It was easy to pretend that he didn't see her. In all honesty, she'd caught his eye at least a full minute before he'd caught hers. If Spencer or Guster noticed his momentary distraction, they didn't mention it, although Spencer's eyes had gone briefly intense and serious in that way he usually only managed right before he had one of his 'visions'. Carlton's training kicked in and he watched her in his peripheral vision while still appearing to keep his full attention on the other two men. Spencer was talking about some private case he'd just finished, his voice and gestures both larger than life, while Guster rolled his eyes and occasionally tried to correct some of his partner's more outrageous claims. Carlton clamped down on a smile and tried to pretend that the two weren't growing on him.
Victoria was practically gaping at him, and for a second he shifted awkwardly in his civvies. One of her biggest complaints had always been that he didn't 'unwind' enough, never seemed to really relax. He was a little uncomfortable having her see him like this, his chest tightening in a weird mixture of pride and embarrassment that she seemed so surprised that he was capable of being casual.
Honestly, Carlton was a little surprised himself. It seemed like it had been a lifetime since the last time he'd even thought about Victoria, and to suddenly see her again...
It didn't hurt.
He'd always expected it to hurt. After all, they'd been married. He'd loved her. He'd bared his heart to her and she'd torn it to shreds with just a thin folder of legal papers.
But it didn't hurt.
It had been years now since that night. He knew he'd changed, and not just because people-Spencer-liked to loudly point it out any time he did something he wouldn't have considered a handful of years ago. He'd noticed it himself. He would never be good at remembering special occasions, but he actually made an effort now. His once large store of vacation days was slowly but surely dwindling. He still worked late, but he was always home in time for a bedtime story.
And speaking of bedtime stories, Carlton couldn't stop his broad grin as he caught sight of his daughter and wife. He scooped the child up in his arms, still privately amazed that she actually let him. And then his wife was next to him and he was slipping an arm around her and leaning into her warmth and that last bit of tension in his shoulders eased.
If Victoria had looked surprised before, now she looked positively poleaxed. Carlton thought about calling her over, introducing her to everyone, maybe even thanking her. Because he was thankful to her. Yes, their marriage had ended, and not exactly amicably, even if he had made that last speech sound good, but he'd realized that she was right. Things just weren't working. Would never work. And even if it occasionally took Carlton a while to catch on, he was smart and could learn. So that's what he'd done. He'd taken everything from his first marriage-the good and the bad-and learned from it.
And the next time he'd fallen in love, he'd taken those lessons and put them to good use.
Carlton's fingers tightened slightly on his wife's hip as Victoria turned and walked away from the beach toward the boardwalk. A brief, nostalgic smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
He hoped she was happy.
Kristin: Okay, I really did mean for this to be a one shot, but this popped into my head today and poked at me until I relented. As far as Carlton's new lady goes, feel free to interpret however you want. She wasn't originally intended to be anyone specific.
Many thanks to gnbrules and fan for their kind reviews!