And so we come to the end. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who reviewed. Your comments always made me smile and sometimes just plain laugh out loud! To those who also offered constructive criticism, thank you for helping me to become a better writer.
To everyone who read this story, thank you for thinking enough of it to invest your time in reading it. :-)
Finally, for those who asked, yes there is another story. I hope to start posting it in the next few weeks.
Love and Loyalty
Callie Hardy looked out at the people milling about in her living room and smiled. The small group of friends had attended high school and college together and remained close. Not wanting to drift apart and lose that closeness as they each embarked on their own lives, the friends instituted a get-together at least once a month, with each of them alternating hosting duties.
Tonight, it was Frank and Callie's turn to provide the accommodations and food for Chet Morton, Liz Webling, Phil Cohen, Biff Hooper and Tony Prito and their significant others, as well as Joe and Vanessa.
"I wonder where Joe and Vanessa are?" Callie mused to her husband.
"Who knows," Frank shrugged. "Maybe they got sidetracked again." He rolled his eyes, letting Callie know exactly how he felt about getting that much information from his younger brother.
Callie laughed at Frank's chagrin." Even Tony and Kara are here. Everyone seems to like her."
While tonight was the first time most of their friends had met Kara, the tight-knit group had quickly accepted her as both an old and dear friend of Vanessa's and the new woman in Tony's life.
Frank scanned the room once more, thinking maybe Joe and Vanessa had arrived without his noticing. 'Fat chance!' he thought, sarcastically. 'Joe can make an entrance without even trying.'
"Hey, Frank, we're out of dip!" Chet called out, holding up an empty dish.
"God forbid – no dip," Frank said dryly. "I'll get it," he told Callie. Waving to Chet in acknowledgement, he headed for the kitchen.
A moment later, the front door burst open and Joe and Vanessa bustled in. Joe stopped just inside the foyer next to Callie and scanned the group of people, frowning.
"Where's Frank?!" he demanded.
"In the kitchen-" Callie began but her words hung in the air as Joe took off for the back of the house in a rather big hurry. "Hello to you too, Joe!" she called out before turning to Vanessa. "What's his problem?"
"Beats me." Vanessa shrugged off her coat and quickly changed the subject, her eyes gleaming with excitement. "I can't wait for Saturday!"
"I know, me too! Who else is coming?"
"Besides Joe? Mom, of course, and Laura and I asked Kara – hey, there she is!" Vanessa waved to her friend and rushed off to greet her.
Barreling into the kitchen, Joe almost flattened his brother who was on his way out with a tray of chips and dip.
"Hey, watch it!" Frank cried out. "I want to eat this stuff, not wear it!"
"Forget about the stupid dip!" Grabbing the tray from Frank, Joe tossed it haphazardly on the counter, oblivious to the chips that went flying off the tray. "Man, I am in trouble – big trouble!" he said dramatically.
"Oh?" Frank leaned back against the counter nonchalantly. Earlier in the evening Callie had told him about Vanessa's plans for Saturday and knew immediately that's what had Joe so tied up in knots. 'This is gonna be so much fun…' Frank thought, biting back a smile.
"You gotta help me, bro," Joe pleaded. "It's a matter of life and death!"
"Really?" Frank expertly concealed his amusement. "Whose?"
"MINE!" Joe exclaimed, agitated.
"Okay." Frank radiated calm, knowing how much it would annoy his brother. "What's the problem?"
"It's Vanessa." Joe began pacing the floor, his hands waving in the air. "She wants me to go to a…a…a bridal fair!" He shuddered as the words left his mouth.
"When?" Frank's calm demeanor was getting Joe more worked up by the second.
"Saturday!" Joe wailed pathetically. "ALL DAY!"
"I see…" Frank furrowed his brow in concentration. "So, what's the problem?"
Joe whirled on his brother. "What's the problem?!" He repeated in shocked disbelief. "It's SATURDAY!" He shook his hand vigorously for emphasis. "Saturday! Weekend. Sports. Male bonding! I promised the guys I'd play center in a pick up hockey game on Saturday!"
Frank arched an eyebrow. "Ah, the truth comes out. You'd rather spend the day with your buddies than Vanessa."
"Hey, I never said that!" Joe retorted hotly.
Frank looked at him curiously. "You didn't?"
"No! I didn't!" Joe scowled.
"Then there's no problem. You go to the bridal fair and make your fiancée happy." Frank shrugged and turned to leave the room.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Joe snatched him back by the arm.
"What?" Frank rolled his eyes pretending to be annoyed, secretly wishing their father were here to witness Joe's meltdown over a bridal fair. 'One of my great joys in life, little brother, is pushing your buttons from time to time. And you make it sooooo worthwhile.'
"Come on genius, help me come up with a way to get out of it, huh?" Joe pleaded.
"Get out of it?" Frank said disapprovingly. "I thought Vanessa was the love of your life?"
"She is!" Joe snapped defensively.
"I thought you were hopelessly in love with her?" Frank continued egging Joe on.
"I am!" Joe reddened as the anger built.
"I thought you'd do anything for her?" Frank fired his final dig.
"I would!" Joe cried out.
"Except spend Saturday at the bridal fair?" Frank asked sardonically.
"But… I… we…" Joe sputtered. Realizing he'd been had, Joe stopped and stared at Frank pathetically. "Come on, Frank, you're my best man. Don't make me go through this torture alone," Joe begged, now resigned to spending his Saturday at the bridal fair. "I'm your baby brother. You said it yourself – you love me. You'd do anything for me. Please…" The last word came out in almost a whimper.
Frank rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he studied his younger brother who was staring at him pitifully. "You know, you're absolutely right. I'm your best man. More importantly, I'm your older brother. It's my job to look out for you."
Joe nodded vigorously. "Right!"
"To protect you," Frank continued.
"Uh-huh." Joe nodded again.
"Help you whenever you need it," he finished seriously.
"Exactly!" Joe exhaled with relief. "Thanks, bro. I knew I could count on you. I can't imagine a bridal fair will be fun, but at least with you there it'll be tolerable."
Frank held up his hands and backed away a few steps. "Whoa, who said I was going to the bridal fair with you?"
"You did!" Joe exclaimed, now in a panic. "Just now! You said so!"
"What I said was I'd look out for you and help you out," Frank corrected him, with an air of superiority. "And I will. It just so happens I just got my skates sharpened. I'll take your place in the hockey game. That way you can relax and enjoy the bridal fair, knowing your team isn't playing one man short." Frank smirked and once again turned to leave.
"Noooooo!" Joe wailed tugging on his arm. "You can't let me go there all alone!"
"Don't worry, Joe, you won't be alone." Frank patted him on the back reassuringly. "I'm sure Mom will be there, too. And Andrea. Callie…" Frank ticked off the names as Joe shrank back, horrified. "Mrs. Shaw will probably go along just for nostalgia's sake. I'm guessing Van will ask Kara to go… and all her bridesmaids…" He laughed as Joe started hyperventilating. "Easy, bro," Frank said soothingly. "Try and look on the bright side."
"There's a bright side?" Joe asked hopefully.
"Yeah, after this one you'll probably only have to go to one or two more. Callie dragged me to three of them before we got married."
"Three?!" Joe squeaked, suddenly looking pale. "I think I need to sit down."
"Here you go, buddy." Frank pulled out a chair, watching as Joe sank into it and laid his head down on his folded arms. "Take a few deep breaths," he said chuckling at how pathetic Joe looked.
"You don't have to be so happy about it," Joe said sourly, his voice muffled. Looking up, he glared at Frank for a moment and then his blue eyes sparkled with a flash of enlightenment.
"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed, a smile lighting his face. "We could elope!"
Frank stared at him for a moment and then burst out laughing.
"What?" Joe asked, puzzled. "You don't think Vanessa would go for it?"
Frank pulled out a chair for himself and sat down, the bewildered look on Joe's face sending him into another fit of hysterics.
As the two brothers returned to the festivities, they were bombarded with questions and requests for a first hand accounting of Justin Hahn's capture. At Tony and Vanessa's urging, Kara had related the story of how she ended up being arrested and charged with embezzlement. Vanessa then took up the story, proudly announcing Joe had not only found the key piece of evidence indicating Kara had been framed, but also figured out who the real thief was.
As Joe concluded the tale of the shootout at Justin's house, Biff looked at his best friend and shook his head in amazement. "You're like a cat with nine lives."
"Either that or he's just damn lucky." Frank eyed his younger brother dubiously, still not quite able to figure out how Joe always managed to cheat death even when it seemed impossible.
"So all's well that ends well," Chet said.
"Not necessarily," Kara corrected him. "Mr. Galloway is still really upset about the whole thing. He treated Justin like his own son. Although right now he's more concerned about his daughter, Chloe – Justin's wife – than he is about the missing money."
"Yeah, Dad said he was pretty angry," Frank confirmed. "He threatened to kill Hahn with his bare hands."
"Wait a minute, you've talked to Uncle Brad?" Joe asked Kara, confused.
Tony looked at Kara, surprised. "You haven't told them yet?"
She shrugged. "Everything happened so fast I haven't had a chance."
"So tell us now!" Vanessa requested excitedly, seated very close to Joe on the floor.
"Mr. Galloway called me yesterday morning and asked me to come into the office. First he apologized for everything that happened and said despite how it turned out, he was glad to find out I wasn't the thief. Then he offered to hire me back." Kara beamed, waiting for the murmurs of congratulations to subside. "He gave me back pay and a long term contract commitment with the company that includes a promotion, a huge raise and stock options!
"AND," she continued halting the 'oohs' and 'aahs', "he's arranged to loan me the money to pay off all my creditors. The profits from my stock options will be used to pay him back so I can keep my full salary. Once the loan is paid off, the profits will revert back to me," she finished, practically glowing with happiness.
Vanessa leapt up and hugged her friend tightly. "K, that's wonderful!!"
"It is," Kara agreed. "And none of it ever would have happened if not for Joe." She looked at him gratefully, her eyes shining brightly.
"My hero," Vanessa murmured, settling down next to Joe and bestowing him with a lengthy kiss of thanks.
"That's just the beginning." Tony smiled, urging Kara to continue.
"I put a down payment on a townhouse yesterday. I sign the papers next week and the realtor said I can move in next weekend." Kara related her good news.
"That's awesome!" Vanessa enthused, genuinely happy for her friend. "Joe will be happy to help you move, won't you honey?" she winked, turning to Joe and squeezing his bicep.
"Sure," Joe agreed good-naturedly. "And Frank would love to help too, wouldn't you, big brother?" he challenged.
"Oh, absolutely," Frank deadpanned. "And I know Biff won't want to miss out on the fun, would you big guy?"
"'Course not," Biff grinned, catching on and looking at Chet with a gleam in his eye. "And I know my good buddy Chet wouldn't turn down the chance at a day or two of hard labor."
"Fine." Chet rolled his eyes and glanced at Phil.
Before Chet could say a word, Phil held up his hand. "I volunteer to take down her computer system and set it up in the new place."
"Way to go, Cohen," Joe chided him. "Avoid all the hard work!"
"Maybe you'd like to try setting up the computer, eh, Hardy?" Phil challenged.
Joe laughed. "No, no, no, that's okay. I assume Kara actually wants it to work once it's all set up. That would count me out. I'll leave that up to you and my brilliant fiancée." Joe smiled at Vanessa.
"Hey, what about your brilliant older brother?" Frank protested. "Why can't I help set up the computer instead of lugging all that heavy stuff around?"
"Because this is your big chance to see how the 'dumb jock' half lives." Joe winked at Biff, who had heard that comment just as often as Joe had throughout their school years. "You can find out what it feels like to use your brawn instead of your brains."
"That's not the only good news Kara has," Tony announced, as Frank wadded up a napkin and tossed it at his brother. "Go ahead, tell them," Tony nudged her.
"I'm getting a new car," Kara said, obviously excited at the prospect.
"Oooh, what kind?" Callie asked.
"Um, I don't know yet. I haven't really started looking."
"Joe can help you pick out a great car!" Vanessa offered.
Kara laughed at the way Vanessa kept volunteering Joe's services to help her. "Thanks, Van, but I think he's done more than enough for me already. He proved I was framed and kept me out of prison."
"Of course he did," Vanessa agreed, kissing Joe on the cheek. "I never had any doubts!"
"Here, here," Biff concurred, slapping his friend on the back.
"That's my kid brother," Frank said proudly. "And I taught him everything he knows," he added jokingly, seeing Joe start to squirm under all the attention.
"I'd be happy to help you look for a new car if you want me to," Joe assured Kara, blushing slightly at the praise.
"Thanks, I'd love your advice."
"Anymore good news?" Chet asked, popping a fried cheese stick in his mouth.
"Well, I'm planning a vacation. It'll be my first one in over three years."
"Really?" Tony asked, surprised. Kara apparently hadn't shared this piece of news with him yet. "Where are you planning to go?"
"Italy. I didn't make it there last time I was in Europe and I hear it's just beautiful."
"As a matter of fact it is." Tony stood and extended his hand towards Kara. "You know, you'll need a good tour guide while you're there. Someone who's familiar with the country," he continued as he pulled Kara to her feet and led her to a quiet corner of the room. "Have I ever told you my grandparents still live in Italy? I've been there many times to visit them…" His voice faded out as he and Kara crossed the room.
Joe watched as they settled on the love seat, dangerously close together, sparks flying between the two. Turning back to his friends his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I don't ever want to hear you guys calling me 'Romeo' again!" he ordered, as they all laughed in response.
A short time later, Joe and Vanessa snuck out onto the deck to take in the romantic sight of a full moon and star-filled night sky. Vanessa snuggled closer to Joe for warmth and slipped her arms around his neck.
"Kara looks so happy tonight, doesn't she?"
"Happy?" Joe laughed. "That's putting it mildly. She's walking so far off the ground I'm afraid she'll float away. And Tony isn't exactly down in the dumps, either. I think it's safe to say, "Debbie who?" he joked referring to Tony's ex-girlfriend.
"Things are finally starting to look up for Kara," Vanessa agreed happily. "And us, too. Next week we'll be at Montage Ski Resort with Frank and Callie, nothing but fun and romance for a whole week." Her eyes gleamed with excitement. "And NO MYSTERIES!" she admonished, wagging a finger at Joe.
Joe grinned, holding two fingers aloft in a salute. "No mysteries, scout's honor."
"I've got plenty of things in mind to keep you occupied," Vanessa whispered seductively, pressing her lips firmly against his.
Joe happily let himself get lost in Vanessa's passionate kiss. 'I just bet you do…'