A/N: I had a request from Graballz as to the conception and execution of this story: "Will you write one where (before Joe reveals his feelings) Mel's serious boyfriend returns from Italy? And of course Mel finds out that Joe was the mastermind behind the jewelry box!"
The idea struck my fancy, and as I, too, had always wondered what Mel's reaction would be upon discovering who truly came up with the idea of the musical jewelry box, I decided to make this my fourth Melissa and Joey creation. Please enjoy!
Summary: "If music be the food of love, play on." George returns from Milan and Mel makes a surprising discovery. One-shot. Complete.
Disclaimer: The title and summary quote are taken from Act 1, Scene 1 of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, and therefore do not belong to me. Any characters you recognize do not belong to me either.
If Music Be the Food of Love
"Ugh! Boys are so stupid!"
Lennox sends her phone skittering across the table in frustration, glaring after as it skates across the polished surface and falls off the other side to land in a chair. From his position at the stove, Joe glances up but makes no comment. It's only a matter of time until…
"Joe?" The teenage girl swivels around to pin him with her accusing glare. "Why do boys act so weird?"
The man sets the spoon he is using beside him and studies her warily. "Aren't boy problems your, uh, aunt's area of expertise? I don't get involved unless one of them hurts you." His dark eyes glitter with a warning as he gestures towards the fallen phone. "Did one?"
Lennox rolls her eyes, well-used to his protective streak after almost two years of his presence in their house. "No. Relax, 'Cujoe.' Quit foaming at the mouth."
She sounds so much like her aunt at the moment that Joe can only shake his head and smile ruefully. "Speaking of, where is Mel? Shouldn't she be helping you with this, uh, boy crisis?"
Lennox gives him an odd look, and Joe immediately steps away from the stove, sensing that he won't like the answer. "Don't you know?" Lennox asks him, tilting her head, puzzled. "She went to go pick up George at the airport."
Joe blinks. "George?" His grip tightens on the spoon, the wood flexing under his fingers. "You mean George, the one who left for Italy seven months ago? Junior?"
Lennox nods. "Yeah. You didn't know?"
Joe stalks over to the calendar posted just inside the cabinet door and stares at it, as if searching for a date, an appointment. "Nope, I don't see any mention of Mel picking up Junior at the airport."
He returns to the stove and stirs the pot, attempting to phrase his next question causally. "So, uh, when did this happen?"
Strangely enough, Lennox seems to have all the answers. She shrugs, getting up to retrieve her phone. "He called Aunt Mel last night, said he was going to be in town. She agreed to meet him at the airport, to grab lunch and catch up."
Joe stands there, momentarily flummoxed. "Wait, I thought she cut him loose?"
"Well," Lennox shrugs, "he did give her that music box. Maybe she decided to give him another chance."
As she is absorbed in the click-click of her phone's keyboard once again, she does not see Joe's grimace. "Yeah, maybe."
Mel scans the "Arrivals" board, searching for a flight labeled "Milan." She has been here for two hours, pacing, nervously checking the boards, and racing into the bathroom every few minutes to primp even further. She knows she looks perfect, but she can't shake her nerves.
Which is ridiculous. She hasn't seen George in over six months. They're just two friends catching up for lunch after one has been abroad. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?
A pair of firm arms wrapping around her waist catches her by surprise. Warm lips touch her cheek, and low voice murmurs, "Ciao, bella."
"Hey!" Mel jerks away from the intruder and spins around glaring. "Watch it, buddy, I am not afraid to…"
She trails off as she looks up into George's laughing blue gaze. He holds his hands up in surrender and chuckles in the face of her fury. "Sorry, Mel. Just trying to say hi."
Mel steps forward to hug him. "George! How was your flight! How's Italy?"
The nervous fluttering in her stomach is back again, but she ignores it as she feels his arms wrap around her again, properly this time. "It was all right," he muses, "but I'm much more interested in what you've been doing the past few months."
Mel opens the door and nearly bounds into the house, grinning happily. "Joe! George is back!"
From his position on the couch, Joe flips over the sports section but does not glance up. "Uh, fantastico?"
Mel rolls her eyes at his lackluster response as George walks in behind her. He pauses at the sight of the man sitting on the couch, studiously ignoring them both. "Joe? You're still here?"
Mel turns back at his puzzlement, frowning in confusion, and Joe glances over, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah? Where else am I supposed to be, Junior?"
There is unspoken tension between the two men, but Mel ignores it and tugs George farther into the house. Joe finally turns to watch them both approach, and gets up as Mel shoos him away. As he moves back into the kitchen, he can't help but turn back and give George one final warning glance.
George sinks down on the couch at Mel's bidding, watching the other man disappear. "Joe is still with you?"
"Well, not with-me, with-me," Mel corrects, "but yes, I do still overpay him to sleep in my basement and take care of the house and help with the kids."
"How long has he been here?" George asks, never moving his gaze from the kitchen door.
Mel tilts her head, confused by the sudden interest in her nanny. "Almost two years, I think?"
"Uh-huh." George nods slowly, as if mulling something over. In truth, he is remembering a moment nearly a year ago now, in this same room, when he had moved to race Mel up the stairs and suddenly felt a second presence beside him. The shock that had radiated from both men as George turned to Joe had been enough for the older man to check himself and apologize, to turn away. But George had never forgotten, and the signs had been clear, even then. But Mel had seemed devoted to him, and so George pushed it out of his mind, for a time. But he is male, and males never forget a rival.
"Enough about Joe!" Mel flaps her hands, changing the topic. "How was Italy?"
Before George can launch into any stories, his phone rings. As he stands up to answer it with a courteous, "Pronto," Mel slips into the kitchen, intent on getting some wine to celebrate his homecoming.
However, she does not find the wine alone. Joe stands beside the sink, watching her approach. "So, what's the deal, Burke? I, uh, thought you ended things with him."
Collecting her personal wine glass and another, Mel bristles at his question, wondering why he cares, why she is so defensive. "Chill out, Longo. We're friends. I haven't seen him in awhile. We're just catching up."
As she attempts to slide past him, Joe's hand slams down on the counter beside her. Glaring at him, Mel moves the other way. Once again, his muscular arm cuts off her escape. Trapped between the counter and Joe, the bottle of wine and two glasses pressed between them, Mel can only glare some more. "What the hell is your problem, Longo?"
"What are you doing, Mel?"
The woman pushes against his chest. "Trying to get away from you."
"No." The sincerity in Joe's voice makes her pause, and she blinks up at him, confused. "What are you going to do about Junior, Mel? The last time you were with him, he had you rearranging your whole life to be with him. What if he goes back to Italy? What do you do then?"
Snorting in disbelief, Mel once again tries to maneuver around the man holding her captive, rolling her eyes. "What makes you think I want to get back together with him?"
This time, it is Joe's turn to scoff. "Please, Burke. I know you. You don't get so dressed up just to go to the airport."
Mel glances down at herself, then back at him. "Since when do you notice what I wear?"
Joe doesn't bat an eye. "Since I do your laundry."
Huffing in exasperation, lacking a comeback, Mel pushes her way past him and stalks towards the door to the living room, knuckles white against the dark wine bottle. Joe watches her go, his lips twisting into a scowl of distaste.
Mel attempts to put a smile on her face as she sets the wine down on the table and listens to the end of George's conversation. "Si, signore. Si, molto bene. Due milla scarpe? Tre? Tre milla? Tre milla scarpe. Si. Molto bene, molto bene. Grazie, singore. Ciao!"
"Wow, that sounded all Italian and important," Mel remarks as George reclaims his seat and accepts a glass of red wine from her with a smile.
"Nah, just some more shoe orders. Oh! Speaking of," George notes, setting down his glass and rummaging through the duffel at his feet, "I got you a few things."
"Presents!" Mel nearly squeals and sets her wine glass down as well, leaning forward eagerly.
"Now, I didn't have time to double wrap," George warns, handing her two wrapped boxes of approximately the same size, "but I got you two presents, so hopefully that makes up for it."
"Oh, you didn't have to!" Mel chastises him, gleefully tearing open the first, smaller box. "Oh," she breathes, tearing aside the paper and lifting out its contents. "Oh, George, it's amazing!"
She turns it towards the light, catching the glints of color in the words that are emblazoned the sides. The wine glass reads Vino es mi vita, or—
"Wine is my life," George translates quietly, as Mel grins in appreciation.
"I'll get some use out of this!" Reaching for the next gift, Mel eager pulls away the colorful paper, wondering what this box could hold. Seeing as George went to Milan, and has been working for a shoe company the past several months, it could only be—
Mel squeals at the sight of the dark purple pumps that gleam at her from between layers of pristine white paper, and she lunges forward to envelope George in a hug. "Thank you!"
Even as George chuckles with pleasure at her excitement, Mel can't help but contrast these two gifts with the first he gave her. Ungrateful, yes, especially in lieu of what he has just given her, but she can't help but compare. Yes, the wine glass is good and will see many bottles of wine, and the shoes are adorable, but anyone who has known Mel for more than a few hours could tell you that those are two of her favorite things.
The music box was different…the gift from a man who knew her utterly and perfectly. Perhaps she was asking too much of George; after all, they had been apart for seven months with no relationship to tie them together other than a platonic one. After such a perfect first gift, one she will always treasure, is she asking too much for her next gift to have the same meaning?
"What's wrong?" George has noticed her silence, her hesitation as they pull away. "Do you not like them?"
"No, George, I love them!" Mel hastens to reassure him, cradling the shoes protectively to her chest. "I just was thinking about the music box you gave me. I play it every night."
Much to her surprise, George nearly grimaces. "Oh, that. Listen, Mel, I need to tell you something."
Mel blinks at his reaction, startled. "Is there something wrong with the music box? You didn't get it off the black market, did you?"
At her panic, George has to smile. "No, calm down. I just need to tell you that the idea for that music box didn't come from me." George runs a hand through his hair, huffing out a short and frustrated breath. "I mean, come on, Mel! We had been dating for a month, and our relationship consisted of nothing but sex at that point. I didn't know you that well."
"If you didn't come up with the idea, then who did?" Mel frowns at him, slowly placing the shoes back in their box.
George grimaces, closing his eyes at the knowledge he is about to reveal, knowing that it has the power to change everything, including the attitude of the woman before him. "Joe."
What if I'm wrong? I mean, what if he's The One? No other guy could come up with a gift that is so…me.
Mel's words come back to resonate in her brain like a cruel echo as she stares at George in shock. Without truly realizing it, she begins to shake her head. "No."
George nods. "Yeah, he gave me the idea, and told me your favorite song, too."
Mel continues to deny it. "No, no, no, no. He couldn't do that. Joe doesn't like me that much. I'm his boss. Why would he suggest it?"
George shrugs. "He knew what you needed for your bedroom, for your jewelry. You'll have to ask him yourself."
Mel sits there, staring into space, only coming back to herself as George picks up his bag and leans over to kiss her cheek. "It was good to see you, Mel."
Mel watches him leave, well aware that it is unlikely that he will ever come back. Their time to be together is over, but that knowledge does not depress her as it once might have. She has another conundrum to face at the moment.
Picking up the two untouched glasses and mostly full wine bottle, the woman leaves her gifts on the table and stalks into the kitchen, intent on finding answers. (No matter how much she wants to chicken out and go hide in her room.)
Joe looks up from folding laundry at the kitchen table as she pushes open the door. "So, is Junior gone then? Was it, uh, past his naptime?"
Mel ignores him, instead bringing one of the glasses to her lips and steadily swallowing its contents. As she moves to do the same with the second, Joe stops her, easily pulling the glass away. "Whoa, Burke, is everything okay?"
(So much for liquid courage.) Taking a deep breath, Mel turns to face him across the table, finding it easier to focus on the pile of colored clothing between them than it is to focus on him. "Joe, George told me about the music box."
Slightly mollified now that Mel hasn't burst into tears or started screaming, Joe returns to his previous task. He barely glances up at the mention of George's name. "What did Junior say? He gave you the music box awhile ago, didn't he?"
"He told me you gave him the idea."
He gives himself away with his sudden stillness, the way his dark eyes flicker up to her and then away, hands moving to busily start sorting socks. "He did? What, uh, gave him that idea?"
Mel leans forward, bracing her hands on the table, desperate for the truth now. "Did you suggest that gift, Joe?"
Sighing, Joe leaves the laundry where it lies and straightens, crossing his arms. "Yeah, I did. So?"
There's nothing "so" about it, as they are both well aware. They both heard her statement about the guy who gave her the music box possibly being "The One," and now they stare at each other across the expanse of the table, unsure of the next move.
Do they ignore it? Act on it? Go on as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened?
"I thought you might like it," Joe finally admits wearily to the silence, defeated.
"I do." Mel's soft words catch him by surprise, and he glances up, blinking as it registers that she has drawn nearer. Her blue eyes are soft, and he moves closer as well, captivated by her gaze.
Slowly, tentatively, she moves closer. As if she isn't quite sure what she's doing, as if she's not sure she's allowed, Mel stretches up to lightly press her lips against his. It is an echo of the kiss they shared at his one-time apartment a few months ago, and Joe relishes the contact again. Her lips are soft and warm against his, and she lingers for a moment, as if she has discovered she likes the feel of his mouth against hers but is afraid to admit it.
Pulling away fractionally, she gazes up at him, a smile fluttering at her lips where his were moments before. "Thank you."
As much as Joe wants to pull her into his arms and take her on right there on that table as George once did, he knows that moving too fast will spook her. This is new territory they are exploring here, for both of them, and no matter how much he wants her, he knows the value of moving slow.
The last thing he wants to do is lose the life he has cultivated here because he doesn't seem to have any self-control.
Joe watches Mel disappear back into the living room, and he doesn't fail to notice the blush that mantles her cheeks after their impromptu (second!) kiss. An unbidden smile rises to his lips, and he turns back to the pile of laundry, whistling cheerily.
In the shadow of the stairwell, having witnessed the past few minutes' conversation and confrontation, Ryder turns to a captivated Lennox. "See? I told you it's gross when they get along."
A/N: Reviews are always appreciated!