A/N: So here we are. We've arrived at the end of this story. I'm sure many of you never thought I'd get here. There were times I wasn't so sure I would. (I've "ruined" a song over on my blog that puts my "struggles" to music. Go check it out.) And yet, here we are. Thank you for persevering to the end and traveling the journey with this family and me. Thank you for the time you invested in reading a 500,000 word story. I'm grateful and humbled.
I'm so appreciative to all of you who wrote heartfelt and encouraging reviews. I wish I could list here all of the wonderful readers who did so chapter after chapter, but in an embarrassment of riches, there are many and I'd hate to miss a single one of you. You know who you are. No words can express how much each one of you means to me.
I can't even begin to give enough of my thanks to AgentInWaiting for his part in all of this. He selflessly poured over every word, every sentence, every paragraph. He challenged me. He found plot holes that had to be addressed and made story suggestions that were sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected (sorry about shooting down the CAT Squad idea). He made brilliant song suggestions, like the one in this final chapter. No matter what, all of his hard work was done with an eye to crafting the best story possible. Neil, you are appreciated more than you know.
I also want to thank my wonderful husband, Mr. Q, for always being so supportive of me and this writing thing I do. And thanks to my fabulous daughter, Lil Q, for putting up with a mom who is a half-bubble off level.
Will I return to this universe? I hope so. I really do. I love the characters that have occupied my brain for the past two years and would love to tell more of their story. Truth is, though, right now I'm fried. After some time off, hopefully they will be back.
And now, as the story comes to a close, my figurative guitar case is open. I'd be much obliged if you would drop a review into it. Thanks.
Chapter 55 – Only the Beginning
Sarah stood and nervously fingered one of the charms on her bracelet as she watched a woman in a flowing black robe enter the courtroom through a side door and take her seat. "Please, be seated," the Honorable Patricia J. Dwyer said absently and without looking up.
The room was filled with rustling clothes and scuffling feet as everyone did as directed. Sarah's mouth went dry as she watched the judge shuffle papers on her bench. Chuck smiled encouragingly at her, reached over and took her hand in his. His warm and comforting touch helped calm her as the courtroom clerk announced the matters and case numbers.
Once the opening procedures were completed, Judge Dwyer looked up from her desk and when she smiled, her whole face lit up. In her mid-forties, she wore her long, honey blonde hair loose around her shoulders and sported a healthy tan. Sarah guessed she was an avid outdoorsperson when she wasn't working. It seemed that everyone in Colorado biked, skied and hiked. "Mr. Bartowski, it's a lovely surprise to see you and the Woodcomb children back in my courtroom under these circumstances." Her eyes swept over the row of children sitting to the left of Sarah behind a long table and said, "You all have grown up so much since I saw last you here a couple of years ago."
Each of the kids nodded and smiled. Sarah glanced over at them in their best clothes for their day in court. Fred and Curtis had even agreed to wear neckties since they were getting the afternoon off from school.
When Sarah turned to face forward again, she saw that the judge's face had grown serious and her eyes were pinned on her. "Will the petitioner please stand and raise your right hand?"
She did so and the judge rattled off, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
"I do." In her ears, her voice sounded much more confident than she felt. Chuck had assured her there was no reason to be worried, but she couldn't help the nervousness that came over her. Until the gavel fell and the Final Decrees of Adoption were signed by the judge, she knew the knot in her stomach wouldn't go away.
"You may have a seat again, Mrs. Bartowski," Judge Dwyer said and turned her attention to the man beside Chuck. "Mr. King, do you have some paperwork for me?"
Their lawyer sprang from his chair and replied, "I do, Your Honor." He grabbed the stack of papers from the table and strode to the bench. After the forms were handed to the judge, the two conferred in low tones.
Next to Sarah on her other side, Megan sighed, fingered a button on the front of her dress and started to swing her feet back and forth. The little girl was already bored and the hearing had barely begun. Sarah snuck a glance at the judge and seeing that she was still in conference with their lawyer, picked up her purse and set it in her lap. Digging through it, she found a small notepad and pen and handed them to Megan. Her niece gasped at the sudden appearance of something that would save her from her boredom and grinned her thanks. She snatched the items eagerly, flipped the notepad open to a blank page and began to draw.
Sarah returned the purse to the floor just as Mr. King returned to his chair.
"Mrs. Bartowski, for the formal court proceedings, and because I'm dying of curiosity," Judge Dwyer said with a smile, "please tell the Court how you came to be a part of this family."
"Certainly, Your Honor," she replied as she began to stand.
Waving her hand, the judge said, "Please, you can stay seated."
"Thank you." Sarah took a deep breath and began. "In July of last year, I was hired by the company that employs a certain software developer to be the live-in nanny to his seven children. He was trying to juggle the responsibilities of work and taking care of his seven kids alone. The stress was taking a toll on everyone and his work on an important project was suffering." Sarah couldn't stop a smile. "It wasn't long before I fell in love with the kids and their uncle."
"And how long have you and Mr. Bartowski been married?"
"It will be a year the end of next month."
"It must be quite challenging to be newlyweds with seven children in the house."
"Actually, it's wonderful. I can't imagine it being any other way."
Judge Dwyer clasped her hands and dropped them on her desk with a thump. Tilting her head, she asked, "What makes you want to legally adopt these seven children?"
"They're my kids," Sarah said without hesitation. She held the judge's gaze and searched her mind for words that would elaborate, but found she had nothing else to say. It was as simple as that. They were her kids.
The other woman studied her for a moment and then nodded as if she completely understood. Looking down at her desk again, she picked up a piece of paper and examined it. "Elizabeth, you signed the consent form for your aunt to adopt you even though you'll be eighteen in a few months."
"Yes, Your Honor," Lizzie replied.
"Why?" The judge shifted her gaze from the paper to the teen.
"Because Uncle Chuck and Aunt Sarah are my parents. I want them both to be, legally, when I'm eighteen and when I'm eighty. No one is ever too old to not need their parents." There wasn't an iota of uncertainty in the teen's demeanor.
Judge Dwyer's eyebrows rose and a small smile quirked on her lips. "Excellent answer, young lady." She set the paper off to the side and picked up another from the stack before her. "Fredrick, stand up please."
Sarah could practically hear the gulp her nephew made before he jumped to his feet and stood with his shoulders back. "Sorry, Your Honor," he said, the chagrin clear in his voice.
"No, I'm sorry, Fred," she said with a chuckle. "I didn't mean it like that. I just wanted to see how tall you are now."
He grinned and stretched proudly to his full height.
"You're not quite as tall as your uncle, but I bet you will be pretty soon." After a brief pause, she continued, "You signed the consent form as well. Do you have any reservations at all about your aunt becoming your legal parent? You understand that from now on, for all intents and purposes, she will be your mother."
Fred shrugged and stuffed his hands in his front pockets. "She already is and she's awesome. Why not just make it official, you know? If Uncle Chuck's already our legal dad, why not make Aunt Sarah our legal mom? I mean since they're married and stuff."
"They actually haven't been married very long, less than a year."
Fred actually snorted. "What? Like she's gonna up and leave or something? Yeah, not gonna happen."
Chuck had warned Sarah that the judge would likely speak with the kids and ask them questions about her. At first, the idea that anyone, even a judge, would question her commitment to Chuck and the kids aggravated her. But she understood why it was necessary and her irritation subsided when, despite the solemnity with which the judge was conducting the hearing, Sarah noticed a vague twinkle in the other woman's eye after Fred's answer. The knot in her stomach began to loosen.
Judge Dwyer smiled. "Duly noted. Thank you, Fred. You can have a seat."
He flopped down in his chair and blew out a breath.
From the way Lisa gazed up at the judge, it was clear she knew she was next. Head held high and eyes looking forward, she was ready.
"Lisa, I hardly recognize you. Last time I saw you, you were still having a hard time with… everything. I'm glad to see you're doing so much better."
"Thank you. Me, too."
"Can you tell me why you signed the consent form?"
"Because Aunt Sarah wants to me to be her kid, always, no matter what. I want that, too."
The judge's head snapped back at the palpable emotion heard in Lisa's voice. "Passionately and succinctly put, Lisa."
Lisa looked over at Sarah, who smiled softly back at her niece. Tears pricked at her eyes when Lisa, her face shining with confidence, added, "It's true."
The room fell silent as the judge kept her focus on Lisa. After a moment, she nodded, shifted in her chair and cleared her throat. "Thank you, Lisa."
Next was Curtis. Sarah peeked over at him and her heart absolutely melted. He'd tried so hard to keep his clothes tidy for their big day, but had failed miserably. His tie was crooked, his shirt was untucked and one of its buttons was undone. His hair was a mess and one of his shoes was untied. And Sarah adored it all. Clearly, the judge did too, because when she turned her attention on him, a huge smile spontaneously bloomed.
"Tell me, Curtis, how do you feel about having another female in your house? You, your brother and your uncle are heavily outnumbered."
He pushed himself up higher in his chair with his elbows. "Aw, that's okay. Aunt Sarah's really cool. She watches the Broncos with me and we play football sometimes. She's also great at video games and drives a Porsche."
Laughter floated through the room, the loudest of which came from Judge Dwyer. "A ringing endorsement if I ever heard one. Thank you, Curtis. How about you, Bridget? How do you feel about being adopted by your aunt?"
"I'm excited. I love having a mom again, especially since it's Aunt Sarah."
The judge's face softened. "I'm sure you do. What do you think of it, Martha?"
Martie wiggled to sit up straighter in her chair and said, "I love Aunt Sarah a lot and I'm glad I get to have her as my mom. I've never really had one before since I don't remember our mom at all."
Megan had long since put her notepad and pen on the table and had been listening attentively to her siblings. When she heard what her sister had just said, she nodded her head in enthusiastic agreement. "Me and Martie are the same. We don't remember her at all. But Aunt Sarah's the best. She reads to us and plays Spy Barbie with us and is always happy to see us when she picks us up at school."
"Did you say 'Spy Barbie,' Megan?" the judge asked. Up and down the row, eyes widened. Before the hearing, Chuck and Sarah had reminded the kids not to mention Sarah's real occupation. And as mature Megan seemed at times, she still was only six.
"Mm-hmm. I've been playing Spy Barbie since I was little." Sarah glanced over at Judge Dwyer and saw that she had rolled her lips back and pressed them between her teeth to hide a smile. "And Aunt Sarah plays it with me. She's a really good spy." Martie nodded at her sister's pronouncement.
Judge Dwyer chuckled, obviously delighted by the two littlest girls. "I'm sure she is."
Sarah breathed a silent word of thanks when it was clear that she had taken Megan's comment about her excellence as spy in the context of Spy Barbie and not as an actual government agent.
"Mr. Bartowski, you seem to have a few more people with you this time than the last time you were here." The judge's gaze swept over the people in the rows of chairs behind the family. "I do recognize a couple of people, though."
Chuck stood and said, "Yes, that's right. Our cook, Mrs. Smith, and my friend, Morgan Grimes, were here last time." Both smiled and acknowledged the judge with quick waves.
"Are the rest friends and family of yours, Mrs. Bartowski?"
Sarah rose from her chair as well and turned to look at the group behind her. Casey, Carina, Barstow, Vegas, Cole and Barker were all there to support her and celebrate with her and her family. All of their faces wore smiles, although Carina's had a little more smirk to it than the rest. "Friends that are like family, Your Honor," she answered, feeling a sudden surge of emotion.
"Which is oftentimes much better than blood relatives," the judge said with emphasis. She surveyed the room and said, "I don't see the children's grandparents here this time."
"The Woodcombs are out of the country right now and couldn't be here today," Chuck said. "But I would like to introduce you to their other grandparents, Stephen and Mary Bartowski."
Judge Dwyer's head jerked toward Chuck's parents as they stood. "This is a surprise. At the hearing a couple of years ago, I was under the impression they were completely out of the picture."
"My husband and I regret the time we had to spend apart from our family," Mary said. "But that's all changed and we're here for good."
Sarah hoped the judge wouldn't ask for elaboration on why they'd been estranged from Chuck and the kids. But since they weren't the ones petitioning for adoption, she must have decided to let it go when she merely stated, "I'm glad to hear that. You must be quite proud of your son and the fine job he's done raising these children. And now raising them with his wife."
Stephen smiled. "We are. And we couldn't be happier that Sarah is part of the family."
"I have no doubt about that. Thank you, Bartowski grandparents. You can have a seat, as can you, Mr. Bartowski." Judge Dwyer turned her attention, fully and completely, on Sarah. As an agent of the CIA, she'd faced dictators and warlords, drug lords and evil cabals. And yet standing under the gaze of a fortyish year-old judge in the Eagle County, Colorado courthouse caused a bead of nervous sweat to trickle down the center of her back.
"Mrs. Bartowski, it has been made abundantly clear to me here today that you love these children and they love you. It is also clear that you and your husband have built for them a stable and loving home. Do you promise to maintain this caring and secure environment?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
The judge smiled. "I'm sure you will. I just have to ask." She gave Sarah a knowing look. "The simple fact that you had a notepad and pen in your purse at the ready to help keep a bored child busy… That told me everything I needed to know."
For the first time all day, Sarah was able to take a breath deep enough to completely fill her lungs.
"As a family court judge, I have a lot of really difficult situations come through my courtroom. Thankfully, there are families in this world like yours that give me hope. And despite the tragic circumstances that changed the course of the lives of these children forever, it is the love of you, your husband and everyone in this courtroom that has helped them become the wonderful, thriving, well-adjusted young people they are today. You are to be commended." She sat up straighter and said, "That is why it is with no reservations the Court finds it to be in the best interests of these children that the adoptions be granted and that they each now, henceforth, have a parent and child relationship with Sarah Bartowski." She rapped her gavel on the bench once and with a happy smile ended with, "Congratulations."
Sarah blew out a relieved breath. "Thank you, Your Honor." She smiled at the kids stretched down the row and received seven beaming smiles in return. Then, one by one, each child went up to the judge's bench and watched her sign his or her Final Decree of Adoption. Once the official proceedings were complete, there were plenty of handshakes and hugs, and lots of pictures taken with the judge.
Sarah was in the process of checking the floor under and around the chairs where the kids had been sitting to ensure nothing was left behind when Judge Dwyer walked up to her. "You're a lucky woman," she said, shaking Sarah's hand. The judge dipped her chin and with a meaningful look, added, "But you already know that."
"Yes, I do," she replied. Sarah glanced over at Chuck, grinning and laughing with their kids as they readied to go back to the house for the celebration. "The luckiest."
~ O ~
From the number of cars parked in front of their house, Sarah knew they were the last group to arrive after the hearing. It was just as well, since they'd told the kids they couldn't eat until everyone was there. Now they wouldn't have to wait.
Apparently, the kids had realized the significance of the cars out front, too. Chuck had barely shut off the van's engine after pulling it into the garage when the side door slid open and the kids began to tumble out. Like a shot, the boys were through the door that led into the house with the girls hot on their heels.
"Food or clothes first?" Chuck asked.
"Clothes, definitely," Sarah answered, slamming the passenger door shut before pulling the van's side door closed.
"You think? All the way home, they talked nonstop about all the food Mrs. Smith has been making for the last two days."
He opened the door into the house, and as she scooted past him, she said, "Yes, but do you think the boys are going to want to eat in their good clothes? They both had their ties off before we even got to the van."
"That's true," he replied as he stepped into the house behind her.
She turned and caught him between her body and the door that had just closed behind them. "Speaking of ties." Reaching up, she tugged at the knot of his tie to loosen it a little and then undid the button of his collar. "There. A little more comfortable for you, too."
"I was kinda hoping you'd do more than just loosen my tie. Maybe take it off completely?" he said and rested his hands on her hips. "Along with everything else?" He smiled one of his smiles that made her knees go wobbly.
With a coy look, she drawled, "Why, Mr. Bartowski. Propositioning me with a houseful of guests?"
His eyelids lowered as he gazed down at her. "Mrs. Bartowski, I'd proposition you with a houseful of popes."
Laughing, she said, "Now that I'd like to see." She grabbed his tie, pulled his head down and caught his lips in a heated kiss.
Carina's voice came from down the hall and interrupted their private moment. "I'll know the apocalypse has come when I walk around a corner in this house and find you two not making out."
"May it never be," Chuck intoned solemnly. He took Sarah's hand and the two walked toward Carina and Scott standing at the bottom of the stairs.
The familiar rumble that came from the staircase made them stop and wait while Carina and Scott stepped back. "It's like sitting at a railroad crossing, waiting for the train to barrel through," Chuck said.
As if to make Chuck's point, from above Fred shouted, "Comin' through!" bounded down the last few steps and ran past them. Like a herd, the rest of the kids followed their brother and stampeded across the living room, bolted out the door and scrambled down the stairs that led to the backyard.
"Told you," Sarah said to her husband with mock superiority. As the kids flashed past, she noticed they had all changed into jeans, casual tops and t-shirts. It was the third week of September and the weather was already cool, so everyone's summer clothes had been stored away.
"Sure, you're their legal parent for an hour and you're already a ninja," Chuck said with a wink.
"What can I say, I'm a fast learner." She slipped off the jacket of the new business suit she'd bought for the occasion and draped it over the bannister.
"Honey, if you want to go change and get comfortable like the kids, I'm sure no one will care."
"No, I'm fine. I just wanted to take my jacket off. I will lose the shoes, though," she said, kicking off her pumps. "Otherwise, in these heels, I'll spend the rest of the afternoon aerating the lawn."
The foursome crossed the living room and went down the steps to the backyard. Mrs. Smith—who had slipped away as soon as the gavel had banged—had put out all of the food on the two tables they'd set up on the grass. One was covered with enough snack food to feed an army, while the other held a sheet cake and a large pitcher of lemonade. Two ice chests sat on the grass next to each table, one filled with a variety of beers and the other with bottles of water and cans of soda.
The kids—and Morgan—swarmed around the snack table, loading food onto their paper plates. The adults stood around and watched with amusement while sipping their drinks.
Sarah headed straight for the snack table and grabbed a plate.
"Get some of the chicken wings, Aunt Sarah," Lizzie said. "I helped Mrs. Smith make them."
"Gross," Curtis groaned. "I guess I'm gonna have to put mine back."
"Thank you, Lizzie. I would love to have some of your wings." Sarah piled several on her plate, eliciting a pleased smile from her eldest. Standing next to Curtis, she glanced down at his plate and noticed the wings were still there. With a gentle hip check, she said to him in teasing tone, "I thought you were going to put yours back."
"I, uh, decided that since you were gonna eat them, I could, too."
"Uh-huh," Sarah intoned. "That's very big of you." Joining the wings on her plate were carrot sticks, grapes, some cocktail meatballs and a couple of the stuffed mushrooms she'd been looking forward to eating for two days.
Lisa looked at Sarah's plate and laughed. "You a little hungry, Aunt Sarah?"
"You could say that. My nerves about the hearing kept me from feeling like eating much today. Now that it's all over, I'm starving." She cut her eyes over at her niece's plate piled high with food. "You're one to talk."
"I'm a growing teenager," she responded primly.
Sarah chuckled. "Touché."
Plates now laden with goodies, the kids sat on the grass and got down to the business of serious eating. Sarah wandered over to join Chuck and the rest of the adults, standing in a circle and chatting.
Casey eyed her plate of food. "The way you and the kids are chowing down, I guess I better hustle if I want any of that grub."
"You'd better, Colonel," Sarah said. She noticed the smile quirk at the corners of his mouth. "Feels pretty good, doesn't it?"
"It's only lieutenant colonel," he replied. She smiled when he stood a little straighter and ran a hand over the camouflage necktie with the large Marine Corps insignia the kids had given him to commemorate the anniversary of his arrival in Beaver Creek. "And yeah, it kinda does."
"You deserve it," she said. Every head around the circle nodded in agreement.
"Thanks," he said, now clearly uncomfortable that the attention had fallen on him. Hitching his thumb over his shoulder, he announced, "I'm gonna grab some chow." He spun on his heel and headed for the food table.
Sarah took a bite of the stuffed mushroom and cooed a happy, yummy noise. Chuck snagged a grape from her plate and popped it in his mouth. "So, Carina. How's dismantling Benoit's and Nazari's drug syndicate going?"
"Well, you know," she said with a casual shrug, "getting the names from Benoit's laptop helped—"
"Thanks to my wonderful husband and his decryption program," Sarah said, unabashedly interrupting her friend. She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed Chuck's cheek.
Carina rolled her eyes. "Yes, thanks to your egghead husband." She snorted when Sarah kissed Chuck again and then continued. "Anyway, the geopolitics in that region of the world tends to slow things down. We're doing our best."
"Where are you off to next, Carina?" Morgan asked and then lifted a chicken wing to his mouth. Sarah noticed how he tried to sound nonchalant when he asked his question. But there, once again, she saw the telltale sheen of perspiration that sprang up on the bearded guy's forehead any time he spoke to the redhead.
"Well, Martin, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
Mid-bite, Morgan stilled and his eyes grew round. When the rest of the group laughed, he relaxed and tugged the meat off the bone. Apparently, deciding to head for safer conversational waters, he turned to Stephen and Mary. "So, Mr. and Mrs. B. How's it feel to be back in the good ol' US of A?"
"It's wonderful, Morgan. I feel like I need to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming." Mary shook her head as if she still couldn't believe it. "We've been back for such a short time, though, so we're still trying to adjust. So many things have changed."
"Are you settling into Colorado Springs, okay?" Scott asked before he took a pull from his beer.
"We are," Stephen answered. "We're looking forward to getting back to work. It was nice of Director Graham to set it up so we can work in one of the facilities in the area."
In fact, when Graham heard about some of the devices Stephen had been tinkering with over the years, he jumped at the chance to get him back to work for the government. Graham also was highly motivated to put to use Mary's vast intelligence knowledge and experience. So, a deal was struck where they would both work at the Cheyenne Mountain complex, the huge, Cold War era nuclear bunker built inside a mountain that was home to, among other things, NORAD's Alternative Command Center.
While Sarah was pretty sure almost everyone standing there knew which facility it was he spoke of, when he didn't elaborate, they didn't ask. Instead, everyone remained mute and heads simply nodded.
"We're only two and a half hours away, which means we can be close to Chuck and Sarah and the kids, but not so close that we'll be disrupting their lives," Mary added.
"Now Mary, you know we would never consider you as disruptive," Sarah said, good-naturedly scolding her mother-in-law. In fact, she and Chuck had offered to have his parents stay with them while they looked for a place to live in Beaver Creek, but they'd refused. Chuck's disappointment had been obvious at first, but it disappeared when Sarah explained to him his parents would need some time and space to adjust to the recent and massive upheaval in their lives. As it turned out, it didn't seem that Chuck's parents not residing in Beaver Creek was going to be an issue in terms of them visiting the family. Stephen and Mary had only been living in Colorado Springs for a little over two weeks and this was already the third time they'd been to the house.
Mary chuckled. "Yes, we know. We also know newlyweds should not have parents live with them." It was then that Stephen excused himself and went into the house. A few minutes later, he and Mrs. Smith—sporting wide grins—each carried a tray of tall, slim flutes filled with a bubbly liquid. As the two approached, Mary said, "I hope you don't mind, but Stephen and I thought this momentous day called for champagne."
"Thank you, Mom and Dad," Chuck said, and picked up one of the glasses. "You're absolutely right." To the kids he shouted, "Hey, you guys. Come here for a minute and bring your drinks. I want to make a toast."
Buzzing with excitement to be included in whatever the adults were doing, they jumped up and ran over to join them. Sarah set her plate on the table behind her and picked up a glass from Mrs. Smith's tray.
When Chuck cleared his throat, all eyes fell on him. "My and these kids' world shattered five years ago. The crater that tragic day left was so big, it felt like none of us would ever be truly happy again. But, as a family, we hung in there and over time it got better." He smiled and looked at the kids. "And we were happy." Bouncing his head from side to side, his smile widened and added, "Ish."
The kids chuckled and through her blur of tears, Sarah saw their smiles and nods.
"And then one day, a little over a year ago, an astounding woman entered our lives and turned us upside down."
"For the better," Lizzie clarified.
Chuck smirked and dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Yes, Lizzie. Definitely for the better." After he switched the glass to his other hand and took Sarah's in his now free one, he continued. "She became a member of our family and brought people into our lives that are a part of it now, too." Then, he smiled at his parents. "And we recently found family that was lost."
Stephen swiped at his eyes while Mary kept hers riveted on her son.
"We've been through a lot this past year," Chuck continued. "Most of it's been great. Some of it, not so much."
Sarah's eyes were immediately drawn to the recently rebuilt gazebo that replaced the one destroyed by the fire the previous spring.
"No matter what came our way, we faced it together, as a family. And in the end, we are once again, truly happy." When he raised his glass, all followed suit. "To family."
"To family," everyone said together. After they touched glasses, they all sipped their drinks, except for Sarah, whose champagne remained untouched.
This did not go unnoticed by Carina, who narrowed her eyes at her. "You didn't drink any champagne, Sarah."
She huffed a breath and rolled her eyes. "You're never going to stop with that, are you?"
"No. It's too much fun to torment you. And I'm going to keep at it until you either start drinking again or tell us that—" When Sarah smirked and raised an eyebrow, Carina's words ground to a sudden stop. Her friend's eyes grew comically wide and Sarah couldn't help but snicker.
After a silent conversation between Sarah and her husband that consisted entirely of a raised eyebrow, a wink, two bouncing eyebrows and a smile, Chuck said, "We, uh, have another announcement to make and this seems to be as a good a time as any." He turned his face toward her and squeezed her hand encouragingly. "Sarah?"
Sarah's smile was as soft as her voice. "Chuck and I are going to have a baby."
The split second of stunned silence was quickly overcome by a burst of cheers and shouts, and a round of hugs and kisses, smiles and tears, handshakes and then more hugs.
Lizzie's face was positively beaming with joy when she threw her arms around Sarah and gave her a tight hug. "Congratulations," she said near Sarah's ear. "I'm so happy for you both, for all of us. I can barely stand it."
Sarah had scarcely stepped back from the hug when she found herself embraced by Lisa. After murmured whispers of congratulations, Lisa released her and took one of Sarah's hands. Lizzie grabbed the other and the two girls tugged her away from the rest of the group for a private conference. The three now standing together, the sisters peered at each other and then at Sarah. "Lisa and I kind of have a confession to make."
When Sarah's eyebrows shot up in surprise, Lisa blurted, "We didn't do anything wrong. It's just that we…" she looked to her sister.
"We kinda already figured out you were pregnant." Lizzie's blue eyes flashed with excitement.
"We?" Sarah said. "Who's we? Did all you kids know?"
Nose scrunched, Lisa shook her head. "Oh, no. Just us two. We never said anything to anybody else."
"When? How did you—?" Sarah sputtered.
"We started to notice it soon after we got home from Europe. You weren't getting out of bed until about the same time that Lisa and Fred and I were, which was weird because you're usually up way earlier than us."
Lisa nodded. "Especially in the summer when we all sleep later. And once you were up, you didn't look like you felt very good, either. You looked kinda pale a lot."
"And you didn't drink coffee anymore. I even asked you if you were okay and you said you were still adjusting to coming back from Europe," Lizzie said.
Tag-teaming their conversation, Lisa continued, "Which was really strange because you've always said you never had a much of a problem with jet lag."
"So when it didn't go away after a couple more weeks, we guessed you might pregnant." With a smirk, Lizzie added, "All the saltine crackers you ate were also kind of a giveaway."
Lisa grinned at her aunt and said, "Tell us when you figured it out."
Sarah beamed back at her and was surprised at how excited she was to talk to the girls about it. She and Chuck had talked, obviously, but it was thrilling to relate everything, finally, to them.
"I started to wonder what was going on about the same time you did because I wasn't exactly bouncing back from our trip like I expected I would. I was just so tired all the time and my injury wasn't severe enough to cause that. Then it suddenly hit me. I did a home pregnancy test." She raised a shoulder and let it drop. "And it was positive."
"Eeeeeeee!" the two girls squealed together.
Their peals of happiness apparently caught Carina's attention, prompting her to hurry over and join them. "What'd I miss? I want the lowdown, Sarah. How long have you been pregnant, exactly?"
"Exactly? Twelve weeks."
"Three months?" Carina's mouth dropped open and then her face morphed into a scowl. "Hang on a minute. When we were in Monaco, just before we went to play poker with Benoit you were moaning and groaning to me about how you knew you weren't pregnant. And that was only two months ago."
"I did not moan and groan."
Carina rolled her eyes. "You did too, but whatever." Nostrils flaring, she growled, "You lied to me."
Sarah felt a spurt of irritation. "I did not lie to you. I was wrong, that's all."
"How can you be wrong about that?" the redhead asked, squinting at her.
"You don't want to know."
"I do. And the girls do, too. Don't you?"
Eyes wide with anticipation, Lizzie and Lisa nodded their heads eagerly.
"Turning my own girls against me? That's low, Carina," she said with a smirk. "Fine. I'll tell you, but don't say I didn't warn you."
"Just spill," Carina grumbled.
"When the fertilized egg burrows into the uterine lining, it can cause some of it to slough away. That's called 'implantation bleeding.' It happens to a lot of women." She shrugged. "And it happened to me in Monaco." Laughing at the face Carina pulled when she uttered the words "fertilized egg," Sarah said, "I told you you wouldn't want to know."
The girls, on the other hand, were clearly spellbound. "That is so cool," Lisa breathed. "We learned about the uterine lining and all that stuff in biology last year when we studied reproduction."
"Yeah," Lizzie said, her voice filled with excitement. "I remember that, too, and how they think morning sickness is worse at the beginning of a pregnancy because that's when the level of one of the hormones goes through the roof."
Carina, more interested in specific details than a biology lesson, gave Sarah a sly look. "So tell us, Sarah. Are you and Chuckie going to be one of those couples and name your little nerdling after where he was conceived?"
"Okay!" Lisa yelped, her face conveying her sudden discomfort with where the conversation had veered. "I think I'm gonna go get something… over there."
"I'll go with you," her sister said, her words rushing out. The two took off, practically leaving a blazing track of flames in the grass behind them.
Watching the girls hightail it away, Sarah said, "Boy, Carina. You sure know how to clear out a room."
Carina snorted and waved her hand. "They'll probably come ask me about it later." She raised an eyebrow and asked in a low tone, "So, will it be little Amsterdam? Paris? Baby Berlin? A name like Moscow would be edgy."
After pausing a beat to build up the anticipation, Sarah matched her friend's crooked eyebrow. "Prague."
Carina's eyes flashed with glee. "Ah, little Prague Bartowski. It just rolls off the tongue." Her head nodded sagely with approval. "I've found Prague to be quite the fun town, too." Sarah didn't miss the way her eyes flicked over to Casey. When Carina's gaze fell on her again, it was with a look of suspicion. "You and Casey were kidnapped in Prague. When did you and Chuckie find the time to get busy?"
"You're always so romantic, Carina."
"Quit stalling," the redhead said, rolling her eyes.
Sarah blew out a good-natured sigh. "It was after Chuck and Scott rescued us from the basement of the Strahov monastery library."
"And as a reward for saving you, you hauled Chuckie off to a corner and did it right there in a monastery library?" Carina gaped at her and feigning utter shock, huffed, "What would the nuns say? What would the librarians say?"
Sarah laughed out loud. Her friend really was the best. "No, not in the library, although at one point during the rescue, Chuck decked a librarian."
"Really? I'm impressed. They can be tougher than they look."
Sarah thought back to the man who chased them out of the monastery. "No kidding." Shaking off the memory, she continued. "Anyway, it was later that evening and that's all you get to know about that."
Chuck walked up to them and from behind, slipped his arms around his wife's waist and placed his hands on her still small, but ever growing, baby bump. "All she gets to know about what?"
Sarah settled her hands on top of his and tilted her head back. Resting it against his shoulder, she gazed up into his face. "Carina thinks we should name the baby Prague."
She felt him jerk and watched a blush engulf his entire face. Rising up on her toes, she kissed his jaw. "You're adorable," she purred.
"Oh my God," Carina said, her eyes round and staring straight at Sarah in genuine disbelief. There was no teasing in her voice when she declared, "You're literally barefoot and pregnant."
Leaning forward, she glanced down at her feet and then up at her friend. "Huh. I guess I am."
The laughter in Chuck's chest vibrated against her back. "I don't think I've ever seen you this discombobulated before, Carina."
"That's because Sarah Walker is actually pregnant."
"No, Sarah Bartowski is actually pregnant," she sighed. "And it shouldn't be that big of a shock to you. It's not like I up and joined a convent."
"What is it with you and nuns, anyway," Carina asked warily.
"Never mind," Chuck answered for her. "And no more hogging my wife." He lowered his head and kissed her cheek. Releasing her from his embrace, he took her hand and started them toward the rest of the guests. "There are others that want to talk to her, too."
Everyone, including the kids, looked at her, eager to gain more intel on the baby, including Curtis who asked, "Aunt Sarah, do you know if it's a boy or a girl?"
"No, we haven't had an ultrasound yet, although we did hear the baby's heartbeat when we went to the doctor a couple days ago." Hearing that pulsing, whooshing sound had brought tears to her eyes. Chuck had stood next to her as she'd reclined on the doctor's table, gripping her hand and grinning like she'd never seen before.
"Amy says congratulations on the baby," Fred informed them.
Sarah's eyebrows shot up. "How does Amy…?" Tilting her head, she asked with an amused smile, "You texted her already, didn't you?"
The impish smile that formed was his only response.
Martie looked up at Sarah and said, "You don't look like you're gonna have a baby, at least not like some of the moms I've seen at school. They're big."
Sarah snickered and answered, "I'm sure I'll get there, kiddo, but it's a little too soon yet for me to look like them." With a smile at Bridget, she added, "And I know just the young lady to take shopping with me when it's time to buy some fashionable maternity clothes."
Bridget's face lit up and she clapped her hands. "I can't wait."
"I don't think we'll have to wait too much longer," Sarah replied. "There's a reason I bought a new suit for today, and not just because I wanted to look nice for the hearing. Nothing in my closet fits."
Next to her, Chuck made a funny little snorting cough at the mention of her ill-fitting clothes. One morning the week before, she'd stood in their closet in only her bra and panties, trying to figure out something to wear. Chuck had walked in and stood gaping at her with his jaw dropped and tongue hanging out like a hormonal teenager. When she checked herself the mirror, her eyes had nearly popped out of her head when she saw herself spilling out over the top of her bra. He'd laughed when her surprise morphed into approval. And when her face had taken on a sultry smolder, it was quite some time before she once again stood in her closet to survey her clothes.
Stephen's grin hadn't subsided since Sarah had announced their news. "What's your due date?" he asked, pulling her back from her happy memory.
"March eighteenth," Chuck said with a wide smile.
"Have you informed the Agency?" Mary asked.
Sarah shook her head. "I will tomorrow. We didn't want to tell anyone until we were past the first trimester. The doctor said everything looks great, so we felt safe to announce it."
Concern still lurked in Mary's eyes. "Are you going continue working?"
"Sure, if they want me to do desk work like intel analysis, developing mission specs, stuff like that. I won't go on any missions or do any field work, though, which of course is a no-brainer while I'm pregnant and on maternity leave." She paused for a moment and then revealed, "I talked to Chuck about me retiring from the field for good."
That comment caused heads to snap back in surprise. "What did you think of that, son?" Stephen asked.
"Sarah and I had a similar conversation after she and Casey were kidnapped in Prague." Both Stephen and Mary grimaced—while Carina snickered—at Chuck's utterance of the word, "Prague." Ignoring the various reactions, Chuck continued. "I reminded her then and now that she loves being a spy."
"And I replied then and now that I love him and the kids more," Sarah responded. "When we talked in Prague, it surprised me at how easy it was for me to say, 'Maybe I should quit being a spy.'" She lifted and lowered a shoulder. "Now it's no surprise at all. I want to focus on our family. And my wonderful husband is very supportive of my choice." She had the feeling he'd tried to appear neutral when she told him of her decision, but he wasn't able to hide—at least from her—the relief written all over his face. "It's time," she finished.
During the announcement of her retirement, Sarah noticed Mary's entire demeanor relax. She understood Mary's concern; that she would make the same mistakes her mother-in-law had. It was actually the opposite. She'd learned from Mary's mistakes and would do everything in her power not to repeat them.
"Aw, no more missions together, Sarah?" Carina said with a pout. "No more adventures?"
"Trust me, Carina. Whenever you're in town, you and I will always have some kind of adventure, even when we're looking for one or not." Smirking, she raised an eyebrow and said, "Or need I remind you of 'The Rusty Spittoon Incident'?"
Everyone except for Stephen and Mary chuckled while Carina tossed her hair and said in a breezy tone, "You're right. I'm a party everywhere I go."
Sarah was about to respond to the redhead when she felt a tug on her hand. Looking down, she saw Martie gazing up at her. "Aunt Sarah, even if you're not a spy anymore, will you still play Spy Barbie with Megan and me?"
"Of course," she answered without hesitation. "It's one of my favorite things."
"With Chuck still working for the Agency, though, what about his and the kids' protection?" Stephen asked.
"With Fulcrum mostly dismantled and Benoit dead, the Agency was planning on pulling our security detail and have me be their only protection. But now that I'm pregnant, I'm sure they'll have the detail remain in place."
The relief Sarah felt from Chuck's parents was palpable. Apparently feeling like it was time to change the subject, Chuck asked in a loud voice, "Who wants cake?"
Shouts of, "I do!" came from the kids. They ran over to the table to watch Mrs. Smith cut the cake.
Their backs to the house, Chuck and Sarah were about to turn and start toward the table when Casey stepped in front of them. Clearly nervous, he shifted from one foot to the other. "You know I'm not real comfortable with feelings and crap," Casey started.
Sarah was expecting a quip from Chuck, but was pleased when one didn't come. He must have realized, as she did, it was clearly the wrong time to try to joke around.
"I just wanted to say congratulations to you, Sarah, on the adoption thing today. Those kids deserve it and so do you. And congrats on the baby, too. I know you'll be great parents to the baby 'cause you're already great parents to the kids."
She swallowed down the lump in her throat. Stepping forward, she rose up and kissed Casey's cheek. "Thank you, John." Chuck echoed her thanks and shook the big man's hand.
Concern still on his face, he asked, "Were you already pregnant when you were shot and everything went down in Monaco?"
"Mm-hmm. My arm healed up fast with no problems and I didn't really do much physically when we apprehended Benoit other than run around a little, shoot my gun and drive a boat."
"Are you sure everything's okay with the baby? You did tackle Graham when Zuyev shot at us," Casey reminded her.
With a sly smile, she said, "Don't repeat this to anyone, but it was a pretty cushy landing."
He snorted his understanding and nodded, obviously relieved to hear her assurances. "It's been an honor working with you. Both of you."
"You, too, John," Sarah said. A terrible thought suddenly struck. "You're not planning on giving up your condo here in Beaver Creek because I'm retiring from the field, are you?"
"Nah. Nothing's gonna change. Somebody's gotta keep an extra set of eyes on those kids of yours. Besides, I already promised I'd teach Fred how to drive."
"For which you deserve combat pay, my good man," Chuck intoned.
His blue eyes were piercing when he looked first at Chuck and then at Sarah. "You need anything, you let me know."
"Don't worry," Chuck said. "We will. We know you've always got our backs, Colonel."
Casey's chin jutted out. "Damn straight, Bartowski." His eyes darted and focused on something behind them. "I think there's somebody who needs something right now."
Sarah turned around. "Uh-oh," she breathed. Megan sat by herself on the bottom step of the stairs that led up to the house. The little girl's elbows rested on her knees and her fists on her cheeks squished her face, making her appear more despondent than Sarah had ever seen. She didn't need a degree in child psychology to know what the problem was.
"You want me to talk to her?" Chuck asked.
"No, sweetheart. Thank you, but I think right now she and I need to talk alone." She gave Chuck a quick kiss on the lips, patted Casey's arm with her hand and went off toward one of the tables. She picked up a plate of cake in each hand and walked to where Megan sat. Standing in front her niece, Sarah held out one of the plates and said, "I brought you a piece of cake."
When her niece tipped her face up, the forlorn look in Megan's eyes nearly ripped Sarah's heart out. She had a feeling the announcement about the new arrival would be hard on the girl who had always been the baby of the family. She was right. "I'm not hungry," Megan said, her face completely crestfallen.
"Okay. Do you mind if I sit down with you and eat mine?" Megan shook her head and scooted over to make room.
Sarah set Megan's piece on the step behind her and took her fork in her hand. She heaved a sigh and poked at the cake with the pointy tines. "You want to talk about it?"
Megan, staring at an indiscriminate point in the grass in front of her, shook her head.
"Do you mind if I talk a little?"
A shoulder went up and then dropped.
"When the baby comes, it's going to be different for all of us. You're not going to be the baby of the family anymore. But that means you get to be a big sister. You can be the one to teach him or her about how to be a junior spy and all that."
"Oh, I know the baby will need me to teach it all that," Megan said as if it were perfectly obvious. "Babies don't know stuff and have to be taught."
"Why are you so sad, then?"
"Because the baby is gonna be yours and Uncle Chuck's. You're gonna love it more than the rest of us because we're not really your kids."
The pang Sarah felt stabbed into her very soul. She set the cake down and put her hand on her niece's back. "Megan, sweetie, that is not true. You really are our kids. Every single one of you."
"But Mom and Dad had us, not you and Uncle Chuck."
"No, we didn't. But that doesn't mean we'll love you any differently than the ones he and I will have together."
Megan stared ahead, clearly unconvinced.
"That's what the adoptions were about today, Megan. It means I love you, your brothers and your sisters so much, I want to take care of you and them just the same as if I'd given birth to you all myself."
The little girl's head lifted a little. "Curtis said the baby will be our cousin and not our brother or sister."
"Your brother is wrong."
Megan's face turned toward her. "But…"
"Okay, he might be technically right if we're just talking biology."
"Which baby came out of which mom."
"But that's not what's important. You might still call us Uncle Chuck and Aunt Sarah and we might still tell people you're our nieces and nephews because we don't want you or them to ever forget Devon and Ellie Woodcomb. But whatever we call each other, you'll always be my daughter."
She slipped an arm around Megan's shoulders when Megan leaned against her and wrapped her arms around Sarah's waist. Holding the little girl close, they sat together in silence, mother and daughter. After a time, Megan asked in a small voice, "Do I really get to teach my new brother or sister about spying and stuff?"
A smile grew on Sarah's face. "You bet you do, although you'll have to be patient. It'll be at least a couple of years before he or she will be ready to learn from the junior agent and tiny ninja master."
"In a couple of years I won't be tiny anymore. I'll be a big kid."
Chuckling, Sarah said, "Yes, I guess you will."
Lifting her head from Sarah's chest, Megan looked up at her and asked, "Can I have some cake now?"
"Absolutely," Sarah answered and kissed her forehead. "I think it's time for you, me and the baby to have some cake."
~ O ~
The sun had set and the party had moved to inside the house. The sound of gunfire and explosions blasted from the TV room where a mixture of kids and adults played video games. The rest chatted in the living room or grazed on the leftover food set out on the kitchen counters.
Sarah, now dressed in stretchy yoga pants and a loose sweater, sat on the couch, her eyes following Chuck as he came from the kitchen and made a beeline for her. When he reached her, without a word, he smiled down at her and held out his hand. Smiling back and without question, she took it. He helped her stand, led her out the door to the backyard and down the stairs.
Above them, a blanket of stars sparkled in the dark, late summer sky as they strolled, arms around each other, toward the recently rebuilt gazebo. The evening air was brisk and now that she was pregnant, her body seemed to always be running a little warmer than normal, so the cool grass felt like heaven on the soles of her bare feet.
They were about halfway across the yard when hundreds of twinkle lights strung all over the gazebo suddenly flickered on, setting it aglow.
"Beautiful," Sarah sighed.
Chuck pulled her closer and kissed her hair. "Yes, you are."
She huffed a laugh and bumped him with her hip. "I meant the lights."
"Oh," he said. "Yeah. The lights." He took his phone from the front pocket of his trousers and wiggled it. "There's an app for that."
She hugged him and said, "Yes, my nerd."
They entered the gazebo together and sat down on a section of the bench. While it smelled new—of paint and pine—it looked the same as the one that had burned. Just outside of the structure, the blackened and fire damaged trees had been cut down and pine tree seedlings had been planted in their stead.
A shiver overtook her when the memories of her and Chuck's special times there flooded her mind. Happy to know this new one evoked such feelings, she nestled into his arms already enveloping her from behind and leaned back against his chest. One of his hands lay lightly on her belly, something he'd done many times before, but now it held so much more significance. His scent surrounded her and in his arms she felt warm and safe and loved.
He rested his cheek against the side of her head and said in a soft voice, "Quite a day, huh?"
She drew in a deep breath and slowly released it through parted lips. "Yeah."
"Do you feel any different? I mean now that you've officially adopted the kids. You realize you're now legally the mother of seven with one more on the way."
She dug her shoulder into his chest. "Thanks for that," she deadpanned. "I was fine until you put it that way. I miss the time when I was just scared. Now I'm terrified."
He jerked and sat forward a little. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean… I was just teasing… You're always so together and…"
"Honey, it's fine. I was just messing with you. Mostly. Truthfully, though, I am a little terrified. I didn't think I'd feel different after the adoptions, but I do. It's kind of like when we got married. I made a commitment to you for the rest of my life. Today, I made a commitment to each of the kids for the rest of my life. It's a big deal."
She felt him relax again. "Do you regret it?"
"No! Not even for a second. It binds us together, makes our relationships stronger." She shrugged. "It makes us a family." She turned her head toward him a little. "How about you? How are you after the baby announcement?"
"Are you kidding? The smartest, bravest, most beautiful woman in the history of everything ever is going to have my baby. I'm the most awesome dude on the planet."
"'The history of everything ever?'"
"You know how I don't like to exaggerate."
"Right," she drawled.
In the stillness, the chirping of crickets filled the night air.
Eventually, he asked, "How are you, now that everyone knows about the baby?"
It was a moment before she answered. "Before we went to the doctor the other day, I thought telling everyone would be the thing that would really make it seem more real. But the second I heard the baby's heartbeat..." Her voice caught and she had to pause. "This new life. I can't wait to meet this little person I'm already in love with."
Her head lifted with his chest when he drew in a deep breath and sighed, "Me, too."
They sat in comfortable silence again, Sarah delicately trailing her fingertips over the back of his hand. After a time, she said, "I've never really been around infants. I guess I should be worried, but I'm not because I know you'll be right there with me."
"I will. And there's no doubt in my mind that you'll be great with our baby. You're Sarah Walker. You're great at everything you do."
His arms tightened around her and he snickered. "I'm sure Megan appreciates the correction. And for the record, you're a natural with kids at every age."
"Nope, you're the kid whisperer, not me."
"Come on. I saw how you were with them today. And always. Look at how well you handled our bummed out Little Miss Megan this afternoon."
"I just told her the truth. She's my daughter."
She felt his nod against her head and quiet descended again. As the rhythmic rise and fall of Chuck's chest lulled her, Sarah was imbued with a sense of utter and profound contentment. After a few minutes, he sighed and said, "College applications, a Scottish girlfriend, the CIA, my parents, a new baby. It's a lot. How do you feel about all of it?"
She didn't hesitate when she answered, "I can't picture my life any other way. To tell you the truth, it feels pretty good."
A moment later, with one hand still secure on her belly, he took his phone from his pocket with the other, swiped his thumb across the screen and tapped at it. A woman's rich, blues-infused voice filled the gazebo.
Birds flyin' high, you know how I feel.
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.
Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me.
Yeah, it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me, ooooooooh...
And I'm feelin' good.
When the piano, horns and drums joined in, adding their driving beat to the song, Sarah sat up and looked at Chuck, her face questioning.
"I had speakers installed. We once talked about making new memories in the new gazebo. I thought speakers might help."
With a small smile, she nodded, leaned in and kissed him. Then she stood, tugged at his hand and said, "Dance with me."
Immediately on his feet, his arms slipped around her waist and held her close. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she melted into him. As one, their feet shuffled slowly as they swayed to the music.
Fish in the sea, you know how I feel.
River runnin' free, you know how I feel.
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me,
And I'm feelin' good.
Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know,
Butterflies all havin' fun, you know what I mean.
Sleep in peace when day is done: that's what I mean,
And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me...
Over the singer's voice, Chuck asked, "New memory?"
Leaning back, she gazed into his eyes and whispered, "Yes. Absolutely." When they kissed, her heart nearly burst from the swirl of emotions that overwhelmed her. The tears brimming in her eyes now spilled down her cheeks as the song put her life into words better than her own could ever convey.
Stars when you shine, you know how I feel.
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel.
Yeah, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel.
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me,
And I'm feelin'... good.