Hi lovely readers,

I know you have been waiting for this for a long time and I apologize. In my defense I did give you a long story and finish They Didn't Have To Be in the meantime, but you are all friends, you understand. I will most likely go into a crazy rant here, so if you only care about the story, scroll down.

So WHY did it take me this long? Well, this is me during Now or Never:

'Okay, okay, this is just crap we need to get through in order to make things better, next week will be better, next week will be better…'

AND THEN YESTERDAY HAPPENS. Basically, I feel like the writers decided to go 'Screw you all,' with that episode. Now, maybe I have been living on a different universe, but last night I felt like the actors got handed the scripts to a different show or something like that.

I understand the point of Eli's little thing was to show he wants Clare happy, he's all better (magically in one therapy session with a diagnosis that only SORT OF makes sense), but…that was beyond strange to me. Eli can want her happy and stay away; now THAT would have made sense to me. To see Eli humiliate himself in front of Jake and then to have him watch a lovefest between the girl everyone knows he still loves (Jake and Clare included) was too much for me. The best part is that, will Jake make Clare happy? For once in now or never, she thought lucidly 'oh if this idiot won't even take me to a movie, maybe that's a bad sign' and I wish Eli had never interfered. Jake, like the fabulous guy that he is, chose to keep completely silent, just as he did when Clare said they should do their stupid risk thing. Coincidence? I think not. So then Eli steps in and says 'he loves you' because in Eli's mind, you love a girl like Clare. Because that must be the obvious feeling you have for her if you date her; you love her and want to do everything you can to make her happy.

But CLARE MEANT HER I LOVE YOU. She totally did, towards Jake, and that was where I just about exploded. Her grinning bliss in front of Eli broke my heart, and none of it made any sense to me at all. I couldn't believe that, and the only thing more disgusting was the moment in which they came out from a sweaty make-out while Eli WAS RIGHT OUTSIDE? I don't even think Dr. Phil would keep calm in that type of a situation.

SO AFTER LAST NIGHT, this is my opinion: This has crossed the point of no return, any EClare reunion will forever feel forced and awkward to me. Cake breaks up at prom? Could care LESS. EClare kiss at prom? IRRELEVANT NOW. It's all too little, too late, if it even happens, and I can't see a way to ever make this all okay again. Their magic is ruined.

I know I have a tendency to freak out about EClare, but I am thinking clearly (Eli would approve) and this is my final opinion. There's just too much damage, most of it happened last night.

Sooo, can we all imagine a Love Does Not Take Offence World instead? Hope you like the end.

Thank you all so much for your support. Writing for you has been an absolute pleasure and I will miss it. Please leave me a review.

Disclaimer: I don't own Degrassi.

-Two years later-

Eli's POV

"Awesome. Now just pull up a little ahead. Remember that you want to leave some space between you and the car in front of you, but not so much," I instructed Dylan. He had his driving test tomorrow, and I had wanted to get just one more quick practice in – I know that Dylan's definitely going to pass, but I wanted to have just one final practice for the sake of Dylan's confidence more than anything. I can tell that he's still a little nervous for what lies ahead tomorrow.

Dylan did as I asked him to, so I praised him, "That's perfect. I think you're all set Dylan – we've come a long way from the day when you almost put us in a ditch," I teased. I flashed him an amused smirk at the memory of our first driving lesson – the combination of Dylan's inexperience and my poor choice of practicing in Mississauga instead of in Toronto had proven to be…not exactly the best idea.

"Sorry about that," Dylan apologized for about the hundredth time.

"Don't worry about it – at least it makes for a great story. Now it's time for you to get some rest – big day tomorrow. I know you'll get it Dylan – remember that Adam and Lana and Clare all learned how to drive on this same car, and not one of the people who went to Driving School Eli had any trouble passing the test. And don't tell the others, but you're definitely better than they were at this point," I encouraged him before we exchanged a fist bump and I quickly went inside so I could say a quick hello to Scotty as well.

Once I felt the boys' house, I headed back to the U of T campus so I could check out a few books that should be in by now that I need for my PhD thesis – I have just under a year left to finish my diploma, and...I am definitely getting kind of nervous for what will come after. I sure hope that I'll be hired by U of T as a prof after I graduate. Clare keeps telling me that after all of the close work that I have done with Dr. Gifford, who is the department head for English, I am bound to, but…

I can't help but worry. It's not like I can just get another job – the only other university that would be appropriate for me would be U of Ottawa – and if that were to happen, or even a university even farther away, I'm pretty sure I could kiss my relationship with Clare good-bye. She's definitely not going to be moving out of the province - after finishing law school next year – me doing my Master's put us at the same level time-wise with our degrees – because she will be writing the bar exam in Toronto and you need to write the bar in the province that you want to profess in, or so I am told. I know that we've already made it happen long distance, but we literally counted down every single day until we could be together again. If I couldn't get hired and offer Clare everything I want to…well, I don't even want to begin to think about that. Despite the fact that I want to become published now more than anything – seriously published, as in get a novel that sells well – I…need to be able to prove that I can provide a certain stability. Clare is very ambitious, one of my favourite things about her, but…I think that before I should have the right to ask her to marry me, I need to prove that I am worthy of her. And unfortunately that will take at least one year, and probably one more. According to Lana, it's some sort of religious thing that an engagement should last a year or less, so…I definitely still have so much to do and a while to wait. So I just need to keep my focus and make things happen for myself, because if I felt that I had the right to…I'd ask Clare to marry me this second.

Thankfully, my library session went smoothly and all the books that I requested came in. I then decided to grab a quick coffee, and once I sat down at one of the Bulldog coffee tables, I quickly moved because I noticed no one other than Imogen sitting all by herself at another table. After finishing her Psychology Master's last year, Imogen had gotten hired by the U of T psych department and she split her time between doing research and counselling teens at the clinic on campus. It was…absolutely perfect for her; her dream job, really. It was so obvious that she loves it – she dedicates herself to it wholeheartedly and I know that she helps out so many kids…even when we were in undergrad, she really was so perceptive of my troubles.

These days we sometimes have lunch together on campus on Fridays when our schedules match and I love seeing her so…happy. A major factor in that is also probably the fact that her and Daniel were getting pretty serious. I can tell that Daniel is completely certain about spending his life with her. I know that he wants to wait a while to tell her though – he graduated law school a year ago, being one year ahead of me now because I went to do a Master's. Just as he had hoped, he now worked as a government lawyer in a swanky Bay Street firm - he actually works as a lawyer for the Department of National Defence aka. The army, so whenever he goes to court he has a military uniform because he technically is a part of the forces. I overheard Imogen tell Clare one time that his uniform makes him look 'even sexier,' so I guess she's happy with the particular type of law he practices, but what I know she likes most is that he is not part of the staff that can be deployed overseas. Sometimes he has to Ottawa to the capital courts, but that's as far as he'll ever have to go. What I love most about the whole deal though is that despite this fancy law job, he's still as much of a punk as ever – he lives just off campus in a nice apartment because he knows that Imogen wants to wait for marriage until she'd move in with a guy. I knew that when Daniel first found out about that, he wasn't exactly thrilled. However, he listened to me when I told him to take it like a man and just shut up and suck it up. It wasn't like she wasn't spending nights with him – one night when we were out having a couple of beers, he definitely overshared what he would be doing once we'd leave the bar, scarring me just a little. Maybe I told him to just suck it up about the living together because I felt a certain camaraderie between him and me when he told me about that – there's no way that Clare would ever go for living together before we're married. She knows by now that I mean to keep that vow or hers, or really ours now, until our wedding night, and if I am to think of it in terms of years…I'd rather not. So I just also shut up and suck it up. I understood things a lot time ago and I know I have to do the right thing by her. I've already screwed up so many other ways and I know that if I were to screw this particular thing up, we'd never be able to deal with the aftermath. It would just be…too much.

Adam and Lana, however, had moved in last year. I knew that Adam would be finished his Master's two years before I'd finish my school, but a small part of me had hoped that we could still be roommates. But when he came to me and said that Lana had suggested that they move in together after his graduation, he was so incredibly love-struck and grinning from ear to ear that I could only be supportive. So they had actually moved in to a downtown apartment that was really close to my apartment in the grad residences part of campus. Lana was now working as an account manager at Royal Bank, and Adam had applied his commerce and radio journalism major to score a management gig at The Rock, the coolest radio station in Toronto. He had his own show and I caught it almost every day, as did my dad – he had coached Adam quite a bit before he officially started. Adam still always says that the internship that my dad hooked him up with in Adam's last year of college was the main reason that he had gotten hired.

I walked up to Imogen's table and playfully told her, "Hey Imo," using the nickname that Daniel always invoked for her.

However, it caused her to jolt – something that I hadn't really expected – and she blinked a few times before she focused her gaze on me. I could tell that she was…acting a little weird.

"Oh, Eli. Hey," she softly said, and I wanted to gage where she was because it was clear that she was not saying anything else. So when I noticed her wrist, I gently told her,

"Cool bracelet," because the spiky leather wrap was something that had it been for guys and not pinky red, I totally would have bought it in a store.

"Thanks, Eli," Imogen responded and touched it softly, but this was…all wrong. She wasn't all bubbly and energetic as she always was – she wasn't asking me how I was doing…something was wrong, even down to what she was eating, so I confusedly asked,

"Apple? I thought you didn't like those," having learned her food preferences from all those conferences and work meetings that we had together when we ran the Centennial Foundation chapter together. We had gotten to know each other pretty well, and between the two of us we always drank way too much coffee when we worked late than could possibly be healthy for a human being.

"I don't normally. I just…thought I should have one," she answered, as she twirled the folded fruit sticker between her fingers.

"Um, well, can I get you a coffee?" I offered, surprised that she was at Bulldog Coffee and not having any type of drink when I knew she loved coffee so much anyway.

"No…I can't. I'm okay, thanks, Eli. I'm really tired, that's all. I think I'm just going to go home and go to bed," she said, getting up and walking out the door before I even had time to reply. It was six pm…and she was going to go to bed? Something about her behaviour was definitely off, and it really made me worried and unnerved to see her like this. It reminded me so much of those dark times when she was hiding a lot of pain behind a mask of confidence. I…couldn't help but wonder that if despite all of the progress that Dr. Sadler's help and Daniel's patient love had helped her make, if maybe she was…relapsing. If….something had happened and she felt like she had to keep it all inside.

Just the possibility of that really made me worried, so I pulled out my phone at once and dialled Daniel's number. He picked up right away despite the fact that I knew that he was still at work – his hours were crazy, practically twelve hour days every day. I didn't even bother with greetings. He only needed to know one thing, and he needed to know it right away.

"Daniel, your girls needs you. Go to her, dude, right away".

Imogen's POV

I can't believe this. I can't believe this. I can't believe this.

Just when everything was finally starting to come together and I felt…happier than I've ever been, this needs to happen. He'll hate me. He'll hate me. He'll never forgive me. Daniel's always been so focused, so sure of the direction that he wants his life to take…he did a double major in undergrad, then went right to law school, got hired by the government in such an important position, and…he loves me. Loved me. It'll turn to the past tense as soon as she find out just how badly I've screwed up. He'll…oh God, and he works thing is that…he'll think I did this on purpose. He'll think…that…I'm playing games with him. I stopped doing that so long ago – once I realized that I was hurting the people that I love….but….he'll never forgive me.

And…we could have had it all, and if it weren't for my stupidity. I don't need to wait three minutes. I know my body and the minute I saw that apple and desperately wanted to eat it…I just knew. I remember women asking my parents that same question – can you really know this way – and they'd always answer that it could be a sign…but that it also could not. But just even when Eli mentioned the word 'coffee' and I wanted to throw up – I knew that…it was more than just a weird mood. And…I'm late.

There's no way that I am wrong about this. And…as much as I love Daniel…I can't disappoint him by ruining his plans with this bombshell, but there is no way that I am doing…anything with this baby but love it and take care of it. I make enough on my own – I can do it comfortably. I'm not letting go. I'm going to hold on and be okay. It's my baby and I'm going to make sure that I give her or him enough. I can do this.

But…but it will still kill me to break up with him. He can't know why. I'll just tell him that…that…what? What could I possibly tell him? He's perfect, and he's nothing but good to me. There's no reason why a girl would ever break up with him.

I…used to dream of meeting and falling in love with a guy like Daniel before I even knew his name.

And…maybe I should move. I can't leave Toronto because my job is here and I can't afford to miss any work right now. But…I don't want Daniel to be able to find me, so maybe I 'll just start looking for an apartment in a different part of town, even if living anywhere but in Yorkville breaks my heart.

And…oh my God, I'm definitely not telling my parents. It would…it them, it would appear just like everything they always used to say about me and him.

What would a boy like that want to do with you? Only one thing, that's for sure. He wouldn't take you seriously. You're delusional if you think that he actually loves you and wants to marry you.

Of course it would look like that…and they'd never believe that breaking up was my choice. Daniel's always been so clear on future plans, and I know that he wants us to get married when we are a bit older. He's only been out of school one year and he might have a great job, but…he didn't want it like this. And he certainly won't like a baby before he even…proposed. Oh God…proposed, I remembered and I could no longer hold my sobs back. I had allowed myself to imagine that moment many times and now…it's not ever going to happen. It's all…just a dream now. Because of my stupidity – I just had to switch birth control pills and…I messed up. I missed a few days. And now I have to…I have to let go of Daniel. As much as it completely breaks my heart, I…my baby comes first now. I don't need to hurt Daniel like this. I will just get out of his life quietly and…start mine and my baby's.

I'll be fine. I'll be okay. He can't know. And my parents certainly can't know. I tried repeating this over and over to myself, but there was a stronger voice resonating now.

I...I need to focus here, to regroup, but...if only these tears would stop...I can't even see anything.

I can't stay here...if I call and break-up on the phone, or even if I do it in person...Daniel won't buy it. He's going to be able to tell that something is wrong, and he's going to want to find me. He'll come looking for me...to this apartment. So I have to get out. I have to get out now.

I pulled out my suitcase from the very bottom of my closet and threw in a bunch of clothes at once. I can find a place easily. We have security key cards at work, he won't be able to come in. This is what's best. For everyone. I can't ruin Daniel's life plans, and I think that if were to ever see him...disappointed in me, I couldn't live through something like that. I already badly disappointed him once and...I can't do it again. He just won't know. It'll be fine, I urgently kept repeating to myself as my frantic mind went wild with a flurry of thoughts. But this really is best. Daniel will be fine. Eli will look after him and make sure that he's all right after this. And we'll be fine too, love, I whispered as I touched my stomach...incapable of believing that...soon there would be a real person...that would fully and completely depend on me. We'll be fine. I can do this. I can do this all on my own. I...oh God, it would have been wonderful...perfect to have gotten to do it with Daniel...to have the family we have dreamed of. But we can't, I reminded myself. Because I screwed up.

But...maybe I should take that test just in case. I...was too scared to do it yesterday, because...I am just so sure. Seeing those little double pink lines appear...it might be more than I could handle. It would be...absolute proof that I could no longer deny. But...maybe I won't have to leave Daniel after all. Maybe then it will be okay. Maybe...maybe it can all be okay after all.

After doing what I needed to do, I walked out of the bathroom immediately and I left the stick on the counter...I can't...I can't look at it. I just can't. Three more minutes that I can just use for packing, I resolutely told myself. I know what the result is going to be.

I can't ever be happy. I...had it all. I have a great job that I've wanted for so long, and an amazing boyfriend who wanted to marry me and spend our lives together. But I screwed it up, I screwed it up like I always do, I kept repeating over and over to myself as I stuffed more clothes into my suitcase.

I know it's been only thirty seconds, but I don't care. I'm going to look at it now.

Nothing. It's not ready yet.

Oh my God, why is my door opening? There's only one other person who has the key to my apartment, but...it's barely six pm. He's still at work, he's working on a big merger, he said, he's been staying up every night since two am, there's no way he could leave early- there's no way that's –

"Imogen? Baby? You here?" I heard him say loudly and I…just stood frozen, unable to do anything else. He had left work this early? How is that possible?

Before he appeared in the doorframe of my bedroom I quickly hid my hands behind my back. He can't see it. He can't.

I didn't answer him because I was just too distracted, but he came into my room in just a few seconds and…I could tell that he must have rushed over here faster than the speed of light because he was breathing heavily and his entire face was red. Daniel had a lot of freckles on his face and he'd often get flushed when running or playing sports rather quickly, so it was always really prominent when he was rushing from one place to another.

"Hey, hey, baby, it's okay," he softly said, obviously seeing that I had been crying hysterically and he placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. I can't even…he is so perfect. If a heart can actually break into a million little pieces, I'm positive that this is happening to me now.

"What's wrong? Eli said he ran into you on campus and that you looked a little sad. But oh – check it out – I was at that lunchtime meeting with the lawyers that represent the navy commanding forces and walking back to the firm I found this. Right when I saw it, I knew I had to get it for you," he said. He then held out…such a cool iPhone case out to me. It was plated with shiny black jewels and it had red skulls on it…it was so something that I would have bought for myself had I seen it…he was killing me.

"I love it," I whispered, trying to keep my voice from breaking but miserably failing. And Daniel…wasn't pushing. He never pushed me.

He slowly pulled me into an embrace and I was glad that he kept his arms around my shoulder because I quickly moved mine to his back to make sure he couldn't see what I was holding.

"Baby, whatever it is, we can pull through together. There's hasn't been anything else we haven't been able to deal with before, and I bet we can figure this out. What did they say to you?" he asked with a soft sigh, and I couldn't blame him for assuming that this was because of my parents. It always was about them. But not this time. This time it was my own stupidity.

"Why are you here so early? I thought it was hell week at work," I whispered.

"Oh, sweetheart, you know you come first. So I left a couple of house early one day. I don't care about that. I care about you," he said and…I couldn't take it any longer; I pulled out of our embrace so I could look into his eyes.

So I did so at once, and my heart froze when I realized my…fatal mistake.

I then watched in horror as Daniel's eyes widened and he asked at once,

"Um…what the hell is that? Oh God…you're not…?" and I felt fresh tears pour down my face. But…he didn't sound angry, just…nervous. And…I meant to follow my plan, I really did, but…my mouth didn't wait for my brain as I whispered,

"What if…I were?"

Daniel inhaled and exhaled deeply and I felt my race as he…spoke immediately after that.

"That would be…freaking fantastic!" he exclaimed joyously as the brightest smile I have ever seen crossed his face. I felt my heart race even faster as he continued, "A little ahead of schedule perhaps – just a little. But…it would be…my biggest dream coming true ahead of schedule – who could possibly complain about that?"

I…couldn't believe this.

He was happy. The happiest I've ever seen him.

I was so…completely overwhelmed with joy that all I could do was flash him a sassy smile and tease,

"Well, give it a minute now," and Daniel rolled his eyes impatiently in response.

He guided me over to the couch and pulled me in so I could rest my head on his chest and he intertwined our fingers as he asked,

"So, would you like a boy or a girl?" sounding like a little boy bursting with excitement.

"I don't know," I honestly answered. "I love babies so much, both genders are so cute. You?"

"As long as he or she is healthy, I love it either way. Imo…I really hope it's positive, you know," Daniel softly said as he gave me a soft squeeze.

"I'm…pretty sure that it will be," I confessed. "I'm late, and there's some other signs as well," I whispered.

"I just…I didn't think that this could happen," I heard him whisper, and I felt my entire body tremble.

"I…I switched birth control and…I ended up not taking it properly; I missed a few days. I should have told you," I continued. "I swear, Daniel, I didn't do this on purpose to…trap you or anything –" I rushed out, but he gently brought his finger to my lips and gave me a slow kiss afterward.

"Imo…I should have checked in more. After you went on the pill and we stopped using condoms, we just sort of…didn't talk about it anymore. What kind of jerk do you think I am – it's bad enough I left birth control completely up to you after a while, you'd think I'd…blame you?" he asked, sounding so…incredibly hurt.

"I just – it's a lot to process. I only caught on to what was going on a few hours ago myself. This is…big news," I replied, finally vocalizing that thought.

"It is. It is huge, life-altering news. But…you know that my biggest dream is for us to have children," he responded before giving me a quick peck.

I was too overwhelmed by tears of joy at this point to respond, and I soon felt Daniel's fingers gently wipe them away before he excitedly asked,

"God, how long is a minute?"

I couldn't help but giggle and pull out the test from beside me where it was resting, and…sure enough, it had two little pink lines.

"It's positive," I whispered.

"Yes! Damn right it is! Oh my God – we need to mark the calendar so we can always remember the date of the best day of my life – I love you, I love you so much baby," Daniel practically screamed as he gently lifted me up and twirled me around my apartment.

"You're happy," I whispered, more to myself than as meant for Daniel, but I'm sure he heard it as he then said,

"Happy? Happy is an understatement," with a huge smile as he put me down and apologetically added, "But I think that's the last time I'll be able to pick you up and twirl you around like that. I gotta take good, good care of you from now on," and he gently picked me up and rested me onto his lap once we were on the couch. He then flashed me a huge smile and rested both of his hands on my stomach before bending down and placing a kiss over my dress.

"There's a baby in there. Our baby," he said with a beaming smile.

"I…couldn't even believe it when I started to catch on – I craved an apple for God's sake," I giggled, knowing very well that Daniel would realize what an odd thing that was for me, and the look on his face told me that he did indeed.

"That is really something. Surprised Eli caught onto that, thought," he replied with a slight frown.

I giggled even more before I got out, "Oh no, I know Eli doesn't have the slightest clue about what is going on. I just ran into him at Bulldog Coffee and he could just tell that I was….worried," I faltered.

Daniel then locked his gaze with mine and slowly said, "Imogen…that bag you're packing is because you have to go to a conference?" but the look in his eyes and the hurt in his voice told me that…he didn't really believe that.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I totally freaked out – I thought….I thought you wouldn't want this," I finally confessed and Daniel just patiently sighed and pushed my hair out of my face.

"How could you think that? We've…always dreamed of having a baby – no, babies – together," he pointed out.

"But not like this! Not this early…can we…can we even do this?" I asked, beginning to panic a little now.

"Woah, woah, slow down, slow down, love. There's not a doubt in my mind that we can do this," Daniel asserted at once. He then continued, "Sweetheart…I feel really guilty. That you felt that you couldn't come to me with this right away. I don't even want to being thinking about what would have happened if you hadn't run into Eli – I…I hate that it could have just as easily gone a very different way- with you…not telling me? Imogen, I want…I want to be the first person that you come to when you're happy, or sad, or worried," he insisted.

"But you are!" I retorted immediately.

"So then…what happened? Why did you not come to me? Why are you…packing bags instead?" he asked, sounding so…hurt.

"I…Daniel…I didn't want to…hold you back in any way," I confessed.

"What are you talking about?" he asked incredulously, and then he surprised me a bit by giving me yet another quick kiss.

He then continued, "I'm sorry, baby. I know that…I get really into my plans. But…it's different now. When we first met and for a long time after that, I needed to be that way; there we so many deadlines and things to do to make sure that I got into law school. But then I did. And I graduated, and wrote my bar and got a great job that I still thank my lucky stars for every day. But now…we're good. I'm sorry that my crazy planning neuroses…got passed onto you. But…this news is amazing anytime now – because we can look after a baby comfortably. I am…the happiest guy alive," he said, and I embraced him at once.

I felt him leave a series of teasing kisses down my neck and then he asked,

"But…how do you feel about this? I didn't even ask you," and a guilty look flashed across his face.

"I…in the last minutes – since you got here – I feel like…I've gotten everything I've ever wanted; everything I've ever dreamed of," I confessed.

"Really? I don't," Daniel deadpanned, making my heart drop at once. He must have realized my distress because he quickly shot me a smile and added,

"Almost everything I've ever wanted," intertwining our fingers and continuing, "Imo…I feel like a jerk".

"Why?" I asked in confusion.

"Because. I'd like to ask the girl I love to marry me right now and I don't even have a ring," Daniel said, and I dropped my jaw in shock. He…wanted us to get married? Soon? God…and I thought I'd have to leave my apartment and struggle with a baby on my own, and here is Daniel, sitting right next to me and happier than I've ever seen him at anticipating…our baby and…feeling guilty that he doesn't have a ring to give me.

His emotion-laced voice continued as he stood up off the couch and…knelt down on one knee in front of me and said,

"Imogen. I'm not asking you to marry me just because of our wonderful news. But to be honest, I'm not even sure how much longer I could wait had I never known anything. So the fact that you're pregnant is a blessing on more levels than one. Screw waiting a couple more years. Everything is right for us to get married. I have loved you ever since Eli sent me that picture of you in Old Montreal on Facebook, as creepy as that sounds," he said with a little frown as I couldn't help but giggle because it did sound…a little odd when he put it like that.

Daniel continued, "I want us to really start our lives together now. I want us to find a home together, and I want to…I want to take good care of you. You are the most extraordinary girl that I've ever met, and I'd be the luckiest fool on the planet if you became my wife. I love you, and I can't wait for us to properly be together and start our family. So…will you marry me? Soon?" Daniel asked as he placed a kiss on my hand.

I felt a small tear escape my eye as I immediately nodded and replied, "Yes! Oh my god, yes, Daniel. I love you so much," and I pulled him up into a kiss at once. As he supported his body on top of mine on the couch, I could tell that he was being so protective and careful of not crushing me, and after he pulled away he placed another kiss on my hand before he frowned slightly and said,

"You see, I feel like there needs to be something to seal the deal – this is why people do rings. Ugh," and I could tell that he was really beating himself up over this.

"Daniel…you know how you just said that you are the happiest guy on the planet right now?" I asked, and he nodded at once. "Well, you just made me the happiest girl on the planet. I don't need a ring," I shyly told him.

He gasped playfully and answered, "Well, you'd better get ready to have one – there's no way I'm taking the chance of idiots out there thinking you're single. I should have gotten you one forever ago. Clare wears Eli's ring even if they are not engaged, I just realized," Daniel said.

"It's actually Princess Diana's – replica of hers from her engagement," I told him, remembering the gorgeous ring that Clare had shown me once she had come back from England.

"Damn you, Eli –making me look bad," Daniel laughed. "I promise you your ring will be even better. Princess Diana's kid got married, right? So, let's get you a replica of the new royal wedding ring, not the old one," Daniel said, his competitive spirit kicking in.

"It's the same one, silly," I told him as I ran my fingers through his hair.

"Huh? Her kid took her engagement ring?" Daniel asked in confusion.

"No, no," I gently explained, "Princess Di…after she died in that awful car crash…her boys kept some things of hers. Her oldest, Prince William kept her watch because she had taught him to tell time on it, and her second son, Prince Harry, kept her engagement ring. But the boys apparently agreed that whomever would get married first would ask their future wife to get married using their mother's ring, so ultimately, Harry gave it to William," I finished.

"Well, baby, I promise you, I'm going to put a ring on your finger soon. Because we are engaged! We are getting married!" he repeated joyously. Daniel then ran his fingers through his hair and began,

"Okay, so first things first. We need to make you a doctor's appointment, make sure things are all right, get you the doctor that will help us through this whole pregnancy," and as soon as he said those words, I knew that he realized this was a sensitive subject for me, because he kissed my cheek ever so gently.

"Daniel…I don't think – I won't want to," I faltered, but he just shot me a smile and said,

"Imo. I know. I…don't think it's necessary that they know yet. Whenever or whatever you want to tell them is perfectly fine with me. I'll do whatever you want. But what I'd like, only if you want to as well, is for us to get married as soon as we can find a date that works for my parents and all of our friends. And…whatever you want to do about your parents, we will do. And as for everyone else, we will only tell whoever you want to. I'd shout if from the rooftops if it was up to me, but I only want to do whatever you want to as well. If we get married soon, which I hope we do, because I really just don't want to wait until you become my wife, it'll look like a honeymoon baby to everyone else, which is what I've always wanted anyway. No one needs to know; honey moon baby that came early. And I'd like to get you a private doctor, that way…no one can access your records without a legal order. That much I know from my job, that they can't. So…let's go that route, okay?" he asked, and I couldn't help but embrace him at once and hang onto him as tightly as possible.

"It's expensive – private healthcare. It really is," I pointed out.

"Um…I don't know if you haven't realized this yet," Daniel started as he pulled out of our embrace in order to flash me a sassy smile, "But…I'm a lawyer…for an exclusive branch of the government – my gig pays well. We…are definitely good to go," he explained.

"I can pay for it too," I pointed out at once.

"I know. But…I'd like you to let me pay. I think we should probably go to the bank and join our accounts like, yesterday, anyway, okay?" he asked, and after a few tries at persuading him that that wasn't necessary, I had to give up. Daniel really was impossible to win an argument against. I'm pretty sure the Canadian army would never lose a case with Daniel on their side.

"Baby…I'm thinking we should at least invite your parents to our wedding though," he added.

"I want to. I want to invite them to our wedding. I don't know if they'll come, but of course I do. But…I don't want to tell them about the baby. I don't want them to –" I started, and then Daniel finished my sentence for me.

"Mess with our heads. Me either, although love – here's the thing. Me and you and him or her," he gently said as he touched my stomach, "This is our own family now. This is it. We don't have to listen to anyone or let them mess with our heads ever again. We're our own family now, and we're perfect," he emphatically said as he ran his fingers through my hair.

"But oh my God, we have to tell Mom!" he joyously said, practically screaming.

"What will she say?" I whispered.

"Um, are you kidding? Dad and her have been waiting so long for me to pop the question," he burst out, surprising me quite a bit.

"Really?" I asked.

"Definitely. After Andrew's wedding," he said, in reference to his brother's wedding that we went to last summer, "I knew it would be my turn. Though I must say, I'm quite pleased I'm gonna beat him to the baby punch," Daniel continued with a chuckle.

"Are we going to tell her about the baby?" I asked, a little nervous. Nora was so sweet and kind to me, but….what would she exactly think about this? I just wasn't sure.

"It's up to us, Imo, just like I said. We're our own family now. But I think mom and dad would both be absolutely thrilled to hear that they will be grandparents for the first time soon. I really don't think they would have a problem with it," Daniel replied.

"They won't think we're too young?" I double-checked.

"I highly doubt it. We're secure now, we can easily take care of a baby. And…we're ready, maturity wise. We got this," he repeated, and then added, "But if you only want her to know about the wedding, that is amazing news in its own. We don't have to do anything you don't want".

I thought for a minute about everything that Daniel had said since coming in, and…I knew that he knew his parents best and he was clearly bursting with so much excitement that I felt that at any point he might just go shout our news from the rooftop, so I slowly nodded and said,

"Okay, let's tell them," and just a few minutes later Daniel was literally holding his phone away from his ear and I could hear his mom screaming with happy excitement on the other line as he mouthed 'told you so'.

"She wants to speak to you," he told me and I grabbed the phone from him at once.

"Hi, Nora," I shyly said.

"Sweetheart! Congratulations! I am just…I am just so happy right now, I am going to be a grandma! And your wedding will be perfect, I plan on seeing to that myself. I never thought I would get to take charge of a wedding as the mother of four boys, but I want to help with every single aspect of it. And no more of this Nora business – from now on I'd like you to call me 'mom'," she said, speaking at a speed of a thousand words per minute.

"Mom?" I incredulously whispered.

"Yes, love?" Nora replied, not really realizing that I was more repeating the term in astonishment as opposed to asking her a question. But…here goes anyway,

"You don't…you're not disappointed that we didn't wait any longer? You don't think that this is…too early?" I asked her in fear.

"Oh, sweetheart, don't be silly – disappointed? I couldn't be any more proud. And let me tell you something. When Daniel's dad and I found out I was pregnant with Andrew, we were each living in basement suites eight hundred miles from our original homes, all on our own – you see what I'm trying to say is that –"

"There's no good time to have a baby?" I asked as I could feel my hands shaking.

"No, sweetheart, that's not it at all. What I'm trying to tell you is that when two people love each other as much as you and my son do, and when they have stable jobs – and you and Daniel are doing so much better in that area than my husband and I did when we had Andrew…when that's how it is, then there's no bad time to have a baby, sweetheart," she finished.

"Mom?" I shyly whispered as I felt Daniel pull me into a hug, crushing the phone receiver just a bit.

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"I'd like…I'd like me and Daniel to get married in Ottawa. At your house…backyard wedding," I said, because as soon as I heard her voice I realized that our wedding should be…a family affair.

"Oh, Imogen, sweetie," I heard her sigh tearfully into the phone. "I am so…I am just so honoured. That's my dream come true, you know – for Daniel and for you to get married at home. Of course. Daniel said we're looking to do the wedding soon, and I couldn't agree more. I was thinking next month, at the very end – give you enough time to get all your friends together," Nora said.

"Sounds perfect," I confirmed happily.

"Don't you worry about a thing – I'll fly out to Toronto next weekend and we can start strategizing. But, sweetheart, you need to start taking really good care of yourself now – see a doctor, plan mat leave…I know everything that needs to get done, I've been through it four times, I'll help you with it all. You just make sure my son takes you to see a doctor and hang tight until I get there," she instructed, sounding just as determined as Daniel always did when he outlined one of his plans.

"Will do. Thank you, so much…mom," I whispered tearfully, my emotion overcoming me.

"Thank you, sweetheart. You have given me the greatest joy," she told me meaningfully before I passed the phone over to Daniel and he spent the next ten minutes repeating,

"Yes, mom. I got it, I'm not gonna do that, don't worry, yes I've got it, already planned on calling," and many more variations of such words.

Daniel then spent the rest of the night ordering baby books online – I knew he would head for research right away- and he then put them on his Kindle right away and began moving things around my apartment because apparently 'the baby book said so'. The baby book also apparently told him chamomile tea was best for me right now, and he rushed out to the store to get some, and he then laid me down in bed with a warm cup and some cookies as he talked to me gently about joining our accounts and looking for a comfortable apartment close by to both of our jobs. The last thing I remember before I fell asleep was him softly kissing my eyelids shut, and the exhaustion and happiness of the day overwhelmed me just a few seconds later.

When I woke up the next morning, I was incredibly relieved that it was Saturday and that I didn't have to go to work, and as I turned around in my bed, I snuggled into Daniel's side, knowing that he had slept over. I saw him smile at me, and he pulled me in a little closer and asked,

"Hey, beautiful. Sleep well?" and I nodded happily.

"Good, I'm glad. Because I've been thinking – I really don't like you living all alone now. And I know you don't want to live together until the wedding, so I was thinking maybe mom would like to-" he began saying, but I interrupted him with a shake of my head.

It was…different now. I could trust Daniel. He was going to be my husband, I thought happily, and he had a point about me not living alone.

"I…want us to move in together," I whispered, and gave him a quick kiss.

"Really? Because I can wait, we can come up with some sort of other plan," he said.

"I'd like it if…you stayed here," I plainly told him.

"I think that's a good idea too – I don't want to make you move. But just until next month, okay, and by then I promise I will have found us a nice big apartment that we can start our married life in," Daniel replied with a smile, and…what he had just said sounded to me like the most perfect plan in the world.

"Sounds great," I encouraged him.

"Almost great. Just one more thing," he said mischievously, and he then reached over to the nightstand table and…held out a ruby red velvet box to me.

No. He couldn't have.

"This ring is to officially seal the deal. I didn't want my girl to wait any longer than necessary, so I ran to the jeweller's as soon as the stores started opening. I hope you like it," he said and he opened the box to reveal a stunning diamond engagement ring that had the words 'to my extraordinary girl' engraved on the inside of the band.

"I love it, I can't believe you already got it," I whispered incredulously as Daniel slid it on my finger.

"Of course I got it. I love you," he said as he intertwined our fingers and kissed my forehead.

"What a day, huh?" I giggled as I studied my beautiful ring even closer.

"The best day," Daniel sighed as he rested my head on his chest and sighed contently.

Clare's POV

"Not my fault there were so many red lights," I teased Eli as I wiped off some of my lip gloss off of his temple before we met up with everyone for dinner at Sage Bistro. Daniel and Imogen had called us all to share some big news, apparently.

"Hey – do you hear me complaining?" Eli shot back with a playful smirk and I couldn't help but giggle in response.

"So what do you think they have to tell us?" I asked Eli as we waved at Adam and Lana who we saw coming up on the street ahead of us.

"No idea," he said with a shrug, "But I hope that they're not moving away or anything".

"Daniel wouldn't have to? I mean, he's a lawyer for the army," I asked Eli, knowing he would know more about Daniel's life than I did. I hadn't taken any military law class in my time in law school, and seeing how I had already pretty much already chosen my classes for next year and that wasn't in the cards in the next two semesters either, I'd probably never learn its intricacies as well as Daniel knows them.

"No, he says his work involves defending decisions and arguing new policies for the government here and in Ottawa. And that's really good – Imogen already did all that traveling to army bases with her parents," Eli pointed out as I nodded in agreement.

We quickly caught up with Adam and Lana and as we walked into the bistro and saw Imogen and Daniel waiting for us, everything became clear when she held up her ring hand at once and brightly said,

"Welcome to our engagement party/gathering thing!" looking happier than I had ever seen her.

"Wow, congratulations you guys," I saw Eli say with a wide smirk. He then exchanged a very smug fist-bump with Daniel and gave Imogen a warm hug.

I was kind of in shock that these two…were already engaged. Daniel had followed that same educational path as me – he was just a year ahead as he was older –and here he was, engaged already. I still had a year to go, and…I knew that Eli did too, and I knew that he knew I wanted to wait until both of us had good jobs in order to get married.

But…as I studied Imogen and Daniel throughout dinner, I…felt the need to hold Eli's hand tightly, something that he adored I am sure, and…his silence and thoughtful gaze made me wonder if he was…worried at all about the future. I knew that teaching positions were hard to come by and it was what Eli had completed his training for, and he has been so busy with his PhD that he hasn't had much time for writing. I know that Eli wants to provide me with security, but I also don't want him to kill himself over this. Protecting me and looking after me has kind of been all that he has ever wanted to do, but I think that now he is really feeling the pressure. Especially when the two people that he basically set up are getting married, and I know that Eli is thinking that Daniel is in a position to provide for Imogen well.

So as we walked out back to the Jeep after a dinner with a very excited Imogen and Daniel and Eli told Lana and Adam that he would give them a ride, I held his hand tightly and kissed his cheek playfully just once, before Adam could groan and go into a monologue about all the torture that we have put him through. I just wanted to see him…a little happier, and my trick seemed to work as he shot me a quick smirk and a wink. Eli then said,

"Oh, I'd like to inform everyone that Driving School Eli has just had its successful fourth graduate," as I smiled and replied,

"I bet Dylan is so excited - and Scotty too".

"Their dad called me to thank me for giving him lessons and I talked to the boys too, Dylan said the part he is least looking forward to is chauffeuring his brother around," Eli said.

"He's just kidding," I pointed out as we all made our way into the car.

"I know. He's such a good brother," Eli declared, and I couldn't help but think…that had Cece had that girl that she wanted to after she had Eli…he would make an excellent big brother as well.

Eli then started the car and once he pulled onto Queen's Street I reached for his free hand and intertwined our fingers together, and it was only a few seconds before Lana giggled and said,

"So, guys – those two and their engagement – I think it's fantastic and I know their marriage will work, but not going to lie – I'm more excited for the arrival of the reason why this plan needed to be expedited a bit," and as I softly gasped, I saw Eli get a look of confusion on his face. He then asked,

"What do you mean?" as Adam also shot Lana a confused glance and she explained,

"Oh come on! Boys really are blind, and Clare, you didn't notice either?" she said with a playful shake of her head. "Imogen is totally preggers," she squealed out.

"What? No, she's not," Eli said as he shot Lana a funny look in the rear-view mirror.

"Whatever, Eli. She so is. She was totally glowing –"

"She just got engaged. She's gonna be happy. To think that she's pregnant because she's happy is ridiculous," Eli pointed out.

"Um, and Daniel is moving in – so he can look after her, and the wedding is next month – honeymoon baby possibility, and – this is the first time I have seen her skip wine at dinner," Lana expertly pointed out.

I felt a huge smile form across my face as I answered, "Oh my God, Lana – you're totally right. That's why they put the express date on this marriage. They're going to have a baby!" I squealed and Adam immediately asked me and Lana to 'stop making sounds that only dogs can hear'.

I then looked over at Eli and he had a really thoughtful look on his face as he nodded and said, "On second thought, you're probably right," and I was really curious to hear his opinion on this.

I…knew that sometimes these things happened unexpectedly if you were having sex, and I knew that Imogen and Daniel surely must have used birth control. Maybe they made a mistake or had a malfunction, but…so they weren't married…but as soon as Daniel found out, he must have asked her to marry him. Because he loves her. Even when things didn't go straight by the book, they treated this as a happy surprise and…made everything okay. They are financially stable enough to care of things, and they love each other, so…why shouldn't they be happy? I can understand why they didn't tell us – probably didn't want anyone to say that the only reason why they got married is because they were going to have a baby, when in reality, it wasn't like that. Even if this was quite far away from what I always imagined as the perfect plan, it was still….so beautiful.

As he turned onto Adam and Lana's street, Eli shrugged and said, "Well, so what? Imogen's wanted to be a mom for so long, and obviously it was always going to happen with no one else but Daniel, and they have good jobs, and they're getting married. So what if she's pregnant? That's not a bad thing. That's a good – no, a great thing," Eli said, and I gave his hands a quick squeeze. He had articulated everything so perfectly, and everyone in the car smiled and agreed with him at once.

Imogen and Daniel would be the first of our friends to get married and to have a baby…and I knew that everyone was just as excited for them as I was.

Dr. Moreno's POV

"Richard….have you seen this?" I asked my husband after I brought in the mail. The envelope sure looked like…a wedding invitation – from Imogen.

She was going to marry that Daniel boy? Already? He had asked her to marry him?

"What are you talking about?" my husband asked me as he came over and as I opened the envelope…it sure was.

Dr. and Mrs. Patterson proudly invite you to celebrate the marriage of

Daniel Patterson and Imogen Moreno

June twenty-fifth, ceremony will commence at ten am

8566 Rideau Way, Ottawa

Dress: Morning coat or military uniform

"Oh my God, Imogen's getting married – and this is how we find out," my husband said, just a bit reproachfully. I knew that he harboured resentment towards me because we weren't as close to Imogen as other parents were to their children, but that really was ridiculous. It was not only my fault; he was just as guilty and after she had left to college we really didn't see much of her because we…are busy. We are surgeons, for crying out loud. We don't have time to visit our children on campus and hold their hands through university.

"Well, I for one, can't believe it – we don't even know anything about this Daniel character," I pointed out.

"They have been dating a long time. All throughout college. It's good that they are getting married, I guess," he added.

"I just can't believe that she didn't tell us ahead of time," I whispered, the magnitude of this news finally hitting me.

My daughter…got engaged, and…I didn't even know until I received the wedding invitation in the mail. Even I knew that there was something wrong with that.

"Richard…we made a colossal mistake, you know, with how we raised her. She…can't even come to us and tell us that she is engaged," I whispered as my husband nodded silently and reached for his laptop.

"Let's see who Daniel Patterson exactly is," he said, and I saw him look up his medical records.

"Whoa. Sports kind of guy," my husband said, pointing out all the fractures that Daniel had had…quite a number of years ago.

"As a child," I completed. "Look, no recent medical history at all – oh, but wait – army physical. He's in the army? I thought he was a lawyer," I said in confusion.

"We can Google his name and if he is associated with a major law firm - his name should be on their website," Richard pointed out, completing the search rapidly.

"Look – here we go. Oh wow, he is a lawyer – and an army lawyer as well – works for the government but never travels with troops," he told me, and showed me a picture of a handsome young man who was indeed the same individual that I have seen in some of my daughter's pictures.

"He…really has his life together. This is a…good boy," I realized. "And…I told her so many awful things about how a serious boy could never want to marry her".

"She has a good job too. She works in research at U of T and at the clinic. It's time for us to face it – she does not belong in the role that we often cast her in. And…with this boy, she has broken free of the way we treated her. This boy – he is her family now. To the point where all we get is a wedding invitation," my husband pointed out, and I realized…just how wrong I had approached everything.

"You remember those army lawyers – they are incredibly smart people. So sharp – make me regret that we never met this boy," I quietly said before I added, "We have to go to her wedding. We at least have to be there, she's our only child. But…it's in Ottawa. She's getting married over there for his family. Everything will be…for his family. We get…nothing," I angrily said.

"It says on the invitation Dr. Patterson in reference to his dad – look," Richard continued as he pointed to his laptop and I could see a picture of an older man and woman standing on the steps of Parliament in Ottawa with a Canadian flag and the Prime Minister shaking their hand – "His parents work for the government, that's why they live in Ottawa. His dad has a PhD in political science, and it looks they are special advisors to the Department of Homeland Security as well – there will probably be a lot of army staff at the wedding, hence the military uniform line on the dress code," Richard pointed out.

"We don't have military coat, we won't wear that," I stubbornly told him, both of us having left the armed forces medical corps a long time ago, when Imogen was in elementary school.

"She didn't even tell us she was getting married. Face it, Imogen's been out on her own for a long time. Now she found a great boy who is intelligent and who has looked after her all in college and who wants to marry her. Why shouldn't she do something that makes him happy? He's her family now, and I'm afraid that he's been her family for many years, and we didn't even realize it," my husband quietly said as he took his glasses off, ever so calmly.

"I'm going to call her," I declared at once, and I was glad that Imogen picked up on the first ring.

"Hi, mom. Listen, I'm talking to Daniel's mom about some wedding details – she is helping me organize it, came into town just to help me out with some things, I really can't keep her waiting. Call you back?" I heard her say, and…I couldn't believe it.

She did call me back and apologized ten minutes later, but…that other woman was helping my daughter plan her wedding while I barely received an invitation?

"Hey," I heard Imogen politely say.

"Imogen Moreno, were you ever going to tell me that you were getting married?" I said, my frustration getting the best of me.

"Of course, mom, that's why I sent you that invitation. I realize you and dad probably won't be able to come, but I just thought you should-" she started, but I cut her off immediately.

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

"Because…you've never spent a weekend with me in six years. You are always working; just an assumption based on past precedent," Imogen replied at once, and I could tell that Daniel's lawyer ways and terms were rubbing off on my daughter.

"We'll be there – both your father and I, Imogen," I said categorically, and I heard her sigh on the other end of the phone.

"I'm really glad you can come, mom. Thank you," she said emphatically, and I could tell that she was getting…emotional.

"Imogen, darling, why don't we do the wedding in Toronto? We can rent out a nice big hotel and your father and I will pay for Daniel's family to stay there as I know most of them are from Ottawa –"I began to propose, but this time Imogen was the one to cut me off at once.

"No, mom. I'm getting married at Daniel's parents' house. I want to – it's like my home away from college, this house. I've been to it every summer break and even two Christmases. This is where Daniel and I are getting married, in the cutest little backyard wedding there has ever been, as his mom always says," she said with a giggle, and…I could feel my heart drop.

My daughter…saw that place as her second home.

"Well, all right then. Is there anything your father and I can do for the wedding?" I asked, wanting to be able to help out.

"Nope, Daniel's mom and I have already looked after everything pretty much. It's all organized. See you then," and just like that, I heard her click her phone off.

After recounting our entire conversation to my husband, I could see that in his characteristic fashion, he definitely had regrets, but he was burying them as deep as he could, and only pronouncing,

"Well, that's that then. I'll get us the plane tickets," and seeing his nonchalant manner just about made me explode.

"Richard…do you even realize what this means? Our own daughter didn't even tell us she was getting married…her and that boy are going to have children soon, and…we won't even know our own grandchildren. What if they decide to move to Ottawa – Imogen clearly loves it there – and we never even see them again? We have to do something. We have already made so many mistakes. I want to…I want to help my daughter and her…fiancé, as strange as that sounds, out in some fashion".

"Don't you realize? She doesn't need our help. She's integrated into a new family now," he silently said, shutting off his laptop and trying to hide his sadness from me.

But I couldn't help but think that…surely there must be something we can do too.

However, by the time that the wedding weekend came around, not much had really changed. Whenever I called, Imogen was either at work, or on the phone with Daniel's mom, and often I'd call and Daniel himself would answer her phone and tell me that she was asleep, had a long day at work and he didn't want to wake her up. I was happy to see him being so protective of Imogen, but…I absolutely hated the feeling that my daughter had erased me from her life. And what was even worse, I knew why.

Because I had always erased her from my life. Passed her off to nannies so I could return to the OR, and the worst part was that…I always used to look down on other female surgeons who took time off from important cases in order to 'be with my children'. But…I bet that those mothers got phone calls after their daughters got engaged, and not just simply found out through wedding invitations. They wouldn't have to find out details about the groom and his family through Internet searches; they would…already know them well.

Richard and I flew to Ottawa easily and I am pretty sure that four other people who were on our flight were people that were going to the wedding as well, as they all carried hangers that obviously contained dresses or suits. They were two couples; one of them was a very athletic girl with long blonde hair who was hanging onto the hand of a very hyperactive looking young man, and the other was a very pretty girl with fantastic curly hair who kept being dipped playfully and spun around in some type of game by a boy with jet black hair and green eyes. When I heard the other boy tease the black-haired boy about being the best man and reason why Imogen and Daniel met in the first place, I realized that…they really were friends of Daniel and Imogen, and apparently that black-haired boy was a common friend who had introduced them.

However, I lost track of them as we boarded the plane; they headed for the economy class while my husband and I were flying first class as we always did. Three and a half hours later, we walked up to the steps of a beautiful, though definitely not a mansion-style house, my husband and I exchanged glances and…I realized why Imogen liked it here so much. It was a really homely place, and it was obvious that the garden was well looked after.

We quickly saw Imogen and Daniel walking out hand in hand, and…I had actually never seen the boy other than just one time. He was just as polite as ever, and it was very clear that he was really intelligent, but he seemed to be even more protective of Imogen than the last time that I saw him, getting up from our lunch many times to get her a glass of water, or juice, or blueberries from the bushes in the back of the house.

The four people who Richard and I saw in the airport must have gotten delayed or something, because they only appeared after lunch, but it sure got a lot louder once they got here. All the young people were practically bursting with excitement and it turns out that my daughter knows her fiancé from their common friend Eli who was the boy spinning that pretty girl with curly hair whose name is apparently Clare, and the other two are Adam and Lana, who apparently were friends of Eli's as well before Imogen and Daniel met them. The girls quickly disappeared because they apparently wanted to see Imogen's dress – Clare and Lana were bridesmaids and Imogen's maid of honour was Jen, her friend from high school who had moved out to UBC for college and only returned last year, and the boys hopped into Eli's car and said they were going to go finish some last minute errands. Richard took a book out to the back yard which was arranged for tomorrow – the garden had been very well tended with roses everywhere and a neighbour who apparently owned a nail salon studio and her husband came by and dropped off a hoopla – one of those arches that apparently he hand-carved. Daniel's mom completely swooned over it, and I had to admit….it was rather unique and it added an air of…enchantment to the entire backyard.

It may not have been a nice reception at the Sutton Place downtown, but…it really did look like what Imogen characterized it when she had first envisioned it to me on the phone…the cutest little backyard wedding there has ever been. After an afternoon of complete madness, once the boys went driving with Eli and the girls went to obsess over their outfits, I just sat down in the sunny country kitchen and realized….how odd this all felt. My daughter was beginning a new life, and…the person who had helped her and mentored her through the wedding process was the same lady walking through the kitchen right now – Daniel's mom Nora. We really didn't have a chance to talk, and her hug when we first met definitely caught me off guard. I can tell that like a lot of people who meet me, she is a little shy around me – she has already apologized for not being able to put Richard and I up in a nicer room despite the fact that the room she did assign to us is very nice indeed, and I can tell that she is stressing around me, thinking that because I am used to a higher standard of things, I will…look down on her.

"Oh, hi. Are you finding everything okay here? Is there anything I can get you? I have some extra blankets in case it gets cold at night," she warmly said in a nervous tone.

"No, it's perfect, everything is perfect. Thank you Nora – for helping my daughter through this whole wedding thing. I know you came to Toronto to get it all planned with her," I started.

"Of course – I never thought I would get to plan a wedding; I'm the mother of four boys and well – you know. I really wanted a girl as well, but it just wasn't in the cards. Whenever Daniel would bring Imogen home on holiday in their college days, I just…I always loved it. I felt like a giggly school girl, counting down each day until I could go to the airport and pick them up. You have raised a fantastic girl, you know," she complimented me…with tears in her eyes. I could hardly believe that she was getting so emotional.

"I'm afraid I can't take much credit. Imogen's always preferred to do her own thing," I said, not really wanting to share.

"She's amazing, and my Daniel loves her a lot. He will take good care of her," she sighed as a thoughtful smile appeared on her face.

"She looks to his place as home, you know," I told Nora and she smiled brightly.

"I'm really glad she does," and she took out some crackers and cheese spread, peanut butter, and a series of homemade jams and explained, "I just wanted to bring the girls a snack. They need to keep their energy up, big day tomorrow".

I moved to help her, and Nora shyly said, "Oh, you don't have to – it's okay," but I insisted, telling her,

"I just wanted to make a plate for Imogen," hoping that she wouldn't realize that it had been well over eight years since I have done anything of the sort.

And then, it happened. A moment that I would remember for the rest of my life – my final rude awakening.

I saw a small blush spread on Nora's cheeks as she looked down and whispered,

"Imogen doesn't like peanut butter," and with that comment, I finally realized that…this lady was more of a mother to my daughter than I had ever been.

I knew she didn't tell me that to be snarky, or to make me realize what I did – she was only being a diligent…mother.

And just a few seconds later, I watched Imogen come down the stairs excitedly and Nora gently told her to slow down and never run down the stairs or she could get hurt – rather infantile advice, if one were to ask me, but it seems that Nora had the patience for such things – and as Nora handed her a plate of differently flavoured crackers with different toppings, I could barely believe Imogen's reply.

"Thanks, mom. Looks great," she said, as casually as if it were her millionth time referring to Nora as…her mom.

Imogen's POV

"But did it go well, Lana?" I asked once I got back upstairs and we all started sampling the wonderful jam that Daniel's dad always made. I was asking Lana about the meeting that her and Adam had before coming over to my parents' house; they had headed right from the airport to that meeting. I knew Clare and Eli also went with them for moral support, but it was a huge deal, what Lana and Adam were trying to do, and it was perfect timing with them coming out to Ottawa for my wedding anyway.

"We got on the list, so that's progress," Lana said with a shrug as I saw Clare cast her a small smile.

"Hey, listen, maybe we should have Daniel give things a quick look-over," I suggested. "It's not his type of law, but he has contacts and maybe he can help, you know, when the time comes," I continued, and after some more encouragement on my part and Clare's, Lana finally agreed.

I then heard the door open and I was surprised to see my mom and dad come in, and after they asked for a minute with me, Clare and Lana and Jane left, looking just as confused as I felt.

"Is your room all right? There is a Marriott just a few minutes away if you don't like it," I gently suggested, hoping that they wouldn't actually insult Daniel's mom that way.

"It's really nice, Imogen, it's really nice," my mom said as dad nodded in confirmation.

I…really didn't know what else to say to them. A huge part of me was still surprised that they had actually shown up, and the other part of me was too relieved that I wasn't starting to show to leave room for any other feelings.

"Imogen….your dad and I are really happy for you. Daniel is a nice boy," I heard my mom say.

"Still think he'll never marry me?" I shot, because I just couldn't control myself.

"Let me guess, you came here to tell me to just to go home, not to humiliate myself by being deserted at the altar tomorrow. Well, I'm not doing that, mom. Tomorrow I'm getting married to the boy that I will be spending the rest of my life with, right in the backyard of this house that I love so much," I blurted out.

"No, Imogen, that's not what your dad and I wanted to tell you. We…wanted to apologize for not being supportive of your relationship with Daniel. For not…being there for you like real parents should," my mom whispered, and I…could not believe it. I never expected this, and as much as I had dreamed of such a moment occurring for pretty much all of my life, I never thought it would come.

So I did accept her hug, although…I was not ready to give her my trust yet. I was not going to tell her about our baby; if she figures it out once it's born, then good for her, but…I'm really happy right now and I don't want anything to break this happiness. It's just like Daniel said, him and our baby – we are our own family now.

After I pulled away from her embrace, I then saw my dad smile at me as well and he began, "Imogen, have you and Daniel given any thought to where you might live after the wedding? Are you moving in with him or something?"

"We are actually buying a new apartment, a bigger one, we haven't signed the paperwork yet or anything though," I explained.

My dad then smiled a little wider and said, "Listen, sweetheart, your mom and I have been talking. We were hoping that you and Daniel would let us –"

"Let you what?" I heard Daniel say as he opened the door and rushed to my side immediately, placing his arm around me and asking me, "You all right, baby?" in fear, which I knew was because he must have heard that I was talking to my parents.

"I'm fine, Daniel, I'm good, I'm really good," I gently told him.

"We were hoping that you would let us buy you a house," my dad finished, and I gasped in surprise. Mom then added, "It's the least we could do".

I felt Daniel give my shoulder a squeeze, and he immediately replied,

"Thanks, but no thanks – I can look after my wife very well on my own, thank you very much. I don't know if you remember, but I'm a junior partner at a law firm. We're buying our own place," in a stubborn tone.

I knew that Daniel was trying to tell me that we don't need my parents and that he saw this as the beginning of us being our own family unit, but…the more I thought about it, the more I realized that…I really was okay with my parents doing this.

My mom then spoke out, "Daniel – you and Imogen want to have a family; I can tell – it's plain as day. You two like this family lifestyle that you grew up in – you want a big family just like you and your three brothers grew up with".

"Of course we do. Who wouldn't?" Daniel replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

"So, then, let us do this for you. We've already missed out on so many things that fall under parent duties with Imogen. Let us get you a proper house in Toronto that has space for…a family," my mom finished, and after I nodded and told my mom that we would love that, Daniel reluctantly agreed to split the price of a home with my parents, which really was the best negotiation they were ever going to get with him, as I assured them. It was a miracle that Daniel was going to give in that much in the first place.

"Thank you, mom. Thank you, dad. I love you," I finally said, because I just couldn't contain myself any longer at the vision of…everything falling into place for Daniel and for our baby and myself.

"We love you too, sweetheart. We are so proud of you. So proud," my mom replied as I stepped forward into her embrace and I felt Daniel place his hand on my shoulder. He knew how important those words were to me.

Clare's POV

"So, Edwards, first time being a bridesmaid – how did it feel?" Eli asked me with a smirk after we returned from a couple of slow dances.

"I loved it. Good best man's speech, Eli," I complimented him before he leaned in and have me a light kiss.

"What a beautiful wedding," I sighed happily, because it truly was such a thing. Before this, I never really imagined weddings in any other locations but churches, but this beautiful country style wedding was so…perfect. Many of the people wore military uniforms because of Daniel's family involvement, and he more military dress as well, which I know Imogen loved. Both of them just looked so…sure. There was a perfect confidence in Imogen's eyes as her dad walked her down the aisle and Daniel's mom lost all composure and just softly cried in her husband's arms, and Daniel looked like the most confident man on Earth throughout the whole ceremony. I'm pretty sure that I delivered my duties respectably – Daniel's mom was really the one who organized the whole wedding, and she told us than in the simple country style that was respected when she was a young girl, bridesmaids and groomsmen walk down the aisle together before the bride – so I took Eli's arm at the start of the garden aisle and we walked together to the altar…which was an overwhelming feeling.

It made me realize that, had the minister just confused us and started reading out vows to the two of us instead of to Imogen and Daniel, I…would have married Eli right then and there. However, no such thing happened – Eli just whispered a teasing comment in my ear that made me blush about ten different shades of red before we separated and he went to stand on Daniel's side of the altar while I stood on Imogen's.

Their vows were simple and the ceremony wasn't a standard Church of England one, but…it was absolutely perfect.

I snapped out of my thoughts and returned to my conversation with Eli,

"Well – I will practice being Alli's bridesmaid as well, and then I will have to stop, you know what they say," I teased him.

"You're assuming I can wait that long to ask you to marry me," Eli muttered to the side, but I heard him anyway and I couldn't help but smile.

"Eli?" I asked him and he raised an eyebrow in confirmation.

"Alli…is engaged. She's getting married next year," I shared with him.

"Nick proposed?" Eli asked in surprise and I nodded.

"Wow, that's um, that's really great," Eli said, and I could tell that he was happy for them – we spent a bit of time with Alli and Nick going out together and such – but…I also knew that all of this wedding stuff was getting to Eli, and…I knew that he was left wondering where the two of us stand.

I then saw Alli head towards our table – her and Nick had flown in later than us because of her shifts at the hospital; she was working in the neuroscience lab there – and sure enough, she showed her sparkly diamond and gold ring to Eli.

"Congratulations, Alli. I'm really happy for you," he said, and he then flashed me a small smirk before I saw him head to the bar and order a beer.

"Grumpy Eli?" Alli asked with a frown.

"More like…worried Eli," I slowly said.

"What's he got to be so worried about?" Alli pursued.

"The future I think," I replied.

"Come on, now, he's getting his PhD, he'll be all right," Alli answered as she began eating a piece of wedding cake.

"I know…it's just that his education path has been a little longer than his friends' that's all," I modestly said.

"He's worried about showing he's like…worthy of you or something, I bet. He loves you, Clare. I think he wants to…prove that he can take care of you. Just tell him it's okay, I think he's really tripping himself out over this," Alli advised me, and that night as we were lying on the couch back in Toronto in Eli's apartment, I decided to follow Alli's instructions.

However, just as I was racking my brain for the perfect words, I felt Eli slowly run his fingers through my hair and softly say,

"Hey, Clare, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about," and the tone in his voice told me that it was…something serious.

"What's that?" I asked him.

"Well, two of our friends just got married. And I know the fact that they might have a baby made them speed things up a bit, but, still, they got married. And now…your best female friend," Eli said mischievously, clearly wanting to highlight that the two of us were best friends, "just got engaged".

"Uh huh," I encouraged him, wanting to say not too much and see where he was going with this.

"I guess that I – I just wanted to tell you that…I'm sorry that it's taking me so long to get my own life and school and stuff figured out," Eli sighed.

"Eli, it's not up to you. You never even took any time off between degrees. This is just the path that you need to follow in order to get to where you want to be," I pointed out.

"I know, but even when I finish it, there still is no guarantee that I'll find a job at U of T," he said directly.

"You will," I encouraged him, because it was what I honestly believed.

"But, Clare," he said after he leaned in and kissed my forehead, "I just want you to know that – I'm going to make it work. Between my writing and my degree and the work experience I have, I'm going to do the best that I can. There's something out there that I can do, even if it's not teaching at U of T. I won't let you down. And…your best friend just got engaged, and Imogen got married, I just…I want you to know that I'm not going to…leave you like that little Dutch boy with your finger in the dam," Eli said, referring to one of Scotty's favourite stories.

He meant…for me not to worry being left behind my other girlfriends who were all getting married. Oh, Eli.

"I don't worry about that, silly," I gently told him, running my fingers through his hair before kissing his piercing. "And may I just point out the obvious – Eli, I'm still in school too, I'm not exactly…there yet," I finished.

"Do you think that maybe after we're both done with school…you will be there?" Eli asked me, his piercing green eyes staring right through me.

"After I have a job…yes, I think so," I admitted, and I could tell that that was the answer that Eli had searched for, as he reached down and captured my lips in a soft kiss at once.

XXXXXXX – Six months later –

Alli's POV

"I still don't like the idea of you living all alone in six months," I told Clare over breakfast with a frown, but I could tell that she wasn't paying any attention to me. She wasn't even eating anything, just downing a coffee at the speed of light, so I attempted again,

"I mean, I'm excited to get married and live with Nick, but you and I have lived together for so long and I just…don't want anything to change," I said, but…again, no luck.

"Alli, Alli, I know, but we'll still make sure to see each other lots. And don't worry about me living alone, I'll be fine," she said as she rinsed her mug out and scrambled to the door to put on her jacket and her shoes.

"I'm pretty sure Eli will hire you a bodyguard once he finds out you plan on living all alone," I teased her.

"He already knows I'll be living on my own after your wedding," Clare said as she dropped her purse and everything spilled out, which caused her to let out an exasperated groan. I walked over to help her pick up all of her things, and asked,

"And what does he say and think about it?"

"Exactly what you just said and what my dad is always saying too - that a girl my age shouldn't live all alone. Pretty sure he's already looked into private security firms," Clare replied with a slight smile, and I was glad to see her attempt to crack a joke.

However, then she just dropped her purse again, spilling everything out another time, and I just grabbed her shaking hands and said,

"Hey, hey, Clare, what's wrong? Where are you rushing off to anyway? What's going on?" in shock at how unnerved she was.

"I have to see him, I just have to see him, I'm late, I slept in and now I'm behind schedule," she mumbled, and it was only as I was placing her phone in her purse and saw the date displayed on its screen that I caught on, and kicked myself mentally for not realizing earlier that it's…

"April twenty-second," I whispered and Clare shut her eyes tightly.

"Is he going to be okay?" I asked, knowing that this was always a hard day for Eli…and I understood. I knew that Eli would always feel responsible for Julia's death, and that the guilt might not ever go away. It reminded me a lot of…my mom and how she tool grandpa's death. He had had a stroke ten years ago and on the anniversary of his death, my mom always tells my dad that had she got him into a doctor earlier, they could have gotten him on the necessary blood thinners earlier and he could have had at least one more year with us. My mom will always think about things like that – and I can just tell that it's similar to the way Eli thinks about that horrible night.

"Alli, it's a hard day for him. It will always be, so I need to go to him - right now," Clare declared and after we fixed her purse, I was grateful that Sav had dropped off my dad's truck at my house last night after running some errands because I was now able to drive Clare. I'm pretty sure Eli would never forgive me if I let her drive in this state, and I'm not just worried that he'd never help me lift heavy things after this…Eli is good for Clare. I was wrong all that time ago when I said that he was killing happy Clare. Eli's care made happy Clare possible, many times when even my friendship couldn't. Clare…needs Eli. She might not like to hear this, so I'd never say it to her face, but she needs to be protected. Every girl does.

"Call me if you need anything," I reminded her as she stepped out of the car and I watched her practically run into Eli's apartment building.

Clare's POV

"Hey," I softly said to Eli as I walked into the apartment, wrapping him up into an embrace at once. I could just…feel the tension in his body, that horrible tension that I hated so much. He was wearing all black, which was definitely not a new thing for him, but I also knew that he had gone to Julia's grave in the morning with his parents, like he always did on this day. Last year I also went, and Eli tightly held my hand and was the one to comfort me almost, but...I didn't want to go again. I felt like…the grieving was something really intimate between Eli and his parents because what I hadn't realized until last year was how hard this day also hit Cece and Bullfrog.

Cece softly cried the entire time and Bullfrog just kept her in a tight embrace, and it really made me realize that Eli's parents must have been like Julia's surrogate parents – their home had been her only sanctuary in order for her to get away from the abuses of her stepmom, and…they must have felt like they practically lost a child as well. They must have felt extreme guilt that a young, beautiful, and talented girl with the rest of her life ahead of her died while under their care, and every landmark that Eli and myself and people our age have gotten to experience…she had not. And I now realized that…if things were so bad for Julia that she had actually moved in with Eli, of course he must have felt like her safety was his job. And out of all things possible…she had died. She hadn't gotten hurt or something like that…She had died. While Eli felt responsible for her well-being and took pride in being able to provide her safety. Often people said that Eli was so protective because of what he had experienced with Julia's death, but…I beg to differ with that point. I can tell that…Eli had been born protective. And…when we went to see baby Mia, to visit his aunt, and I overheard that as a child, Eli used to see the bruises her boyfriend used to put on her arms and go around saying that when he was going to grow up he was going to be a police officer so he could protect her…I realized that that must have only exacerbated his protective instincts. And then…the closest person in his life at that time whom he felt completely trusted with when it came to her safety had died. And then…Fitz had told him those awful things about being….gentle when he'd have sex with me. I really couldn't believe it all in retrospect. Eli had been suffering with such heavy burdens at such a fragile age for so long…hiding his pain behind a mask that it took his parents and even myself much too long to detect.

But not again. Eli was always taking care of me.

For one day in the year, I could be the one to take care of him too.

"I love you," I softly whispered as I ran my hands up and down his arms, through his hair, everywhere that I could touch him in our embrace. "I love you, I love you, I love you," I kept softly repeating, and the soft shaking of his body told me that he was crying.

I gently guided him over to the brown leather couch that he had in his living room and he pulled me onto his lap but didn't say anything, so I just kept bushing his bangs back as I felt him lean into my touch and saw him close his eyes. I then gently asked,

"Everything go okay this morning?" not wanting to use the specific word of the destination.

"It was fine," he softly said and then I felt him exhale deeply.

"Clare…I have another place to go to, and please don't feel like you have to come if you don't want to. I have…never done this before in this day, but…it hit me today that…I hate going to that cemetery. Actually, no, I've always known that – it has just never meant Julia to me. I don't want her site there to be abandoned, so of course I bring flowers, but…I don't think it's what she would want me to do exactly. I think…doing something else in addition would be better," he slowly said as I nodded encouragingly.

"Whatever and whenever Eli, if you want me to come, there's no place I'd rather be other than by your side," I replied as I hung onto him tighter and I saw his teary eyes shine with gratefulness.

He then pointed out to a large amount of bags marked 'Michael's Arts and Crafts' that I didn't notice on my way in, most likely because I was in such a rush.

"Remember how I told you that Julia liked painting a lot? That she was an artist? And in her last year, she began giving lessons to the seniors at the community centre, and she kept giving them even after she realized that the seniors weren't really interested in learning about art but rather just wanted someone to listen to them –" he said, and he took a minute as his voice cracked before continuing, "and…she wasn't mad that they really didn't want to paint, but she just listened to them?"

"Of course I remember," I encouraged him.

"I just…I think the proper thing to do to…remember her on this day would be to…take those art supplies that I bought to the university daycare. I know they always need donations, and I thought…it would be good if the kids there got to paint today. I just thought…it would be a good thing to happen today. I thought about taking them to the seniors' centre but –" Eli explained, and by now I was in tears myself, and I held him tighter and placed a hand over his heart as I shakily said,

"Eli…what a beautiful idea. I love it, kids are a better choice…they are…the future. Bright and happy and…energetic – just like she was when she painted, Eli. Just like she was. They are going to want to paint, Eli, it will be such a nice surprise. What a beautiful way for her…to be alive today," I pointed out as I felt Eli's chest tremble next to my own and I continued in a shaky voice, "It's perfect, Eli and I really would love to be a part of it. She would love that so many kids are going to experience art today…it's so appropriate. This – the gift of art to kids who might not a chance to get such nice supplies otherwise – this is her memory," I pointed out and I then retreated into his neck and I felt him gently running his fingers through my curls.

"Clare…I love you, I love you," he softly repeated over and over again.

"I know, Eli - I know that," I told him, because something told me I needed to.

About thirty minutes later, we walked into the really nice daycare centre where a really polite older lady greeted us warmly, and I knew that Eli must have arranged this ahead because as she saw all of the bags that we unloaded she immediately said,

"Hello there – you must be Eli," and he nodded politely and introduced me as his girlfriend.

"Well, this is just really so wonderful – my name is Barb, I am the centre director. What a kind act on your part, we are so grateful. These are such nice supplies – the children will love them, they aren't used to being given presents like this, you know. And I see you brought cookies and juice boxes as well – you two are sure going to be a hit," Barb said with a warm smile. It really had been a good idea on Eli's part to include treats for the kids – I could tell that the time he had spent with Scotty had made him learn that lesson really well.

Barb then guided us to the kids' art corner and Eli and I and her began laying out the canvases and paintbrushes and the many colour paint sets that Eli had bought, and Barb filled up the water containers that Eli had thoughtfully chosen as well while I set up a table for the cookies and juice boxes.

It was obvious that Eli had called ahead and asked for the number of children in the daycare – which I now figured out to be about forty – but I could tell that he hadn't told Barb the whole story as to why exactly we were doing this – she did know he was a student in his final year of his PhD and she knew he studied English Lit because as we were setting up, she began casually chatting with him about her daughter who was still in high school but planning to come to U of T to study English. Eli gave her some advice to pass on to her after we had finished setting up and we were waiting for the kids to come in from the playground.

Just as they did, in a mass of excited questions and little limbs flying everywhere in the cubby room as they took their coats and jackets off, we heard gasps and 'wows' at the sight of their outlined activity, and Barb shot us a quick smile and said,

"The kids are used to doing lots of centre activities here but they never get cute little paint sets like this that they can take home". She then instructed her staff to get have the kids wash their hands as they would be eating the cookies and juice that we brought as well, and about fifteen minutes later, all of the kids were finally seated down at the table and ready to begin.

Barb then clapped her hands to get their attention and warmly and slowly said,

"Okay, boys and girls, we have a very special activity today as you can see. These very nice presents were brought to you by two big students from right here at the university, so can you all say thank you to Eli and Clare?" and the children did so at once, erupting in one of the most adorable choruses that I had ever heard as I grabbed Eli's hand and gave it a squeeze. I was impressed with how well he was holding himself together, and there was a faint wistful smirk playing on the corner of his lips as the kids began painting excitedly and Barb turned on some music.

She then turned to Eli and I and said,

"Maybe you two would like to say a couple of words to the kids?" and I saw Eli hesitate so I just gently gave his hand another squeeze and gave him an encouraging nod.

He slowly started, "Hi everyone. Clare and I just wanted to stop by and say hi and bring you some snacks and art supplies. We're doing this for a friend of ours who couldn't be here today," and I had to fight really hard to hold back my tears when I heard Eli use a common pronoun. A friend of ours.

The kids then listened as Eli softly continued, "And because she can't be here, maybe I'll just tell you what she always used to say to people to who she taught art. Don't hold back. Paint whatever you like in whichever way you like, and don't let anyone else tell you that it is wrong. When you paint, you're free to do whatever you want," and…I saw Barb give him a bright smile and tear up.

I knew she had understood why Eli was doing this when he had referenced Julia as someone who couldn't be here today. And I knew that…she got it. She just got it right away. She got Eli and she got what he was trying to do and she approved of it with all her heart.

And personally, I knew that Eli was really good with kids and I adored kids a lot myself, but…I am not sure that I had ever seen such a large group of them so incredibly peaceful until that day. Barb encouraged us to walk around and give each of the kids a cookie and a juice box as they painted, and as we did so, I was really amazed with how…at peace Eli was.

He had stopped in front of a little girl with loose black hair and perfect little bangs who was clearly…a little more artistically gifted than her peers because the little girl had asked him a question and Clare watched as Eli bent down to her level and said,

"I love it. I think it's beautiful," and the little girl coyly smiled, obviously pleased with Eli's answer.

"Thank you," she said. "Your name is Eli?"

"It is. What's yours?" Eli playfully asked her.

"Stephanie," the little girl answered as she diligently dipped her paintbrush in water.

"Well, Stephanie, you have a gift. You are an amazing artist," Eli complimented her.

"That's what mommy says," the little girl giggled.

"Mommy's right," Eli countered at once, and then he called me over and both of us spent a few more minutes with Stephanie, who was a very talkative little girl who obviously enjoyed our attention.

After twenty more minutes, Eli gently took my hand and whispered in my ear, "I…can we go now?" and I nodded at once. Eli checked with Barb, and I could tell it was because he was feeling a little guilty that we'd leave her with a big mess, but she just enthusiastically told him that it would be more than fine and that she had plenty of staff who would help her with that task.

I knew that doing something so new and different was beginning to take its toll on Eli and it was like I could practically see his sadness weigh his body now as we got out of the car and walked up the stairs to his apartment. I knew he didn't have much left in him – it was five pm by this time – so I just opened his door for him; his hands were shaking and causing him to be unable to insert the key into the lock properly.

"You okay?" I softly asked him, because the shaking of his hands did worry me a bit.

"Um, yeah, it's just…a lot of new faces…and…I'm sorry, Clare," he whispered as we entered the apartment. I took his hand and gently led him inside his bedroom, because I knew that he would be spending the rest of this day in bed. He took off his shoes and jacket and crept in slowly, holding his arms open for me and I crawled into them at once. He gently ran his fingers through my hair as he whispered,

"Clare…I'll be okay. If there's somewhere you need to be or if you have things to do. I…can be okay on my own. Today was different than all other past years," he pointed out, and I knew that were I to leave, he would be fine indeed. Sad, but okay. But…I didn't want to leave. This was the only place where I should be right now.

"No, Eli, I want to stay with you," I plainly told him.

Eli then fixed his eyes on mine and vulnerability dripped from his voice as he said, "Clare…thank you for not giving up on me," and I felt my chest physically ache…because…I had. For a while there, I had given up on him, and it was the greatest gift that God gave to me that Eli was able to get better on his own.

But there really was only one possible reply to what he had just said to me.

"No, Eli. Thank you for not giving up on me," I countered, and I reached up to push his bangs back and I took a risk and initiated a slow kiss, and much to my relief, Eli kept it going for a pretty while.

However, after he tossed and turned and I could tell that he was a little stressed so I softly placed my arms around him and asked,

"What's wrong, Eli? Talk to me," because I knew he needed specific instructions right now or we might just…misunderstand each other.

"Clare…you know how much I love you right?" he whispered as he stared right into my eyes.

"Of course," I replied.

He then mumbled into his pillow, "All I want to do is –" but I finished that sentence for him.

"Look after me," and I saw Eli nod tearfully and he then shut his eyes and continued, "But...look at me, I'm a mess. I will always be a mess on this date. I'm a fraud – I'm only a boyfriend 364 days of the year, and that's not okay," he whined.

"You're wrong," I deadpanned and I saw Eli flash me a questioning gaze.

"Eli…I don't…think like that. I know that…if anything, even the slightest thing were to happen to me on April 22nd," I said, and I felt Eli's whole body be overcome by a large tremor at once, and I instantly regretted my choice of words. "No, I mean, if I was ever upset on April 22nd, I know that you would be there for me in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Eli, I know it," I honestly told him.

"And I would," he eagerly said, determination etched across his entire face. "No matter what, I would," he emphasized. "I just hate that…I drag you into this every year. You still have to deal with my baggage," he softly said.

"Shh. Shh, it's not like that. It's not baggage. It's a part of who you are – it wasn't in your control, and it break my heart that it happened, but it's a part of who you are, and I love every part of who you are," I reminded him, employing the same logic that Eli had highlighted to me in relation to my vow.

I then caressed his cheek as I directed his gaze towards mine and I whispered, "Eli…I'm right here".

"You stayed," he whined, hiding his face in my neck and intriguing me a little by his use of past tense. But…I understood him the more I thought about it.

"Why?" I then heard him choke out.

"Why? Because…love doesn't run," I simply put it, and Eli pulled out of our embrace a little so he could fix my gaze on mine as I continued,

"You're my best friend, Eli, and you have stood by my side through everything," I pointed out, tearing up myself at this point. "Love doesn't run. It doesn't hide. It won't turn away or back down from a fight. I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere. Love is too tough. It won't give up. Not on us," I told him, and I heard him emphatically whisper, "Thank you," before he closed his eyes at the sensation of my fingers running through his hair, like he always did.

XXXXXXXXXX -Two months later-

Adam's POV

"She said…no. That she isn't sure. That…she likes us, but that there she just isn't sure yet," I heard Lana calmly tell me, and as much as I could tell that she was trying to be her usual strong self…this news had completely devastated us both, I could tell.

There was…a little boy that Lana had found about scrolling the government adoption website – she didn't confess to me that it was a habit of hers ever since things had become a little more financially stable for us until I caught her. Only then did she finally tell me that she had checked on him every month ever since his mom had listed him on there, which was pretty much as soon as she found out she was pregnant.

And Lana and I had done everything on that stupid checklist. We had gotten the necessary background checks, we used Eli and Clare as references because those two guys can write kick-ass letters, and even Daniel, a junior partner for the army's legal defense firm checked over all of our paperwork, for crying out loud. Lana and I had even…gotten married in a rush because apparently that helped your chances. And for that, Clare gave us complete and total heck – her and Eli were our witnesses at City Hall, and despite the fact that we told Clare that we were going to do a ceremony at a country club later, once we got our little boy, she was still constantly on our case about how we couldn't just forget, how we deserve a real wedding and so on and so forth. And I completely agreed with her, I wanted to give Lana a real wedding, I knew that was a major girl thing, but Lana had been the one to push for us to just do it at City Hall first, and I knew that had been because she wanted to get married as soon as possible.

I know that giving up your baby is hard. But she will do it anyway; doubting adoption isn't her problem. She told us, looked us in the eye and told us that she simply doesn't have the resources to look after a baby and that she was completely sure that adoption was best for her.

Her problem is us.

Her problem is me.

But she's wrong.

And this is about more than me. It's about Lana, and it's about that baby.

And I know that that baby could have a good life with us.

That's why I didn't even bother replying to Lana's comment, and I could tell that spooked her a little. I just grabbed the car keys from the bowl that we keep them in and drove right to the adoption agency's office. I knew that Abby must still be there if she just talked to Lana; they always monitored these calls with the adoption counsellor right there.

And fifteen minutes later, I could tell that I had been right. And when I walked in, I saw Abby exhale deeply, and I could tell that she felt a little…guilty.

"Please, just give me three minutes," I assertively said, and I noticed the counsellor giving Abby a funny look, but she dismissed her obvious concern with a simple hand gesture and carried on,

"Adam, I'm really sorry. I could tell that Lana was really upset".

"Are you still sure that adoption is the route you want to go?" I began by asking that question, not wanting to aggravate a delicate situation if Abby had changed her mind when it came to that.

"It is," she said with a slow nod.

"Why did you pick our file? Me and Lana's?" I continued.

I saw her shift a little uncomfortably before she lifted her gaze and softly said, "Because…I actually liked you guys. Out of everyone, you two just seemed like…the kind of people I would want him to grow up with".

"So see – you did like us," I couldn't help but point out. I then slowly continued, "You have every reason to take all the time in the world to decide this," reminding myself that the baby was still one month away from being born.

"And I'm only being this pushy, and trust me, I hate myself for it, because we've been waiting for your little boy for so long. My wife logged into the adoption agency site every day, holding her breath that you would still be listed, and about fifteen times each day to check for an update once we got our file in. We've been waiting to have a baby for so long, and we don't know how long it's going to be before we get another chance again. So just please…don't write us off. Just…consider us. My wife is an incredible woman. She is loving, and devoted, and caring. I love her more than anything in this world…and it – it," I faltered as I tried to keep my voice from breaking, "It kills me that I can't give her a baby. I really want a kid. And when that day finally comes, I'll learn how to be a good dad. But you see, my wife – Lana…she's already there. She's…a mother…without a baby. Please," I said, explaining things as plainly as I could as Abby fidgeted and fixed her gaze so powerfully on mine.

Fifteen minutes later, I opened our apartment door to a Lana who was biting her nails and whose entire face was red and her hands were shaking.

And after I asked her,

"You still want that baby boy?" the largest smile that I have ever seen in my entire life crossed her face and she jumped into my arms and did something that she very rarely did.

She cried.

XXXXXXXXXXX –Three months later-

Clare's POV

"Well, we have official god parents' duties, now Eli, maybe it does bother me," I teased him. Sitting at the reception table of Adam and Lana's wedding at the Delta Country Club in Toronto and looking at Lana holding their beautiful baby boy while Imogen was holding her tiny little girl, just one month older than Adam and Lana's baby…I couldn't help but be so happy for our friends and wish that I would get a call back from a law firm already. Eli had graduated and had applied for jobs at universities himself, and he had gotten an interview at U of T right away, which had pleased him immensely. I know that nothing is technically set in stone for him with that yet, but…I just have a feeling that he will get it. And once I get a good job as well, we can…move forward. Eli knows that's the order I wanted to go in, and he has been very respectful.

"Aw, Clare, come on," he shot back, and I couldn't control myself any longer and I burst out in giggles. "Of course I don't mind," I confessed. Eli had asked me if I minded driving back – he had driven me over here – and I knew he wanted to have a couple of drinks, which didn't bother me at all, so I stopped teasing him about going up to the bar and he joined Adam and Daniel there. Daniel's mom was also at the wedding as she had come down for a weekend visit with Imogen's baby girl Nikki being so tiny – Daniel's mom loved to help out, and Daniel always teased her about how she was always making excuses to come down and see them because she was so thrilled to finally have a baby girl by extension through them, and I knew that his teasing did contain some truth to it. Lana and Adam's tiny Sean was starting to cry, so as his official god mother I grabbed him from his mom and upon Lana's instructions, I found that a diaper change was exactly what he needed.

As I walked towards the bathroom, I looked over at the bar, I could hear Daniel confidently telling Eli, "Hell yes, it's all going well – this whole daddy thing, I got it! I ain't even scared. Bring it on, baby," with a wink at Imogen and she laughed wildly in reponse as her little girl fussed softly in her arms.

After quickly performing the necessary diaper change, I got back to the beautifully decorated country club banquet hall, because I knew that it was almost time for Eli's best man speech. When Adam had first asked him to be his best man, Eli had double-checked that that would be all right with Drew, and Drew so eloquently told Eli that he'd never be able to 'string enough sentences together for a best man's speech,' and all three boys agreed that the speech better be left up to the boy with a PhD in English Lit. Eli had also organized Adam's bachelor party, which I was rather thrilled to find out was paint ball festivities – although I trust Eli wholeheartedly, I wasn't so sure how I would have reacted if he would have come to me and told me that the bachelor party would be some crazy stripper affair. But...of course it wasn't that, I soon told myself; Adam and Eli and even Daniel just weren't the type of boys to go for such a thing – as Alli termed them, they were much too 'love-struck' to jeopardize the things that they had.

Everyone then heard Adam's dad tap a glass with his fork as he introduced Eli, and he shot me a smirk before he got up and I couldn't help but proudly beam up at him.

"Thank you Mr. Torres. Now, I've had the pleasure of knowing these two as a couple ever since Lana transferred to the freezing and gritty city of Toronto from the home of sun and surf," Eli started, shooting Lana a confused look as he audibly whispered, "What were you thinking?" and Lana's entire family burst into laughter and a few "I told her she'd freeze to death"s could be heard throughout the room.

"While Adam has been my closest guy friend since I first came to Degrassi – our highschool - , I got to meet Lana when she became my English partner towards the end of grade eleven. And through Lana telling me just how fabulous my work was," and I heard a few chuckles from the people who knew what subject area Eli had gotten his degree in, "and me trying to teach her once and for all that 'favour' really is spelled with a 'u' in Canada and 'centre' really does end in an 're,' particulars that I know to this date she still refuses to employ in her writing as an homage to the land of freedom and a subversive message to the true north strong and free, that did after all, bring her the greatest gift of all – love".

Eli then got an amused little smirk in the room as he paused and laughter came from both the Canadian and American sides of the room, "Well…somewhere between all of that, I quickly realized this was the girl for Adam when in the moment that I asked her if she really was named after teenage Superman's girlfriend, she instantly knew what I was talking about," Eli continued as Lana's parents high fived each other exaggeratedly and Eli laughed in response.

"And from then began my yearlong saga of waking up every post-Adam and Lana-date morning to hearing how she sounded, the descriptions of how her heir blew in the wind, how her eyes sparkled, how she looked at him, how she laughed at his jokes – well, you've always been an overly nice girl, Lana – we both know that in me and Adam's bromance, I am the one blessed with the gift of humour," Eli said mischievously as Adam shot him a playful glare, "and I do believe my extra human patience has been rewarded as twelve years later, here I am, expert matchmaker, toasting to Adam and Lana at their wedding," he continued, and the slight inflection in his tone told me that the direction of his speech was changing, and the room then quieted down.

Eli slowly continued, "And there is not a doubt in my mind that I am the happiest friend in the world today. Today – I get something that I've always wanted – a sister," and I noticed Lana's eyes tear up as she looked directly at Eli, "But it's more than that – today me and all of you get to see the power of love. Adam and Lana are best friends; you see, while I am his best male friend – I am not completely dethroned from an honourable position, thank you very much – she is his best female friend. It is no secret to anyone in this room that sometimes, people try to put definitions and barriers on love," Eli said as I looked around the room and saw everyone nodding, "but…that's wrong," Eli deadpanned,

"Because love is not something to be restrained, but something to be fought for, maintained, and worked at every day – and when you get to do that with your best friend, you truly are the luckiest person in the world," Eli said in a raspy voice as his gaze locked with my own, "and that's why everything that we are all fortunate enough to witness tonight, and tomorrow will last a lifetime – of that I am sure. Because what Adam and Lana have knows no barriers; it is the most honest and connected type of human relationship that exists. It exceeds the abstract boundaries placed by judgemental individuals of our society; because when one is willing to stand up in front of God," Eli said, and I became even more fascinated as he approached this topic – I knew Lana's family was religious and Adam's a little as well, and my heart swelled when I realized that Eli must have really thoughtfully planned to include this, "and commit oneself in that type of partnership, for better or worse, in sickness and health – that is a marriage; that is real; and that's all that matters. And anyone who may not agree just…hasn't caught up with God yet," Eli delicately said as I saw Mrs. Torres flash him a smile, and I felt herself tear up at the beautiful way Eli was explaining everything; he had clearly done his research and presented his own interpretation in such a beautiful way.

He flashed a wide smirk to the entire room as he continued, "Today we gathered to celebrate love and happiness and loyalty and in my opinion…a little bit of magic; to bring together two exceptional and beautiful individuals who deserve all the happiness in the world. To Adam and Lana," he finished. The sound of colliding glasses then filled the room as Eli toasted with me and I leaned in and whispered, "I love you," in his ear, and Eli stole a kiss before telling me, "I love you too".

XXXXXXXXXX

Clare's POV

"Hey," I greeted Eli at my apartment door, and he picked me up at once and spun me around joyously, making me realize at once what had happened.

"You got it?" I asked him excitedly. I was so happy for him. Eli deserved nothing but to always be happy; he worked so hard for everything that he had and so many things in life had not come easy to him.

"I did, Dr. Gifford didn't even leave me hanging, within a minute of being in his office he told me 'Eli, I'd like to offer you a position with the English Department,' and…oh, Clare, I just feel – I feel so amazing!" he exclaimed joyously as he put me down and I pulled out a little bit of champagne out of my fridge the next minute.

"I knew you'd get it," I shyly explained when Eli flashed me an inquiring look that I knew was in response to the fact that I kept a bottle of champagne in my apartment.

"And – get this – "he continued as he all but exploded from joy, "It's a tenure –track position," Eli continued, and I now understood why he was so incredibly excited. Tenure track positions meant…job security. Eli finally had what he always wanted for himself for so long now. If he was hired on a tenure track position, that meant that he could teach at U of T until retirement age, and progress through the ranks.

Eli flashed me a huge smirk as he added, "And he told me that I should take the summer to write and try to get a first novel published". Eli had published many stories by now, but his school work hadn't allowed him to focus on a novel, and I knew that he had wanted to.

"Sounds fantastic," I said as we toasted and took a sip.

"Mmm. So fruity and bubbly," I commented as I pulled him over to the couch and sat down on his lap. I rewarded him with a few kisses before I pulled away and rested my head on his chest, and I felt him begin to twirl one of my curls between his index and middle finger as he continued,

"Clare…I need to ask you something. The novel that I plan on writing this summer…I was hoping I could base it on our story. Loosely base it, have a protagonist named June – because –"he started, but I cut him off at once.

"Because back in high school, we were counting down the days until June could come and we wouldn't have school anymore, and we could just go on urban adventures, you driving and me with my feet upon the dash board of Morty listening along to the radio," I filled in for him, regret lacing my voice.

"Exactly," Eli said as he gave me a light squeeze and kissed my forehead in a successful attempt to make me feel just a bit better.

"Of course, Eli. Of course I want you to write our story," I told him and I moved off of his chest so we could share a few more kisses.

"I'm so happy for you," I breathed as we pulled away, but I could tell that I wasn't able to completely fool Eli – I'm sure that he did pick up on the fact that I was ecstatic for him, but….I was also worried about something.

"Clare…do you see what this means?" he softly asked and I shook my head, not sure of what he was referring to.

"I…can take care of us now. I know you're still going through job interviews, and…however long it takes, I want you to take your time and find a law firm that you like. In the meantime…I can take care of us," he said with complete sincerity.

"I don't want you to feel obligated to do that," I tried to reason with him.

"It's not that I feel like I have to; it's that I want to," he replied.

"Eli, I need to work as well," I answered.

"I know, and I love how committed you are to your work. I'm just saying…this period after finishing law school and finding a firm – don't stress and jump at the first firm that hires you – Daniel says law students take the summer waiting to hear back from firms and…don't feel like you have to rush, please. We're a team, remember?" he softly said.

"Okay, but this doesn't change anything in terms of me trying to find the firm that is the best fit for me as soon as possible," I warned him. I had enough savings to carry me through until the probably time that I should hired around, and help from my parents if I needed it. I didn't want to take portions of Eli's first few real paycheques, and I knew I wasn't going to do such a thing, but agreeing with him meant something else to him, and I knew it.

It meant that I recognized and accepted the fact that all Eli wanted to do was take care of me and keep me safe and happy.

"Thank you," I whispered to him right against his lips before he captured them in a kiss and I asked him to sleep over, both of our bodies shaking with excitement at the realization that…we were getting close to our wedding day. My vow was not any easier to keep now than it had ever been, but…like Eli said, it's what's gotta be.

XXXXXXXXXX

Eli's POV

"Eli," Clare sighed emotionally, "You made June the hero," and I couldn't understand why she was so surprised.

"That's because she is the hero," I spelled it out for her, and I felt her arms wrap around my shoulders at once and she pulled me in for a deep kiss.

After we had to pull away, she kept playing with the hair at the nape of my neck and softly said,

"What an honour, Eli. To be represented so beautifully in what I'm sure will be the best seller of the year. This…is the most special and meaningful thing that anyone has done for me," Clare said emotionally, and I pulled her in for a hug upon seeing her like that.

"Um, about the sales, I wouldn't get my hopes up – the English Department will push it on my students and I may only sell like three hundred copies," I replied, secretly hoping I could do better than that.

"Highly doubt that," Clare replied…and I loved how much she believed in me.

It…made me feel like I could do anything I ever wanted. Her confidence in me gave me the ultimate strength.

"I can't believe you wrote it in only a month," she exclaimed incredulously.

"Well, no more classes – I had all this free time, and now off to get edited it goes, and then it will be….real," I reflected, the whole experience feeling like something that existed in my head over the last month…writing was a weird thing sometimes.

"I just know it's going to be a hit," Clare praised me again, making my heart leap with joy. "When you become a bestselling author, would you stop teaching?" she asked me.

"If such a thing ever happens – no, I don't think so," I answered, and I could tell that my answer wasn't exactly what she had expected, so I explained, "I…like the atmosphere at U of T. I think I'm going to like university students and writing critical articles and such, and the best thing is that a big part of my job will be producing my own writing. I'll be close to the industry, but most importantly…in touch with the real world, you know? Writing can make me get lost in my own head space and not come out for weeks sometimes. I don't…I don't want to do that," I explained, and I knew Clare understood at once.

"I know what you mean. I think all writers feel that way," she gently told me, and I loved…how her perfect comment made me realize that…I may not be so messed up after all.

"Hey, so I have some news too," Clare said with a beaming smile.

"You got a good job offer?" I replied at once with a huge smirk. I know how much she has been stressing over this lately, and I stressed about it for a long time just a few months ago so I completely understood how important this was to her.

"Yes – working for the Human Rights Tribunal," she squealed, and I couldn't resist twirling her around after she ran into my arms.

"Eli?" she asked me with a blush on her cheeks after I had set her down after a few celebratory spins and a dip.

"I'm really happy," she sighed.

"Me too, Clare. Me too. You know what I think?" I played with her.

"What's that?" she asked as she tapped my nose.

"I think we should go on an urban adventure to celebrate. When do you start work?" I asked.

"Orientation tomorrow, and then I don't have a break until two weeks in the middle of August," she told me.

"That's perfect," I declared, as my summer was wide open until I'd be teaching my first round of classes ever in September.

"This is going to be a pretty big urban adventure if we'll need two weeks for it?" she asked me with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, we need to up the ante now; we have real jobs, we're not just highschoolers anymore. I was thinking we could go back to Europe and visit some of the places that we never got to when you came and visited me on reading break when I was at Oxford," I proposed.

"Really?" Clare asked me as a huge smile took over her entire face and I swear, her eyes practically sparkled.

"Really. If you want to, we'll start looking at plane tickets right away," I said before I leaned in for a kiss to sweeten my proposition.

"I want to, Eli. I really want to," she breathed as I pulled away, and an hour of browsing later, we had decided to start our international urban adventure in…Spain.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Eli's POV

"Well, when you know, you know," the salesman told me as I signed his copy of the receipt and he returned my MasterCard to me.

"Oh, trust me – I definitely know," I replied with a smirk and rolled my eyes in response at my dad's unnecessary laughter and teasing.

As we walked out of the store together and he kept his teasing up, all I had to do to get him to stop was simply point out,

"You know, dad, you're just lucky that I couldn't be there when you did this – but I can always ask mom about how it happened".

As soon as I said that, my dad just rolled his eyes at me and finally decided to keep quiet.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Clare's POV

"I'm really glad we chose Barcelona," I blissfully told Eli as we made our way from the most precious hotel run by the most adorable Spanish family to the beach.

"Me too. These beaches really are something – how are we ever gonna go back to those excuses for a beach that we have in Toronto?" Eli said with a smirk that only got wider when I handed him my bottle of sunscreen after we put our blankets down and settled down into a nice spot on the hot beach. I could tell that he got my hint right away as he moved to sit behind me and he slowly applied the sunscreen as he teasingly massaged my skin.

"You're so tanned," he absent mindedly commented.

"Well, unlike some people I actually believe in sunscreen – no burns and a few days later, you can have a nice tan," I teased him.

"It's just not my style, rubbing that stuff all over me," he replied.

"So instead you walked around as red as a crab for the first few days we were here," I said with a laugh – I couldn't wait to get our pictures from those days to Adam; I knew he'd appreciate that.

"Well, I don't mind sunscreen so much when I get to make sure you put it on," Eli said and I felt him place a few playful kisses on the back of my neck that made me squeal in delight.

"You also have more freckles," Eli added as he moved to sit by my side and we lay down to face each other. I couldn't help but giggle in response to that comment.

"I can't believe you noticed that," I barely managed to get out as I pulled him down into an embrace and rested my head on his chest.

"You normally have twelve freckles. But now you have twenty three," Eli then said, surprising me even more as he pushed my bangs away from my face.

"Eli, you're so silly," I just softly giggled, but I internalized what that observation on his part really revealed, and I couldn't help but give him another kiss.

I then felt a shadow come over us, and when I looked up I noticed that it was a teenage girl selling roses, which was rather popular on Spanish beaches, and I could feel myself blush when Eli obliged with a smirk. The girl smiled at the two of us and gestured for me to put it into my hair and once I did so, meeting the Spanish tourist stereotype, she responded with something along the lines of,

"Que bonita," which Eli then proceeded to look up into the Spain travel book that we had brought along and he determined it to mean, "So pretty".

When he figured that out he gasped exaggeratedly and said, "She stole my line!" as he gestured a knife entering his heart. I laughed out loud at his playful jealousy and stood up at once, wanting to enter the water now.

I then felt my blush get even deeper as Eli made no attempt to hide the fact that he was staring at me as I took my jean shorts off, and then he even got closer and placed a hand on my lower back and huskily whispered,

"Edwards, the shimmy out of those shorts is the ultimate tease. Even worse than that itty bitty bikini".

I just slapped his shoulder and replied, "It's so hot here, and it's such a cute swim suit," justifying my choice of wearing a sailor-striped bikini with a tiny red bejewelled anchor on one of the straps.

"You're getting it all wrong, Clare – you won't hear me complaining," as his smirk only got wider and I just grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the water, eager to enjoy our last few days at the beach.

Tomorrow we would be leaving Spain and heading to…I had no idea. This was because when we had planned out our trip, Eli had insisted that we insert three days for a 'mystery location,' one that apparently I was not allowed to know anything about. I tried to get some clues from Adam, but I was pretty sure that Eli hadn't even told him, because Adam was not one who usually hid secrets well…he always got this really nervous look when he was exaggerating just the slightest. From this 'mystery location,' we would make our way to England, a place that was special in both of our hearts, where we would stay another three days before heading to Heathrow and catching a flight back home.

And as much as I tried to make Eli crack before we went to sleep, I could tell that he was a vault – completely locked down, and he even playfully held up a blindfold to me that he couldn't possibly expect me to wear while on the road tomorrow.

Right?

XXXXXXXXXXXX

"Eli, you can't be serious," I sternly told him when he announced that we were now at the airport and that I still had to keep my blindfold on.

"Does it look like I'm joking?" I heard him reply as he gently but securely guided me through what I could tell was a crowd, and he then guided me to a chair.

"I wouldn't know that, silly," I pointed out, and he then laughed playfully and shot me a quick 'sorry'.

I then adjusted the blindfold slightly and told him, "You know I can tell we're in the airport," and he muttered something under his breath before saying,

"Well, that doesn't matter, you don't know where we're going".

"And what happens at the captain's message on the aircraft?" I pointed out.

"That's what this is for," he smugly said and I felt him insert ear buds into my ears and soft Taylor Swift music flowed through them as I just sighed and leaned into his embrace.

Three hours later, Eli was guiding me into a cab and his plan had actually worked; I had no idea where we were; three hours could place you anywhere in Europe as the distances between countries were often those between Canadian cities, but I trusted Eli completely and I knew that he realized this and that it meant a lot to him.

I then heard Eli tell the cab driver the name of a…plaza was it? I tried to gage the language that the cab driver was speaking in…and it was…Spanish? We were in another part of Spain? We must be in the very north because three hours from Barcelona could only lead there, or maybe perhaps to the very west?

But then, as Eli was guiding me out of the cab and the driver playfully said,

"Ciao bella," I realized that we were in…

"Italy," I squealed excitedly. I knew that neither of us had been to Italy, but I still didn't completely understand. Eli and I have already been to Spain and France and Germany on this trip, so why would Italy be such a big secret? He could have just as easily told me about this.

"That it is indeed," he said, and I felt him sweep the blindfold off of my face in one fell swoop and he playfully kissed my cheek as I adjusted my eyes to the light. It was beautiful…all around me. The sun was shining so brightly and it was so hot and we were standing…in the middle of a cobblestone plaza surrounded by beautiful Gothic-style buildings that had clearly been around longer than Canada had even been a country.

"Where are we, Eli? Where in Italy?" I asked as I locked my hands behind his neck and his hands traveled to my lower back.

He fixed his gaze directly on mine as he answered me,

"We are in…Verona," and I gasped at once. Verona? This was…a special city, and I could feel my emotions start to get the best of me. It was such a thoughtful destination.

Eli then caressed my cheek for a second before he continued, "It's the city where –"

"Romeo first met Juliet," I finished for him and he nodded with a smirk.

"Exactly. See that house over there?" he asked, pointing to an old Italian mansion that had vine on its side and beautiful red flowers on the balcony.

After I nodded, Eli continued, "I am told that that house is the Capulet home - in the ballroom…is where Romeo first saw Juliet, and…that balcony is their balcony, and we should go visit the house".

"Okay, let's go," I said with a nod and I took his hand and moved to start walking.

"Wait. Not yet," Eli said as he gently pulled me back.

"I want to ask you something first," he told me and I quickly nodded as I took in the rush of the morning market to the side of the plaza and a group of young boys playing soccer and dribbling the ball in such fancy moves that I knew that had a Toronto FC representative seen them, he would tell them they were already better than anyone in all of Canada.

"Clare," Eli softly said and he took hold of both of my hands and gave them a squeeze before he continued, "I have loved you ever since I was sixteen, and I'll…never stop. The kindness and patience you have shown me saved me and encouraged me to do what I needed to do to become a real man. You're a real life angel who showed me that…I could do everything I wanted to. And…all I ever want to do is to honour you and spend the rest of my life with you, returning the happiness, safety and comfort that you have shown me," he was saying and I could feel a light film of tears over taking my eyes.

He was…he brought me to Verona because it was where one fictional story began and…where he wanted a real life one to start. Our story.

"And I've waited and I've waited and…now I feel like this is the right time for me to ask you this. You're the most amazing person I know and I thank my lucky stars every day that I fell in love with my best friend. So, Clare Diana Edwards - will you marry me?" he finished as he went down on one knee and pulled out a tiny blue velvet box from his jean pocket. When he opened it with a confident smirk, I saw…the most beautiful ring I had ever seen in my entire life. It was a gold band with an elegantly cut diamond, clearly an engagement ring, but the stone was also surrounded by a circle of other shiny blue little stones.

I wiped a tear away as I nodded eagerly and enthusiastically told him, "Yes, Eli, oh my God, yes! I really want to! I want to so much," and he began laughing at once and got up and wrapped me up in a huge hug and twirled me around the sunny plaza. We paused for a second so he could put the ring on my finger – I had to move my Princess Diana ring to my other hand first – and we were both so happy that I jumped back into his arms and we got many claps and "Bravos" from strangers who had paused to witness Eli's proposal.

I then leaned up and gave him a deep kiss at once that he kept going for a long time, and after we finally pulled away, I locked my hands behind his neck and breathed,

"Eli…this was the dream proposal. I love you. You…always make me the happiest I can be," and he winked at me smugly before placing a kiss over my engagement finger.

"Of course, Edwards," he shot back.

"Uh oh – you won't be able to call me that much longer," I teased him.

"About that – I have been carrying that ring around in my pocket for the past three weeks, thinking I'd be in so much trouble if I lost the damn thing…I have been waiting to ask you to marry me for a long time. But just…how much longer will I be able to call you Edwards for?" he slyly asked.

He then continued, "Clare…I got the order figures back for my book – just checked before we left Spain. They are…much higher than what I expected," he modestly said, and when he told me just how much…I couldn't believe it. It was a…rather substantial amount of money.

Eli added, "So…I was thinking that we would take as much time as you want to…look for a house. I know that's what you always wanted – to have a home to come to after your honeymoon. We have enough to get a nice one, close to the university and to your law firm right downtown," and I let out an emotional breath as I agreed at once. It was what I had always wanted.

"And we can do whatever else needs to get done…plan our wedding. And it can be whenever you want it to be. If it was up to me, it would be the minute we got back to Toronto, but Lana says that the usual engagement period is one year?" he asked with a confused look on his face.

"I don't want to wait a year," I said at once. "But we will need time to get everything together. Why don't we get married in May?" I asked.

"Perfect. Anything you want, it's perfect, but I love May," Eli said excitedly.

"Eli – we're getting married!" I couldn't help but squeal excitedly as I leaned in for another kiss.

"I'm going to be your wife," I said proudly, and Eli smirked at me as he replied, "And I'm going to be your husband," and we headed inside the house where Romeo first met Juliet.

XXXXXXXXXX

"I'm glad we at least have tomorrow to recover before we both have to be back at work," I told Eli as he grabbed our bags from the baggage claim at Toronto's Pearson International. I could tell that the flight had exhausted us both and by the time that we went through Passport Check and everything, I knew that we both kind of wanted to just go to either of our apartments and snuggle together for a bit before we'd have to return to the realities of our daily duties. Eli had to start preparing for the courses that he would be teaching and I had to work on a case file starting tomorrow.

However, as we walked through the airport's sliding doors I was surprised to see….my parents waiting for us, hand in hand as they eagerly headed for us right away.

"Mom? Dad?" I asked in confusion, but then I jolted at once and happily exclaimed, "Guess what? Look! Eli and I are engaged," and I held out my hand and waved all of my fingers emphatically.

But…they didn't even seem surprised; sure both of them were grinning from ear to ear but…I expected them to be significantly more surprised than that.

"We…know, sweetheart. Well, we knew that Eli was going to ask you and of course we assumed you would say yes," my mom caved.

"How did you know?" I asked as I gave Eli a playful shove. He was keeping perfectly quiet and just happily smirking in my direction.

"Eli invited us to have lunch with him before you left Clare-Bear," my dad said. "Your mom and I, we kind of figured it was to ask for our blessing to ask you be his wife before we even got to the restaurant, and then, just as we expected us, he confidently asked us and of course we said yes. We're so happy for you," he finished, and then I couldn't help but flash him a grin on my own as him and my mom smiled at Eli. My dad then reached out his hand and as he shook Eli's and pulled him in for one of those guy hugs, he continued,

"Welcome to the family, son," words that I could tell touched Eli.

"So, where are you guys off to now? We'll drive you two, that way you don't have to cab," my mom said, and I asked to be dropped off at Eli's apartment as he nodded in confirmation, and I also shared the good news about Eli's publication success and our intentions to buy a house that we could move into after our wedding, a plan that I could tell pleased both of my parents. And I definitely didn't miss my dad's not-so-subtle search for my purity ring…which was still safely in its place, a thing that I could tell pleased my dad. And I couldn't help but think back to that time in college when Eli had picked me up from St. Andrews and he had told me that the right thing to do would be to wait when I had gotten a little confused about my vow. I know that it's not exactly his favourite thing, but I also know that he only wants to do the right thing by me. And…Eli could tell that even though at this point I would be okay with being with him completely, it would be even better if our wedding night would be the most special that it can.

And I am sure that it will be.

XXXXXXXXXX

"Well, god damn it, it's finally happened – I can hear the hallelujah chorus – can you? Listen really hard – I can hear it!" Adam exaggeratedly said, wiping his forehead off playfully as Lana giggled and said, "Congratulations, you two. We are so thrilled. Out baby's god parents will be officially married soon". Their little guy was resting in Lana's arms, sound asleep as we were all vising Eli's parents.

I was pretty sure I had never seen Cece cry as much as I did when I showed her my ring…in my entire life. She was so happily hysterical, pulling out a scrapbook of her and Bullfrog's wedding – which had definitely been a lot more rocker than I wanted mine and Eli's to be, and she immediately bombarded me with a bunch of questions about the specifics of the wedding that I had no idea where to even begin with. In the end, Cece somehow got on the phone with my mom and disappeared into the kitchen, excited squeals coming ever so often when my mom and her would obviously reached a decision.

Bullfrog had also given me a hug and welcomed me into the family, taking note to say that I had always really been a part of their family ever since I had first met them at Little Miss Steaks, and I was so touched by his casual, but meaningful addition that, 'and ever since then, you never stopped being a part of it, Clarabelle, not for one second'.

Eli had wanted us to go to his parents' house today for a bit of a special reason – he wanted to give his mom and dad a cheque that would pay off the last remaining bit of their mortgage, and it took Cece and Bullfrog a long time to accept it – it turns out that they had been making plans to give us enough money to put a down payment on a house as a wedding present, but when Eli told them about the success of his novel, they eventually caved. Cece then started talking about how she wanted to keep up our tradition of campus Friday night dinners when Eli and I were married and on our own, and her tears got the best of her all over again – I knew that everyone was really happy for us – some, like Daniel and Imogen, didn't even bother to hide the fact that they weren't surprised at all – but out of everyone, Cece was the one who completely wore her heart on her sleeve, and I think it was because she had always been so open with how special Eli was to her. Eli and his dad shared a unique bond – I had figured that out several years ago – but I think that after Eli's accident and the fact that Cece realized she could have lost her only child, things had changed a bit for her. I knew that medically, she had wanted more children but it had been deemed unsafe for her to have any, and I think she saw this moment as the expansion of her family by the addition of a 'baby girl' as she always called me….because she told me so, pulling me into her sunny kitchen when things had calmed down a bit. And in that moment, all I could think about was the night that she had calmed me down so gently after my scare at Mont Tremblant, where she just didn't even ask me anything about what had happened, but just gently brushed my hair over and over again. And as Eli and I decided to spend the night at his parents' house after Lana and Adam and their little guy left, I couldn't help but ask her to do it again when I saw her walking by Eli's room before bed. But as I handed her my brush in the doorway, I could see that…she had already brought one with her.

XXXXXXXXXXXX Six months later

Eli's POV

"Oh man, Clare, what does he want? Is he going to put us through some sort of training are-you-really-ready-to-be-married little course thing?" I asked in horror in reply to the bomb that she had just dropped. She was on campus for her lunch break, as she would often be as her law firm was just two minutes away from U of T, and I never scheduled any classes for lunch hours so I could take her out. And while these lunches were the favourite part of my day, I never expected to hear today that…Pastor Dan wanted to meet with us. All I could think was…why the hell did he want to do that?

Frilly wedding stuff is so not my style, but I didn't want to leave Clare with all the work, so we reached a sort of deal. While her and Alli would squeal endlessly over color patterns and fabric samples, I dealt with the booking of the hotel that would host our post-church reception, and all the technicalities of invitations and other such administrative tasks. I made sure that the work was fairly evenly split, and when I got worried that it wasn't - Clare and Alli spent dozens of hours on this stuff, while I managed to get my share done pretty quickly – Clare assured me that that was because her and Alli liked spending so much time on it and apparently got side tracked a lot. Alli's own wedding had been rather cool – it had an Indian theme and it was really different than the other ones that I had been to, but I also realized that out of our group of friends, Clare and I will be the only ones to have a traditional church wedding. And everyone seemed to be all…surprised that I was doing this, but I really didn't understand what the big deal was. Aunt Linda got married in a church, and it's a wedding…isn't it normal for it to be in a church? I'm not the devil or anything, I'm not going to explode in flames the minute I enter a holy place of worship as Clare refers to it. Besides, I had been to church a few times with Clare now –although I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle any other Pastor but Pastor Dan because he always focuses his sermons or lectures or whatever you want to call them on the text; so it's like he's doing a close reading analysis, something that I'm always preaching myself to my students about. But…this whole 'he wants to see us' business sounds a little fishy to me.

Clare, however, didn't seem to be worried about it at all; she just giggled and replied,

"No, Eli, it's not like that. I think he meets with everyone who he has known for a long time if they are about to get married".

"Well of course we'll go, but…maybe you should explain to me this whole traditional Church of England service thing. I want to be well prepared when we talk to him so I don't look like an atheist-caught-in-the-headlights," I said with a frown.

"Eli," Clare said, elongating my name teasingly, "I'm pretty sure you know the Bible better than most Christians," she pointed out.

"Yeah, but that's only because English Lit is my thing; I had to read it and learn all the stories because they all relate to pretty much every story and novel and name of every character in every piece of English literature ever written," I highlighted, remembering the night in which Clare came over and gasped for about a minute continuously at the sight of me holding a Bible. But it wasn't like I was…taking it word for word, because I most definitely was not. I just needed to know what was in the thing so I could provide good essays and lectures. When I told Clare that, I was a little surprised to see her agree so easily, and she even told me that she didn't take it exactly word for word. When I added that overall, I agree with the message of Christianity – be kind to others and find forgiveness in your heart, Clare had flashed me an approving smile and she then gave me one of the best kisses of my life.

"You'll be fine, Eli, he'll just tell us a little bit about the sanctity of marriage," she said with a dismissive shrug.

"He thinks I'm going to cheat on you?" I spat out.

"What? No, he's not doing this because he thinks we're making a mistake or something, he does this with everyone," Clare repeated, and that was smart on her part because it had slipped my mind at this point.

"Well, all right then," I grudgingly agreed, knowing that there really wasn't a way out of this one.

XXXXXXXXX –Three weeks later-

"Well, congratulations are first in order," Pastor Dan said as he shook my hand in his office. I didn't even know Pastors had an office, but there it was, in the back of the church.

"You know, I've known Clare ever since she was a little girl. I was the one who christened her," he said proudly.

"I know. And I love Clare. A lot. I assure you I only mean to do the right things by her," I told him, feeling a little like I was meeting Clare's dad all over again.

Pastor Dan then took his glasses off, set them on his desk and said, "Eli – I have known that for a few years now," surprising both me and Clare.

"Really?" I asked him.

"Indeed. When you came to church with her for the first time, you were the first of her boyfriends that I have ever met. And I don't know if you remember, but I asked you if I would be doing your wedding someday –"

"I remember," I said softly as I gave Clare's hand a squeeze.

"Well, I also don't ask that question to every college boyfriend that I meet. I'm not sure what caused me to burst it out like that, actually, it is a little out of character for me. Call it intuition, if you will. I've gotten to see all sorts of things and all sorts of people in my profession. So while I usually do these meetings with all the couples who ask me to perform their wedding ceremony and I talk to them a little about the sanctity of marriage and what marriage means in the eyes of the Lord, I think no one understands marriage better than…you two," he finished, and I couldn't help but widen my eyes at his declaration.

We weren't gonna get the lecture because…we were like, good?

"I actually called you in today to discuss the ceremony. You two have opted for the traditional Church of England service, which pleases me immensely. I know that instead of an hymn though we are using 'Here Comes the Bride'?" and Clare delicately said,

"Yes. We want the march, if that's okay," and Pastor Dan approved it at once.

He then continued, "Well, you know that in the traditional Church of England service the minister makes a speech about marriage before reading the vows," and the knowledge that Clare shared with me before we came here allowed me to nod, thankfully. I still couldn't help but feel that I was here for some sort of tiny test.

Pastor Dan then continued, "And I didn't want to read the same one that I always do – not for you, Clare. Not for your wedding," he said warmly and Clare tipped her head coyly and blushed in that adorable way of hers as she let out a tiny exhale. All I wanted to do whenever she did that was kiss her at once, but I have a feeling Pastor Dan would frown upon that. I hope he at least sees Clare still wears her purity ring and that he gives me props for that, or whatever pastors do that is the equivalent of giving props.

"So what should we do then?" Clare asked, and I could tell that she was just as confused as I was.

"Well, I do have something prepared. Maybe you will bear with me as I read you something – I don't have the permission to use it yet and parts of it will have to be tweaked just a little. I do hope to get redistribution permission soon, because I could not think of any other words that I would rather say while you two are up at the altar with me," he said, and I saw him looking down at some notes before he assumed a beautiful oratorical tone and began,

A woman's love is the greatest gift a man can ever receive. Why? Because a woman's love gives a man courage.

Oh, wow, he's reading…how did he get…

And I feared that I had made so many mistakes and hurt her time and time again that I didn't deserve her forgiveness. But like the angel that she is, she found forgiveness in her heart. I may not be a religious man, but when I look into her eyes whenever she gives me her soft smile, I always recall one line that I read in the Bible.

Faith, hope, and strength are some good things God gave us, but the greatest is love.

And what I believe most is that true love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, and penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope, confidence and strong tenacity.

I looked over at Clare, whose eyes were ever so slightly red and teary, and Pastor Dan softly closed the thick notebook that he had been reading out of and said something that Clare and I now both knew.

"I read your book, Eli," and he paused emphatically before adding, "And it allowed me to see Clare through your eyes. There are no words more appropriate to describe how special and holy marriage is than the ones you used when you were talking about how much you love her. You go on to quote a passage from Corinthians 1:13. What made you choose those lines?" he asked, referring to a definition of everything that love does and does not to that I stumbled upon in my time apart from Clare in first year when I was working on an English paper and I had to turn to the Bible to understand a reference in the novel we were studying.

"Those lines….they talked about how love is always patient and kind, and how it does not take offence. They…I read them at a hard time in my life, and…they made everything so clear. That's the kind of person I wanted to become, and the kind of behaviour I wanted to strive towards. And I tried to not associate them with Clare at first because we were separated then, but no matter how much I tried to deny it to myself, those lines…showed me exactly what I should have shown her and what I regretted that I never did," I admitted, hanging my head in shame.

"You're wrong, Eli," I heard Pastor Dan softly sigh.

"You did show her those things. That's why you are sitting in my office right now, with Clare, with your engagement ring on her finger. And with her purity ring still on her finger – how can you tell me you didn't show her patience and kindness? Eli, all couples fight. But only a few make the effort to grow, and adapt and change as the dynamics of their relationship also evolve. That is why these days so many marriages fail; not because people don't love each other, but because they don't put in the necessary work into their relationship. You and Clare…you have already been faced with the big, hard test, I can tell. You can overcome anything, you two, because you are each other's best friend. I know this because I got to marry my best friend, and I'm not saying it will be all rosy from now on. But you already know that you can work on it successfully. You have worked to be worthy of Clare for a long time, Eli, I can tell. And you are. And she is worthy of you, too. She had to work on that too, and she did. I've been married for thirty-two years and I know that…a husband's job is to patiently stand by his wife's side and support her. It will be the same with your young wife, Eli. So, do I have your permission to read this passage, with some slight modifications – the part about your regrets will be left out – before I read you and Clare's wedding vows?" he asked, and at this point I was just trying to keep myself together, but I knew that my eyes were teary as well.

Pastor Dan…understood me and Clare just as well as Dr. Sadler had.

"Of course, if it's okay with Clare to have this read," I said, knowing we were going a slightly more unconventional route here.

"It's perfect. It's beautiful. There are no other words that I'd rather hear before I marry you," Clare sweetly affirmed.

After we discussed some more technical details with Pastor Dan, once we were back in the Jeep Clare surprised me. She crawled into my lap in the parking lot and burying her face in my neck as she hung onto me tightly and whispered,

"Eli? I'm so honoured that I'm going to be your wife, you know," as I ran my fingertips across her back in slow circles.

"I know, Clare. I know," I softly replied.

XXXXXXXXXX –Three weeks later-

"I liked that that one was facing south – so much natural light," Clare was telling me as she was lying in my arms and we were reviewing the houses that we had looked over the past three weeks. It's time we make a decision, and I actually like a few of them, and so does she…which makes this really hard. Because we can't really decide, and…the house that we buy needs to be perfect.

It's where we will start our lives together, and…I want it to be perfect. I also have the feeling that Clare is holding something back from me, like…she actually doesn't like any of the houses? There hasn't been one that has been a clear stand-out, because most of them are pretty similar and we are looking in the same neighbourhood.

Maybe…she's creeped out by the number of room discussion we had? Most of them have four bedrooms, it's not like I'm pushing anything on her. And I know we both want a family, so I'm inclined to believe that that's not it.

But I'm not seeing things…she just always gets this really wistful look in her eye when we are looking through the real estate magazines, and whenever I ask what is wrong she just says that she just can't decide.

"I like that one too," I honestly told her. "Clare…we can keep looking. We can…still live in our separate apartments after the wedding," I told her with a sigh, because to be honest I would freaking hate that.

"Eli, no, that's ridiculous. We can choose a house. Maybe we should just sleep on it," she said with a soft smile and I agreed and pulled out some essay proposals that I needed to mark as Clare began some case summaries.

After an hour or so, I got up to make us some coffee because I knew we both had a lot of work ahead of us and it was already pretty late and I'd have to drop Clare off at her apartment tonight as opposed to tomorrow morning, or so I think. But as I walked back over to the couch, I could see that she had clearly switched from her law stuff to…a blue folder with all these pictures in it.

"What's that?" I asked after I gave her a cup of coffee the way she liked it and placed a kiss on her forehead.

"Nothing," she quickly said, but her blushing face told me there was something more to it, and when I flashed her a curious look her blush only got more pronounced.

"Clare, what are you looking at? Why can't you tell me?" I plainly asked her, wondering why she felt like she had to hide something from me…and what it was.

I think she noticed that I was a little sad that she was doing this, because she quickly crawled over to my lap and played with the hair at the back of my neck and whispered, "It's just a silly thing that I've been doing…since I first started thinking that one day, you and me would have a home together".

"What is it?" I asked her as I caressed her arm, but I could tell that she didn't want to speak anymore, because she just hid her face in my neck. I took the clue and grabbed the blue folder myself and when I opened it I saw that…Clare had all these pictures of houses and they had circled features – she was choosing what she liked about each one. And when I looked at the dates, I could tell that…Clare had been cutting out pictures of houses from Better Homes and Gardens magazine…for years.

She had been imagining our dream home together for years.

And…none of the houses that we looked at had all of its features. The home she had imagined was rather complex, but…so beautiful.

"Clare," I softly told her as I pulled her out of our embrace a little. "This is amazing".

"It's silly," she said with a shake of her head.

"It's not silly," I replied, and I leaned us both back so we could rest against the back of the couch, and I just pushed her curls away from her neck and planted a few kisses on it, being able to select the spot that would drive Clare a little crazy at once. I knew we both had work to do tonight, so I didn't take things too far, and we spent a nice night just working together before I dropped her off.

But as I was driving back to my apartment, I couldn't shake off the thoughts that had plagued me since the minute I saw that folder. I know that I really shouldn't be thinking of this because it had been so long ago now, but…seeing Clare's collection of pictures and plans made me feel guilty. Guilty that I couldn't give her those things, and I couldn't help but think of…Jake. Had he wanted to, he could have easily built Clare her dream house. Back in high school, it drove me nuts how much she liked how strapping and handy he was…because I knew I could never be like that. It just wasn't my thing, beyond fixing cars and that was rather different. Jake…even at that young age, he could actually make things, and that was a talent that I just didn't have. And now…it was the one thing Clare wanted so badly, I could tell. That is why she didn't even want to show me. And I couldn't do it for her…which…killed me.

But as I turned onto my street, I realized that…maybe I am not using all the tools at my disposal here. I may not be as talented as Jake was and in this case it seems like it will result in me not being able to give Clare what she wants, but…I have some talent, too. I'm a good writer and if my students' course evaluations say anything, I'm a pretty decent prof as well. And while I know I could write her the perfect description of her house, I can…also make it happen. The sales of my book have put me in a pretty good financial position and…while I can't do it directly, maybe I can find someone who can. I don't know anything about that industry, but…maybe I can.

So the next morning after my second year Introduction to American Lit lecture, I walked across the street from the English Department office into the office of…the School of Architecture. I explained to the Dean that I was a prof here and that I was looking for a reliable and responsible team that could bring Clare's folder to life. He took some time to look through it and told me that it was definitely doable and put me in touch with someone who he assured me was one of the finest architects in Toronto, someone I could trust.

I may not be able to find her the house of her dreams, but…I can have it built.

Clare's POV

"Eli," I whispered in amazement at the huge sketches that he brought over, "What is this?"

"That is Dr. Broughton's – some fancy architect I'm told – sketches," he said with a smirk.

"Sketches of what?" I asked, recognizing…everything that I had picked out from my Better Homes and Gardens magazines.

"Sketches of our house, Clare," was all that Eli replied as he flashed me a warm look.

"What?" I choked out.

"I know…that you wanted our house to look like that. And the architect group told me there is a perfect plot of land so close to the university, and to your firm, in a very family neighbourhood with a good school," he said as I stepped into his arms.

"Eli, you don't have to do this," I emotionally told him.

"I haven't signed the papers or bought the land yet – I wouldn't do such a thing without asking you, but…do you want to, Clare?" he plainly said.

"Yes, Eli, I want to, I really do," I whispered, and I felt him give me a squeeze in response.

"Well then, I'd better give them a call – want it to be ready for when we return from our honeymoon," he said as he stepped out of our embrace and pulled his phone out with a wink.

Over the next two months, Eli and I visited the construction site a lot – Eli more than myself, because he kept insisting that it wasn't safe. And the entire process was rather smooth – the architect and construction company had apparently come at the recommendation of the Dean of the School of Architecture at U of T, and they were so responsible and communicative throughout the entire process. My parents were rather pleased at Eli's gesture – my dad came to 'inspect' the house where I'd be living and it met his expectations, and Eli's parents were not surprised at his action at all. Our friends teased him about it mercilessly, but the house was completed a week before our wedding date and Eli and I were the only ones left there one evening, we just walked hand in hand through all of its rooms.

I wondered if Eli was wondering the same things that I was in that moment…we had four bedrooms…who would sleep in the other three? Would they learn to read by the window seats and do their homework and learn to play guitar in that little back room together? Would they dance down the spiral staircase on their way down to dinner? Would their favourite dog run around the live oak in the garden? In that moment, more than any other time, I found myself looking forward to the future with an intensity so powerful that I couldn't even say anything as we walked from room to room, barely believing that this large project was finally completed.

"Eli?" I softly asked him. "Do you know what happened here, on this plot of land, over the last two months?"

"The neighbours started hating us because of all the construction noise and won't bring us apple pie the day we move in?" he playfully shot back.

"No, Eli," I giggled as I playfully hit his shoulder. But I think he could tell that he was serious as he pulled me a bit closer and I plainly told him,

"These last two months…plans were drawn and concrete poured and nail by nail and board by board…you gave life to my dream".

He didn't reply; he just kissed my forehead and I knew that it was because he was as overwhelmed as I was in that moment.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Eli's POV

All right, so I'm looking for a girl in a Kenya soccer jersey; she said on the phone that that would be easiest way to find her, but apparently she doesn't look very much like Clare, so I hope there's no major soccer tournament today in Kenya and everyone decides to wear their jerseys on the flight. If I don't meet up with her successfully, the whole surprise will be ruined – I mean, she's coming home, but I…want to be there too when Clare sees her.

Uh oh. I think that's her. She kind of looks…a little like Clare. They have a very similar hair colour, but Darcy is a lot more tanned….guess it's one of the perks of living in Kenya.

I saw her walk up to me – I was wearing my black leather jacket that she was supposed to identify me by, and she enthusiastically asked,

"Eli?" and I nodded.

"Hey, Darcy. Great to meet you, finally," and I grabbed her bag from her hand and led her out of the airport to my Jeep.

"What's it like to be back?" I asked her, because I noticed she was looking around looking a little dazed.

"It's so…different, you know. I've been away a long time," she sighed.

"Well, let me know if there's anything you need," I offered.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm really happy to be back – and I wouldn't miss Clare's wedding for the world. But I must say –" she started and I playfully cut her off,

"I'm not what you expected, I know, I know. I betcha Pastor Dan thought the same thing," I joked, knowing she'd be really familiar with him.

Darcy laughed at once and replied, "Well, maybe not at first sight, no. But…I liked you for Clare for a long time, Eli. A really long time. She's really evasive on the phone with me – always has been. All I heard all of a sudden was that you broke up, and that she dated idiot Jake Martin – now that I couldn't believe. I warned her about him; he was a player since the age of eleven, I feel," she said, surprising me a little by launching into this topic directly.

She then locked her gaze with mine as I started the car and I felt her touch my arm so I knew she wanted me to pay close attention as she continued, "And, Eli – Clare called me…that night, after Mont Tremblant and the ski trip. And, Eli," she said, and I panicked a little as I saw her tear up, "I can't even, I can't thank you enough for getting my sister home safely. That place, that situation…it was bad, Eli. Trust me, no one knows that better than me. If you hadn't been there…Clare would have been broken, destroyed, devastated. You saved my sister, and I can't ever thank you enough," she said and embraced me in a hug at once. I was totally caught off guard, but I figured that Clare had also told her that I knew about the tragedy that she had suffered there, and I hoped that she couldn't feel my fists clench in fury when I thought about what had happened to her and how no one had been there to protect her.

She then pulled away and said, "Oh, look at me, I'm a wreck. But…I needed to tell you, that, Eli. That's when I knew that…you and Clare might have broken up, but that you would always love her and look after her, even from a distance. And…I think I pissed Clare off for a while there before you got back together, because I would ask about you – every single phone call. I could tell you were recapturing your friendship – she told me about the Project Love shopping – so amazing, by the way, when you helped her with that for me – and the campus tour, and then…one day when I asked, she told me you were back together, and…I finally felt at peace with my sister being so far away from me….because I knew she was well looked after. I'm not going to pretend to you, Eli – I know Clare. I know she can be stubborn, and judgemental, and do stupid things and hurt the ones she loves. I'm just glad that…you gave her another chance," Darcy said, shocking me.

"Um, I was kind of the one who needed to be forgiven and given another chance," I told her.

"Yeah, you see, I'm not so sure about that one, Eli. Not so sure," Darcy thoughtfully said, and then she broke out in a smile and said,

"Come on. Take me home. It's been a long time, I want to see my family," and I did so at once.

And as soon as Darcy entered the kitchen of the house that she grew up in – all the girls and me and Clare's moms were there doing some bridesmaids dresses stuff – the entire room broke out in gasps and tears and excited girly squeals that I'm pretty sure drove all the dogs in the neighbourhood insane.

But I will never forget the look of complete shock and amazement on Clare's face as she uttered, "Darcy?" and her sister wrapped her up in a hug at once, telling her, "What? You didn't think I'd miss my own sister's wedding?". And when Darcy explained to Clare,

"Eli flew me in and arranged it all," I practically felt my heart skip a beat at the look of happiness on Clare's face.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Clare's POV

"I just want to talk to him for like a minute – there's something I need to tell him –" I told my mom as she kept chastising me that I had had plenty of time before today – our wedding day, but she just didn't understand. This was important.

I had always imagined my wedding day as beautiful sunny one, and when I woke up to clouds today, I had tried to keep excited, but a small part of me felt like dying. All throughout the morning it stayed cloudy, but right now…the sun came out, bright and powerful, and strong. And I didn't care that I was just about to leave for the church where I would get ready in one of the back rooms where all my things waited. I had to see Eli. I knew he would already be at the church, so I convinced my dad to drive me over there early as well; my bridesmaids could just meet there later like we had always planned on doing anyway.

However, I regretted not texting Eli or something before, as when I entered the room he was just getting changed, and he let out a surprised,

"Adam, get out, man, I'm changing," before realizing it was me.

"Clare? Is something wrong? You all right?" he asked in a panic.

"Eli, no everything is fine. It's more than fine. I just…we got the sun," I said as I leaned in for a bright kiss.

"I know – I was so worried. I know how much you wanted this day to be sunny," he replied.

"But it was supposed to be cloudy all day," I softly told him, getting emotional already and trying to keep my voice from breaking.

"Hey, hey, but it's not sweetheart, it's not," Eli said as he caressed my cheeks with his left hand.

"Do you know why? Do you realize why?" I asked him, and I pulled him over to one of the stained glass windows of the church and whispered, "She's looking out for us, Eli, today," and the way his chest trembled against my back told me that he knew I was referring to Julia. "She…gave us the sun," I said tearfully, and Eli just held me for a minute before wiping my tears away.

"I know," he softly said. "I know," he repeated.

"I love you," I told him, and he echoed the same sentiment that I expressed at once.

He then turned me around and flashed me a smirk and said, "See you at the altar?"

"Of course. See you at the altar," I replied with a beaming smile.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Well – what do you think?" I said as I turned around and Darcy, Alli, Imogen, Lana, Angela, my mom, Cece and my grandma all silently gasped and erupted in a chorus of "Beautiful", "Perfect", "Eli is a lucky guy" and other such similar things.

This was it. My dress was on and we were just about to head to the church where Eli and the boys and the guests already were by now.

My bridesmaids were Darcy – Alli let her be my maid of honour – Alli, Imogen, Lana, and Imogen's little girl, now having just turned two was just old enough to perform flower girl duties. I had also asked Angela to be one of my bridesmaids because Eli had Dylan and Scotty as groomsmen in addition to Adam and Daniel, and I hadn't wanted her to feel left out. When we took her and Dylan and Scotty out and asked them, they all jumped at the opportunity of being in our wedding party, and…it just felt so right to Eli and I that they were there.

"Hold on, sweetheart, just a few more things," my mom said and everyone smiled at me, obviously aware of something that I wasn't.

I then saw Darcy come forward and she pulled out a baby blue garter and giggled, "Something blue".

My mom then handed me a small jewellery box that contained the most delicate white pearl ear drop earrings and as she helped me put them on, she said, "Something new".

Alli then approached me and I saw her take off the tiny exquisite white diamond bracelet that I knew she had worn at her won wedding and she said, "Something borrowed".

And lastly, my Nana called me over to her – walking was a little hard for her these days – and she grabbed my hands and placed a delicate string of pearls in them. Tears formed in her eyes as she said, "These are the pearls that your grandfather gave to me the day that your mother was born. And they are yours now, sweetheart. Something old," and she sternly instructed me to not ruin my make-up when she saw how much her words had touched me.

After one final look in the mirror, I…realized that this was really happening. And I had never felt more ready. I always thought that I would be rather nervous on my wedding day, but the preparations were smooth and everyone in the church were people that I loved, so I wasn't even worried about making any mistakes in the vows and getting embarrassed or anything like that. Because…on my wedding day, I looked and felt the exact way that I always dreamed I would. And I think Darcy could tell, because she came over and stood next to me in the mirror, her pink dress looking gorgeous on her as she whispered,

"Clare…what a dream day. You're…just the way that you always dreamed you would be today. You look…perfect. Like a princess bride…beautiful, young, and…virginal. Perfect. Just perfect," and she gave me a warm embrace.

I then heard my dad knock on the door and everyone else then left to head to the church themselves. I could see that my dad was a little emotional himself as he held out his arm to me and asked,

"You ready, Clare-Bear?" and I told him the only thought running through my mind.

"Of course, daddy. I've loved him since I was fifteen".

Eli's POV

"Eli, I think it's time we head out there," I heard my dad say and mom gave me another quick hug before she left to take her seat.

"All right, big guy, this is it – you ready?" my dad then asked with a laugh as we headed up the aisle and Adam, Daniel, Scotty and Dylan all stood up a little straighter when they saw me approaching. I had just run into the room at the back of the church at Pastor Dan's request that I double check the portion of my book that he wanted to quote, and my parents had come along for kicks as well. What he planned to say was actually my favourite portion of my novel, so it wasn't much of a discussion.

"Of course I'm ready, dad. I've loved her since I was sixteen," I replied.

All of my groomsmen gave me an encouraging smile and then Pastor Dan came out and silence fell over the church. Clare and I had about one hundred guests at our wedding or so, and her church really was decorated beautifully. There were flowers at each end of the aisle and as the music began playing, Imogen and Daniel's little girl got the hugest blush on her face; we had all practiced everything yesterday but she was just so little that it was only expected and normal that she would be nervous. However, she was able to quickly overcome it and she began walking down the aisle slowly, dropping petals from her basket diligently until she reached the very end of the aisle amongst a chorus of "Awws". She was wearing a white dress with a pink bow on it and a little crown made of flowers and she looked really, really precious. She then went to stand by her daddy, as Imogen was one of Clare's bridesmaids and they were next to walk down the aisle. Darcy, the maid of honour, was first, followed by Alli and then Imogen and last of all was Angela, and I couldn't help but smile at the fact that she totally only kept her gaze locked on Dylan as she made her way down the aisle.

This was all happening relatively fast after I had been waiting for it for so long and dreaming of it really, but nothing could have prepared me for the moment in which the song changed to the classic bridal chorus. I realized in that moment that…there was no way to prepare for something like that. The very first notes that could be heard from the majestic organ were enough to produce tears for my mom – she was the first to go, as always – and I also noticed that Clare's mom was crying, as was her grandma…Mrs. Dawes. Clare and I had obviously invited her to her wedding and she was here with her husband…her eyes teary as he gently held her hand.

But the most amazing thing was that…while everyone was looking at Clare…she was looking at me.

I always thought Clare looked radiant and just so pretty in every moment, no matter what she was doing or what she was wearing. But….today, she looked different. She looked…more like an angel than a girl. Walking on her father's arm in a perfect rhythm to the bridal march, I…knew I just had to be the luckiest guy on the planet. We were getting married after all. I was marrying the most kind and patient person I have ever met…the girl who is walking towards me right now.

Her striking blue eyes were covered by a shimmery veil that sparkled under the soft lights of the church, and her veil was held in place by an exquisite silver flower clip that elegantly swept a strand of her curls aside. It had a lace edge that matched the little lace sleeves her white dress had. Her dress…I had not been allowed to see it before this moment and…it was so beautiful. It had a gorgeous train and it was of a pure white that just symbolized everything Clare's dreams and ambitions stood for. While the top was made up of a tighter corset-like material that delicately wrapped around her upper body, the lower half of the dress was loose and it flowed so gracefully with each of her movements. The lace trim on its bottom was complimented by the lace detailing that covered her shoulders, framing a pearl necklace beautifully. In her hands she held a large, overflowing bouquet of white and blue flowers that made the jewel flower in her hair even more prominent. She was…absolutely stunning. But nothing could compare to the look in her eyes that was revealed as her dad led her to the altar and raised her veil. She was looking directly at me with complete…faith. And confidence.

She trusted me. She trusted me wholeheartedly, and that meant to me more than anything ever could.

Her spirited blue eyes were highlighted by a shimmery soft golden powder, her lips were of a glossy pink that was so sunny and bright that it made me want to kiss her at once, and her curls were full and the sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows of the church made their reddish tint even more prominent. Her cheeks contained an adorable amount of red stained on them, that told me that she was….excited. Not nervous. And as the last notes of the bridal march played on the reverberating organ, her dad went to sit by her mom's side and Pastor Dan gave us both an encouraging nod before scanning the entire church and assuming his presence as leader with simply just that one look.

I wasn't sure if this would be frowned upon or not, but I couldn't help myself, so I quickly whispered to Clare, "You look absolutely beautiful," and she let out a tiny little exhale as her blush got deeper, making me decide that it was worth the risk.

Pastor Dan then began speaking and I decided it was time to listen up as he said,

"Dearly beloved,

We are gathered here, in the sight of God and the face of this congregation to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony. This noble estate, granted onto us, signifies the holy union which Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and therefore is not by any to be enterprised or taken unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly. It is rather to be taken reverently, discreetly, and in the sight of God, duly considering the causes for which it was ordained – for the increase in mankind, according to the will of God, and so that children are produced in the praise of His holy name. It was ordained for the mutual society help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity. This man and this woman therefore, now come to be joined. So if any man of woman can speak as to why they cannot be joined together, let him now speak, or forever after hold his peace,"

Pastor Dan then paused as the church remained completely silent – as it very well should have at those words – and Pastor Dan then gave me a small smile as he went on,

"I would now like to share some of the most spiritual words that I have encountered in my life as we join together this man and this woman in their love. It is these words that capture the essence of the state of holy matrimony," and I saw Clare beam proudly at me as Pastor Dan read the words that I had typed on my computer at a time when I was only dreaming of a day like this.

"A woman's love is the greatest gift a man can ever receive. Why? Because a woman's love gives a man courage. Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, and penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope, confidence and strong tenacity. Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous. Love is never boastful nor conceited it is never rude or selfish. It does not take offence. It is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people's sins, but delights in the truth. It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure…whatever comes," he finished as I saw Clare nod emotionally.

Pastor Dan then turned to me with a smile and said,

"Eli Goldsworthy. Will you have this woman to be your wedded wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, and forsaking all others, keep all only onto her, so long as you both shall live?"

"I will," I confidently said.

Pastor Dan then turned to Clare with a warm look and asked,

"Clare Diana Edwards. Will you have this man to be your wedded husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honour and keep him, and forsaking all others, keep all only onto him, so long as you both shall live?"

"I will," Clare assertively said as she locked her gaze with mine.

Pastor Dan then led us through the next part of our vows and I asserted,

"I, Eli Goldsworthy, take you, Clare Edwards to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us apart".

Clare's soft voice could then be heard throughout the church as she confidently said, "I, Clare Edwards, take you, Eli Goldsworthy to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death do us apart".

Adam then passed the ring that he was carrying as part of his best man duties to Pastor Dan, who made the sign of a cross over it and said, "Bless this ring and he and she who wear it to live together in peace and love". He then handed it to me and I placed it on Clare's left hand finger…and exhaled at the sight of finally…the proper ring resting on that finger. Her ring was a little more elaborate than mine; I wanted her to have something that was a little bit more special than just a gold band, so I had had six little blue shiny sapphires embedded into it, all placed at equal distances apart along the ring. Clare then placed a gold wedding band on my finger…the only ring that I would be wearing from now on on this hand.

Pastor Dan then had us repeat,

"With this ring I be wed," and said a final "Amen," before he declared,

"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride," and I eagerly did so, making sure to keep my kiss soft and gentle and appropriate, but much to my delight Clare still shivered into it.

We then heard the organ powerfully reverberate into the wedding march as everyone clapped and called out to us as we walked down the aisle hand in hand, heading right into the limousine that would take us to the hotel reception that was next. The reception went by in a flash; Clare and I spent most of it in each other's arms on the dance floor, and I was definitely counting down the time until I could have her all alone…everyone definitely wanted the bride's attention at a wedding, and I was only able to kiss her properly until we were in the taxi that was taking us to the airport. We had decided to honey moon in Spain because Clare and I had loved it there so much.

Of course, the flight to Spain was about nine hours, and apparently this timing didn't escape Clare's mind either, as when she snuggled into me on the plane she broke into a fit of giggles and burst out, "It's technically our wedding night right now," teasing me mercilessly.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

"Twenty-two freckles this time," I told Clare as we were lying on the Barcelona beach, the sky literally shining a shade of a deep purple over us. I absolutely loved the way her darker skin shined in the sunlight, but now that the sun was almost gone, you could tell how it was still really rather pale.

She didn't answer me, but rather cheekily kissed me and intertwined our fingers together and said, "Let's go back to our hotel now," and I hope that she didn't see me gulp, but I think that she did notice something because she asked,

"What's wrong?"

"I…I might be bad at wedding night duties," I burst out, no longer able to keep it in.

Thing is, I knew that Clare depended on me to make this a beautiful experience for her, and I so desperately wanted to…but it had been a while – a long while – since I had gone all the way, and regardless, I doubt that my fourteen year old self's performance would be enough to make this night what she had dreamed of. I was definitely feeling the pressure, and I thought she might need….a warning.

"Clare…I…I don't want this to be – " I faltered, but she sweetly kissed me before saying,

"Eli…I'm sure you're not bad at wedding night duties. I can tell, you know – whenever we are intimate, you make it perfect for me," she said with a blush on her cheeks.

"That's a little different," I pointed out. "I love you, and I don't want you to be disappointed. And most of all, I really don't want to hurt you. I wish I could take the pain instead of you. I don't want this to be an uncomfortable, painful, and…unfulfilling experience, Clare," I confessed.

"Eli," she said as she gave me a warm smile. "Do you know why our wedding night is so special?" she asked, and I had the feeling that this was a bit of a trap kind of question; one of those ones that there just isn't a right answer to.

"Because…we can be together?" I stumbled.

"No, Eli – because it's just the beginning – it represents one of the many nights we will have together. I don't care about all of those worries that you just mentioned. I just…I really want to be with you, that's all. We've waited a long time, Eli," she softly said.

"God, Clare, trust me – I really want to be with you too, trust me. I love you," I told her, and she stood up slowly, taking my hand and guiding me to follow her. We slowly packed up all of our things, and I was actually glad that we seemed to be in no rush – I didn't want to rush anything tonight.

I then led her up the stairs that led from the beach to the road level and we walked hand in hand to our hotel. We were staying in the honeymoon suite, which was actually a really nice private cabana – when I had looked up the hotel, I really wanted to make sure that it could be a private, beautiful space that would make Clare feel safe and comfortable, and that is exactly what it was.

I led her into the room and she softly told me,

"I'm going to get changed," and I wondered what that meant…she was just wearing one of those little bikinis that drove me nuts and a gorgeous blue dress over it, what exactly did she want to change into? I was definitely a little disappointed that I wouldn't get to slide her out of her wedding dress, because in my mind that's what wedding night had sort of fantasizingly played out as, before I realized all of the logistics that were really involved.

I took the time to make sure I looked all right as well, and when the door to the bathroom opened, I couldn't help but flash her a wide smirk and slowly approach her until I could whisper in her ear,

"I was hoping you'd wear that. Sneaky little devil, didn't even tell me you brought it with us," I teased, glad to see her in her beautiful white dress…just the way I had always imagined it.

"One of the many advantages of not buying one of those poofy dresses – is that it fits easily in a suitcase. It's our wedding night, I wanted to wear it," she said with the most adorable shrug that made me kiss her at once.

The kiss was slow and gentle, and I felt her hands travel to my shoulders as my hands caressed the corset of her dress. Once we broke the kiss, she stared at me so intensely – I felt that she could see right through me – and she kissed my cartilage piercing as I felt my body tremble a bit. I then felt Clare's hands travel down my shoulders and grip my back and she gently raised one of her legs over my hips. I took the welcomed hint and gently grasped the back of her thighs so that I could carry her, and she giggled at my sudden movement and tangled her hands in my hair.

I walked us to the large bed and gently laid her down on top of the golden silky sheets, and her hands traveled to undo the buttons of my dress white shirt, a mission she accomplished rather quickly. Her soft hands then traveled to my shoulders and she slid the shirt away from my body as I moved to take out the flower pin that she had in her hair. It came out easily and I shook her curls as she reached up urgently and began a long and deep kiss that told me just how badly she wanted this and how sure she was of herself. I could already feel her chest rising and falling quickly, the hardwire of the tip of her corset colliding against my chest in a way that was starting to drive me crazy. Clare's hands were traveling all over my back, and their softness was making my every muscle twitch as our kisses became more urgent and she was already rewarding me with soft moans. When her hands caressed my chest, I could feel my breathing increase rapidly, and when she undid my belt buckle and the button of my pants, I heard myself let out a moan of my own as my hands traveled to her side and I found the zipper on her dress.

I could hear her softly pant my name and her hands moved to grip her hair, and she whispered, "I have so many buttons," and indeed, after the zipper on her dress ended, I could now tell that a series of buttons began.

"Clare….trust me, I will take my time with this," I whispered in her ear, and the way her body shivered right after thrilled me to no end. I progressed through the buttons rapidly, but I knew that unlike all of our previous times together, we wouldn't be going clothing piece by clothing piece here – this dress was one sole piece and I didn't want her to feel overwhelmed once I slid it off, and I really wanted to kiss every inch of her, so I felt my body almost give out as I began softly kissing her neck. I took my time in watching each spot that I kissed visibly tremble and get pinker as blood rushed to it, progressing down her collarbones and leaving a few bites as Clare softly called out my name euphorically. Her grip on my back was getting tighter and I could tell that she was enjoying this, so I kissed every exposed area of her skin, sometimes gripping the skin more aggressively with my teeth as Clare would let out tiny little screams that were already pushing me to the edge. I placed a trail of kisses down her left arm which ended with a kiss over her wedding band, and I felt her writhe under me as she breathed,

"Eli…take it off," and I needed to further instruction than that.

I grasped the sides of her dress and she lifted her body off the mattress so I could gently tug it down, and I made sure to keep my gaze on hers as I slowly slid the delicate wedding dress off, and I headed back up the bed so I could kiss her passionately. After I pulled away, I finally let myself scan her body, and…she was so perfect. Her body was arching into mine as she placed her hand around my neck and pulled me down for an urgent kiss. I then felt her slide off my pants and I helped her remove them completely, her hair slightly messy at this point and her chest rising and falling shallowly as she fell back against the pillows and placed my hands over her chest.

"Eli," she breathed, arching into my touch. Even her underwear was…indicative of how delicate she was. It was all delicate white lace, and I slipped her garter off and huskily whispered,

"Something blue?" in her ear and I watched a deep blush creep down to her chest. I slowly then also slid off her white stockings that were connected to her lacy underwear, and the movement of her legs to my side after I did that made my eyes roll back for a minute before I regained my control.

"I love it, your something blue," I assured her and she laughed without any inhibition as she pulled herself up and kissed me again, her entire body trembling. She then gently flipped us over and paid a lot of attention to my chest, trailing urgent kisses all over it, alternating them with soft caresses and playful bites. When I felt her slide my boxers off and stroke me, I had to gently take her hand and I choked back a moan as I explained,

"Woah, okay, I kind of want this to last more than two seconds," because just the heat radiating off of her warm body drove me insane and I hadn't even begun to look after her.

Clare giggled and I took advantage of her little moment of distraction to flip her over, which made her giggle even louder, and I resumed my kisses of her chest, teasing her skin with my tongue as I moved down her body. I felt her hands tightly grip my hair as I moved up to her chest, and my heart skipped a beat in the moment in which she panted,

"Eli. Take it off. Now," referring to her white lacy bra. I almost wanted to pinch myself when I heard her say that – this was a luxury I had never been permitted before, and even though Clare had made it easier for me by wearing really thin silky nightgowns, I had never seen her so intimately. She guided my hands to her back as she lifter herself higher off the bed, and I undid the hook slowly, and then I separated the thin material from her body. I saw her blush as I kept my eyes on hers for a minute, and I then lowered my gaze and slowly began kissing the newly exposed skin, learning its every feature and causing goose bumps to form on her skin. Clare's moans got ever so much louder and her grip on my back became a lot tighter as I moved down her body, and I placed a series of kisses all along the edge of her lace panties before she breathed,

"Take them off, Eli," and I placed a kiss on each of her hipbones before I grasped the delicate lace material and sliding it down her smooth legs as her blush got even deeper.

I placed an arm on each side of her shoulders as I leaned into her and controlled my heavy breathing just long enough to tell her, "Clare…you are so beautiful, and I love you so much," and she breathless replied, "Eli, I love you too". I locked her lips in a deep kiss and allowed my hands to caress her body as her chest pressed against mine. I felt her slowly spread her legs and my hand trailed down her body, and the initial contact made Clare cry my name out loud before she rewarded me with a series of soft but passionate moans.

"Oh God, Eli," I heard her softly exclaim, and I slowly retreated my fingers and began kissing down her body, wanting to make her feel as loved and cared for as possible. I wanted her to feel the least amount of pain possible later, so I needed to make sure that she was ready before I went any further. I felt her hands massaging my scalp as I kissed her very centre and did everything that I could to make her feel good. Her cries became almost frantic and her entire arched body was heaving as she was repeating my name over and over again until she breathed,

"Stop, stop," and I knew that I had taken her really close, so I pulled away and softly touched her one last time, the quivering of her thighs calming down a bit.

"Clare… did I do something that - did I hurt you?" I asked in fear, wanting to make sure that we were communicating well here.

"God, no, Eli, you are…this is incredible," she moaned, a blissful look on her face. She then trailed both of her hands down my chest before she said,

"I just…I was almost – I want you, Eli," she plainly said, and I couldn't help but smirk at her.

"I wanted to make sure you were ready," I breathed, and she locked her gaze with mine before reaching up to kiss me and saying,

"I am," and she stroked me again, causing me to close my eyes and exhale deeply. I then moved to find my pants as their pocket contained precious cargo, but Clare grabbed my hand and pulled me back on top of her and she softly said,

"No, Eli, I don't want us to use one". I widened my eyes at her – because I didn't want to jump to conclusions, so I asked,

"You've been on birth control for long enough now or something…?" but Clare just grinned up at me and said,

"No. I'm not on anything. I…want your child. I want us to try and have a baby soon, and I know you do too, Eli. I know you do," she said, surprising me completely. Of course I wanted that – I had wanted that for a long time, but I hadn't expected her to…want to start right away. But then again, this little declaration jogged my memory to a particular crantini-filled night, and I couldn't help but smirk at her and ask,

"Because the point of wedding night is to make babies?" and she giggled incessantly before she answered,

"Exactly," and kissed my neck, almost making my arms give out from under me.

"You're sure?" I asked again, and she nodded eagerly.

"God, Clare, I love you," I breathed out, and she arched her body really deeply into mine, and I could tell that she was just as ready as I was. She gently adjusted her body a little and softly moaned,

"Eli…make love to me," and the sight of her in this moment was almost more than I could take.

I caressed her cheek as I whispered, "I…tell me the second you feel uncomfortable, or if you need me to go slower, or anything – but tell me, okay?" and Clare kissed my piercing before whispering, "I will".

I placed a kiss on her now misty forehead as I adjusted myself over her – she was so small and fragile and all I wanted to do was to make this special for her.

Clare's POV

"I love you," I softly told him, knowing he was weary of hurting me, but as I felt the contact, I kept my focus on the way he was running his hands up and down my shoulder and the way he kept his lips on my hairline, pressing them to my forehead again and again. The passionate kiss that he gave me muffled my most urgent cry, and while I did feel pain, I felt no fear. Eli was moving slowly and giving me so much time to calm down and adjust, and his caresses of my arms, and kisses of all parts of my face took my focus away from the moment of pain. I could tell that this wasn't easy for him either, but our lips met over and over again with patient trust until I breathed deeply and I felt my body become a little more relaxed.

"Eli," I moaned, hoping he would understand what I meant, and he did as his movements began, slow and stable as his eyes scanned mine.

"Oh," I let out, no longer a cry of pain, but one of complete sweet surrender. I could feel my eyes flutter open and closed in a way that was out of my control. His body was radiating heat as it was moving against mine and I hung onto his back, tracing my hands up and down and as our speed increased, moving my hands to his hair.

"C-Clare," I heard him attempt to say, "Are you okay?" he asked, concern lacing his voice.

"I'm- I'm perfect," I assured him, and I surrendered to the pulsating rhythm that was reverberating through my entire body. My moans increased in volume and frequency and I could see Eli also starting to relax now that he saw that I was fine, and I could only focus on the unity between the two of us, on his rapid breathing and powerful moans. Every single breath fanned the flame as we met over and over again, exchanging kisses whenever we could and pulling away to breathe. Eli was caressing my chest and entire body and I could tell that he was shivering a little, and I knew that he was trying to hold on for me, always putting me ahead of him. I knew that he wanted to make this a pleasurable experience for me, but it already was so perfect, so I pulled him a little lower down and guided his hand down my body, wanting to communicate to him that he shouldn't be afraid to do this. He understood my message quickly, because after he initiated a long kiss, I felt the contact and I threw my head back as I repeated his name over and over again, moaning so loudly that I knew that he could tell that I was close. I held onto his shoulders and raised my upper body off the bed and into his embrace as Eli's hands travelled to my back to support me. As I lost all control of my breathing, I felt Eli kiss my shoulder and my face fell to the crook of his neck and I called out his name blissfully, pleasure overtaking me and causing my entire body to tremble as Eli gently lowered me back onto the soft satin sheets.

"Oh my God, Eli," I panted as my chest was rising and falling erratically and he softly smirked at me. I could tell that he was really close to his own release, and I didn't want him to stop to look after me, so I assertively told him, "Don't stop," and it was only a few seconds later that his arms gave out and he supported himself on his forearms, in an obvious attempt not to hurt me in any way. He was being even more protective and gentle with me tonight than usual, and I knew that the way that he had treated me was the reason why I was able to give myself to him so confidently and the reason why I was relaxed enough to experience total surrender.

"Clare, I-I," he struggled to say as his entire body was shaking along mine, but I just silenced him with a kiss. I then felt him kiss every part of my body that he could reach, and his soft kisses caused my shaking muscles to calm down. He gently brushed my bangs out of my face and wiped my forehead before placing a gentle kiss on my cheek. I felt him separate our bodies and I softly gasped and closed my eyes as Eli then pulled me into a gentle embrace and caressed my entire body lovingly.

"Are you okay?" he whispered as he was still calming the trembling of my body.

"Eli…I've never felt more looked after and loved that tonight," I confessed, and I felt him give me a gentle squeeze as my teary eyes met his slightly red ones.

"I love you, Clare," he confidently said, and I echoed the same sentiment as I snuggled deeply into his side.

"Eli?" I softly asked him as he threw one of the soft sating sheets over us and he kept caressing my body on the outside of the sheet, his gentle touch making me feel completely safe and content.

"I'm doing to take my ring off," and I did so. I always thought this would be a difficult moment, but…I had a much more meaningful wedding ring on my finger now, as well as the ring that Eli had given me in England on my other hand, and I loved my engagement ring so much that I also wore that one. I then placed my purity ring in Eli's hand, opening it up for him as he had no clue what I was doing. I explained to him,"You keep it, okay? If we have a girl, I'd like her to wear it," and I saw him nod and give me a loving look.

"Me too, Clare. Me too," he replied, and he then kissed my shoulder playfully before he teased,

"So? Thinking we made a baby already, huh?" and I reached up and kissed his neck with a few giggles before I answered,

"Oh, Eli, that's so silly – I think we are going to need much, much more practice," and he shot me a pleased smug smirk before I rested my head on his chest again.

XXXXXXXXXXXX –Four months later-

Clare's POV

"How were classes?" Clare asked me after she placed a sweet kiss on my lips. She had the radio on in our sunny, country-style kitchen, and she was barefoot, dancing ever so slightly as she prepared dinner and I washed my hands so I could help her.

"They were good – just coming up to a marking blitz though," I said with a frown.

"And that meeting of the Department?" she asked, and I loved how she remembered every detail of my day.

"I told them about that offer I got to write a new book, and they seemed pleased," I informed her as I stole another kiss. "Cucumbers?" I asked with a raised eyebrow, knowing that Clare usually hated them, but she had passed me one to cut up.

"Yes, they'll taste nice in that salad," she said with a sassy little smile before she removed the knife from my hands and said,

"Eli, I have some news too".

"You got the verdict back on the racism case?" knowing that she was waiting to hear on that.

"Not exactly," she said before she took both of my hands in hers and said, "I know what I want to do with the third room now," and this was good news. Other than our master bedroom, we had made an office with two desks that we both spent a lot of time in from the second room, but the other two we were kind of just using as storage.

"What should we make it into?" I asked curiously, wondering if Clare wanted some type of spa or something like that.

She was teasing me, however, leaning in to kiss me before answering, and just touching her lips to mine before she pulled away and whispered, "A nursery," and I dropped my jaw in shock.

"Right, um for the future, right?" not wanting to get my hopes up just to have them destroyed.

Clare beamed proudly up at me and immediately said, "For the future that will come in eight months, yes".

"You're pregnant? You're sure?" I asked, trying to keep myself together, but I knew that it was clear that I was just beside myself with happiness. Clare…was going to have my child?

"I took a test today, didn't go to the doctor's or anything, but…I'm quite sure, Eli," she said, and I kissed her at once, picking her up gently and twirling her around our sunny kitchen as she giggled madly.

"Oh my God, Clare, I thought I couldn't be any happier than the day that I married you. But this…we're gonna have a baby! Me and you, our baby," and I leaned down and kissed her stomach.

"I know," she said softly as I leaned in for another kiss.

"I love you," I told her as I placed a hand over her stomach and she closed her eyes at my touch.

XXXXXXXX –Later that night-

Clare's POV

"Eli…why are you up?" I said sleepily as I leaned over and caressed his chest. I could see that he was holding his Kindle and he just had the whitest look on his face.

"What's wrong?" I asked as I got up and turned on my lamp as well. I knew that he had an article to write and he was staying up…but it was now 3am. He would be good for no lectures tomorrow if he was so exhausted.

"Clare…." he whispered as he softly caressed my stomach.

"What are you reading?" I asked him as I rubbed my eyes.

"I…this book that Daniel recommended; What to Expect When Your Wife Is Expecting, he said it helped him a lot when Imogen was pregnant," Eli whispered, but I could tell that he was in a complete panic. He placed his arm securely around me and pulled me in so he could lightly kiss my forehead.

"And…?" I asked, needing more information here.

"Clare…there's a chapter in here about…complications," and I instantly didn't like the direction he was taking. He had clearly spooked himself out with all those diagrams and examples of the worst things that could happen by reading them in the middle of the night.

I heard his voice break as he said, "Clare…I want a baby with you so much, you know that. But…what have I done to you? I just read about a case where a mom's baby died before being born and two days later the mom died of sepsis, Clare. The mom. And the baby, Clare…if something like that – I just can't, I can't – we could always have another baby, but if I lost you, oh God, Clare - we have to do something," he frantically said.

"Eli, Eli, stop," I told him assertively and he ran his hand through his hair and said, "Clare…this is a huge thing – pregnancy and I can't….it's so…out of my control. And I didn't even know any of this stuff," he continued, gesturing to some diagrams in that book, "until now".

"Eli – stop psyching yourself out. It's a big process but…it's a natural one, Eli. That's what my mom told me on the phone after I told you our good news. She said to remember that this is a very natural process, and she also said another thing, which is a point in our favour," I pointed out.

"What?" Eli asked, his green eyes shining with worry.

"She said that girls tend to take after their moms when it comes to pregnancies. My mom didn't have any complications with either me or Darcy, in getting pregnant, or in the entire pregnancy, or at birth. It'll be okay, Eli. If you help me and will be there with me, it'll be okay," I encouraged him.

"But my mom…she said that the doctors told her she shouldn't have another baby after me," he said with shaking hands.

"Well, then it's a good thing you're not pregnant, silly – it doesn't matter, we have to look at my mom, not yours," I pointed out with a laugh that seemed to relax Eli.

"Clare – tomorrow, first thing, doctor's appointment, okay? I need to…learn more about this," Eli said and I nodded at once, because I did need one of those.

"Okay, love, okay," I told him as I snuggled into him more and I felt him caress my stomach.

"We'll use Daniel and Imogen's doctor – Daniel said she was really good," Eli went on as he began twirling one of my curls between his index and middle finger.

"Eli, we don't need to use a private doctor," I replied.

"Clare, please. I want someone we can trust, Daniel and Imogen used her. Please," he repeated, and I gave in, knowing how important this was to Eli.

"And after the baby is born, I don't want to leave you alone all day with everything. I already emailed the Department Head with my requested hours for the semester; I worked it out so I can have Tuesdays and Thursdays off, so that way I will be home for four days out of the week. I want you to rest those days, stay in bed, or go out, or do whatever you want, while I can stay and look after the baby. It's important that you get a break, and while I may not be able to do everything for a baby that you can, I'm going to be here those days, and of course all evenings. I'm going to take good care of you, Clare, okay?" I heard Eli finally say after he calmed down a bit and just before we both were almost back asleep.

"I know you will, Eli. I know you will," I assured him.

XXXXXXXXXXX –Eight months later-

Clare's POV

"Oh yummy, thanks," I said to Eli as he sat down next to me on the couch after handing me a dinner plate with all of the things that he knew I liked best on it.

After we finished eating and Eli was slowly massaging my back as his legs straddled mine on the couch, I moved his hands to my stomach so he could feel the baby kicking.

"Girl. For sure girl," Eli said as he moved his hands around my stomach. We had both wanted to be surprised and we had asked our doctor to not tell us the gender, but we were in a bit of a disagreement when it came to our guesses.

"What makes you so sure? I think it's a boy," I teased him, but just then I felt…something strange and I sat up as fast as a nine-month pregnant girl can, Eli gently helping me.

"I...I have to go to the washroom," I said as I felt my cheeks blazing. I always needed to go to the washroom these days…but this was very embarrassing…I had always previously made it.

"Um, Clare…"I heard Eli start to say, and I was just about mortified.

"Oh God, Eli, get away, this is so embarrassing," unable to process what had just happened. But then…it felt wrong. All wrong…

"Oh my God, my water broke," I whispered as Eli urgently nodded his head.

"Okay, sit down, sit down, I'll get the bag, and we'll be out of here in a second," he said, and he was back just a minute later and helping me into the Jeep.

"Clare, I got you. Don't worry," Eli told me as he began driving, and I loved how secure and assertive he was being. He continued being that way as we made our way into the hospital, as our doctor came in to meet us with a smile, and….then the contractions and the pain came, and…it was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. I couldn't believe that people actually lived through something like this, and I had definitely gotten an epidural, but it was still…so bad.

It also didn't help that I had to wear one of those horrible robes and have four different people stare at my exposed body, and I could tell that Eli was able to read everything that I was feeling, because he cast me the most sympathetic glances that I have ever received in my life. He was direct but kind to all of the doctors and nurses, and his hand never left mine for a minute. When things got really bad, he kept his lips pressed to my hairline, giving me soft pressing kisses and pushing my sweaty hair away from my face. I was told that any minute now, I would be done, but…it was…so exhausting, and I hated how long it was taking. It had been…twelve hours already, and I just wanted to be done.

"Eli….it hurts…I want to go home, take me home, make this be over, please," I whined, and I could see tears in his eyes as he said, "Oh, sweetheart. I'm so sorry, I can't even – I can't even…what can I do to make you feel better? Tell me, just tell me and I'll do it," he pleased as I gripped his hand tighter.

"Tell me something to keep my mind off of this," I gritted out as I felt him pushing my hair away from my face and pressing his lips over and over again to my forehead.

"Okay, okay…when we get out of here, we are going to take our little girl – my guess still stands – with us, and we'll show her her new nursery, and even if she won't understand what they are, she's going to like the clouds painted on the ceiling, and my parents and your parents will see her, and so will all our friends, and she'll sleep in our arms, and call you 'mommy' and her room will change over time from a Barbie and Disney princess paradise to different colors, different interests, different tastes in music, but throughout all of that, she'll keep calling you 'mommy' and me 'daddy', and we'll teach her how to read, and take her to rock shows, and we'll protect her and love her, and she'll come to our workplaces at career day, and when a punk asks her out you'll try to convince me to give him a chance and not be so protective, and when she's…twenty-eight I think I will finally agree, and when that punk comes to pick her up, I'm gonna tell him that all he needs to know is that I have a hunting rifle and a shovel and that if anything happens to my little girl that night, I doubt that anyone will miss him," he said, and I couldn't help but attempt a laugh at that vision.

I then took a deep breath as I saw the doctor gesture something towards Eli and I looked in my husband's eyes and said, "Okay. I'm ready, Eli. Let's meet our baby, I want to meet our baby," and I kept his hand in mine the entire time. When it was finally over, I collapsed against the bed in pure exhaustion as I heard the tiny cries fill the room. The baby was fine. It was crying; it was fine, and I knew I was okay as well. I closed my eyes for a minute before I saw Eli hold the pinkest, softest, and most perfect baby down to me and he had a film of tears in his eyes as he said,

"It's a little girl".

"Emily," I pronounced as I looked down at her and Eli passed her into my arms. "She…Emily is a good name," and Eli nodded at once. We had a few names selected and we had agreed that we would wait until seeing the baby to give it one…but Emily was perfect. She was going to be named after her daddy; because she wouldn't exist if I didn't have my Eli, and the letters of her name reflecting that…would be perfect.

"Clare…the doctors say you did so well. Amazing as always. Rest now, okay?" Eli said, tears still in his eyes as he kept pushing my hair back and he helped me settle down with a clean blanket in a clean new bed as the nurses insisted that Emily had to be taken to the nursery and have her birth certificate drawn up and such.

I settled down in the new bed, still very sore, and I was finally able to give Eli a proper kiss. He refused to go home and return after a nap, so I just pulled him onto my bed, and even that took very much convincing on my part as Eli was deathly afraid of hurting me.

"Hey," I heard him softly say, "We have a baby. A little girl," in an incredulous tone.

"Emily," I sighed happily. "She's ours".

XXXXXXXXX

When I woke up the next afternoon – Emily had been born at one am – I saw my parents as well as Eli's parents in our room, and just a few minutes later Adam and Lana came in. They had all seen Emily in the nursery, but she was quickly brought to me and I called Eli over to my bed as we stared in amazement at her perfect little toes and fingers. Whenever I caught a glimpse of Eli holding her, I was taken aback at how…he looked even more protective and gentle than ever, if such a thing was possible. I knew that Eli would never let anybody hurt or, or leave her misplaced and break her heart. He was her daddy, and he would look after her just as he had looked after me so well.

I then stood up a little and Eli brought me some lunch, and just as I was wrapping up, Dylan and Scotty and Angela came by with flowers and some presents, and I am pretty sure that I have never seen Eli smirk more widely nor that I have ever blushed more furiously than in the moment in which Dylan and Scotty exchanged fist bumps with Eli, telling him,

"Well, here we are – now you and Clare are finally mommy and daddy," and I couldn't help but burst out in laughter.

They were right.

We were finally mommy and daddy.

That night, everyone left and after Eli and I packed up our room as I was now ready to leave as well and there was nothing that we wanted more than to bring our little girl home, he drove us home, glancing in the backseat ever so gently.

We decided to move the crib into our master bedroom because neither of us felt okay with leaving Em so far away, in a completely separate room all by herself, and she spent most of the night crying and fussing, but Eli was so fantastic, taking care of everything but the feedings obviously, because I think he could tell how tired I was.

As he was slowly massaging my back once Emily had fallen asleep, I felt him place a gold necklace with a delicate red stone on it, and as I turned around and asked,

"Eli? What's this?"

"That is Emily's birthstone, and it's a necklace for you obviously. I just…thought it would be a nice reminder of this amazing day, for you to wear her birthstone around your neck. I love you, Clare. I…can't even imagine my life without you," he sighed, and I gave him a deep kiss at once.

"I love it, it's beautiful. I…am so happy, Eli. I have everything that I have ever wanted," I emphatically told him.

"Me too, sweetheart, me too," he replied as he gently leaned me downwards onto the bed and I rewarded him with many more kisses before we both fell asleep.

XXXXXXXX

And eight years later, my gold necklace had gained two more birth stones – a green one for our little boy Ryan who was now six years old, and a purple one for our daughter Kate who was now four. But if there was one thing that had not changed in the past eight years, it was…the way that Eli beautifully stood by me, protecting, honouring, and loving me in every way possible – always thinking about me and our little guys first. Their bedrooms had indeed undergone several transformations, but there was not a wish these kids had that Eli failed to grant, but through gentle but responsible parenting I was very proud that they had not ended up spoiled either. They were…perfect.

It was everything that I ever wanted…my family. With Eli's love, I knew that there was nothing that I couldn't do and no situation in which I would ever feel alone. Eli would never leave me misplaced or stressed or hurt, and there was nothing that he wouldn't do for us. And as I brushed my teeth and prepared for bed, these thoughts would always come to me…how lucky I am that I have Eli waiting right there for me, probably marking or writing – the bookshelf that had started our containing just the story of us now had six other novels on it, and Eli had never changed his mind about leaving his teaching position at U of T. It was something that he loved doing, just as I loved working as a lawyer for the Human Rights Tribunal.

I crept into bed next to him and after he put his lecture notes away he lovingly pulled me on top of him for a few kisses as his hands slowly massaged my back. I saw him smirk when he noticed that just a few kisses from him were still enough to make me lightly shiver, and I rolled my eyes playfully and asked him,

"Ready for rounds?" which was our tradition; we'd visit each of our little guys before bed, just to tuck them in and make sure they were all right.

"Sure am," he said with a smirk and we headed into Emily's room first. Its now green walls were complimented by light oak furniture. Her desk was overflowing with pictures, books, and comic books and she had he iPOD connected to the speakers that were on the mini stage in her room. Once we had realized Emily's talent for music – guitar especially, Eli had bought her some sound equipment, enrolled her in lessons at her request, and built a little stage in her room that had a guitar stand and everything else that she needed.

"Hi mommy, hi daddy," she softly said from her bed as her blue eyes fixed on us and her bouncy curls moved a little as she giggled at the movie that was playing on the small TV she had been allowed to have in her room just in time for her last birthday. Her bed had four posts, much like the one Eli and I had in our master bedroom, except it was a smaller version of it.

"Hey, kiddo," Eli said as he collapsed next to her on the bed and she crawled into his open arms while I sat down at the end of the bed, admiring them both.

Emily told us all about her day at school, and even played us a song on her guitar before we tucked her in and moved to Ryan's room.

At all of eight years old, Ryan was already a mini-Eli if there ever existed one. His room was always a little messier than I preferred it, and it had band posters all over it, and he had even commandeered Eli's large British flag fashion – Eli had a conference in London last semester and we made a family trip out of it, and Ryan had adapted to the British rock scene ever since.

"Hey," he told us with his daddy's smirk as his dark hair obviously needed a comb-through. His green eyes, however, shone with quick wit as he began explaining to us the latest science adventure that he had begun working on…and Eli and I praised him diligently. Ryan's interest in science was something that did differentiate him from his daddy, but Eli absolutely loved to see Ryan so committed to all of his different experiments, and he drew the line at almost nothing, which made for some interesting scientific discoveries on Ryan's part.

And our last stop was Kate's room. She was only four but already starting to read. Eli had been the one to teach Ryan and Emily how to read, and I always think that part of the reason why all of our kids are so interested in their hobbies is because both Eli and I are always working at home on our own projects for work, and the kids just diligently follow in our footsteps. Eli and I took turns reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Kate, and she was asleep about halfway through, which represented the end of our rounds.

This meant that Eli and I could now retreat to bed ourselves, and just as I snuggled into his warm body, I heard loud thunder outside, and it didn't let up in the next few minutes; if anything, it only got louder. Eli quickly went to check on Kate and he came back with her little body safely resting in his arms, her little fingers gripping his biceps ever so tightly as she softly cried in his embrace.

"Oh, sweetheart, it's okay, it's okay," I told her as she rested between Eli and I in our bed, and after Eli went to retrieve Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and he finished reading it, she was beginning to feel a bit better despite the fact that the thunder really had not let up at all. We then heard Emily shyly open the door and I moved over and patted a spot on the bed at once. She crawled over to Eli's lap and he moved her curls out of her face delicately and she gave her daddy a soft kiss on the cheek before I saw her sleepily rest her head on his chest.

"Shh. Shh. It's okay, sweetheart. You can sleep here tonight with mommy and daddy," Eli told Emily and she rewarded him with one of her bright smiles…that Eli told me would always remind him so much of my own smile.

"Who's coming?" Emily then asked, being able to hear the same footsteps that Eli and I did.

"It's probably just Ryan honey, it's okay, the storm must have woken him up," I re-assured her.

"No, it can't be Ryan, he's not scared," Emily replied at once, obviously being more convinced by her brother's frequent assertions of his heroism than Eli and I were.

However, when the door flung open, it turned out to be no one else, and Ryan shook his black hair out for a second before he said,

"Um, hey guys. I just…wanted to make sure that everyone was safe. That the girls were safe," he said as he locked his gaze with Eli's. I could barely control my giggles when I saw Eli nod ever so seriously at Ryan and reply,

"Good job, big guy, coming to look after them. I'm going to need your help," and he patted down a spot next to him on our large bed. Ryan quickly hopped on, and the kids were gone in just a few minutes. I felt Eli's arm wrap securely around me and he teased,

"It's all right, Clare. You're well protected, I've got you," and I leaned in for a deep kiss before I answered,

"I know, Eli. I've always known," and the sparkle in his green eyes before he closed them told me he understood exactly what I meant.