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VVVVVVVVVVV

Zoe was unsettled. Shane couldn't tell why, but her face had lost its joviality and her expression was concentrated, tight---something was bothering her. But he didn't ask her about it. The streets of Venice were getting too packed with natives and tourists, and everything became more crowded and noisy the closer they got to San Marco. Still, Shane kept close beside her, not allowing anyone to walk between them.

"Can I take the baby from you?" Shane asked. "Is he getting heavy?"

"No, thanks," she said shortly. Shane watched her for a moment, then kept walking, saying nothing. The smell of cigarette smoke and musty water filled the air. After going down the wrong street twice, backtracking, and spilling out into a sun-filled piazza by a giant, white, pillared opera house, they wandered down a lane catawampus from the opera, and, by chance, caught sight of a sign that read Duodo Palace.

"We could have walked right by it," Shane commented, assessing the front of the tall, beige building. "Are they trying to hide it?"

"Maybe everyone who's anybody already knows where it is," Zoe muttered. Wincing, she shifted the disgruntled baby to her other hip and headed toward the door. Shane frowned at her. Why wouldn't she let him carry the baby?

She didn't wait for him to open the door for her either, and he caught it as it was shutting behind her. It almost hit him in the head. His annoyance at her rose back full force. They stepped into the small but luxurious entryway---the floor was black and white checked marble tile, a crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the walls were dark, polished wood. The counter in front of them was also wood and marble; and straight through, on the other side of the room, Shane could see a door that opened up to another canal, so that the hotel could easily be reached by gondola and water taxi. That was probably the main entrance. He and Zoe had actually come in the back door. Again.

Zoe approached the front desk and the concierge, who smiled at her around his mustache.

"Bonjourno, Senora,"

"Bonjourno," Zoe answered with a sigh, appearing ragged. "We would like two rooms, please."

The concierge chuckled.

"For you and the baby?"

"No, this is my husband," Zoe glanced back at Shane again. Shane wanted to growl at her but restrained himself. The concierge glanced back and forth between them, not following. Zoe was quick to make it clear.

"The baby's been colicky," she said good-naturedly, bouncing the suddenly-fussy-looking baby on her hip. "I'll have to get up a lot in the night to take care of him, and I don't want to wake Shane." She now gave Shane an apologetic smile. Shane looked back at her in indignant disbelief. This was all weirdly easy for her…

"Ah, I see," the concierge nodded brightly. "In that case, I will give you rooms 24 and 26." He reached back behind him to a set of wooden cubby-holes that held the room keys and withdrew two thick, plastic key cards, each one attached to a large, metal-topped tassel. Shane supposed these would make the keys very hard to lose.

Shane then stepped forward and took the keys.

"Thank you," he nodded.

"And if you will sign our registration forms, Senor," the concierge instructed.

"Sweetheart, I'm going to go to the room and lie down," Zoe said, sliding one of the keys out of Shane's hand. He turned so the concierge couldn't see him.

"Burying yourself in the part?" he muttered.

"Just take it in stride," she hissed under her breath, not looking at him, and headed down a hall

just to one side of the counter, the baby leaning over her shoulder and sticking his thumb in his mouth.

"I am sorry about the baby, Senor," the concierge said as he handed Shane a pen. Shane nodded.

"Yeah, me too," he admitted, taking the pen and looking down at the papers. When he saw the words Names of All Guests, he paused, thinking a moment, then quickly wrote: Shane, Zoe and Seth Johnson.

VVVVVVVVVVVV

Shane ascended one set of stairs, moved down a hallway and entered his darkened room, which was freezing because of the air conditioning. The room held two narrow double beds, a desk and armchair in the corner, a wardrobe and a tall window with curtains. He flipped on the light. The colors of the décor were cream and gold---subtle, vertical stripes decorated the wallpaper---there were tassels on the curtains, and five pillows on each bed. Near the window, a white door opened into a nice, white-tiled bath with a huge mirror, and the bathroom also bore two small, screenless windows.

Shane quickly dumped the bags on the bed, found the air conditioning unit and turned it off. He then moved into the bathroom and opened the little windows, letting the summer air inside. Leaning down, he peered through one of them. He gazed out over the rooftops of Venice, and spied a tall, slightly-leaning brown tower not too far away. Just then, the bell in that tower began to ring, its ancient but lively, steady song resounding through the medieval city. Absently, Shane began to count the dongs, wondering what time it was---until he realized that it rang fifteen times. He smirked. It must just ring on the hour, without trying to communicate anything else.

Shane sighed, rubbing his face. Suddenly, he realized how exhausted he was; how gritty he felt, and how hungry. Noting that no windows of other buildings could be viewed from his, he didn't bother covering the windows of his bathroom, and quickly got in and took a shower. The shower head was short, so he had to bend down to shave his head, and wash his face and neck, but he didn't mind. The hot water streaming over him felt too good.

He got out, put on new clothes he had effectively stolen from the Vellicos, and, remembering to take his giant room key, left and went back out to the desk. The same concierge, who was doing paperwork, looked up and greeted him just as politely as before.

"Hi," Shane managed to give him a smile, too. "I'm still really jet-lagged---is there room service here?"

"Si, Senor," the concierge answered quickly. "Shall we send you something?"

"Yeah, whatever you can do---I could eat anything right now," Shane chuckled.

"All right, sir---we will bring you something shortly."

"Oh, and, uh…" Shane cleared his throat, glancing back toward the doorway. "My wife is probably really hungry too, so…"

The concierge nodded.

"Of course, senor, we will bring something to her as well."

"Great. Thanks."

Shane retreated to his room, where he suddenly noticed there was no television, and lay down on his bed, stretching his arms up to pillow his head in his hands. In a little while, a server came to bring him a tray of fruit, breads, cold pepperoni, cheeses and water, which Shane practically inhaled. Then, feeling sufficiently full and no longer cold or dirty, but warm and comfortable, he got under his covers and fell asleep.

VVVVVVVVVVVV

He had no idea what time it was when he woke up. He just knew it was dark. Grunting and rubbing his eyes groggily, he sat up and wondered what had bothered him. Then he heard it---a soft knocking on the door. He twisted under his covers, and, with some groping, pulled a watch out of one of the bags. Squinting, he read that it was 10:30 at night, Italy time. Swiping at his face again, he flipped on the bedside lamp, grimaced at the bright light, got up and moved to the door.

He opened it and found Zoe standing there, wearing some red, loose-fitting, short sleeved pajamas that looked a little too big for her. She was leaning heavily to one side, bearing the burden of the little Italian baby, whose face was puffy and scrunched up in a terrible, whimpering pout. Shane leaned his forearm on the doorframe and looked at Zoe.

"Good evening, sweetheart," he smiled lopsidedly. Her eyebrows went up.

"Excuse me?"

Shane shrugged.

"Just taking it all in stride," his smile broadened. Zoe winced again and readjusted the baby. The baby's unhappy face grew worse.

"What have you been doing?" Zoe asked, almost accusing. Shane put on an innocent face.

"Me? Oh, just having a party," he said frankly. Then he lowered his head. "C'mon, Zo. You made it perfectly clear you could and wanted to handle the kiddo, so I've been sleeping." He paused a moment. "Haven't you been?"

"Does it look like it?" Zoe asked, blinking rapidly, her eyes shining more than usual, and just then the baby's face twisted, he squeezed his eyes shut, huge tears dripped down his face and he let out a piercing wail. Shane stared at Zoe. Her hair was disheveled, her face was pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Besides this, she looked as if she was about to start crying herself.

"Have you gotten to take a shower?" he asked over the baby's fussing. She shifted again, clearly very sore, and finally burst out:

"No! No, I barely had enough time to put on pajamas! I tried feeding him, bathing him, changing his diaper, rocking him, walking with him back and forth, singing to him…" She spoke in a rush, but her voice escalated to the point of losing control, so she stopped and let out a shaky breath, her expression a mixture of fury and pain. She closed her eyes and wiped at her face, as if afraid of showing even one tear. Shane set his jaw, stepped forward and took the baby from her. She looked up at him, startled---and the kid stopped crying. Shane settled the baby against him again, rubbing his back and saying: "Shhh, shhh." The baby began to suck on his thumb, and laid his head sleepily against Shane's shoulder. Shane glanced at Zoe. She looked as if someone had slapped her.

"Hey, come on in," he said gently.

Zoe just stood for a moment, stunned, then listlessly wandered into the room, letting the door swing shut behind her.

"I don't get it," Zoe murmured as the baby continued to quiet and relax.

"Oh, it's not a big deal," Shane tried to brush it off. "I'm naturally warm-blooded and there's more of me to stretch out on, that's all." He reflexively rocked the baby up and down, back and forth, then eased himself back down onto the bed, stretching his legs out in front of him. Zoe just stood there, staring at nothing. He considered her.

"You don't have to do this all by yourself, you know" he told her. She didn't respond. His brow furrowed. "That's why this is a two part thing."

"What is?" she breathed, her gaze dimming.

"The husband and wife thing," he said.

That brought some life back into her face, and she met his eyes. Shane abruptly felt strange.

"You know," he adjusted the blanket. "In terms of this…arrangement, we're a team here, right?"

Her eyebrows went up, just slightly.

"So, that means that we take turns with the kid," Shane clarified. "You watch him while I shower and eat and I watch him while you shower and eat. Isn't that how your folks did it?"

"No." Her voice was very quiet, and the alertness in her face faded.

"Zo, go take a shower," he said firmly, deciding to ignore the impact that last word had had on him. Zoe straightened, looking halfway fierce again.

"No, I'm not dumping the baby on you---"

"You didn't dump him, I took him, so go take a shower," Shane repeated, waving her off with one hand. "I've got it, I'm an old pro. Plus, I got some sleep already. Go. That's an order."

Too tired to argue, he supposed, Zoe wandered out of the room and back toward hers. As the door clicked shut, Shane patted the baby on the back.

"Why wouldn't you sleep for Zoe, huh?" he chided. "C'mon, cut her some slack, huh?"

But the baby didn't hear him---he was fast asleep.

TBC