"Thank you for everything, Mrs. Bhaer," Mr. Simons said, walking them to the door.  "I will contact you if there is anything else we need."

            Jo smiled politely.  "Thank you.  We will be leaving sometime tomorrow."

            After shaking hands, Laurie and Nick ushered Jo from the building and out onto the street.  She sighed shakily and smiled at them.  "I'm glad that is finished."

            "I think we should celebrate," Laurie suggested, his grin wide.  "Dinner, this evening, at the hotel restaurant."

            "Laurie, no," Jo answered.  "You have done more than enough.  The hotel itself is spectacular.  Dinner would be too much."

            "Nonsense.  This is my gift to you."  Laurie stepped away from the group, making his way down the street.  "And that shouldn't be all.  You will have to be properly attired."  Laurie waved his hand through the air, indicating the many shops along the street.  "Any dress you want, Jo."

            "Laurie…" she warned.

            "What?" he answered innocently.  "I can be just as stubborn as you can, Mrs. Bhaer."

            "Well, if you two are shoppin'," Nick began, turning towards the docks behind them.  "I think I'm gonna take a look around."

            "No, we can't do that.  I don't want you to feel like you have to leave," Jo protested.

            "It's alright.  I wouldn't mind seein' if any of the guys are in port.  And you don't wanna be down there, Jo."  She gave him a pained look.  "Go.  Enjoy yourself.  I'll be fine."

            "Then it's settled," Laurie jumped in.  "We'll meet back at the hotel for dinner at six o'clock."  The men nodded in agreement, each going their separate ways, leaving Jo a little dumbstruck. 

With a loud sigh, she took after Laurie, who had hailed a carriage.  "Where shall we begin?" he asked, helping her in.

"I don't know," she replied, still slightly miffed.

Laurie leaned over to the driver and after telling him a location, turned to Jo with a smile, "I think I do."

XXXXX

            The clock struck six o'clock as Jo stepped from her room dressed in an elegant royal blue satin gown, which Laurie had insisted on buying.  It was entirely too expensive, at least for Jo, with black lace trim and a train that glided across the floor.  Her hair had been swept back at the sides and clasped with delicate wooden clips, which Laurie had also been adamant on.

            "See?  I told you that it was perfect," Laurie smiled, coming from his room.

            Jo blushed slightly and rolled her eyes.  "Thank you again, Laurie."

            "It's my pleasure," he replied, bowing gracefully.

            "Have you seen Nick?  He should be back by now."

            "Not since we left him.  I tried his room but there was no answer."

            Jo nervously played with her fingers.  "He probably got lost."

            "You said so yourself, he is a world traveler.  Besides, he went down to the docks."

            "Then it must be something worse," she muttered, fearing what seeing those large ships may have done to Nick.

"This is silly, Jo.  He is probably waiting for us downstairs."

"Perhaps," she answered doubtfully, taking Laurie's arm.  They made their way towards the stairs, Jo looking behind them numerous times, checking for Nick.  She sighed, resigning to the fact that his presence may be missed.  They stepped carefully down the winding marble staircase, peering over the sides, searching faces.  As they neared the bottom, Jo glanced at Laurie with a worried expression, not seeing Nick anywhere around them.  Laurie, however, had a strange grin upon his face and not wanting to look at Jo, lead them into the foyer.

Curious about Laurie's appearance, Jo missed the well-dressed man approaching them.  She eventually followed Laurie's gaze and noticed Nick standing ten feet from them, immaculately dressed in a black suit with a bouquet of white roses.  Leaving Laurie behind her, Jo stepped towards Nick, mystified.

"You look amazin'," he said, handing her the flowers and graciously kissing her hand.

"So do you," she whispered, finding it difficult to keep from smiling.

"Mr. Riley?" a young man interrupted the captivated couple.  "Your table is ready."

Pulling his eyes off Jo, Nick nodded.  "Thank you."  He held his arm out to her.  "Shall we?"

"But what about Laurie?" she asked, turning to see her dear friend disappearing up the staircase.  "You planned this?"

"With Laurie's help, of course."

"I should have known," she said, shaking her head and taking Nick's arm, they entered the dining room.

Their table was in a requested quiet corner, a dance floor over to the left.  It was dimly lit, the ambiance perfect for the evening.  Nick held out a chair for Jo and taking his own, poured them each a glass of wine.  "You can order anythin' you want, Jo."

"You shouldn't have done all of this," she scolded lightly.

"I wanted to," he smiled.  "Besides, we had to celebrate."

Their meal was splendid, as Nick had spoken to the owner to ensure that it would be and the conversation was light, speaking of the children and what had to be done once they got home.  During dinner, Nick realized that for the first time in weeks, Jo's smile was genuine.  She was truly enjoying herself without the worry of possibilities and he was thrilled that for at least one night, he could bring that to her.

As dessert was being served, Jo began to notice nervousness in Nick's stature.  His slight fidgeting would have remained overlooked to anyone else but Jo saw how his fingers trembled while lifting his spoon and the crease in his forehead that only presented itself when he was uneasy.  Brushing it off as desire for the perfect evening, she gazed out at the dancers on the floor, sweeping by them.  Although not much of a dancer, Jo enjoyed a waltz now and then and the night seemed to warrant such a delight.

Nick, however, had other plans.  Taking her hand, he smiled anxiously at Jo.  "I want ta ask you something."

Expecting a dance invitation, she looked at him coyly and spoke, "Yes?"

He stared at the table for a few moments, trying to collect his thoughts.  "Well, ya see… I love you, Jo.  You know that…"

"Of course I do," she answered, confused.

"And over the past little while I've realized just how much.  I can't imagine a moment without you."  Jo's cheeks coloured at the comment.  Nick examined her left hand and smiled.  "So, considerin' you seem to be missin' one of these," he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out the velvet pouch.  "I was hopin' to replace it."  To Jo's astonishment, Nick rose from his chair and still holding her hand, dropped to one knee.  "I'd like you to be my wife, Jo."

Tears filling her eyes, Jo took a deep breath, and nodded.  Her lips trembling, she whispered simply,  "Yes…"

Nick gave her an enormous smile and still kneeling on the floor, reached up to kiss her.  Jo wrapped her hands around his neck and savoured the feeling of his lips against hers.  The world around them seemed to slip away and after a few moments, Nick broke the embrace and looked at Jo with a tender expression.  He wiped away the stray tears that tracked down her face and then stood.  "Would you care to dance?" he asked offering his hand.

Linking her fingers with his, Jo stood from her chair and followed Nick out onto the floor.  "I thought you'd never ask," she answered.  They fell into step with the rest of the dancers yet hardly noticed their presence.  Their gaze never left the one another's as Nick swept her across the floor.

"This is quite the evening, Nick Riley," Jo spoke softly.

"I was hoping it would be."  He turned her around in circles and then pulled her to him again.  "I wanted to make it real special."

"I couldn't imagine it any other way."

            The night continued as Jo and Nick still danced.  An hour slipped away from them before the music stopped and Jo looked sheepishly at Nick.  "I'm getting a little tired."

            "Yeah, I think that's enough dancin' for one night."  Jo linked her arm with his as they walked back to the table to collect their things and make their way out of the restaurant.

            The lobby was nearly empty as they strolled through it hand and hand.  "I don't want this evening to end," Jo murmured, sniffing the bouquet.

            Nick smiled.  "It doesn't have to."

            Jo looked at him incredulously as they climbed the stairs.  He gave her a sideways glance and grinned.  "We are going to have a lifetime of evenings to spend together, Jo.  And I hope that they'll be every bit as special."

            "I know they will be."  Jo beamed and approaching her room door, turned to stand in front of Nick.  "Thank you for a wonderful time.  It was more than wonderful…" Jo began to ramble.  "It was incredible.  I…"

            Nick put his finger to her lips to hush her.  "I'm glad ya liked it."

            "I can hardly believe it.  Marriage… a wedding," she whispered.  "Meg and Amy are going to be thrilled."

            "Are you?"

            She looked him straight in the eye.  "Definitely."

            Nick slowly leaned in to Jo, kissing her fully on the lips.  He framed her face with his hands, gently caressing her cheek with his thumb while she melted into him, resting her hands on his chest.  The kiss lasted many moments as a few of the hotel patrons passed by them, grinning at the couple.  They finally broke apart, sheepish smiles adorning their faces.

            "Goodnight, Jo," Nick said.

            "Goodnight," she responded, looking deeply into his eyes.  "I love you."

            "I love you too."

            Jo stood on her tiptoes and quickly gave Nick one last kiss before entering her room for the night.  Nick stood outside her door briefly, collecting himself and then with a large grin turned towards his room, doubtful that sleep would find him.

XXXXX

            The hotel lobby was a bustle of activity as Laurie sat on one of the velvet divans, waiting for his companions to join him.  He hadn't spoken to either of them since the previous evening, merely knocking on Jo's door to let her know he would meet them downstairs.  Her vague reply was now worrying him of the outcome of the night.

            Laurie nodded cordially to those who passed by him, his eye constantly fixed on the staircase and when the couple finally appeared, he knew that his fears were unnecessary.  Nick's right arm had a hold of Jo's luggage, struggling every so often to keep from dropping it all.  His left hand clasped hers and she giggled as he brought it up to his lips, almost tumbling over the bags.  Laurie stood when they reached the bottom of the stairs and smiled as they wandered over to him. 

            "I take it last night went well," he teased, helping Nick set down the baggage.

            Jo shyly bit her bottom lip and nodded.  "It was splendid."

            Laurie drew her into a friendly hug.  "Congratulations, Jo."

            "Thank you, Laurie," she replied, as they broke apart.  "For everything."

            "I told you that this trip would be enjoyable, didn't I?" Laurie gave Nick a knowing glance.

            She smiled sweetly and agreed.  "It has been much better than I could have ever imagined."

            "Are we all ready to go?" Nick asked, waving over a bellhop to assist them.

            "I think so.  I've settled everything and there is a carriage waiting outside."

            The trio made their way to the front door, Jo taking Nick's arm.  "I can't wait to get home."

            Stepping outside, a voice called out to them.  "Mr. Laurence!"  Mr. Simons rushed down the street towards them.  "I was afraid I had missed you."

            "We were just on our way to the train station."  Laurie looked nervously over at Jo.  "Is something wrong?"

            Mr. Simons smiled.  "No, everything is going well."  He nodded to Jo.  "Because of your help, Mrs. Bhaer, we were able to find the third man, this Ricky that you spoke of."  He lowered his voice. "They left him just outside of town.  He had been shot."  Jo shuttered at the news.  "However, they could no longer deny involvement in the abduction and murder.  They even confessed to the incident in North Dakota.  A trial will not be necessary."

            Jo looked to Nick who kissed the top of her head.  "That is a relief."

            Mr. Simons pointed down the street to his wagon.  "I've got your horse which we can take to the station for you.  As well…" He dug around in his jacket pocket.  "We found this with Ricky."  He produced a small gold ring.  Jo quietly gasped.  "I figured you might want it back." 

Jo shakily picked it up from his hand and smiled.  "Thank you."

"Well, I wish you all a safe trip home."

"We appreciate all of your help, Mr. Simons," Laurie said, shaking his hand.

"It was my pleasure."

And with some final goodbyes, they boarded the carriage and started for the train station.  Jo watched out the window as the city passed by.  "It's over," she murmured.  "All of it."

XXXXX

            The train whipped through the countryside as the three Concord-bound passengers sleepily sat in one of its coach rooms.  Jo laid her head against Nick's shoulder, yawning.  "We've got awhile before we get to Boston.  Why don't ya try to sleep?" he posed, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her to him.

            "Hmmm," she mumbled softly, considering his suggestion.

            Laurie, who was sitting across from them, had already drifted off and Jo smiled as she watched him snore lightly.  "I think Laurie has beat me to it."

            "He's just got the right idea."

            Jo closed her eyes, listening to Nick's heartbeat that pounded gently in her ear.  He stroked the back of her hand and closed his own eyes, enjoying the contact.

            "What kind of wedding do you want, Nick?" Jo asked after several moments had passed.

            "Don't really matter ta me.  As long as you're there," he replied, a smile coming to his lips.

            "I don't want anything large.  Just my family and friends… the children, of course."

            "Of course.  Whatever you want, Jo."

            She snuggled closer.  "Ben will come, won't he?"

            Nick sat thoughtfully for a moment and grinned.  "Yeah, I'm sure he will.  It would be kinda nice if he could stand up for me."

            Jo looked up at him warmly.  He spoke so fondly of his brother now, finally able to honestly feel proud of the younger Riley.  "I think he will be honoured."

            "I will be too."

            Jo yawned.  She closed her eyes again, seriously considering Nick's suggestion of sleep.  "Amazin', ain't it?" he blurted out after a number of minutes.

            Jo sat up a little straighter, surprised.  "What is?"

            Nick chuckled.  "Life."  He looked over at her.  "I mean, who would've thought that I would be getting married, livin' a normal life."

            "A normal life?" Jo questioned, a little defensive.

            "Well… you know… one without problems… a good life."  He looked hopefully at Jo, who, after teasing him with a doubtful glance, reached up and kissed him on the lips.  "You deserve a happy life, Nick.  With everything you ever wanted."

            "I've got everythin' I've ever wanted."  Nick stopped for a second and sheepishly looked at the window.  "Maybe not everythin'."

            Jo placed herself underneath Nick's arm and gently began to caress his chest.  "Soon," she stated matter-of-factly.

            "Real soon," he added, hugging her to him.  "Maybe a little girl…" he whispered.

            Jo giggled.  "We don't have much control over that.  But we'll see what we can do."

            Nick rolled his eyes.  "Go to sleep, Jo.  I'll wake ya when we get to Boston."

            Josephine Bhaer relaxed into the arms of her future husband and let the thoughts and dreams of an expanding future gently lull her into slumber.  It was going to be a good life… better than she could have ever imagined.

THE END (07/01/2002)