Caroline & The Future

Caroline & The Future

Rated 'PG'

BY: Jana~

~~Disclaimer~~

*****~*****

--Caroline couldn't believe what had happened. She sat on her couch, clutching her blanket and crying...

*How could he not want kids?* she asked herself... *I mean, I understand that his childhood was bad... but, that bad? So bad that he could NEVER want kids? So bad that he would be willing to throw away a life with me? His supposed 'sincere amore'... the 'love of his life'... the 'love he would never have to question'? Or maybe he just didn't love me as much as he claimed...*

Her emotions were in turmoil. Just hours ago she was engaged to be married to Richard, the only man she had ever loved with all her heart. Now, after almost 4 years... after everything they had been through... it was ending like this. Her, alone in her apartment hurting like she had never hurt before and Richard on a plane to see his new baby son. A child he had created with his ex-wife Julia before he and Caroline had become a couple.

*Julia will probably try to get Richard back. And with them having a child together...* The thought of Richard back with Julia made Caroline's skin crawl, and the tears come faster. She quickly wiped that image from her mind and covered her head with the blanket... *I'm never leaving my apartment again...*

*****~*****

--Richard sat numb on the plane to Italy. He couldn't believe it was over. He and Caroline were over. He couldn't convince himself that it was real. Just hours ago he was engaged to his 'sincere amore'... now he was alone on a plane... going to meet his son...

*My son...* That didn't seem real either. *How can I be a father? I don't know how to be a father. And Caroline wants more kids? How can I have more when I don't even know what to do with this one?* Tears welled up in his eyes but he refused to let them fall. *I've lost her... because I don't want children. She's always known how I feel about this... why wait till now to bring up the subject?* It didn't matter now... nothing mattered now except learning to be a father to Stefano. *Maybe I was too rash. Maybe I should have at least considered having more children. Ugh! But I don't know HOW to be a father! It's not like I had a role model... my father was gone more than home...* He could no longer stop the tears from falling as they splashed down his face. *Maybe Caroline has a point. Maybe it's always been so hard with regards to our relationship cause we weren't meant to be...* He quickly dismissed that thought... *No. She IS my 'sincere amore'... I will never love another...*

*****~*****

--Richard arrived in Italy and met his son Stefano. Julia left for Monte Carlo shortly before he arrived claiming she had post partum depression and, true to her character, never returned. Richard fell in love with Stefano, and with being a father, which surprised him greatly. He stayed in Italy, and, to his utter amazement, Julia's father actually helped him out. The man that had loathed Richard for all those years had actually learned to respect Richard and his ability to love and parent his grandson. Richard, being a very proud man, did not want Mr. Mazzone's help or money. But when times got tough, as sometimes they do, Mr. Mazzone would pay Richard to paint a mural or a painting. He grew accustomed to his life in Italy and his role as a father, but he never forgot about Caroline. He often thought about calling her, but decided it might be better not to.

*****~*****

--Over a month had passed and Caroline was still hiding in her apartment. She had almost all but stopped creating the 'Caroline in the City' strip, and the papers had to start running re-runs. Annie tried to cheer her up... and so did Del, but she just couldn't see anything to be cheery about. Slowly, she stopped being extremely depressed and graduated to merely very sad. Finally, as a last ditch effort to help Caroline, Annie called Randy... an old high school friend from Peshtigo and someone Caroline had once had slight feelings for. Annie hoped that, at the very least, the friendship between Caroline and Randy would help her forget about Richard and move on. Annie's plan worked. Seeing Randy did help... it helped her feel less lonely, and slowly, feelings did develop for him. She would always love Richard, but Randy was here, and comfortable, and he wanted the same things as her. He wasn't Richard, but he was a good, loving man who wanted children. Six months later... they were married. Thirteen months after they got married, Caroline gave birth to a baby girl... Sydney. Her life was finally complete... a husband, a child, a cat, a house, and a successful comic strip. She had everything she had ever wanted... but there was still a hole. She knew why the hole was there, but she forced herself not to think about it. It hurt too much. She often wondered how Richard's life turned out, and had thought about trying to find him a few times, but decided against it.

*****~*****

~~10 YEARS LATER~~



--"C'mon Dad! Let's go!"

"In a minute Stevie..." Richard told his son as he calmly sipped his coffee. Stefano hated his name, and from near about the minute he could learn to talk, he had asked everyone to call him Stevie. "Have some patience. I know that word cannot be found in an 11 year old's vocabulary... but let's give it a try while I drink my coffee... ok?" Richard added sarcastically as he flipped through the newspaper.

"Don't read the paper! We'll be here all day!" Stevie whined.

"I'm not reading it... I'm just looking for something..."

"What?"

"The review on the museum's new exhibit."

"I don't want to READ about it! I wanna SEE it! C'mon... let's go now..."

Richard ignored his son's whining as he flipped through the pages. He stopped when he reached the comics... and an odd expression came over his face as he stared at the page.

"What are you looking at?"

"Caroline in the City..."

"What?"

Richard tapped the page where the comic strip was located and Stevie sat down at the table and read it.

"Cute..." Was all Stevie said, looking at his dad with questioning eyes. It wasn't like his dad to care about 'funnies', as Richard called them, yet here he was reacting to one in a way that seemed out of character for him.

Richard hadn't seen the strip since he moved to Italy 11 years ago. He was kind of shocked, but definitely glad to see that she was still doing it...

*And it's as predictable as ever...* he thought to himself, a tiny smile crossing his lips.

"Dad?"

"What?"

"Why do you care about..." Stevie looked at the strip again to see the name of it... "Caroline in the City?"

"I used to color it..." Richard replied simply.

"It's in black and white..."

"Not the Sunday strips. And you'd be surprised what kind of merchandise that little cartoon is on! Calendars, greeting cards, mugs, lunch boxes, kitchen stuff, bathroom stuff... almost all of which needed to be colored..."

"How come you never told me about that job?"

"Oh, I don't know... remembering kinda makes me sad..."

"Why?"

"Cause I was madly in love with Caroline..."

"You were in love with a cartoon?" Stevie asked with his father's brand of sarcasm...

"No..." Richard smirked... "I was in love with the creator of Caroline in the City... whose name also happens to be Caroline. She was my sincere amore..."

"Your what?"

"Sincere amore. It's a love you never have to question..."

"What happened?"

"I lost her."

"How do you misplace a whole person?" Stevie quipped. Richard shot him an amused look, but then his expression grew serious...

"I lost her because I was afraid..." Richard continued...

"Afraid? Of what?"

Richard shook his head to clear his mind and smiled at his son...

"Afraid of something she wanted. I made a mistake, and I lost her forever..."

"What did she want?"

"She wanted me to name my first son 'Mind Your Own Business'..." Richard teased him, mussing up his hair... "C'mon..." he got up from the table... "Let's go to the museum..." Richard wanted to change the subject, but Stevie wasn't quite ready to...

"Where did you live when you had that job?"

"Here. In New York..."

"Maybe she's still here! You wanna go see if we can find her?"

"No. She has a life now I'm sure. A life that doesn't include me. It would be intrusive to go see her now."

"But, maybe she still loves you too!"

"What?"

"Maybe she still loves you... and is missing you as much as you're missing her!"

"What makes you think I'm missing her?"

"Your eyes..." Stevie answered, sounding a lot older than 11 years old... "Your eyes are telling me that you still love her. Cause I've never seen them look like that before... not even when you've talked about Mom."

Richard just stood silent for a moment, then hugged his son...

"You are too smart for your own good. I appreciate your concern, but trust me, it's NOT a good idea for me to go tracking her down after all this time. Ok?"

Stevie shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes... "Ok... if you say so..." He sounded just like Richard... there was no mistaking who's son he was.

"Can we go to the museum now?" Richard asked, sounding just a touch irritated, but really, he wasn't.

"Yeah! Let's go!"

*****~*****

--"Mom! Can I go to the museum with Libby?" Sydney asked her mom excitedly...

"Are her folks going?" Caroline asked as she buzzed about, looking for something...

"Well, Uncle Del isn't, but Aunt Annie is! Please can I go?"

"If Annie is going then yes, you may go. BUT!..."

"But?"

"Tell Annie I want to see her first before you go..."

"YAY!" Sydney was excited and started to run for the door...

"Hey, Syd?"

"Yeah?"

"Have you seen the 'Richard' doll?"

"Yeah... Aunt Annie was poking pins in it earlier..."

Caroline looked at her daughter and scowled... "Now I REALLY want to see her! And tell her to bring the doll... unharmed..."

Sydney's expression grew serious and she walked back towards her mom...

"Mom? Why did you make a 'Richard' doll, but not make one of Daddy?"

"Well, I don't think your daddy would've liked one made of him. I'm just trying to respect his wishes..."

"Well, from what you've told me about Richard, he wouldn't have liked a doll looking like him either..."

"Well, no... you're right... he probably wouldn't have."

"So, why him and not Daddy? Is it cause you loved Richard more than Daddy?"

"Oh, honey... I loved your daddy very much..."

"But not as much as Richard? You can tell me Mom... I'm 10 now! I'm not a little girl anymore!"

Caroline smiled at her daughter and sighed... "No, you're not a little girl anymore... but sometimes mommies don't tell their children everything..."

"You don't have to tell me everything... just tell me who you loved more... Daddy or Richard..."

"Why do you want to know?"

"I heard Aunt Annie say something..." Sydney admitted cautiously...

"What? What did Aunt Annie say?"

"At Daddy's funeral... she said you were a wreck, but you would've been worse if it had been Richard..."

Tears came to Caroline's eyes as she looked at her daughter's sad expression.

"Oh, honey... I'm sorry you heard that. It's true, I loved Richard very much... but I also loved your daddy very much..."

"More than Richard?"

"Differently than Richard..."

"I wish I could've met Richard..."

"I wish you could have too." Caroline hugged Sydney as tears splashed down her cheeks...

"Why are you crying Mom?" Sydney asked when the hug ended...

"I just don't like to see you sad..."

"I'm not sad Mom... just curious about Richard. Aunt Annie called him your... your... 'sin-cherry-armor'?"

Caroline busted out laughing and Sydney smiled at her mother's reaction...

"You mean sincere amore."

"Yeah! That's it! Sincere amore! What does that mean anyway?"

"It means 'a love you never have to question'..."

"Huh?"

"Wait about 8 years, then you'll understand..."

Just then Annie walked in...

"Aunt Annie! Mom says I can go!"

"Great sweetie! Libby is waiting for you downstairs. DON'T hail the taxi till I get there!"

"We won't!" Sydney agreed as she ran out the door.

"I was gonna take them to lunch afterwards... is that ok?" Annie asked Caroline...

"Sure. Hey, Annie... I want my 'Richard' doll back!"

Annie laughed and reached into her purse. She pulled out the cartoon 'Richard' doll with pins sticking out of it...

"He's not even here and you're trying to torture him!" Caroline scolded, snatching the doll from her hand.

"I couldn't help it! I just found it so amusing that Richie could be in the middle of... 'it'... with Morticia, and then, all of the sudden... "Sorry Julia, I have a raging headache all of the sudden"..."

Caroline glared at Annie, then a smile crossed her lips...

"Maybe I should make a 'Julia' doll..."

Annie laughed and grinned a wicked grin, then she shook it off and hugged Caroline...

"I'll see ya later..."

"Ok. Oh! Hey! Is Del coming by for the new calendar sketches?"

"Yeah... I think so..."

--Annie and Del got married 3 months after Caroline and Randy, and had Libby 11 months later... about 1 month after Caroline had Sydney. Before Randy died they spent almost equal amounts of time between Peshtigo and New York, but after he died, Caroline and Sydney stayed primarily in New York. Annie moved out of her old apartment when she became pregnant and she and Del moved into a larger apartment in the same building, one floor up. Sydney and Libby became inseparable, and Annie and Caroline's friendship just grew stronger and stronger as the years passed.

*****~*****

"Dad... we've been here forever! Let's go! There's more to see than just this!" Stevie whined, antsy and irritated.

"Just a minute... I'm not done here yet..."

"It's just paintings Dad! You've seen 'em already..."

"Shhh... I can't enjoy the art with you whining and complaining..." Richard replied quietly and calmly. Stevie rolled his eyes and sighed, exasperated...

"Well, can I go on up ahead by myself then?"

Richard hesitated for a moment, then nodded his head... "Yes, you can go on ahead. BUT! Do NOT leave the museum..."

"I won't..."

"And don't talk to strangers..."

"I know, I know..."

"And we'll meet up in the gift shop in an hour..."

"Ok..." Stevie started to run off but Richard made a noise to catch his attention...

"Pssst..."

Stevie stopped abruptly and turned around...

"Don't run and don't be loud..."

"Ok Dad... I know..." Stevie turned back around and walked slowly away as Richard smiled.

--"Mom? Can Syd and I go to the gift shop?" Libby asked Annie...

"Yeah, that's fine. But stay together, don't leave the museum, and don't talk to strangers..."

"Ok!" Both Libby and Sydney exclaimed as the headed for the gift shop...

"I'll meet you there in a little bit..." Annie called after them... they just kept right on going...

--Stevie had made his way rather quickly to the museum gift shop. He wasn't into art and culture as much as his father was, and the gift shop had neat toys. He browsed about, noticing the 2 girls who had entered, but not paying them much mind... until...

"Awww... Look Lib..." Sydney said as she showed her friend a greeting card with a guy and a girl on the front kissing... "Sincere amore..."

"What?" Libby asked, confused...

"Sincere amore... it means a love you never question..."

Stevie overheard the conversation and looked over at them abruptly, the suddenness and the expression on his face catching the girls' attention...

"I'm sorry..." Stevie apologized politely... "But where did you hear that saying?"

"My mom..." Sydney replied, looking at him almost as if she recognized him... or was trying to recognize him... "Why?"

"Cause, I had never heard the saying before, but just today, my dad said it..."

Stevie, having grown up in Italy, had a fairly thick Italian accent that didn't seem to go with him...

"Where are you from?" Libby asked, jumping into the conversation...

"Italy..."

"Hi, I'm Libby Cassidy..." Libby extended her hand towards Stevie...

"Hi..." He shook Libby's hand...

"I'm Sydney..." Sydney extended her hand...

"Hi. I'm Stevie... Karinsky..."

"Stevie Karinsky??" Sydney sounded surprised...

"Well, actually, my name is Stefano, but that's the stupid name my stupid mom named me... so I go by Stevie..."

"Oh my gosh! You're name is Stefano Karinsky??" Sydney's voice grew louder and her reaction caused Libby and Stevie to look at her as if she had just gone crazy...

"Yeah?"

"Is your dad's name Richard?"

"How did you know--...?" Stevie was now baffled...

"He worked for the lady that draws 'Caroline in the City'..."

"Yeah..."

"That's my mom!" Sydney announced excitedly.

"You're kidding!" Stevie exclaimed, equally as excited.

"No, I'm not kidding! How weird is this? Mom and I were just talking about your dad this morning!"

"Dad and I were just talking about your mom this morning!"

"Guys, this is weirding me out! It's like that really super old freaky show... ummm... 'Twilight Zone'!" Libby added...

"You know, Stevie, I don't think my mom ever stopped being in love with your dad..."

"Same with my dad. You shoulda seen the way his eyes looked when he was talking about her this morning... I've never seen that look in his eyes before..."

"You know what I'm thinking?" Sydney asked rhetorically... "I'm thinking we get them together. Trick them into meeting..."

"How do we do that?"

"Well... ummm... OH! I know! Let's get them to take us to dinner at the same place! Then, when they see each other, they'll fall in love all over again!"

"Sydney..." Libby chuckled slightly... "You are SO into that mushy stuff!"

"But it's a good idea... dontcha think?"

"Yeah, it is..." Stevie agreed... "But where do we go? What restaurant?"

"Remo's!" Sydney and Libby said almost in unison...

"Isn't that a song?" Stevie asked, certain he had heard the name before, but in a song, not in reference to a restaurant...

"Yeah... my Aunt Donna has a song 'Meet Me At Remo's'..." Libby informed... "It was taken from a love letter your dad wrote to Aunt Caroline..."

"You're kidding!" Stevie had heard his dad softly singing the song many times, but had never known the significance...

"Ok, here's the plan... you tell your dad you wanna go eat, and suggest Remo's. Don't take 'no' for an answer..."

"Ok..."

"Then I'll get my mom to take me to Remo's... we go there lots, so it shouldn't be a problem..."

"Ok... what time?"

"Six o'clock... it gets crowded after seven..."

"Ok..."

"Stevie!" Richard called out to him from a short distance away.

"There's my dad..."

"Oh my gosh... THAT'S Richard??" Sydney asked, trying not to stare...

"Yep..." Stevie replied...

"I've only seen the cartoon version of him..."

Richard approached and looked at the girls inquisitively...

"Hi Dad. This is Sydney and Libby... this is my Dad..." Stevie politely introduced them...

"Hello girls..." Richard replied, shaking each girls hand in turn...

"Hello Sir..." they both said in unison...

"It was nice meeting you Stevie. Have a fun time in New York... and try that restaurant... it's really good!" Sydney said as she grabbed Libby's arm and drug her back towards the museum...

"Where are we going?" Libby asked, sounding confused and irritated...

"Your mom..." Sydney whispered sternly... "We have to get to HER before she gets HERE..." she added... dragging Libby behind her...

"Ohhh... right..." Libby finally understood, and matched Sydney's speed...

--"Who were those girls?" Richard asked his son...

"Just girls I met while looking at stuff..."

Richard couldn't help but think there was something familiar about them, but couldn't determine what, so he dismissed it and focused back on the present...

"Ok, well, where do you want to go now?"

--"Hey Mom... we're tired... can we go home now?" Libby asked her mom, knowing the sooner they got home, the sooner Sydney could set everything up for the meeting at Remo's...

"You're tired already? I was gonna suggest going out to lunch afterwards..." Annie said, somewhat surprised...

"Oh, I'm sorry..." Sydney apologized politely... "Maybe next time..."

"Ok... well, let's go then..." Annie was kind of relieved. This way, she could go home and rest a bit before she had to go to work later that night...

*****~*****

--Talking Caroline into going to Remo's was easy... she loved eating there, especially when she wasn't in the mood to cook. Talking Richard into going however, was a bit harder...

"Where did you hear about Remo's?" Richard asked Stevie skeptically...

"Those girls at the museum. I told them I was from Italy and they told me if I wanted good Italian food to go to Remo's..." Stevie lied... "And I know you know about Remo's, cause I've heard you singing that song before..."

"What song?"

Stevie started singing the tiny bit he knew from hearing his dad sing it... "So if you love me... meet me at Remo's..."

Richard just stared at Stevie for a moment, then a slight grin crossed his lips... "Ok... we can go to Remo's..."

*****~*****

--"Ah, Carolina! Sydney! So happy to see you!" Remo exclaimed as he kissed each of their hands...

"Hi Remo..." Sydney said softly, chuckling at his show of endearment...

"Good evening Remo..." Caroline greeted him with a smile... "The usual table please..."

"Mom... let's eat there this time..." Sydney suggested, pointing at a table near the center of the room.

"Why?"

"I don't know... we always sit in the back. Let's sit up front for once..."

"Ok, if you want to we can..."

Remo smiled and led them to the table, pulling out the chair facing the door for Caroline. Sydney quickly sat in it and Caroline shot her a look...

"I just don't want my back to the room..." Sydney said, explaining her actions...

"Since when?"

"Since I saw that movie where the guy got stabbed cause his back was to the room and he didn't see the bad guy coming..."

"What movie was that?"

"Some movie on cable... I saw it with Libby at Aunt Annie's..."

Caroline grumbled and shook her head... "Gonna have to talk to Annie about that too..." she said with a smile on her face. She sat down facing away from the door and waited for Remo to walk away before leaning towards her daughter... "If some bad guy sneaks up behind me, you will warn me, right?"

"Of course..." Sydney chuckled.

*****~*****

"C'mon Dad!" Stevie whined, nervously looking at the clock...

"I changed my name..." Richard quipped sarcastically as he tied his shoes... "What's the hurry?"

"No hurry... just hungry..."

"Well, if you're so hungry... why don't we eat in?"

"NO! Ummm... no, I wanted to see Remo's. You know, and get real Italian food..."

Richard looked up and squinted his eyes as he looked at his son... "Stefano Antonio Karinsky... what are you up to?"

*Uh-oh... he's using my full name... he's on to me...*

"Nothing!" Stevie lied... "What makes you think I'm up to something?" he tried to hide his nervousness...

"You're acting peculiar..."

"You're just paranoid. C'mon... I'm hungry!"

Richard looked at him a few seconds longer, but to Stevie, it seemed like an eternity. Richard finally dropped his stare and continued getting ready. Stevie silently sighed with relief...

*That was close...*

*****~*****

Caroline noticed her daughter kept fidgeting and looking towards the door...

"What's wrong? Who are you looking for?" Caroline asked, causing Sydney to jump slightly...

"Huh? Nothing... No one..." she replied nervously...

"Uh-huh..." Caroline knew she was lying, but she just smiled...

--Richard approached Remo's with slight trepidation. So many memories there... and they all came flooding back. Stevie saw his dad's hesitation and grabbed his arm...

"C'mon..." he said as he lightly tugged on him, then he ran up ahead...

Stevie was the first to walk in and Sydney saw him enter, reacting in a way that caught Caroline's attention. Caroline looked in the direction her daughter was looking in, and saw Stevie standing there. He looked somehow familiar, but she didn't know why. Just then, Richard entered...

--Richard and Caroline's eyes locked, and immediately, Caroline's eyes started to well up with tears.

"Caroline?" Richard whispered, emotion choking his voice away. Caroline stood with shaky legs, unable to speak. Stevie and Sydney stood beside their parents as Richard and Caroline stood dumbfounded, staring at each other in silence. Sydney nudged her mom, snapping her out of her haze. Caroline looked down at her daughter, then back up at Richard...

"I can't believe..." she started to say, but didn't know what to say. It had been 11 years since she had seen him, but he looked the same. Richard walked towards her and extended his hand...

"How are you?" he asked awkwardly...

"Ok. You?"

"I'm fine." Richard replied softly... "Oh, sorry... this is Stevie... Stefano..." He put his arm around Stevie proudly as he introduced him.

"This is Stefano?" Caroline asked, amazed. He smiled and extended his hand...

"Stevie... please. I HATE the name Stefano..."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Stevie... nice to meet you..." Caroline shook his hand, then looked back at Richard... "I can't believe how much he looks like you..."

Richard smiled, then looked down at Sydney...

"Oh, sorry... this is Sydney... my daughter... Sydney, this is Richard Karinsky..."

"We've met..." Richard stated simply. Caroline looked confused...

"At the museum..." Sydney informed sheepishly.

Richard looked at Stevie and Caroline looked at Sydney...

"You arranged this... didn't you?" Caroline asked Sydney. Stevie and Sydney exchanged smiles, then she nodded...

"With my help..." Stevie added.

Richard and Caroline looked back at each other just as Remo approached...

"Signore Richard! So good to see you again!" Remo announced cheerfully, shaking his hand... "Could I get you guys to sit down? You're kind of drawing attention to yourselves..." he asked quietly. Richard and Caroline quickly took a seat and Stevie and Sydney joined them.

"Who was the other little girl?" Richard asked Caroline inquisitively.

"Libby..." Sydney whispered...

"Libby! Annie's and Del's daughter..."

"Annie and Del got married?? And had a child??" Richard asked, shocked...

"Yep..." Caroline confirmed... "Three months after I did..." she added...

"You... got married?"

"Yeah... to... Randy..."

"Randy from high school?"

"Yeah..."

Richard just simply nodded...

"What about you? Did you ever get married?" Caroline asked reluctantly...

"No..."

"You never married?" Caroline asked again... "What happened to Julia?"

"Julia just disappeared..."

"He's never even dated..." Stevie added, receiving a somewhat gentle jab from Richard...

"Why?"

Richard just looked down at the table and shook his head. He did not want to answer that question...

"Sorry..." Caroline apologized...

"Mom... tell him about Dad..." Sydney whispered...

"Shhh..." Caroline hushed her...

"Are you ready to order?" Remo asked, approaching the table and interrupting the uncomfortable moment.

*****~*****

They didn't talk much during dinner, mostly small talk about the weather in Italy and the 'Caroline' strip. After dinner, Stevie and Sydney took their dessert to another table so their parents could be alone.

"So..." Richard began reluctantly... "Sydney is..."

"Randy's..." Caroline replied, sensing he was about to ask if he was Sydney's father...

Richard nodded... then added "She looks like you..."

"Thanks. I knew you'd make a great father... Stevie is a wonderful young man..."

"Thanks."

"Julia really just disappeared?"

"Yeah... she did. Stevie has never even seen her..."

"That's sad..."

"Yeah... it's her loss..."

"Can I ask you a question? A personal question..."

"Yes..."

"Why didn't you ever get married?" Caroline asked timidly.

"Because, I had my sincere amore... and lost her. I didn't want to settle for less..."

The tears splashed down Caroline's face as she looked down at the table...

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Richard asked softly...

Caroline nodded...

"Why did you marry Randy?" He handed her his napkin...

Caroline wiped the tears from her face... "I wanted a family..."

"Do you love him?"

Caroline nodded...

"Is he your sincere amore?"

"Don't make me answer that..."

"I'm sorry. How is Randy? Still a doctor?"

Caroline looked at him with a sadness that immediately put him on edge...

"Randy died... a little over a year ago..."

"Oh my God, Caroline... I'm so sorry..." Richard felt horrible for asking about him, but he honestly didn't know...

"Thank you..."

"Are you ok?"

"Yeah... I'm getting better..."

There was a long pause, mostly because they weren't sure what to talk about next...

"I saw the 'Caroline' strip this morning..." Richard said finally, changing the subject...

"Yeah? What did you think?"

"It was cute..."

Caroline chuckled... "You never did like the strip..." She could tell he was just being polite...

"That's not true! I liked the strip... I just didn't always get it..." Richard smiled.

*****~*****

--Caroline invited Richard to come back to the loft with her to talk, and after letting Richard in, Caroline dropped Stevie and Sydney off at Annie's...

"Tell me EVERYTHING that happens!" Annie insisted...

"I will..." Caroline assured her, smiling broadly.

--Caroline walked into her apartment to see Richard at the partners desk looking over 'Caroline' strips...

"It hasn't changed much, huh?" She shut the door and headed for the kitchen... "Coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks. No, it sure hasn't changed much at all..."

"When Randy died, I wasn't much in the mood to do the strip... but after a while, the strip became somewhat... therapeutic..."

"Can I ask, how did Randy die?"

"Car accident..."

"I'm so sorry. That must've been rough for you... and Sydney..."

"It was... but we're getting better..."

"I thought of calling you so many times..." Richard admitted...

"Same here..."

"Why didn't you?"

"I thought you would be with Julia..."

"I would've never gotten back together with Julia... even if she HADN'T disappeared..."

Caroline just nodded... "What have you been doing? You know... for work?"

"Painting..."

"Really? Is your art selling well in Italy?"

"Not always, but when times are tough, I create paintings or murals for Mr. Mazzone to bring in a little extra money..."

"Julia's father?! You're kidding?!"

"Nope. He's decided I'm not so bad after all..." Richard chuckled...

"Wow!"

Richard kept his eyes low as he sipped his coffee, trying not to stare at her. She was as beautiful as ever, and his heart ached to hold her... "So... Annie and Del... who would've thought?"

"Yep... and they're very happy too..."

They were running out of things to talk about. They talked about their lives and the weather, all the while avoiding what they really wanted to talk about... what they really wanted to say to each other.

"You know, Richard, we shouldn't do this..."

"Do what?"

"This avoidance thing. We've been through too much together to do this..." Caroline sat beside Richard on the couch and put her hand on his arm... "I never stopped loving you Richard..."

"I never stopped loving you either..." Richard put his mug down on the coffee table and embraced Caroline as if he were a drowning man and she was a life preserver. He then kissed her passionately... lovingly... gently... with all his heart.

"Stay with me tonight..." Caroline whispered, emotions overflowing...

"What about Stevie?"

"He'll be ok at Annie's..."

Richard smiled, then kissed her again... "I would love to stay with you tonight. Tonight and every night..."

"Richard?" Did he mean what she thought he meant?

Richard got down on one knee and took her hand in his... "Caroline, will you marry me?"

"Yes, Richard. Yes... I will marry you..." Caroline answered immediately, crying happy tears as she hugged Richard tightly. "We should tell the kids..."

"Tomorrow..." Richard suggested, kissing her earlobes and working his way to her neck...

"Tomorrow..." Caroline agreed... "We have 11 years to catch up on. We need to get... reacquainted..."

"Mmmm... good idea..." Richard hummed, breathing deeply to keep his head...

"Can I ask you a question?" Caroline asked in a whisper...

"Of course..."

"You haven't been with anyone since us? Eleven years ago?"

"I have not been with anyone since us..." Richard replied softly...

Caroline smiled and ran her hand down his leg slowly... "You must've been... lonely..."

"I was..."

"But not anymore..."

"No, not anymore..." Richard whispered breathlessly, Caroline's touch affecting him greatly...

"Let's go upstairs..." Caroline whispered in his ear...

"Yeah... good idea..."

Caroline took his hand in hers and headed for the stairs that led to her bedroom.

--They made love for the first time in 11 years. It felt so right, so perfect... so...

"Amazing..." Richard whispered as he snuggled into Caroline...

"Yeah, it was. Amazing..." Caroline rested her head on his chest, holding him tight.

"Caroline?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't want to over step my bounds here..."

"You can talk to me about anything Richard..."

"Did you love Randy more than me?"

"I... I loved him differently. I cared for Randy... very much. We came from similar backgrounds... we had a lot in common..."

"Yeah..."

"But I never felt the passion for him that I felt... that I feel... for you..."

Richard kissed and nibbled at Caroline's neck lovingly... "I love you Caroline..." he whispered emotionally... "God, I love you. I can't believe I'm here with you. This isn't real... I'm dreaming, right?"

"No... you're not dreaming..." Caroline chuckled softly... "But this is my dream come true..."

"Mine too..." Richard admitted. "What are we gonna tell the kids?"

"The truth. Richard, who do you think set up the 'chance meeting' at Remo's? They'll be happy about this! Trust me..."

Richard smiled and snuggled into Caroline. They fell asleep in each other's arms, more in love than ever.

*****~*****

--Caroline was right, the kids were ecstatic about their parent's upcoming nuptials. After a few months of planning, Caroline and Richard got married in a small but elegant ceremony. Stevie was the ring bearer, Del was the best man, Annie was the matron of honor, and Sydney and Libby were flower girls. After a wonderfully romantic 4 week honeymoon, Richard, Caroline, Sydney, and Stevie all focused on becoming a family. Their family melded together easily, and Richard finally felt like his life was finally complete. Caroline finally had the love and passion that had always been missing from her life. Stevie finally had a mother. Sydney had a new father and a new brother... and was very pleased that she helped bring it all about.

And they lived happily ever after...



THE END