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With This Ring

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The first rays of the morning sun seeped through the slit of her closed curtains, ushering in the start of a brand new day. C.C. had not had a restful night of sleep, her mind abuzz with too many thoughts as she tried to process all the changes in her life that occurred within the course of the previous twelve hours. In just that short span of time, she briefly became engaged and even more swiftly married, greeted the newborn Sheffield twins, and then, in an unforeseen turn of events, learned of her own impending motherhood. It made her a little dizzy to think about it.

Though maybe that was just morning sickness? She drew a shaky breath.

These wouldn't even be the last of the new developments in store for them. In a few short weeks, they would be moving almost three thousand miles away, all the way across the country to Los Angeles, a stress-inducing endeavor all on its own.

With that, she had even more to consider in her immediate future.

Suddenly, the posh but small penthouse where she intended to move no longer seemed an appropriate nor desired place to live, not with a child on the way. As she thought of her own family's countryside estate where she grew up, she knew she wanted her son or daughter to have a big, quiet yard to play in, one right outside their backdoor, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, not a skyrise apartment building's maze of hallways and a rooftop terrace. Furthermore, she wanted input from Niles as well. It seemed so much more important now that wherever they'd end up living not just be a place to sleep or work, but a proper home and one chosen together. So used to a solitary life where she only had to consider her own simple needs, she never expected to feel so strongly about a matter like this. The place she originally chose was selected to suit only her own tastes.

She smirked as she imagined Niles turning a discerning eye toward a potential home's kitchen...or master bedroom.

Her smirk transformed into a more natural smile as she rolled over and propped herself up on her right arm in order to study her husband's sleeping form.

"My husband," she whispered. She liked how those words felt on her lips as she said them, loved the swell of pride and wonder she felt in her chest. She hoped to still feel it decades later, every time she'd utter those beautiful words.

Her husband.

Not wanting to wake him but needing to touch him, C.C. reached out and brushed her fingers across his lips. She melted a little as he sighed in his sleep, almost like he knew it was her touching him. Leaning in, she placed a soft kiss on his cheek before righting herself once again.

She swept her fingers across his collarbone before moving her palm down to his chest to feel the beat of his heart against her fingertips and couldn't help but think about a time when it wasn't so strong. Reassured by the warmth of his skin and the steady cadence she found there, she moved further down to where his left hand rested low on his abdomen. As she stroked the back of his hand, she studied the contrast of their skin, the difference in size, and how her hand fit in his. Thought about how it felt when he touched her. Admired the glitter of the beautiful solitaire that now graced her hand, the morning beams of sunlight causing the diamond sparkle.

She tilted her head. Something didn't quite seem right. After a long moment of contemplation, she knew just what it was.

Their breakneck dash down the aisle - or more accurately, through a hospital corridor - to wedded bliss allowed no time for ceremonial planning. Their ultimate goal in rushing their vows had been to try and quell her nausea and nerves, to get the proceedings out of the way, hopefully allowing her to feel better instead of micromanaging herself into a tizzy over the event or talking herself back out of it because of her numerous anxieties.

All things considered, she supposed she should just be relieved that at least they and most of their guests were dressed somewhat formally. With the obvious exception of Nanny Fine for once, which appealed to her warped sense of humor. That was almost a wedding gift, really.

Still, other than the Little One swiping a carnation from the arrangement at the nurses' station for Niles to wear as a boutonniere, there'd been no flowers and no bouquet. The vows exchanged, while heartfelt, were standard and minimalistic. There'd been no music, no bridal party, and the venue rather was lacking and inappropriate.

And, she noted as she stared at Niles' bare ring finger, no wedding bands.

They had much to do today. Best to get started now.

Scooting closer to her slumbering spouse, she draped herself over him and leaned down to kiss him awake, caressing along his jaw and lips until at last he stirred beneath her. His eyes fluttering opening, he greeted her kisses with several of his own before he sank back against his pillow with a contented sigh.

"Ah. Our very first day of unholy acrimony! I'm loving it already."

"Good morning, Brillo Breath," she said with a chuckle and a good-natured roll of her eyes as she snuggled into him. "We have quite the to-do list for today."

He weaved his fingers into her hair and started to kiss along her jaw. "Like the dining room table, your desk, and the Jacuzzi?"

"Mmm, yeah, those too..." she purred as she felt his right hand slide under the lacy hem of her negligee to caress along her spine.

"My god, you are inexhaustible."

She grinned and sat up, her legs straddling his waist as she did so. "We need to book a flight to Los Angeles as soon as possible and do a little house and furniture shopping."

"I thought you already chose a place."

The hand not still tracing aimless designs along her back reached out to grasp her breast. She arched into his palm with a moan. "I've changed my mind. I want something different now."

He opened his mouth, ready with a smartass comment she was sure, judging by his smirky expression.

"Don't even start, Muttley." Her eyes narrowed in mock annoyance as she cut him off, and he responded with a playful pout as he snapped his mouth shut. Trying not to laugh, she softened her tone and continued, "We also need to have you added to my bank accounts."

His eyes flicked upward to meet hers and this time he paused in his ministrations. An uncharacteristic look of discomfort crossed his face.

"That's...that's not necessary, you know..."

"Baby, I know you didn't marry me for the money." She took his hand in her own to kiss his fingertips. "I also know you won't abuse the privilege of being given access to it. Even if you choose not to take advantage of it much, I want you to be able to use it without needing my presence to do so, okay?"

The look on his face softened somewhat and he nodded, but he still seemed reluctant to accept that she didn't expect him to remain a penny-pinching pauper.

Foolish man. She loved him all the more for it.

Sensing a need to change the subject, C.C. decided to move on to the most pressing item on their day's agenda. Looking down at his hand she still held in her own, she traced his bare finger. "And you need a wedding band."

The corners of Niles' eyes crinkled in a show of delight and she couldn't miss the wonder that permeated his smile. He was surely just as awestruck as she was by the actuality of being married.

"Planning on marking your territory?" He pressed his right hand against her lower back and rocked against her.

C.C.'s eyes darkened with want. She pursed her lips as she traced her fingers down a couple scratch marks she'd left on his shoulder during a recent and rather enthusiastic lovemaking session, the memory of it intensifying her urgent need for him. Leaning down until she came face to face with him, her lips just brushed against his as she answered.

"Yes."

They both groaned as the fervor of their little kisses increased. It could wait a couple more hours, she decided as Niles flipped her onto her back and began to leave a trail of kisses down her body. They needed to mark a few items off his checklist too, after all.


It was early afternoon before C.C. and Niles managed to pry themselves away from the blissful haven of the penthouse. Though Niles expressed his contentment to remain home for the rest of the day (or better, at least the next three), she was eager to complete their errands so they could get back to the most important task of enjoying uninterrupted time indulging in each other.

She didn't find it too difficult to convince him to see things her way. Adding Niles to her accounts was a straightforward affair. They then booked their flight to L.A., giving themselves a week to try and find the perfect place before heading to Hawaii and an exclusive resort where they both doubted they'd see much outside their luxurious honeymoon suite. If house-hunting or the paperwork took longer than expected, they'd still be able to use the penthouse she initially chose in the interim.

They even managed to keep their trip to Cartier a short one. Though they gave cursory glances to more customized and grandiose sets, both agreed to a mutual preference for simple classic bands. So many aspects of their courtship and wedding had been unconventional; this would be one area they'd remain a little more traditional.

"Would you like to have anything engraved upon either of these?" the sales associate asked.

Niles and C.C. glanced at each other, knowing doing so would delay wearing them right away.

"Maybe later as an anniversary gift?"

His suggestion made her smile and the prospect of anniversaries filled her chest with a warm pleasant sensation.

Damn hormones.

Niles requested that the saleswoman place the jewelry in a ring case then pocketed the red box before turning to her.

She arched a brow at him, curious as to why he wasn't ready for them to wear the rings yet, but he only gave her a slight shake of his head and grasped her hand in his before leading her from the store. She allowed him to guide them down the bustling sidewalk, but halfway down the block, his continued silence became too much. Her curiosity needed to be sated. Now.

She halted in the middle of the sidewalk, and Niles near tripped as she yanked him back to her.

"Well?" she demanded.

"Well, what?"

"What was that all about with the rings? Why don't you want to wear them yet?"

He seemed exasperated by her wheedling but softened when he glanced at her and saw the perplexed look on her face. Brushing his hand along her cheek, he said, "I'm impressed it took you this long to start squawking, chicken."

With a tug on her hand to urge her to continue walking, they crossed the street bringing them to the outer edge of Central Park.

Her confusion gave way to fondness and she squeezed his hand, realizing he simply wanted a more scenic, thoughtful setting than standing in front of the jeweler's counter to exchange their rings. Expressing and demonstrating romantic sentiment never came all that easy to C.C. herself...but that hardly meant she didn't appreciate it from him. He squeezed her hand back and lifted it to his lips to place a kiss on her knuckles.

Together they wandered down the sidewalks until they reached the quiet meadow of the East Green. C.C. took a deep breath as she looked over the sprawling field, taking in the fragrant scent of magnolia and admiring the bursts of vibrant color throughout its tranquil atmosphere.

It was beautiful, she realized, but it also gave her a preemptive pang of homesickness as the thought of all the half-packed boxes littering her apartment entered her mind.

"I'm going to miss New York," she admitted with a sigh.

"I will, too," Niles said as he settled beneath an oak tree. He reached out a hand to help guide her to sit down with him and she situated herself between his legs. Leaning back against his chest, C.C. hummed in contentment as he wrapped an arm around her before pulling out the ring case with an exaggerated flourish.

She shook her head at his theatrics and popped open the lid to lift the larger band from its setting. Taking his left hand, she slipped the band onto his finger.

"There. No escaping me now."

"I couldn't even if I wanted to."

She grinned. "Good."

Niles picked up the smaller, more delicate ring and took her hand.

"Thank you for marrying this old sourpuss and making him happier than he can ever recall," he said while he slid the ring onto her outstretched finger. "Even when we've been at odds with each other, which for years I know was most of the time, you've always been an essential part of my days. I can't wait for everything the future holds for us - the love we'll make, the mischief we'll create, the many more quarrels we'll undoubtedly have, it all...and being able to share it with you."

C.C. graced him with a vibrant smile as she placed her hand atop his, and together, they took a moment to appreciate their set as a whole before sealing their offbeat devotions to each other with a gentle kiss and embrace.

For a long, euphoric moment, they held each other in silence, until Niles broke the spell they were under.

"I picked up a little something from the hospital gift shop last night, by the way."

"Oh?" she asked, intrigued.

From his jacket pocket he pulled out the tiniest pair of socks she'd ever seen.

She plucked one from his hand to examine for herself. The little bootie was barely big enough to fit two fingers inside and yet meant to slip onto the feet of a newborn.

A small, helpless child. Who would depend upon them entirely.

Suddenly this whole motherhood thing seemed less of an abstract concept as she imagined a child, their child, wearing it. Though she was quite touched by the gesture, the very first purchase for their baby, the tranquil joy she basked in just moments ago started to dissipate. She leaned back heavily against her husband's chest, her breath catching as the weight of such responsibility pressed down upon her.

The thought of having a child had always been a nebulous "maybe" to her in her younger days, something she didn't offer much consideration since it seemed like such a distant possibility. As she aged and went through what felt like an unending series of failed relationships that never even lasted long enough for the subject to become an issue, she brushed off the idea of becoming a mother as an increasing unlikelihood. Given her struggles to connect even on a superficial level with most children, including Maxwell's brood, she was at peace with it. If she ever managed to end up in a successful relationship with someone who had his heart set on making a family, she'd figure out how to deal with it then.

After all this time, she'd figured that she'd never have to deal with it at all. Instead, she received the biggest shock of her life while the ink still dried on her marriage license.

"It's a little daunting to realize we're going to be parents soon, isn't it?" Niles asked, his voice a quiet caress in her ear.

"I think the word you're looking for is 'terrifying', darling," she murmured in response as she continued to stare at the teensy object, her heart starting to pound. "Hell, I'm pretty sure the last time I held a baby was when Maxwell's youngest was still an infant and that was under duress. How on earth am I going to be able to manage caring for a child of my own without screwing it up completely?"

He tried to soothe her by rubbing her back. "You'll do just fine, I promise."

"Niles, by nature, I'm not a nurturing person," she said, knowing that she could afford to fill a nursery floor-to-ceiling with all kinds of material necessities and extravagances, but a child's emotional well-being could be bought in no store. Though she didn't want to be like her parents, frequently absent or aloof, as the product of two such individuals, she still fought to overcome her upbringing yet felt doomed to repeat it anyway. "I've never been sweet and patient like mothers are expected to be. This is real life, not a baby food commercial where it all looks so easy."

"Oh, C.C., as far as you not being a nurturing, sweet enough person, I think the last few months we've been together have proved otherwise, actually. Furthermore, you already care a great deal about doing your best and you're not deluded enough to think that everything about being a parent is going to be simple. That probably makes you more prepared than some people who actively plan to have children while still believing that it's going to be a cakewalk."

"So says someone who actually has at least a little experience with kids."

He shifted her around to make her face him. "Hey, I'm scared too. I may have helped out as needed with the Sheffield kids, but for the most part, Max and Sara and then Fran were active enough parents that my role was usually minimal beyond emptying diaper pails and mopping up vomit when they were ill. I wasn't really responsible for those kids and certainly not for shaping them into the young adults they are now."

"Oh, I think you had more influence than you realize," she replied, shaking her head in disbelief that he could be so unaware of his effect on the Sheffield children. "That boy's love of a good prank and his penchant for blackmail didn't come from either of his parents and don't you dare try to tell me that either Maxwell or Nanny Fine were of much use when any of them needed help with their homework by the time each reached middle school. Not to mention how you took care of everyone when Sara died..."

At that point, she reached out to hold his face in her hands. "And really, Niles, I was there from the beginning. I remember how you adored and doted on them from the moment each one was born. I don't have to worry about you. I know you're going to be an amazing father."

He placed his hands over hers, lowering her hands to rest upon his shoulders as he stroked his thumbs across the inside of her wrists. "And I'm not worried about you either. I know that you're not nearly as indifferent to them as you try to seem. You made sure Grace ended up with a good therapist when she needed it, you directed her school play, and she does admire you a great deal, believe it or not."

C.C. snorted. "Oh, please. She also used to be terrified I'd marry her father."

"Well, so was I!"

She chuckled softly at that.

"I also remember you teaching Brighton self-defense after he and Fran were mugged. It helped him recover from the trauma and gave him back his confidence," he recalled. "Anyway, my point is that you aren't lacking a maternal instinct. Underneath that crusty exterior, you're a wonderful, intelligent, and compassionate person who already wants to do her best as a parent. You have plenty to offer this child and we're going to be in this together."

"You really see me that way?"

"I wouldn't have married you if I didn't."

"Thank you. Still...wanting and trying to be a good parent and actually doing well at it don't always go hand in hand."

"Oh, I know. Believe me, I do. Look, we won't be perfect at it; nobody is, really. I really do believe we'll do alright, though. We'll do our best to balance out most of each other's weakness with our individual strengths, and our child will grow up relatively well adjusted, I'll bet."

She gave him a weak but sincere smile. "See if you're still saying that when this kid turns out to be a real hellcat with my temper and your tongue and terrorizes us all."

Niles snorted at that and shook his head. "But he'll be even more handsome than his father, you know, and that'll make up for a lot."

"She will probably end up with my stunning Swedish features and have her daddy so wrapped around her pinkie that she'll get away with anything." Her eyes sparkled with mirth.

He smiled at her and kissed her temple. "Oh, I hope she does. I really do."

By the dreamy look on his face, she knew his was imagining what their child would be like. It calmed her. She knew it wouldn't be the last time she'd be plagued by her doubts, but it helped to discuss them, and his excitement and confidence in her some quelled some her anxiety over their imminent parenthood.

She readjusted herself in his arms, so that she could curl up against him and rest her head on his shoulder. As he slid a hand to rest against the ever so slight swell of her tummy, she tried to imagine the changes to come in the next several months. She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around most of it, in particular, the physical effects she already found herself experiencing.

Realizing that thinking too hard about it right now would have her worked up all over again, she decided to considering the more immediate, less stress-inducing future instead.

"Have you given any thought to what kind of place we should get when we go house shopping next week?"

"Well, there was a nice home just a couple houses down from the Sheffield's new mansion that was also for sale..."

She lifted her head up to regard him with a sour look.

"Or not," he drawled in reaction, slightly taken aback by her response to the suggestion.

Shaking her head, C.C. sighed. She didn't want him to think she hoped to cut off the Sheffields from them. Of course, she didn't want that. She knew how close he was to the family, to say nothing of her own friendship and partnership with Max, and she already imagined their own child would grow up alongside the twins, maybe even as best friends as well. Plus, reluctant though she was to admit it, she suspected that she'd eventually appreciate Fran's voice of experience throughout this pregnancy...figuratively if perhaps not literally.

"I'd just like us to have a little personal space, Niles. If we're right next door, Nanny Fine and the whole litter will end up dropping in all hours of the day and we'll never have much privacy. If you'd like us to look for someplace else close by, even in the same neighborhood, okay, but let's not make it too conveniently close, ya know?"

He considered her prediction for a moment before nodding in agreement. "You're right."

"Of course I'm right. I'm always right."

Niles mimicked the face she'd made at him moments ago. "I have one word for you, my dear: Cats."

She scoffed. "That was not entirely my fault and you know it, dust bunny!"

"Uh huh..."

"Anyway..." she huffed, though the small smile tugging at her lips betrayed the feigned nature of her irritation. "Back to this hypothetical dream home of ours. Any styles that appeal to you? Decorating preferences?"

He stared off into the distance as he thought about it. "I don't know. Perhaps something with a little bit of a Mediterranean flair. A state-of-the-art kitchen. A pool would be nice but not essential...or perhaps something close to a beach instead. I do like the way the way you've decorated the penthouse, although I think I'd prefer a little more color. Granted, I know it reminds you of the olden days of your youth before Technicolor was even introduced."

"Hmph. This coming from a man who remembers life before talkies."

He shook with barely restrained laughter. "Touché. Anyway, whatever we choose, I'd like it to have character but nothing too ornate or ostentatious."

"In other words, don't fill it up with a bunch of knickknacks and surfaces you'll have to dust," she said sweetly.

"That too," he grumped.

She chuckled, aware that he was mostly joking, but she made a mental note to broach the subject of perhaps hiring a service once they got settled into their new life.

"Anything else?"

"Honestly, C.C., I really don't care that much. It can be the Taj Mahal or a tiny shack, so long as it's in a good neighborhood for the baby to grow up in and I have the two of you." He leered at her then in a way that warmed her all over. "Oh, and a really big bed."

She matched his naughty grin with one of her own and weaved her fingers into his hair as she pulled him to her. "Well, that definitely goes without saying."

Their lips parted as they met, and she melted into him, losing herself to the pleasure of just being with him like this. His hand roamed down to her leg to trace his fingers along her knee, just under the hem of her skirt, the soft, teasing touch making her hum in arousal as they continued to kiss.

Lingering there in the intimacy of the moment until her body began to vibrate with a feverish need, she knew she craved and ached for more of him than proprietary allowed whilst still in the middle of Central Park. From the way he held tight to her, close enough to feel the rapid beat of his heart, she knew he felt the same.

Breathless, she broke the kiss, eyes still closed as she tilted away from him in order to regain her senses.

Finally, that dizzying swell of desire ebbed enough for her to speak again.

"We still have more items to check off on our other to-do list, you know. And I may have a few more suggestions to add to it," she whispered.

"Picnic table? Park bench? Or maybe right here under this tree?"

Oh, wicked, wicked man, she thought.

"Mmm. Tempting, but no. This is sort of the start of our honeymoon and I'm not that eager to start it off by risking being locked up in a jail cell on public indecency charges."

"Oh, I don't know. That might have potential if they let us share the same one," he said, leaning in to nip at that special spot just below her ear. "Besides, I can be discreet."

Her eyes fluttered closed once more at the delicious sensations his attentions evoked and she whimpered before forcing herself to push him away again. "Be that as it may, I can't and you know it. Anyway, I have a better idea, you dirty old man. One that involves my own pair of handcuffs..."

Niles' eyes gleamed at her suggestion. He all but scrambled to stand up before reaching down to help guide her up as well.

"Say no more," he said, hugging her to his body for one last kiss. "We're adding that to the list too...and checking it off right away."