As I did with OTT, I will compile the DD story and "Meet Me in Chicago" outtake into a single PDF and make it downloadable from my blog – I expect it'll take me a couple of weeks to spiffy it up. If you're interested in downloading it, keep an eye on my blog or my profile here. You can also find a post on my blog, now, with some photos and other goodies pertaining to the epilogue.

I have loved being part of your lives.

xoxo Katie

-o-

Jacey

He moves in me, his lips parted as his breath comes in heavy gasps. His chest, defined and gorgeous, glistens with a light sheen of sweat. He fills me so completely, stretching me as always with exquisite pressure. His hair is mussed in gorgeous disarray. His eyes peer into my soul, a narrow ring of vivid blue surrounding pupils blown with desire.

"Jacey...uhhh, so good..." he rasps as my hips rise to meet his thrusts. I can only moan in reply, too far gone for coherency. His hand, still slick with the lube he spread on himself, comes between us, firmly wrapping around my cock. He slows his thrusts to match the languid pace with which he strokes me.

Eventually, the pressure and the pleasure and the intensity build to a point where I am this close, and I know he's right on the edge with me, and just one more stroke and I'll be gone gone gone...

...and then he freezes. Still hovering over me, his face inches above mine, he looks deep into my eyes, gaze so intense it's nearly a frown.

"W-what?" I finally manage to stammer.

"Marry me..." he whispers. I gasp, and in a tone barely above a sigh, full of hope and tenderness and promise, he asks again, "Marry me?"

"Yes...oh god, Jackie, yes..."

His eyes close and his head falls back. He groans, plunging into me once more, stroking me and we're both coming hard, crying out, tumbling through open space, buffeted by invisible hands that reach into our souls, weaving us together, inextricable, steadfast.

When the peak is past, he relaxes, his body falling onto me, covering me from head to toe as his lips find mine.

"I love you," I murmur against his mouth.

He returns my endearments passionately, adding, "Happy birthday, sweet boy."

It's a long time before we release each other, remaining wrapped together after he has slid off me and settled into the crook of my arm, his head resting on my shoulder. "That wasn't exactly how I planned to ask you," he eventually muses, stroking my chest. "I had this speech prepared and I was going to take you up the Space Needle. But then I was watching you and you're so beautiful and I love you so much...it just sort of came out. I'm sorry if it was...tacky...or, I don't know - not romantic enough..."

"No, Jackie, it was perfect." He pulls back enough to meet my eyes. "It was spontaneous and genuine and intimate and completely from your heart. I love that I didn't see it coming. If you'd taken me up the Space Needle and started to make a speech, I'd have known what was going to happen. That would have been fine, too, but...this is so you. From the day we met, you've found ways to surprise me, and it's the little surprises, the little kindnesses that are unexpected and so appreciated...those are the things that make you who you are. I wouldn't change a thing about you, Jack. And I can't wait to be your husband."

He stares at me as I speak, his eyes wide and his expression unfathomable. A moment later his eyes fill with tears and he blinks, spilling a wet path down each cheek. He buries his face in my chest, seeming embarrassed.

"Hey," I say, squeezing him gently, "isn't that my job?" His only response is a sniffle. After he takes a moment to retain his composure, he mutters something, but it's muffled by his position. "Sorry, Jackie, what did you say?"

He lifts his face again. "I've never been so happy." After another sniffle he adds, "I didn't know it was possible to be this happy until I met you. Thank you."

After a few more kisses I pull myself away to get a warm washcloth from the bathroom. After cleaning myself off I warm it again and take it to him, wiping off his boneless body and then pulling the blankets up around him. He hums in contentment, his eyes already closing. I slide back into bed beside him and he sleepily kisses me goodnight. Just before he drops off, he mumbles, "But when people ask, we tell them the Space Needle story..."

I giggle and agree, wanting to keep the real story of his proposal as a sweet, private secret known only to the two of us. Moments later he has fully relaxed into a peaceful slumber.

For my part, though, rather than being relaxed, I feel too excited to sleep. After tossing and turning awhile, I get up, pulling on a pair of sleep pants and padding across the carpeted floor to sit in a chair by the window. I look out over the Seattle night skyline from our room on the tenth floor of the Hotel Max. I find myself thinking back over the events of today, and the trip we've made this week to see Edward & Jasper's baby, Annie, who is about seven weeks old; and how we got to where we are now, on my 24th birthday.

-o-

That first winter I spent in Chicago was pretty well perfect. Jack and I rang in the New Year together, along with Mike and Nicolas at their home, which was a fantastic start to the year. We skated that winter, Jack taught me to ski - both of which I grew to love doing - and I continued to fall in love with Chicago. I felt completely at home at SAIC with its thriving community. I kept working at the art store, adding a little to my savings and loving the employee discount, and I made new friends there, of varying ages and genders and walks of life, each with a talent to share and a story to tell. I felt a sense of acceptance there that I hadn't even found at UT Austin, and it eventually dawned on me that it was the same feeling I'd had the first time I went to art camp: these were my people.

As the end of the school year drew closer, though, and I had to start seeking summer employment, I was faced with a dilemma. I had a standing offer to return to Texartopia, and I'd gotten an email from Judith, my old boss there, letting me know that Matt had already turned down an offer to return for the summer. She said she wanted to pass it along, just in case it had a bearing on my decision.

Well, it didn't hurt; but truth be told, I was already seriously considering returning, Matt or no. I knew it would be my last summer there, and the camp fit so well with my personality, my philosophies...it was one of the few times in my life that I'd ever felt absolutely certain I was making a direct impact. I felt useful. I felt great there.

So when I considered that - a summer of helping channel new, fresh young energy and talent, and swimming and hiking and singing around campfires - versus a summer stuck in an art store in the city, there wasn't much contest. It was possible I could have found something similar in the Chicagoland area, but it wouldn't have been the same. I wouldn't have seen the same kids, the ones I thought of as mine. They'd started out in my cabin in their first year, feeling out of place and lonely until everything clicked for them. I wouldn't have gotten to see them as the newly-minted teenagers they were now. Some had deeper voices, others didn't; some had hit growth spurts and were nearly as tall as me, others were still scrawny and gangly. But they were still my boys. I knew I'd also forge friendships with the new crop of eleven-year-olds, as I had before.

But before I went, before I could give Judith a firm answer, I had to discuss it with Jack. There was no way I would make that decision without talking to him first. I chose a night in early March, a Friday evening when I was going to stay over for the night, and I simply poured my heart out to him. The thought of being so far from him again, even for four short months, was one of the few things that gave me pause. There was also the consideration of how he would feel about me returning there - and it was a consideration, truly. For as many unpleasant memories as I had to exorcise from the place, he also had the memories left by the previous summer of being alone in Chicago while I was in Texas. I told him all of this as I opened up to him. He listened to it all, calmly, quietly; nodding here and there, but otherwise just taking it in.

Finally, when I had shared my list of pros and cons and talked myself out, we sat in silence as he considered it. Eventually he spoke.

"First," he began, "thank you for sharing this with me while you're still weighing your options, and not after you've already made up your mind. We've both been working so hard on telling each other what we're really feeling and thinking, and moments like this are encouraging." We share a smile and then I nod for him to continue.

"Second, it sounds like you've given really thorough consideration to all sides of this." He took my hand in his. "What is your heart telling you to do?"

I hesitated a moment, but he wanted a real, honest answer. I needed to give him that. "I want to go. It'll be my last year there. Next year, I'll have graduated and fingers crossed, I'll begin my 'real' job. This is it."

He nodded. "Then that's your answer, sweet boy."

"So you're okay with that?"

He gave me a wan smile. "I'll miss you. You'll be back in August, though..."

"I will. I'll be back to you, Jackie."

"When you get back..." he began, but hesitated.

"Yes?" I prompted.

"Will you move in with me?" My eyes widened and he continued, "I was going to ask you when you were done this year, if you had planned to stay in the city for the summer. But if you're not, then maybe you'd consider it when you return?" His face was so hopeful.

"Oh. Um..." I had no idea he'd been thinking about this. I was caught off-guard and not quite in a good way. "Jackie, that's...I'm..."

His expression dimmed a little, slipping into uncertainty. "What?"

"Well...I appreciate the offer, and I do want to live with you – you know I'm in this with you forever..."

"Yes?" he said slowly, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

"I'm not quite ready."

"Oh."

"Yet."

"Oh."

"I just...Jack, look at me – no, don't look away, please – just let me explain what I mean, okay?" Yikes. I'd steeled myself for a potentially difficult discussion, but I thought it would be about camp, not about living together. "I love you – I love you more than anything in the world. You are the one for me, Jack, and I'm 100% sure of that. But...I'm also really enjoying living on my own right now. This is completely new for me. I've never had a place that was just mine, and I love it so much. When we move in together – and that's when, not if, because to me it's a sure thing – when we move in, that's it. I won't go anywhere without you again. I want a little more time to enjoy this now, before that happens. And...there are other things too – my place is close to school, it's right around the corner from work, assuming they hire me back when I return, and I love living downtown. It's close to everything I need, with the exception of your apartment. I love it here too, Jack. You know how I feel about this building, and of course, this is where you are. I just would like to live on my own a bit longer, and I'd like to live at the residence until I graduate next year."

He didn't answer immediately, his face serious as he considered my speech. Finally after an interminable pause he nodded slowly. "Okay."

"Okay?" I repeated.

"Yes. I understand what you're saying, and I understand feeling that way. I remember feeling the same, actually, the first time I lived without a roommate, and it worked so well for me that I've continued living alone for six years. The only reason I want to change that now is because it's you – because I fell in love with you. I'm ready to not live alone anymore, ready to share a home with you, but I can wait until you're ready too. Knowing you're on the same page – or at least that it's in your plans – makes it okay."

"Thank you," I told him honestly. "Thanks for understanding and for allowing me this."

He nodded. "Sometimes I forget how young you still are. I don't want you to miss out on doing things, or give them up just because I'm older. I want you to experience everything you want to. You should travel, see things, do and learn new things."

"There's not much I want that doesn't involve you, Jack," I replied, taking his hands in mine. "If I travel somewhere I want you with me. I want us to experience new things together."

Jack nodded, a smile brightening his face for the first time since I turned down his offer. "I want that too."

"Good, then we are on the same page. Just slightly off-schedule."

"Well, I've got time," he murmured, drawing me into his arms. "I know I get impatient sometimes, but really, as long as it's you and me, take all the time you need. I want you to be ready to do this, because like you said, once we're together, that's it."

"That's something else we agree on, then."

-o-

The summer, overall, was great. On a work front, I loved being back at the camp, seeing my kids again and forging relationships with the newbies. On the other hand, I missed Jack so damn much I could hardly stand it. We saw each other every weekend I had off, with him coming to Austin and me going to Chicago, but it was always so hard to say goodbye to him. It was nice to be back in Texas, though, as I got to spend time with my mom, and to get to know her boyfriend Brad and his daughter Emma.

Brad seemed like a very decent guy. He was friendly and kind, quite intelligent and knowledgeable. He seemed to have a great relationship with Emma, and it was pretty obvious he and Mom were getting pretty close. Emma was shy at first, but as we spent more time together, she relaxed, being more open and allowing her real personality to come through. I realized she was very smart and had a good sense of humor. She liked my mom, too, which was good. If this progressed, as it looked like it would, I didn't want Mom to have to deal with any step-family resentment. When Jack would stay in Kingsland for the weekend, everyone would end up at my mom's house for a barbecue, or we'd all go swimming in the river...we had a lot of fun and it was nice to get to know each other under casual, easy circumstances.

Jack and I also made our fourth of July visit to Seattle that summer – a year later than expected, but better late than never. I met the rest of his friends, all of whom welcomed me like I was just one of the group. Even Jasper, who admitted to me that he'd wondered if Jack made a mistake getting involved with me again, asked me to forgive him for his misjudgment. I told him I couldn't blame him for having reservations about me after what happened. I knew he was just being protective, and I was grateful Jack had such loyal friends.

We had a great visit. Seattle was a little too damp and mild for me – it was July, for crying out loud – but we had a good time anyway, finishing up with the annual barbecue at Dr. and Mrs. Cullen's house and fireworks over Lake Union. Jack's lips on mine as the fireworks burst above us, was an extraordinary moment in my life.

At the end of the summer I had a few weeks off before I had to return to school. Jack and I went to California to visit his mom and brothers. Jack had been called home unexpectedly in early April because his grandmother had passed away. I so wanted to go with him, to support him and do what I could to help the family as they grieved. Unfortunately, it was right before finals and I had three projects due on the day the funeral was to take place. I tried to get extensions, but my profs, as understanding as they were, all agreed it was just too close to the end of the term. I almost went anyway, but Jack – and my mom – wouldn't hear of it. In the end I simply held Jack as he cried, grieving not only for his Gram but feeling the wound of his dad's loss reopened too. I also had a phone conversation with Laura, Jack's mom, when I called to give her my condolences. We talked for over an hour. It was the first time I'd spoken to her, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. My mom, too, called Laura, and over the course of the following months, they got to be good friends by phone before they ever met.

So by the time I visited California in August, I actually wasn't nervous to meet Laura. I felt like I already knew her. It was great to meet Aaron and Sean. As different as they were from each other, they were both really cool in their own way, and by the time I left they were like brothers I never had. All I felt from the entire family was warmth and complete acceptance. Laura was as wonderful in person as she'd been on the phone. I left feeling like I'd been adopted into the Charles family.

-o-

Early the next year when I was in my last semester of school, Jack mentioned that he was thinking about moving. As much as we both loved his apartment, with being so far away from family and having them visit us it made sense to have a place that better accommodated guests – or at least one that didn't require anyone to sleep in the living room. He also asked how I felt about buying a place, instead of looking for another rental. It was obvious that he was thinking of it as our place, despite that I wasn't yet living with him, and I was deeply touched by his consideration, including me in the decisions and buying process. Still being a student, we both knew I wouldn't be able to contribute financially for a while yet, but it would be our home.

I told him whatever he was comfortable with would make me happy too. Mike recommended his real estate agent to us and we began the process of looking. We started out looking at condos closer to downtown. They were all very nice, very modern...and I had trouble remembering which was which a day or two after we'd been in them, they were all so much alike: generic and bland. I could tell Jack wasn't enthralled by any of them either. Somehow they just weren't what I'd pictured for the home I would share with Jack. I was also floored by the prices. Housing costs in Texas were much lower than Chicago, of that I was sure.

One Saturday evening, after a day of viewings, Jack and I ended up at a lounge to have a quiet drink and recap the day, before heading home to his place. He was becoming frustrated, and he sat staring into his glass of scotch with a near-scowl – something I rarely saw on his handsome face.

"Tell me what you're thinking," I coaxed, my hand covering his.

"I didn't think this would be so damn difficult," he groused.

"What is it you don't like about the places we're seeing?" I asked, hoping talking it through would help his frustration.

"They just feel wrong," he replied after giving it a moment's thought. "I mean, downtown is nice, but...I always thought we'd have a yard...grass...some trees on the street?" He rubbed his forehead distractedly. "I don't know."

"Like...a house," I concluded.

"Yeah. I know how much you love living downtown and being close to everything, but there's no way we can afford a house or even a townhouse downtown. Anything within five miles of the north side of The Loop is way beyond our price range."

"We're looking at condos because of me?"

"You told me – what, a year ago? – that you love living downtown. It's close to everything."

"Well, yeah, but I was talking about being in school. My place is close to SAIC and my job...but when I finish in April, that stuff will all become irrelevant. No more SAIC, no more art supply store, I hope."

He put his drink down and peered at me. "So – wait. You're saying you'd be okay with living up in, say, Wrigleyville or somewhere in that area? Because up there, we could get one of those little detached houses, a bit of grass in the backyard, in an established neighborhood, parking in the back...something like what Mike has wouldn't be much more than we'd be paying for a two-bedroom condo downtown."

He paused and I imagined a small, early 20th Century one-and-a-half storey house. "That sounds like the kind of place I'd love. Space for a little studio, room for overnight guests and...maybe someday...a family?" I added this last part carefully, not sure how Jack would react. We'd never discussed it before.

His only reaction was to hold my gaze before a gentle smile slowly spread across his face. "So we'll look up that way, then? I'll tell Elizabeth that our parameters have changed."

I winced a little, thinking of our real estate agent. She was a formidable woman, and truth be told, I was a bit intimidated by her. Jack dealt with her in the same no-bullshit manner she used with him, and they got along well. When he called her and told her we had changed the parameters of our search, she told him she'd have a few new listings to us by email by the end of the day. Two weeks later, we found ourselves standing in the living room of the perfect house.

It was almost exactly what I'd pictured when Jack suggested a house in this neighborhood. A storey and a half, with three bedrooms and two and a half baths, an L-shaped living/dining room area and a bright spacious kitchen. A little addition off the back comprised the mud room and laundry room. There was a built-in shelving unit in that room, where each of the residents of the home had their own locker, so to speak, minus the door on the front, where they could hang their coats, purses, backpacks, etc. I was completely charmed by the four small chalkboards above the cubbies that identified the owners: "Mom, Dad, Lila, Ava." I filed that idea away for future reference.

Upstairs the master bedroom had a skylight above the bed, letting the sun flood the room with natural light. One of the smaller bedrooms was shared by the two little girls of the house; the other was an office. A wall from the upstairs hallway had been removed by a previous owner and replaced with a railing that opened up the hall to the living room below. The basement also had an office space with windows that looked out at ground level over the tiny front lawn. The back had an actual yard, with a concrete patio against the house and a small stretch of grass leading back to the garage that separated the yard from the access alleyway. Finally, the house was literally around the corner from a community pool.

All in all, it was probably rather unremarkable when placed alongside the other houses in the neighborhood, but we fell in love nonetheless. There was nothing to be done to it, another selling point since neither of us was looking to fix up a house. We put in an offer the same day, and the next day they accepted it without even signing back a counter-offer. It was ours, and our escrow would close the third week of April, just before I finished school.

That meant we had six weeks in which to pack up two apartments. That itself wasn't a huge task since we were both pretty organized already. However, I was also completing my finals assignments for school as well as looking for full-time employment, which meant I was completely swamped. Jack did much of the packing at my place, taking boxes uptown to his apartment each time he left, so there'd be as little as possible for us to do during those last few weeks. It helped that we each had another week in our apartments after we took possession of the house, so there was no huge rush. Jack had taken the week off following the escrow closing, and all I had to do was focus on my finals – he looked after the rest. While my classmates were stressing about packing up and doing finals at the same time, my Jack made my life as simple as possible.

The only area he didn't venture into was the packing of my art supplies and tools, but since that was almost my only job for the move, I had time to sort through things, get rid of old stuff I wouldn't or couldn't use, and reorganize my portfolio, which had gotten a bit out of order as I went on job interviews.

The second week of April, I received an offer for a job that would begin mid-May. I would be employed as a production artist at an advertising agency. It was entry-level, since I was completely new to this world, and would be a sort of apprenticeship to the art director. I found out shortly thereafter that one of my classmates at SAIC had also accepted a job in the same art department, and we would be working together. I was unsure, to be honest, if the world of advertising was for me, but I knew I had to give it a shot. I was grateful I'd be getting paid for something that let me flex my creativity, at least a bit.

With that final detail in place, I handed in my last assignment of my undergraduate life, and left SAIC, my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree all but in my hand. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, and I was proud of myself for following my dream to go to SAIC, even when it didn't look like Jack would be in my life. I was glad I'd initially declined Jack's request to live together a year earlier. I wasn't ready then; I was now.

I knew my situation was unusual among my fellow graduates. I was leaving school to immediately move into a live-in relationship and home ownership. Some of my friends thought I was nuts to settle down so young. I really couldn't find it in me to care what they thought. I'd stood out as somewhat different all my life: if not for being one of the only kids at school with a single parent, then for being artistic; if not for being artistic, then for being gay. At this point I figured that if I was going to stand out as unique, it might as well be for something that made me uniquely happy. I wasn't the least bit interested in denying myself the happiness, warmth and secure love I'd found with Jack.

We spent a final night together in each of our respective apartments. We'd shared happy times in both and though we were glad to be moving into our house, we'd miss them, miss the neighborhoods we'd become part of.

Moving day also happened to be my birthday. Jack had spent every day for a week at the house, painting, organizing, unpacking the contents of his kitchen into our new one, and doing as much as he could before the big day. We hired a small local moving company to move the bigger stuff, and Jack and I schlepped the rest ourselves. He tried to get me to just let him do it, telling me he didn't want me to hurt my hands. I politely thanked him for his concern and then completely ignored it, as there was no reason I couldn't help. In less than four hours everything was out of his apartment. It took even less time to put it all into the house, since we didn't have two flights of stairs to deal with. When the movers had gone, we stood in the middle of our new living room and surveyed the house. There were boxes everywhere and we hadn't quite agreed on how to organize the living room furniture yet, but it was ours. Swiftly Jack caught me around the waist, lifting me and spinning me around. Laughing loudly I wrapped my legs around his middle and held on...for life.

-o-

Living with Jack in our house was pretty damn wonderful. It was great to come home to him every night after work. Our work hours were offset slightly from each other's, so we didn't commute together. I worked earlier and got home sooner, so I would go ahead and get dinner started when I arrived home. He would get home in time to help by making a salad or something, and then our evenings were our own. We planted a little flower bed in the front and vegetables in the back, and we both enjoyed puttering around outside. I got my studio set up in one of the bedrooms – I'd never had so much space dedicated solely to my art stuff. Jack was happy to just sit with me as I worked, relaxing in an arm chair I'd brought from Austin; he would read or work on his laptop. Sometimes hours would pass in relative silence, but it was comfortable. It was just right.

My graduation ceremony was in June and my mom and Laura both flew in for it, staying about five days. I was really grateful to have them there. They stayed with us, enjoying our back yard and getting to know each other better, soon becoming fast friends. I was also surprised to find out that Brad and Emma were flying in for the day of my graduation. Brad couldn't stay the full length of time Mom did, but he came to the ceremony and out for dinner with us afterward. Emma was going to go back home with him but I suggested to Mom that she stay and go back when Mom did, since she was out of school for the summer anyway. Emma was excited to stay in the city a few days longer, and when she found out it had been my suggestion, it cemented me as "cool older sort-of-step-brother".

It was really nice to have everyone there. Brad and Mom gave me a beautiful new leather portfolio for my artwork, and Mom cried and told me how she proud she was of me. It was a great day and a lovely visit with everyone.

It was just a month or so later in late July that we got Jasper and Edward's wonderful news. Their surrogate had conceived and they were due to have a baby in early March. Ashton and Kathleen were the next to break baby news, telling everyone at Christmas that they would also welcome an addition sometime around the second week of August. Kathleen had suffered a miscarriage shortly after my first Christmas with Jack. Though the pregnancy had been unplanned, it was not unwanted and the loss was heartbreaking for them. This time her pregnancy progressed well, as did Julie's, Edward and Jasper's surrogate.

The first week of March we got the call from Edward and Jasper letting us know they had a healthy baby daughter, Annie. They were ecstatic, and we were thrilled for them. We arranged for a personal chef to make them a week's worth of healthy, prepared meals that they could freeze and heat when they wanted. We figured that would be more useful to them than a silver rattle or some other trinket. We'd been planning to make a trip to Seattle the last week of April...and that brings us to now.

We arrived in Seattle late last night, flying out after we finished work. We called our friends to let them know we'd arrived, but had chosen to stay at a hotel for the first two nights. It was part of Jack's birthday gift to me.

Today we headed to Edward and Jasper's to meet little Annie. We were immediately enthralled with her. God, she looked like Edward with that reddish-brown hair – she was such a beauty. Ashton and Kathleen, though they saw the Cullen-Whitlocks on a regular basis, visited at the same time we did. Everyone held Annie at some point throughout the afternoon, Jack included – and that was completely heart-melting, watching as he softly talked to her, cooing her name – but I have to admit to bogarting her just a bit. She slept peacefully in my arms for over an hour, and I had trouble looking away from her; she was so tiny and perfect. She had the itty-bittiest fingernails I'd ever seen. Edward and Jasper were obviously exhausted, but completely happy. Something inside me ached a little for this – marriage, children.

-o-

Stirring from my reverie, I look over at Jack, fast asleep in the huge comfortable king bed of our hotel room. I'm only 24 and just starting my career, and intellectually I know I'm probably not quite ready to start a family, but it doesn't stop me from wanting it. Jack and I are committed for life and recently, even before his proposal tonight, I'd been thinking we should register a civil union with the state of Illinois, for the protection of our rights concerning each other and our property. I had pretty well decided I would suggest it to Jack.

Now, instead, I'm engaged to be married, and I can't remember ever being happier. I cross the room and slide into bed beside where Jack sleeps, looking peaceful and content and always so beautiful. Sometimes I can't believe he's really mine. I never dreamed, the first time I laid eyes on him three and a half years ago, that we'd be here...but here we are. He's my Jack, my love, forever.

I wake the next morning feeling excited and a little anxious, and it takes me a moment to remember why. When I do, I'm flooded with love and anticipation. I wake Jack up with a blow job and we linger in bed, fooling around, teasing and enjoying each other, and talking a little bit about the wedding. I really don't want to get out of bed, but since we're staying at Ashton and Kathleen's for the rest of our visit, we have to be checked out of the hotel by eleven.

After checking out, we head over to Chez Byrne, letting ourselves in with the key they gave us yesterday, since they're both at work. We put our stuff in the guest bedroom and wander out to their back deck to sit for a while. It's not mild enough that we can sit out without our coats on, but at least it isn't raining. We each pull out our cell phones and call our moms, knowing they have to be the first to hear our good news.

Jack's conversation with Laura goes pretty well exactly as expected: she's thrilled and excited, and says how much she's looking forward to sharing the special day with us. My conversation with my mom throws me a bit of a curve ball, as she has an announcement of her own to make – Brad has proposed to her, too! I'm absolutely speechless when she tells me; it takes me a moment to absorb it. It's amazing that we've both found the right person, especially with Mom being single for so long, and become engaged within two days of each other! I never dreamed something like this would happen, that I'd be planning my wedding at the same time my mother was planning hers. I couldn't be more thrilled for her. Brad is a truly good guy, and he and Mom have so much love and respect for each other.

This also means I'll have a step-dad and step-sister in my family now. Emma is a sweetie – a little dramatic at times, but she is a teenager, after all. I've never had a sibling, despite my repeated requests for a baby brother around the time I was five or six, but I'm hoping to be able to build a real relationship with Emma despite the geographical distance.

Of course, I'm also getting two adult brothers and another mom, in the form of my in-laws. It's sort of amazing, really, when I think about it: I'm going from a little family of two – I don't even have cousins, since my mom is an only child – to a large extended family, something I've always wanted. I feel completely blessed.

After each of us has talked to our moms, we swap phones to talk to our moms-to-be, laughing and speculating on details. I hear Jack give my mom his congratulations and sincere good wishes, and when we've hung up from our respective calls he is just as surprised as I am.

"I didn't tell her I was going to ask you," he comments. "I didn't tell anyone. This happened completely coincidentally. That's incredible!"

"I know, right? I couldn't have imagined this."

"It's great," he grins. "They're really good for each other. I think they're going to be happy."

We spend the rest of the afternoon chatting about wedding stuff – mostly tossing around ideas for a date, where we should do it – Chicago? Austin? California? – and get as far as deciding to do it in our adopted hometown. Chicago is really where our relationship has been set. It's where our lives are. As for when we do it, that will depend somewhat on the venue we decide on and its availability. We decide to aim for sometime in March or thereabouts.

When Kathleen and Ashton get home from work we share our news with them. They are absolutely delighted, and even more so when Jack asks Ashton to be his best man. Ashton accepts, of course, glad to return the favor from when Jack stood up with him. Kathleen, pregnancy hormones raging, cries copiously at the whole thing, and then when Edward and Jasper come for dinner with Annie, the entire scene happens all over again. It's a lot of fun, sharing this news with our loved ones, and the joy on our friends' faces warms me through and through.

-o-

Jack

The rest of our visit in Seattle flies past and before we know it, we're back in Chicago and sharing our news with all our friends there. I'm so happy to have Jacey as my partner for the rest of our lives. I've been thinking seriously about making it official since the first time he mentioned the possibility of a family, when we were looking for a house. I had thought of it in abstract terms before – "Someday I'm going to marry this man" – but when he talked about children, it was one more encouragement, one more thing that told me we were on the right path. Still, I thought it would be good to get settled into the house, let Jacey focus on his career a bit before we started planning a wedding. It came up in conversation a few more times. It was obvious his plans and hopes hadn't changed, and that strengthened my decision. Seeing him hold that baby yesterday, the way he was so taken with her, cradling her in his arms with gentle strength...it sounds corny to say, but I fell in love with him even more as I watched him. I knew I was ready to ask him for the next step.

I really did intend to ask him at the top of the Space Needle. I went so far as to tell him I wanted to take him there while we were in the city – but my spontaneous proposal happened instead. Fortunately he seemed to love it, and most importantly, he said yes. I can't remember ever being happier than the moment he accepted.

Jacey asks his good friend and former housemate, Neil, to be his best man. They've stayed in touch; he and his girlfriend Sam visited us in Chicago once and we've had dinner with them when we've visited Austin. Jacey also asks his future step-sister, Emma, to be a bridesmaid, and Leah later tells us that Emma didn't sleep all that night after we asked her, she was so excited to be included. On my side, in addition to Ashton, I ask Mike to stand with me.

Our guest list is only about fifty people – we're keeping it small. I would have been very happy to elope. In fact, I suggested that very thing to Jacey that first morning we woke up in Seattle after I proposed. Almost immediately he shook his head decisively. "No," he said. "I can't do that to my mom, Jack. I'm her only child. If I got married and didn't include her, it'd break her heart. She's been too important to me. For so many years it was just the two of us – she was everything to me. I want her there. I know your mom would feel the same way. Plus...you know, if we didn't have supportive families, I'd say sure, let's just run off and do it by ourselves. But we're lucky, Jackie. We have families who will be there and they'll be so happy for us. Too many people don't have that – we can't squander it." He spoke gently and lovingly, and yet there was a reproach to his words, one I thoroughly deserved. Of course he was right, and not for the first time was I reminded that every day, Jacey made me a better person.

So now that we've decided to get married in Chicago, Jacey starts researching possible venues for the wedding. He visits several Chicago wedding websites, reading recommendations for various places. Since we're hoping for some time in March, that eliminates outdoor venues. We can do something quite casual, or we can go with a more modern, downtown feel. Jacey narrows down the list to about five places that meet the size requirements and are a bit unique – we definitely aren't interested in the traditional "married in a church, reception in a hotel ballroom" thing. We make appointments for viewings and unfortunately have to strike the first two off the list immediately. One, AIC, would be great, and on paper, with Jacey being an alumnus, it would be meaningful to him. The day before we go, though, their last availability for the entire year of 2015 disappears. The second, a Latin-themed restaurant and lounge that rents out entire rooms for private parties, is really, really overwhelming. There are a thousand splashes of color everywhere and just being there for the showing gives me a headache. Jacey, while not affected in the same way, agrees that it doesn't quite have the right feel.

The third place is a West Loop loft that has bare white walls and hardwood floors, high ceilings with exposed steel beams and tall windows. Jacey's eyes go wide at the possibilities of this space. With almost no existing décor with which our theme would have to blend, it's practically a blank canvas. It could be whatever we wished to make it – an ultra-modern martini lounge, an intimate bistro, a dramatic gallery...anything we could conceive of.

The manager who shows us through the space lets us look through a book of photos from previous events – weddings, fundraisers and other parties – to give us an idea of what others have done. I can see the wheels turning in Jacey's head as he looks through the book. I'm sure he already has a few ideas in mind – and yes, I'm giving him free rein where the décor is concerned. He's the artist in the family, after all, and what's more, his taste is flawless.

We ask the manager about availabilities for 2015. After checking the schedule, he tells us he has March 14, May 9, and late August.

"March 14," I repeat, looking meaningfully at Jacey. He returns my gaze but is unsure for a moment, until the significance dawns on him.

"March 14." He says it with a gentle smile, realizing it's my father's birthday...the day I dropped the glass in the kitchen when Jacey was staying with me...the day he sang to me...the day I fell in love with him.

I nod. "March 14." The manager must, by now, be wondering why we keep repeating the date, but to his credit he says nothing, not interrupting our moment.

"So...that's sort of perfect," Jacey muses.

"It really is."

"I don't want to see the other places now," he adds.

"Neither do I."

We finally return our attention to the manager who is holding his iPad in his arm, his finger poised over the schedule. He gives us an expectant smile. "So, am I creating a new booking for March 14, 2015?"

Jacey squeezes my hand, hard, and unison we answer, "Yes."

The date now decided, we immediately set to work letting our loved ones know our plans so they can save the date and arrange for time off and travel plans. Of course, there's no question who we ask to be our photographer, and Leah has already said she'll come in several days prior to the wedding to do whatever floral and décor arrangements need to be done.

As for Leah's own wedding to Brad, they've decided to get married two days after Christmas. This works out really well for everyone, because Leah was to host Christmas this year anyway. Jacey and I already have vacation time booked to be there that week. My mom and Sean are going to join us as well. Aaron is working in Australia now and isn't planning to come home for Christmas, having chosen to save his vacation time and money to come for our wedding. It's really thoughtful of Leah that, knowing we'd be travelling for the wedding, they've planned it for a time when we're already there. They're having a very small wedding, a church service followed by a small reception at the church hall, then a catered dinner at her house. The shorter time-frame for planning doesn't phase her at all – she's a pretty laid-back person anyway and is very casual about the whole thing.

In mid-August Kathleen and Ashton's baby is due. We get a text one night from Ashton telling us she has gone into labor and he's taking her to the hospital. As it turns out, there are some complications during delivery – which, when described by Ashton after the fact, scare the hell out of Jacey and me – and Kath ends up delivering by Caesarean. They have a healthy baby boy, whom they name Henry David Byrne, for each of their fathers. We have photos arriving by text on our cell phones within an hour after the baby makes his debut, courtesy of very proud daddy Ashton. When I talk to him later that evening, he is still at the hospital. Kathleen has finally dozed off, he tells me, after having been awake all day following the delivery. He speaks very quietly so as not to wake her.

"Everyone's finally gone home now," he tells me. "I'm in the recliner by her bed and I've got Henry with me. The nurse bundled him up in one of those fuzzy little baby blankets – he's wrapped up so tight and so compact, it feels like holding a football."

"Doesn't it hurt him?" I ask doubtfully.

"Nah. She said it makes him feel secure, because he's been in such close quarters till now. I'm holding him with his ear up against my chest so he can hear my heartbeat. I figured since he's been listening to Kathleen's ever since his hearing developed—oh, did you hear that?" he asks me.

"I heard it," I reply, grinning though he can't see me. "Was that him?"

"Yeah. He seems to grunt a lot."

"Sort of like you before you have your morning coffee," I tease.

"He's definitely a Byrne. He's...he's just perfect, Jack..." Ashton's voice cracks and I can tell he's teary. Between not sleeping last night and the scare earlier today, I understand why he's worn thin.

"I'm so happy for you, Ash," I murmur. "You and Kathleen are meant for each other. I'm sorry if I've never told you that before. I've known it since your second date."

He sniffles. "Really?"

"Absolutely. And now you have a family, and you're going to be a great dad. I mean, you've got his head where he can hear your heartbeat to help him feel secure. I wouldn't even have thought of that. You're way ahead of the game. I'm proud of you."

"Jesus, Jack. You're going to make me cry again. But...thanks."

"You're welcome. And no more tears – that's Henry's job now."

He chuckles. "Yeah."

"Well, I really should go and let you get some sleep before he wakes up, huh?"

"Yeah, I should try, anyway."

"Okay. Well, we'll call you in a few days to check in. Don't hesitate to call us, though, if there's anything you need, okay?"

"You bet. Thanks, bro. Love you."

His words take me slightly aback, because they haven't been part of our shared vocabulary in the past; but I quickly return them. "Love you too. Give Kath a kiss for us, and give Henry a big hug from Uncle Jack and Uncle Jacey."

"I will. Night, Jack."

And with that final goodbye, we hang up. I'm left feeling as though this is all a little surreal. I've known Ashton since we were nineteen – that's twelve years. Now he's a husband and a father, and I'm engaged and living a life of more happiness than I knew existed. As happy as we are, I can't help wondering just where those two nineteen-year-old, transplanted California boys went.

-o-

Life flies past when you're busy living it, and before we know it the summer has turned to fall, and fall quickly leads to winter weather. By the time December arrives, our wedding plans are in full swing and we're gearing up for Christmas, and Leah and Brad's wedding.

Something has been bothering Jacey for a few weeks, though, and I don't know what it is. Several times I catch him lost in contemplation and even though he brushes it off, I can tell that whatever he's thinking about is worrying him. Finally it starts to worry me too, and I have to sort of get tough, insisting that he tell me what's wrong. The only time I've ever seen him act this way preceded that awful time I don't like to think about anymore. Despite knowing with certainty that that's not the case this time, I can't help worrying that maybe he's having second thoughts. Presenting it to him that way makes him immediately snap out of it.

"Oh my god, Jack, no! Oh, jesus – I'm so sorry for worrying you. No second thoughts, not even close. I've been upset because...this is going to sound dumb..."

"Nothing that bothers you this much is dumb," I reassure him.

"Okay." He takes a deep breath. "I'm worried because...I want to change my name."

"Change your name?" I repeat blankly.

"Yeah. You know – when we get married?"

My mouth drops open, as much in delight as in surprise. "You do?"

"Yes."

"What, like hyphenated?"

"Oh god, no. I hate hyphenated names – no disrespect to your friends. I was thinking I'd like to be Jacey Charles. That is, if you'll have me."

I'm aghast. "Really? I mean – really?"

He laughs. "Is that a yes?"

"Of course it's a yes! I'd love that. We'll have the same initials!"

He laughs again. "Yeah, we will."

"So...why are you upset about that? Did you think I'd say no?"

"No," he sighs, the glum look returning almost instantly. "I'm worried about telling my mom."

I'm having trouble keeping up with the emotional swings this conversation is taking us on: worry, guilt, confusion, joy, humor and now back to sadness and – on my part – confusion. "Why?"

"Because I've had her name all my life. We've been The Dawes – the only two – since my granddad died and I'm afraid she'll be upset that I want to carry a different name now. Maybe it's silly to worry..."

"As I told you already, nothing that causes you this much distress is silly. You know your mom better than I do, of course, but perhaps you've made this bigger in your mind than she would. The question is this: let's say she is a little hurt. Will that change your decision?"

"No," he replied immediately.

"So then, you need to tell her. Ideally, I think you should do it before we go there for the wedding, so she'll have time to get over it, or at least get used to it, before we see her."

He sighs. "You're right." He looks at his watch – it's about three p.m. on a Sunday. "No time like the present, I guess."

He places the call and I sit beside him on the couch, holding his hand. They chat about other things at first, but I can hear him gradually working up to it. Finally he tells Leah he has something wedding-related to discuss with her. I give his hand a squeeze, encouraging him. He's very kind in his delivery but doesn't hesitate either. "I want to change my name, Mom."

His cell phone is loud enough that Leah's reply is crystal clear even to me. "Oh, honey – I want to change my name, too!" she exclaims. "And I've been putting off telling you because I thought you'd be upset, that you'd think I was abandoning the Dawes name or something."

"Oh my god!" Jacey's relief is palpable. "I thought the same thing about telling you."

Leah's laughter rings out. "We're quite a pair," she says when she stops laughing, adding, "But you're the one who manned up to do it."

"Jack suggested I should tell you before I got there for Christmas and the wedding. "

"Thank him for me. Sounds like he took a load off both our minds."

Jacey turns his megawatt smile my way. If I have my sweet boy back, well, that's all the thanks I need.

-o-

Leah and Brad's wedding is beautiful – small and intimate, and really personal. Leah looks radiant in a soft ice blue dress that falls to just below the knee. Her best man, Jacey, also has the pleasure of walking her down the aisle. He's absolutely gorgeous in a grey suit that fits him like a glove. Brad has Emma as his maid of honor. She's a little nervous but proud as anything as she and Brad precede Jacey and Leah down the aisle.

The ceremony is emotional for everyone. Leah chokes up as she recites her vows, and I can see Jacey struggling to keep his composure too. During the ceremony the minister mentions Jacey and Emma, and even me as the next person who'll be joining their family in a few months. I'm struck by the realization that the next wedding I attend will be my own, and as such I'm compelled to pay particular attention as the minister talks about the importance of things like communication, support for each other's dreams and aspirations, respect and love.

The church is reasonably full, with Brad and Leah both knowing so many residents of Kingsland. After the ceremony there's a little reception in the church hall, where those in attendance can give their congratulations to the newlyweds, have some cake and socialize; then a small group us, family and closest friends, go back to Leah's house where a catered dinner is served. Dinner is lovely, with lots of laughter and love shared by everyone. When it's over, there's no dance, no throwing of a bouquet or garter. The couple change into more casual outfits and kiss everyone goodbye before taking off for a mini honeymoon. They're going to go on a longer trip as a family this summer; for now, Jacey and I are staying with Emma while Leah and Brad go down to Corpus Christi for a few days.

When the remains of dinner have been cleared away by the catering staff; when the borrowed tables and chairs have been stacked on the back deck to be picked up; when my mom and Sean have kissed us goodbye and headed back to Austin for tomorrow's early morning flight; and when the last guest, Leah's best friend Melissa, has left, the house suddenly seems very empty.

Emma, standing at the front door looking out, starts to cry silently.

Jacey looks at me, his eyes wide, before crossing the front hall to gingerly place his hands on Emma's shoulders. "Hey," he says gently. "You okay?"

She shakes her head, not looking at him. Jacey gives me a look of mild panic, then continues, "They'll be back on Wednesday. That's only a few days."

She cries a little harder, and this time I pipe up, trying to help. "We've got lots of fun stuff we're thinking of doing while they're gone."

"Yeah, like, maybe go to Austin shopping?" Jacey suggests.

"You've got a new room here to decorate," I add. "Maybe we can go pick out the paint and some new decorations for the walls, and get it all finished before they get back. We can move some stuff into it from your old house. And, you know, the time will fly by and Brad'll be back before you know it."

She finally turns around, her lower lip jutting out determinedly. "I'm not crying because my dad's gone," she says witheringly, giving the impression that she is just barely restraining herself from adding, you stupid boys.

"Okay..." Jacey and I exchange a look of confusion.

"I'm crying because it's over."

"The wedding?"

She nods. "I've been looking forward to it forever, and now it's all done."

"Oh." Dealing with a teenage girl is entirely new territory for me, having grown up in a house of boys. I don't really know what might make her feel better.

Fortunately Jacey has better instincts than I do. He gives his new little sister a hug, which she returns, if a bit awkwardly. "Well," he says, "Ours is only about eleven weeks away. And you get to come to Chicago for that."

Emma tries her best to smile, having greater success when I add, "And you're going to be a bridesmaid."

"Yeah," she agrees. "Except there's no bride."

"Uh..." Jacey and I look at each other, thrown. "How many times have we said the word bridesmaid without even thinking about that?" he wonders aloud.

"Seriously?" Emma replies, and there's that look again, the one that says, Really stupid boys.

"Well, okay, fine – maybe we haven't given thought to the terminology yet," I retort, good-naturedly adding, "Smarty-pants," under my breath. "Groomsmaid, then – but the point is, you're in our wedding."

"The only girl, by the way, which means you don't have to be matchy-matchy with anyone else's dress. You can choose whatever you like as long as it's the right color." Jacey has hit her in the right spot. She smiles thoughtfully and I can see the wheels turning in her head as she considers her fashion options.

"Okay. Now that we've figured that out, I'm feeling a little wedding'd out for today. What do you say we change into something comfortable and crash on the couch with a movie?" I suggest.

Emma, her mood having improved considerably, heads off to change and we do the same. In Jacey's old room we quietly congratulate each other on having navigated, with some measure of success, a perilous teenage girl-y moment.

The rest of our visit there is really great. We do take Emma to Austin and get the stuff needed to decorate her room. We spend a day painting the walls and trim. We also go to Brad's house, which he'll be moving out of at the end of this week, and bring Emma's bed and the stuff from her old room over to Leah's. When Leah and Brad return from their honeymoon, they're really surprised – in a good way – at everything we've accomplished. We leave feeling like we've gotten to know Emma a lot better and developed a good rapport with her.

The winter months are filled with wedding plans – addressing and sending our invitations, making final selections on things like flowers, décor and the menu, and meeting with our officiant to plan the ceremony.

Geoffrey, the man we've chosen to marry us, was originally ordained as a Catholic priest, but had to leave his official capacity in the church when he came out. Now he performs weddings for various non-denominational couples, gay and straight, as well as entirely secular weddings. When we first met him last fall we took to him immediately.

He had a very relaxed style and a good sense of humor, but at the same time we got the feeling that he could be serious when the moment called for it. The final mark in his favor came when Jacey found out he was from San Angelo, Texas. "San Angelo? That's three hours from home!" Jacey's face lit up as they compared notes on their respective Texas upbringings, particularly what it was like to be gay in small-town Texas. Geoffrey's experience was different in that he remained closeted until he was over thirty; but there was always the fear, for him, of someone guessing the truth.

At our final meeting with him before the wedding, we review our requests and expectations for the ceremony, and he makes a few suggestions based on weddings he's performed in the past. We both feel really good about him, and it's one more step toward finalizing our plans.

We also have to decide what kind of rings we'd like, and the options, frankly, are dizzying. Different types of metals, stones or no stones, traditional, modern, matching or not... I know what my preference is – a nice, wide plain platinum band would make me very happy – but I know Jacey's artistic sensibilities might prefer something a bit more ornate. Since I really do want matching rings, I tell Jacey that if he wants to design or choose the design for our rings, I'll go with whatever he chooses. He has great taste, so I'm sure I'll love it regardless.

It's only a few evenings later that he comes to sit beside me on the couch as I'm reading a prospectus for a new stock offering. He's carrying his laptop and tells me he's found a ring he loves. Curious, I immediately set aside the prospectus and encourage him to show me.

"Okay," he says, opening up his laptop and pointing to the screen. "This is it."

To my surprise and utter delight, he has chosen a plain 6mm platinum band. Before I can comment he says, "I know it's really traditional. But I was thinking about all the times I've gotten paint all over my hands when I'm working. I really don't want to get paint in the crevices of an intricate design, but I don't want to have to take it off when I'm working. Actually, I don't want to take it off at all. And this...it's very masculine, and it just has a nice simple beauty. What do you think?"

I take the laptop from his hands and set it on the coffee table, and launch myself at him, pushing him down on his back on the couch and attacking his mouth. He immediately reciprocates and passion flares between us. Lying atop him I grind my hips into his, feeling his hardening length against me. He moans, pulling me closer before sliding his hands inside my jeans to clutch at my ass. Soon we're shedding our clothes, desperate for the pleasure of losing ourselves in each other. I'm always grateful we don't have to worry about condoms anymore, haven't for some time; and as for lube, we've learned to keep bottles of it in most rooms in the house. Tonight it's just a matter of tipping over the black glass vase on the end table and letting the small tube fall into my hand.

Instead of pulling Jacey's legs up to my shoulders as I usually do, it's his cock that receives a generous coating of lube, applied slowly, sensually. It's my ass that opens up to allow two slick fingers to penetrate and prepare me. It's my body that slowly consumes Jacey's iron length, inch by satin inch, until my ass rests against his groin and beads of sweet are rolling down my back and my chest from the effort.

Beneath me, Jacey too is struggling, fighting not to thrust up into me before I'm ready. He talks through the strain, telling me how tight I am, how sexy and how much he loves it when I do this for him.

"Uhhhh...fuck me, Jacey," I groan after I've adjusted as much as I ever will. He grabs my hips and slowly begins to flex upward, pressing as deep as he can, touching places inside me that almost hurt; then withdrawing most of the way and pushing up again. As always I have to stay focused on keeping my body relaxed, moving with him and feeling that unbelievable pressure, the ache that will stay with me for several days after Jacey – panting, sweating, swearing – empties his load deep inside my ass.

Afterward, when we're snuggled together under a throw blanket, our hands tracing slow paths over each other's arms and shoulders, soft languorous kisses echoing after the ecstasy, Jacey murmurs, "So, the ring – can I assume you like it?"

"I love it. It's exactly what I would have chosen for myself," I whisper.

"I'm so glad it suits you," he beams.

"You suit me, sweet boy, like you were made for me."

Jacey burrows deeper into my embrace and buries his face in my chest. He mumbles against my skin, "I was made for you. Love you so much."

-o-

Before we know it, there are only a few days until the wedding and our loved ones are arriving in Chicago. Leah and Emma arrive on the Tuesday before and they stay with us. Leah has arranged with a floral supplier to have the flowers delivered here to our house, so she can create the corsages, lapel flowers and Emma's bouquet, and clip the many orchid stems needed for the tabletop décor. She's even rented a special refrigerator which takes up temporary residence in our basement, to keep the flowers fresh. Emma's job is assembling our wedding favors. Jacey and I are finished work as of the end of the day Wednesday, and we have lots of last-minute stuff to keep us busy.

My mom, Aaron and Sean fly in from California on Thursday, Aaron having come home from Australia last weekend. The three of them have rented a small vacation house for a few days, not far from our house. Edward and Jasper have done the same, renting a condo with Ashton and Kathleen as well as Ashton's parents, David and Kay. Their whole group, including the babies, arrives on Friday, as does Brad.

Everyone from out of town is invited to the rehearsal dinner Friday night, since almost the wedding party consists of out-of-towners anyway, with the exception of Mike. It's a rehearsal dinner in name only, since there really isn't much to rehearse, so our guests just come to our house for a buffet. It's very relaxed, despite the sheer numbers of people in our little home. It's a lot of fun to have the babies there. Annie is worlds different from last time we saw her, ten months ago. She has just turned one and has a head full of short red curls. She spends much of her time chewing furiously on her thumb – Edward says she has a molar trying to break through.

And then there's Henry, and this is the first time we've met Ashton and Kathleen's little guy, who's seven months old. During the evening, Jacey suggests Kathleen give him Henry so she can get some food, and it's just like that day so long ago in Daley Plaza, when the baby next to us couldn't stop staring at Jacey – Henry is utterly taken with him. Eventually the little guy just lies back in Jacey's arms and dozes off. Jacey asks Ashton to hand him a blanket, then he covers Henry up and continues to hold him as he sleeps. Occasionally he reaches down and smooths a little wisp of fine baby hair or touches the sleeping baby's cheek, looking completely natural and at ease with the baby in his arms as he continues his conversations. It is literally the best thing I've ever seen in my life.

Tomorrow is going to be a long day, though, and it's getting late. A few at a time, our friends and family drift off to their respective homes and hotels. I'll be staying tonight with my mom and brothers at their rental house; Jacey and his family will remain here.

He walks me out to the car as I get ready to leave. I can see he's desperate for a few moments alone before we separate until the ceremony. Shivering in his thin t-shirt in the damp cold night, he slides his arms inside my coat and wraps them around me.

"All this planning," he says. "All the time and effort...and all I want is for it to be over already, so I can have you to myself and just be your husband."

"This time tomorrow you will be, sweet boy. And then...two weeks all to ourselves, just you and me." We're going to Belize for the first week, staying at a resort outside San Pedro where we'll be near the ocean. When we return we also have a second week to spend at home. "I love you so much, Jacey."

He sighs and gives me one last squeeze before releasing me. "I love you too."

-o-

Saturday morning is quiet and relaxed as the four of us – me, my mom and brothers – have breakfast and spend the morning together. It's Dad's birthday, of course, and we reminisce about him, sharing memories. It's been nearly five years since we lost him, and for the most part, memories of him now are warm and loving, tinged with regret, rather than the raw pain of loss and grief the memories used to bring. On a day like today, though, I miss him so much I almost can't breathe. How I wish he could be here today; how I wish he and Jacey, the two most influential men of my life, could have known each other. I like to believe they'd have been great friends.

I had thought when we first got engaged that I'd ask my brothers to be ushers, but due to the way we've planned the ceremony, there is no need for ushers. It's still important to me to include them, though, so we've asked Aaron to be the master of ceremonies at the reception – he accepted immediately – and Sean to do a reading during the ceremony. As shy as he is, he needing a bit of convincing, but when I told him how much it would mean to us, he agreed. We also suggested he might want to choose the reading himself and he took the job very seriously. Mom has vetted the piece for us and assures us it's beautiful; Jacey and I won't hear it until the ceremony. I haven't been especially close to my brothers since moving away from home, but I'm very glad I'll have both of them there with me when I get married.

Just before eleven, Ashton, Edward, Mike and Nicolas come over, and we start getting into our wedding clothes, Edward taking candid pictures as we do. Once we're ready we head over to the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion for our formal pictures. The pavilion is a fairly new installation at Lincoln Park, and its design makes it a unique place for pictures. It's about fifty-five degrees out, chilly but not frigid, and the sun is shining. After numerous of pictures and various combinations of me, my family and my wedding party, Edward leaves to meet Jacey and his family and wedding party at Milton Olive Park for their pictures. When they're finished there, they will meet us at the Chicago Riverwalk, where Jacey and I will see each other for the first time before Edward takes pictures of us and our wedding party.

After dropping my mom at the condo where David and Kay are staying, we head down to the Riverwalk and wait for the other half of our wedding party to arrive. For the first time today I start to feel nervous, anxious to see Jacey. While Ashton and Mike joke around with Aaron and Sean, I pace the sidewalk with my hands in my pockets, repeatedly glancing up at the stairs where Jacey will appear. It's when I see Edward at the top of the stairs, camera in hand, grinning down at me, that I realize Jacey is up there, waiting just out of sight. I stop pacing, take a deep breath and watch for my sweet boy.

I'm vaguely aware of Edward's camera clicking, but everything else in the world disappears the moment Jacey steps into view. I've always known how beautiful he is, but when he's dressed up in a formal suit as he is today, he's resplendent. His eyes meet mine, his face lighting up in a brilliant smile, and it takes my breath away. I hold out my hand to him and in a flash he's down the steps and into my arms.

"Hi, gorgeous," I whisper into his ear, and he squeezes me tight. I feel so much joy swelling inside me l think I could burst.

"Hey, Jackie."

"Fancy meeting you here." Keeping hold of his hand, I step back to look at him. He's wearing a black suit and white shirt, and a black tie striped with deep plum and lavender; and god, he looks like he should be modeling that thing on a runway in Paris – so unbelievably beautiful. His hair, which he's never again let grow to the length it was when we were first together, is falling softly behind his ears. And his mouth – those impossibly plush lips which were almost the first thing I noticed about him – they're pink and slightly moist, and how I would love to just devour them.

Instead, after taking it all in, I let out a low whistle. "You look miraculous."

"So do you." His face is flushed with pleasure and he looks me up and down too. I too am wearing a black suit and white tie, and a solid plum silk tie.

"Hey, want to get married today?" I suggest, and he throws back his head and laughs, the sound echoing off the walls that terrace down toward the river. Still holding his hand, I lead him to join the rest of our wedding party at the railing beside the river. The men in our party have black suits and ties so deeply purple, they're almost black too. Emma looks beautiful and very grown up in her silk dress that matches the lavender in Jacey's tie, and a silver faux fur stole around her shoulders to keep her warm.

"What a good-looking group," Edward comments, by way of getting us focused on the task at hand. Nicolas is helping Edward today, keeping track of the time and carrying some of Edward's equipment for him. The two of them are dressed more casually for now, until we get to the loft for the wedding.

Edward has mentioned several times already how much he loves shooting in Chicago – he lived here for a couple of years after he finished school, of course, and has has done work in Chicago since then. He compliments us on our choice of locations as he snaps one photo after another. Some of them seem candid – he asks us to just talk to each other for a while and pay him no mind as we do – and others are posed. He evokes natural smiles with his banter, which is a bit of a surprise as Edward isn't known for being a chatterbox. This is the first time I've actually seen him work, though, and he really is in his element here.

Finally the photos are finished and it's nearing 3 p.m. – time for us to get going to the loft. Breaking with tradition, we aren't going to walk down the aisle; rather, we're going to be there to greet our guests as they arrive and mingle with them before the ceremony. I feel much better about this than I would at the thought of not seeing Jacey all day, building up all kinds of nerves and anticipation, and then seeing him, with everyone's eyes on me, right at the moment when the ceremony was to start. Doing it this way instead was my suggestion, and Jacey welcomed it. Now that I've seen him, I feel great. Bring it on.

At the studio, my mom, Leah and Brad, and David and Kay have already arrived. Leah is very emotional today, even more so than when she married Brad. She carries a lace-trimmed handkerchief that she uses to dab at her eyes. As more guests arrive, the room becomes louder, voices ringing out in greeting or bursting out in laughter, occasionally drowning out the music that plays in the background. A few of my coworkers are invited and a few of Jacey's, too – just the ones we're closest to, the ones we see socially as well as at work. Two neighbor couples we've gotten to know join us, and two of Jacey's old SAIC friends with their dates. Mike's parents are here, as are Nicolas' parents, his brother and sister-in-law and their two children. Kathleen and Jasper arrive together, with the babies, the innocent faces and tiny voices of the little ones adding another layer of meaning to this gathering.

The studio looks absolutely amazing, thanks to Jacey's vision and artistic sense, Leah's help with the centerpieces and the work of the event planner's crew who brought it all to fruition. Jacey's idea was to leave one end of the space open for dancing, and to transform the rest to look like the dining and VIP areas of an exclusive lounge. White couches are arranged into U-shapes along the wall, the glass and chrome coffee tables in front of them bearing groupings of candleholders and low clear glass vases, both square and round. The candleholders are small, some shiny silver with burnouts to let the candlelight through, some looking more like crystal chandeliers. The vases hold submerged flowers, mostly white orchids but a few calla lilies of the deepest plum, and white floating candles. Stems laden with white orchids also lie nestled among the groupings. The tables that surround the dining area are much the same but on a taller scale, and the dining tables themselves mimic the color and texture of the theme.

When four p.m. arrives, Geoffrey takes his place in the middle of the open space that will later be the dance floor, and beckons Jacey and me. We kiss our moms and come to stand together in front of Geoffrey, facing each other, his hands in mine. Neil and Emma stand to one side of Jacey; Ashton and Mike take their place beside me. Geoffrey asks everyone to gather around, and they move in, surrounding us in a loose circle.

With that gentle, stress-free opening, the ambient music fades and our wedding ceremony begins. Geoffrey welcomes everyone and starts by talking a little about our history: mine, Jacey's, and the story of us. As we felt certain he would, he does a great job of summing us up in a couple of paragraphs. He talks about our families and he particularly mentions my dad. It's impossible not to tear up when he talks about him and how much we miss him, every day but especially on a day like this. I look at my mom and brothers; they, too, are wiping away a few tears.

Geoffrey then starts to talk about the things that go into making a marriage work – love and respect, commitment, loyalty and communication, all vital for a partnership to thrive. He includes a reading, one which was his suggestion and Jacey and I loved it. It's from Union by Robert Fulghum:

You have known each other from the first glance of acquaintance to this point of commitment. At some point, you decided to marry. From that moment of yes to this moment of yes, indeed, you have been making promises and agreements in an informal way. All those conversations that were held riding in a car or over a meal or during long walks - all those sentences that began with "When we're married" and continued with "I will and you will and we will" - those late night talks that included "someday" and "somehow" and "maybe" - and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding. The symbolic vows that you are about to make are a way of saying to one another, "You know all those things we've promised and hoped and dreamed - well, I meant it all, every word." Look at one another and remember this moment in time. Before this moment you have been many things to one another - acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner, and even teacher, for you have learned much from one another in these last few years. Now you shall say a few words that take you across a threshold of life, and things will never quite be the same between you. For after these vows, you shall say to the world, this - is my husband.

We repeat fairly traditional vows, with some minor adjustments. As Geoffrey speaks I can't take my eyes off Jacey. I think ahead to years – decades – with him as my husband, my lover, my best friend, and some day, a father to our children. This is the best thing I've ever done. When Geoffrey asks if I'll take Jacey to be my wedded husband and lawful civil partner, I want to shout my answer, but instead it comes out in a voice strangled by emotion. "Yes, forever."

Jacey's eyes spill over as Geoffrey repeats the same question to him. "Absolutely," he replies, and I release one of his hands to brush his tears away. Next we exchange rings. We've had each other's engraved on the inside, but until now the text has been a secret. Jacey shows mine to me before he puts it on my finger – it says Oh you delicate heart, which is the song he sang to me on that morning, four years ago today. I show him his, and what else could I choose but the name I've had for him since almost the beginning: Sweet Boy. He smiles broadly and nods. The bright white platinum bands gleam as we place them on each other's hands.

It's time for Sean's reading, and he steps forward from the group surrounding us. "I am honored to have been asked by you to select a reading for the most important day of your lives," he begins. "Jacey, I know how much you love South American art." Jacey nods with a smile. "I wanted to find something to reflect that love, and I chose a piece by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It's called Your Hands."

When your hands go out,
love, toward mine,
what do they bring me flying?
Why did they stop
at my mouth, suddenly,
why do I recognize them
as if then, before,
I had touched them,
as if before they existed
they had passed over
my forehead, my waist?

Their softness came
flying over time,
over the sea, over the smoke,
over the spring,
and when you placed
your hands on my chest,
I recognized those golden
dove wings,
I recognized that clay
and that color of wheat.

All the years of my life
I walked around looking for them.
I went up the stairs,
I crossed the roads,
trains carried me,
waters brought me,
and in the skin of the grapes
I thought I touched you.
The wood suddenly
brought me your touch,
the almond announced to me
your secret softness,
until your hands
closed on my chest
and there like two wings
they ended their journey.

It's so perfect, especially the last lines, about how I'd been alone so much during my life, seeking, until I found Jacey and my search was over. I grab Sean in a hug, thanking him for his wonderful choice, and Jacey does too.

Finally the moment is here – as Geoffrey said, we're about to cross the threshold into a new life. "Jacey and Jack have expressed their desire to spend the rest of their lives together, and today they confirmed that by making vows to one another and exchanging rings. Therefore, in the presence of these witnesses, their families and loved ones, I pronounce that they are civilly united under the laws of the State of Illinois and that they are wed in their hearts and in practice. It is my great pleasure to present to you, Jack and Jacey Charles!"

We've asked him not to tell us we're allowed to kiss – because, I mean, come on – and instead we go ahead and share a joyful snog of our own volition, as our loved ones burst into applause. Though we don't have a recessional, we've arranged for a song to be played at this moment, one I've often thought of since Jacey and I committed to each other. It's 'For Once in My Life' by Stevie Wonder. It's old, I know, but it is filled with so much hope, the relief you feel after missing out for so long, and the complete certainty of knowing you've found the one. It's everything I feel about my relationship with my new husband.

The awesome and beautiful thing is that someone – my money is on Kathleen, a huge Stevie Wonder fan – starts dancing along with the joyful refrain, and within seconds our entire group of guests has joined in a few moments of spontaneous dancing, laughing and singing along with the song, holding hands with their own nearest and dearest. It's something you could never plan and one of the best moments of the best day of my life.

When the impromptu dance ends with the conclusion of the song, there's another round of applause. Jacey and I start receiving an onslaught of hugs and congratulations from those around us. Waiters circulate with glasses of champagne and everyone begins to make their way toward the seating areas, gathering on the couches and chairs, relaxing and enjoying themselves as we'd hoped. Everyone loves the décor – Jacey has outdone himself and though he hears more than once that he should think about going into event planning, he just smiles and shakes his head. "Just wait till after dark," he adds.

At six o'clock dinner is served, and the room gradually darkens as the sun vanishes over the horizon. As it does, mauve-colored lights, barely visible in the bright light of earlier today, begin to cast a very different hue on the white couches and flowers from where they are placed at the edges of the ceiling and floor in the lounge area. When no more natural light filters through the windows, the full effect is reached, and it is absolutely stunning.

As dinner winds down and dessert is being served, it's time for speeches. Aaron, our master of ceremonies, gives a speech on behalf of himself and Sean, mostly consisting of mildly embarrassing stories of our younger years. He ends with love and congratulations, and a warm welcome to Jacey as the newest of the Charles boys. My mom is next, and she brings tears to everyone's eyes when she tells me how proud she is of the man I've become, how proud my father was and would be yet if he was with us. She tells Jacey that she's delighted to have him as her son-in-law; that she loves him and she's grateful the two of us have such a loving and happy relationship.

Then it's Leah's turn to speak, and it's very nice to see Brad get up with her as well. Brad and Jacey have both made a real effort to get to know each other despite the geographical distance that makes it challenging. Brad joining Leah at the podium is a symbol of the family connection he and Jacey are fostering. Jacey is so glad to see his mother happy and no longer alone, and as long as Brad is the one who makes her happy, Jacey will support them.

It's no less, of course, than how Leah feels about our marriage. "All a mother can hope for her child," she says, "is for them to be happy and fulfilled, and to live to their best potential. When the baby you've raised to adulthood tells you he's found the love of his life, a person who is intelligent and caring, respectful and responsible, and who loves your child heart and soul, what more can you ask? Jack, you are the one who gives that to Jacey, and I can't imagine his future without you in it. We love you both very much and we look forward to sharing the happiness your lives bring you."

Neil and Ashton both talk about the times they shared with us. Ashton's speech is very much along the lines of what I've recently thought about – a feeling of how did we get here and wow, are we lucky. Neil gives some insight into Jacey, how shy he was when they first met and how Jacey blossomed when we were seeing each other. He talks about the trips Jacey made to visit me in Chicago, and that even with Jacey moving away from Austin, he's glad they've maintained their friendship long-distance. He thanks Jacey for making him part of our special day.

Last, Jacey and I take the podium. Together we thank everyone for sharing today with us, and we name the individuals who had a special hand in making the celebrations beautiful. We're so grateful for every one of these individuals in our lives. I thank Ashton and Kathleen, Edward and Jasper, and Mike for being the best friends I could have asked for, beside me in sorrow and with me in joy. Jacey thanks his mom for sacrificing so much for his sake and for raising him in the knowledge that he was always her very first priority; for supporting his choices and also supporting him in things in which he had no choice. I thank my mom for her unconditional love and for the stellar example she and Dad gave me of a loving marriage.

Before we finish, I turn to my new husband. "Jacey, I continue to be astonished that this is my life. I'm happy to concede that all the love songs I used to scoff at were actually telling me the truth. Utter happiness exists, and I found mine in the heart of a sensitive, beautiful and brilliant artist from Texas. I love you."

He replies through happy tears, "I'll sing those songs back to you if you're ever in danger of forgetting. I love you too, Jackie."

Our first dance is another old song, even older than the Stevie Wonder song, but one whose lyrics perfectly capture how I feel about Jacey and our love. Elvis's voice is so genuine, only words and simple melody.

Take me to your heart, for it's there that I belong
Tell me you are mine
I'll be yours through all the years
You have made my life complete and I love you so
My darling, I love you and I always will

Jacey's head rests on my shoulder, his lips mouthing the words against my neck. Our dance is more of a long swaying embrace, certainly not as elegant as some more choreographed dances I've seen; but then again, I don't have to worry about which foot goes where. I can just hold my love and inhabit the moment, one that will never come again. I can take in the faint waxy smell of the burning candles...feel the soft wool of Jacey's suit, smooth as I slide my hands over his strong lower back...acknowledge the happiness on the beaming faces around us...and a hundred other details I commit to memory before the last chorus dies away.

The rest of the night goes just as planned, everyone having fun, visiting and dancing. The DJ we've hired is awesome and manages to make everyone happy, even the Texan contingent who get to hear some country (but not too much). Jacey and I dance with just about everyone there, I think, both making sure we get in a few dances with our moms. The party will go strong till midnight, but around eleven we get ready to take our leave. Before our final dance, I track down Mike and ask him to do me a favor. There is baklava included in the items set out for the late night buffet; I ask him to see if he can get the catering staff to wrap some up and if so, could he put it on the backseat of my car, which I'll be driving when we leave. He agrees with a smile, heading off to see what he can do. He has no idea of the significance, of course, but I'm sure Jacey will remember.

We have our final dance and then make our way toward the door, exchanging hugs with everyone who's still there dancing the night away. We'll see our closest friends and family tomorrow afternoon at our house, where my mom is going to host a day-after brunch before we leave on our honeymoon. We finally make it out to the car amid a chorus of goodbyes and realize someone has decorated my car with a Just Married sign on the back and silver streamers tied to the side mirrors.

Holding hands and talking about the day, we make our way to our hotel in the Gold Coast. Since he did so much for the planning of the wedding, I suggested he let me look after the details for tonight, as well as arranging the honeymoon details after we'd decided on the area we wanted to visit. Tonight we're staying at the Elysian. I checked us in earlier when I was on my way downtown for our pictures, bringing our overnight bag. I also brought pillar candles which will, with the fireplace opposite our bed, create a warm glow in the room. At the door to our room I ask Jacey to wait for just two minutes until I come back out. Inside I flick on the gas fireplace and quickly light the candles, turning on no other lights in the room. I step back out and lead him into the room, watching his face as he takes it in.

"Wow, this is gorgeous. Oh my god, a fireplace!"

"Yep," I grin, knowing how much he loves them.

"And all the candles – did you bring these?"

"I did."

"Thank you, Jackie. It's beautiful."

"You're beautiful," I reply in a whisper, drawing him into my arms and into a deep kiss.

The night is as close to perfect as I can imagine. Making love to him is every good thing I've come to know: desire, throbbing heavy in my body as we slowly undress each other, kissing and caressing...a bit of humor as I hand him the Styrofoam container. He opens it to find the baklava and I announce my intention to eat it off his stomach and, perhaps, feed him some too...the exquisite agony of feeling him, hot and slick and tight around me, gripping and flexing, allowing me deeper until I can go no further, and the light sigh he gives when he's ready for me to withdraw and sink back into him...so many things I've learned about him, and the knowing them, expecting them, doesn't diminish the experience or dampen the pleasure. Rather, it enhances it. There are no misread signals or worries about performance. We can give ourselves over wholly to the experience knowing what makes the other sigh in contentment, gasp in pleasure or keen in elation.

I know how much Jacey loves to stroke the soft fuzz of the hair below my navel; he knows how I love his strong, lean hands and long fingers, slender but so masculine. New loves don't have this – only those who allow their love to mellow and age reap the rewards of knowledge like this.

When I've made love to my husband on our wedding night, when I've gently cleansed the residue of our love from his body and climbed into bed beside him, when I've whispered in his ear how much I love him, I have all the happiness I've ever desired wrapped in my arms, wearing a band of platinum around his finger, mine for the rest of time.

-o- -o- -o-

I can go on to tell you that Jacey, feeling stifled in his nine-to-five job, soon expresses to Jack that he dreams to open an art camp like the one he attended and taught at. I can tell you that Jack, being a pragmatist and a businessman, encourages him to first begin teaching classes on weekends and in the evening. Jacey takes his advice, starting small the autumn after their wedding. Over the course of three and a half years, he builds up a client base, a trust relationship with his students and their parents, and an excellent reputation within the Chicago arts community. He becomes busy enough that he can hire first one, then a second former SAIC classmate to help, adding theatre and music to the little school's program. During that time he also plants seeds of interest for the art camp with the parents and in the spring of 2019, four years after their wedding, he opens, with the investment of the owners of Texartopia, an art camp outside Chicago on one of the few remaining lakes not yet surrounded by large homes or a country club.

I can further tell you that at the end of that summer when Jack is helping Jacey tidy his office – the office of the director, thank you very much – before closing up for the season, Jacey tackles Jack onto the floor, exhilarated by the success of their first season. They make love there on his office floor, and Jacey, sitting astride Jack's hips, brings them this close to orgasm before stopping, looking into Jack's eyes and whispering, "Let's have a baby." I can tell you that Jack believes this method of suggesting a major life change to be only fair, all things considered, and he gasps, "Yes!" before Jacey drops them both into heady, consuming release.

I can tell you that months pass after their adoption application, months with no word of a child destined for them, every week dusting a nursery that is fully prepared and ready for an inhabitant, every day loving a baby they've never met, until Valentine's Day, 2021, when they bring home a six-week-old child – a New Year's baby – and the most perfectly beautiful human ever bestowed upon mankind...their son, Spencer Dawes Charles. I can tell you of nights spent gazing at him in wonder as he sleeps in their bed between them, Cupid's bow lips parted and tiny hands bundled into fists beside his head.

I can tell you that Jack, who will be 38 in September, has a dream of his own, to leave behind the high-stress environment of a stock brokerage and concentrate on his new life as a father; that he has no interest in waiting so long for this child only to leave him with a non-parental caregiver five days a week. With Jacey's role at the camp demanding a great deal of his time and taking him out of the city for much of the months of May through August, Jack wants them to live together at the camp during those months so Spencer can spend his summers outdoors and their family can be together every day and every night. He wants to be a stay-at-home dad, the backbone of their home life and and the biggest supporter of Jacey's dreams.

I can tell you that Jacey has been so stressed about the idea of being away from Spencer much of the summer that he's actually considered stepping down as the director. When Jack suggests his solution, offers to leave his job and essentially retire at the ripe old age of 37, Jacey falls in love with his husband all over again, as he has done so many times in the ten years they've known each other.

Or...I can simply end as so many love stories have done, from the most humble anecdote to the grandest epic saga, with my solemn and sincere promise:

They lived happily ever after.

The End