Caroline & Richard

Caroline & Richard

Rated 'PG'

By: Jana~

~Disclaimer~

**AUTHOR'S NOTE**

Some of this story is directly from the series, in some cases the dialog is too. I do not lay claims of ownership to those scenes and/or dialog. The rest of this story is my own creation.

*****~*****

--Julia sat at the tiny table in Richard's apartment, sipping her coffee...

*I thought as much.* Julia thought to herself as she stared at the answering machine... *If I am ever to get Reechard back, Carolina cannot be in the picture.*

She hit the button on the machine and erased the message, then proceeded to take her clothes off for the purpose of seducing Richard. She sat naked on the bed, waiting for Richard to come out of the bathroom.

"Who was on the phone?" Richard called out from the bathroom.

"No one, just some woman trying to sell you something." Julia lied.

When Richard came out and saw Julia, naked and on his bed, he became flustered... "What are you doing?"

"I just thought maybe we could try again." she answered seductively.

"Try what?? You mean 'us'? A relationship?" he asked, handing her a sheet.

She started to cover up... "Well, yes! Of course!"

She walked towards him but he backed away... "I can't do that Julia."

"Why not? We were so good together!" She sported a sexy pout, but Richard resisted its purpose.

"That's right Julia, we WERE so good together, but I have moved on. I love someone else." he admitted.

"I see..." Julia said, then started to get dressed... "And she wouldn't by chance happen to have red hair and draw a cartoons..."

"Look, Julia... seeing you again was... well... confusing, but I love someone else. There will never again be an 'us'."

"Alright Reechard, if this is the way you want it...."

"This is the way I want it..."

"And you are sure she feels the same for you...?"

"Goodbye Julia." Richard said flatly.

"Goodbye Reechard." Julia kissed him on both cheeks, then walked out the door, never once looking back. Richard knew he had done the right thing... he could never love Julia again, but she made a point. Yes, he loved Caroline, but did she love him? Could she ever love him?

*****~*****

--As the hours ticked by Caroline got increasingly more anxious...

*Richard hasn't called...he doesn't feel the same.* she told herself... *But, maybe he didn't hear it yet. Maybe he hasn't gotten home yet.*

Her mind wouldn't stop racing. She needed to do something... needed a diversion, so she picked up the phone and called Del...

"Del? It's me, Caroline. ~~ Pick up the phone, Del. ~~ Look, I'm sorry to call you again so late, or now I guess its early, but it's really important."

She waited a few seconds for him to pick up the phone, but he didn't.

"Okay, I guess you're sleeping, which is really too bad, because uh, these two Swedish models just moved in upstairs, and--" Caroline was interrupted by Del picking up the phone...

"Hello? Caroline, I was sleeping, and I didn't hear your call."

"Look Del, three hours ago I left a message on Richard's answering machine telling him I thought we could be more than friends, and if he didn't feel the same way he shouldn't call back..." There was a slight panic to her voice...

"Yeah yeah, Caroline, Caroline, hold it. Just slow down. Let's start from the beginning, okay? Now, these Swedish models, are they sisters?"

Caroline sighed... "Look, Del...I need you to come here. I am needing someone to be here with me right now..."

Del could hear the anguish in her voice... "Ok, Caroline...ok. I'll be there as soon as I can."

*****~*****

--Caroline heard the elevator outside and ran to the door to see if it was Richard. When she opened the door it wasn't Richard, but Annie...

"Annie! Oh thank God you're here!" Caroline said as she hugged her.

"Yeah, well, I just had the WORST, most humiliating experience of my life! First, my date was late showing up to the restaurant. Then, come to find out he's an escaped mental patient! I just spent 3 hours telling the police all about how we met and what I knew about him! " Annie complained as they headed into Caroline's apartment.

"I left a message on Richard's answering machine telling him I love him and he didn't call back." Caroline blurted out sadly. Annie just looked at her with a shocked expression....

"Ohhh my God. You go first next time."

Just then the door opened and Del poked his head in...

"Caroline, I got here as fast as I could." he said, still all of him outside but his head.

Caroline gestured to him... "Oh, well, come on in."

"Okay, just remember... I dropped everything to be here for you. I'm a good guy, sometimes I just do bad things." Del opened the door and entered with a woman.

"You brought a date to my crisis?" Caroline asked, bewildered. Del and his date both lifted their hands, showing Caroline that they were handcuffed together.

"Hi, I'm Kristin." Del's date introduced herself.

"We lost the key." Del added, embarrassed.

"Well, not to worry..." Annie retrieved a large key ring full of keys from her purse, searching for one in particular.

Caroline looked at Annie with an odd expression...

"What? I dated a locksmith!" Annie defended herself as she uncuffed Del and his date. Just then the oven timer went off and Caroline turned towards the kitchen...

"Oh good, my casserole." she said as she grabbed the oven mitts.

"You're baking at three AM?" Annie asked as she stared at Caroline in disbelief.

"I'm hurting. It's what my people do."

*****~*****

--As time passed with still no word from Richard, Caroline became more and more nervous. Her friends tried to help her by coming up with ideas for why he hadn't called yet, but it wasn't helping...

"You guys, this is not helping."

"Okay, how about this: he never got your message because the tape in his answering machine broke." Del suggested.

"No..." Caroline shook her head sadly...

Annie snapped her fingers enthusiastically... "Burglars stole his answering machine!"

"No..."

"Ooh, I've got one!" Kristin interjected... "Maybe he wants to surprise you. I mean, who wants to call someone on the phone to tell her they love her too? He probably wants to show up here this morning in a limousine with a dozen roses."

"That's not bad." Caroline liked the sound of that.

"Yeah, you know, Richard's not a phone guy." Annie added.

"That's true." Caroline agreed.

The sound of someone outside and keys in the lock caused Caroline to panic...

"Oh my God, it's him! Oh my God!"

When Richard entered Caroline quickly sat in her seat at the partners desk and smiled brightly... "Richard!" she announced cheerfully...

"Correct. You may now move on to the Lightning Round." Richard replied sarcastically.

--Everyone excused themselves and left, knowing Caroline wanted to be alone with Richard.

"Sorry I'm a little late, I uh... I had a long night." Richard said as he hung up his coat.

"That's okay." Caroline searched his demeanor for any sign that he felt the same for her, but she couldn't tell what he was thinking. She felt her heart racing faster and faster as the seconds ticked by.

Richard, unaware of Caroline's message, walked over to the desk and began setting up for work. Caroline just stared at him, trying to decipher his mood. Richard could see her watching him out of his peripheral vision, but assumed it was because she was still upset about the night before.

He hadn't meant to kiss Julia, but he fell for her seduction... like he had before. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Caroline, especially after she pretended to be his wife so that he didn't feel so pathetic in Julia's presence. But that's exactly what he'd done... he'd hurt her. He could almost feel the tingling on his cheek from the slap. She slapped him across the face when she came down the stairs and saw him and Julia in a passionate embrace, tears in her eyes. Tears. Why tears? He didn't know...

"Look, Caroline... about last night..."

"Yes?" Caroline replied anxiously... *Ok, this is it. He's gonna bring up the message...* she thought to herself.

"Well, I just wanted to apologize. I didn't mean for it to happen like that. I didn't mean to embarrass you or upset you." he said as he looked down at his desk, unable to look at her out of guilt.

"Oh... ok..." Caroline said quietly. *Is this his way of saying he doesn't feel the same way?* She continued to stare at him...

Richard finally looked up at her, noticing her hurt and sad expression...

"Are you ok?" he asked with concern.

Caroline felt the tears welling up... "Yeah... I'm fine... excuse me..." She bolted up the stairs and to her bedroom.

"Caroline!? What's wrong??" Richard called out after her. He started to follow her when Annie walked through the door and stopped him. She grabbed him by the arm and drug him out into the hall.

-- "Annie! What do you think you're doing?!" He was clearly exasperated by her actions.

"Oh yeah, like you don't know! You have some nerve! You of all people should know how she feels! How dare you hurt her!" Annie said angrily.

"What are you talking about? Are you talking about the kiss with Julia?" he asked, confused and frustrated.

"No! I'm not! Although that was pretty sleaze ball..."

"I know... I know..." Richard remorsefully agreed.

"I'm talking about her message!"

"Who's message?"

"Oh, right! 'Who's message?'! You know what?! You suck!"

"Annie... I'm not in the mood for this! What are you talking about?!" Richard's confusion and concern was escalating. He had never seen Annie act like this. Sure, they teased and tormented each other all the time, but that was just in fun... there was always a friendship between them. But this was different. She was truly angry with him, and if it wasn't about his kissing Julia, what was it about?

"Caroline's message! The message she left on your machine last night!"

"Caroline didn't leave me a message last night!" Richard shot back.

"Yes she did!" she snapped... but then, her face changed from angry to calm. "Wait, you didn't get her message?"

"No... I didn't! What on earth was it about? What am I missing here? Caroline's in tears, you are obviously angry with me... what's going on?"

"Oh my God... you really didn't get the message, did you?"

"Annie, what's going on?"

"Get back in here..." Annie said as she pulled Richard back into Caroline's apartment.

--"Caroline? Can you come down here please..." Annie called to her.

Caroline didn't answer, she just came down the steps, avoiding eye contact with Richard.

"Look..." Annie began... "I was going to stay out of this, but I changed my mind. I hate to see my best friend and... well... YOU..." she said, pointing to Richard... "...going through this."

She then turned her attention towards Caroline... "Caroline, Richard didn't get your message. I sincerely believe that..."

Then she turned to Richard... "Richard, Caroline feels the same as you do."

Annie turned back to Caroline and gave her a copy of the letter Richard had written. She hugged Caroline, then hugged Richard, then walked out the door. Richard and Caroline just stood quietly for a moment, staring at each other, their hearts racing. Caroline looked down at the paper Annie handed her and opened it...

-- "Dear Caroline, I don't know what I'm really writing, so please, bear with me. I know I'm probably violating several rules of etiquette by telling you this right before your wedding, but I have feelings... Strong feelings for you. I want to be with you. I want to share your laughter and wipe away your tears. If you feel the same way, and if I have any chance at all with you, come to Remo's as soon as you can. You may not recognize me, because if you walk through that door, I'll have a smile on my face previously unseen by anyone. If you're not there by seven, I'll know your answer is no."

Caroline stared at the letter silently for what seemed like forever. Richard felt as if his heart had stopped. He felt like he wanted to run, but where would he go?

Caroline finally broke the silence... "How long have you felt like this?" she asked softly.

"I have had feelings for you since the first day I saw you."

"I left a message on your machine last night. I said... I have feelings for you. And that if you felt the same to call me. But that if you didn't, not to ever mention it..." Caroline said as tears splashed down her cheeks.

"That's why you're so upset. Because I didn't mention it... you thought..." He finally understood what all of this had been about. Very slowly, he approached her... "I don't know what happened Caroline, but I didn't get your message..." he said as he cupped her cheek in his hand and wiped away her tears.

Caroline placed her hand over his and closed her eyes. His touch was intoxicating. Richard leaned in and kissed her, tender and sweet. With his left hand on her waist, his right hand left her cheek and ran up through her hair, down her back, and onto her waist. Caroline ran her hands up his chest and stopped at his shoulders, clasping them around his neck. The kiss quickly became passionate and Richard wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. Caroline returned the passionate embrace.

-- Caroline felt drunk with sensation. She couldn't believe she was in Richard's arms. Couldn't believe how warm and safe, how nervous and frightened she felt, all at the same time. She felt overwhelmed by her emotions, but didn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment.

-- Richard's head was spinning. He couldn't believe this was happening. That he was actually holding Caroline in his arms. He was overwhelmed by how very right it felt to have her in his arms. He wanted to scoop her up and take her upstairs to her bedroom, but he didn't want to rush things...

-- "Caroline, let's sit down, I feel weak-kneed." Richard chuckled as he took her hand and headed for the couch. "Are you ok?"

"I guess. I mean... well, I'm happy, and sad, and scared... I don't know, there are just so many emotions right now..." she said as she rested her head on his shoulder.

"Can you tell me about it? Why sad? Why scared?"

"I don't know. I guess cause I thought I'd lost you. And I am worried that this might just be a dream. That I may still lose you. That this will change everything between us..."

"Well, it will change everything between us, but for the better. I think we are on the way to something wonderful here Caroline... I really do believe that. I have wanted this for so long, you are not going to lose me, ok?"

"Ok..."

"I know I hurt you... I know I hurt you when I went to Paris without saying good-bye. I know I hurt you when I kissed Julia here the other night. But I promise you, I will never hurt you again."

He leaned in and kissed her tenderly on the cheek near her lips. Caroline closed her eyes as his warm, soft lips touched her cheek.

"Richard?"

"Yes?" he whispered as he pulled back to look at her face.

"Why did you leave for Paris? Why did you kiss Julia?" she asked sadly.

"Caroline... I... I never wanted to hurt you. That is the last thing that I wanted. Remember the night I left? Remember how when you came to Remo's I had kissed you? And I asked if you had gotten my letter?"

"Yes..."

"The letter I was talking about was the one you just read. When you said 'What letter?', I was mortified. I had kissed you. The woman I love. The woman that was engaged to someone else... and I was embarrassed... " he sighed, closing his eyes as he continued... "I went back to your apartment to get the letter back, but you and Del walked in before I could. I went out onto the ledge outside your window, and when I saw you and Del together, it nearly destroyed me."

He shook his head as he remembered how he felt, the cold rain adding to his anguish... "I actually fell off the ledge, luckily garbage broke my fall." he added sarcastically... "But I left that night. Because it was destroying me seeing you with Del. Because I was embarrassed about my actions. Because I knew if I couldn't have you... couldn't show my love for you..." His voice wavered as tears welled up in his eyes... "I knew it would kill me. So I was a coward. I didn't think of you or how you might've felt, I just left to spare myself pain. I missed you every moment I was gone, and I am just so very sorry for causing you pain... " he trailed off sadly...

Caroline cried as she listened to him. She had never seen him so open and emotional.

"And Julia?..." she asked hesitantly.

"Julia... was a mistake. I thought I loved her once, but I didn't know what love was till I met you. I kissed her out of frustration and confusion... and because of the feelings I once had for her. But I knew... when I saw you come down the stairs, and I saw how upset you were... I knew there was nothing left between me and Julia. My only concern was you. And when I left... and I was on my way home... I found her out walking. I invited her back to my place to set the record straight... and she tried to seduce me. I told her we could never go back to the way it was. That I was in love with someone else. She knew it was you."

There was a long pause before Caroline nodded and snuggled up to Richard. They sat wrapped in each other's arms for several minutes before Richard finally broke the silence... "So, what happens now?"

"Well... I guess we should probably start dating. You think?"

"Sometimes..." Richard quipped, then kissed her tenderly... "A date would be great..."

*****~*****

-- Caroline couldn't believe how nervous she was. She'd been out to eat with Richard dozens of times, but this was their first official date. She put her earrings on and was fiddling with her hair when she heard Richard walk through the door.

Richard had been feeling nervous, but now that he was in Caroline's apartment, the feeling had intensified. He'd dreamt about this for so long, he was so sure it would never happen, and yet here he was.

"Richard? Is that you?" Caroline called to him from upstairs.

"Yeah Caroline... it's me. Are you ready?"

"Pretty much. I'll be right down." She paused to take one last look in the mirror. She could feel her heart beating harder and faster, and she took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then headed down the stairs.

-- Richard watched as Caroline descended the stairs... her beauty took his breath away.

"Caroline, you look amazing." he said as he put his hand to his heart and sighed deeply.

"Thank you Richard." She accepted the compliment modestly... "Our first date. I can't believe how nervous I am." Caroline admitted as she embraced him.

"You know what? I am too." Richard confessed.

He helped her with her wrap, then they headed for the door...

"Where are we going anyways?" Caroline asked as they waited for the elevator.

"It's a surprise." Richard said, trying to suppress a smile.

"Hmmm... a surprise, eh?" she asked, a bit of nervous laughter to her voice.

"Yep! You're just gonna have to trust me."

"Oh, I do. I trust you."

They stepped into the elevator and Caroline reached for Richard's hand. He gently grasped her hand in his and kissed it lovingly as the elevator doors closed.

*****~*****

-- The restaurant was indeed a surprise. 'Lespinasse' is one of the nicest restaurants in all of New York. As they sat gazing at each other from across the table, the garcon handed Richard the wine list...

"Would madam and monsieur care for some wine this evening?" he asked in a French accent.

"Yes, we would like a bottle of your best Merlot please." Richard said, never breaking his gaze with Caroline.

"Very good monsieur." The garcon obviously approved.

Caroline smiled... "I love Merlot."

"I know. I remember." Richard admitted, smiling in return.

"You remember? From when?"

"Remember? When you went out to eat 'alone'? And you actually ended up eating with me at MangĂȘ?"

"Oh, yeah. I do remember that. What a disaster THAT was!" Caroline chuckled, slightly embarrassed.

"Well, I guess in a way it was. But to be honest, I really enjoyed that evening with you." Richard confessed.

*****~*****

-- The evening was perfect. The wine was excellent, the dinner was wonderful, and the horse drawn carriage ride back to Caroline's apartment was more romantic than they could have ever hoped for. When they got to Caroline's door there was an awkward moment, and both could sense the other's uneasiness. Richard wondered if he should kiss her goodnight, Caroline wondered if he would. Caroline wondered if she should invite him in, Richard wondered if she would.

Caroline finally broke the tension... "Would you like to come in?" she asked nervously.

"More then anything, but... are you sure it's what you want?"

"I'm sure Richard." she said as she gently took his hand and led him into the apartment. Once inside they wrapped their arms around each other, kissing passionately.

-- The desire between them was mutual, and obvious. They felt their need for each other increase as they kissed and caressed hungrily, their hearts racing as they struggled to undress. A lack of coordination due to their longing and excitement caused them to stop and laugh.

"Maybe we should just relax a while." Richard suggested.

"Yeah..." Caroline agreed as she sat on the couch and straightened her clothing. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Richard asked, sitting beside her.

"I guess I'm just nervous." Caroline admitted shyly, diverting her eyes.

"Oh, Caroline, I think we're both nervous! When the time is right, it'll happen." Richard ran his fingers through Caroline's hair as he stared deep into her eyes.

"I know, I know."

"Caroline, this is just one day in the rest of our lives, ok?"

"Yeah..."

Richard put his arm around her and she snuggled into him, resting her head on his chest.

"I could stay like this with you forever." Richard said as he caressed Caroline's arm.

"Me too." Caroline said softly.

-- As they sat quietly in each others arms, Richard's mind started to race. Caroline. Her beauty. Her intelligence. Her sense of humor. Spending the rest of his life with her. Just then, a thought hit him like a lightening bolt. Marriage. His heart beat just a little bit faster at the idea of marrying Caroline. He loved her more than he'd ever loved anyone, and he wanted to marry her more than anything else in the world...

*But what if she says no?* he asked himself... *Should I risk it? Risk asking now? Asking too soon? Should I wait till later? It's not like we just met.* he reasoned... *We have known each other for 2 years. I love her. I want to begin our lives together as husband and wife, but if she says no. What if she says no?* His mind raced with fear and yearning. Fear of her answer, yearning to ask her.

Caroline could hear Richard's heart racing... "What's wrong?" she asked, pulling back to look at him... "I can hear your heart racing..."

"Nothing is wrong. Nothing at all." Richard smiled reassuringly. Caroline accepted his answer and snuggled back in to his warm embrace.

-- She loved being in his arms, so warm and loving and safe... but she couldn't help but wonder why his heart was racing...

*It's like he's nervous about something... but what?* she thought to herself. Just hearing his heart race was making her nervous. Her mind overflowed with thoughts of him. Thoughts of his warmth. Of his intelligence. Of his sense of humor. He was always so sarcastic, but she loved that about him. She could always see past the sarcasm and found him to be a very kind, generous person. *He is so caring, so handsome, we would have beautiful children, and he would make such a wonderful father.* That thought stopped her mind from racing... *Does he even want children? Seems to me I remember him saying once that he didn't want children.* Caroline's heart sank at the thought of no children. She always thought she would eventually have children. *What if he doesn't want to have children? I don't know if I could have a relationship with someone who doesn't want children.* Caroline gently pulled away, and Richard could tell she was upset by the look on her face...

"Caroline? What's wrong?" he asked with concern.

"Can we talk seriously for a minute?" she asked, avoiding eye contact.

"Of course..."

"I was just thinking... seems to me I remember you saying once that you didn't want to have any children..." She stopped there, leaving the metaphorical ball in Richard's court.

Richard just sat there for a moment. She was right, he didn't want children. His home life growing up was lousy and he didn't want to put any child through what he'd gone through in his youth. The long pause was making Caroline nervous. Did this pause mean the answer she had been dreading? Richard finally broke the silence...

"You know, I always felt that bringing a child into the world was unfair to the child, but I think my own childhood influenced that thought. My childhood was rough to say the least. My mom was not much of a mom, but you Caroline... you would make a great mom."

"Does that mean...?"

"Caroline, I would love for you to be the mother of my children."

"I can't think of anyone I would rather have children with."

-- Richard saw his chance. He gently got off the couch and got down on one knee in front of Caroline. He took her hand, closed his eyes, and took a deep, calming breath.

"Caroline, I know this might seem as though it's rushing things, but we have known each other for 2 years now. We have been good friends on the way to this for a while now, I truly believe that. I don't want to waste anymore time. I want to be with you. I want to share your love and laughter, your sorrow and tears. I want to wake up with you in the morning and go to bed with you at night. I want to raise children with you and grow old with you. I don't want to waste another moment without you. Caroline, will you marry me?" Richard felt as though his racing heart had just stopped. It seemed like an eternity before she finally answered...

"Richard..." Caroline gasped as tears flowed down her cheeks... "Of course I will marry you."

Richard stood and gently pulled Caroline to her feet, wrapping his arms around her and embracing her passionately...

"I love you Caroline."

"I love you too Richard."

"You have made me happier than I have ever been!" he said excitedly... "Let's go tomorrow! We can get married by a Justice Of The Peace!"

Caroline broke away quickly and looked at Richard, aghast...

"Well, um... Richard, I kinda wanted a nice wedding. With my family and friends. And I was sorta hoping my engagement would outlast my deodorant."

Richard chuckled... "Of course. I'm sorry, this is your special day, of course it should be with family and friends."

"Thank you Richard. I know you like keeping things simple..."

"I also like seeing that joy on your face. I want to make you happy, and if a formal but small... emphasize on small... wedding makes you happy, then I want you to have it."

-- Just then Annie walked in...

"Hey guys, what's up?" she asked as she walked into the kitchen.

"Oh, look. It's Annie, What a surprise. Shouldn't you be in some bed by now?" Richard harassed...

"Hey! For your information I don't sleep with every guy I date!" Annie shot back defensively.

"Got stood up, huh?" Richard asked sarcastically as he walked over to the desk and sat down.

"No! I didn't get stood up! I... I just-- Yeah, I got stood up. The creep." Annie admitted bitterly... "So, what's up?" she added as she grabbed a water from the fridge.

Caroline's smile was so big she couldn't contain it. She looked over at Richard for approval to tell Annie, he just smiled and nodded lightly. Annie could see something was going on...

"Caroline? Why do you look like the cat that just ate the canary?" she asked inquisitively.

"Well, Annie... I have some news." Caroline walked over to Richard and stood next to him...

"Yeah?" Annie asked curiously.

"Richard proposed! We're getting married!" Caroline announced enthusiastically. Richard smiled and took Caroline by the hand.

Annie's jaw dropped open in shock... "After only one date?"

"Well, it's not like we just met. Caroline and I are probably closer than most couples before marriage."

"Well, yeah. I guess that's true... "

"Annie? What's wrong?" Caroline asked as she walked towards her best friend...

"Nothing! I'm just... surprised! That's all! Congratulations!" Annie sounded more upbeat as the news sank in.

"Are you sure? Your opinion means a lot to me." Caroline said nervously.

Annie hugged Caroline... "Oh, Caroline, I'm fine! I'm so happy for you guys!" Then she went to hug Richard... "Way to go Mr. Misery! Finally gonna allow yourself some happiness, eh?" she hugged him and patted him on the back. "So.... when?" she asked, sitting down on the couch.

"When?" Richard asked as he walked into the kitchen... "Coffee?" he asked Caroline, pulling his mug off the mug tree.

Caroline smiled sweetly, with a tone to match... "Sure Richard. Thanks."

"Yeah, yeah. Gag, gag. When is the wedding? Do you have a date set yet?" Annie asked as Caroline joined her in the living-room.

"Well, we haven't set the date yet..." Caroline replied...

"We would have gotten around to setting a date, but we were kind of interrupted by the pesky next door neighbor." Richard teased as he handed Caroline her coffee and sat beside her.

"Ha ha ha. Look, you pasty-faced schmuck..." Annie shot back...

"Ok, guys, let's call a truce for right now, ok?" Caroline interrupted, patting Richard's leg.

"Ok, honey... " Richard conceded.

"Yeah, I'm sorry Caroline. We'll be good." Annie added.

*****~*****

--They talked about the wedding for a while... possible dates, possible churches, possible cuisine, and possible locations for the honeymoon, but it was getting late, so Annie decided to head off to bed.

"Night guys! See ya' tomorrow." Annie said as she walked towards the door.

"Oh joy, something to look forward to..." Richard quipped... "Night Annie." he added as he took the coffee mugs into the kitchen.

Caroline followed Annie to the door...

"Congratulations sweetie. I am so happy for you guys." Annie said, hugging Caroline.

"Thank you Annie."

"Night."

"Night." Caroline waited till Annie entered her apartment across the hall before she shut and locked the door.

--"So... " Richard said as he put his arms around Caroline.

"So... " Caroline repeated.

"It's getting kind of late... should I... go home? I mean, do you want me to go home?"

"Well, no... I mean... I guess you could if you wanted to, but I would rather you stayed." Caroline stuttered nervously.

"Well, as much as I would love that, I was thinking. Our wedding day really won't be that far off... why don't we wait? I think it will make our wedding night even more special. What do you think?" Richard asked.

"Oh, Richard, I think that is a wonderfully romantic idea!" Caroline reached her arms around his neck and kissed him softly...

"So, maybe I should go then."

"No. I don't want you to have to go back there. I've always hated that horrible place! I couldn't stand to have you there one more minute! Stay here, and tomorrow, we'll go get your stuff."

"Well, I guess I could sleep on the couch." Richard suggested.

"Richard, we are both adults. We can restrain ourselves. Just come to bed. We will just go to sleep... fully dressed if need be." Caroline tried to sound sure, but Richard could hear the waver of doubt in her voice.

"Are you sure?" he asked incredulously, a slight smile crossing his lips.

"Yeah, I'm sure." Caroline sounded a bit more certain.

"Ok, if you're certain..." Richard said as he headed for the stairs... "Let's go to bed then." he added, gesturing for her to join him.

"Ok."

Richard smiled as Caroline took his hand. They headed up the stairs to Caroline's bedroom for the first time as a couple. They both knew self-control would be difficult, but possible. They would just have to summon all their strength and willpower, and remember the long term goal... to have the most romantic wedding night possible.

*****~*****

--Caroline grabbed her PJ's off the bed and headed for the bathroom...

"I'll just... be out... in a minute." Caroline stammered as she entered the bathroom and shut the door.

Richard nodded, sitting on the bed to take off his shoes. He couldn't believe he was in Caroline's bedroom, engaged to be married to her. He never thought Caroline could ever love someone like him. Caroline, so optimistic and sweet. Richard, so pessimistic and sarcastic...

*I guess it's true that opposites attract.* Richard thought to himself. Deep in his subconscious he was afraid that this would end. That his usual bad luck would strike again and he would lose her. He was deep in thought when Caroline came out of the bathroom...

"Sorry I took so long. Do you... need to use the bathroom? Before bed?" she asked as she put her clothes in the hamper.

"Oh, yeah. I should. I wish I had a toothbrush..."

"Well, I bought a new one for myself that I haven't even opened yet. You can have that one."

"Oh, great. Where is it?"

"It's in the drawer closest to the door." she said, pulling the covers down on the bed.

Richard nodded and went into the bathroom as Caroline climbed into bed and got comfortable. Her head was racing with the events of the last few days. She couldn't believe she was engaged to Richard. That he loved her. That someone as pessimistic as Richard could love someone as optimistic as herself. He was so much more than miserably pessimistic, he was kind and passionate and loving, and under all the sarcasm (of which she found to be adorable), he was the most caring person she knew. She laid in bed, deep in thought when Richard came out of the bathroom...

"Is it ok if I go to bed... without my shirt?"

"Sure. I want you to be comfortable." Caroline replied nervously. She had seen Richard shirtless before, but this was different. She wasn't fighting to hide her feelings for him any longer, so she was able to enjoy his good looks. "Do you know how gorgeous you are?" she blurted out, turning several shades of red as she turned away from him. Richard smiled as he climbed into bed, turning to face her...

"Caroline, you are so incredibly beautiful. I just love how you blush when your embarrassed." He wrapped his arms around her, drew her in close to him, and kissed her lovingly. They snuggled in tight as they tried to go to sleep.

-- Richard couldn't sleep, the scent and warmth of Caroline was filling his head with desire. He gently hugged her and snuggled in even tighter. He wanted to be as near her as possible. He could hear her heartbeat and he felt more at peace than ever. He could feel how very right this was, and he sighed happily at the thought of being with Caroline for the rest of his life.

-- Caroline felt wide awake. Richard's strong, protective, loving arms was enough to keep her mind racing. She felt him pull her in closer and loved the feeling of being wanted. No one she had ever been with made her feel so desired and loved. This felt so right, and she sighed as she thought about Richard being her husband. Eventually, they dozed off.

*****~*****

--Caroline was the first to wake as morning's light peeked into the bedroom. She laid still, not wanting to disturb Richard. She watched him sleep, studying his face. He seemed so relaxed. So at peace. So adorable.

Richard started to stir, almost as if he could feel her watching him...

"Good morning." Caroline said as Richard opened his eyes.

Richard wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close... "It certainly is." He leaned in to kiss her, but was interrupted by Annie bouncing through the door...

--"Hey guys! Wake up!" she said as she flung herself onto the bed.

"Annie! Do you mind!?! Threesomes are your sport, not ours!" Richard snapped as he covered himself up with the blankets.

"Oh, right! A threesome with you!?! I would have to be drunk!"

"And so would your 'dates' I'm sure!" Richard quipped.

"Yeah? Well, YOUR 'dates' would have to be unconscious!"

"Hey!" Caroline interjected defensively.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean YOU!" Annie apologized... "I just meant... you know... people in general... well, that... you know..." Annie stammered...

"Need a shovel to dig yourself out of this hole?" Richard asked sarcastically.

"No! I just meant... that I don't know what anyone would see in you, that's all." Annie said sharply.

Richard rolled his eyes and sighed. He was upset by Annie's comment, but didn't want to give her the satisfaction. He got out of bed and walked towards the bathroom.

"Richie! I'm sorry. I didn't mean that..." Annie apologized, feeling horrible that she let the playful jabs go too far.

"It's ok, really... I'm fine..." Richard said as he entered the bathroom, shutting the door a little harder than necessary.

"I'm really sorry Caroline, I didn't mean it like that. I let it go too far."

"It's ok, I'll talk to him."

"I really am sorry Caroline. Do you hate me now?"

"No. Of course not. I just wish you guys would get along."

"Well, I do like him... I mean, I don't dislike him or anything. It's just all in fun! But this time, I think I went too far."

"You don't understand Annie. He takes jabs when he cares about someone. He wouldn't be doing it if he didn't care. He would just ignore you."

"I know, I know. It's the same with me... well, in his case it is anyway."

"I know it is, but... I just wish you guys could be nice to one-another... for once."

"Yeah, ok... I'll be nice. I swear." Annie said, raising her hand like she was swearing an oath.

"Thank you Annie. I really appreciate it. And for whatever it's worth, there is a lot more to Richard than you realize. He is very loving and passionate and sweet. He is a wonderful man, I just wish you could see it."

"Oh, I know he is. He's a great guy..." Annie agreed, but was abruptly interrupted...

--Richard opened the bathroom door and started squirting Annie with a spray bottle of cold water.

Annie jumped at the unexpected shock... "Oh, you are SO dead!" she yelled as she ran for the bathroom door.

Richard slammed it shut and locked it before she could get to him.

"Get out here you coward so I can kill you!" Annie ordered, pounding on the door.

"Hmmmm... let me think about that one. Hmmmm... NO!"

"Ok Richard... truce, ok? You can come out, I won't hurt you." she conceded, trying to get him out of the bathroom.

"Please Annie, I'm not one of your dates!" Richard shot back sarcastically.

"OOOOO, you're gonna get it now!" Annie started banging on the door again... but Caroline had had enough...

"Ok, that's it you two... playtime is over! I am separating you guys!" Caroline announced, then pointed at Annie... "YOU! Go downstairs and make some coffee! And YOU!" Caroline said to the closed bathroom door... "Get yourself out of there! We have stuff to do today!"

Annie sighed and headed for the stairs... "Yes ma'am."

"Ok honey, I'm sorry." Richard apologized from behind the door. He opened the door long enough to steal a quick kiss, then went back inside to get ready for the day. Caroline quickly threw on her robe and headed down the stairs.

--"So, what do you have planned for today?" Caroline asked Annie as she headed for the kitchen.

"Oh, nothing much... why?"

"We are going to be moving Richard's stuff out of that horrible apartment today and moving him in here. We could really use the help." Caroline replied.

"Ugh! Well, I guess it's the least I can do after upsetting Richie... ok, I'll help." Annie agreed reluctantly... "But this makes us even!" she added sarcastically.

"Even for what?"

"For everything!" she shot back, a sly grin crossing her lips.

Caroline chuckled, playfully but lightly slapping her arm.

"So, anymore thoughts to wedding stuff?" Annie asked as she poured herself a cup of the coffee she'd just made.

"Well, no. Not really. I think once we get him moved in it will be easier to concentrate on that."

Annie sat at the bar with her coffee. "Ah, ok. Do you think you'll have it in Wisconsin?"

"I don't know. I would like to, but you know how Richard is. He likes things to be simple."

"Yeah, maybe, but last night he seemed ok with the idea."

"Yeah, he did..." Caroline trailed off...

"I did what?" Richard asked as he came down the stairs.

"We were just talking about the wedding... about possibly having it back in Wisconsin..." Caroline said nervously.

Richard turned and smiled at her... "Caroline... although this will be one of THE most important days in my life, it really is YOUR day. We could have it on the subway or at Buckingham Palace, as long as it's you and me up there at the altar, I don't mind where we have it."

"That was beautiful." Annie sighed... "I'll be right back."

"Where are you going?" Caroline asked as Annie headed for the door.

"Well, if we're moving lover boy out of his crap-hole apartment, I'm gonna need to change!" Annie was touched by Richard's comment, but she kept up appearances. It was one thing to be moved by something Richard said, it was quite another to ADMIT it.

Caroline shook her head and grinned... "I think she likes you more than she lets on."

"Yeah, well... what's not to like?"

"Weeelll..." Caroline hummed, only to be quickly interrupted...

"It was a rhetorical question Caroline." Richard said as he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her.

"Oh, you're no fun!" Caroline joked.

"Depends on your definition of fun!" he added playfully.

*****~*****

--"This place is a sty!" Annie announced upon entering Richard's apartment.

Richard shrugged... "Yeah, well the roaches and rats pretty much move things about as they see fit. They make themselves quite at home."

"What do you want trashed? Everything?" Annie asked as she opened a trash bag.

"No! Don't throw out anything important!"

"And where might I find the 'important stuff'?" Annie asked sarcastically.

"Just ask before you throw anything out, ok?"

"Yeah, ok... sure." Annie patronized as she started to throw stuff into the trash bag without care. Just then Charlie skated in with Del on his tail...

"We rented the truck!" Charlie announced as he skated around the small apartment.

"Yeah, it's downstairs." Del added.

"Oh, really? I figured you would just drive it on up here." Richard quipped.

"Yeah, yeah. Be nice or we won't help!" Del replied as he physically stopped Charlie from taking another lap around the place.

"Ok, Charlie... you go baby-sit the truck." Caroline directed... "Del, you and Richard are in charge of carrying stuff down. I will sort, and Annie, you are in charge of garbage." she stated with authority.

"Oh, great! Give me the biggest job! The whole place is garbage!" Annie whined.

"Oh, hush!" Caroline shot back, then turned her attention to Richard... "Richard, do you want any of this furniture?"

"No, not really. It's just stuff I found in the dumpster. I really just want my clothes, paintings, and art supplies. Oh, and there's a box with important papers and stuff like that... over by the mattress."

"So, what did we rent a truck for?" Del complained.

"Well, Del... we could always make 17 trips if you'd rather." Richard shot back sarcastically.

"Alright, alright, sheesh! I was just asking!" Del snapped defensively.

"Ok, ok... let's get going everyone." Caroline ordered as she headed for the bathroom.

*****~*****

-- It didn't take long to get Richard's apartment packed, but cleaning... that was another thing all together.

"This place didn't look this good when I moved in!" Richard joked as he took a look around.

"It's just the way I am! This way, your landlord will be grateful!" Caroline informed.

"Oh, somehow I doubt he'll care. You just don't want him to dislike you." Richard chuckled as he held her close.

"No. That's not true." Caroline argued... "I don't want him to dislike YOU!"

"Too late!" Richard laughed.

"What? Your landlord doesn't like you?"

"Oh, come on Caroline. It's no big deal! Look, everyone isn't going to like everyone, it's just not going to happen."

"Why doesn't he like you?"

"Oh, no real reason. Landlords just have this thing about paying rent on time. You don't, they don't like you." Richard said facetiously... "It's no big deal Caroline... really." he added, kissing her...

"Ok you guys, break it up." Annie ordered as she entered the apartment... "Richie? You want me to go get the landlord now?" she asked as she took one last look around.

"Yeah, Annie. Thanks."

"No problem. Be right back." Annie said as she left in search of the manager.

"Ok Richard, the truck is packed. You want us to head over to Caroline's now?" Del asked as he entered with Charlie.

"Wow! This place would make a great place for skating! Now that it's all empty..." Charlie exclaimed as he started skating about.

"Yeah, Del. Thanks. And take the Dan Jansen wannabe with you." Richard said as he pointed at Charlie.

Del grabbed Charlie by the collar of his jacket... "Alright Charlie. Time to go."

"Oh, man!" Charlie whined... "Fine!"

--After the manager saw the place, he took Richard's key and then Caroline, Richard, and Annie headed for Caroline's.

*****~*****

--As the trio walked in they saw Del and Charlie putting the last of Richard's belongings down in the dining area...

Caroline was surprised... "Wow! You moved all his stuff up by yourselves?"

"Yep! It wasn't like it was hard! Just 5 boxes and 11 paintings." Charlie said as he looked at one of Richard's paintings, turning it several times as he tried to figure out which end was up.

"Yeah, it wasn't hard for you! You didn't do anything! I did all the work!" Del snapped at Charlie.

"It was 5 boxes and 11 paintings! Get over it!" Charlie shot back as he skated towards the door. "See 'ya Caroline. See 'ya Richard." Charlie stopped at the door before leaving... "And congratulations!" he added, then headed for the elevator.

"Thanks Charlie!" Caroline called after him.

"So... marriage huh?" Del said as he helped himself to a snapple tea from Caroline's fridge.

"Yep. That's correct. Nothing gets passed you, huh?" Richard said sarcastically.

"So... when?" Del asked, ignoring Richard's wisecrack.

Caroline took her seat at the drafting table and turned to face the living room... "We don't have a date set yet."

"And no ring either I see." Del said skeptically.

"Yeah, well... I've been engaged to Caroline for 2 days. You were engaged to Caroline for how long? What was your excuse?"

"Hey!" Del growled.

Caroline physically stood between the two of them... "Ok, ok... before this pissing match goes any further, just stop right there. This isn't a contest. Del and I didn't work out as a couple, but we're still good friends. He's a good guy Richard, so let's not be hurtful. And Richard is a good guy too Del. You and I were just not meant to be, so let's not be taking jabs at him out of jealousy... ok?"

Richard was the first to apologize... "Ok, ok. I'm sorry Del. My sarcasm can go too far at times. I apologize."

"Yeah, it's ok. I'm sorry too. I know you and Caroline were meant to be together. What do you keep calling it?" Del asked.

Caroline, Richard, and Annie all chimed in simultaneously... "Sincere amore."

All four of them laughed.

"Ok, now this is better." Caroline smiled... "Now, who wants Chinese food?" she asked as she headed for the phone.

Annie raised her hand... "I could eat."

Richard and Del then raised their hands as well.

"Ok, Chinese food it is!"

*****~*****

-- As the four of them ate they discussed the wedding.

"Well, I'm gonna be your 'maid of honor'..." Annie kind of asked without asking.

Caroline just chuckled... "Duh."

"Ok, one decision down, 99 to go." Richard quipped as he ate his dinner.

Del waved his chopsticks to get everyone's attention... "What about a date and where it'll be held?"

"What about that place you mentioned? St. Martin's Bleeding Heart something-or-other." Richard asked.

"Saint Martin's De Porres of the Sacred Bleeding Heart." Caroline corrected.

"Yeah! That's it! Didn't you say the Monsignor would be hurt if he didn't marry you?"

Caroline seemed truly touched... "You were listening to me?"

Richard smiled... "Of course I was listening."

"Wow. And you wouldn't mind having the ceremony there?"

"Of course not. Caroline, I love you. I want you to be happy."

"I love you too. Thank you Richard."

Tears splashed down Caroline's face and Richard wiped them away... "You're very welcome."

"You guys... that is so sweet." Annie said, choking back her tears.

"Yeah, a lot sweeter than 'Thanks for the romp-in-the-hay. The $20 is on the dresser.' ...isn't it?" Richard quipped.

"Hey! Be nice! I was paying you a compliment!" Annie snapped back. Richard just smirked.

"Oh! And shouldn't there be a Rabbi too?" Caroline asked abruptly as the thought hit her.

"A Rabbi? Why?" Del asked, clueless.

Richard shook his head and shot him a look of disbelief... "Ummm... cause I'm Jewish?!"

"Oh. I knew that."

"Yeah, I think having a Rabbi is a good idea." Richard said, turning his attention back to Caroline.

"Ok, so we know the where and who the maid of honor is, so... when?" Del asked, changing the subject.

"Well, we should probably check the church to see what dates are available, but what about 3 or 4 weeks from now?" Richard asked, returning to his food.

"Is that enough time to get out invitations? Or order a dress or cake?" Annie wondered aloud.

"Well, that is a little quick." Caroline agreed.
Richard rolled his eyes and sighed... "How about 6 weeks? Would that work?"

Caroline smiled and her eyes lit up... "Yes, that's perfect. Thank you, Richard."

"Ok, so we'll call the church and find out if they have anything open in about 6 weeks, then we'll get the invitations so everyone will have as much notice as possible." Richard recapped.

"Then, you and I will go see about your wedding dress!" Annie added enthusiastically.

"Thanks, but I think I'll just wear a tux." Richard joked.

Annie chuckled and shot him a dirty look... "I wasn't talking to you!"

"What about a best man Richard?" Caroline asked.

"Well, I was kind of thinking about asking Del. If he didn't think it was too weird." Richard answered, looking at Del.

Del was truly shocked... "You want me to be your best man?!?"

Richard nodded... "Yeah, well, you're the closest thing I have to a best friend, besides Caroline. And she already has a job at the wedding."

Del extended his hand to shake Richard's... "I would be honored."

"Ok! Well, we are making some progress now!" Caroline grabbed a notepad and started jotting stuff down.

*****~*****

--"Thanks for all your help today guys. We'll call the church tomorrow and get the date figured out." Caroline said as she walked Annie and Del to the door.

"No problem. See 'ya tomorrow Caroline." Del said as he headed for the stairs.

Caroline then turned her attention to Annie... "Oh, and Annie? Lets not have a repeat of this morning... please?"

Annie looked somewhat dejected... "Yeah, ok. I guess I'll have to learn to knock from now on."

"You're still welcome to come over any time! Well, almost any time. Just don't come bouncing into the bedroom." Caroline said almost apologetically.

"Yeah. No problem." Annie forced a smile.

"Thank you Annie."

"No big deal. I mean, you two are going to be married soon. I need to respect your privacy. I'll see 'ya tomorrow." she said as she walked towards her apartment.

--"You feel like doing a bit of work before bed?" Caroline asked as she walked towards the drafting table.

"Sure. It's not like we did anything today... well as far as the strip is concerned anyway." Richard replied as he joined her at the desk. "You alright?" he asked, noticing she seemed a little melancholy.

"Yeah, I'm fine..." Caroline said as she sat down at the desk and took out a blank panel.

"1... 2... 3... 4..." Richard whispered to himself, counting down the seconds till Caroline spilled her guts about whatever it was that was bothering her.

"It's just... I think Annie is upset about us being a couple. Not that she's jealous that we're a couple, it's just... I think she feels like we are moving on without her, you know what I mean?"

Richard sighed... "Caroline, your problem is your heart is too big. Annie is a big girl, she'll be fine. We are still her friends. We're just friends who happen to be getting married."

"I know, I know. I'm being ridiculous."

"No, you're not ridiculous, you are being a concerned friend."

"Thank you Richard..."

"You're welcome. Now let's get some work done."

*****~*****

-- Two hours and three completed panels later, Richard and Caroline took a break. Richard grabbed a bottle of wine out of the fridge and Caroline got two glasses out of the cupboard, then they met up at the couch.

"I still can't believe all this." Caroline said as she watched Richard open the wine.

"Believe all what?"

"You know. Just... all that's happened. You and me. Marriage. You moving in..."

Richard stopped his task... "Do you think we're moving too fast?"

"Oh, no! No no, it's not that. It's just amazing, how you can know someone for so long and then in just a few days time have this kind of change."

"Yeah, I guess I know what you mean. I never thought you could ever love me, but all along we were destined to be together. Makes me wish I had said something sooner." Richard said as he poured them each a glass of wine. They clinked the glasses together...

"To us..." Caroline toasted...

"To forever."

*****~*****

-- They watched a little television and talked about the wedding, but it started getting late...

"We should probably head to bed." Caroline said as she turned the television off.

"Yeah, you're probably right." Richard agreed, rubbing his eyes... "Back up to the torture chamber." he added as he got up from the couch.

"Oh, thank you very much. I've never had going to bed with me compared to torture before." Caroline quipped sarcastically.

"Oh, you know that's not what I meant. It's just that... it's agony not being able to make love to you... that's all."

"Well, what are you saying?"

"Nothing. I want us to continue with the plan. The agony we endure now will make the final outcome even better." Richard said as he helped Caroline to her feet and embraced her.

"Yeah, I know... you're right..." Caroline agreed with wavering certainty.

Richard planted tiny kisses along her neck... "Trust me... it will make... for a... spectacular... wedding night." he said between each kiss. "I'm gonna take a shower before bed. I feel like I took half the dirt from that apartment with me."

"I should too." Caroline said, heading for the stairs... "But I'll wait till after you."

"Thanks. I won't be long." Richard said, falling in behind her.

*****~*****

--"Where are the clean towels?" Richard called out from the bathroom.

"They're out here. I'm sorry, I probably should have mentioned that." Caroline called back as she got a clean towel from the closet. She tapped lightly on the door... "Here."

Richard opened the door a crack and reached his hand out to grab it... "Thanks." He pulled the towel into the bathroom and shut the door.

--Richard came out of the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel... "Ok, it's all yours." he said as he set out the night clothes he was about to put on.

Caroline ran her hand lightly across his wet back, then walked into the bathroom... "I'll be right out." she said, then shut the door behind her.

Suddenly Richard was very aware of how little he was wearing. He swallowed hard, dried off, and quickly put his clothes on. Richard's mind raced as he waited in bed for Caroline. He wanted to wait till their wedding night to make love to her, but was finding it very hard to control himself. He had waited for so long, always thinking it was never to be. He wanted so very badly to be with her, but he was determined to suppress his urges. When Caroline came out in nothing but a towel, it was almost too much for Richard to bear.

Richard closed his eyes tight, almost as if in pain... "Caroline, please put some clothes on before I ruin our wedding night plans right here and now."

She smiled sheepishly, grabbed her clothes, and went back into the bathroom. Caroline felt the same yearnings, but she wanted to wait as well. The sexual tension made it hard to fall asleep, but eventually the long day caught up with them and they dozed off in each other's arms.

*****~*****

--Richard was the first to wake the next morning. He didn't want to wake Caroline, so he tiptoed down the stairs and started making breakfast.

"Ok, we have eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice, and coffee. That oughta do it." Richard said to himself as he located everything he needed. He started the coffee brewing and was just about to get the bacon started when he heard a light knocking at the door. He went over and peeked through the peep hole. When he saw that it was Annie, he considered ever so briefly not letting her in, but decided against it. He quietly opened the door and put his finger to his lips when he and Annie made eye contact.
"Caroline is still sleeping." he whispered.

"Oh, ok." Annie whispered back... "Making breakfast, huh?" she added as she headed for the coffee maker.

"Yep. Want me to make you some too?"

Annie looked at Richard with wide eyes... "Wow."

"Wow what?"

"Nothing. It's just that... love has really mellowed you."

"Yeah, well... I guess." Richard replied, continuing the task of breakfast...

"Is that blushing I see?" Annie teased.

"No, it's a sunburn."

"Well, love suits you." she added gracefully. Just then Caroline came walking down the stairs...

--"I thought I smelled coffee!" Caroline exclaimed as she entered the kitchen. "Richard... cooking breakfast? How sweet!" She kissed Richard good morning and poured herself a cup of coffee. "Morning Annie." she added cheerfully.

"Morning. Sleep well? Or should I say 'didn't sleep well'?" Annie chuckled, a devilish grin spreading across her face.

"We SLEPT well, thank you very much." Richard said defensively.

Annie shook her head in amazement... "What are you guys waiting for?"

"Well, Richard had this great idea that we should wait till our wedding night..."

"WHAT?!" Annie suppressed a laugh.

"Oh, great. Caroline, did you have to tell her that?" Richard asked, slightly miffed.

"Well, she's my friend. I guess I probably should've asked you first."

"It's not you Caroline, it's her. I just don't want her making you feel bad cause we decided to wait..." he reassured her, kissing her softly on the cheek... "Something that's foreign to her." he added sarcastically.

"Well, actually, I think it's sweet." Annie chimed in.

"You do?" Caroline asked.

Annie smiled... "Uh-huh."

Richard turned his attention back to cooking breakfast... "I don't see why her opinion means so much to you."

"She's my best friend Richard..."

"I know she is..."

"Why do I have this feeling that you don't like me being Caroline's best friend?" Annie asked bitterly.

Richard sighed and turned around to face them... "Ok, listen closely, cause you are never going to hear me say this again. Annie, I like you. I think you have a good heart and Caroline likes you, so there must be something very special about you... I am just giving you a hard time. Cause it's so easy... and cause it's fun." Richard teased, smiling mischievously.

Annie smiled and slapped him playfully... "Thanks Richie."

"You're welcome. Now, do you want your eggs scrambled or looking at you?" Richard asked, changing the subject.

-- After the 3 of them ate breakfast, Caroline picked up the phone...

"I'm gonna call and get the number for the church." she announced cheerfully as she got a notepad and pen ready. Richard saw that Caroline was distracted, so he walked over to Annie...

"I need to talk to you privately." Richard whispered urgently.

"I've already told you Richie, I'm not going to sleep with you." Annie teased.

Richard just sighed... "Annie, must you always look at the world through tramp-colored glasses? I need your help with something, alright?"

"Yeah, ok... sure." Annie replied, a bit perplexed. "Hey, Caroline? My light bulb burned out last night, can I borrow Richie for a minute?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure." Caroline said, deeply engrossed in her task.

"Thanks. C'mon Richie." Annie said, dragging him out the door.

-- "Now, what's up?" Annie asked as they entered the hall.

"Alright, I want to get Caroline a ring, but I need to know what style she would like and what her size is. Since you two are best friends, I was hoping you could help me."

"Wow! Sure I'll help! I'll make some excuse to take off and then you make an excuse to take off and we'll meet at the jewelers on 8th street, ok?"

Richard nodded... "Yeah, ok..."

Annie poked her head into Caroline's apartment... "I have to go down to the theater Caroline, I'll be back shortly." she called out quickly, then turned and headed for the stairs. Caroline just waved. She was too busy talking on the phone with the church to really pay attention... which is what Annie was hoping for.

"Uh-huh. ~~ You do? ~~ That's great! ~~ Yeah, definitely mark us down. ~~ Yes, we want Monsignor Mackithy. ~~ Yeah, not a problem. ~~ The bride's name is Caroline Duffy. ~~ Yes, the cartoonist. ~~ Thanks. ~~ The groom is Richard Karinsky. ~~ Karinsky. ~~ K-A-R-I-N-S-K-Y. ~~ Right, Karinsky. ~~ Oh, thank you. ~~ Ok, great...bye."

Caroline finished up her phone conversation then turned to Richard... "Richard! Great news! The church and Monsignor Mackithy are both available on Saturday, October 10th! Isn't that great?!"

"That is great!" Richard said as Caroline embraced him excitedly... "I... um... I have to leave for a while. Do you mind?"

Caroline pulled back to look at him... "Well, no. That's fine. Where are you going?"

"I can't tell you. But trust me, it's a good thing."

"Ok then. I'll get some panels done while you're gone. Will you be back in time for lunch?"

"Actually, let's meet up for lunch. Say... Remo's at 1:00?" Richard asked as he grabbed his coat off the hook and put it on.

"Yeah. Ok, sounds great!" Caroline said as she closed the gap between them. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him good-bye...

"Ok, I'm off. See 'ya at 1:00." Richard said, heading out the door and for the stairs. Caroline stood at the door and watched him go. She was curious about what he was up to, but decided to take her mind off it by working on the strip.

*****~*****

--"What took you so long?" Annie asked as Richard approached the jewelry store.

"Well, I couldn't just say 'Bye!', now could I? Besides, she had great news to share. The church she wants is available and so is the Monsignor, for the 10th of October." Richard stopped cold... "I'm getting married on October 10th... to Caroline..." He was amazed by his own words.

"You really love her, don't you?" Annie asked as she patted his shoulder.

"Of course I do. She is amazing! I couldn't imagine my life without her!" Richard exclaimed, his typical sarcasm nowhere to be found.

"She is very lucky to have someone that loves her so much."

"Thank you." Richard replied, amazed by Annie's sincerity.

-- Richard and Annie walked inside the jewelry store and was almost immediately approached by a saleswoman...

"Can I help you?" Her voice was icky sweet and it immediately caused Richard's jaw to clench.

Annie noticed and took over the conversation... "Yes, we're here to pick out an engagement ring."

"Oh, wonderful! You make a cute couple!" the saleswoman chirped as she directed them towards the display case with the engagement rings.

"Uh... no, we don't. I am just here to help him pick out a ring for his fiance. WE, are not a couple." Annie corrected.

The saleswoman apologized, then showed them several rings in Richard's price range. After Annie helped him pick out the ring, Richard headed for Remo's.

*****~*****

--Richard got to Remo's early, before Caroline, but he was hoping he would. It gave him a chance to set everything up. He wanted everything to be perfect. He told Remo his plan and got a table out of the way reserved. He had champagne chilling and a dozen red roses that he had picked up on the way to Remo's in a beautiful gold colored box.

*Thirty minutes to go.* Richard thought to himself as he nervously munched on bread sticks. He knew what he wanted to do, but wondered how he should do it. He was deep in thought when Remo escorted Caroline to the table.

--"Hi!" Caroline greeted Richard, surprising him. Richard jumped at the sound of her voice... "What's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong. You just surprised me, that's all." he said, smiling... "Here, I bought you these." he added, handing Caroline the roses.

"Oh, wow! They're beautiful! Thank you."

"You're welcome. There is one more thing I want to give you before we eat." Richard said nervously. He got down on one knee beside Caroline and pulled a small box out from under his napkin... "Caroline, I know you already said yes, but I wanted to propose again, properly..." He opened the box, revealing the ring he'd just bought. "Caroline... will you marry me?"

Caroline started crying, drawing the attention of the entire restaurant. "Yes, Richard. I will marry you."

Richard placed the ring on her finger and kissed her hand, then leaned in to kiss her, while all around them the patrons of Remo's started applauding. They were both oblivious to their surroundings until Annie showed up...

--"Ok, you guys, break it up. Show's over." she said as she pushed her way through the crowd of people. She sat down at the table and Richard and Caroline finally broke their kiss...

"Hello pest." Richard said sarcastically as he took his seat.

Caroline wiped her tears and smiled... "Hi Annie."

"Hi! So... I hear you have good news?" Annie asked Caroline.

"Good news?" Caroline asked, perplexed.

"Yeah, about the church?"

"Oh! Yeah! Saturday, October 10th is available!"

"That's great! So, what do you say after lunch we go get some wedding invitations." Annie suggested excitedly.

"Richard? Is it ok if Annie and I go get the invitations after lunch?"

"Sure, that's fine! Did you get any panels done on the strip?" Richard asked.

"Yeah, as a matter of fact I did!"

"Great. So, I'll go home and work while you guys go find wedding invitations."

"So, let's see the ring." Annie chirped, pointing to Caroline's left hand.

Caroline held out her hand to show Annie the ring... "Isn't it perfect?"

"Yes, it is. It is definitely perfect." Annie agreed.

"Do you really like it? I mean... really like it?" Richard asked.

"Yes, I really do! It's perfect. I love it, and I love you." Caroline leaned over the table and Richard met her half way, kissing her sweetly.

"Ok, ok you guys. I am gonna lose my lunch before I even eat it!" Annie teased as she searched the menu.

*****~*****

--Richard entered the apartment and hung up his coat. He grabbed himself a bottle of water out of the fridge before headed for the desk. As he looked absently at the strips he got the colors that he needed out of his desk. He liked Caroline's strip, but only because it was Caroline's creation. He didn't usually like comics, and originally found it beneath him to be coloring them in, but with Caroline's strip, it was different. Not just cause he was in love with her, but because of the dedication Caroline had to the strip. It wasn't just a strip to her, it was something important, and her care and dedication showed every day. He truly admired her, and he paused for a moment to really look at the panels. The cartoon Richard was taking the cartoon Caroline out on a date.

"I wonder if our wedding is going to show up in the strip." he chuckled to himself.

*****~*****

--"What do you think of this one Annie?" Caroline asked, pointing to a style of invitations.

"I like those, but I like the other one better." Annie responded.

"Which one?"

"The one 2 pages back." Annie said, flipping back to the page. "These." she said as she pointed to the page.

"I like those too..." Caroline said hesitantly.

Annie could sense her hesitation... "But?"

"Well, it's just that... this one lists both sets of parents. Mine and his, and I don't know how he would feel about that."

"Call him and ask him." Annie said, pointing to the phone.

"Yeah. Ok... good idea..."

--"Hello?" Richard said as he answered the phone.

"Hi! It's me!" Caroline announced cheerfully.

"Hello 'Me'. How's the invitation hunt going?"

"Well, here's the thing... I found one I really like, but it lists both sets of parents, mine and yours."

"Hmmm... hadn't thought of that. If they are listed, people will expect to meet them, and to be honest, I doubt they'll come."

"I'm sorry."

"It's ok Caroline, really. Can't they make it without listing the groom's parents?"

"Oh, I don't know. Let me ask..." Caroline turned her attention to the salesman... "Excuse me? Do you know if this style can be printed without the groom's parents being listed?"

"It can be printed any way you want it to be, as long as you stay within the maximum amount of letters. This is just an example of what you can do." the salesman replied.

"Oh, well, I feel stupid. It can be printed without the groom's parent's names." Caroline said, returning her attention to Richard.

"Don't feel stupid Caroline, it's no big deal. Besides, I'm glad you called. When do you think you'll be done?"

"Well, after this we were going to go see about the dress."

"Oh! Ok, good."

"I can wait till tomorrow, if you need me to come home."

"No, that's ok. You go ahead, I'll just finish up the strip and maybe paint a little."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Go have fun!"

"Thanks! You too!"

*****~*****

--Richard was on a creative roll. He hadn't been able to paint for a while, and he missed it. He felt very inspired by the events of the past few days and he wanted to get it on canvas before he lost the inspiration. He set up the easel and searched his boxes for the supplies he needed. As he painted it was becoming obvious that it was inspired by love and by Caroline. The usual darkness that typically showed in his work was not in this new creation. He lost all track of time as he continued to paint. He was so engrossed in his art, he didn't even notice Caroline come in.

"Wow Richard! That is beautiful!" Caroline said as she approached him, and he jumped at the sound of her voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." she chuckled.

"That's ok. How was dress hunting?"

"It went great! I found the perfect dress! Very little alteration needed too!"

"That's great! And you got the invitations ordered?" he asked as he headed to the kitchen to wash off his paint brushes.

"Yep! I ordered 100." Caroline said as she hung up her coat and purse.

"One hundred?! I thought we were going to keep this kinda small!" Richard said, trying not to sound as uneasy as he felt.

"Well, I ordered 100 cause we didn't have the guest list made out yet and it's better to have too many than not enough." There was a slight sadness to her voice, and Richard picked up on it...

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap like that. It's just, you know how I feel about crowds." Richard apologized.

"I know, and I will keep it small... I promise." Caroline assured him.

"Maybe we should do that next." Richard suggested.

"Do what? The guest list?"

"Yeah. That way we know exactly how many we need and we will be ready to mail the invitations as soon as they're done."

"Oh! And I had a great idea!" Caroline exclaimed as she took a bag off the kitchen counter. She pulled a stack of envelopes out of the bag and showed them to Richard... "This way, we can have them all addressed and ready to go! Then we'll just have to put the invitations in and mail! Isn't that great!"

Richard smiled and shook his head... "I love your enthusiasm."

"And I love your... lack of enthusiasm." Caroline quipped.

*****~*****

--It took longer to finish the guest list than they thought it would, but finally, it was done.

"Now all we have to do is find a Rabbi, rent the reception hall, hire a florist, hire a photographer, rent the tuxes, get the plane tickets, decide on a honeymoon spot, mail the invitations, hire a band, order the cake...." Caroline said as she read off her checklist.

Richard snatched it away from her... "Not tonight." he said playfully.

He tossed the notebook down on the coffee table and kissed her passionately. They quickly got caught up in the heat of the moment, their desires taking over. Richard ran his hand up her side, stopping at her breast. He ran is thumb lightly over the material there and Caroline moaned, overwhelmed by the sensations his touch caused in her.

"We have to stop now. Before it's too late and we can't stop." Caroline gasped, breaking away from him.

"Yeah... yeah, you're right." Richard said as he fought to regain his composure. They sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity, until Richard finally broke the silence... "How many more weeks till the wedding?" he quipped lightheartedly.

"Too many." Caroline chuckled.

*****~*****

--The weeks seemed to go by in slow motion. They made the wedding arrangements, and tried daily to work on the comic strip. Annie threw a beautiful bridal shower for Caroline, and Del threw a bachelor party for Richard that, for the most part, made him very uncomfortable. Caroline opened gifts with revealing outfits for the wedding night and Richard got to sit there in embarrassment while the stripper Del hired danced around naked.

--"So, you getting nervous?" Del asked Richard after the stripper left.

"Yeah, I guess a little, but mostly I am just really excited. I'll feel better once the ceremony is over and we can begin our lives together." Richard replied as he drank his glass of wine.

"Well, you've been living together for 6 weeks now, so, didn't you kinda start your lives together then?"

"Well, in a way, yeah. But not completely."

"Oh, man! Wait a minute! You guys haven't had sex yet... have you?!"

"Not everything revolves around sex Del." Richard replied sharply.

"Well, I guess, but I mean, how do you know if you guys are compatible?"

Richard looked at Del, disgusted... "Compatible? You base compatibility on sex?"

"Well... yeah!"

"Del, compatibility is what you have with the whole person. If you have that... love, romance, and sex will be there too."

"Oh. I guess I never thought about it that way." Del contemplated Richard's words.

"Well, maybe that's why you haven't found 'Ms. Right' yet." Richard suggested constructively.

*****~*****

--"This was so great Annie! Thank you so much." Caroline thanked Annie after the guests left.

"Oh, you're welcome! What are best friends and maid-of-honors for!" Annie replied, giving Caroline a hug. "So, are you nervous?"

"Yeah..."

"Hey, that's normal! Don't worry about it!"

"Oh, I'm not worried. I know this is what I want, and what Richard wants, it's just that..."

"It's just that?...." Annie said, encouraging Caroline to continue.

"Well, it's not so much the wedding that I am nervous about... it's the... ummm... wedding night." Caroline admitted hesitantly.

Annie suppressed a smile... "Oh! I see."

"I am serious Annie! I mean, it's not my first time or anything, but it's my first time with him."

"So?"

"So... I mean... you know... what if he decides it wasn't worth it?"

"It wasn't worth what?"

"You know... waiting till our wedding night, getting married to me at all..."

"Caroline! Richie loves you! I mean REALLY loves you! Trust me, that's NOT going to happen!" Annie reassured her... "I wish I could find someone that loved me like that." she added somewhat sadly.

"Oh, Annie... you will."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Really! You will!"

"I don't think I will ever find the kind of love you and Richie share. Sincere amore. The love you never have to question."

"Well, maybe you should see if you are compatible with the guy BEFORE you sleep with him." Caroline suggested.

"Well, I'm sorry if I'm just a horrible slut!" Annie snapped bitterly. She started to walk away but Caroline stopped her...

"Annie! That's not what I meant!" Caroline said apologetically. Annie stopped and just looked down to the floor. There was a long pause before she finally spoke up...

"I know it wasn't. I'm sorry Caroline, I guess it's just a sore spot with me."

"It's ok Annie. I'm sorry I said what I said."

"No, you're right. I need to stop having flings and start really looking for a relationship. I'm starting to feel the need to settle down."

"Well, the best way is to become friends first, worry about sex later."

"How did you and Richard manage?"

"Well, it hasn't been easy! Let's just say cold showers were the norm these past six weeks." Caroline said, smiling ear to ear.

Annie laughed... "I should get going. I'll see 'ya tomorrow."

"Ok, and thanks again for the bridal shower."

*****~*****

--"Hey! How was the bachelor party?" Caroline asked as Richard walked through the door.

"You don't want to know." Richard answered flatly.

"That good huh?"

"Del hired a stripper. More for himself than for me I'm sure."

"Sounds like Del."

"Yeah. So, how was your shower?"

"Oh, it was great. Lots of great stuff for the wedding night." Caroline said flirtatiously.

Richard grinned mischievously... "Hmmm..." he hummed in her ear, nuzzling against it, his warm breath tickling her. He reached for her and she smiled as she gently pushed him away. Richard stumbled back a little and chuckled softly... "So, how are you feeling now that the wedding is only two days away?"

"I'm nervous... you?"

"Same here." Richard admitted... "So, what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"Well, the plane leaves at 9:00 A.M., and the airport shuttle is picking us up at 6:30, which means we should wake up at about 5:30..."

"Which means we should go to bed early tonight..." Richard interjected.

"Yeah. When we get there, we meet with Monsignor Mackithy and Rabbi Allen for our little pre-marriage pep talk, then we're pretty much free till rehearsal..."

"Then after rehearsal dinner, you go to your parent's place and I go to the motel. The next time we see each other will be as you're walking down the aisle to me."

Caroline nodded and smiled.

*****~*****

--The next morning Richard and Caroline woke before the sun. They sleepily made their way downstairs and immediately headed for the coffee maker. Richard made the coffee while Caroline called Annie for her wake-up call.

"Hi Annie. Time to get up." Caroline announced.

"I'M UP!" Annie barked loudly, then slammed the phone down.

Caroline just looked over at Richard and chuckled... "Guess she isn't a morning person."

"Oh, wow. Look Caroline..." Richard said as he pointed out the window.

"What?" Caroline joined Richard at the window and looked out to see what had caught his attention. He put his arm around her and pulled her near him...

"The sunrise." Richard whispered.

Caroline rested her head against his chest and together they watched the sun light the sky.

Richard sighed... "Isn't that beautiful?"

"Yeah. Very beautiful."

"This is not a normal hour to be awake! All normal people are sleeping right now!" Annie announced as she entered the loft and headed for the coffee maker.

"Well, good thing you're not normal then... huh?" Richard quipped.

"Shut-up. It's too early for your sarcasm." Annie snapped, pouring herself some coffee... "When does the airport shuttle get here?"

Caroline chuckled at Annie's mood and patted her on the back... "It should be here at about 6:30. You're packed... right?"

"Well, yeah! What kind of idiot do you take me for?" Annie pointed angrily at Richard before he could answer... "Shut-up!"

"It would've been too easy anyway." Richard joked. Annie ignored him and continued talking to Caroline...

"I have one suitcase and two carry-ons sitting by my front door all ready to go. Hey! Richie! Why don't you make yourself useful and go get my bags."

Richard shook his head... "No."

"C'mon Richie. Be nice." Annie pleaded.

"No."

"Richard? Please?" Caroline asked with an icky sweet tone of voice. Richard looked at Caroline for a moment, rolled his eyes, then headed for the door. Annie made a sound like a whip cracking to imply that he was 'whipped' and Richard turned around and glared at her. When he opened the door, as if by magic, there was Del and Charlie.

"Oh, hey Richard. Good morning." Del said cheerfully.

"If you say so." Richard replied drably as he headed for Annie's apartment.

"What's up with him?" Del asked as he entered the apartment.

"Coffee! Yes! That's what I need!" Charlie announced, skating towards the coffee maker.

Caroline grinned... "He's doing a favor for Annie against his will."

"How do you do a favor against your will?" Del asked as he joined them in the livingroom. Annie made the whip cracking noise again and Del laughed...

"I don't get it." Charlie said with a confused look on his face. Just then Richard entered with Annie's luggage. He dropped them to the floor and headed up the stairs.

"Thanks Richie!" Annie called to him, but he ignored her and kept going. A short time later the airport shuttle arrived.

--"Richard... our ride is here." Caroline announced to the ceiling, trying to get Richard's attention without having to climb the stairs.

"Be right down." he answered back. The shuttle driver started to take the luggage down and Del and Charlie helped. Annie walked over to her apartment and opened the door...

"MA! I'M GOING!" she yelled, then slammed the door shut.

Richard came down the stairs, unplugged the coffee maker, then joined Caroline at the door.

"Well, this is it. The next time we see this place, we will be husband and wife." Caroline said, misty-eyed.

Richard put his arm around her and held her close... "I can hardly wait."

*****~*****

--After a quick plane and a long car ride, they finally arrived in Peshtigo Wisconsin. There was a slight chill to the fall breeze and the leaves were starting to change colors.

"Wow. How beautiful is this day?" Annie asked as they approached Caroline's childhood home.

"Oh, I know." Caroline agreed... "I used to love days like these growing up. I would sit under the tree and draw pictures of the falling leaves and the people passing by."

Just then her mom and dad came bouncing out of the house...

"Hi! You made it!" Fred Duffy shouted as he held out his arms and hugged his daughter.

"Richard!" Margaret Duffy said excitedly as she hugged him.

He winced slightly, but didn't pull away... "Hi Mrs. Duffy."

"Oh, what is this 'Mrs. Duffy' talk? It's Mom to you!"

Caroline could see how uncomfortable he was and intervened... "Ok Mom, Richard doesn't like to be touched."

"Oh. Well, he at least lets you touch him, right?"

"Well, of course..." Caroline confirmed as she put her arm around Richard... "He just doesn't do so well with people he doesn't know."

"Ok, well, we'll work on that then." Margaret added cheerfully.

*****~*****

--The meeting with the Monsignor and the Rabbi went well, Annie and Del confirmed all the arrangements for the wedding, and the rehearsal and dinner went off without a hitch. The only thing left was the ceremony and reception. After dinner, Richard and Caroline went out into the restaurant's adjoining courtyard to spend a little time together before they said goodnight. Richard wrapped his arms around Caroline and started dancing to the music coming from the restaurant.

Caroline rested her head on his chest... "Are you as nervous as I am?"

"I don't know, how nervous are you?" Richard joked.

Caroline chuckled softly and snuggled into him. Feeling his warm and loving embrace helped with her nervous jitters.

"I'm very nervous." Richard admitted... "But it's a good kind of nervous. Like extreme joy."

They continued to dance in silence, enjoying the closeness and savoring each moment with each other. Time seemed to stand still, until Annie interrupted...

"I'm sorry guys, but it's getting late, we really need to be heading to our perspective places now." she said quietly.

Richard looked to her and nodded... "Ok. Give us a minute."

Annie walked away and he looked lovingly into Caroline's eyes... "Well, this is it. No second thoughts?" he asked.

"No second thoughts." Caroline replied.

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"Uh-huh." she whispered, tears falling down her cheeks.

Richard wiped the tears away... "I love you."

"I love you too." Caroline whispered. Richard kissed her one last time, then walked over to Del.

When Richard walked away from Caroline, Annie approached... "Ok, c'mon. Let's go get some sleep."

*****~*****

--It was the day of the wedding and everyone's nerves were frazzled, especially Richard's and Caroline's. Richard, Del, and Charlie passed the time by playing cards, but Richard's heart really wasn't in it.

--"Richard? Hello? It's your turn." Del said, trying to get his attention.

"Oh, yeah... right."

Del was amused by Richard's reaction... "Nervous, huh?"

"Yeah. Were you this nervous all the times you got married?"

"Well, with the first wife I was, but with the second wife... not so much. And then of course, I never actually married Caroline. It's normal though... don't worry."

"Yeah, so I've heard... I just wasn't expecting to be THIS nervous."

"Well, you're not having second thoughts are you?"

"No, no, no, no. Nothing like that... it's just that..."

"Yeah...?"

"Oh, what am I talking to you for... you wouldn't understand..." Richard sighed, exasperated.

Del just smiled... "Try me."

"It's just that... I've wanted this for so long. I guess I'm afraid something will happen to ruin it. Every relationship that's ever meant anything to me I've managed to destroy single-handedly. I just don't want that to happen with Caroline."

"It won't. Caroline really loves you, and you really love her. It's meant to be, it's that sincere love thing you keep talking about."

"Thanks Del. You know, sometimes you surprise me."

*****~*****

--Caroline was in tears as she nervously looked over her wedding dress.

"It's a beautiful dress. You're going to make a beautiful bride." Annie said as she entered the room.

Caroline nodded as she wiped her tears.

Annie handed her a tissue... "Nervous, huh?"

Caroline dropped to the bed, frustrated... "I feel like a blubbering idiot!"

"You're just really emotional... and nervous. It's normal." Annie assured her.

"I should be happy! I mean, I AM happy... so, why am I crying?"

"Cause you're in love... and about to marry your sincere amore... and because you haven't been 'with him' yet. By this time tomorrow you'll be better. You'll see."

"Yeah, I guess you're right Annie. It's just nerves. Everyone has them before their wedding... right?"

Annie nodded... "Yep. Everyone."

"Thanks Annie... I feel better now."

"You're welcome sweetie. Now, go clean yourself up. It's almost time to head to the church."

*****~*****

--"Hello?" Del answered the phone...

"Hey Del, it's Annie. I was just calling to see how the groom is doing."

"He's nervous. How's Caroline?"

"Very nervous. She is going to cry all the way through the ceremony, you watch!"

Del scoffed... "Women!"

"Shut-up Del! You heading to the church soon?"

"Yeah, in about 30 minutes. You?"

"Yeah."

"Tell Caroline I love her!" Richard said abruptly as he grabbed the phone away from Del.

"You tell her!" Annie shot back.

"I can... talk to her? I mean, it's not against some tradition?"

"No, only seeing her is forbidden."

Just then Caroline came out of the bathroom and Annie waved her over... "Here she is..."

Caroline took the phone from Annie... "Hi."

"Hi. How are you doing?" Richard asked.

"I'm ok. I'm nervous... and I can't stop crying." Caroline chuckled nervously.

"Aww... honey, I'll make it up to you tonight. I promise."

"Yeah..." Caroline said with a forced laugh.

Richard could hear the waver in her voice and he knew something was bothering her... "Caroline? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing is wrong, it's just--" She was too nervous to finish.

"Caroline... tell me what's wrong."

"Well, it's just that... ummm..."

Annie chuckled... "She's nervous about the wedding night!" she yelled at the phone while Caroline was still holding it.

"Thanks Annie." Caroline snipped sarcastically...

"Well, to be honest, I am too." Richard admitted.

"You are?"

"Yeah. I am. But I think it's cause of the anticipation... because we waited... know what I mean?"

"Yeah. I do." Caroline whispered.

"Ok, save that for the ceremony." Annie said, signaling to Caroline to hand her back the phone.

"I have to go. Annie is being bossy." Caroline laughed.

Richard rolled his eyes... "What else is new."

"See 'ya at the altar."

"I love you, Caroline."

"I love you too."

*****~*****

--Richard and Caroline were in a daze as they got ready for the ceremony, and before they knew it, it was time. Richard was escorted up to the front of the church, and Caroline was escorted to the doors outside the sanctuary.

"So, this is it." Del said to Richard, patting him on the back.

"I would say something sarcastic but I'm too nervous." Richard replied, waiting as patiently as possible for the service to start.

--Annie fiddled with Caroline's dress as she waited for her cue... "So, you ready?"

"Yeah. I really am. In just a short time from now, I am going to be Mrs. Karinsky."

"I know sweetie, I'm so happy for you."

--The Monsignor and the Rabbi entered the sanctuary, and the soft music that had been playing stopped. Just then, 'Canon in D Major' started to play. Annie's cue. Annie walked down the aisle slowly and when she got to the altar, she winked at Richard. Richard forced himself to smile in return. Then, 'The Wedding March' started to play...

"You ready?" Fred Duffy asked his daughter.

"Yeah Dad... I am." Caroline said with a nervous smile.

As they walked down the aisle, Richard thought he felt his heart stop.

"My God..." Richard whispered... "She looks amazing!"

--When Caroline reached the altar, the ceremony began...

Monsignor: "Friends, we have been invited here today to share with Richard and Caroline, a most important moment in their lives. In the time they have been together their love and understanding of each other has grown and matured. Now they have decided to live their lives together as husband and wife...
Who is bringing Caroline to be united to Richard?"

Fred: "Her mother and father." [Caroline's father said, placing her hand on Richard's arm.]

Monsignor: "Richard and Caroline, have you come here freely and without reservations to give yourselves to each other in marriage?"

Richard & Caroline: "Yes we have."

Rabbi: "The blessing over the wine. Two thoughts are suggested by this cup of wine. The first is that wine is a symbol of the sweetness we wish for your life. The second is that wine is a symbol of sharing. You have shared time together, and out of this time has grown the love which brought you to this day. As you continue to share in each other's lives, you will, as a symbol of this enduring cooperation, share this cup of wine." [The Rabbi handed them the cup and Richard and Caroline both drank from it.]

Monsignor: "We have been invited to hear Richard and Caroline as they promise to face the future together, accepting whatever may lie ahead. Real love is something beyond the warmth and glow, the excitement and romance of being deeply in love. It is caring as much for your marriage partner as yourself. Love makes burdens lighter, because you divide them. It makes joys more intense because you share them."

Rabbi: "Love is always patient and always kind, it is never jealous nor selfish, it does not take offense and it is not resentful. Love takes not pleasure in other people's sins, but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not end."

Monsignor: "Richard, Caroline... join right hands, and Richard, repeat after me..." [He stated the vow and Richard repeated...]

Richard: "I, Richard, take you, Caroline, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you from this day forward, in good times and in bad, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life, until death parts us."

Monsignor: "Caroline, repeat after me..." [He stated the vow and Caroline repeated...]

Caroline: "I, Caroline, take you, Richard, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you from this day forward, in good times and in bad, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life, until death parts us."

Monsignor: "Richard, Caroline... do you have a token of the sincerity of these vows?"

Richard & Caroline: "Yes we do."

Monsignor: "What token do you give of the vows you have made?" [Del handed Richard the rings and Richard gave his to Caroline...]

Richard & Caroline: "These rings."

Rabbi: "These rings in their unbroken wholeness are tokens of the continuity of your love. May they be a symbol of the enduring trust and affection that you bring to one another. Richard, as you place the ring on Caroline's finger, repeat after me..." [He stated the vow and Richard repeated...]

Richard: "With this ring, I join my life with yours. You are my beloved, and you are my friend." [Richard then placed the ring on Caroline's finger.]

Rabbi: "Caroline, as you place the ring on Richard's finger, repeat after me..." [he stated the vow then Caroline repeated.]

Caroline: "With this ring, I join my life with yours. You are my beloved, and you are my friend." [Caroline then placed the ring on Richard's finger.]

Monsignor: "Richard and Caroline, we have heard you promise to share your lives in marriage. We recognize and respect the covenant you have made. It is not I, standing before you that makes your marriage real, but the honesty and sincerity of what you have said and done here before your friends and relatives in the sight of God."

Rabbi: "Your friends and family, all of us here, rejoice in your happiness and we pray that this day marks only one of many more blessings you will share in the days and years ahead. And now that you have spoken the words and performed the rites that unite your lives, we now, by the power of your love and the commitment you have made, declare your marriage to be valid and binding, and declare you, Richard and Caroline, husband and wife."

Monsignor: "Having pledged your love to each other, and having sealed your vows by the giving and receiving of rings, acting in the authority vested in me by the laws of this state, I pronounce you, Richard and Caroline, husband and wife in the presence of God and these assembled witnesses."

Rabbi and Monsignor: "May God look upon you with favor and grant you peace."

Rabbi: "We conclude this ceremony with the breaking of the glass. There are many different explanations for the breaking of the glass. Today, the fragility of the glass suggests the frailty of human relationships. The glass is broken to protect this marriage, along with the following prayer...
May your bond of love be as difficult to break as it would be to put together the pieces of this glass.
After Richard breaks the glass, I invite everyone to shout the Hebrew words "Mazel Tov," which means 'Good Luck' and 'Congratulations'." [After the Rabbi placed the glass in a velvet bag on the floor, Richard stepped on it and broke it.]

Everyone: "Mazel Tov"

Monsignor: "Now the ceremony is over and the experience of living day by day as a married couple is about to begin. Go forth to meet it gladly. May blessings of God be with you."

Rabbi & Monsignor: "We now present to you Mr. and Mrs. Richard Karinsky."

*****~*****

--Later at the reception hall, Richard and Caroline had their first dance together as husband and wife. The song 'Angel' by Sarah McLachlan played and Richard and Caroline stepped onto the dance floor.

Caroline sighed contentedly as she snuggled into Richard's warm embrace... "We did it. We actually got married."

"I know. I was there..." Richard quipped, kissing the top of her head... "This is the happiest day of my life. I love you Caroline Karinsky."

"I love you too, Richard Karinsky."

Richard pulled back, looking deep into Caroline's eyes... "I never liked my name till I heard it said by you..." he whispered, then kissed her before pulling her in close. They danced as close as they could get to one another, and still they wanted to be closer. When the song ended, they took their seats for the giving of the toast...

--The room grew quiet as Del clinked his glass carefully, getting everyone's attention...

"I have known Richard for 2 years, and I can say with all sincerity that he is a complex man. He is hard to know, but once you do know him, you're glad you do. He comes off as uninterested and sarcastic, but in reality, he is a good and caring friend who is always there for you. His capacity for love is greater than I have ever seen, and his love for Caroline is true and sincere. All of Richard and Caroline's friends could see the love between them, but it took 2 years and help from a good friend before they finally admitted it to each other. Caroline is like a sister to me in a lot of ways, and I can think of no one, real or imagined, that I would rather see her married to than Richard Karinsky. May you share a love that grows deeper, a friendship that grows closer, and a marriage that grows stronger throughout all the years of your lives. Cheers!" Del raised his glass and everyone followed suit...

"Cheers!" The sounds of clinking glasses could be heard throughout the hall.

After the toast, the dinner was served. There was lots of small talk and conversation, but it seemed a million miles away to Richard and Caroline. They were too engrossed with one another. After dinner, it was time to cut the cake. Richard and Caroline took their places and waited for the photographer to be ready.

--"Please don't shove the cake in my face." Richard pleaded with a nervous chuckle. Caroline just smiled mischievously. "Oh, no. Why do I have this feeling I am about to be wearing cake?"

Caroline just chuckled and kissed him gently on the lips. When the photographer was ready, Richard and Caroline started to cut the cake. With both their hands on the knife, Richard and Caroline sliced through the cake, cutting 2 small pieces. One for him, one for her. They each picked up their piece and fed it to the other while the photographer snapped pictures. Richard winced as he expected to have the cake smeared on his face, but Caroline fed the cake to Richard very carefully and neatly.

Caroline chuckled at his obvious relief... "Did you honestly think I was going to shove cake in your face?"

"Well, the thought had crossed my mind, yeah."
"I wouldn't do that to you."

"But I would!" Annie announced as she grabbed a piece of cake, smearing it on Richard's face.

Richard just stood there, as if frozen as everyone started laughing and applauding. Caroline couldn't help but laugh, but she fought to suppress it. Richard took his glasses off and handed them to Caroline, then grabbed a piece of cake and headed for Annie. Annie started to run, but didn't make it far when Richard caught up to her. He spun her around and gave her a taste of her own medicine...

"I don't get mad, I get even." Richard said smugly, then turned to walk back to Caroline. The photographer was quick on his feet and caught several good shots of the event.

Next to take place was the bride tossing her bouquet. All the single women lined up and Caroline stood with her back to them. Without planning it or even trying to, Caroline blindly tossed the bouquet right to Annie. Annie just stood there with her mouth wide open, shock and disbelief on her face.

"Looks like you're next Annie!" Del announced loudly.

"Ok! It's Richard's turn!" Charlie shouted enthusiastically. Caroline lifted her dress to just above her knee and Richard gently took the garter belt off. He stood with his back to the single men and tossed the garter behind him. It went without faltering straight to Del.

Charlie laughed as he pointed at Del and Annie... "Now you gotta kiss!"

Del hit Charlie softly and laughed away his embarrassment.

After the garter toss, Richard and Caroline mingled a bit to thank everyone for coming, then they left for their honeymoon.

*****~*****

--The ride to the airport was a long one, but Richard and Caroline didn't mind. They sat in the back of the limo wrapped in each others arms as talked about the day's events.

Richard pulled her in close to him... "You looked so amazing in that wedding dress."

"Thank you." Caroline blushed... "You looked amazing too."

"Thank you."

"The ceremony was so beautiful. And of course, I had to cry all the way through it."

Richard kissed her softly on the lips... "You're beautiful when you cry."

"I can't believe Annie shoved that cake in your face!" Caroline chuckled.

Richard just rolled his eyes... "Leave it to Annie..."

"You're not mad at her are you?"

"No, but don't tell her that!" Richard laughed.

"I thought Annie was gonna die when she caught the bouquet!"

"Yeah, and then Del when he caught the garter!"

Caroline laughed... "Then with Charlie yelling out 'Now you gotta kiss!'... Del turned at least 6 shades of red!"

"Yeah..." Richard laughed. "You know, I think he might be ready to settle down." he added seriously.

"Really? What makes you think that?"

"Well, we've talked a few times, and I got the impression that he's not happy with just having flings anymore."

"Huh! I had a few conversations like that with Annie." Caroline said, somewhat distracted with thought... "Wouldn't that be wild if Annie and Del got together?" she wondered aloud.

"Wild? It would be downright frightening!" Richard quipped.

*****~*****

--Richard and Caroline got to the airport in plenty of time to catch their late flight to Hawaii. They checked their luggage and just sat in each other's arms till it was time to board the plane. They felt the day catching up with them, and by the time they boarded the plane, flew to Hawaii, checked into the hotel, and got to their room, all they wanted to do was go to sleep. They got undressed and crawled into bed without even bothering to put on PJs.

Richard pulled Caroline close to him and kissed her... "Goodnight."

"Goodnight." Caroline whispered. They fell asleep in each other's arms for the first time as husband and wife.

*****~*****

--Richard was first to wake the next morning. He slipped out of bed, put his shirt and pants on, and snuck out of the room quietly so that Caroline wouldn't wake. He went down to see the concierge and made all the arrangements for a very romantic day, then snuck back into the room and into bed before Caroline woke up.

He leaned over her and kissed her tenderly... "Caroline? You ready to wake up?" he asked softly.

Caroline stirred for a moment, then turned to face Richard... "Yeah. What time is it?"

"A little after 9:00. I was thinking about going to get some breakfast. You hungry?"

"Uh... yeah. Just... let me get ready." she stammered sleepily as she headed for the bathroom. Richard smiled as he watched his bride stumble naked to the bathroom.

*****~*****

--As they walked through the lobby, the concierge waved at Richard...

"Why is he waving at you?" Caroline asked curiously.

"Huh? I don't know. Just being friendly maybe?"

Caroline looked at him suspiciously and smirked... "You want to stick to that story?"

"For now, yeah." Richard smiled back. He gently grasped Caroline's hand as the walked towards the restaurant.

*****~*****

--After breakfast Richard and Caroline went back up to their hotel room. Richard unlocked the door and opened it, but motioned for Caroline to enter first. When she walked in she was amazed at what she saw. Candles and flowers filled the room, and there was champagne and strawberries on a little cart near the bed.

"Oh, Richard... did you do this?" Caroline's voice was barely above a whisper.

"Yeah, I had something to do with it." he chuckled... "Do you like it?"

Tears splashed down her face as she stood in awe... "It's perfect."

Richard wiped away her tears, then kissed her passionately. Caroline returned the passionate kiss, running her hands through his sandy blond hair. He slowly broke away and gently took her by the hand, heading for the bed. He sat down at the foot of it and Caroline joined him. He slowly unbutton her blouse as he kissed her lovingly. Caroline moaned softly, desire racing through her, and she hastily helped Richard with his task. Their love and lust took over as they caressed and fondled each other, tearing at their clothing. Richard laid back on the bed, gesturing for Caroline to do the same by pulling her gently with him. Richard nibbled on her ear and kissed her neck, then worked his way lower. Caroline felt drunk with desire as she delighted in the sensations Richard was creating.

"Richard..." she whispered as she drew him closer to her... "I love you."

"I love you Caroline."

Richard slowly and passionately made love to Caroline with an intensity never before felt by either of them.

*****~*****

--"That was amazing." Richard gasped as he struggled to catch his breath. Caroline remained silent. He leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips. She smiled sweetly, but he noticed she seemed downcast. "Caroline? Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm ok..." she said quietly, but Richard wasn't convinced.

He wrapped his arms around her and held her close... "What's wrong Caroline?"

"It's just that..." she started to say, but fear made her stop. She was afraid to say what she'd been thinking. Afraid to ask what was on her mind.

"Caroline... talk to me. What's wrong?" he asked with growing concern.

"It's just that... after all we've been through... after waiting... after everything..."

"What?" Richard's voice was soft and gentle.

"Was it worth it?" Caroline asked as tears welled up in her eyes.

Richard wiped the newly falling tears from her face and smiled... "It was worth it." he assured her. "I love you Caroline."

"I love you too." Caroline whispered.

*****~*****

--The honeymoon was great, very romantic and very passionate, but it felt good to be home. Richard and Caroline brought in the luggage, then collapsed on the couch.

"Let's unpack tomorrow." Caroline said, exhausted from the trip.

"Yeah. Good idea." Richard agreed.

"Are you hungry? Maybe we should order something?" Caroline asked, not wanting to cook.

"Yeah, that sounds good." Richard got off the couch and headed for the bathroom... "Anything is fine with me." he added as he entered the bathroom and shut the door.

"Pizza it is." Caroline said to herself as she searched for the number of the pizzeria.

*****~*****

--Richard wanted to paint before the food arrived. He loved the honeymoon, but missed painting. He put on the old black sweatshirt he always wore while painting and continued with the creation he'd started a little over 6 weeks ago. With all the wedding planning and work on the 'Caroline' strip the past several weeks, he hadn't gotten a chance to complete it. Caroline read quietly, stealing glances of Richard's creative process while waiting for the pizza. She loved watching him work. She could see his emotions as he painted, and what each emotion looked like in paint form. He was more then just gifted, he was passionate and dedicated, and although she never fully understood his creations, she enjoyed the pride and enthusiasm he had about his work. Richard had almost completely forgotten about eating when there was a knock at the door.

"Caroline, can you get it? I'm kinda messy here." Richard said as he continued to paint.

Caroline grabbed her checkbook and headed for the door. As she expected, it was the pizza delivery person.

"Hi. Your total comes to $17.80 after tax and tip." the delivery boy said. As Caroline wrote out the check, the delivery boy looked passed her into the apartment. "Wow! Great painting!" he said, directing the comment to Richard.

"Thanks." Richard said politely, not really paying him much mind.

"You can see the love. But then I see some anxiety here." he said as he walked towards Richard's work, pointing to a section of the canvass. Then he spotted another painting of Richard's leaning against the bar. "Whoa! What were you so depressed about when you painted this one?!" he asked abruptly.

"You can see all that in his work?" Caroline asked, surprised.

"Yeah, well, it's my mom's thing. She is REALLY into art and paintings."

By now he had Richard's interest peaked... "I'm Richard." Richard introduced himself.

"Hi. I'm Jeremy."

"Caroline." Caroline waved awkwardly.

"Where do you show your work?" Jeremy asked as he took the check from Caroline and set the pizza on the counter.

"I haven't been able to get a showing for my work." Richard replied... "But I would like to."

"My Mom would be SO interested in you." Jeremy announced enthusiastically... "Mind if I give her your name and number?"

Richard shook his head, then nodded... "Not at all! Please do." he chuckled excitedly.

"Great. Her name is Judith Williams. You're Karinsky, right? Jeremy asked, looking at the check.

"Right."

"What does your mom do exactly? How can she help Richard?" Caroline asked curiously.

"She finds artists she likes and she launches their careers. It's kinda a hobby of hers. She could explain it better. I'll have her call you, but I have to go back to work. Pizza doesn't deliver itself!" Jeremy said as he walked out the door... "Later."

"He reminds me of Charlie." Caroline chuckled.

"You think he was serious? That his mom, this Judith Williams, could want to help me launch my career?"

Caroline shrugged... "Maybe."

"I just can't get my hopes up, but, what if he was telling the truth? This could change everything!" Richard tried not to sound as excited as he felt.

"Yeah, it could."

"This could be the answer to my dreams!" Richard sounded more excited as the idea sunk in, and Caroline tried to feel happy for him, but apprehension stood in the way. If he became a famous artist, would he have time to do the 'Caroline' strip? Would he have time for Caroline? She felt guilty for thinking such thoughts, and she didn't dare speak them out loud. She just smiled as Richard talked about how great it would be to have his work showcased, not letting on that she was nervous about the idea.

*****~*****

--It didn't take long for Judith Williams to contact Richard. She was eager to meet with him, to see his work and discuss possibly showcasing it.

Caroline sat at her desk, looking across to where Richard usually sits, not able to work because of her anxiety and guilt. She hated herself for feeling like this, but she couldn't help it. She knew she should be happy for Richard and this amazing opportunity, but all she could think about was how it felt like she was losing him.

--"Hey! What's going on?" Annie asked as she bounced into the apartment, snapping Caroline out of her thoughts.

"Nothing." Caroline replied distantly.

Annie could tell she was upset about something... "What's wrong?"

"I am a horrible wife!" Caroline announced, crumpling up some paper and throwing it across the room.

"What?! Why do you say that?!"

"He has this great opportunity to get his work showcased and I... I... don't want him to."

"Why?"

"Cause if he becomes famous... if his art becomes famous... he won't have time for the 'Caroline' strip anymore. Or me..."

"Oh, Caroline... that's not true!" Annie assured her... "He might not have too much time for the strip, but he will always have time for you!"

"I don't want to have to hire another colorist. Richard is the best colorist I've ever had. I like working with him."

"I know sweetie, but Richie needs to do what makes him happy. This has been his dream for a long time."

"I know Annie, I know... like I said, I am a horrible wife!"

"Well, have you told him how you feel?" Annie asked.

"No. I'm afraid to. I don't want him to hate me."

"He's not going to hate you Caroline. You need to tell him. Talking about it with him might help."

"Yeah. Maybe. I guess. I don't know..."

Just then Richard walked through the door...

"This is my wife Caroline." Richard announced, introducing Caroline... "Caroline, this is Judith Williams. And this is Annie. Annie was just leaving."

Annie took the hint... "Yeah, yeah. I'm going." she said as she headed for the door. She turned around before she walked out and mouthed the words... "Talk to him!" to Caroline. Caroline just nodded.

--Judith talked about what she could do for Richard's career and how he would be shown exclusively at her gallery. She talked about art shows and art critics, all of which excited Richard. Caroline wanted to be supportive, and on the outside she seemed happy, but on the inside she wanted to cry. She knew this was the end of Richard working for her. She knew she'd have to find a replacement. She sat in a daze as Richard and Judith discussed details, only coming out of her trance when Judith announced that she had to leave.

--"Can you believe this?!" Richard asked enthusiastically after Judith left.

Caroline smiled weakly... "No... yeah, it's great."
He could tell something was bothering her... "Caroline? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I'm happy for you." Caroline skirted the question, but Richard knew better.

"Caroline..." Richard's tone was halfway between concern and exasperation.

"Nothing is wrong Richard. It's just that... now you won't have time for the 'Caroline' strip, and I'll have to find a replacement..." Caroline said, regretting it the moment the sentence left her mouth.

"Caroline... you knew when I took this job that I wanted to become a recognized artist. You've always known that this was my dream." His voice wasn't angry, but compassionate.

A single tear trickled down Caroline's cheek... "I know... it's just that... when we got married I thought you would want to color it with me. Kinda like OUR creation."

"You expected me to give up my dreams of becoming a recognized artist just because we got married?" Richard didn't think about how that statement sounded... till Caroline repeated it...

"Just because we got married?!"

"That's not what I meant Caroline. I just meant that... well, did you really expect me to give up my dreams?"

"No. Well, not really. I expected you to want to co-create 'Caroline' together. At least I hoped you would."

"Caroline, your strip is your dream. I have to follow mine."

"I know, I know. I am just a horrible person..."

"No, you're not. You're just disappointed. But just because I am not coloring the strip anymore doesn't mean I can't help you with it. But I've wanted this for a long time now, and I have to follow it and see where it leads."

"I know. I know. And you should! You should follow your dream! And I'm happy for you! I really am. I just..."

"You just what?" Richard asked, encouraging her to continue.

"I just don't want to lose you now that I have you." Her tears flowed steady now, and Richard took her into his arms...

"Caroline! I'm still your husband!" he told her as he held her tight... "You're not going to lose ME, just your colorist. And we'll find you a replacement. I love you Caroline. I'm not going anywhere."

Caroline started to regain her composure... "I love you too. Thank you Richard."

"For what?"

"For understanding... and for caring. And for loving me."

Richard wiped the tears from her face... "You're welcome."

*****~*****

--Richard was nervous about the art show. He paced back and forth, waiting for Caroline to finish getting ready.

"Come on Caroline! We're going to be late!" Richard called out, directing his voice to the bedroom upstairs.

Caroline appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in a beautiful burgundy velvet dress that took Richard's breath away.

"You look amazing." Richard gasped as she descended the stairs.

"Thanks. Can you help me with the zipper?" she asked, turning her back to him once she reached him. He kissed her neck, then zipped her up. She turned to face him and smiled as he leaned in to kiss her...

"Lets go--" Annie entered the loft... "Oh man! Do you guys EVER take a break?!" she asked, pretending to be disgusted by their open display of affection.

"Jealous?" Richard asked sarcastically.

"Of YOU?! Hardly!" Annie shot back.

Caroline stepped in, reprimanding them... "Ok guys, lets play nice tonight!"

*****~*****

--The art exhibit was going great, and everyone had great things to say about Richard's work.

Richard leaned in and kissed Caroline's cheek... "I'm going to go mingle for a bit."

Caroline just nodded.

"So, how are you doing?" Annie asked as she approached Caroline, handing her a glass of champagne.

"Oh, I'm ok..."

"That's good. How are you doing with Richie? Did you talk to him yet?"

"Yeah. We worked everything out. You were right... talking about it helped. Everything is fine now."

"See? I told you everything would work out-- Ooo... gorgeous guy at the ketchup painting. See ya later!"

Caroline chuckled as Annie walked away, like a cat stalking her prey.

*****~*****

--The guy Annie went to go see was married, so she started to mingle to see who else she could find. As she started to mingle she heard Richard's voice coming from behind a partition...

"Look, Judith... I have already told you... I really appreciate all you've done, but I'm a married man. I love Caroline."

"Oh, Richard, I'm not talking about love, I'm talking about desire. She never has to know." Judith purred seductively. She tried to embrace him, but he pushed her away.

"I would know. I am not going to be unfaithful to Caroline." Richard said with quiet anger in his voice.

"Even if it means losing all this?" Judith threatened, hoping it would get her what she wanted.

"Judith, I will not cheat on my wife to further my career. If that's what it takes to do business with you, then I think we need to go our separate ways now."

Judith sighed deeply, then dropped the flirting... "You are very talented, so I will respect your wishes and not push for a personal relationship with you. But if you ever change your mind..."

"Thank you Judith, but I am happily married." Richard said shortly.

Judith smiled as she patted his shoulder, then walked out from behind the partition. Richard just stood there for a minute, frustrated by Judith's sexual advances. Annie had heard the entire conversation and waited for Judith to leave before approaching Richard.

"Hey Richie. Great party." she said, announcing her presence.

"Yeah. Thanks Annie." Richard tried not to look as upset as he felt.

"So, Judith has a thing for you, eh?"

"What?" Richard asked, taken aback.

"I heard everything. Caroline doesn't know about this, does she?"

"No, and I don't want her to know. It will just upset her. I have it under control."

"Oh, I know, but don't you think Caroline should know that every day her husband goes to work with a seductress?"

"Look Annie, I need this woman to get my career started. If Caroline finds out about this, she'll want me to leave the gallery."

"Yeah, and how far will you go? To further your career..."

Richard was hurt by the insinuation... "I am not going to dignify that with a response."

"Sorry." Annie apologized... "I know you wouldn't cheat on Caroline. Just be careful."

"Yeah."

--Judith approached Caroline with the worst of intentions... "So, how are you enjoying Richard's opening?"

"Oh, it's great! Everyone really seems to like his work." Caroline was polite, but she didn't like Judith. For Richard's sake, she forced those feelings down deep.

"Richard is such a passionate man. In more than just his art." Judith implied a lot, but Caroline just smiled. "Of course, you would know that... being married to him and all." she continued... "I know if I had such a passionate husband, I would worry about what he was doing when he wasn't at home."

Caroline forced herself to remain civil... "I trust Richard."

"Oh, of course you do. He hasn't given you a reason not to... yet." Judith smiled wickedly... "Excuse me..."

Annie waited for Judith to walk away, then approached Caroline... "Hey Caroline... what's wrong?"

"Judith was just here... and she said--"

Before Caroline could finish, Annie interrupted... "She told you?!"

"She told me--" Caroline started to say, again she was interrupted...

"Look, Caroline, I heard the whole thing! Richard stood up to her. She tried to seduce him, but he told her flat out that he loved you and he was not interested!" Annie blurted out.

Caroline just looked at her for a moment or two, confused... "Huh?"

"Uh-oh... you didn't know..."

"I didn't know she hit on him... no..."

"Oh, man! Richard is going to kill me! He told me not to tell you!"

"Why?"

"Cause he said you would worry."

"Well, of course I would worry!" Caroline replied in whispered anger.

"So, what are you going to do?"

"Nothing." Caroline said calmly.

"Nothing?"

"That's right. I am going to trust him to do the right thing and tell me when he is ready." Caroline responded proudly.

"And if he doesn't?" Annie asked, playing devil's advocate.

"THEN, I will confront him!"

*****~*****

--Richard could tell something was bothering Caroline...

"Are we going to talk about what's bothering you Caroline?" he called out to her as she went upstairs to change. She didn't answer. Richard got comfortable, got out a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses, and waited for Caroline to come back downstairs. "Caroline... what's wrong? You've been acting upset all night." Richard said as she came back downstairs.

"Nothing Richard. I'm fine."

Richard wasn't convinced... "Caroline... I know better. Something is wrong. I wish you would talk to me."

"Why? You don't talk to me..." Caroline shot back quietly.

"Ok, what's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing Richard." she replied distantly.

Richard sighed and walked to Caroline, holding her in his arms as he kissed her neck softly.

"Caroline, please tell me what's wrong." he whispered softly in her ear. His love dissolved her anger.

"Richard..." she whispered, enjoying the closeness, "I don't like Judith." she said finally.

Richard pulled back and looked at her face... "Why?"

"You know why." Caroline replied, the look in her eyes told Richard everything.

"I'm sorry Caroline. The last thing I ever wanted to do was upset you. I didn't tell you cause I didn't want you to worry."

"I know your intentions were good, but if we are going to have a great marriage, we are going to need to be honest with one-another."

"She came on to me, but I turned her down." Richard admitted.

"I know you did. But I have to say, you being around her makes me uncomfortable. I trust you... it's her I don't trust."

"What do you want me to do?" Richard asked cautiously.

"I do not want you to go there any more... but that is not my decision to make. It's yours."

"If I stop going in, she will pull me from the gallery. I will lose my shot." Richard argued... "Do you know how long I have waited for this? I can't wait another 12 years Caroline." Richard pleaded.

"I won't be comfortable with you there, but you do what you think is best. I can't make that decision for you." She turned and walked up the stairs, leaving Richard to think about what she'd said.

*****~*****

--Richard sat on the couch and thought about what he should do. He knew he would never sleep with Judith, but Caroline was concerned. He didn't blame her really. If the tables were reversed, he wouldn't like some guy hitting on her either... but this was his career... his dream. If he blew this shot, there might not ever be another one... but hated to see Caroline hurting. He would do anything for her, but this situation had him flustered. This decision literally meant choosing between his dream and his wife. As he sat deep in thought, trying to decide what to do, he fell asleep.

--Caroline peeked downstairs to see what Richard was doing...

As she got closer, she could see that he was asleep... "Richard?" Caroline whispered, not wanting to startle him. He didn't stir. She watched him sleep for a moment, then covered him with a blanket. She felt horrible for putting those worry lines on his face, that were still there even while he slept, but she had to be honest with him. She did not trust Judith and she did not want her anywhere near her husband...

*It's bad enough she took away my colorist. She's NOT getting my husband!*

She tiptoed back upstairs and sat at the edge of the bed as she started to cry over the whole situation...

"Caroline? Why are you crying?" Richard asked as he entered the room. His voice startled her and she jumped up...

"Richard! You startled me!"

Richard walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her... "I will leave the gallery tomorrow."

"Richard... what about your break?"

"There will be other breaks. I do not want success at the price of your feelings."

He kissed her softly, almost apologetically, but the kiss quickly turned passionate, taking them both over uncontrollably. Richard started to struggle with the buttons on Caroline's PJ's, and his frustration was obvious.

"Here... I'll help..." Caroline said as she took over the task. He started nibbling on her neck which made it all the more difficult for her to undo the buttons. "I hate these PJs!" Caroline said, ripping it off her body, buttons flying across the room.

Richard smiled at her anxiousness... "I need you..." he whispered wantonly.

"You have me."

*****~*****

--Richard was already gone when Caroline woke the next morning. She headed down the stairs and got the coffee started, then went over and sat at her desk. She tried to work, but she couldn't stop her mind from racing...

What would Judith say? Would she try to persuade him to stay on at the gallery? She started to blame herself for what had happened. Because she was against the idea in the beginning, did she somehow jinx this for him? Would he blame her later for missing this break if another one didn't come along? She felt so conflicted. Part of her wanted to tell him she trusted him, and to continue with the gallery. Another part of her wanted him to be as far from that woman as possible. She was deep in thought when Annie came in...

--"Mornin' Caroline. What's up?" she asked as she headed for the coffee maker.

"Richard said he would leave the gallery. That my feelings mean more to him than success. He is down there right now."

"Oh my God! You're kidding!"

"No, I'm not. Oh, Annie... I think I made a big mistake. I don't want him around her, but I DO trust him. I know he wouldn't do... you know... anything... with her. Do you think I should go down there and stop him from leaving?"

"Well... I would, but is that what you want?"

Caroline sat silent for a moment, then jumped from her seat... "I'm gonna go get dressed... will you come with me?"

"Sure."

*****~*****

--"Look Judith, we need to talk." Richard's voice and demeanor was steady and determined.

Judith nodded... "Sounds serious. Please sit down."

"I am so very grateful to you for offering me this incredible opportunity, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave the gallery."

"Why?"

"My wife found out about the sexual advances you made towards me, and we both feel it would be best if I left the gallery."

"Richard, I like you, I will admit that, but please, don't leave because of that. I can respect your wishes to keep it business only."

"My wife would worry every time I came here if I continued on. I'm sorry, her feelings mean too much to me to put her through that."

"What if I minimized your time here? We could choose the paintings for the exhibit at your home, along with other decisions as well. I don't want to lose your work from my gallery. I will try to be accommodating. Can you at least think about it? Talk it over with your wife?"

"I will ask her, but if she doesn't want me to, then the answer is no."

*****~*****

--"Caroline? Are you ready yet? Let's go!" Annie called out as she entered Caroline's apartment.

"I'll be right down!" came the reply from upstairs. A few moments later, Caroline came running down the stairs... "We have to catch Richard before he sees her!" she said as she headed for the door. She ran out the door without looking and straight into Richard, knocking him to the ground.

"Oh, my God Richard! I'm so sorry!" Caroline apologized as she helped him off the floor.

"Now THAT was funny." Annie laughed... "Let me know what happens later..." she added as she headed for her apartment.

Richard got up off the ground and brushed himself off... "Where were you going in such a hurry?"

"I was coming to see you." Caroline admitted as they entered the loft.

"Why?"

"Cause I wanted to tell you... I don't want you to quit the gallery."

"What?"

"I don't want there to be a time years from now where you resent me for standing in the way of your big break."

"Caroline... I would never do that!"

She shook her head... "I trust you Richard... I don't trust her, but I do trust you."

"Caroline..." he said as he gently grasped both her shoulders... "Judith offered to keep me on at the gallery, but have most of the decision making take place here at home. Minimizing my time at the gallery as much as possible."

"She would do that?" Caroline asked, shocked.

"Apparently. She said she didn't want to lose my work from the gallery, so she said she wanted to work something out that would make us all happy. I told her I would discuss it with you, but that the final decision was yours."

"Wow..." Caroline sighed... "I think I would be comfortable with that."

Richard smiled and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in tight... "I love you Caroline." he whispered in her ear.

"I love you too."

*****~*****

~~TWO MONTHS LATER~~

--Richard was sitting on the couch reading the paper when Annie walked in...

"Morning'" she said as she headed for the coffee maker... "Where's Caroline?"

"Still upstairs." Richard replied indifferently.

"So... how's the art world?" Annie asked, trying to make conversation.

"Fine."

"Good, good. How's the Caroline strip going?"

"Annie, are you working up to something here? Cause if you are, spit it out already! Or are you just here to annoy me?" Richard asked, looking up from the paper.

"I was just making conversation! Sheeesh!" Annie shot back. Seconds later they heard Caroline scream from upstairs.

--"Caroline! Caroline! What's wrong?!" Richard called out as he ran into the room.

Caroline came out of the bathroom, with a look on her face like she'd just seen a ghost.

The expression worried Richard... "Caroline?! What's wrong?!"

She handed Richard something, then dropped down on the bed. Richard looked at it, but was unable to figure out what it was. Annie looked over his shoulder and immediately knew what it was and what it meant. She screamed in Richard's ear, wincing at the sound as he stepped away from her. He watched as Annie embraced Caroline, but was still confused... more so than ever.

Annie looked over at Richard and realized he still had no clue what was going on... "I'll leave you guys to talk." she said softly, walking out of the room.

"Caroline... what is this? What's wrong? Why did you scream?"

Caroline smiled and embraced him... "Richard... I'm pregnant." she whispered in his ear.

Richard said nothing as he stood in silent shock.

She pulled back slightly to look at his face... "We're going to have a baby Richard." she added softly, waiting to see a response other than shock.

A slight smile crossed his face as Caroline's words sank in... "Pregnant?"

Caroline smiled and nodded.

"How?" Richard asked, still in shock.

"How?!" Caroline laughed.

"Well, you know... I know HOW. But... when?"

"Remember the night we had the argument about Judith?" Caroline reminded him.

"Oh, yeah." Richard smiled. He hugged her gently, like she was breakable, then kneeled on the floor in front of her. He gently lifted her shirt and kissed her belly button... "Hello in there little baby... I'm your daddy." he said softly, tears in his eyes. Caroline stroked Richard's hair as he held her waist, his head resting on her tummy.

*****~*****

~~SIX MONTHS LATER~~

--"So, have you guys decided on a name yet?" Annie asked as she rubbed Caroline's enormous belly.

"Well, we have it narrowed down to 'Sydney Autumn' or 'Bethany Marie' if it's a girl. And 'Elijah Michael' or 'Sethan Richard' if it's a boy."

"Sethan?!" Annie chuckled... "What kind of name is Sethan?"

"I like the name Sethan! Seth for short!" Caroline defended her choice.

"Oh! I dated a 'Seth' once!"

"Oh, yeah! Whatever happened to him?"

"Let's just say he never cut the cord!" Annie laughed...

Richard crashed through the door, his arms loaded down with bags of food... "Ok, I got you the corned beef sandwich from the deli, the double chocolate chip cookies from the bakery, and the juice smoothy from the juicy place."

"Wow! No wonder you're huge!" Annie teased.

Caroline scoffed... "Hey! Most of it is baby!"

"Annie, she is the perfect size for someone who is 8 months pregnant." Richard interjected in Caroline's defense.

Annie looked at Richard skeptically... "How would you know?"

"Cause I read... unlike you..."

"Hey! I read!"

"Yeah, well, TV guide and trashy romance novels don't count." Richard quipped.

"At least the stuff I read is entertaining!"

"This coming from the person who thought Howard Stern's autobiography was a 'good read'..."

"I'll have you know A LOT of people agree with me on that!"

"Now there's a glowing testimonial to the direction our society is headed..."

"Hey! Would you two cut it out already! You're making the baby upset!" Caroline barked. Just then, a look of surprise and horror came across her face.

"Caroline? What's wrong?" Richard asked, seeing the change of expression.

"Um... my water just broke."

"Are you sure?" Annie asked... "Aren't you due in like 4 weeks? Isn't it too soon?"

Caroline left her food on the counter and waddled over to the couch... "Yeah, well I guess the baby doesn't have a calendar in there."

Richard grabbed the phone off its cradle... "I'm gonna call the doctor... and the hospital..."

"Annie, could you get my bag for the hospital? It's upstairs next to the bed..."

"Sure..."

"Hi, this is Richard Karinsky, my wife is a patient of Dr. Hicks. ~~ Yeah, K-A-R-I-N-S-K-Y. ~~ Caroline. ~~ Ok, my wife is 37 weeks pregnant and her water just broke. ~~ Ok, thanks."

"What did they say?" Caroline asked when Richard hung up the phone.

"She said to take you to the hospital." Richard looked around... "Where's Annie?"

"Ok, Caroline... here's the bag." Annie said as she bounced down the stairs, hospital bag in hand.

"We have to take her to the hospital."

Annie nodded and headed for the door... "Ok, I'll go get the cab."

"Richard? I'm scared."

"It'll be ok Caroline, you'll see."

*****~*****

--"How far along is she?" the nurse asked Richard as they entered the labor and delivery area of the hospital.

"Huh?" was all Richard could manage to say. He was more nervous than he let on and everything was just all too confusing to think straight.

"How many weeks is she? Gestation?" the nurse asked again.

"Oh! Thirty-seven weeks yesterday."

--The nurse handed Caroline a hospital gown to put on, and after she did, she climbed into the bed. After hooking up the monitors to monitor the labor and fetal heart rate, the nurse left the room.

Richard sat in a chair by the bedside and gently grasped Caroline's hand. It was hard to tell who was more nervous, Caroline or Richard.

*****~*****

--After 6 hours of labor, Caroline was tired and irritable.

Richard felt helpless... "Honey, do you want some ice chips?"

"No! I want to have the baby now!" Caroline barked.

"Ok, how are we doing?" the nurse asked as she entered the room.

"Well, I don't know how YOU are doing, but I'm in PAIN!" Caroline snapped.

The nurse checked her to see how close she was to delivering... "Ok, you are 9 centimeters dilated and 100% effaced."

"What does that mean? Does that mean it will be soon?" Richard asked nervously.

"Yes. I'm going to go call Dr. Hicks now. If you feel the urge to push, don't. The doctor needs to check you first."

Richard brushed the hair from her face and placed a cool washcloth on her forehead... "It won't be much longer now."

"I'm scared Richard."

"I know, but I'm here. I'm right here." He hated seeing her in pain, knowing there wasn't anything he could do to help. Caroline grabbed Richard's hand as another contraction hit and squeezed tight, causing him to wince. He knew the pain was minimal compared to what Caroline was going through, so he just sat there and endured it.

*****~*****

--"So, I hear we are about to have a baby..." the doctor said as he entered the room.

"You too, huh?" Caroline quipped.

Dr. Hicks just chuckled...

--After 30 minutes of pushing it was obvious Caroline was exhausted. She tried to push, but her strength wasn't behind it.

"Come on Caroline. I need a real good, strong push now." the doctor said, trying to encourage her.

"I can't anymore." Caroline cried.

"Yes, you can. Come on Caroline."

Richard caught her eyes and looked deep into them... "Caroline, you're almost done. You're doing so great. You can do this..."

As Caroline looked at Richard she felt some strength return. She took a deep breath and pushed with all her strength.

"Good Caroline! Good, good, good." the doctor cheered... "Go again! Quick breath and go again!"

She pushed again, then screamed out in pain.

"Ok, the head is out. Stop pushing for a minute." Dr. Hicks instructed.

Richard gasped excitedly... "The head is out Caroline!"

The doctor waved Richard over... "Come look Daddy."

Richard took a few steps forward and peeked over the sterile blue blankets that were draped over Caroline.

He saw his child's little face and tears welled up in his eyes... "Oh my God." Richard whispered, amazed by the sight.

"Ok Caroline..." the doctor continued... "I need a good, strong push now."

Richard stepped back to Caroline's side and helped her by supporting her head as she pushed... "You're doing great Caroline. Really great..."

"One more push and you'll have the baby Caroline." Dr. Hicks said as he delivered the baby... "Take a look Daddy!"

When Richard peeked over the blue blankets again and saw his child being born, tears splashed down his face.

"It's a girl!" the doctor announced as he prepared the umbilical cord to be cut... "Ok Daddy, you want to cut the cord?"

"Oh... um... I... uh..." Richard stammered... "You're the one with the medical degrees and everything. I think you're more qualified."

Caroline nudged him... "Go ahead Richard. Cut the cord."

Richard smiled nervously, then took the scissors from the nurse and cut the tie between mother and daughter. The nurse cleaned the baby, wrapped her in a blanket, then handed her to Caroline.

"You have a name picked out?" the doctor asked as he finished his job.

Richard and Caroline both looked at each other and smiled...

"Bethany." they said in unison.

*****~*****

--"She's beautiful Caroline." Annie said as she held the tiny baby in her arms.

"Just like her mommy." Richard added, kissing Caroline's hand.

"Did it hurt? I mean, a lot?" Annie asked.

Caroline smiled... "Well, yeah... but it was worth it."

"What is she doing?"

"She's rooting. It means she's hungry." Caroline said, gesturing for Annie to hand Bethany to her. Caroline lifted the left side of her shirt and positioned Bethany at her breast and proceeded to nurse her.

"You want me to leave?" Annie asked, slightly embarrassed.

Caroline noticed her uneasiness... "No, Annie, you can stay."

"Annie, breastfeeding is a very natural thing you know." Richard chimed in.

"I know that! I just didn't want to make Caroline uncomfortable by being here!" Annie shot back, not wanting to seem silly for being embarrassed.

Richard chuckled softly as he shook his head... "I'm going to go get some coffee." He gave Caroline a quick kiss on the lips... "I'll be right back."

Annie waited for Richard to leave... "So, she's ok even though she was early?" she asked cautiously.

"Yep! She weighed in at 6 pounds 3 ounces and 18 inches long, and her apgars were 9 and 9." Caroline answered proudly.

"What's an apgar?"

"It's a test they do minutes after the birth. They do two of them, and it gauges how well the baby is responding to being born... basically." Caroline answered as she switched Bethany to the right side.

"Oh! And 9 is a good score?"

"Yep! It's a great score!" Caroline replied.

"So, if all is well, when do you get to go home?"

"Tomorrow."

"Wow! That soon? Are you nervous?"

"Why would I be nervous?" Caroline chuckled.

"Well, cause you'll be alone with the baby."

"I won't be completely alone. Richard will be with me."

"Yeah, well, he doesn't know anything about babies! I mean, you won't have anybody to help you at home like you do here."

"Annie, all new parents have to learn at some point. We'll be fine. Besides, your mom knows all about babies, and she's right across the hall! I'm sure she'd be happy to help us out if we needed it."

"Are you kiddin'? Just try to keep her away! Ma loves babies!" Annie laughed.

*****~*****

--The next day Richard and Caroline walked through the door of their apartment for the first time as parents. Richard had worked feverishly the night before on a banner to welcome home baby Bethany. Although 'Caroline' was Caroline's creation, Richard was very good at drawing the characters as well. He created a banner in the 'Caroline' style with the cartoon 'Caroline', the cartoon 'Richard', and a new character... cartoon 'Bethany'.

Caroline couldn't help but cry when she saw it... "Oh, Richard! When did you do this?"

"Last night. Do you like it?"

"I love it! I love you."

Richard smiled... "I love you too."

They put Bethany in her cradle, then just stood over her, marveling at the miracle they created.

Caroline sighed as she wrapped her arm around Richard's waist... "I feel more complete now. Like WE are more complete now. You know?"

"Yeah. I feel it too. Like we're a true family now." Richard agreed.

They smiled as they watched their first born sleeping peacefully. Bethany was their first, but definitely not their last.

THE END