Bobby threw the football across the backyard, ever mindful that the little boy eager to catch the oblong ball was only seven. He tried hard not to laugh at Nate's attempts to throw the ball back to him. The boy held the ball with both hands over his shoulder, next to his ear, and ran halfway across the yard before heaving the ball at him with a grunt. Aaron came out into the yard as Nate heaved the ball toward Bobby, who hustled forward in an attempt to catch it. He slipped in the snow and slid into the ball. Nate giggled as he ran at Bobby, dropping to his knees and sliding into the ball as Bobby grabbed it. Bobby grabbed Nate and swung him around, depositing him, ball and all, on his belly. Still hugging the ball and laughing, Nate exclaimed, "I got the ball! I win!"
"Okay, you win," Bobby conceded with a laugh.
"Nate," Aaron called from the deck. "Come on in and wash up for dinner."
Nate hugged Bobby and scrambled off him, hurrying to the house. Aaron stepped from the deck and approached Bobby. He offered him a hand up, which Bobby accepted. They walked back to the deck. "Can we talk for a minute, Bobby?"
"Sure. What's on your mind?"
"You were gone for what? A year?"
"And Alex forgave you, right?"
"For being away? She wasn't mad at me for that."
"No, not for that. For what you did while you were gone."
Bobby frowned, confused. "Uhm, what did I do? I mean, she was upset because I got shot, but I didn't do that intentionally."
"No, that's not what I meant. Reggie told me you slept with another woman. How did you get Alex past that?"
Bobby's frown remained but pieces were falling into place. "It was easy because I didn't sleep with anyone else. And even if I had, Alex and I were not technically together until I got back. I was under no real obligation to her except for what I put on myself."
"And you stayed celibate?"
Bobby smiled at Aaron's tone of disbelief. "It wasn't difficult for me. Alex means more to me than any one night stand or short-term roll in the hay ever could."
"And if she hadn't waited for you? Would you have regretted that decision?"
"Not at all. It was a gamble, but I'm not afraid to roll the die."
"Would you be singing the same song if she hadn't been as faithful?"
"Of course I would. She had no obligation to me."
Aaron gave his words some thought. "You're a better man than I am."
"So tell me what happened with you."
Aaron became uncomfortable. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, there is a reason Reggie has been so hard on me, why she thinks I'm just biding my time with Alex until some sweet young ass wiggles by."
"Yeah, that would be my fault," Aaron admitted, not looking at Bobby. "But it was six months ago. I went to Boston for a week-long conference. It's a complicated set of circumstances, but I ended up sleeping with one of the other brokers in my firm. She's about fifteen years younger than me and man, is she built! She's been flirting with me since she joined the firm about eighteen months ago, and I finally caved."
Bobby was silent for a long time, gripping the deck railing as he looked across the snowy yard. "Are you still sleeping with her?"
It took Bobby a few minutes to get a grip on his temper. "There's not an ounce of regret in your tone, Aaron."
"Well, I'm sorry Reggie is mad at me, but she hasn't forced me to make a choice."
"Why do you think that is, Aaron? Why do you think she won't make you choose?"
Aaron scratched his head. "She's afraid she'd lose?"
Bobby stepped away from the railing and, in a soft voice that carried a deadly tone, he said, "If I were part of this family, I would knock the crap out of you, and you would not be getting up very fast."
He turned and, without looking at Aaron, went into the house.
Alex saw him come through the back door, recognizing the expression of rage on his face, an expression that quickly vanished when Nate ran up to him. She crossed the room to his side and touched his arm. With Nate in his arms, he saw the look of concern on her face and leaned over, whispering into her ear, "Later."
They didn't stay for dinner, as originally planned. Alex didn't know what had happened, but Bobby was very keyed up and she couldn't get him to settle. While Alex said good-bye to Reggie and Aaron, offering the excuse the Bobby had overdone in the yard with Nate and they needed to get home, Bobby said good-bye to Nate and slipped out the front door to wait for Alex by the car.
"You could have said good-bye," Alex snapped as she pulled out of the driveway.
"Your sister would rather not talk to me and I didn't want to take the chance I might deck Aaron in front of his son."
"Why would you do that?"
"Your sister's hostility toward me is a projection of her hurt and anger toward Aaron. He...He went out of town for a week and slept with a co-worker. She's that young piece of ass Reggie accuses me of waiting for."
"What?" Alex demanded as she slammed on the brakes. "He did what?"
"Please, Alex, let's just go home. It's for them to work out."
Alex was shaking with rage. "He...and she...They..." She made a sound of frustration and anger.
Bobby softly laughed and she turned toward him, ready to let loose at him for laughing at her. He read her intention and acted just a little faster. He leaned over and kissed her softly on the mouth, hoping she wouldn't bite him. "You're adorable when you can't form a sentence."
"Bite me, Goren. How's that for a sentence?"
He laughed again. "Alex, you can't fight your sister's battles any more. She's a big girl and this is for her and Aaron to work out."
"I'm a big boy. I can take whatever she dishes out to me."
"You...You're better than that. I thought he was, too."
He shrugged. "I don't know the details. All he said was she'd been flirting with him since she joined the firm a year and a half ago and while they were away at a conference he caved."
"What did you do?"
"Me? I took a couple of minutes to make sure I was under control and I didn't deck him."
"For one, I try harder these days not to make you mad at me. And for two, I don't want to ostracize myself from your family. Aaron is part of that family. I'm not."
He silenced her with another soft kiss. "Can we go home, please? We're just a little conspicuous sitting here in the middle of the intersection. Inwood may not be as busy as downtown, but someone is going to come along soon."
She studied his face in the glow of the streetlights at the intersection and pulled him in for another kiss. Only then did she put the car in gear and continue through the intersection.
In the warmth of his apartment, Alex curled into his embrace on the couch and lightly rubbed his arm. "How could he do that to her?"
"I don't think he meant for it to happen."
She lifted her head and twisted to look at him. "Are you defending him?"
"Of course not. I want to clobber him. She kept pushing and he finally gave in. The temptation overcame his resistance to it."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"How resistant are you to temptation?"
"Well, it took me eleven years to finally ask you out. How's that for resistance?"
She laughed. "That was a special situation. You saw me almost every day. And you were not celibate during those eleven years."
"No, I wasn't. But once I asked you out, it was only you. I only have room in my bed, and in my heart, for you."
"Suppose I stopped sleeping with you?"
"Would you do that?"
She laughed at his expression. "Not a chance. But let's say I did, for argument's sake."
"I don't want to argue with you."
"Quit being obtuse and answer me."
He sighed. "If you stopped sleeping with me, I would wear you down."
"Yes. If you're wondering whether I would look elsewhere to satisfy my needs, the answer is no. As long as you're willing to keep me around, I am yours and yours alone. I will try never to give you a reason to freeze me out, but if I do, I'll put twice the effort into thawing you out again."
"Maybe Aaron told Reggie the same thing when they first got together."
"Please stop comparing me to Aaron. It's bad enough your sister does. Alex, I had plenty of opportunities in South America, and more than one of them were real lookers. I wasn't obligated to you, and there was no reason for me to say no, but I did...for six months. Aaron was in Boston for a week, and he couldn't say no. In my mind, there's no comparison. I am happy with what I have, and I stopped looking for more. That doesn't mean I won't notice a pretty woman, and it doesn't mean I won't look. But I promise I will always bring it home to you."
"Think you'll say the same thing in five years."
"Five years or fifty, I will say the same thing."
She turned and settled herself in his lap, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, a long, sensual kiss. She kissed her way along his jaw, nibbled at his earlobe and nipped her way along his neck. He played with the waistband of her pants until she got to his neck, which set him on fire. After working her pants over her hips, he flipped her onto her back on the couch. Laughing she tried to squirm her way loose, but he held her fast, smiling. "See what teasing will get you," he said as he undid her buttons with one hand and held her hands captive above her head with the other.
"Let me up," she demanded, laughing.
"Not a chance," he replied, pushing her shirt open. "You're mine now."
She squirmed again, which only made him more desperate for her. Leaning down, he kissed his way along her collarbone, burning a path down to her breasts. She still squirmed but no longer protested. "Let go of my hands," she said.
"Uh-uh," he replied. "This is for the handcuffs last night."
"You liked that!"
"I did. Are you telling me you don't like this?"
"No...but you're using your size and strength against me."
He released her instantly and pulled away. "Bobby?"
Pushing himself off the couch, he walked away. Not knowing what had just happened, she went after him. "Bobby? What's wrong?"
He stood at the kitchen sink, staring at the wall. When she ran her hands along his back, he tensed. Resting her head against his arm, she asked, "What happened just now?"
He finally looked at her, his eyes moist and filled with remorse. "I...I'm sorry."
He looked away. "For...taking advantage. My father used to come home drunk, and he would...uh, overpower my mother because he was bigger and stronger, and he could, whether she consented or not. And Brady..."
Understanding dawned quickly. She hated like hell that his past still haunted him, and she was determined to get him past it. "Bobby, no. Don't go there. You are nothing like your father, either one of them. Believe me, if you were doing anything I objected to, I would tell you. And I know that if I told you to stop, you would."
"What you said...I heard my mother use those exact words more than once."
"I'm sure your mother meant them." She gently tugged on his arm until he turned to face her. "I didn't. You can do whatever you want with me. I promise I will let you know if I am ever uncomfortable. I don't want you to become tentative and unsure with me in bed. That's not you and that's not what I look for from you. I want your confidence."
She pulled him down into a kiss. "I'm sorry I upset you," she said softly. "Now I think it's your turn to play with the handcuffs."
She slid her hand into his and led him down the hall.
Bobby caressed her hair and stroked her back as they lay in bed, tangled in the bedsheets and each other. "You, uhm, you worried about me."
Her mind had been blissfully empty and she had no idea what he was talking about. "What?"
"When I was in South America...you worried."
"Yes, I worried. In case you missed the memo, I care about you. I have for years. Is that the only thing you got out of my journal?"
"No. I know you have no intention of trying manioc beer."
She smacked his shoulder and he laughed. "That shouldn't have taken a lot of deduction, Sherlock," she scolded lightly.
He kissed her. "I know that I owe Logan and that I love you. I know that you think I'm an idiot for overthinking our relationship, and that I should have signed the card on the flowers I sent you for your birthday."
"You remembered my birthday, and you missed that drunken call at three a.m."
"You remembered mine, even though I didn't know it at the time."
"I wasn't sure how you would take it, so I played it safe. I always played it safe, until I took you to lunch that day."
She smiled. "No, Bobby. Lunch was safe. That kiss was the risk you took, and telling me that you loved me."
"Maybe." He leaned closer and kissed her temple. "If I had been here for my birthday, I would have called you. You were always the one I thought of when I really needed someone. I may not have always acted on it, but I always thought of you. You have been the one constant in my life for the past eleven years. You gave my life the stability it never had, and I never knew I needed it until you were there. I never tried to manipulate you and yes, Alex...you are the one puzzle I never tried to figure out. You are my enigma and I love you."
"Your enigma, huh?"
He nodded. "You're the puzzle I will never try to solve."
"As long as you never put me on a pedestal. I want you to love me for who I am, not for some fantasy you built up in your imagination."
He rolled onto his back and pulled her onto his chest. "You have lived up to every fantasy I ever had about you."
"Do I want to know?"
"Maybe. Some day," he grinned.
She stroked his chest. "Tonight is New Year's Eve. Do you want to go down to Times Square?"
"Did you ever pull Times Square duty when you were a uniform?"
"Do you really want to be there on New Year's Eve?"
"Well, what do you want to do?"
"How about getting a bottle of wine and watching the celebration remotely from the comfort of the living room, just you and me?"
"That sounds like a perfect evening." She kissed him lightly. "We may not be perfect, and there may be some speed bumps in the road, but I think we're going to be okay because we have each other."
"Remember that the next time I screw up."
"As long as I'm not looking down the barrel of my gun at you during a drug bust, I think we'll be fine."
"Of course I am. It's part of my charm."
She poked him and laughed when he pushed her over onto her back. "I love you," she whispered.
He smiled. "I love you, too."
Christmas had been good for him, and the New Year was looking to be even better. Maybe the holidays weren't so bad after all.