaching out, she took both of his hands in hers. "I know you just want me to be safe. But your leaving me won't guarantee that. I could walk out the door tomorrow and get hit by a bus."
"Now there's a happy thought," Joe said dryly.
"I've never felt safer or more protected than I have since I've been with you. If you break up with me now, the only thing that will happen is we'll both be miserable. So, it's just not an option. You're stuck with me. I don't care if I have to drag you off to some secluded island I bought with my inheritance and hold you hostage for the rest of your life."
"You'd do that?" Joe asked as Vanessa rose from the couch.
"In a heartbeat. Face it, Joe Hardy. You're mine – forever," Vanessa murmured seductively as she crawled into Joe's lap and firmly pressed her lips to his.
As he melted into her passionate kiss, Joe's last coherent thought was there was no one on earth he'd rather have holding him hostage than Vanessa Bender.