Chapter Sixteen

Celia stared at the newspaper, her mouth hanging open in shock. Had she just read what she thought she had?

Jen shook her shoulder. "Celia! Snap out of it! You only have a little over an hour to get there!"

Raising her head from Tom's column, Celia closed her mouth with an audible click and folded the paper. Then she stood up, carefully set her chair back in its place, and turned to where she kept her work supplies. Her mind was strangely blank.

"Celia!" Jen was right behind her, whacking the rolled-up paper on her back. "Wake up! What do you think you're doing?"

For some reason these words jolted Celia out of her trance. "I'm going to work," she snapped, shoving art supplies haphazardly into her bag. The top of the glue bottle popped off when she threw it, with way too much force, on top of the crayons and she scowled at Jen as she dumped the lot in the trash. "What does it look like I'm doing?"

"It looks like you're going to miss the opportunity of a lifetime." Jen was incredulous. "You've got to get going or you'll be late."

Ignoring her, Celia walked down the hall toward the children's section. "I told him specifically not to write about me in the paper," she said angrily, her feet going faster as she spoke. "He ignored me. And then he put a deadline on my response. What does he think I do all day, sit around and wait for him to request my presence?"

Jen had to run to catch up to her. "He just told you he loves you," she panted as they rounded the corner. "Doesn't that count for anything?"

Celia stopped so fast Jen plowed right into her back. "I'll go when I'm done with my story hour," she said, dropping her things on a table at one end of the room. "And not a second before. He'll just have to deal with it if I'm late." She glared at Jen, daring her friend to argue.

"But you are going, right? To tell him you love him?"

"I'll go. But I might just hit him as hard as I can before I tell him where he can stuff his precious newspaper."

"Fine, fine. But if he's gone when you finally get there it'll be your own fault for being so stubborn." Jen threw her hands up in disgust before disappearing down the hall.

Thoughts and images swirled around Celia's head as she prepared for the children to come in, and her resolve faltered as she remembered the words of his column. Celia, I love you. I always have. I spent the past seven years trying to get you out of my head and my heart, and all I managed to do was wedge you even tighter into my soul. Half of her, the half that had been waiting to hear those words for a very long time, wanted to break down and cry at the happiness that was pounding through her veins. Unfortunately the other half wanted to strangle him for not saying it in person. And privately.

By eleven twenty the irritated half of her brain was winning the battle. Only a third of the mothers (and their children) had bothered to show up, and when she'd wondered out loud where the others were, the adults in the room all looked at her in disbelief. "We figured you'd be at Grant Park," one woman told her. "I only came because I needed to bring back a book."

Celia tried to stifle the urge to throw something. "Well, I have no business at Grant Park right now, and I have a job to perform. Shall we start another story?"

Murmurs buzzed around her, and another woman, holding two small children and trying to distract a third from climbing on a table, asked innocently, "But haven't you read the paper today?" Several newspapers, folded open to Tom's stupid column, were thrust into her lap and Celia groaned.

"I read it already, thanks."

"Then what are you doing here?" The chorus of voices was amazed.

Celia sat straighter in her chair and tried to look professional. "I have a job, and Mr. Elliot didn't bother to see if I was available this morning," she said shortly. "I'll go when we're finished here. Now, I think it's time to move on. Would everyone come up here and get a glue stick and some googly eyes?"

Even as their small charges ran to where Celia was sitting their mothers rose to their feet en masse and started calling names. "Sam! Aidan! Patrick! It's time to go!"

"No, it's not!" Celia cried in disbelief as mothers took their protesting children by the hand and started dragging them toward the front door. "We haven't finished yet!"

The young mother with three children under the age of three paused on her way out and patted Celia on the arm. "Honey, if that man loves you half as much as he says he does, you better get yourself to that fountain before he changes his mind." Then, spying her oldest attempting to climb into the drop box, she ran down the hall.

Celia stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what had just happened. She sighed and turned around to go back and clean up when she spied all the on-duty librarians standing in a group behind her, gazing at her smugly.

"We knew it was you," the circulation clerk whispered, folding her arms over her chest in a self-satisfied way. "We figured it all out on Monday."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Celia said shortly, and tried to move past them. The librarians didn't budge.

"That columnist went to a lot of trouble to find our story lady," the clerk, who was evidently the spokesperson, went on. "We talked amongst ourselves and put two and two together, and here we are. What are you doing here, anyway? You should be at Buckingham Fountain."

If one more person told her that she was going to scream. "I have a job!" she yelled.

The librarians gasped and covered their mouths. Jen came up to her and led her to the door. "I think we'd all feel a lot better if you'd stop yelling and go meet Mr. Elliot at the park," she said firmly. "I checked your schedule, and you don't have to be anywhere until two. Now just go. We'll pick up your mess," she added when Celia looked over her shoulder toward the children's section.

The next thing Celia knew she was standing in the hot sun outside the library.

Tom has a lot of explaining to do, she thought grimly as she stomped down the sidewalk toward Congress Parkway. Now he'd gotten her kicked out of the library by a mob of overly enthusiastic women, most of who seemed to be trailing after her. She'd have to steer them toward the non-fiction section later; it seemed they'd been spending too much time in romance. She stopped at the crosswalk and waited for the light to change. The streets seemed more crowded than usual, she noted. Was something happening downtown that she hadn't heard about?

By the time the 'walk' sign appeared there were twenty people at the corner with her, most of them women. Some were carrying copies of that morning's Tribune, and she started praying fervently that they weren't all heading for Buckingham Fountain but knew it wasn't any use. Tom had said he received hundreds of emails a week in response to his columns, but surely he'd been exaggerating. Hadn't he? She caught snatches of different conversations as they walked down Congress, words like "romantic" and "I heard she hasn't shown yet" winding their way to her ears. She groaned silently. What had Tom been thinking?

She held her foot over the curb, ready to walk around the steadily-growing crowd and head back to her car where she could hide in peace when a horn blared at her. She jumped back onto the sidewalk and opened her mouth to yell at the driver when the car screeched to a halt and Locke got out. He slammed the door behind him and, grabbing Celia's arm, steered her back onto the sidewalk and into the throng making its way down the street.

"Where have you been?" he asked, not letting her go. "I've been trying to call you for the past half hour."

Shooting him a withering look, Celia tried to pull her arm free. "I always turn my phone off when I'm in the middle of a story hour," she said pointedly. "Let go. I need to go back to the library."

"No, you don't," he told her. "Jen called me a few minutes ago and told me you had left the library under duress and were on your way to the fountain. She seemed to think you might need a little encouragement to make it all the way there, so I hopped in a cab and came to find you. Why do you look so angry?" he asked, taking a good look at her face and slowing his rapid footsteps. "You look like you want to kill someone."

"I do," she told him through gritted teeth. "I specifically told Tom not to write about me, and now he's got the greater part of the Chicago headed to see me profess my undying love and devotion to him. And if you don't let go of my arm I might hurt you after I finish him off."

Locke raised his eyebrows but he let her arm drop to her side. "That's better," she muttered, and let the crowd push her toward Columbus Drive. Locke fell into step next to her, his hands clasped behind his back.

"So what are you going to do once we get there?" he asked, looking up at the cloudless sky.

Celia's first response was that she was going to tell Tom never to talk to her again, but she knew that no matter how angry she was she couldn't go through with it. "Right now I want to break his nose," she said after a long pause.

"If it makes you feel any better, Tom's been waiting by that fountain since eight this morning. He was hoping you'd read his column a little earlier. When did you finally read it?" he asked curiously.

Glancing at her watch, Celia said, "About an hour ago."

"I told him he was taking a huge risk," Lock mused, shaking his head. "But he heard us talking last night and hit 'send' before thinking twice, and by the time you'd left and he'd realized what he'd done it was too late to change the column. So here he is, hoping like anything that you'll come and save his sorry skin. I don't think you could break his nose, even if you tried," he added critically, looking at Celia's hand. "I don't think you're strong enough. Or outraged enough."

"Oh, believe me, I'm furious enough to do some damage." Celia's pace quickened when she got angry, and by this time she was almost running. "I think I might enjoy seeing his blood."

"Celia!" A pair of arms was thrown enthusiastically around her neck, and Celia was suddenly surrounded by Cassie's perfume. "I can't believe I found you! Why didn't you take a cab? It's much faster, and you'd already be there by now."

Celia tried to breathe as Cassie grip tightened. "The library's only half a mile from Grant Park," she pointed out, gasping for air when Cassie finally let her go. "It's not like the park's on the other side of the city, you know."

"You're probably right. Hey, Locke. Are you here to see the fun, too?"

Locke looked at Celia briefly before turning his attention to Cassie. "Something like that. Hold on to her, will you? She has an annoying tendency to bolt."

Without skipping a step Cassie slid her arm through her sister's and kept talking. "You're not really going to wear that, are you?" she asked, looking over Celia's outfit. "I know it's one I picked out, but honestly. The man practically proposed to you, and you look like Marian from 'The Music Man.'"

Celia tried not to roll her eyes. "She was a librarian, Cassie. I work in a library. And if you didn't like these clothes, why did you pick them out?"

Cassie huffed. "Well, they're not bad for work, and I figured the only people who'd see you when you wore them would be a bunch of drooling kids, not the man you've been obsessing over for the past three months. Why couldn't you wear one of your dresses?"

Figuring that this comment didn't deserve a response, Celia fixed her eyes on her feet. Somehow they were slowing down, and when she looked back up to see what was causing the delay she stopped walking altogether and tried not to turn around and run for her life.

They'd reached the corner of Congress and Columbus, where Grant Park was located, and there were so many people milling around that police officers were in the middle of the street directing traffic. Celia spotted several news vans, and reporters were scattered throughout the park with cameras in their hands.

Without warning the urge to run disappeared, leaving only red-hot anger in its wake. Celia shook off Locke's and Cassie's hands and moved forward. "Thanks for getting me this far," she said without looking back at them, and, her hands balled into fists at her side, she darted away, glad that she was small enough to flit through crowds easier than her taller friends.

She kept going, pushing her way through people craning to see over the tops of their neighbors' heads, and nearly getting trampled when someone shouted, not far from where she stood, that the infamous Cecilia Fuller had finally been spotted. She froze and contemplated the need to change her name when she got done with Tom, but when the excited noises had died down once again she pressed forward, eager to get the whole mess over and done with.

She was almost to the fountain when the crowd started chanting. "Ten, nine, eight . . ." She'd lost her watch somewhere between the library and the fountain, but knew why they were counting. For a split second she considered being late on purpose, but then she looked up and saw mist floating lazily through the air. She was almost there, and as furious as she was feeling, it would be stupid to get this far only to stand there and wait just to prove a point.

"Three, two, one." The crowd fell silent as no one appeared, and the hourly water show started in front of her. It was easier to make her way through the last few rows of people, and when she finally emerged from the throng she looked around. Tom was nowhere in sight. Of all the fountains in the city, she thought in irritation, Tom had to pick the biggest one. For all she knew he was all the way at the other end. It could take her hours to get through all the people to find him, and when she did . . .

Then she saw Tom walk around the corner. He stood at the edge of the fountain, his hands in his pockets as he gazed into the upturned faces around him.

It was that sight of Tom, looking so ridiculously hopeful and anguished at the same time, that narrowed her eyes and moved one foot in front of the other. She watched him take a deep breath and turn away from her, and when he did she ran up behind him and jabbed him on the back as hard as she could.

He barely had time to blink at her before her hand connected with his face, and his head jerked back from the force she'd put into her slap. "What the – "

She had her hand pulled back to slap him again in the off-chance that he hadn't gotten it the first time around, but he reached out and grabbed her wrist before she could hit him again. She stood there, breathing heavily, her eyes flashing at him. In all her years of dealing with her father and her sister and all the stupid, hurtful things they'd done to her, she'd never felt this much anger toward a single person in her life.

The crowd was eerily silent as Tom grabbed her other hand, she assumed to keep the untouched side of his face safe, and stared at her. "I take it you read my column," he said finally, his voice pitched low enough that she had to lean toward him to hear his words over the sound of the water shooting into the air behind them.

"I can't believe you didn't have the guts to do this in private," she spat. "You promised you wouldn't write about me in the paper again."

A guilty expression crossed Tom's face but he didn't look away from her. "I did," he said. "I can't tell you how sorry I am that I broke that promise. But I'd sat down to rewrite the column, and then I heard you talking to Locke across the hall and the words just poured out. I meant everything I wrote, if that helps any."

"Right now, nothing you say is going to make a difference." Still glaring at him she pulled her wrists free and took a step back. "Don't worry; I'm not going to hit you again."

Tom rubbed his reddening cheek and closed the distance she'd placed between them. His eyes were desperate. "In my column I asked you to come if you felt anything for me," he said hesitantly. "Can I assume, from your actions just now, that it's hopeless?"

Celia crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. "That depends," she said. "Can you repeat the words that you wrote to my face, or can we only communicate via the newspaper? Because if that's the case then I think – "

Before she could get any more words out Tom placed his hands on either side of her face and said in a voice loud enough to be heard over the pounding of the fountain, "Celia, I love you. I've loved you since I first laid eyes on you, even before you knew I existed. I can't live without you. Can you feel even a little for me in return?"

Still glaring, she gazed up at him. She wasn't quite finished yet. "Maybe. If you promise, and I mean promise, never to write about me again."

Tom swallowed hard and opened his mouth to respond. Then he closed it, cleared his throat, and tried again. "I swear on all I hold dear that I will never even think about you while writing another column. Or anything else."

Grudgingly satisfied, she stopped glaring, but her hands remained on her hips. "Please, Celia," Tom begged. "Tell me you didn't come all this way to tell me not to write about you in the paper anymore."

"Of course not, you idiot," she said, the fire returning to her eyes. "I came to tell you that I love you."

The words were barely out of her mouth before his lips were on hers in the sweetest kiss they'd ever shared. Celia's brain went off line, and when it did her anger finally dissipated. The only thing she was aware of was Tom's arms wrapped tightly around her and the feel of his lips as he breathed into her mouth, "I love you, too." Only the sound of the crowd cheering and clapping their approval finally brought them to their senses, and Tom pulled back far enough to whisper, "Never leave me again. Please. I don't know if I could stand it a second time."

"I promise," she breathed before she brought his face back down to hers, sealing her words with a kiss so fervent they were both gasping when they broke apart and turned, with slightly stunned faces, toward the crowd that was surging toward them.

***

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Somehow they managed to escape from the park, hopping into the first cab they saw and going back to the library. Tom refused to let go of her, even going so far as to pull her onto his lap in the taxi, his face buried in her hair. She laughed when he followed her inside and down the hall to the back room where she'd left her lunch.

"I'm not letting you out of my sight," was all he would say. "I've been waiting for this day for seven years, and I'm not giving up a second of it."

She smiled at him and touched his face before pushing the door open. When they walked in ten pairs of eyes looked at them expectantly. "We've been waiting for you," someone called from the back. "We saw the whole thing on the twelve o'clock news."

Celia could feel herself grin foolishly at them, and Tom wound his arms around her waist from behind. "Come on, Celia, kiss him!" the circulation clerk shouted.

"Yeah, Celia, kiss him," Tom murmured in her ear before he turned her around in his grasp. Blushing furiously she stood on her tiptoes and met him halfway. She tried to pull back after a second or two but, having none of that, he pulled her even tighter to him and refused to let go. Celia heard several wolf whistles behind her, but for once she didn't care. When she finally broke away, laughing and gasping for breath, he had a very self-satisfied grin on his face that faltered when he caught her thoughtful look.

"What is it?" he asked anxiously. "Please don't tell you were wondering how long that was going to last."

She laughed and buried her face in his chest. "Of course not, silly. I was wondering how I could get out of my two o'clock session without getting in trouble."

They heard someone clear their throat, and when Celia looked up she saw Sarah standing behind Tom. "I just had the strangest phone call from the Jefferson Park branch. They told me that after seeing the news this afternoon, all the parents for your afternoon session called to cancel." She paused and smiled. "Evidently all the mothers said to tell you they hope you have an enjoyable weekend, and they'll see you next Friday."

Before she could say a word Sarah held the door open and Tom pulled her out and down the hall. They were laughing when they reached her car. "What should we do now?" she asked, not really caring.

"Besides get out of here, you mean? Drive me to the park again so I can get my car, and I'll follow you to your apartment. I have a feeling if we stick around here much longer we'll have another audience, and I really don't feel like sharing you today."

Ten minutes later she was speeding down the freeway, her window open and Tom following a safe distance behind her. When she stopped in front of her building she got out and waited for him to pull something out of his trunk.

"I see your driving habits haven't changed any," he said blandly. "Do you have any idea how fast you were going?"

Celia tried to remember and then shrugged. "No clue," she told him cheerfully. "Why? Was I going too fast for you?"

He just mumbled something about getting killed before they'd had two full hours together and followed her into the building. She got the mail and rifled through it after opening her front door.

"What's this?" she wondered aloud when she saw a large, cream colored envelope at the bottom of the pile. "It looks like an announcement of some sort." Tom set his backpack on the floor next to the door and rested his chin on her head, watching as she slit it open with her key.

She started laughing when she read the first words on the thick paper inside. "Lauren's inviting me to her wedding in two weeks," she said, noting the date and doing some quick math in her head. "They've known each other for, how long now? A month or so? That was awfully fast."

Tom didn't say anything for a moment, studying the invitation in her hands. "I guess when you know you want to spend the rest of your life with someone there's no need to wait," he said finally. Then he took the paper from her and tossed it, along with both their cell phones, onto the sofa. "Come on," he ordered. "Outside. It's too nice a day to be indoors, and if we don't disappear now your sister might come and try to take you shopping. Today you're mine."

He strode around her building and headed purposefully toward the park. "I think we should have a picnic," he declared, not stopping until they'd reached a tree at the far end of the pond. "We're going to lay here and just be all afternoon." Reaching inside his bag, he pulled out a blanket and spread it out. Then he pushed her down and sat next to her. She leaned against him and sighed happily.

"This is what I wanted to do the last time we had a picnic," she confessed, closing her eyes dreamily. "But I didn't know what you'd do if I tried anything."

"Really?" His hold around her tightened, and he pulled her closer. "I wanted to ditch Cassie and Michael and take you on a long walk around the pond. My plan was to tell you I still loved you, but I lost my nerve after your sister started that horrible conversation about Stanfield."

Celia groaned. "Please don't ever say his name again," she said. "I still can't believe I ever agreed to go out with him."

"Don't worry," Tom said distastefully. "You won't hear it from me." They sat there for a long time, not saying anything and watching the people come and go in front of them. After a while Celia roused herself to sit up and look at him.

"How did you ever get to own my mother's piano?" she asked. She had thought about that since she'd left Cassie's the night before, and now that the excitement of the morning was over the thought came flooding back. "I mean, you didn't even know we were having an auction. You couldn't have purchased it then."

Tom laid his head in her lap and gazed up at her. "I heard you talking to Locke one day in his library," he said languidly. "I remember that piano very well, you know, and when I heard that you'd had to sell it I knew I needed to find it. Maybe I wanted to atone for my actions with Lauren; I don't know. Or maybe I wanted to save something that I knew meant a lot to you."

To her horror Celia could feel her eyes filling with tears. What was it about Tom that made her cry? she thought fiercely. She'd gone years without tearing up, and Tom Elliot reappears and the dams come flooding down. "I'm glad you found it," she said unsteadily, hoping he hadn't noticed anything. "My mother would have been very pleased."

He reached up and brushed away a tear with his finger. "It's yours, you know. If I could figure out a way to get it up those stairs of yours I'd move it in tomorrow."

Laughing shakily, she rubbed her face on her sleeve and then ran her fingers through his unruly hair. He must have been running his hands through it all morning to make it look so wild. "I like it where it is," she said. "Now I don't need an excuse to come to your apartment."

"Like you've ever needed a reason. Someday it – " He stopped talking and looked up into the leaves of the tree. "Whatever my reason for searching it out, after you'd gone back to Chicago I was left in that big, empty house with your scent following me everywhere, and I couldn't get that piano out of my head. I made a few calls and found the family that had purchased it. One thing led to another, and it was mine by the time I came back here."

She looked at him skeptically. "Surely they didn't just hand it over to you."

Tom shifted uncomfortably and sat up to pull a bag out of his backpack. "It was a little tricky," he admitted, his head averted, "but they eventually came around."

Her eyes round, Celia placed her hand on his to still his movements. "You didn't bribe them, did you?"

Again, Tom eyes slid away. "I had to have that piano," he told her in a voice that said, quite plainly, that this was the last she was going to hear on the subject. "Bribery is such a nasty word. I traded something they wanted for something they already had. And I'd do it again if I thought it'd make you happy. Would you like ham or turkey? I brought both."

Knowing it was futile to press him, Celia raised her eyebrows and watched him pull lunch out of his backpack. "When did you put that together?"

"This morning, before I dropped all those papers at your apartment." He said this matter-of-factly, like he'd known all along they'd end up at that particular spot that afternoon.

"You were awfully presumptuous, weren't you?" she asked him a little too severely. "I might not have even come today, and then were would you be?"

Tom dropped the water bottles he was holding and stared at her. "I didn't explain myself very well. I was hoping you'd come, not knowing. I know I left a lot of room for disaster," he went on ruefully when she didn't respond. "I spent the whole night and most of this morning praying that you'd read my column and that you'd get to the fountain."

"I almost didn't," she pointed out. "You have no idea how angry I was when I read that."

Rubbing his cheek, Tom said, "Oh, I have a pretty good idea. You were right, you know," he told her. "I did promise not to write about you again, and I reneged on that promise. I can safely tell you now that it'll never happen again. You made me swear it in front of thousands of people."

"And I imagine your editor was there, too."

Tom shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't bother to look for her. If it makes you feel any better, you can write about me any time you like."

Celia laughed in spite of herself. "And who would I get to read that?" she asked, grabbing the water from him. "A bunch of two-year-olds?"

"You never know," he said seriously. "You never know."

They remained outside until the streetlights flickered on and it was hard to see the way back to her apartment. Then they stumbled, hand in hand, over the grass and to her front door. Tom hesitated in the doorway when she walked into the sitting room, and she laughed and tugged him in behind her. "You weren't thinking about leaving so soon, were you?" she teased, walking into her miniscule kitchen to wash her hands.

Tom stood behind her and held her hands under the stream of water. "Well, I have been here a long time. I didn't want to assume anything."

Celia tilted her head back and kissed his chin. "You're welcome to stay until bedtime," she said firmly. "Any day you want. Didn't I tell you that I loved you? That means you can stick around until you get tired of my presence."

At this statement, Tom lifted her chin and kissed her so hard that she almost forgot who she was. His eyes were dark and intense when he pulled away. "I don't think I'll ever get tired of hearing you say that," he said in a hoarse voice. "So repeat it as often as you like."

They spent the remainder of the evening curled up on the couch in her library, eating spaghetti and watching old movies that always ended happily. When he finally opened the front door to leave, he gripped her hand so tightly that she began to lose feeling in her fingers. "I'm afraid that if I go to sleep tonight I'll wake up only to realize that this has been only a dream," he said, panic starting to edge into his voice. "I don't think I could handle that."

"Locke promised to come over this weekend and help me paint down here," she told him. "Why don't you come over tomorrow when he does? He saw the whole thing this morning, so he can verify that it really happened."

"Paint? Why do you need to paint in here?" Tom stared at the walls blankly. "They look fine to me."

Celia just shook her head. Maybe he needed to get his eyes checked. Or perhaps he was color blind. "It needs to be painted," she told him. "Now kiss me and go home. You look like you could use a good night's sleep."

One kiss turned into two, which turned into several more, and Tom finally backed out the door with a promise to call her when he woke up the next morning. "Not too early," she warned as he slowly made his way out of the building. "I need my beauty rest, you know."

He paused with his hand on the doorknob, as though he was about to say something, but he just muttered to himself and walked out, looking over his shoulder as he went. She wandered up the stairs to her bedroom and lay awake for some time, thinking of water shows and picnics under the stars.

***

Tom, Locke, and Melissa were on her doorstep at eight the next morning, and Celia was still rubbing the sleep from her eyes when she let them in. "I thought you were going to call first," she yawned before leaning into Tom's arms.

He laughed quietly in her ear as the others went up the stairs. "I left my phone here," he explained. "And I wanted to see you again. You don't mind, do you?"

She smiled at him sleepily. "Of course not. Are you convinced this wasn't all a dream, or do you need more proof?"

"I need just one thing." When she looked at him questioningly, he asked, "Tell me again? Please?"

Bringing his head close enough for her blurry eyes to see clearly, she rose on her toes and said, just before their lips touched, "I love you, Thomas Elliot."

There was no more talking until Locke yelled from upstairs, "Come on, you two lovebirds. Time's a wastin'!"

"I told you I'd never get tired of hearing that," Tom murmured as they climbed the stairs. Celia hugged Locke and disappeared into her bedroom to get dressed, and when she came back out they had the furniture covered with drop cloths and the paint cans ready to open. They even had the baseboards and trim taped off.

"You guys are fast!" she said in surprise, looking around her. "It shouldn't take too long with all your help; thanks for coming, Melissa." She looked at the other girl and they smiled at each other. Somehow Celia suspected that Melissa would be good for Locke, and she hoped he'd allow himself to see that.

Before she knew it all the downstairs walls had been transformed from their previous nastiness to a much lighter shade of green. It brightened things considerably and made the entire downstairs look much bigger than it had before. I still can't fit more than two people at a time comfortably in the kitchen, Celia thought while rinsing out the rollers, but at least I won't get claustrophobic while eating my cereal every morning. She placed them on the counter to air dry and made her way upstairs to where Locke was sitting on the couch.

"Where is everyone?" she asked.

"Tom's in your shower; he brought his own razor," Locke told her, laughing at her surprised expression, "and Melissa's outside calling her roommate. We take off for Michigan tomorrow, and she wants to be sure everything's ready."

"I'm glad you'll be following her," she told him, sinking down on the couch beside him. "She seems like a wonderful person."

"She is." Locke had a faraway look in his eye, but it disappeared when he turned his attention back to her. "Before I leave, I wanted to ask you something."

Celia brought her feet up onto the couch and rested her chin on her knees. "Shoot."

"When Tom asks you to marry him again, what are you going to say?"

Celia blinked at him for a minute. He certainly knew how to get straight to the heart of a matter. "If he asked me right now, I'd tell him it was too soon."

"And if he popped the question later on, like in a month?"

Looking at him oddly, Celia shrugged. "I don't know. But I can tell you this: when I say I'll marry him, then I will. After seven years of regret, no one can change my mind."

Satisfied, Locke leaned over and hugged her tightly. "I'll miss you, Celia Fuller. I won't have an excuse for my random visits anymore."

"Sure you do," Celia protested. "You know I'd love to see you anytime."

He sighed and ruffled her hair. "I know that, but you have Tom now. Doesn't she, Tom?"

Celia turned her head and watched as Tom made his way over to sit next to her on the couch. He pulled her onto his lap and propped his head on her shoulder. "You better believe it. Should we take them to Jaimes' for lunch as a send-off before they leave us for greener pastures?"

She laughed and leaned her cheek against his. "I'll need to shower first."

"You look fine," Tom said. "You always do."

Locke clicked his tongue. "Man, she's got green paint in her hair and all down her arms. Let the woman get cleaned up. She won't wash down the drain. Besides, I want to talk to you, anyway." Celia shot him a look when she got to her feet, but Locke just smiled at her innocently and put his legs on her coffee table. "Don't worry about us, Celia. We'll keep ourselves entertained."

"Behave yourselves," she warned, looking pointedly at Locke before she left the room.

When she came out of the bedroom half an hour later, her hair still slightly damp, Tom was standing in the library alone, looking absently at her books. He had a strange expression on his face, like he'd just learned something but didn't know what to do with the knowledge he'd gained.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, walking over to him and placing her hand in his.

He shook his head as if to clear it and grinned at her. "Of course," he said. "I told Locke we'd meet them at the restaurant. He said they were such expert painters that they didn't need to get cleaned up." He lifted one shoulder. "Anyway, I was thinking I should drive," he continued, following her down the stairs. "I'm not sure my blood pressure can handle your breakneck speed."

"I'm a perfectly safe driver," she protested, scooping up her keys and dangling them in front of him. "And we'll get there much faster if I'm behind the wheel. You're slower than a sloth. Didn't anyone teach you what the pedal on the right is for?"

Wearing a slightly martyred expression, Tom allowed her to lead him to her car. "Okay, from now on we switch off. At the end of the month, if you can honestly tell me that my way isn't any better than yours, I'll stop griping about your speedometer's readings. Unless you're putting yourself in danger," he added hastily.

She just rolled her eyes and buckled herself in. "Come on, slow poke. It's time to go."

Tom only had to grip, white-knuckled, the door handle once, and Celia groaned when she saw that Jaime was waiting for them outside the restaurant. "Here we go," she muttered, looking apologetically at Tom. "I promise to translate anything he says."

He just leaned over and kissed her before his door was wrenched open by a very excited Jaime. "I saw you on television yesterday," he beamed. "I knew you two would see reason! Come in, come in! Lunch's on the house tonight!"

"What's with the English?" Celia asked curiously as Jaime led them to their table. Locke and Melissa were already there, laughing behind their menus at all the fuss.

"I don't need to talk about Tom behind his back any more," Jaime explained cheerfully. "He can know everything now."

Celia squeezed Tom's hand sympathetically and they endured a procession of Jaime's family, all congratulating them – on what, precisely, Celia didn't know. It wasn't like they were engaged or anything.

Locke watched the proceedings with a great deal of amusement. "You sly dog, you! Did you propose on the way here?" he asked, his question mirroring Celia's thoughts. "Because if you did and I'm the last to know I might be royally ticked off."

"No, no," Tom said hastily, glancing at Celia briefly before making a show of opening his menu. "Leave me alone. We've only been dating a few days."

Locke snorted and looked at Celia. "Speaking of marriage, I saw a wedding invitation in your kitchen. That wouldn't be Pinkie's, would it?"

"It is," she said absently, watching Jaime across the room. He was mouthing something at her that she couldn't decipher. "Are you coming back for it?"

When there was no immediate response Celia's eyes focused on the man across the table. "What?" she asked. He seemed very uncomfortable.

Tom laughed quietly next to her and leaned back in his chair, his arm thrown casually across her shoulders. "Locke may not receive an invitation," he said, laughing harder when Locke busied himself with the bowl of chips.

Melissa's eyes darted between Locke and Tom, obviously intrigued. "Who's Pinkie?" she asked, resting her head on her hand. "And why wouldn't she invite you to her wedding?"

"Yeah, Locke, why won't Pinkie invite you to her wedding?" Tom was laughing so hard by now that he had to hold on to Celia's chair to keep himself upright.

Clearing his throat, Locke glared at his friend. "Pinkie, or Lauren, as she's known in kinder circles, was after Tom here when I first met her. She was very persistent, and after she bonked her head on the side of my boat she seemed to think Tom would cater to her every whim."

"Which I didn't," Tom added. "Much to her chagrin."

"Tom disappeared for a few weeks," Locke continued as though he hadn't been interrupted, "and I tried to convince her that Tom was a useless case. She didn't care for that very much."

"Wait a minute," Celia said, leaning closer to the table. "What about Dr. Boyle? They can't have fallen in love – " Locke snorted – "in less than a week."

"Love is a relative term," Locke told her, glancing at Tom. "When I finally convinced her that Tom wasn't serious about her she tried to throw me out of the house."

"But it's your parent's house."

"That's what I told her. She was annoyed for a few hours, but everything looked better when Boyle came for his daily visit. She'd liked him well enough to encourage him from the beginning, and after Tom was no longer an option she latched herself onto her doctor. Let's just say that I'm glad Lauren probably won't be living in Mackinac City. I'm certainly not on her list of best friends, even though she's happily engaged."

Celia just shook her head. She was beginning to think that Locke had missed his calling in life. He would have been great at a dating service.

Locke turned to Melissa and proceeded to tell her about Lauren and the pink suitcases, and after a few minutes Tom tilted his head in her direction and asked, "Will you go with me?"

Celia's fork hovered in front of her open mouth. "Like I 'went with' Matt Larkin in the seventh grade?"

"I hope I have more grace than that," Tom said, running his hand across his face. "I was asking if you'd go to the wedding with me."

Laughing, Celia elbowed him in the side. "That would be fun. But I hope I'll see you before then; the wedding's two weeks away."

Tom kissed the top of her head and pulled her close. "You'll see so much of me over the next few weeks that you'll think I've moved in," he promised.

A minute later Jaime cleared away their plates and beamed at them again. When he left there was a note on the table in front of Celia. She opened it and laughed.

"What is it?" Tom asked, looking over her shoulder.

Please consider Jaime's when you plan your wedding reception.

***

On the day of Lauren's wedding Celia found herself in Cassie's spare bedroom. "I still don't see why you're making all this fuss," she grumbled as Cassie wound her hair around the curling iron. "I'm not the one getting married."

"True," Cassie shrugged, "but I haven't seen you alone in a few weeks and thought this would be a good way to make you sit still long enough to talk to me without Tom hovering in the background."

Celia smiled at her sister in the mirror. She had seen a lot of Tom over the past two weeks, and she felt slightly guilty for ignoring the rest of her friends. "You know I still love you," she said fondly. "I've just been a little . . . preoccupied."

Cassie snorted and moved on to another section of Celia's head. "That's an understatement. Has there been a day when you haven't done something with your oh so very attentive boyfriend?"

Cringing, Celia reached down and fingered the watch Tom had purchased for her a few days before. He'd noticed it was missing, and when she told him she'd lost hers at Grant Park he'd appeared on her doorstep the next day with a replacement. "I like buying things for you, now that I'm allowed," was all the explanation she received.

"I hate that word," she said. "It sounds so high school."

"Well, he's not your fiancée or your husband, so what do you think he should be called?"

Celia thought for a minute, watching Cassie's reflection. "I don't know," she conceded finally. "Maybe 'significant other'?"

Cassie pulled a face. "That makes it sound like you've been living together for years, not dating for a few weeks. Try again."

A knock on the door stopped Celia from answering that maybe fiancée didn't sound as bad as it had only a few weeks ago, and Michael came in, looking frazzled. "Are you two almost ready?" he asked, checking his watch. "Tom's been here for fifteen minutes, and if we don't get going we'll be late."

"You wouldn't mind being late," Cassie said absently. "You're just afraid of what Lauren would do to you if you didn't' show up on time."

Michael gave her a pained look. "Come on, wife. Hurry up."

Cassie patted Celia's hair and stood back to admire her handiwork. "You look beautiful," she said, obviously pleased with herself.

"Beautiful doesn't do her justice." Tom stood in the doorway, a strange expression on his face. He cleared his throat and held out his hand wordlessly.

"It's been a long time since I've seen you in a suit," she said, looking him over and smiling. "You didn't fill it out nearly as well then." She stopped abruptly and blushed. Had she really just said that out loud?

"The same could be said for you," Tom whispered, his eyes dancing. He put his hand on her cheek and leaned in to kiss her.

"I now pronounce you man and wife!" Cassie crowed, her arm around Michael's neck. "If that dress were white we could have a double wedding."

Tom's lips smiled against hers. "Don't tempt me," he murmured. "Just say the word, Cel, and we can join Boyle and Lauren this afternoon."

Only a week ago Celia might have panicked at the suggestion, but now she wasn't so sure. The more time they spent together the harder it was to be apart, and if the purpose behind dating was to get to know someone they were already well beyond that.

Tom kissed her one more time before glancing over at Michael. "I thought we were going to be late," he said, watching Cassie fuss one last time over her husband's tie.

They slid into their seats fifteen minutes before the show started and Celia looked around her incredulously. Between the pink ribbons and pink flowers and pink dresses on the attendants milling around behind them, she felt like she'd fallen into a vat of Pepto-Bismol.

"I think I might be sick," Tom muttered next to her.

Celia smirked at him. "Just think, this might have been you. I wonder if Dr. Boyle is wearing a pink tux."

Tom shuddered and inched closer to her. "It was never going to be me," he told her as seriously as he could while surrounded by pink love. He looked at her appraisingly. "Please tell me you'll do things differently when you get married."

Celia tilted her head and gazed back at him. "Why do you want to know?" she asked, wondering if he had an ulterior motive.

Shrugging, he made a gagging noise and pretended to be sick. "Because if I'm privileged to be at your wedding I want to be sure I come prepared."

"Don't worry," she assured him. "I think I've just developed a decided aversion to pink in any form."

"That's too bad," he breathed, leaning toward her as the music started. "It looks lovely on you."

She tried to pay attention to what was happening in the church, but when Tom pulled out a small notepad and began to write she gave up. "What are you doing?" she hissed, looking pointedly at his pen and paper.

"Writing you a note," he whispered back. "Be quiet. It's rude to talk during a ceremony."

Glaring at him, she folded her arms over her chest and pretended that Lauren's wedding gown -- ruffled, beribboned, and adorned with pink accents -- was the most fascinating thing she'd ever seen. Although, if she was being perfectly honest with herself, the dress was a masterpiece of tulle and froth. She looked, Celia decided, like a white cupcake liberally decorated with pink sprinkles. She wondered idly how Lauren had stuffed it in her car. And how she was getting to the reception.

She pretended not to notice when Tom pushed his notepad at her a minute later, only relenting when he stuck his pen behind her ear.

Since your wedding won't look like this, what will it look like?

What was all this talk about weddings? A line from his column floated to the surface of her memory. I realize it's too soon to ask you again to be with me forever, but you know that is my final goal. If it wouldn't be so absurd to propose after dating a mere two weeks, she'd suspect him of plotting something. Celia glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was staring straight ahead, a glazed look in his eye. Smaller. Like you'd miss it if you blinked, she wrote.

Tom's eyebrows rose at that, and he glanced at her before he took his pen from her hand and started scratching across the paper. So who'd you want there?

Celia tapped the pen on her chin, considering. Cassie and Michael, obviously. And Jen and Scott. Tom read as she wrote, nodding. Rachel, but not Lauren. A sudden cough from Tom told her he'd either thought that was in bad taste, considering where they were, or he'd been disguising a laugh. And Locke. Definitely Locke.

Tom took the notepad back from her. What about the rest of your family?

Celia shook her head. No, but thanks for asking.

Not even May?

She had to think about that one. As much as she loved her aunt, she wouldn't miss her. Nope.

Tom slipped the notebook inside his coat pocket, looking thoughtful. That expression stayed on his face through the rest of the ceremony and into the reception, only disappearing after he'd excused himself from their table to make a phone call. When he returned he was looking pleased with himself – and excited.

"What's going on?" Celia asked over the noise of the band.

Tom smiled at her innocently. "Nothing," he said, then pulled her to her feet and joined the other dancing couples.

***

Over the next two weeks Tom behaved very strangely. They saw each other every day but one, and when Celia questioned him as to his whereabouts he just tried to look natural and changed the subject. And one day, when she stopped by Cassie's and walked into the family room, Tom was sitting next to her sister, his head bent over a magazine that he promptly stuffed under the sofa cushion. He then refused to budge.

But Celia really started to wonder about his sanity when she found him at the library Friday afternoon. It wasn't the fact that he was there that surprised her -- he'd met her at work several times for lunch – it was that he was coming out of Sarah's office that really threw her.

When Tom spotted her he threw his hand up in greeting and turned to shake Sarah's hand. "I appreciate the help," he was saying as she walked near. "I'll let you know what happens."

"Oh, I daresay you won't have to," she replied before closing her door.

"What was that all about?" Celia asked, slinging her bag over her shoulder.

Tom grabbed it from her and placed his free arm around her waist. "I was thinking about writing a column on the growing illiteracy problem and the need for libraries in inner-city neighborhoods," he said vaguely. "What do you think?"

"So you're done with the mayor's beautification project?"

He shrugged. "For now. Hey, are you finished for the day? I was hoping I could take you back to my place for dinner."

Celia looked at him suspiciously. "Are you cooking?"

"Don't tell me you're still afraid of me in the kitchen," he said, following her to her car. "I haven't killed anyone yet, nor have I burnt down any buildings. It's perfectly safe."

She stared at him for a long moment. "You're up to something. I can tell. What is it? Should I be nervous?"

Tom scowled at her. "What makes you think that?" he asked, sounding wounded. "All I want is to make dinner for the woman I love. And if you're too tired to go home, you can crash in Cassie's spare bedroom. Does that sound so strange?"

Celia smiled involuntarily. She still got goosebumps whenever he said that. "I'm right behind you," she said, and got in the car. All the way there (and it took a while, as she hadn't convinced Tom that it wouldn't kill him to drive more than three miles over the speed limit) she considered Tom and his curious behavior. Could he be plotting some way to propose? He certainly had all the signs. He'd already hinted that he would. The question was, when?

When they got to his apartment Tom shooed her into Cassie's while he cooked, claiming that he'd burn something for sure if she was in the kitchen, hovering over his shoulder.

Cassie was waiting for her when she knocked next door. "What took you so long?" she demanded, walking down the hall to the spare bedroom. "I've been waiting all afternoon for you."

"How's school going?" Celia asked, ignoring Cassie's ramblings. College courses had started a few weeks before, and Cassie seemed to be in her element.

"Great! I think I've decided to major in fashion." Cassie beamed. "Doesn't that sound brilliant?"

Celia reached over and hugged her. "I think you'll be brilliant at it," she said sincerely. "You've always had a certain flair for it, and I can't imagine what you'll be like with some training behind you."

Cassie opened the bedroom closet and pulled out several items of clothing. "You know, I'll need practice," she said slyly, glancing at Celia for her reaction. "I know I promised not to buy you any more clothes, but this time it's for a good cause. Try some of these on for me. I want to make sure I still have your size down."

Sometimes there was no use arguing, so Celia merely sighed and did as she was told. After trying on the third outfit, the last a soft green dress that she swore was too tight, she'd had enough and told her sister to stop. "I think you know what you're doing," she said, laughing at the disappointed look on Cassie's face. "I still don't see why you can't use someone else as a guinea pig. Why don't you talk to Rachel? I'm sure she wouldn't mind getting new clothes."

"It's not the same thing," Cassie pouted. "Hold on – I think I hear the doorbell. It's probably Tom. Come on back when you're done with dinner!"

Celia didn't realize until she was in Tom's dining room that Cassie had effectively 'dressed' her for another date, and somehow knew that she might be staying the night. She stared at Tom, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. She wouldn't put it past Cassie to be in cahoots with Tom about a potential engagement.

"What?" he asked, pouring her a glass of water. "Don't you like parmesan chicken?"

"It smells delicious," she said, still looking at him strangely.

"Then what's the funny look for? Enjoy your dinner. After all, this is the first time I've ever cooked for a girl, and I want to know how I did."

After stuffing herself silly Celia had to concede that Tom was a very decent cook. "Why have I been doing all the kitchen work?" she grumbled good-naturedly.

He kissed her and led her outside to the balcony. "Because you look so delectable in an apron. Don't worry about the mess," he added when she looked back toward the table. "I'll clean up after you go to Cassie's."

Tom sat in a lounge chair and pulled her down next to him. "I might just go home," she yawned. "I had kind of a crazy day."

He cleared his throat and gazed up at the stars, his hand playing idly with her hair. "Actually, I have an ulterior motive," he said. "I have a surprise for you tomorrow, but you'll need to be up quite early. If you stay at Cassie's I won't have to drive all the way to your apartment to get you."

"A surprise? What are we doing?" she asked languidly. She loved it when people played with her hair, and Tom was very good at it.

"That's why it's a surprise, Celia. We need to be on the road no later than five, so set your alarm."

Celia groaned. She'd been hoping to sleep in this weekend. But the thought of going somewhere potentially romantic made her more excited than she was willing to admit – even to herself. "You have to promise not to be angry if I'm grumpy tomorrow," she warned. "I was planning on some beauty rest."

"I thought I told you before that you can't possibly get any more beautiful than you are right now," he murmured, kissing her forehead softly. "Have you recovered from Lauren's wedding yet?"

The abrupt switch in conversation made her sit up and stare at him. "What? Why, do I look like I want to strangle a cupcake?"

"No, no," he said, pulling her back down to sit in front of him. "You just seemed a little rattled, that's all. I didn't mean anything by it."

Celia wasn't so sure about that. When she was back in the spare room next door that night, she wondered idly about Tom and his surprise. Maybe they were going to attend a wedding the next day. She shrugged and hung her dress up in the closet that looked much emptier than it had several hours before when Cassie had made her try on all those clothes. Too tired to wonder about it, she fell into bed and was asleep before she could think any more.

***

When she answered Tom's knock the next morning he was holding a mug filled with hot chocolate. She took it gratefully and left a note for Cassie and Michael, thanking them for the use of their room. She shivered when they got in Tom's car. It was only September, but the air was cool this early in the morning.

"So where are we going?" she asked as he got on the freeway.

Tom turned up the heat before answering. "We're going to O'Hare," he said, turning his attention back to the road. There weren't too many cars out that early on a Saturday, but for some reason it took all his concentration to keep the car going in a straight line.

"O'Hare? Are we flying somewhere?"

Flashing a smile in her direction, Tom pulled the car into a spot in long-term parking. "We are."

"Wait a minute," she sputtered. "I'm not prepared to go anywhere overnight. I don't even have my toothbrush." Or a change of clothes, she added silently.

Tom just grinned at her. "Surely you didn't buy Cassie's story last night? I told her about my plan, and she offered to get your suitcase ready. You have nothing to worry about." He opened her door for her and grabbed two suitcases out of his trunk and headed, whistling, toward the airport. Celia stood next to the car for a second, suddenly wide awake. This is crazy, she thought, watching Tom. Heaven only knows what Cassie packed for me. I could be wearing tight dresses for the next few days.

She followed Tom slowly across the parking lot, her mind wandering. Could he be taking her somewhere to get engaged and then married? It seemed like he'd been talking about weddings for several weeks, although he'd never said anything about them getting married.

Tom glanced over his shoulder and called, "Hurry up, slow poke, or we'll miss our flight!"

Celia had just decided that this would be the perfect way to marry Tom – to leave Chicago single and return married with no one the wiser – when they walked through the airport doors. She started to head for the ticket counter, but Tom shook his head. "I checked in online," he told her, laughing at her expression.

It wasn't until they were standing in the security line that he finally let her see her ticket. "Pellston, Michigan?" she asked, trying not to sound disappointed.

"I thought it would be fun to visit Locke for a few days," he said, watching her closely. "Why, were you hoping for somewhere else?"

"No, it'll be great to see him again." Celia didn't really know what she'd been expecting, but a return trip to Michigan wasn't one of them. "Are we going to his house on the island?"

"That's the plan," Tom told her.

She sat on the plane next to him and fell asleep almost as soon as they were in the air, Tom's arm around her. She woke up when he shook her gently. "Look out the window," he said softly.

The leaves were in their full glory this far north, and she caught her breath as the plane got closer and closer to the ground. "I've never been to Mackinac in the fall. It's beautiful."

He smiled faintly and put his hand in his pocket. It looked like he was checking to make sure he hadn't misplaced his car keys. Or a ring. "I hope you think so in a few hours," he muttered under his breath.

Celia opened her mouth to ask him what he'd meant by that, but he stood up before she could say anything. He kissed her when she got out of her seat and held her hand as they waited for their luggage at the plane's exit.

Locke had left his car parked for them in short-term parking, and Tom was quiet as they drove to the ferry. "Isn't Locke taking us across the lake?" Celia asked, watching the waves surge against the dock. "I thought we were here to visit him."

"Hm?" Tom had his hand in his pocket again. "Oh, Locke. We'll see him in a little while. He had things to do up at the house so I told him we'd meet him there."

"Okay," Celia said slowly. The closer he got to Mackinac Island the stranger he acted. She grinned at him and slipped her arm around his waist. "This is fun," she told him, hoping she wasn't reading more in his actions than was really there. "I'm glad we came."

Some of the nervousness left his eyes when she said that, and he bent down to kiss her, long and slow. "I'm glad you think so," he told her breathlessly when they parted. "I've been planning this trip for a while now."

"How long exactly are we staying?" she asked, finding a seat on the ferry and watching as his hand disappeared back into his pocket.

He shrugged. "As long as you want. I can work from up here, and I already talked to your boss. She said Friday was the last of most of your story sessions and the next ones weren't starting for another week or two, so if you wanted to take a little time off she wouldn't mind."

"So that's why you were talking to Sarah!" Celia exclaimed. "I thought you said something about a column on literacy."

"I might still do that," he said, pulling her closer to his side. "You never know. Maybe I'll write it next month."

Resting her head on his shoulder, Celia just laughed softly. "You went to a lot of trouble for me," she said fondly, looking up at him and touching his cheek. "Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you."

He leaned his forehead against hers and exhaled. "Let's hope you never have to find out."

They wandered down Main Street hand in hand after making arrangements for their luggage to be sent to Casa Beryl, stopping in front of the used book store that Locke had taken her to.

"I saw you, you know," he said suddenly. "That day I took Lauren on that stupid carriage ride, I saw you and Locke go in here. I think I would have given anything to switch places with him at that moment."

Squeezing his hand, she started walking again. "I know," she sighed. "I felt the same way. Even though I love Locke, I wanted to spend the whole week with you."

He stared at her and opened his mouth as though he were going to ask her something. Then he closed it and walked purposefully toward Locke's house. "Let's go to the house for lunch," he said, his arm now firmly about her waist. "I don't know about you, but I'm starved."

But when they got to the house Tom didn't go up the steps that led to the front door. Instead, he headed toward the beach. "I thought you were hungry!" she said, laughing at his quickening pace. "The food's that way, Tom."

He stopped walking, allowing her to go ahead of him. "No, it's not," he whispered, his hands curled around her shoulders. "Look."

Someone had laid a blanket on the sand. There was a large picnic basket in the center, anchoring the blanket against the wind. "How did you do this?" she asked, stepping cautiously toward their lunch. "Did Locke – "

"Sh." Tom placed a finger against her lips. "I don't want to talk about anyone except for you and me this afternoon." He sat down and patted the space next to him. "Come on," he urged. "Your lunch is calling."

They were halfway through the contents of the picnic basket when Tom cleared his throat and glanced at her sidelong. "Have you forgiven me yet for writing that column?" he asked, flushing slightly.

"The column?" Celia placed a piece of cheese in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Yeah, I have. I still don't know why you couldn't just have said those things to my face, though."

Looking embarrassed, Tom gave her another bottle of juice. "Well, I was desperate. And I couldn't stomach facing another rejection."

"So you decided it'd be more fun to be rejected in front of thousands of people than alone in your living room."

Tom paused for a second before saying anything. "Well, if you put it that way, it does sound kind of stupid. But I got what I wanted in the end." He looked over at her, a look so intense she caught her breath.

"And what was that?"

He stood suddenly and brushed the crumbs from his pants. "Come with me for a minute," he said. "I want to show you something."

Laughing, she stuffed their discarded lunch in the basket, her eyes dancing when she saw his foot tapping the sand impatiently. "You don't want some poor unsuspecting bird to get a hold of this stuff," she admonished.

Muttering something that sounded like, "If a bird's stupid enough to eat my lunch it deserves a stomachache," he grabbed her hand and pulled her down the beach, scowling even more when she patted him sympathetically on the arm. When she kissed his chin, though, he grinned down at her.

"I'm a little nervous," he confessed. "I'm taking a bit of a risk here, you know."

Celia's eyebrows rose. "You are? What have you done now?"

He tucked her hand in his jacket pocket and smiled. "You'll see in a minute."

The rocks where Locke had unburdened his heart so many weeks ago were just ahead, and Tom helped her climb up. They stood at the water's edge for a long time, Tom's arms around her waist. She leaned her head against his chest and sighed in contentment.

"This is the place where I finally realized I was still in love with you." Tom's voice rumbled in her ear. "I saw what you did for Locke, and I knew I had to win you back somehow. It was torture that whole week, watching the two of you become close. I was so worried you were developing the kind of relationship that would lead to love, not friendship."

"But you knew it wouldn't," she reminded him gently. "I know Locke told you he considered me a little sister."

"He did." Tom sounded surprised. "And I can't tell you how glad I am. All those sleepless nights I spent in that house, wondering what was wrong with me. Why couldn't I just tell you how I felt and get on with things?"

Celia smiled to herself. It made her feel just a little bit better, knowing that Tom had shared her doubts. "The uncertainty almost killed me," she said. "Deep down I knew all those columns were about me, but part of my brain couldn't help but think that I was totally and completely misreading you. Until the last one, of course." She looked up at him and smiled into his eyes. He swallowed, hard, then took a step away from her.

"I think I'm ready to turn over a new leaf," he said, his voice sounding strange. "Starting right now." As though his legs could no longer hold his weight, he sank down onto his knees in front of her and pulled something out of the pocket his hand had been in all day. "I love you. You know I do. I can't go a day without hearing your voice or seeing your smile or knowing that you're happy. I want to be able to smell your perfume every second of every day, in my home, on my clothes, in my car, to know that I don't have to leave when it's bedtime . . . " He ran his hand through his hair, making it stand up in little tufts. "I don't know if it's too soon, but this is . . . "

He opened the box to reveal the single most perfect engagement ring Celia had ever seen. She could feel the tears streaming down her face but for once didn't care that she was crying because of Tom. "Are you asking me to marry you?" she asked.

"I'm asking you to consider the option, when you're ready." His voice was hoarse with emotion.

"And what if I'm ready now?"

He started and almost fell off the rock. When he'd righted himself he got to his feet and grasped her hands in his. "Then I have something to ask you. Will you marry me, Cecilia Fuller?"

Laughing through her tears, she nodded her head and threw her arms around his neck. "Of course I'll marry you," she cried, his shirt becoming damp under her cheek. "I love you. I never stopped loving you. I didn't really even try."

He kissed her then, letting all the past anxiety and worry and disappointment finally seep out of them and wash away in the lake beneath them. When he pulled away at last he slid the ring on her finger, his face jubilant.

"Let's go," he said exultantly. "We have a lot to do today."

Her face matching his, she laughed at his excitement. "What do you mean? We have months to plan a wedding. It doesn't all have to happen right now."

"You did just agree to marry me?" he asked, swinging her down off the rocks and twirling her around like a top.

"I did," she gasped. She couldn't stop laughing. She didn't know if she wanted to stop.

"Then we're doing it today. You said you wanted a small wedding, right?"

Celia squirmed out of his grasp and stared at him. "Are you suggesting we elope?"

He made a face. "I guess you could call it that," he said, "but that's not what we're really doing. Come on up to the house. You'll see what I mean."

They half ran across the beach, past their lunch spot that had been cleared away, and up to Locke's house. There seemed to be a lot of activity going on inside. As soon as they reached the front door it flew open to reveal not only Locke, but Cassie and Jen as well.

Locke took one look at Tom's face and stepped forward to thump him on the back wordlessly. Cassie and Jen, however, stared at Celia expectantly.

"Well?" they chorused, trying to see her left hand.

She pulled it from Tom's and they immediately surrounded her, hugging first Celia and then Tom. "Welcome to the family," Cassie said to Tom, her face alight with happiness. "I can't tell you how happy I am to say that."

Tom reclaimed his fiancée from Jen and pushed her inside. "Wait a minute," she protested. "What's going on?" It occurred to her that she'd been saying that an awful lot over the past few days. She wondered if it would ever sink in.

Tom pulled a piece of paper, much folded, from his pocket. "I happen to know that you wanted a small wedding," he said, smiling slightly at her look of surprise. "You told me exactly who you wanted to be there, in fact. Let me read this for you. Cassie and Michael, obviously. And Jen and Scott. Rachel, but not Lauren." Cassie snorted and tried to snatch the paper from Tom, but he held it above her head where she couldn't reach. "And Locke. Definitely Locke. You also said you didn't care if the rest of your family was here, so I didn't bother with them. I hope you don't mind."

Celia could only blink at him. "This is all awfully fast," she said faintly. "We don't even have a marriage license."

"Actually, we do. Michigan law states that only one of the people getting married needs to actually be present to get a license. Where did you think I was last week? I hopped on a plane and got one."

"Didn't they need my consent?" Celia asked, not recognizing the sound of her own voice.

"All I had to do was bring your birth certificate, which your sister got for me." Cassie smiled hugely and did a little curtsey. "So we're ready to go as soon as you are. Don't tell me you're getting cold feet." Tom's voice was teasing, but she could see a hint of panic in his eyes.

"Not this time," she assured him. "But I don't have a dress . . . " Her voice trailed off when she saw the smirk on Cassie's face. "Never mind," she sighed. "I didn't really want to shop for wedding dresses, anyway. All that fuss and bother over a bunch of tulle and lace."

"Tulle and lace?" Cassie planted her hands on her hips, obviously affronted. "Who do you think I am, Lauren's wedding planner? I'll have you know there's not an inch of tulle in your dress."

Tom was staring at her. "So you'll do it? You'll marry me today in Locke's back yard?"

She grinned at him, suddenly as excited as he was. "Only if we can do it in the library," she said, throwing her arms around his neck.

"I told you that was what she'd say." Locke smirked at Tom and embraced the two of them. "It's already set up in there. Now go get dressed!"

Cassie nearly pushed her up the stairs and into the bedroom she'd used before, all the while talking about how splendid it was to have another eloper in the family. "I don't think Henry will be nearly as heartbroken to miss my big day as he was for yours," Celia said wryly. She had a feeling Henry and Claudia wouldn't even register the fact that she was no longer single for quite some time.

"You're probably right, but you can't tell me you really care." Cassie's eyes twinkled mischievously. "Look where it got me – out of the house and independent. Of course, you're already doing that, but that's beside the point."

Jen closed the door behind them, and Rachel appeared from the bathroom to beam at Celia. "I'd hug you, but we've got things to do," she said, motioning for Celia to get into the shower. "Hurry up and get clean. Then the fun begins!"

As she stood under the water, Celia marveled at how fast things had changed for her. Six weeks ago she'd been playing girl detective and nabbing the thief who'd been pilfering the family fortune. A month ago and she was proclaiming her love in front of thousands of people downtown Chicago. And today she was getting married. It seemed so surreal, but yet she wouldn't change a thing.

The girls were already dressed when she emerged from the bathroom. "I hope you don't mind," Cassie said, towel drying her sister's hair. "Tom and I decided that you wouldn't really want a large wedding party, so I'm your matron of honor and Locke is best man."

"That's perfect. I wouldn't have done any differently."

With three people fixing her hair and doing her makeup, it took hardly any time before Cassie finally brought out her dress. "Most of the credit for this day goes to Tom, you know," she explained. "He helped me choose your dress, too. He seemed to have very decided opinions on how you should look today. You're lucky I agreed with him. Just step into it," she advised, "and then you can see yourself when you're all put together."

Jen zipped up the back and they led her to the mirror that Cassie had confiscated from another room. Celia gazed at her reflection, wonderingly if the girl looking back was really her. The dress was stunning in its elegance and simplicity, and she had to give Cassie (and Tom) credit – she couldn't have picked a better dress if she'd tried.

She stared at herself for a long time. The girl in the mirror looked like her; at least, she had the same face, but there was a marked difference. For the first time in seven years she looked happy. No, more than happy, she realized. She looked joyful. She spun around and embraced her sister and her best friends, careless of the wrinkles Cassie was squawking about. "I don't care about wrinkles," she said, her voice betraying her joy. "I'm getting married in a few minutes. Can you believe it?"

Throwing fashion caution to the wind, Cassie hugged her back. "Of course I can believe it," she told her sister, her eyes suspiciously bright. "I just got a text from Michael. Your groom is pacing the halls downstairs. Give us one minute before you come down." After one last embrace, the three women disappeared down the stairs.

When Celia emerged sixty seconds later, as instructed, the faint sounds of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" floated up the stairs. She had to blink a few times to clear her eyes, and when she looked down the staircase she saw Tom waiting for her at the bottom. He caught his breath and then smiled at her, holding out his hand like he had done the night before in Cassie's spare bedroom. When she reached the bottom stair she kissed him lightly on the cheek.

"You remembered my mother's song," she said, trying not to cry. "I can't believe you found a way for her to be here."

"Every girl needs her mother at her wedding," he said softly, wiping an errant tear from her cheek. "Besides, I'd like to think she would have approved of me."

"Oh, she would have." They walked down the hall hand in hand, and Celia gasped when they entered the library. The windows were thrown open, allowing the afternoon sunshine to stream in and showing off the views -- the lake on one side and the trees in their full autumn glory on the other. The sofas and chairs had been pushed back against the wall, and all the seats were occupied -- Cassie and Michael on the love seat, Jen and Scott on the sofa, Rachel in the stuffed armchair next to the window, and Locke at the piano, with a man Celia assumed was the minister standing beside him. Locke's eyes met hers as she entered, and he half smiled before turning back to the music in front of him.

The ceremony itself was a blur for Celia; all she was really aware of was Tom's hand in hers, his intense, unwavering gaze, and their friends around them. Somehow she managed to say the right words when necessary, and after what only seemed a few minutes the minister had pronounced them man and wife. Tom didn't wait for permission to kiss his bride, hugging her so tightly that between his embrace and his kiss she couldn't breathe. She laughed and squeezed him back, just as hard.

"I love you, Mrs. Elliot," he murmured in her ear before everyone else gathered around them to offer their congratulations. Tom didn't give up her hand even when Locke pretended to pry them apart with an imaginary crowbar, and finally the entire party converged in Locke's dining room, where dinner was ready. (Celia suspected Cassie had found a caterer, but she didn't ask.)

They laughed and chatted through several courses, and if anyone noticed when Tom and Celia sat quietly at their end of the table, smiling foolish smiles at each other, they had the tact not to say anything. Finally, though, Locke took pity on them and started shooing the rest of their guests from the house.

"I'll stop by in a few days," he told them as he got ready to leave. "I can't tell you how happy I am for you." A shadow crossed his face momentarily, and Celia knew he was thinking of his own lost love.

"Tell Melissa I said hello the next time you talk to her," she said gently, kissing him on the cheek. "And thank you. For everything."

His face clear again, Locke grinned at them one last time before walking jauntily down the stairs to the road. They stood there for a moment and watched his retreating figure, their arms around each other's waist.

"I still can't believe I'm married," Celia said after he'd disappeared from view and the stars were beginning to emerge. "I seems like it's all been a wonderful dream."

Tom's arm tightened around her, and he met her upturned lips with a kiss that hinted of magnificent things still to come. "Come with me, Mrs. Elliot," he whispered, picking her up and carrying her into the foyer. "We have our whole lives ahead of us. Let's not waste any more time on dreams."

He kicked the door shut behind him, and their laughter echoed through the empty house.

***

Three mornings later there was a knock at the door at an absurd hour, and when Tom opened it several minutes later with his hair standing up all over, the only thing there was a copy of the previous day's Tribune. It had sticky tabs marking two different pages, and Tom flipped open the first to see his and Celia's wedding picture on the front page of the society section. He smiled to himself and touched it lightly with his finger before turning to the other marked page. His eyes widened when he saw the space where his column usually sat. He sat down on the floor in front of the door to read, a grin spreading across his face as his eyes traveled down the page.

The End

by Cecilia Elliot

After the entire city heard me yell at Tom for writing about me in the paper after asking him not to, I suppose I could be accused of gross hypocrisy. But before anyone gets out the tar and feathers, let me tell you what's happened over the past four months, and then, maybe, you'll understand why you find my name at the top of this page instead of my husband's.

Tom and I broke up seven years ago, as he's told you, and to be quite honest I don't regret that decision. The past seven years have been tough for many reasons, and I found myself second guessing my decision, wondering if I'd done the right thing, but it was only after I left home and went away to college that I really understood why I had done it. They say college is a place of learning, and I did learn many useful things, but for me one of the most important lessons I gained was about my own self-worth.

It was only after I moved out of my father's house and lived on my own that I started to develop a backbone. I'd like to think that some of the niceness factor that Tom accuses me of remains intact somewhere inside my stubborn soul, but I have my doubts. The fact that I slapped him hard enough to leave finger marks for writing that last, wonderful column says a great deal, and I'm not sure he's recovered from the shock. I hope he has.

As I sit here and watch him sleep, his head almost covered by the pillows, I can't help but marvel at all that's happened since that fateful day in June when he first started writing for this paper. We were like a pair of frogs, jumping to conclusions whenever there was a loud noise. Only after we learned to finally trust ourselves enough to calm down and enjoy the ride were we able to see things a bit clearer.

So here I am, writing Tom's column without his knowledge. Tom, you told me not too long ago that I could write about you any time I wanted, and when this opportunity presented itself it seemed like the perfect end to our not-so-private courtship that ended with a marriage just three days ago.

They say that the words 'the end' signify that something is complete and unchanging. But this, the end of our public, one-sided romance, feels more like a beginning. A beginning where we can walk hand in hand along the beach toward the proverbial sunset, always changing and allowing life to mold us as it will.

Just don't expect to read about it here.

The End

Author's Note: I can't believe it's finished. Linnea, without your help and encouragement and snarky comments this poor thing would have never left my computer. You are truly more wonderful than you know, and I thank my lucky stars that you answered my somewhat desperate call for help all those months ago. I don't know what I would have done without you!

At the risk of this sounding like a bad Academy award speech, I have to give kudos to James, too. I can't tell you how many times I yelled some stupid question about cell phones or cars or airports down the hall, most of which he knew the answer to. Or at least pretended to know.

Now that it's all said and done, I don't know what I'll do with all my extra time. Maybe I'll start a modern Northanger Abbey. I have this horrible antipathy toward Catherine Moreland. Maybe if I write her more likeable I won't be tempted to burn my copy. Let me know what you think of the chapter and any ideas for the future! As always, I love to see what you're all thinking!