When Fi arrived in the loft that evening she almost did not recognize the place. The lights were low and candles flickered on the small dining table. Soft notes of jazz music streamed from the stereo speakers. She was elated by his romantic gesture but was unsure of what to attribute such attention. She had been home for a month as of today although it was not a milestone either of them spoke of specifically.
"Michael," she called out as she scanned the space.
Michael peeked through the doors of the balcony. "I'm out here." He offered her a glass of red wine as she stepped onto the patio. "You look beautiful," he smiled as he reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers.
"Come here I want to show you something." He led her back into the loft space and she noticed a set of new linens on their bed.
"They are beautiful!"
"You like them? My mom helped me pick them out. We went to that little shop in the waterfront district. If you want something else I can..."
"They're exactly what I would have chosen," as she ran her hands over the soft white comforter and matching linens. "I see you made dinner too." She walked towards the table and admired the elegant spread. "What's the occasion?"
"It's been a long time since I cooked for you." He pulled her in for a hug and held her close.
Fiona leaned up and kissed him. She pulled away for a moment and asked, "What did you make? It smells fantastic."
"Just something simple." He stepped over to the kitchen and pulled out a rack of lamb from the oven. "I think it's just about done." He set the pan on the counter and looked over at Fiona who appeared apprehensive about of all the fuss. "This needs to rest for a few minutes. Here let me get you some more wine," as he refilled her glass and led her over to the nearby table.
"It's funny. I thought you didn't like lamb. I haven't seen you eat it since we were in Ireland," she pointed out.
He went back to the kitchen removed two small casseroles from the oven. "No, I like it," he said, "I just lost a taste for it for a time."
"Too much local fare while you were in the Middle East?" she asked with a laugh.
"Something like that…" he glanced back at her and then turned his attention to carving the meat. "Why don't you relax Fi? Everything is almost ready."
Fiona sat down in one of the mismatched chairs and watched him work at preparing the meal. He pulled back the tin foil and carefully plated the sides onto the white dishes. He then turned his attention to carving the roast with the same precision as when he reassembled his .45 after cleaning it. Fi smiled as she thought how much she enjoyed being the focus of Michael's meticulous attention.
When the food was ready he slipped the dinner plates onto the table as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. He took his seat across from her and raised his own glass to offer a toast.
"What shall we toast to?" she asked.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"It's a golf term I read about the other day. When you mess up a shot, you get to do it again like the first time never happened."
"Well that would be helpful sometimes now wouldn't it?" Fi raised her eyebrows and thought of the numerous times in her life that she would like to redo. "To our friend, Mr. Mulligan."
Michael smiled to himself and raised his glass. "Cheers," as he softly clinked his goblet with Fiona's.
From the other side of the table Fiona studied Michael's expression. She observed that he was in good spirits and a particularly affectionate mood which was always welcome. Yet, after many years together, she had learned to read his tells like a seasoned poker player. He was hiding something from her, she was certain of that, but was still unsure if it was something she would like. So she decided to relax and enjoy the meal.
Fiona smiled across the table at Michael and cut into a piece of lamb. "This is lovely Michael; everything looks delicious."
Suddenly, the aroma of mint blended with rosemary and cinnamon triggered a memory that came rushing back after a dozen years. Her stomach clenched as she scanned the table.
"Michael, where are the turnips?" she smiled sweetly at Michael but spoke with a slight irritation in her voice.
He set put down his fork on the side of his plate and slowly took a sip of wine, ignoring the question. "Try the carrots. I used a little curry power and some cumin in the glaze. It's different but I think it works." He took another bite a food and smiled warmly at Fi, as if everything was fine.
"Don't ignore me!" She could not hide her agitation any longer. "This is the exact same meal you cooked the night you left Ireland. You made roasted lamb, glazed carrots and rosemary potatoes. All that missing are the turnips."
"Fi, why would I make those?" He looked amused. "Your mom forced you to eat them when you were a kid. You can't stand them."
"Yes, but you didn't know until I told you that night."
His head dropped in defeat. This was not going the way he had expected. "I think I overcooked the meat too."
"No, the lamb is delicious," as she took another bite of the meat. "It's cooked perfectly."
"That's not what I meant." He set down his fork and took a long swallow of his wine.
Fi could tell her reaction to the dinner had disappointed him. But she still could not fathom why on earth he would want to remind her of that painful night. "Then what did you mean, Michael?" as she glanced down at her plate.
He looked up at her with an uncharacteristic reluctance and said, "I messed up that night. I fed you turnips."
"Which I still detest, thank you," she nodded.
"And I almost burned the lamb."
"I really don't remember that," as she shook her head.
"I couldn't stand the taste of it for years." He looked up at the ceiling as if he was trying to collect himself.
"But you were in Afghanistan after you…."
"After I left …" He shook his head and laughed to himself softly. "The irony was not lost on me. I ate a lot of flat bread for a while."
She dropped the edge in her voice when she asked gently, "Michael, you're not going slip away and vanish on me again are you?" She could tell that Michael seemed genuinely unnerved by her reaction to the meal.
"No Fi, I'm not." He shifted in his seat and stared down at his plate. His face showed the frustration that his plan to surprise her seemed to have backfired. "I'm afraid this has come out all wrong. I didn't mean to upset you. That was the last thing I wanted for tonight."
Suddenly, Fiona began to understand the connection between Michael's toast of the start of the meal and his choice of the menu. "Michael, is this about your Mr. Mulligan?" She reached across the table and took his hand. "Darling you know I'm not angry with you about what happened that night."
"I know. But I wanted to do it right this time."
"What happened in Ireland, it is part of our past now."
"Fi, there is something I never told you..."
"What Michael? You said you left because your cover was blown." Her voice stared to crack and tears filled her eyes, "that we were both in danger."
"That's true, Fi, I had to..."
"Then what was it? What have you waited all this time..." she said with panic in her voice.
"I never wanted to leave you. I wanted to bring you with me. But I couldn't."
"Michael," she gasped.
"When I left you that night, I knew I'd regret it for the rest of my life."
"All these years, I had no idea…"
"How much I've always wanted to be with you. I'm sorry Fi."
Fi poured herself another glass of red wine and took a long swig. She looked at Michael silently requesting he continue.
"By the time you came to Miami, so many years had gone by. I had convinced myself that none of it mattered anymore. Relationships … just weren't my …" The words rang hollow in his ears. "As long as I was burned, I couldn't give you what you needed."
Fi, still in shock, did not notice as Michael reached into his pocket and slipped a small grey velvet box on the table behind the flower arrangement.
"And for a very long time, it was easier to ignore the way I felt, just how much I needed you."
He slid his chair around to the other side of the table next to Fiona and took her hand. "But over time it became clear that I need you so very much."
Fiona's eyes grew wide as she noticed the tiny cube peeking out from behind the orchids.
"And now, I can't imagine my life without you next to me."
He flipped open the box and presented her with the ring. "Fiona. I love you. Will you marry me?"
When the dinner had been cleared and the couple toasted their engagement with another bottle of wine. They indulged in the sweetness of the moment over dessert before falling onto the luxurious new bedding as they continued their most intimate of celebrations. A few hours later, the couple lay among the abundant white pillows wrapped in a tender embrace. Fiona looked at her ring that sparkled in the moonlight. It was the exact ring she had wanted, the perfect size, cut, and style. More importantly, it had been given to her by the man she loved more than anything else in the world. After all these years, she and Michael were going to be married. Her mind raced back to the memories of their life they shared in Ireland all those years ago. She felt a tinge of pain in her chest at the thought of the night they separated. Fiona let out a sigh and turned over to face Michael. He brushed the hair out of her eyes. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, I was just wondering… I've never asked you because I didn't want you to think I was still angry. But, I want to know what you it was like for you… that night…when you had to leave. It was hard for you too."
Michael felt his throat tighten. He was surprised by the question. He took a deep breath and looked into the eyes of the woman that he loved more than anything in the world. "I don't know," he replied.
Over the years, he had relived those memories in his mind many times. He had learned to be wary because the loneliness and regret that accompanied them could be overwhelming. It was always safest to keep the feelings locked away in the farthest recesses of his heart. And now, Fiona asked to him to set down the weight of the heavy burden and share his pain. He knew there was no need to feel threatened because of the loving manner in which she had asked him. Since their reunion in Miami, they had developed a love and trust that was deeper than the passionate romance of their earlier years. Michael was awed by the woman that she had become and the hold she had affixed on his heart.
When he was a younger man it had terrified him that he could even need anyone so much. That kind of vulnerability was a weakness he could not risk in his life. Now, his greatest fear was that he might lose her again. He had been powerless to stop her as he watched her vanish through the doors of the Federal Building. Her sacrifice was made to release him from the stranglehold of a man who was determined to destroy both their lives. As a result, they had won their freedom and he had the love of his life back in his arms.
Tonight, he was determined to set things right once and for all. They could go back to the start. While they could never regain the years they lost, he could tell her that he wanted her with him always, and that it was all he had ever really wanted for both of them. So he had offered up to the woman he loved everything he had and she accepted with an open heart.
She whispered to him, "It's not about forgiveness, we moved past that a long time ago." She kissed him softly. "I love you, Michael. I couldn't comfort you then. But I'm here now. Tell me what happened to you."
"I wanted to take you with me." Michael's throat tightened and his voice grew raspy. "Fi. I swear to God. I tried to get clearance." He turned to face her as his eyes became glassy. "Word got around to my senior agent and the next day he was in Ireland to get me out."
Fi nodded softly, encouraging him to continue his story.
"Things were moving quickly but I told him I wouldn't leave, not without you. Then he asked me a question that I didn't want to answer." Michael looked up at the ceiling above them, lost in the distant and painful memory.
"What was that?" she whispered.
"He asked if it was fair to make give up your family and everything you had in Ireland when I would only turn around and leave you for my next assignment."
Fiona let out a tiny gasp. His superior had years before identified the conflict would take the couple over a decade to fully resolve.
He continued his story with tears brimming in his eye. "He said to me 'kid, if I you really love this girl, you need to walk away. We both know she'd be better off without you.' I was so angry I punched him in the face. He laid me out on the floor a few seconds later and threatened to put me on a plane to DC that afternoon in handcuffs."
Fiona wiped a tear from her face. "But instead he let you leave so you could come back to the apartment and make me dinner?"
"I had to see you…"
"Oh, Michael," she buried her face in the crook of his neck.
"I stood there in our room watching you sleep." His voice cracked with emotion. "You looked so beautiful. And all I wanted to do was carry you out the door with me. So I convinced myself you were better off without me and you were in danger every minute I stayed. Then I left."
She brushed her fingers along his cheek. "It was hard for you," she echoed. The woman, who would soon be his wife, set aside her own painful memories and offered him a soft place to rest with his.
He nodded, "Yeah," as he rested his forearm over his face for a moment and then continued his story. "They even gave me a few days off before I shipped out."
"And you had Sam to keep you together," as she ran her finger through his hair.
He laughed, "And out of jail for doing something stupid," as he reached for a tissue on the side table.
"Thank God for Sam," she smiled.
He returned the smile. Michael felt strangely lighthearted and exhausted at the same time.
"What happened when you found out I went to New York? You said that you thought I wouldn't leave Ireland because of my family. "
"I was angry. I had been so worried about taking you away from your life in Ireland and then you left on your own."
"It must have seemed like I never really cared that much."
"And there was always the next assignment."
"Yes, the next assignment," she whispered.
"And then I got burned."
"And I found you all alone in that wretched motel room," as she sat up and adjusted her body to lean back on the small mountain of pillows.
"You came to help me." Michael turned to face his fiancée.
"You weren't so thrilled when I decided to stay in Miami," as she pulled him towards her wrapping her tiny arms around his muscular chest.
"I gave you a key to the loft, I wanted you to stay," he spoke softly.
"Did you?" she asked.
"Yes." He leaned in to kiss her so softly it felt like a whisper. "I need you Fiona."
"You won't leave me again, Will you Michael?
"Never, I promise," he held her tightly. "You'll stay with me, won't you Fi?"
"I will forever. I promise."