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Part of the Family

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Jess hung up the phone with trembling hands. She slid down the wall and sat on the floor, feeling her entire body shaking. She couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. Tears stung her eyes and she began to cry, her shoulders heaving with not sobs, but laughter. Jake, her best friend and roommate, walked into the room and saw her hunched on the floor.

            ‘What’s up, Jess?’ His voice was pure concern as he crouched down beside her, putting a hand on her arm. ‘What’s happened?’

            She took a few deep breaths, the conversation she’d just had running through her mind. She looked up into his eyes. ‘I’m an Avenger.’

            ‘What?’ He breathed, his eyes growing wider and rounder with each passing second.

            ‘I’m an Avenger. I’m Moondragon. I got the part!’

            Jake whooped, pulling her to her feet and spinning her around the kitchen. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Well done!’ They both laughed and made nonsensical noises. Jess was crying and laughing and shaking like a leaf.

            She had been living in LA for almost two years, having emigrated from England. She had hoped to get more and better work but knew almost as soon as her plane touched down that she had been foolish. Her UK agent had pulled a few strings to get her a US agent. Although she was fairly well known in the UK having had some pretty major TV roles, in LA she was just another pretty face. The only jobs she’d managed to get were temporary legal secretary jobs that she was vastly overqualified for. There had been a commercial a few months ago but as far as she knew it had never made it to air. She was just about ready to go back to England and make use of her law degree and give up being an actress.

            Then she had been called up to audition for Avengers 4. The casting director had loved a British TV show she had seen Jess in and had called her agent immediately. They were looking for a tall, mixed-race woman for the new Avengers movie and they wanted to audition her. And audition her they had. Jess had never been to so many call-backs. Now they were biking over her Marvel contract. A four-movie contract with options.

            Jake went for takeout and Jess sat at the small kitchen table, trying to concentrate on her breathing. There was still a long way to go. She tried to remind herself that filming wouldn’t start for three or four months, so she had time.

            They ate pizza in front of the TV but the thought that she was now an Avenger never left her head. She didn’t sleep much that night, then spent the whole day going over the contract with her agent. It was all good so they called the studio and they invited her in the next day to meet some key players. She didn’t sleep much that night, either. She spent it washing her hair and trying to get into a book from her to-be-read pile but to no avail. Her brain would not shut down.

            By the time morning came, she was exhausted. She shuffled into the kitchen and ate a bowl of cereal whilst Jake ran around her getting ready for work. ‘Good luck today. If you get to meet Mark Ruffalo give him a big sloppy kiss from me.’

            Jess pushed him away as he landed a big sloppy kiss on her cheek. ‘I can’t wait until I’m too famous to be friends with you.’

            ‘Never gonna happen,’ he sing-songed, heading out of the door.

            The apartment filled with that oppressive silence that only happened when she was alone. She felt anxiety pushing at her bowels and hoped she wasn’t going to get an upset stomach. Again, she tried to regulate her breathing. There was no need to panic, she told herself. Glancing at the clock, she headed back to her room to begin getting ready.

            She dressed in black Capri pants and a loose white shirt which she teamed with a pair of red Adidas trainers and tied her long curls up with a red scarf. She sat at her dressing table and applied enough makeup to cover the dark shadows under her eyes and make her look a little bit more alert. It was all starting to seem so huge and familiar doubts began to take root in her mind. The doorbell rang, making her jump. It would be the car to take her to the studio. She took a final deep breath, grabbed her bag and headed out.

            The traffic was its usual LA self and, by the time she arrived at the studio - twenty minutes late - she had managed to calm herself a little. She was shown into a conference room dominated by a huge, glossy mahogany table. There were three men clustered around one end; Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors, and Kevin Feige, who needed no introduction.

            They all shook hands and Kevin held out a seat for her.

            ‘Congratulations, Jess,’ Anthony smiled. ‘We’re so excited to have you onboard.’

            ‘I’m thrilled to be here, thank you so much.’

            ‘Shall we get business out of the way first?’ Kevin says, his hands on a thick envelope. ‘This is the whole script. It’s really important for you to be able to see how the movie unfolds. Only a very few cast members have this so you have to promise to look after it.’

            Jess swallowed hard. ‘I will guard it with my life.’

            ‘Please do!’ Joe laughs. ‘Because if you lose it, we will have to kill you!’

            She laughed, relaxing a little. She put her hand on the envelope, feeling a little thrill of excitement.

            They begin to discuss Moondragon, telling her about her MCU history rather than her comic book one. The upshot being she was going to be nothing like she was in the comics. Jess took a lot of notes and asked even more questions. But as time went on she began to realise how big the role was and started to feel daunted.

            Joe seemed to sense her sudden doubt because he looked at her earnestly and said, ‘You’re going to be great. We’ve got a trainer and a martial arts specialist lined up to start with you whenever you’re ready, tomorrow if you want, and we’re going to find you a great stunt double for the stuff you absolutely can’t do. It’s going to be hard work but we’re all here to help you and we have one hundred percent confidence in you.’

            Jess opened her mouth to thank him, but the phone on the conference table buzzed loudly. Kevin answered, listening for a moment before saying, ‘Sure, bring him up.’

            ‘Oh,’ Anthony said, as if he’d forgotten, ‘we invited someone to meet you. You’ll be playing opposite him a lot so we thought that the sooner we introduce the two of you, the sooner you could get to know each other a little. We wanted to do a chemistry test with both of you, but unfortunately, he wasn’t available and we needed to get you signed.’

            She blinked in confusion, about to ask him to repeat all that when the door opened and in sauntered the biggest hunk of manhood she had ever laid eyes on. He wore jeans and a dark blue polo shirt that made his blue eyes pop. His biceps were easily the size of her waist, she mused. His hair was a little longer and he’d grown a beard, but there was no mistaking his identity.

            He greeted the Russo brothers and Feige, who said, ‘This is Jessica Finley, who prefers to be called Jess.’

            He crossed the room in two strides to shake her hand and kiss her on both cheeks. She stared up at him, utterly transfixed, and whispered, ‘Cap…’

            He laughed. They all laughed. Her cheeks grew hot and she wanted the ground to open up.

            ‘Generally, when I’m not wearing the suit I go by the name of Chris.’ He grinned her at and she could see that he was genuinely amused and without malice.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she stammered but he waved a ‘don’t worry about it hand’ and sat down beside her.

            Joe caught Chris up with what they’d discussed so far and then they all talk about Cap’s arc in the movie. While Moondragon was instrumental in the outcome, Cap was taking a step back and letting the new generation take over. There was obviously some chemistry between their two characters and she found herself itching to read the script.

            Jess had taken pages and pages of notes and she knew there would be more notes and questions once she’d read it. Finally, they discussed when her casting would be announced. They wanted to keep Moondragon a secret for as long as possible so there would be no big reveal right away and, although she was free to tell friends and family she’d been cast in the movie, she should not tell people who she was playing.

            She was relieved that she had some time left to get her life in order. Most importantly she wanted to move to somewhere with more privacy, rather than Jake’s gorgeous but highly accessible Manhattan Beach house. She would be foolish to think that she, a relative newcomer cast in the biggest Marvel movie to date, would not attract the attention of the media.

            By the time the meeting finished, she was absolutely exhausted. After two nights of no sleep, she was ready for bed. But as she and Chris waited for the elevator, he turned to her and said, ‘Can I take you out for dinner tonight?’

            To which she could only reply yes, because, as she told herself, it’s Chris fucking Evans. He whipped out his phone and she quickly reeled off her address and phone number as they travelled down to the lobby.

            ‘Great, I’ll pick you up at 8.’ He kissed her on the cheek and walked out to the parking lot, leaving Jess feeling hot and uncomfortable and wondering how the hell she was going to work with him for almost a year.

Chapter Text

Jake was still at work and Jess let herself into an empty house. She flopped on the couch and took the script from her bag. The name of the movie wasn’t even on the cover, it just said ML2. She rummaged in her bag for a highlighter pen to mark her lines and cues, then settled back to read.

She was startled by the doorbell and the fact that, when she looked up, it was almost dark outside. She looked at the clock on the mantle and saw the minute hand was exactly on the 12 and the little hand was on the 8. ‘Shit,’ she cursed, putting her script to the side and hurrying to the door.

As she opened the door she almost groaned out loud. How is it fair on the rest of mankind that one man could be so hot? He was wearing a dark cashmere jumper and jeans and she felt very strongly that she wanted to fling herself into his arms. She guessed that was an occupational hazard of being Chris Evans.

‘Hi,’ he smiled and she died.

‘Hey,’ she managed, her voice suspiciously husky with lust. For fuck's sake, she chided herself. ‘Come on in.’

She stepped back to let him in then closed the door behind him. ‘I have a confession to make,’ she said, showing him into the lounge. ‘I started reading the script and time got away from me. I still need to get ready.’

He laughed softly and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. ‘It’s okay. I got like that when I first read it, too. I don’t mind waiting for you.’

‘Can I get you a drink? Tea, beer, soda?’

‘A beer would be great.’

In the kitchen, Jess took several deep breaths. She grabbed a beer from the fridge, plastered a smile on her face and went back to the lounge. ‘I won’t be long,’ she told him, handing him the beer. ‘Make yourself at home.’

He grinned at her and she swore she could feel her knickers slowly fall to the floor. They didn’t but she thought that they wanted to. She tore herself away from his blue-eyed gaze and bolted to her room.

Getting naked to get in the shower made her feel incredibly vulnerable, knowing he was just on the other side of the door. She showered as quickly as she could and put on her robe, padding back into her bedroom and standing in front of the wardrobe. He was wearing jeans so wherever he was taking her wasn’t so unbearably smart that he needed to wear a suit. She pulled out her best dark indigo jeans and a black wraparound top, topping it with an oversized cardigan.

Once she was dried and dressed, she tied her hair up into a bun and grabbed a pair of ankle boots from the shoe rack. She went back to the lounge, glancing at the clock. ‘I’m really sorry I took so long.’

‘It’s cool,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind but I thought we could stay in and discuss the movie. We can’t really talk about it in public. I ordered some food.’

‘Oh, okay. That’s perfect.’ She said with relief. ‘I will be right back.’

She returned a few minutes later wearing leggings and a baggy t-shirt. ‘Do you want another beer?’

‘Sure,’ he said, but followed her into the kitchen. ‘This is a nice place, is it yours?’

Shaking her head, she handed him a beer and grabbed an unopened bottle of wine from the fridge. ‘No, it’s Jake’s. He’s my best friend. Oh God,’ she groaned, sinking back against the fridge. ‘He will freak the fuck out if he comes home and finds you in his lounge. He’ll think all his Christmases have come at once.’

Chrismases,’ Chris said with a snort of laughter.

Jess looked at him, straight-faced. ‘Get out.’

‘Oh, come on! That was funny!’

‘I wonder if it’s too late to tell them I don’t want the part?’

‘Yes, it is,’ he said smugly.

Jess ignored him, going into the lounge for her phone. She sent Jake a text giving him a heads up and to ask him to please be cool. One of them might as well come across as a normal human, seeing as she couldn’t seem to manage it.

She flumped back on the sofa before realising she’d forgotten her wine. She was about to heave herself to her feet again when Chris came in with her bottle tucked under one arm, a beer in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

‘Thank you,’ she said gratefully, taking the glass from him.

‘I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,’ he put her bottle on the coffee table and sat beside her, ‘but you look exhausted.’

‘I am,’ she admitted, too tired to be offended. ‘I haven’t slept much since I got cast. I’m so excited and scared and on the verge of panic.’

‘I felt like that when I first signed up. Wait until you start training, you’ll barely make it to bed before you fall asleep.’ He held his beer bottle out to her, ‘Congratulations, welcome to the family.’

She smiled, clinking her glass against it. ‘Thank you.’ She took a long sip of her wine and sighed happily.

‘I’ve got a confession to make, too.’ He said, picking at the label on his bottle with his thumbnail. ‘I loved you in Complex.’

‘You’ve seen that?’ She couldn’t keep the shock from her voice. It was a one-off British drama she’d been in right before she’d come to LA. It had earned her a BAFTA nomination.

He nodded, his blue eyes catching on hers. ‘I watched it a while ago when we were filming in Scotland and thought you were amazing in it, then when your name started going around a few weeks ago, I watched it again.’

Jess felt her face heat up and she shifted uncomfortably. ‘Thank you,’ she mumbled. Why did it have to be Complex? Anything else and she would smile and take the compliment. But no, it had to be Complex, where she’d spent a good chunk of the show with no clothes on. He had seen her naked. A lot naked.

‘So, what did you think of the script?’ He asked, and she knew he was changing the subject.

‘I love it so far. I’m about two-thirds of the way through.’

‘Ah. You haven’t got to the good bit yet.’

‘What’s the good bit?’

‘You’ll know it when you see it.’

Jess picked up the script and started leafing through it, although she wasn’t taking it in. ‘How do you feel about leaving?’

He sighed, stretching his legs out in front of him and leaning back against the cushions. ‘A little relief, a little regret, a lot of anxiety.’

She turned to look at him, ‘Why?’

‘Oh, you know, what next? Am I too Captain America for other parts? Did I make a mistake doing it or did I make a mistake by leaving? The usual.’

She frowned but she totally understood. She was just about to draw breath to say something when the doorbell rang.

‘That will be the food,’ Chris said, getting up. ‘I’ll get it.’

Jess stared at the spot on the sofa that he’d just vacated. She knew that a lot of actors were insecure but it felt so weird to hear his words and have them resonate so strongly. ‘What did you even order?’ She asked as he came back in.

‘Chinese. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with General Tso’s chicken.’

‘No, you could not,’ she said as her stomach rumbled in anticipation, ‘but I’m supposed to be starting my diet.’

‘Start tomorrow,’ he said with a wink, handing her a stack of trays.

She went to get cutlery and another beer for him. While they ate they talked about his time with Marvel and what he had enjoyed most and the bits he didn’t care for. Jess grabbed another bottle of wine and another beer, and he asked her how long she’d been in LA.

‘Just under two years now,’ she replied, filling up her glass. They were sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, their legs stretched out. She was very conscious of where her thigh touched his.

‘Are your family here too or are they back in England?’

Her eyes flickered and she cleared her throat. ‘I don’t have any family. I am an only child and my mum passed five years ago.’

His face crumpled and he looked dismayed, ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.’

She shook her head, ‘You didn’t know, it’s okay. I never really knew my dad. She always kept it just the two of us so when she died, that was it for me.’

‘Don’t you want to find him?’

‘Nope. He never bothered with me when I was a child so what use is he to me now?’

Chris took a breath, carefully watching her face. ‘So, who do you share all the good stuff with?’

‘My friends. Jake, mostly. We met at uni and we’ve been in each other’s pockets ever since. He gets the good and the bad, bless him.’

‘What does he think of your new role?’

‘He’s thrilled. But don’t ever let him meet Mark Ruffalo.’

Chris laughed. He looked at the beer bottles lined up on the coffee table. ‘I’ve had way too much to drink, I’ll have to call a car to take me home and come pick up mine tomorrow.’

‘You could stay here, we have a spare room.’

He hesitated, ‘Thanks, but I have to get back to my dog.’

‘Of course,’ she said, realisation dawning.

They heard the sound of the front door opening and both turned to look as Jake came in.

‘Hey Jake,’ Jess smiled. ‘This is Chris. Chris, this is my very best friend, Jake.’

They exchanged a manly handshake and she smiled, leaning her head back on the sofa.

‘How did it go today?’ He asked Jess.

‘It was great, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. How was work?’

He pulled a face. ‘I had a date though. Nice guy, I will also tell you about it tomorrow. I’m going to head to bed, I’ve got a real early start tomorrow. Nice to meet you, Chris. Goodnight, Jess.’

‘Night, love.’

Chris stretched his arms over his head. ‘Can I say something?

‘You can.’

‘I think you’re very brave. I couldn’t do what I do without my family. But everything’s about to change for you. Everything. You’re going to need a lot of support.’

She smiled in amusement. ‘Are you saying that I need more friends?’

‘No,’ he laughed. ‘I know you’re going to feel like the new girl, especially when we get on set and everyone knows each other. But we’ll all be there for you if you need us. Every single one of us.’

Jess felt tears burn the back of her eyes and she looked away before he could see them. ‘Thank you.’

‘I should go, I’m keeping you up.’

As much as she didn’t want him to leave, she did urgently need her bed. He called for a car then used the bathroom while Jess tidied away the empty bottles and the food containers, mulling the evening over in her head. Apart from her instant attraction to him physically, there was a lot to like about his personality. She knew she’d only seen a snapshot of him but that only meant that she wanted more.

‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ He asked on his return from the bathroom.

‘I was just going to catch up on some sleep and finish reading my script. Why?’

He leant against the door jamb, ‘I was wondering if you wanted to read through the script with me.’

‘I’d like that.’

He returned her smile, taking his phone out of his pocket to check the text alert. ‘I’ll call you when I know what time it will be. My car’s here.’

She walked him to the front door, ‘Thanks for dinner. I had a lot of fun.’

‘Me too.’

He gave her a hug, promised again to call her and climbed into the back of the waiting car. She waved him off then turned back into the house, clearing up the last of the dinner things and putting the empty bottles into the recycling. Dragging herself to her room, she changed into her PJ’s and climbed into bed, but sleep remained elusive. She tossed and turned but her mind was too full. She kept thinking of Chris’s eyes, of his broad shoulders and huge arms. In the end, she snapped the light back on and pulled out the script.

She was almost at the end and the sun was coming up when she found a stage direction had been circled and next to it Chris had written, ‘This is the good bit.’

Capt. America grabs Moondragon by the wrist, pulling her into a kiss.

Chapter Text

 

‘Do you want to do something this weekend?’

            It had been almost two months since Jess had been cast. She estimated she had spent 80% of that with Chris. It was almost impossible for them to keep running lines as they both knew them backwards, they’d said them so many times. She enjoyed training with him, he pushed her hard and she was feeling the benefits, and he had introduced her to many forms of training, not just lifting weights or swimming. But she suspected he just wanted to hang out with her, which was fine, it was great because she certainly wanted to hang out with him, she just wished he’d be more honest about it.

            He had taken her out for dinner to meet some of the other cast, making sure that she would know people when they got to Atlanta. They took Dodger on long hikes in the mountains. They spent hours just talking. He always asked her a lot of questions. She wanted him so much that he filled her every waking thought and, when she did manage to snatch a few hours’ sleep, her dreams, too.

            Jess propped the phone under her ear as she sorted through her laundry. She was spending so much time with him that she was behind on her housework. ‘I can’t, I’m going to New York tomorrow to meet with Finn Jones.’

            ‘Finn Jones Iron Fist Finn Jones?’

            She smiled at the tone of his voice. ‘The very same.’

            ‘Why?’

            ‘Because he got canned for his martial arts prowess in the first season of Iron Fist and I wanted to talk to him about why and what I can do to make sure that doesn’t happen to me.’

            ‘I can tell you right now it was because he didn’t have enough time to prepare. They were choreographing his fights and getting him to film them ten minutes later. You’ve had way more time to practise. So, stay in LA and come run lines with me.’

            There, she thought, right there. He was jealous. Well, Mr Evans, you don’t get to not make a move and be jealous at the same time. ‘I’m still going, Chris. Maybe we could do something next week? I’ve got to run.’

            Without giving him a chance to say anything she said a cheery bye and hung up. With a sigh, she rested the laundry basket on her hip and went downstairs to the utility room. Maybe he didn’t want to date a co-star, maybe he wanted to wait until after they wrapped. But he was obviously shit scared that she was going to start dating someone else in the meantime. He could not expect her to wait another nine months on the off-chance that he might kiss her at some point afterwards.

            The next morning, she took a cab to LAX and flew out to New York. Landing at JFK and seeing snow on the ground made her heart swell. She loved LA but the weather was constantly hot and the temperature rarely dipped into single figures, even at night.

            Finn had insisted she take his room and he’d take the couch, rather than booking in at a hotel, so she rode a cab straight to his Brooklyn apartment. What she hadn’t told Chris was that she and Finn were old friends. The two of them had met at drama school and had socialised in the same group. They didn’t see each other much but regularly caught up on the phone and spent time together when Finn was in LA. This was the first opportunity she’d had to fly out to NY to see him.

            Finn greeted her with a hug, taking her bag and coat and generally making a huge fuss. ‘You look amazing. I’m so glad to see you.’

            ‘Same,’ she smiled, ‘and what about you? What are these?’ She teased, poking his hard arms. He wasn’t big like Chris, but he was wiry and well-defined. ‘More Marvel muscles.’

            ‘They’re making Hollywood fit, one movie at a time.’

‘You used to be so cuddly.’

He cast her a sideways look, ‘I’m going to pretend that was a compliment. Would you like some tea?’

            ‘Is it proper tea?’

            ‘Of course,’ he said indignantly.

            ‘Then yes, please.’ She grinned, following him through to the huge open plan living area. She sat at the breakfast bar and watched as he filled the kettle and set it on the stove. ‘Great view,’ she said appreciatively, looking out towards Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

            ‘Isn’t it? I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it. You’ll love it tonight when it’s all lit up.’

            They chatted amicably as he made the tea, then went to sit on the sofas while they talked.

            ‘How are you finding life as an Avenger?’

            She took a breath, leaning back against the cushions. ‘Yeah, it’s…I mean, I’ve barely started yet, so it’s…I’ve been training hard and…’

            ‘What? What is it that you’re not sure if you want to tell me or not?’

            ‘I’ve been spending a lot of time with Chris Evans,’ she said with a sigh.

            ‘Evans, huh?’ He said, raising an eyebrow then nodding slowly. ‘I can see that.’

            ‘Well, apparently he can’t. At least not until we’ve wrapped and probably launched the Blu-Ray.’

            Finn laughed, almost spilling his tea. ‘Maybe he’s more like Steve Rogers than we’ve been led to believe.’

            She pulled a face. ‘I like him. I really like him, but he’s driving me crazy. He’s so sweet and kind and funny. But also seriously sexy. It’s like a punch in the gut every time I look at him. When his eyes catch mine it’s like I forget how to breathe.’

            ‘I can tell,’ he said with a smile. ‘I think this is the first time I’ve seen you doe-eyed about a guy, and certainly the first time since Andrew.’

            Jess flinched at the memory. ‘The worst part is that people still think he’s such a good guy,’ she said quietly.

            ‘Have you told him about Andrew?’

            ‘No. I know I should, but…’

            ‘I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to upset you.’

            She shrugged. ‘It’s been four years. One day I’ll be able to hear his name without wanting to smash windows. How about you?’

            ‘Oh, I want to smash windows all the time,’ he nodded vigorously.

            She laughed, nudging his leg with her foot. ‘I meant your love life, you doofus.’

            ‘Too busy,’ he said grimly. ‘There is someone but we work together and I don’t want things to be awkward…Oh my God, am I Chris Evans?’

            He deflected her foot as she aimed for his ribs, laughing hard. He got up, heading for the huge sliding doors that opened up onto his terrace. ‘Come then, show me what you’ve learned.’

            ‘Now?’ She put her mug down and followed him.

            ‘No time like the present,’ he shook his arms out, limbering up.

            Jess took off her socks and did a few quick stretches. Then she faced him, about five or six feet away. ‘So, the Immortal Iron Fist, protector of K'un Lun, sworn enemy -’

            ‘Hey! I don’t write the script.’

            She dissolved into giggles as he scowled. ‘Maybe you should. Anyway, let’s do this.’

            They sparred for a while, slowly at first, testing each other’s knowledge of the set pieces they’d been taught, then a little faster. It was fun, nothing more, and they frequently had to stop because they were laughing so hard.

            When they were done, Finn grabbed a couple of bottles of water and they sank down onto the patio chairs, both breathing heavily. ‘Who would have thought, all those years ago in sitting in Chiswick McDonald’s after drama class, that we would both end up part of the biggest franchise of all time?’

            ‘Certainly not me,’ she admitted. ‘I was all set to do a master’s degree and start practising law.’

            Finn shook his head. ‘You’re an actor, Jess. Look how well you did back home. If you had stayed another year, maybe two, you’d have been picked up for films regardless.’

            She shrugged in a self-deprecating manner. ‘Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I think it’s not for me. I’m really nervous about this movie.’

            ‘Why?’

            ‘There’s such an established fanbase. My character is barely canon and I’m really worried about how she’ll be received, especially when people realise exactly what her role is. I’m scared they’ll hate her and, by definition, me.’

            ‘Feige knows what he’s doing. He wouldn’t let them shoehorn a character in if it wasn’t going to work out.’

            She pressed her palms together in her lap, biting her lip. ‘I’m scared I’m going to be the only one whose solo movie flops.’

            Finn gave her a sympathetic look. ‘I know the fans can be scary, probably better than anyone. But you’ve got Feige and the Russo brothers on your side. They won’t let you fail.’

            ‘I really hope you’re right. How’s your second season looking?’

            ‘Much better. More time to train and learn and a better understanding of what I need to do. Oh, and Alice Eve is in it. She was in the movie Evans directed.’

            ‘Really?’ She said with interest. ‘What’s she like?’

            ‘She’s nice. Said a lot of good things about your man.’

            ‘Well, she would. He kissed her in that movie. She didn’t have to wait a frickin’ year.’

            Finn laughed, getting to his feet and pulling on her arm. ‘Come on, I want to take you out for dinner.’

 

They had a chilled-out weekend together, catching up over the last year or so since they’d seen each other. But Chris was always on her mind. He took up so much room in her life, she realised. Finn suggested that they meditate together to try to clear her thoughts. Jess tried desperately to put him in a corner of her mind and keep him there, but he refused to go.

            On Sunday night, Finn got her stoned. They laid on the floor of his living room, smoking pot and watching trashy movies on Netflix. When she went to bed she had such vivid dreams about Chris doing deeply filthy things to her that she awoke with a soft moan, catching her breath as her orgasm rippled over her. She turned her hot face into the pillow, tears pricking at her eyes. Right at that moment, she hated him.

            She slept fitfully, her alarm waking her the next morning. She showered, dressing in jeans and a t-shirt before packing everything away into her case. When she emerged from the bedroom she found Finn already up, making toast and reading something on his iPad.

            ‘Hey,’ he smiled when he saw her. ‘Have you got time for breakfast?’

            ‘Sadly not. I’ll pick something up at the airport.’

            ‘I’ll walk you downstairs.’ He grabbed a hoodie from the back of a chair and pulled it on.

            Jess gathered up her coat and bag, checking around to make sure she had everything.

            ‘What are you going to do about Evans?’ Finn asked, wheeling her suitcase to the door.

            ‘I don’t know,’ she said with a heavy sigh.

            ‘Make the first move. You’re a strong, independent, twenty-first-century woman. Don’t wait for him.’

            She paused from shrugging her coat on. ‘But what if I’ve read the signs wrong?’

            ‘I doubt very much that you have, but if that’s the case then you just apologise and move on.’

            She chewed her lip for a minute. ‘Then I’m going to need some Dutch courage. Can you hook me up with someone in LA?’

            ‘Sure, I probably know someone who knows someone. I’ll make a call or two and text you the details.’

            He took her down to the street and hailed a cab, heaving her case into the trunk for her.

            ‘Thank you. For everything. I’ve had such a great weekend.’ She hugged him and planted a kiss on his cheek.

            ‘Me too. Let’s do it again soon. Look after yourself.’ He gave her a squeeze.

            She climbed into the back of the car and waved as they pulled into the New York traffic. Could she really make the first move? She was a traditional kind of girl and she always waited for men to make the first move. It gave her a lot of anxiety even thinking about doing it. So many what ifs. But even if that was the case, at this point she just wanted to be put out of her misery.

Chapter Text

‘I agree with Finn,’ Jake said, putting a plate of steamed fish and vegetables in front of Jess. She looked at it like it had done her wrong whilst eyeing his pancakes jealously.

            She’d been back in LA for a few days but this was the first chance she’d had to catch up with him. They were eating breakfast in the kitchen and he’d consulted her diet sheet and cooked accordingly. She wasn’t impressed.

            ‘Of course you agree with Finn,’ Jess said, picking up her fork. ‘You fancy him.’

            Jake cleared his throat, ‘I do not!’

            ‘You carried a picture of him in your wallet for three months after you met him.’

            ‘Don’t change the subject!’

            She rolled her eyes, poking a stem of broccoli. ‘I think I agree with Finn, too, deep down, but I am so scared.’

            ‘It’s a kiss, not a horror film. Surely he knows you’re interested? Maybe all he needs is a little reassurance and then it’ll be all systems go.’

            She snorted, ‘Chance would be a fine thing.’

            ‘Get dolled up, go over there and kiss him.’

            Jess dropped her fork and pushed her plate away, anxiety robbing her of her appetite. She pictured herself doing just that and Chris pushing her away or laughing at her presumption. Nausea rose within her.

            The doorbell rang and Jess looked up in panic. ‘Relax, I invited Daisy over. I forgot to mention it.’

            Daisy was a friend they’d made at a bar one night when they found her crying in the parking lot. She’d been upset because her dick boyfriend had left without her after an argument and had no way to get home, so they had driven her back to her Venice Beach condo. The three of them had been firm friends ever since. Jake often joked that she was like a negative image of Jess, with straight blonde hair and huge blue eyes, although Daisy was slimmer and a little shy of Jess’s five foot ten inches.

            ‘Hey hey hey!’ Daisy came in with a huge box that probably contained cake. She could eat anything and stayed a willowy size 2. Jess hated her for that.

            ‘Hey Daze, how are you doing?’ Jess got up to hug her and to put her leftover food in the fridge.

            ‘Good, thanks. You look incredible!’

            ‘She should,’ Jake said. ‘She trains for like 48 hours a day.’

            Jess laughed. It was true that her body shape had changed. Her arms had definition and her waist had shrunk considerably. Even though she was still an hourglass, everything was toned and tight. Her trainer had said that the hardest part was getting into shape, keeping it up would be easier.

            Daisy was the only other person Jess had trusted to meet Chris. To her eternal credit, she hadn’t batted those big baby blues at him and had been pretty cool with him. Afterwards, she had told Jess that she was surprised how laidback he was because she had heard that he was notoriously handsy and there had been a big thing about his flirting with a journalist a while back. It hadn’t done much to aid Jess’s confidence.

            ‘Any Evans news?’

            ‘Not really,’ Jess said, sitting back at the table. ‘I haven’t seen him since I got back from New York.’

            ‘Jess is going to seduce him.’

            Daisy looked at Jess in shock. ‘Really?’

            ‘No! Finn said I should and of course Jake agrees with him.’

            ‘Of course. He fancies him.’

            ‘Oh my God! I do not!’

            ‘I think he doth protest too much,’ Jess whispered conspiratorially.

            ‘Do it, Jess,’ Daisy said, and Jess sighed heavily. ‘It’s pretty obvious that he’s only got eyes for you. He’s been lowkey dating you for months now.’

            ‘What?’ Her mouth fell open and she shook her head vigorously. ‘No.’

            ‘Oh, come on. All those dinners so you can meet the rest of the cast. That’s just an excuse so he can spend time with you and show you off without it looking like a date to onlookers. Those long walks up in the mountains with his doggo. All the time you spend laying on a sun lounger by his pool looking like you do, talking for hours. He’s dating you.’

            ‘Oh my God,’ Jake breathed, as if it all suddenly made sense.

            ‘He’s not dating me. He’s not!’ She said adamantly when they both continued to look smug. At that moment her phone rang. She glanced at the display and looked over at Daisy and Jake before answering. ‘Hey!...I’m good, thanks, you?... Yeah…Oh, really?...No, I’d like that…Okay…Okay…Okay, I’ll see you then…Take care.’

            She hung up, putting her phone on the table and staring at it for a moment before looking up. ‘He wants to take me to Boston tomorrow for a couple of days.’ She paused and pinched the bridge of her nose, ‘To hang out with his family.’

            Daisy and Jake whooped and shared a triumphant high-five.

            ‘Help me, Daisy.’ Jess implored. ‘Please.’

            ‘What’s up, honey?’

            ‘Help me choose outfits.’

            ‘I thought you’d never ask.’

            They went up to Jess’s room and pulled open her wardrobe. Daisy checked the weather for Boston on her phone. ‘Ew, that’s cold! Okay, I’m guessing that you don’t want to make it look like you’ve made too much of an effort.’

            ‘You know me so well,’ Jess replied with a sardonic lift of her eyebrow.

            ‘Take your jeans, the 7 For All Mankind ones. Layer up, so you can take off a jacket or a jumper when you’re indoors. Take your cashmere sweaters and those super soft t-shirts. Wear tactile fabrics that he’s gonna want to touch. Take a hoodie and sneakers for casual and those knee-high boots and your long grey coat for smart.’ While she spoke, she was pulling clothes off of hangers and out of drawers, piling them on the bed. ‘Do you want to take a dress for dinners or…?’

            ‘Er…no. I thought these trousers and this shirt with my ballet pumps.’

            She looked as if Jess were a child that had just taken its first steps. ‘There is nothing left for me to teach you.’ Daisy looked at her, her eyes narrow. ‘Has he seen you with your hair down yet?’

            ‘Not yet.’

            ‘Then definitely wear it down. And you’re going to need these,’ she said, opening the drawer where Jess kept her expensive underwear.

            ‘I doubt it. I’m surprised moths didn’t fly out when you opened the drawer.’

            ‘Take some. And wear it.’ Daisy said firmly. ‘If nothing else it will make you feel more confident.’

            Jess doubted that, too, but didn’t say anything. ‘Thanks, Daze. I’m gonna have to get Marvel to hire you so you can come with me to Atlanta.’

            ‘Honey, if I didn’t have to work I’d come with you for free. When do you leave?’

            ‘Pre-production starts for me in two weeks and filming another two or three weeks after that.’

            Daisy stuck out her lip. ‘I’m going to miss you.’

            ‘I’ll miss you, too.’ Jess hugged her.

            ‘Bring me back a Jeremy Renner.’

            Jess pulled back to look at her friend’s face. ‘Renner, really?’

            ‘Yeah…’ Her eyes went all dreamy. ‘He looks as if he knows his way around a woman’s body.’

            ‘And now I won’t be able to look him in the eye.’

           

Jake took Daisy out for dinner and Jess stayed behind to wash her hair and finish packing. She had been thinking about what Daisy had said about Chris dating her. Could that really be what he was doing? While she treated her hair, she sat on the edge of her bed and thought about all of the time they had spent together. It was true that he always arranged for them to go out with other people, but she had assumed that was because he wanted her to meet the rest of the cast so she wouldn’t feel like the new kid once filming started.

            At the back of her mind, a voice told her that maybe he didn’t want her. Maybe he was just an ultra-nice guy who just wanted to be friends, and she was reading too much into everything. Perhaps she’d misconstrued those long looks and the sparks that sometimes seemed to fly between them. Maybe it was all in her head, that she was projecting her feelings onto him and seeing things that weren’t there.

            She sighed heavily, looking at her suitcase standing by the door. Should she go to Boston with him? Suddenly she wished she’d gone out with Daisy and Jake. All she’d accomplished tonight was to fill herself with doubt. She didn’t want to be alone with her head right now, it was her own worst enemy.

Chapter Text

Jess had never realised how tense Chris was until they got to Boston. Almost as soon as they entered Massachusetts airspace, he was a million times more relaxed. He pointed out landmarks as they approached Logan airport. He knew she hadn’t been to Boston before and was determined to show her all its best bits. There was a car waiting for them at the airport that drove them the hour or so to his place in the suburbs.

            ‘We’ll drive over to my mom’s later,’ he told her once he had given her the tour of his Boston bolthole. ‘Tomorrow I’ll take you to Boston and we’ll walk the Freedom Trail and maybe go to Fenway.’

            ‘Aren’t you worried about being recognised?’

            He shrugged, ‘I rarely get recognised here. People aren’t expecting to see me, I guess.’

            ‘This is where you want to live, isn’t it?’

            He nodded. ‘I’ve thought about maybe when I’m done filming Avengers I’d finish up in LA and come back here.’

            That pierced her heart like a dagger. She felt winded. She couldn’t imagine being in LA without him now. She had to turn away from him so he couldn’t see the look on her face. ‘Um…can I make some tea?’

            ‘Sure!’ He led her through to the kitchen, where he filled a kettle and set it on the stove for her.

            Jess dug around in her handbag until she found a small container of teabags from England. She carried them everywhere and Chris teased her mercilessly. ‘Do you want a cup?’

            ‘Yeah. It’s growing on me.’

            ‘See, I told you it tastes different!’ He had insisted that tea was tea and didn’t understand why she insisted that British tea was not only different but better.

            Someone had obviously been to the house and dropped off supplies because he pulled a bottle of milk from the fridge and handed her a canister filled with sugar. He stood very close behind her and her back tingled, her spine seeming to draw itself towards him. He put a hand on her waist as he reached across to take down two cups, then moved her a few inches to the side to get to the cutlery drawer. From the way her body was reacting to him, she would have thought his hands were somewhere else altogether. Flustered, she made the tea and walked to the back door to put some space between them.

            The garden was vast and she could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the summer when the trees would have all their leaves and the flowers had bloomed. She thought it was a shame that he hadn’t brought Dodger. He must love it here. ‘Why didn’t you bring Dodger?’

            ‘I didn’t want to unsettle him just for a couple of days up here. We’ll bring him next time.’

            She nodded and sipped her tea. It took her a minute to process what he had just said and by the time she realised, he had taken out his phone and was making a call. Confusion bubbled within her.

            He called his mum and told her they’d arrived safely and would be over in a couple of hours. When he hung up he turned to her, ‘Do you want to freshen up?’

            ‘Yes, please.’

            She followed him upstairs as he carried her bags to the guest room. ‘I put you in here because the ensuite has a bath and I know how much you love to soak in the tub for hours while I wait to take you out to dinner.’ She laughed. ‘I’ll be right next door if you need anything.’

            Jess thanked him and watched him leave, then sank down on the bed. She had convinced herself that this trip was just another hangout but it was becoming increasingly obvious, even to her, that Chris had an agenda. The only thing she could do was let it play out. She sent texts to Jake and Daisy then set about taking her hair down and refreshing her curls so she could wear it loose. Then she changed out of the sweats she’d worn for the flight into her jeans and white t-shirt, adding a dark grey cashmere jumper.

            She had just finished touching up her makeup when there was a soft tap on the door. ‘Come in,’ she called, putting her brushes away and tucking everything back in her makeup bag.

            Chris put his head around the door, opened his mouth to say something and then stopped. He stepped into the room, looking at her in astonishment. ‘Wow. Your hair, Jess! Why do you wear it up all the time when it looks so amazing down?’

            Jess smiled, giving Daisy a brownie point. ‘It takes a long time to get it looking like this. Most days it’s easier to just braid it or tie it up. Plus, the humidity in LA makes it poof out.’

             ‘I love it,’ he said, an odd edge to his voice. ‘Uh, I came to see if you were ready.’

            ‘I am,’ she replied, then realised she had an edge to her voice, too.

            He drove them the twenty minutes to his mum’s house and Jess’s anxiety rose with every minute that ticked by. She pressed her hands together in her lap but Chris grabbed her left hand, raising it to his lips. She looked at him in shock as his beard tickled her palm. The feel of his lips on her skin rocked her in her seat.

            ‘You always push your hands together when you’re anxious. There’s no need, they’re going to love you.’

            ‘Chris…’ She could barely speak. Why am I here? She wanted to yell at him. What the fuck do you want from me? She was so angry with herself for being struck dumb by him. Any other guy would have got the sharp edge of her tongue by now. She didn’t understand why she allowed Chris’s wave to pick her up and carry her off.

 

His family were amazing, which she had known they would be from her encounters with Scott in LA, and made her feel so welcome. Not once was she made to feel as if she were auditioning for the role of Chris’s girlfriend. She helped his mum, Lisa, in the kitchen while Chris and his sisters caught up, surrounded by their children whom he obviously doted on and all of whom hero-worshipped him. Jess wondered if part of the reason he had brought her here to show her what it was like to have a family. She watched the dynamics between him and his siblings and his mum carefully, marvelling at the complexities of their relationships. She’d never had anything like it.

            ‘Are you okay?’ He asked her quietly as they were getting ready to sit down and eat. His mum had made a lasagne and there was a huge bowl of tossed salad and a platter of Texas toast.

            Jess nodded, smiling up at him. ‘Yeah, I’m having a great time.’

            ‘I know it’s a little crazy -’

            ‘It’s fine,’ she reassured him.

            They sat down, both Chris and Jess regretfully piling their plates with salad and only having a small piece of the lasagne, which was delicious. Jess wanted to scoop the whole lot onto her plate and eat until she fell into a carb coma. The atmosphere was warm and chaotic. Jess helped one of his nephews cut up his lasagne into bite-sized pieces. One of his nieces took a shine to her hair and sat on her lap playing with the curls, winding them around her little fingers and stretching them out to watch them bounce back again.

            Chris was making one beer last the whole evening because he had to drive them back to his place later, but Jess had a few glasses of wine and felt content and mellow. His sisters cleared the table and then started to pack up the children ready to go to their own homes. He helped secure children into car seats while Jess stood at the door and watched. She could tell from the complex ballet playing out in front of her that this happened all the time. Chris was a homebody and he obviously loved his family above all else.

            When it came time for them to leave, Lisa wrapped her in a huge hug and told her how lovely it had been to meet her and Jess assured her that the feeling was mutual. Chris promised that they would be round for dinner on Sunday, then they walked out into the cold night air and climbed into the car.

            Chris started the engine but didn’t pull out. ‘Jess?’

            ‘Yeah?’

            ‘Can I take you somewhere? Or are you tired?’

            She smiled at his concern. ‘I’m not tired. Where are we going?’

            ‘I’m not telling you that,’ he smiled, pulling out onto the road.

            The only thing she was sure of was that they were driving into Boston. The city lights sprawled out ahead of them and Jess thought how different it looked to LA. Chris seemed to know exactly where he was going and soon they were coming to a halt in a very unassuming parking lot.

            They walked down to the Esplanade, lit only the lights of the city on either side of the Charles River, reflecting in the dark waters. Neither of them spoke, even as Chris reached out a hand for Jess. She took a quick breath, hesitating, then put her hand in his, a smile stretching across her face. They walked along slowly for a while until he pulled her to a stop.

            ‘I planned to bring you here tomorrow night, but today was so beautiful that I changed my mind. I loved seeing you with my family.’

            ‘Why? I honestly don’t understand why you brought me to Boston. I don’t understand a lot of things you’ve done, if I’m honest.’

            He sighed, looking down at his feet for a moment, then back up into her eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Jess. I know you’re confused about what’s going on with us…’ His voice trailed off and he cleared his throat. ‘You are unique in my life. I’ve never known anyone quite like you. I have been trying desperately not to screw that up.’

            ‘Go on,’ she said cautiously, but little fireworks were going off inside her chest.

            ‘You know, you meet a girl, you jump into bed and then you figure out what’s going to happen afterwards, but… I admit the majority of the reason I’ve held back for so long is the movie. I didn’t want something to happen, or not happen, or stop happening, and we wind up stuck in Atlanta for three months, hating every minute, making it awkward for everyone and losing our chemistry. But I gotta admit, knowing you flew to New York to spend time with Jones, well… I knew I had to do something. The other reason that I’ve held back is that I wanted to do things properly with you. I didn’t want to jump into bed with you and figure it out afterwards. I wanted to get to know you and for you to know me and to see if we had something. In the past few weeks, I’ve come to hate the time I spend not being with you.’

            Jess’s heart was thudding so painfully and loudly in her chest she was sure she’d end up in the ER. ‘Why didn’t you share even a tiny bit of this with me?’

            He shrugged helplessly, ‘I honestly don’t know. Maybe I was thinking of the movie, maybe I wasn’t thinking at all. I almost flew out here last weekend. I thought about calling you and saying ‘Hey, I’m here, let’s have dinner’ but I realised it was an unnecessary gesture.’

            ‘How so?’

            ‘Because you would have been furious that I flew for six hours and drove another four to take you away from Finn and still not kiss you at the end of the night.’

            ‘How do you know you wouldn’t have kissed me?’

            ‘Because I’ve always wanted to kiss you here for the first time. Right here.’

            Jess looked up into his eyes, finally understanding. This went a lot deeper than just a physical attraction and bringing her here, to the city he loved more than any other, was more than a token gesture. She looked into his sweet, kind, open face. There wasn’t anything else to say.

            Finally, he put a hand on her waist and pulled her close, her hair tangling in his beard like Velcro, but neither of them cared. She could feel the warmth of his body even through her coat. He took her face in his hands and dipped his head to kiss her mouth. He was an exquisite kisser, she thought happily, and his beard was much softer than she’d imagined. She put a hand to his face and stroked his cheek. He smelled of the leathery, woody cologne he sometimes wore and he tasted vaguely of lemons. The kiss was so sweet it made her ache to the tips of her fingers. He gathered her up in his arms, pulling her closer still and the kiss wasn’t so sweet, it was more urgent and spoke of need and want.

             They broke apart, breathless and cheeks flushed, grinning at each other. He slid his arms into her coat and around her waist, holding her tightly, tipping his forehead to rest against hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck wanting to stay like this forever, in their own little bubble where nobody knew who they were.  

‘Let’s go home,’ Jess murmured after a few minutes, knowing that any further affection would not be suitable for public display.

‘Sure,’ he smiled and kissed her forehead, then slung an arm around her shoulders and they turned to walk back to the car.

Chapter Text

‘Wait,’ Jess breathed, jumping away as Chris started to unbutton her jeans.

            They were standing in his bedroom, a trail of clothes leading up from the front door. It had taken them a while to get this far, stopping every time a piece of clothing fell to the floor to explore the new skin that had been revealed.

            ‘Huh?’ His eyes were clouded with lust and he took a moment to come back to her. ‘Babe, I’m sorry. What did I do?’

            Her heart melted a little that he apologised without knowing what, if anything, he’d done. ‘Nothing. I…uh…there’s something I have to show you.’ She began to unbutton her jeans.

            ‘Oh my God, please don’t let it be a penis.’

            She thumped him on the shoulder as he creased into laughter, hands over his chest as he always did when he found something very funny. ‘Ow!’ He protested between snorts of laughter, rubbing where she’d hit him. ‘You are stronger than you look.’

            ‘Chris, it’s not funny!’

            ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ He said, holding his hands out in a placating gesture.

            She looked at him, took a deep breath then kicked off her jeans, turning around and pulling down her underwear a little, showing him the thin silver scars crisscrossing her ass cheeks.

            ‘Jesus, Jess. What happened?’ The amusement was gone from his voice, replaced with concern.

            ‘My ex. Look, I realise both of us are almost naked and,’ she cast a glance at the tell-tale bulge in his pants as she swallowed hard, ‘ready and that I’m clearly ruining our moment, but I really do need to talk to you about it.’

            ‘Sure, okay,’ he said easily.

            She was standing in front of him in just her knickers and he grabbed a t-shirt from the back of the chair and put it on her, in a gesture that made her want to cry. He sat on the edge of the bed, pulled her down beside him, and waited while she scooted back a little to sit cross-legged, her hands in her lap, palms pressed together as she battled with the words to say to him.

            ‘Hey,’ he said quietly, picking up her hand and kissing her palm again. ‘It’s okay, I’m here.’

            She smiled, moving her hand to ruffle his beard. ‘This isn’t easy for me to talk about. It happened a while ago, about four years now. I was with this guy. Andrew. He started out as a nice enough guy. We shared the same…sexual tastes. I like it rough, he liked to be rough. He was dominant and I am submissive. At first, it was okay. We weren’t totally compatible but he listened when I told him I didn’t want to do something. Then he stopped listening. He’d tie me up in painful positions and gag me, so I had no safe word or way out. A lot of the time he was overpowering me and I fought him, I really tried…’ Her voice cracked as her eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t look at Chris, his face was a carefully controlled mask but the tension was there in his arms and his clenched fists. Pushing the tears down, she continued. ‘But the more I fought him, the harder he punched, and I couldn’t afford for him to mark my face. Anyway, one day he brought out a whip. He had no idea what he was doing or how to use it, and I knew that he was trying to scar me. He used to talk about branding me or tattooing me with his initials. He wanted to leave his mark.’

            He got to his feet suddenly, making her jump. He was breathing heavily. ‘Jess…I just need a minute.’

            She watched helplessly as he left the room and found she couldn’t keep the tears back another moment. He wasn’t the first man to not be able to handle it. Andrew had meant to spoil her for other men and he had succeeded. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rested her forehead against her knees, the tears splashing from her eyes and rolling down her thighs. She had tried not to think about how Chris would react but she wasn’t at all surprised. Sobs shook her shoulders as the tears flowed uncontrollably. All she could do was cry it out.

            ‘No, no, no,’ Chris sounded appalled and he was beside her, pulling her into his lap before she could even look up. ‘Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.’

            He held her tight and waited for her to cry it out. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. Finally, the tears subsided and she took a few deep, shuddering breaths, clinging to him for as long as she could. He took her face in his hands and wiped her tears away with his thumbs, the concern in his eyes almost making her cry again.

            ‘I’m sorry. I -’ She frowned, ‘Why have you got a feather in your hair?’

            He looked abashed, ‘I punched a pillow.’

            A laugh escaped her throat and she reached up to take it out. ‘Why?’

            ‘Because I was angry, Jess. Jesus fucking Christ, you can’t expect me to sit here and listen to that and then shrug and say it’s okay.’

            ‘I thought you were freaked out,’ she admitted.

            ‘I’m not. At least not like that.’

            ‘Do you want to hear the rest? The worst part is pretty much over.’

            Chris nodded but she felt his chest rise and fall in a sigh.

            ‘It turned out that for a couple of weeks prior to that, he’d been telling everyone that he’d dumped me and I was trying to get him back by threatening to ruin his reputation. So, when I told people what he’d done, they didn’t believe me. I wasn’t about to show everyone my ass so I let him get away with it. When I was still living in London he kept threatening to go to the papers with some story unless I got back with him, but I ignored him and eventually he fucked off. I spent almost every penny I had on laser surgery to help the scars fade and now there’s nothing else to be done. I’m stuck with them unless I want a skin graft which would still leave scars, just different ones. And I worry that he’ll turn up again, especially now everything’s about to kick off for me.’

            He shook his head, pushing a strand of curls off of her face.

            ‘I’m sorry I ruined our night.’

            ‘You haven’t ruined anything.’ He planted a soft kiss on her mouth. ‘You stay here, I’ll make you some tea and then we’ll just chill a while. Okay?’

            She nodded, sliding off of his lap. When he’d left the room, she bolted into his bathroom to freshen up but one look in the mirror told her she needed to use her own bathroom. Once there, she blew her nose and splashed her face with cold water. She ran wet hands through her hair to smooth it down, then tied it up. The curls were past saving. After she took off the little makeup she still had on she splashed her face again. Her body felt confused, still clinging to the arousal she had felt when they were making out but also hollow from crying.

            By the time Chris came back with two mugs of tea, her handbag swinging jauntily from one arm, she was back on his bed. ‘I brought your bag, I didn’t know if you might want your phone or something.’

            ‘Thank you,’ she smiled, ‘but you should keep it, it really suits you.’

            ‘You’re funny.’ He handed her a mug. ‘I hope it’s okay. I’ve never felt so much pressure when making tea before.’

            She took a sip and was surprised, ‘It’s perfect, well done you.’

            ‘I’ve been watching how you make it. I think it’s all the wrist action,’ he said, miming stirring.

            ‘Confidence is also important. If you’re anxious about it then the tea just tastes like fear.’

            He laughed, holding out his arm for her to cuddle up to him. ‘I’m so happy you agreed to come this weekend.’

            She looked at him out the corner of her eye, her tone doubtful. ‘Really?’

            ‘Stop beating yourself up. I can tell that’s what you’re doing.’

            ‘We were having so much fun.’

            ‘It’s not a one-time offer that you passed up. What you had to say was important. Yes, we both got upset but I’m still having fun just being with you like this.’

            Jess didn’t say anything, just sipped her tea and drew quiet comfort from the warmth of his body and the weight of his arm around her shoulders.

            After a while, Chris took her mug from her hands and set it on the nightstand beside his own. ‘Tell me,’ he said, settling back against the pillows, ‘why you came to America.’

            ‘Why?’

            ‘Because I’m interested, and because I love your voice and your accent and your frankness and honesty.’

            She grinned. ‘It’s not an interesting story. I wanted to make films, not TV, no matter how good the shows were. I was getting nominated for awards and I thought, stupidly and I guess somewhat arrogantly, that Hollywood would roll out the red carpet for me. Turns out hardly anyone there watches British TV or cares who gets nominated. It’s all about winning. So, nobody had a clue who I was, which was sort of nice but it meant that there was no work.’

            ‘You did secretarial work?’

            She nodded, ‘Yeah. I mean, I’m almost a qualified lawyer but it would have been so much hassle to take bar exams and find an internship whilst still auditioning, it just seemed easier to take temp work. I was getting turned away from most jobs because I’m overqualified.’

            ‘So wait, what did you do when you left school? You studied law first?’

            ‘Yes, I did my law degree at 18 and graduated at 21. After that, I went to drama school for two years while doing a vocational law course. Then I started getting a lot of acting work and my studying fell by the wayside.’

            ‘Why did you do law if you wanted to act so badly?

            Jess took a breath, turning her head to look at him. ‘My mum struggled to put food on the table but when I turned 18 I found out she’d been putting almost every penny in a savings account so that I could go to university and have a better life than she had. I had to do it. I wanted to act with my whole heart, but I had to have something waiting in the wings.’

            ‘I’m happy you chose acting.’ He rolled over so that they were facing each other and gently stroked her cheek. ‘Sometimes I wish I had something to fall back on. My entire life has led up to being an actor and if it all ended tomorrow I don’t know what I’d do. I wish I did.’

            ‘Do you want out of the industry?’

            He laughed ruefully, ‘That depends on my mood when you ask me. Sometimes yes. Sometimes I hate it and despise it and wish I’d never started it. Other times no. Other times I love it and it’s all I ever want to do.’

            ‘What’s next?’

            ‘I don’t know,’ he sighed. ‘I’ve got a few scripts I’m looking at, either for acting or directing. But I haven’t made any firm plans. I want to get Avengers out of the way first.’

            ‘I know you can’t wait to be free from your Marvel contract.’

            ‘I’m not sure if I’d put it quite like that…’

            ‘You feel gagged.’

            ‘I…’ She could tell he didn’t have an argument. ‘How do you know that?’

            ‘I spent an entire day watching YouTube videos of your junket interviews. You’ve got a quick wit but most of the time it’s completely inappropriate wit. You’re constantly second-guessing your responses and censoring yourself. Sometimes when you’re tired, you tell the truth. And you’re tired all the time. Not sleepy tired but tired of being asked the same questions over and over and over again. Tired of ‘edgy’ interviewers who make you play stupid games or act in a way which makes you feel uncomfortable. You feel much better when you’re in an interview with someone else so that they can take some of the pressure off.’

            He blinked at her. ‘I take it back. You should totally be a lawyer.’

            ‘I don’t need a law degree to read you, Chris.’

            He didn’t say anything for a long time, he just looked at her, his expression impenetrable. ‘Which do you prefer, London or LA?’

            The change of subject made her wonder if she’d upset him with her analysis of him, even though he said he liked her candour. She gave the question some thought. ‘That is a tough one. The weather’s better in LA, albeit very monotonous. Tea tastes better at home, obviously. And before I came to America cock and roach had two completely different meanings.’

            He laughed, rolling on his back and clutching his chest. She giggled, more at his reaction than anything she’d said. But if there had been any tension, it had dissipated. He rolled over and kissed her as his hand slid beneath the t-shirt she still wore, resting on her back, pressing her closer to him, his touch laying fires across her skin.

            Jess was constantly surprised at her body’s reaction to him. He laid hot, open-mouthed kisses down her neck and she couldn’t contain the soft moan that escaped her throat, her insides molten. They traded kisses, constantly shifting to share as much skin as possible. He caressed her face and kissed the smattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. Her fingers traced over the contours of his bare chest, across his shoulders and down his back.

                This wasn’t the wall-slamming, fabric-ripping romp they had been on course for earlier. It was much slower, gentler and, ultimately, more fulfilling. Jess had trouble remembering a time when she had felt so close to anyone. It wasn’t earth-shattering or headboard-banging. When she came, her orgasm felt like falling into warm water. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t urgent. It was just him and her.

Chapter Text

 

Jess padded into the kitchen, her bare feet allowing her to remain undetected. She had woken up the smell of frying bacon. For a moment she hadn’t known where she was but it had all come flooding back to her and she hadn’t been able to wipe the grin from her face. Chris was standing at the stove wearing only a pair of sweats, making French toast. She snuck up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. ‘Good morning.’

            He smiled, turning to face her. ‘Good afternoon,’ he corrected, pulling her into a kiss.

            ‘What time is it?’

            ‘Coming up to one.’

            ‘Wow. I don’t remember the last time I slept that long.’

            ‘That’s why I left you there. Breakfast, brunch, whatever, is almost ready. Take a seat.’

            She obeyed, sitting on a stool on the other side of the kitchen island and watching him flip the bread in the pan. ‘How are you feeling?’ She asked tentatively, hating herself for needing to be reassured.

            ‘Awesome,’ he flashed her a grin and she relaxed. ‘How about you?’

            She nodded, ‘Awesome just about covers it.’

            He put a plate of French toast, bacon and kielbasa in front of her. ‘Yum! Carbs and processed meats!’

            ‘I figured we burned off a lot of calories last night. Hundreds. Thousands, even. We need to replenish our reserves.’

            She laughed and picked up her fork. ‘Your logic is irrefutable.’

            He put a glass of juice in front of her and then sat beside her with his plate. ‘Did you sleep okay? You went out like a light.’

            ‘I didn’t even rouse until a few minutes ago. Which is pretty much unheard of in the past few weeks.’

            ‘It was tension.’

            ‘Mmm,’ she agreed, raising an eyebrow, ‘and not all of it muscular. At least, not my muscles.’

            ‘Are you blaming me?’

            She swallowed her mouthful, ‘Only for being so hot that you’ve been keeping me awake at night.’

            ‘Don’t objectify me,’ he said, flexing his pecs and making her giggle.

            They ate in silence for a little while before Chris said, ‘Look, Jess, about last night…’

            She stiffened, slowly putting her fork down. ‘What about it?’

            ‘I don’t think I made myself clear enough about your scars. That I don’t care. I know you look at them and think of him but I look at them and see how strong and brave and beautiful you are.’

            Jess bit her lip. ‘You’ll make me cry again.’

            ‘I just want you to understand.’ His hands reached for her face and he studied her eyes. ‘You don’t need to worry. Okay?’

            His expression told her that he was deadly serious. ‘Okay.’

            ‘Okay.’ He kissed her once on the mouth and then turned back to his breakfast.

            She looked at him out of the corner of her eye as she sipped her orange juice. This weekend had been one revelation after another and she felt lighter and freer than she had in a long, long time. ‘So, you still want to take me sightseeing today?’

            ‘Nope,’ he grinned wickedly. ‘I’ve got other plans.’

 

As Chris’s plans didn’t involve them leaving the house, the next time they emerged was almost twenty-four hours later to go his mum’s for dinner. Lisa refused Jess’s help in the kitchen, telling her to go and relax. She wandered back to the den to find Chris already sprawled on the sofa, half asleep.

            ‘Okay?’

            ‘Yeah. Your mum won’t let me help.’

            ‘Come.’ He patted his chest and held an arm out for her.

            She settled between his legs and lay back on his chest. His hand idly played with her hair and within minutes she felt herself drifting off. When she woke again, Chris was having a hushed conversation with one of his sisters, although she couldn’t tell who.

            ‘Don’t wake her, she looks so peaceful!’ She thought maybe it was Carly.

            ‘I have to pee,’ Chris said desperately.

            ‘It’s okay,’ she said groggily, ‘I’m awake.’

            ‘Oh good, move real quick, babe,’ Chris said, almost climbing over her and running from the room. Jess laughed, sitting up and swinging her legs off of the sofa.

            ‘You guys slept through dinner,’ Carly told her. ‘But mom saved you a plate.’

            ‘I’m so sorry,’ Jess said, checking her watch. She’d been asleep for about four hours. Chris had finally tired her out.

            ‘It’s cool, don’t worry. Look, while he’s gone, I just want to say, and this is by no means a big sister talk, that he is completely smitten with you. He’s been talking about nothing but you for weeks. All I ask is that you’re always honest with him about how you feel. He can take it.’

            Jess knew that this was a plea rather than a slight on her or even a warning. ‘Absolutely.’

            Carly smiled. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t get to see more of you this weekend. I’m sure you’ll be back soon enough and maybe we can do something, just you and me and Shanna. Chris can babysit.’

            ‘I’d love that!’

            ‘Good. Come into the kitchen when you’re ready to eat.’

            Jess stretched and yawned. She wished she had someone in her life to take Chris aside and tell him how smitten she was with him. It seemed far too soon to say so herself, although after spending so much time with him prior to this weekend, she felt as if they were a lot further along than they actually were.

            Chris came back in and held his hands out to pull her to her feet then gave an extra tug that sent her tripping into his arms. ‘Hey.’

            ‘Hey,’ she smiled up at him.

            ‘I know we have to but I really don’t want to go back tomorrow.’

            ‘I know,’ she said quietly, sliding her arms around his waist and resting her head on his shoulder. She didn’t have much longer until they announced her casting and everything would change. If she and Chris were seen together right now, she was just an anonymous girl, she could be anyone. Once everyone knew she was his co-star they were going to have to tread even more carefully.

            As if reading her mind, Chris said, ‘We’ll talk when we get home. Right now, let’s go eat and enjoy the little time we have left here.’

 

They had to leave at five in the morning to catch their flight back to LA. By the time they got back from Lisa’s, it was almost midnight. Neither of them saw much point in going to bed. They made tea and lay at opposite ends of the couch while ancient episodes of Family Guy played on the TV.

            ‘We need to talk about what happens when we get home,’ he said eventually, naming the elephant in the room.

            Jess sighed and turned to look at him. ‘I don’t know. I want to keep us a secret for as long as possible. I like it being just you and me and not having to worry about what people are saying about us.’

            ‘Yeah,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Part of me doesn’t care who knows but the more circumspect me knows it’s much better to keep it quiet for as long as possible.’

            ‘Which means not being seen together.’

            Chris pulled a face. ‘You can’t expect me not to take you on dates!’

            ‘What kind of logic is that? You want us to be a secret but you want to take me out?’

            ‘We are dating. I am going to find a way to take you on dates, Jess.’

            She laughed, shaking her head at his stubbornness. ‘According to Daisy you’ve been dating me for the past few weeks anyway.’

            ‘I guess I was, kind of. I was manufacturing reasons to spend more time with you.’

            She was surprised to hear him so readily admit it. She resolved to always take Daisy’s relationship advice, the girl was bang on. ‘Anyway, I’ve got two weeks to find somewhere to live and choose an assistant. I’m going to be run off my feet.’

            Chris looked as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t. His eyes caught on hers and she almost had to look away from the intensity of his gaze. ‘Jess…there’s something I want to ask you but…I don’t want to make presumptions or upset you in any way.’

            ‘You’re freaking me out,’ she said, only half-joking. ‘What is it?’

            ‘The other night when we were talking about your scars, you said that you like it rough and you are submissive. You very definitely used the present tense.’

            ‘Did I?’

            He nodded. ‘It was very distinctive.’

            She took a breath, ‘Well, yeah. I guess…’

            ‘You’re blushing.’

            ‘Then stop embarrassing me!’

            He laughed softly, ‘I like it. You don’t have to answer now and if you say no at any point, I will never mention it again, but I’d really like you to submit to me.’

            She squirmed a little, surprised at the thrill of lust that shot down her spine. ‘Really?’

            He nodded slowly. ‘Think about it. I don’t want to do anything you’re not comfortable with and I need you to trust me.’

            Jess looked at him, feeling the heat in her cheeks. There was something in his eyes that either had never been there before or she’d never allowed herself to recognise. ‘Okay,’ she said quietly, ‘I’ll think about it.’

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Jess was hardly able to think of anything else. Once they arrived back in LA, they left the airport separately and she had sat in the back of a cab in traffic, thinking about Chris. When she got home, she didn’t even take her bags upstairs, just went and sat in the quiet of the lounge and continued to think of him and what he’d said.

            It was her own fault for taking him at face value that she was so rocked by him asking for her submission. She had lulled herself into a false sense of security that he was nothing but 100% vanilla. Not that there was anything wrong with that, they were having great sex. Some of the best sex she’d ever had, in fact, and it had only been a weekend. She hadn’t thought for a moment there was anything else to him and that was on her.

            She chewed on her thumbnail, staring into space. She hadn’t trusted anyone since Andrew, preferring to push that side of her down rather than risk a repeat of what he had done to her. He had seemed like a great guy at first but had soon shown his true colours. However, Chris was a million times the man Andrew was and she didn’t think for one minute he would want to hurt her, physically or emotionally.

            Reaching for her phone, she dialled Chris. She had promised to call him when she got home anyway.

            ‘Hey you,’ he said. ‘I thought your cab had got lost.’

            ‘The traffic was really bad.’

            ‘Everything okay?’

            She took a breath, and then another. ‘I need to talk to you.’

            ‘Babe, we’re talking right now. It’s what it’s called when we make noises at each other.’

            ‘You’re not funny,’ she said over his laughter.

            ‘Come over whenever you’re ready. I’ll be home all day. I’m gonna walk Dodger but we’ll be back way before you get through the traffic.’

            She told him she’d be there in a couple of hours and they said their goodbyes. Once she’d hauled her suitcases up to her room and unpacked, she climbed into the shower then dressed in jeans and a hoodie. In the back of her mind, she knew that she should be going through the list of assistants that Marvel had sent her, or speaking to the realtor that Jake had recommended, but Chris had a habit of infiltrating her thoughts and taking over.

            In the back of the car, as it took the steep, winding roads up to the hills, she continued to dwell on what he’d said and his eyes when he’d said it. If she ever doubted he was capable of dominating her, that look had set fire to those doubts and salted the ground. A shiver ran down her spine again. She was almost disappointed with herself that he affected her so deeply, as if she should have stopped it in some way.

            Dodger was the first to greet her, alternately spinning around and jumping up at her. She patted his head and stroked his ears, making ‘who’s a good boy?’ noises.

            ‘You never stroke my ears like that.’

            ‘That’s because you’re not a good boy,’ she smirked.

            Chris wrapped his arms around her, lifting her feet from the floor as they kissed. ‘I missed you.’

            ‘It’s literally been about five hours.’

            ‘Still missed you.’ He put her back on the ground, then took her hand and led her into the house. ‘Are you okay? You’re very tense.’

            ‘I’m nervous.’

            He turned to her, his face a mask of concern. ‘Why?’

            ‘I…’ She licked her lips and swallowed. ‘Let’s just go and sit down.’

            He took her into the lounge and Jess sat rather stiffly on the edge of the sofa. Chris rubbed her back. ‘You’re like an ironing board, babe. What’s up?’

            ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said last night.’

            ‘Oh. Is that good or bad?’

            ‘I’m not sure. I need to talk to you about…well, stuff. I need to know what you’re into and how far you want to go.’

            He sat back, swung his feet up onto the coffee table and rubbed his beard. ‘Well, I don’t want to do anything that you don’t want me to do. I’d like to restrain you. I’d like to control when you come. I want to see how far I can push you. I want to show you that it can be fun and you don’t have to be afraid to give up control.’

            Jess could barely breathe. There was something about his voice that was driving her crazy. A dull pulse beat between her legs. She shifted in her seat.

            Chris reached out a hand and stroked her hair. ‘We’ll start out real slow until you feel that you can trust me. I don’t want to hurt you or humiliate you and I certainly don’t want to force you. Unless you want me to.’

            She looked at him. ‘And will this be recreational or like a full-time thing?’

            He smiled. ‘Strictly recreational.’

            She chewed her lip. His words excited her as did the thought of the level intimacy it would create between them, but imagining being tied up made her want to freak out.

            ‘Hey,’ he moved forward, putting his hands on her shoulders. ‘There is no pressure. You don’t have to decide now, you don’t have to ever decide if you don’t want to.’ He rubbed her shoulders and she flinched in pain, ‘Fuck, Jess, you really are tense!’

            ‘I know, I know!’ She wailed, jumping to her feet. ‘I’m just so…’

            ‘Tense?’

            ‘Chris!’

            ‘I’m sorry.’ He got up and went to her, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her against him. ‘Forget about this for now. Come into the bedroom and let me destress you.’

            ‘As long as you don’t distress me.’ She smiled as he kissed her, his arms coiling tightly around her as he lifted her off the floor. She wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. ‘I fucking love how strong you are.’

            ‘I work out,’ he murmured, carrying her to his bedroom and putting her down on the bed. ‘Stay there.’

            He disappeared into the bathroom and reappeared a while later, leaving Jess to stare at the ceiling. He crawled between her legs, propping himself up on his arms either side of her head. He dipped his head to kiss her, his lips lingering on hers. ‘You need to learn to chill out, Jess. All of this anxiety isn’t good for you.’

            ‘To be fair, you did trigger me.’

            ‘I'm sorry,’ he moved down to kiss first one breast then the other through her t-shirt.

            ‘You don’t look sorry,’ she said, raising her head to look at the distinctly not-sorry look in his eyes.

            He kissed her stomach, pushing her t-shirt up then tugging on it so that she sat up enough for him to pull it over her head. He then set about unbuttoning her jeans and tugging them down over her hips and legs. ‘You know, you have phenomenal taste in underwear. What are these?’

            ‘French knickers,’ she grinned, rolling over a little so he could take in the rear view.

            ‘Wow,’ he breathed. ‘It’s almost a shame to take them off, but they’re in my way.’

            Jess laughed as, with one deft tug, her knickers joined the rest of her clothes on the floor. He resumed where he left off, kissing her stomach, his beard tickling her skin and making her writhe. She closed her eyes, knowing what was coming. Sure enough, he parted her thighs and she felt his breath on her lips and then his tongue. She started, unintentionally jerking away from him.

            ‘You have got to relax!’ He admonished, barely pausing from the long, languorous licks he was bestowing on her.

            ‘I’m trying,’ she gasped as his tongue grazed her clit. ‘Oh, fuck!’

            She gasped and squirmed as he explored every fold with his tongue until she was dripping wet. Her hand went to his head, sinking into his hair, but she did not attempt to guide him. When her breathing became shallow and fast, he stopped licking her and again sucked on her clit. Jess almost went through the roof and Chris moved his hands to her hips, holding her down. A long, low moan escaped her lips as his tongue wandered back and forth over her clit as he sucked harder and longer, drawing it deeper into his mouth. Her entire body was quivering and jerking, and non-sensical whimpers flowed from her throat. Her free hand raked the sheets, trying to find something to grip, to ground her.

            She was teetering on the edge of a hard orgasm, the intensity of the sensations he was inflicting on her almost made her afraid of coming. She kept pushing it back but it kept creeping up again. She had no idea how long she managed to stave it off but then he pushed two fingers inside her and she was there, moaning through clenched teeth as her insides contracted over and over, almost painfully. She was so overwhelmed that tears stung her eyes.

            Chris was beside her in an instant, holding her and kissing her mouth. She tasted herself on his lips. In that moment, her mind and body slowly coming down, his arms around her and his mouth on hers, she felt so safe, so protected, that she knew that she was going to let him do whatever he wanted.

            ‘Are you okay?’ His voice was a whisper, as light as the touch of his fingers on her back.

            ‘More than okay.’

            ‘I ran you a bath.’

            She smiled but shook her head. ‘I just want to stay here with you.’

            ‘Okay.’ He said easily and shifted his arms slightly so that she lay more comfortably.

            She realised that she’d spoiled whatever else he had planned and he didn’t even care. Jess found words bubbling up in her throat. Words that she knew she was not ready to say but they were intent on coming out anyway. She swallowed them down, biting her tongue. But no matter what her head said, her heart was singing. She was in love with him.

Chapter Text

‘How the fuck did this happen? I haven’t told anyone but Jake and Daisy and I know it wasn’t them.’

            Jess was pacing the room, her phone in her hand. Jake had sent her a text saying there were paparazzi outside the house and the PR department at Marvel had called to say there had been a leak and they’d had to announce her casting. Which was fine, it was obviously going to happen eventually, they couldn’t hope to keep it a secret until the film came out, but the paparazzi were outside her house and that made her angry.

            ‘Jess, calm down,’ Chris caught her arm, stilling her. ‘It’s not the end of the world. Ask Jake to pack you a bag and you can stay here. Even if they could get up here, why would they? They don’t know anything about the past few weeks. It’s only for a couple of weeks until we go to Phoenix.’

            ‘I don’t want to impose,’ she mumbled.

            ‘Really not an imposition. You’re my girlfriend, if you can’t come and stay then who can?’

            She stopped sulking long enough to look up at him. ‘Say that again.’

            He smiled, moving a little closer to her. ‘You’re my girlfriend.’

            ‘One more time,’ she said, her lips an inch from his.

            His hands snaked around her waist to pull her hips against his. ‘You’re my girlfriend.’

            She sighed happily, closing the gap and kissing him. ‘Thank you.’

            ‘If they don’t see you at Jake’s in the next couple of days they’re probably going to leave anyway. But you can stay here for as long as you want.’

            Jess called Jake, talking him through packing her stuff and a couple of hours later he was pulling into Chris’s drive. She went out to meet him, hugging him gratefully when he climbed out of the car. ‘Thanks so much, love. I really owe you.’

            ‘De nada,’ he said, swinging her suitcase out of the boot. ‘I put all your personal things in your holdall, like your script and stuff from Marvel. Your iPad and your chargers are in there, too.’

            ‘You are a star. Do you want to come in?’

            ‘I can’t,’ he said, unable to keep the smirk from his face. ‘I’ve got a guest waiting at home.’

            ‘Jake! Why didn’t you say something, we could have sent a car to pick my stuff up?’

            ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Also, I wanted to see you with my own eyes. You’ve certainly got the post-coital glow look down.’

            She smiled, heat rising in her neck. ‘Shut up.’

            ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so happy. Even before you shagged him you lit up like a beacon when he walked into the room.’

            As if summoned by Jake’s words, Chris appeared at the front door. ‘Hey man,’ he walked over and shook Jake’s hand. ‘Thanks for this.’

            ‘You are welcome.’

            ‘Come and have a drink with us.’

            ‘I can’t, I’m afraid, but thanks.’

            ‘He’s got a date,’ Jess whispered and Chris nodded in understanding.

            ‘But I’ll come up and see you guys in a day or two if that’s okay?’

            ‘Of course,’ she said, hugging him again. ‘Have fun and be careful.’

            He cocked a lazy salute and climbed back into the car. Jess and Chris watched him disappear through the gates, then he picked up her bags and they went back inside. He took them straight to his bedroom and then lay on the bed, watching as she unpacked.

            ‘Oh, hey,’ Jess said, opening the holdall and finding a lunchbox on top. ‘These should still be good.’

            ‘What is it?’

            She grinned mischievously, handing it to him. ‘Hash brownies. I made them last week when I was thinking about seducing you.’

            ‘What?’ He looked at her, shock etched across his features.

            ‘Yeah…’

            ‘Your plan was to get me high and seduce me?’

            ‘No, my plan was for me to get high, lose my inhibitions, feel a bit more confident and then seduce you.’ 

            He opened the box and sniffed them. ‘They don’t smell like weed, are you sure these are the right ones?’

            ‘They’re not made with weed, they’re made with hash. I had to get Finn to help me track some down. It’s really hard to get here.’

            ‘Can I eat one?’

            ‘You can, but only one. I measured them really carefully so one brownie should easily give you the warm and fuzzies without being overpowering.’

            He took a thoughtful bite, laying back on the bed as he chewed. ‘Oh my God, these are so good!’

            She smiled. ‘Thank you.’

            ‘You made them yourself, didn’t you? This isn’t Betty Crocker.’

            ‘I did. I’ll make you some normal ones so you can pig out without overdosing.’ She had started unpacking her suitcase, walking in and out of his closet to hang things up.

            ‘Aren’t you going to have one,’ he said, offering her the box.

            ‘Of course.’ She picked up a sheaf of paper and found the list of assistants that Marvel had sent her to choose from. ‘Do you know anyone on here?’

            He took the list and handed her the brownies. He had barely glanced at it when he said, ‘Sue Montgomery. She’s perfect for you, a little older and quite motherly. I think you’ll love her.’

            ‘See, that is so much easier than sending me a list of names I don’t know and expecting me to choose. Now all I have to do is find a house.’

            Chris rolled over onto his stomach and looked up at her. ‘There’s no rush though, is there? I mean, you’re here now and in two weeks we go to Arizona and then straight on to Atlanta. You’re going to be away for like six months.’

            She sat down on the bed, licking the brownie crumbs from her fingers. ‘It sounds so long when you say it like that.’

            ‘It is,’ he said heavily, scooting himself across the bed to lay his head in her lap.

            Jess looked down at him. She loved the look he’d been cultivating for this movie, his beard especially. She combed it with her fingers then ruffled it up and combed it again. Chris closed his eyes and smiled, looking like a very satisfied cat. Every time she opened her mouth she was terrified her feelings were going to come out and now she’d eaten a load of hash which was bound to loosen her tongue.

            ‘What do you want to do for dinner? We can order in if you want.’

            ‘I’ll cook. I’m sure I can find something in your fridge.’

            ‘Okay. Jess?’

            ‘Yes?’

            ‘I’m kinda glad you didn’t seduce me.’

            She thought about the Boston Esplanade and smiled. ‘Me too.’

           

An hour later and Jess was starting to feel high. She was trying to finish dinner before she got too baked to function. Chris had connected her iPad to a speaker and he was sitting on a stool, scrolling through her music while drinking a beer. Every time she looked up, his eyes were on her.

            ‘Who taught you to cook?’

            ‘Me, mostly. I was home alone a lot, even from a young age. I loved to experiment.’

            ‘What’s your favourite thing to cook?’

            ‘This is starting to feel like an interview.’

            ‘Believe me, once the press tour starts you’ll be glad of the practice. Answer the question please, Ms Finley.’

            She chuckled softly. ‘Probably Caribbean food. I love to cook a huge pot of oxtail or goat curry and have all my friends over to just dig in. Rice, fried plantain, dumplings, saltfish fritters…’

            ‘Who taught you how to cook that?’

            She laughed, ‘Chef Google. I’ve seen other people cook it and I’ve eaten it. It’s not hard to look up a recipe and follow it.’

            He leaned on the counter, his beer clasped in his hands. ‘What was it like being an only child?’

            She laughed without humour, stirring the pot of pasta. ‘Lonely. Always lonely. I didn’t even have any cousins. Like I said, mum worked a lot. I read a lot. Taught myself to cook. But I used to stage plays with my dolls and teddies. Obviously, I would have to voice all of the parts and afterwards I’d rehearse my Oscar speech in the mirror. I guess I would have been about 8 or 9. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be an actress.’

            Chris smiled at her dopily, and she knew his brownie had kicked in. Within minutes she found out that pot made him super affectionate. It must be where he got his handsy reputation from, she thought. She just about managed to plate up the food before he came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling her neck. Her own high amplified every sensation and she soon lost concentration as his lips travelled over her skin.

            ‘No,’ she moaned, obviously meaning yes even as she wriggled out of his arms. ‘Let’s eat.’

            They sat at the table but neither of them was really interested in food. Her whole body seemed to thrum in time to her heartbeat. Chris turned to face her, pushing a stray curl away from her face. ‘You are so beautiful. Did I tell you that yet?’

            ‘At least once a day,’ she assured him. She let him pull her closer and she rested her forehead against his. Don’t say it, she warned herself. Do not say a word. She listened to his breathing, felt his hands on the small of her back, his lips on hers. She noticed the way he gradually changed the pressure to turn the kiss into something more, when he pulled her tightly against him as if he couldn’t get enough of her.

            It was too intense. She ducked out of his arms again and picked up the forgotten plates. She busied herself cleaning them off and stacking them in the dishwasher. Chris was still sitting at the table, staring out of the window. She admired his profile for a minute before he turned and noticed her looking.

            ‘Hey,’ he said lazily.

            ‘Hey.’

            He got up and crossed the room, reaching out for her. Something slow was playing on her iPad, but afterwards she couldn’t remember what it was. His hands slid up her back, over her shoulders and up to cup her jaw, and when she met his eyes his gaze was serious. ‘What’s wrong?’

            ‘Nothing,’ he shook his head, his eyes drinking in her face for a moment. ‘You’re everything I’ve ever wanted, Jess. I keep holding back from telling you, even though I know it’s true. I keep thinking that we have to wait, that more time has to pass before we can be sure of each other. But I’m sure of you now, my beautiful girl.’

            He missed Jess’s look of stunned surprise as he kissed her. She automatically kissed him back but her head spun with his words. She told herself that he was stoned, that it was the pot talking. It was a nice high, warm and buzzy and it made her want to be close to him, to feel him against her skin. He was probably feeling the same but he was also making it really difficult for her to keep her emotions in check.

            She pulled back to look at him, ‘Chris…’

            ‘Jess, it’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.’

            She wanted to. She wanted to tell him how she felt when he held her in his arms, how his kisses, that were even now trailing down her jaw to the side of her neck, set her on fire, how she could not be surer that he was her man. But he was kissing her so deliciously and she felt as if she was melting and any words she had been about to say melted away, too.

Chapter Text

When Jess woke the next morning, she felt like crap. They’d eaten two more brownies and fucked until the dawn began to light up the room. Chris’s arm was heavy on her waist, telling her he was still sound asleep. She carefully slid out of bed, grabbed her clothes from the closet and crept into the bathroom. She freshened up and changed into her workout clothes. She needed to get her blood moving and wake up her muscles. She had been slacking on working out over the past few days and she was really starting to feel it.

            Dodger was sleeping outside the bedroom door and she stepped over him, closing the door quietly behind her. In the kitchen she grabbed a bottle of water and heaved open the bifold door, letting the humid morning air in. She laid her mat on the floor beside the pool, put in her AirPods and knelt down into an extended child’s pose, trying to concentrate on her breathing. She couldn’t clear her mind. Scenes from the night before played out in her head. At least it was getting her blood moving, she thought ruefully, even if it was only in one direction.

            She tried to relax. She moved from pose to pose, her yoga instructors voice echoing in her head, telling her to use her breath to pull herself deeper into each position, to feel the stretch and embrace it. Sweat dripped into her eyes. Why people paid for Bikram yoga classes in LA when they could just workout outside was beyond her. After trying and failing three times to get into the peacock pose she leapt to her feet, yanking her AirPods out.

            ‘Fuck! Fuck it!’ She yelled, ripping off clothes off until she wore just her knickers and sports bra, then dived into the pool. The cool water immediately washed her bad mood away and she sat on the bottom for as long as she could hold her breath. She looked up into the blue that seemed to go on forever.

            When she surfaced, she found Chris standing by the edge of the pool.

            ‘Are you okay?’ He looked amused.

            She swam to the edge of the pool and looked up at him. ‘I am now. How long have you been standing there?’

            ‘I’ve been watching since your downward facing dog. Great view.’

            She flicked water at him and he jumped back, laughing. She started to backstroke away from him. ‘Chris?’

            ‘Yeah?’

            ‘I want to play.’

            The lazy way his eyes roamed over her made her knickers feel tight. ‘Are you sure?’

            ‘Yes.’

            ‘Now?’

            ‘That’s not really my decision, is it?’

            He smiled and she thought she saw a hint of triumph in his expression. ‘No, it isn’t.’

            She watched as he walked back into the kitchen, her mouth dry.

            She swam a few lengths before getting out and wrapping herself in a towel. She gathered her things and went back inside, heading for the shower. Chris was just coming out of the bedroom wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his hair still damp from his shower. ‘I’m just gonna take Dodger for a walk and pick up a few things at the store. Do you want anything?’

            ‘I’m good. I need to get back on my diet.’

            ‘You really don’t, but okay.’ He leaned in to kiss her. ‘I won’t be long. Make yourself at home.’

            Jess had her shower and put on a t-shirt dress, tied her hair up and padded barefoot into the kitchen. She needed to make some calls and generally catch up with her life.

            First up was Marvel, who were overjoyed to hear she’d finally chosen an assistant and set up a meeting the following day. They would also go over her pre-production schedule and sort out all the details, such as where she would stay. She couldn’t imagine that Chris would want her to be anywhere that he was not so she wasn’t sure how that would pan out. Then she called her agent to talk about the casting announcement. She assured Jess that so far, the reception had been positive but Jess knew that wasn’t going to last.

            She set up her laptop on the kitchen table and began to trawl through her emails, not realising how behind she’d fallen in her own life until her inbox opened with two pages of unread emails. She rubbed her aching forehead and started to read.

            A while later, Dodger trotted in, wagging his tail when he saw her and laying his head on her thigh so she could stroke him. After a minute, Chris came in carrying two armfuls of grocery bags. ‘Hey, sweetheart, do you need me to help?’

            ‘On your knees, Jess.’ He said, not even looking at her.

            She looked at him in surprise, her stomach caving in so hard that she let out an audible groan. She got up from her chair and knelt on the floor, her eyes down, too stunned to react in any other way. Her hands were shaking and her blood rushed in her ears while her pulse raced.

            She didn’t move or look up, even when he left the room and she was left with only her pounding heartbeat for company. Desire licked at her loins and she felt herself getting wet just from the anticipation of what was going to happen. She waited. Her phone beeped on the table but she didn’t dare reach for it.

            She felt as if she’d been waiting for hours when Chris came back into the kitchen. He put the rest of the groceries away then turned to look at her. ‘You can get up now.’

            Jess let out a breath, casting her eyes to him. She got to her feet.

            He smiled, ‘Okay?’

            She nodded, her legs unsteady. She was aching for him to touch her.

            ‘Good,’ he said crisply, kissing her on the cheek and leaving without a backward glance.

            She stood and watched him walk out of the door, her mouth hanging open. Bastard.

 

‘On your knees, Jess.’

            She had to fight very hard not to roll her eyes. This was the fourth time and so far, other than having her remove her underwear, he’d had nothing further to add. And this time she was in the middle of cooking dinner. She obeyed, sinking to her knees on the kitchen floor, hoping the rice didn’t catch.

            ‘You need to choose a safe word,’ he said.

            Jess kept her eyes down, trying to think of something she wouldn’t be too embarrassed to say. ‘Mango,’ she said eventually.

            ‘Okay.’ His sneakers appeared in front of her. ‘When we’re going to start or stop playing I will tell you to get on your knees. If I say anything other than you can get up then we’re still playing, understood?’

            ‘Yes,’ she said, her voice hoarse.

            ‘How long before that rice burns?’

            ‘About ten seconds.’

            He laughed softly. ‘You can get up.’

            Cheeks flaming, she got to her feet and turned the heat off under the rice. He seemed to slip effortlessly in and out of character but it took her a while to recover. Even when they sat down to eat, her face still felt hot.

            Chris ran the back of his hand across her cheek. ‘Pink suits you.’

            She scowled at him, taking a sip of wine. ‘Actually, pink makes me look peaky.’

            ‘Makes you look what?’

            ‘Peaky.’

            He burst out laughing, ‘What does that mean?’

            ‘Sickly.’

            ‘You don’t look sickly to me. Or peaky. Teach me more English words.’

            ‘Hmmm,’ she looked thoughtful. ‘You know all the obvious ones like tap, pavement and mobile phone. Let me think…there’s numpty. That’s for when someone’s being stupid or an idiot, you’d call them a numpty.’

            ‘Numpty,’ he tried the word out.

            Jess snorted into her wine. ‘Said with half a Boston accent it becomes even more amusing. Fancy. As in I fancy you. It means that you’ve got a crush on someone.’

            ‘I thought fancy meant best or nicest?’

            ‘Maybe that’s what it means here. We’d say posh or something.’

            ‘Posh?’

            ‘Upper class or stylish.’

            ‘What else?’

            ‘Shag,’ she said, looking him in the eye.

            ‘Wait, I know that one. Wasn’t that in Austin Powers?’

            She nodded, ‘I believe so. It means to engage in sexual intercourse.’

            ‘Would you like to shag?’

            Laughing, she shook her head. ‘No, you’d say fancy a shag?’

            ‘I thought fancy meant crush on?’

            ‘More like want or desire in this context.’

            He sat back looking thoughtful. ‘I feel like I’ve really learned something tonight.’

            ‘Tomorrow we’ll do transitive verbs.’

            She got up to clear the table but he put his hand on her wrist. ‘Leave it. I’ll do it. Stop doing everything.’ He stacked the plates and stood up. ‘There’s something for you in the bedroom. Go get it then go to the lounge.’

            When she got to the bedroom she found an orange Hermes bag on the end of the bed. She picked it up, pretty sure she knew what it was. And what it was for. Her stomach turned to acid. She went and sat on the couch and waited for him to come in.

            ‘You can open it.’ He said when he’d flopped onto the sofa beside her.

            She put her hand in the bag and pulled out a long twilly scarf. She ran the silk through her hands, trying to pretend they weren’t shaking. ‘It’s beautiful.’

            ‘I’m glad you like it because you’re going to be seeing a lot of it. I am going to use this on you tonight but because I know you’re nervous I’m going to let you choose how I use it. I can use it to blindfold you or I can tie your hands. I’ll tie them in front of you and I won’t tie it tight.’

            Jess swallowed. ‘If I don’t like it, will you stop?’

            ‘Of course I will,’ he said gently. ‘Babe, are you sure this is what you want?’

            She nodded, getting lost in his eyes.

            ‘Hands or blindfold?’

            She took a deep breath. ‘Hands.’

            Chris took the scarf from her and said, very softly, ‘On your knees, Jess.’

            She slipped off the sofa onto her knees, her stomach writhing in knots knowing that this was it, this time it was going to happen. She positioned herself at his feet and took a couple of deep breaths, toying with blurting out her safe word.

            ‘Take off your dress.’

            She hesitated. This was something she would usually do without thinking twice, but the atmosphere this time was completely different. She felt vulnerable. Exposed. She took off her dress and dropped it to the floor.

            ‘Give me your hands. Wrists together.’ She held out her hands, watching as he looped the scarf and laid it across her wrists. The silk felt cool against her skin and through her fear she felt the fierce rush of blood between her legs. She had never wanted him as much as she did at that moment. He was looking at her eyes, checking her reaction and she wondered if her arousal was written there for him to see. ‘Is it too tight?’

            She shook her head. ‘No.’

            He pressed a small, heavy bead into her hand. ‘For when you can’t speak. Drop it and I’ll stop whatever I’m doing.’ He reached behind her head and took out the claw clip that was holding her curls up. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, partially covering her breasts, and Jess heard him inhale deeply. He let her wrists go and she lowered them to rest on her thighs, her gaze directed at his midriff. ‘On your feet.’

            Jess rose a little clumsily but stood in front of him. She felt his eyes raking over her body and she wished more than anything that he would touch her. Her nipples were so hard that they ached and the inside of her thighs were slick with moisture. He stood up beside her, hooking one finger under her wrists and guiding her to the middle of the room. He walked behind her and she heard the sound of his belt buckle and, even though she knew that he was just taking off his jeans, she couldn’t stop herself from flinching.

            Chris sighed. ‘Jess, I’m not going to hurt you.’

            ‘I know,’ she whispered, but she was trembling hard.

            There was a silence then he appeared back in front of her and she could see he was thinking about finishing it. She knew that even if he did, he wouldn’t blame her or make her feel as if she’d let him down. She could do that to herself. She raised her eyes to look at him, ‘Please?’

            He kicked his jeans off. ‘Back on your knees.’

            She had barely hit the floor when he grabbed a handful of her hair, wrapping it around his fist. She knew what was coming, so to speak, and again it made her hesitate even though if they weren’t playing she’d put him in her mouth and show him all her best moves without even thinking about it.

            ‘Open.’

            She acquiesced, hoping he didn’t see her hesitation. She inhaled through her nose as his hard dick filled her mouth. He pushed his hips forward at the same time as he pulled her head towards him and she gagged, her eyes watering. She had to use all her will not to raise her hands to try to push him away.

            Chris obviously wasn’t interested in her blowjob skills, seemingly content to use her mouth. All she could do was suck him as best she could. Her lips slid up and down his shaft as he experimented with her gag reflex, seeing how far he could pull her head towards his hips. She tasted salt and soap. His hand tightened in her hair as his strokes became deeper, faster and harder, the head of his dick pushing past the back of her throat.

            Just when she thought he was going to come in her mouth, he pulled out suddenly, tugging on her hair. ‘Up.’

            She stumbled to her feet and he walked her over to the wall, pressing her hard against it, holding her wrists over her head with one hand while the other roamed down her back towards her ass. She knew she was ridiculously wet and even though he’d barely laid a hand on her and she felt faintly embarrassed about the level of her arousal. He forced one knee between hers, spreading her legs, his hand dipping down between her legs, feeling how hot and ready she was for him. He gently stroked his fingers up and down her wet lips, completely avoiding her swollen, aching clit.

            Jess moaned softly, her cheek pressed against the wall. She tried to push back against him but he growled, ‘Don’t move,’ in her ear. His breath on her neck made the flesh on her back erupt in goosebumps. He slowly teased the delicate skin between her pussy and her ass, making it almost impossible for her to keep from wiggling her hips. She felt the head of his dick nudging at the top of her thigh and, with one hard thrust, he was inside her. He sighed in her ear, making her muscles clench around him as a stab of arousal sliced through her belly.

            ‘Oh, by the way, don’t come.’

            His words and the way he said them, his lips just an inch from her ear, almost pushed her over the edge. He fucked her hard and fast, his hands on her hips pinning her to the wall, his fingers and thumbs digging into her flesh. Jess had never heard herself make noises like those that came out of her mouth while she struggled to contain her orgasm. Her thighs trembled with the effort and her back was slick with sweat. He pulled her back a little, one hand snaking down between her legs.

            Realising what he was about to do, she gasped, trying to writhe away from him but his finger found her clit. ‘No, no, no!’

            ‘Yes, Jess.’

            She wanted to climb the wall to get away from his touch. Her groans grew louder and more desperate. ‘I can’t…I -’

            ‘Wait,’ he commanded.

            A sob was building in her chest. It was too difficult. She was right on the edge and all she had to do was lean forward and she’d be there. Every thrust of his dick hit that sweet spot deep inside her, making her knees tremble with the effort of keeping her upright. His finger, in contrast to the savage fucking, was slow and almost gentle as it circled her clit. ‘Please…’ she whispered.

            ‘What was that?’

            ‘Please,’ she said a little louder, her voice choked with the effort. ‘Please, can I come?’

            There was a pause. ‘Yes, you may.’

            Jess closed her eyes and let the sensations carry her away, climbing up. She tipped her head back and Chris pressed his cheek against hers, his arm snaking around her waist as he pulled her back against his chest. She longed to be able to touch him, to feel his hot skin with her fingertips. Every nerve in her spine pinged as her body finished climbing and tipped over the edge, her muscles contracting over and over, gripping his dick so tightly that a few seconds later he was erupting inside her.

            She rested her forehead against the wall, struggling to catch her breath. She felt every twitch and leap of her muscles and his dick as their bodies recovered. Chris’s arm was tight around her waist and his chin rested on her shoulder, his breath like a hurricane in her ear.

            ‘On your knees,’ he said quickly, stepping away to give her room to move.

            She all but collapsed to her knees, her head hanging down, exhausted.

            Chris deftly untied her wrists. ‘You can get up,’ he said, pulling her to her feet and into his arms. His hands went to her hair, holding her head while he planted open-mouthed kisses on her face. Jess wrapped her aching arms around his neck and found his mouth with hers, rolling her tongue lazily over his.

            He scooped her legs up and carried her to the bedroom, lying beside her on the bed. His hands smoothed her hair back as he looked at her, caressing his thumb across her bottom lip. ‘You were so strong, Jess. You did so well.’

            ‘Thank you,’ she whispered, her hand on his cheek, letting his beard tickle her palm. She yawned widely, her eyes already closing.

            ‘Roll over,’ he said gently. He pulled her back against his chest and wrapped his arms around her as tight as he could.

            ‘You make me feel so safe,’ she murmured, as his hands softly caressed her skin. And she was asleep before he could reply.

Chapter Text

‘You did what?’ Jess said quietly.

            ‘I've been feeling like shit about it. It was stupid, I know.’

            ‘Stupid? It was fucking moronic! I cannot believe you’d do something like that me.’

            ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you,’ Chris took a step towards her but, wisely, didn’t try another. ‘I wanted to spend more time with you.’

            She laughed without humour. ‘So, you tell the paparazzi where I live so you can offer me a place to hide out, instead of just saying hey, Jess, why don’t you come stay with me until we leave for Arizona? What kind of fucking logic is that?’

            ‘I didn’t want to freak you out.’

            She glared at him. ‘Objective failed.’

            ‘Jess, please, I -’

            ‘I don’t care,’ she snapped, pushing past him to get to the bedroom. She pulled out her suitcase and started throwing her things in.

            ‘What are you doing?’

            ‘Leaving.’

            ‘No! Please don’t.’

            ‘If you wanted me to stay then you shouldn’t have fucking betrayed me.’

            ‘Jess,’ he strode over to her, trying to take her hands but she snatched them away. ‘I’m sorry, okay? I’m truly sorry. It’s just everything’s so intense between us and I…I didn’t want you to say no.’

            ‘So you manipulated me instead?’

            ‘No!’

            ‘Knowing what I’ve been through, you thought you could make me feel the way you wanted me to feel with absolutely no regard for what I might want?’

            A muscle leapt in his jaw and he cast his eyes down. ‘I’m sorry.’

            ‘You know what the really sad thing is? I would have stayed with you in a heartbeat because I hate being apart from you. I hate leaving you. When I have to physically turn and walk away from you, it kills me.’ She threw him a look and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

            She sat on the edge of the bath, her head in her hands whilst rage coursed through her veins. Hot, angry tears welled up in her eyes. She felt his hands on her wrists, pulling her arms down, then his hand on her cheek.

            ‘I’m sorry, baby. Please believe me…’

            ‘I trusted you,’ she said quietly.

            ‘I know, and I’m a dick. Don’t leave me, Jess.’ He knelt on the floor, pulling her down with him and taking her face in his hands. ‘Please don’t leave.’

            She looked into his eyes and saw only remorse, but her anger was slow to dissipate. ‘I think we should spend some time apart. We’ve been living in each other’s pockets and I think we’re getting overwhelmed -’

            ‘No,’ he shook his head vehemently. ‘I am not overwhelmed. I know how I feel about you. I know you thought I was high the other night but I wasn’t, at least not high enough not to know what I was saying or to not mean it. What I did was stupid and selfish and I cannot tell you how sorry I am.’

            ‘You sold me out, Chris.’ He hung his head and a tiny piece of her heart went out to him, despite her anger. He had told her what he’d done when he could have kept quiet, there was no way she would ever have found out. She sighed. ‘I’m still mad at you.’

            She let him kiss her once and then she stalked out of the bathroom, grabbed her laptop and went to sit in the garden. Chris gave her a wide berth for a few hours, although he solicitously brought her tea and bottles of water every so often. Mid-afternoon her stomach began to rumble and she was thinking about grabbing some lunch when Chris appeared in front of her with a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

            ‘Thank you,’ she said, grudgingly. ‘You read my mind.’

            ‘I wish I could.’

            ‘Not right now you don’t,’ she muttered.

            ‘I want to take you somewhere.’

            She looked up at him, tapping her finger on the table. ‘Where?’

            He looked sheepish. ‘It’s a surprise?’

            ‘And what if we’re seen together?’

            He shrugged. ‘I don’t think we will but if that’s an issue for you then we don’t have to go.’

            She wanted to laugh at how courteous he was being, but she kept all traces of humour off her face. ‘Okay.’

            Chris, however, couldn’t hide his smile. ‘Wear something casual and bring your ID. You won’t need anything else.’

 

Jess had needed her ID to board a private jet that flew them north. Even when they landed she wasn’t sure where they were until they got to the terminal and she saw a huge ‘Welcome to Seattle’ sign. Chris remained tight-lipped about their destination no matter how many times she asked. A car awaited them on the apron and they drove into downtown Seattle. About three blocks away from their destination, Jess realised where they were going. She could see the signs and lights up ahead.

            ‘Hamilton! You got Hamilton tickets?’ She couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice. ‘Did you organise all of this today?’

            Chris nodded. ‘Yeah. I had to cash in a lot of favours but…’

            She looked at him. It was easily the most amazing thing anyone had ever done for her, but she didn’t want to let him off the hook too easily. ‘Thank you.’

            They watched the show from a box at the side of the stage and left as the last note was sung to beat the audience. Their car was waiting outside and they were back in the air in less than forty minutes. It had been pretty slick, she didn’t think anyone had even seen them let alone recognised them.

            Jess left him hanging until they got home. The first thing Chris did was feed Dodger and let him out in the garden. He was standing in the doorway, hands in his pockets, watching Dodger as he inspected his territory for rogue squirrels.

            She slid her arms around his waist and rested her head on his shoulder. ‘How did you know?’

            He shrugged easily, wrapping his arms around her. ‘I hear you singing it in the shower.’

            ‘Thank you. I’ve had an amazing night.’

            ‘So…are we okay?’ He asked, a little hesitantly.

            She sighed. ‘It would be pretty churlish of me to hold a grudge when you flew me to Seattle and back just to take me to the theatre. I think you’ve probably learned your lesson.’

            ‘I have, I promise. I hate that I let you down.’

            ‘I forgive you. But it’s a strike, Chris.’

            ‘Understood,’ he said, and she could hear the relief in his voice.

            She raised her head for a kiss. ‘I’m going to have a shower and get ready for bed.’

            As she turned to walk away, he caught her hand. ‘We are in the middle of a drought.’

            ‘Oh!’ She frowned, pulling him with her as she backed towards the bedroom. ‘Maybe, uh, we should shower together. You know, to save water.’

             ‘You read my mind.’

Chapter Text

Jess dug around on her bed for the Sharpie, finding it under a roll of brown tape and a square of bubble wrap. She wrote Atlanta on the side of the box and taped it shut. It was the day before they were leaving for pre-production and she was packing up the rest of her things at Jake’s house. A lot of her stuff would be shipped to Atlanta for the coming months, some of it would go to Chris’s and the rest into storage. She didn’t know what the state of their relationship would be by the time they returned from Georgia but it seemed obvious to both of them that, if they were still together, she would continue to live at his house.

            She assembled a new box and packed it with photographs and the pictures from her walls, then wrote LA on the side, which meant it was going to Chris’s. On the off-chance that the paparazzi did track her down before they packed the truck, she wasn’t going to give them any clues. She checked the time. Chris had chosen today to formulate one of his surprises and he wanted her to get dressed up and be at his house by 8 pm. The removal truck was due in a few minutes and would drop her stuff off at Chris’s and the storage facility, which would leave her an hour or so to shower and get ready before her car came to collect her.

            All her clothes were packed. Only a grey silk maxi dress was left hanging in her closet for her to put on later. She looked around her bare bedroom and felt a tiny pang. She’d loved living here with Jake, being so close to the beach and having Sunday brunch in a different trendy restaurant every week. But now everything was changing.

            The doorbell rang and she ran downstairs to let the removal guys in. She showed them the furniture, all of which would go into storage, and explained where the boxes would go. They would drop her stuff off at Chris’s first, and she sent him a message letting him know they’d be on their way soon. It only took them half an hour to load her entire life into one truck. She’d got rid of so much stuff when she’d moved from London and she’d never really got around to replacing it.

            Going back to her now empty bedroom, she stripped off her pants and t-shirt and headed for the shower. When the text came to say her car was outside, she was still in her robe only just having styled her hair. She texted back to say she would be a few minutes, then packed up the last of her things into her rucksack. She dressed in seriously sexy underwear he hadn’t seen yet, then put her dress on. She had bought it about a year ago and it had looked okay then, but on her new Marvel-ready body, it draped and clung in all the right places.

            She realised then that she had accidentally packed the shoes she was supposed to be wearing and all she had were her trainers. Cursing, she pushed her feet into them, grabbed her rucksack and made her way downstairs. She had left a letter and a bottle of champagne for Jake by way of a very inadequate thank you. She had asked him to go out to Atlanta for a weekend, as soon as he could. It seemed unbelievable that they wouldn’t see each other for so long.

            She had one last look around then left the house, locking the door and posting her keys through the letterbox. She felt ridiculously emotional and spent most of the cab ride up the hills fighting back tears. As they neared Chris’s house she took off her trainers and put them in her bag. She could grab some shoes before they did whatever it was they were doing.

            The cab dropped her off at the gate and, when they opened, she stared at the driveway in shock. It was lined with torches and candles leading up to the house, and a note was pinned to the door with instructions to keep following the candles. The house was in darkness except for a trail of tealights. She dropped her rucksack by the door and, forgetting her shoes, followed the candles through the house and out to the patio.

            Chris was waiting for her. The patio was covered with tea lights in glass holders. She had to wonder where he’d got them all from. There was a hurricane lamp on the table, which was beautifully laid with cutlery and glasses. Norah Jones played quietly in the background. He was wearing a dark blue suit and a huge smile and looked incredibly fuckable. She stood in the doorway, her heart racing, utterly speechless.

            ‘You look stunning,’ he said, taking her hand.

            ‘Chris…I…’ She thought she might cry.

            ‘I told you I’d find a way to date you.’

            She looked up at him, shaking her head. ‘I don’t have any words.’

            He smiled, tugging on her hand, and leading her over to the table. He pulled out her chair and she sat, still looking around her at everything he’d done as he poured her a glass of wine from a bottle in an ice bucket beside the table. ‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, if you’ll excuse me.’

            Jess giggled and watched him go back into the house. She surreptitiously pinched herself beneath the table, just to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. If it hadn’t been way too soon, she’d think he was about to propose. Panicked, she checked the bottom of her glass for a ring, but all it held was wine. When Chris reappeared, he was carrying two plates, which he placed on the table with extra reverence. It was salmon teriyaki, one of her absolute favourites.

            ‘Wow, sweetheart, did you make this?’

            ‘Yup,’ he said proudly. ‘I had a bit of help from Chef Google and I burned the first batch of salmon, but I was prepared for that.’

            ‘So I see,’ she grinned. ‘Chris, this is wonderful.’

            ‘You haven’t tasted it yet,’ he said, apprehension shading his voice.

            Jess picked up a forkful of salmon. ‘It’s delicious,’ she assured him. ‘I’m really impressed.’

            He relaxed and while they ate he told her funny stories about people who would be working with them on the movie, both cast and crew. He ended by telling her how apprehensive he was about his final Marvel movie. ‘Now we’re on the eve of shooting, I’ve realised how sad I am to be going. It’s been a difficult journey but I’ve got a lot of love for everyone I’ve met along the way.’

            She frowned and reached for his hand. ‘You’re starting a new journey and that’s just as exciting. You’re going to find new people to love. But you’ll always be a huge part of the MCU, gone but never forgotten. Cap is your legacy.’

            ‘You’re right. I know you’re right. How are you feeling?’

            She sat back in her seat, staring at her empty plate. ‘Scared. I’m scared I won’t act well enough. I’m scared of the process of making a major movie when I’ve never even made a minor one. I’m scared I won’t fit in.’

            ‘You don’t have to worry about any of those things. You can act, there’s no doubt about that. Making a movie is a lot different to anything you’ve done so far but you’ve got a lot of support, from your assistant to the Russos. And everyone you’ve met so far has liked you. RDJ loved you, Scarlett said you were sweet, Mackie said, well, I can’t tell you what he said but it was complimentary and let’s leave it at that.’ He smiled, ‘And you’ve got me.’

            Her stomach did that swallow dive it always did when he said things like that. ‘Have you thought about how we’re going to approach things on set?’

            ‘A bit. Look, I know you want to wait as long as possible to go public but I’m not sure how much longer we can keep it a secret, simply because I want to take you places and do things with you. I doubt very much that anyone in the cast or crew would expose us, but they’re not the only ones around. People are going to expect you to be hanging around with me and the rest of the cast in Atlanta so we’ll have a little more freedom but…Jess, I think it’s time to just do what we want to do and see where it takes us.’

            She sighed, wishing she hadn’t asked. They disagreed and she did not want to spoil the night. ‘Let’s talk about it another time.’

            He looked at her steadily. ‘I know what you’re thinking.’

            ‘You do?’

            ‘You think that people are going to think we’re either together for the publicity or that you’re with me to further your career. Who gives a fuck what people think when we know what we’ve got together?’

            ‘I’ve never had to think about my publicity before. You’ve been thinking about yours for almost ten years. I don’t want bad publicity just because I’m with you. Your fans can be fucking vicious and I don’t need that kind of hate aimed at me when I’m about to literally pick up your shield.’

            ‘This is about Captain America?’

            ‘No,’ she said quietly. Why? Why had she had to fucking ask him? Now they were going to argue. She took a breath, trying to stay calm. ‘This is about me and you and how we’re going to be perceived individually and as a couple. From a fan’s point of view, I’m swooping in, getting Steve Rogers killed and taking the mantle of Captain America. Then, to pour salt in all those wounds, we’re together in real life.’ She watched him close his eyes and turn his head away, knowing he was mad. ‘I want to be with you more than anything, Chris, and nothing is going to change that. But I signed my contract before we met.’

            ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You’re putting your contract before us?’

            ‘I’m putting the franchise before us, just for now. I don’t want to let anyone down.’

            ‘Except me, right?’

            ‘No, Chris, especially you.’ She was raising her voice now, anger crept up on her and she felt adrenalin flood her chest. ‘People love you. You are Captain America. I’ll be the limey bitch who stole your shield and stole your heart. I’m a fucking Brit putting on a shitty American accent, what business do I have playing Captain fucking America? They’re going to rip me to shreds and I’ll have wasted everything you’ve done!’

            Chris started to respond but stopped and she saw the anger drain from his face. ‘Oh, sweetheart…’ He got up, walking around the table to pull her to her feet, then folded his arms around her. ‘This isn’t about us. You’re still talking about how scared you are.’

            Jess hated him for being right. And she hated herself for crying, but, out of nowhere, tears were pouring down her face onto his jacket. He held her while she cried, rubbing her back gently, which she found oddly comforting, and letting her cry it out. When her sobs subsided, he grabbed her napkin from the table and gently wiped her tears away.

            ‘This is stage fright, Jess, and inexperience. Marvel know what they’re doing. You’re going to be part of the next generation, the female-led phase. You, Brie, Scarlett, if and when they make a Black Widow movie, Tessa, Letitia, Danai, you’re all a part of it. You’ve got to trust it.’

            ‘It’s so big,’ she said, her voice small.

            ‘You are more than equal to it.’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ She wiped her hands over her face, ashamed for ruining the magical evening he’d created.

            ‘Don’t be sorry.’ He put a finger under her chin, lifting her face to look into her eyes. ‘You told me once that Moondragon is a martial arts specialist and you’re more of a chocolate cake specialist. Go and freshen up and I’ll do dessert.’

            She half-laughed, ‘Okay.’

            Dessert was a very sticky chocolate cake that hadn’t quite risen but was delicious none the less. Chris sat on a lounge chair and pulled Jess down into his lap so they could share chocolatey kisses while they ate. When she was finished, Jess put her plate down. ‘Sweetheart, this is all amazing. I’m so stunned you did this for me.’

            There was a silence in which they both tuned in to the song that was playing. I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz. Chris gently manoeuvred her to her feet and stood up, offering her his hand. ‘Dance with me?’

            She took his hand and he twirled her into his arms. She looked at him, eyes glittering with amusement. ‘You’ve got moves?’

            ‘Oh, I’ve got moves,’ he bragged, moving his hands over her ass.

            She laughed, slapping them away. ‘Those weren’t the moves I was talking about.’

            He returned his hands to her lower back with a small sigh. ‘They’re my best ones though.’

            They danced until the end of the song. It was intimate and binding and she knew that they were having an important moment.

            Chris stopped but kept his hold on her, holding her gaze for a long moment. ‘I love you, Jess.’

            ‘What?’ She breathed, sure she hadn’t heard right.

            He laughed, ‘We are going to have to get you a hearing aid. I said that I love you.’

            She kissed him hard, wrapping her arms so tight around his neck she thought he might pass out, but he held her back, lifting her feet from the floor. When she was done kissing him she pulled back to look into his eyes. ‘I love you, too.’

Chapter Text

One Year Later

‘Jess?’ Chris yelled through the house. ‘Have you seen my cashmere jumper?’

            She appeared behind him, a load of neatly folded laundry in her arms and an amused look on her face. ‘It sounds so weird when you use British words. Do you mean the grey one that makes your arms look like sequoia trunks? I hung it in your suit carrier. You can’t fold it, it will crease.’

            ‘I was going to wear it tonight.’

            ‘Why? It’s perfect for a junket. The ladies will swoon. These are yours, by the way.’

            He took the pile of immaculately laundered t-shirts and watched her disappear into the bedroom. He didn’t know how she did it. In a few days, she would be walking the red carpet at her first ever premiere and right now she was washing and drying laundry, packing her suitcases ready for the press junket and deep conditioning her hair. He followed her back in the bedroom and put the t-shirts next to his open suitcase. ‘I want to take you somewhere.’

            It had become his catchphrase and she knew that it meant I've concocted a huge and possibly elaborate romantic gesture that's probably going to make you cry. She rolled her eyes. ‘You can’t keep doing this, Chris. We’ve got to finish packing tonight.’

            ‘Please,’ he pleaded, crawling across the bed to take her hands. ‘It’s really important to me.’

            She looked into his eyes and knew it was hopeless. ‘Fine.’

            He grinned, pulling her against him. ‘I love you.’

            ‘You’d better.’ She said sternly. Then she kissed him so he'd know she was only joking.

            Having been accused in the past of not being romantic, he found that now he could not stop. Jess had this look that never failed to make his heart skip a beat. It was the way her face lit up when she was genuinely delighted. He craved that look so much that he’d had to dream up more and more scenarios with which to delight her. He realised he’d been romantic all along, he’d just needed the right motivation.

            He finished his packing, with a lot of help from Jess, and hauled his cases to the front door ready for the morning. She was already packed and in the shower washing her hair so he spent some time going over his plan for the evening. He’d been organising it for weeks and, if everything went to plan, it was going to be his most epic surprise yet.

            ‘Evans!’

            ‘Finley!’ He smiled, getting up to go to the bedroom. She had picked up the habit of calling him Evans when they were filming Avengers due to the sheer number of Chris’s on set. Most of the men got called by their surnames anyway and the women by their first names, but he had taken to calling her Finley whenever she called him Evans at home. ‘What’s up?’

            She was standing in the closet in her robe with a towel on her head. ‘What should I wear for your little excursion?’

            ‘Jeans, comfortable shoes, bring a jumper.’ He turned to go then turned back. ‘Wear your hair down?’

            She laughed, shaking her head. ‘You’re obsessed with the hair.’

            ‘You’re obsessed with the beard.’

            ‘Touché. You wear the beard, I’ll wear my hair down.’

            ‘Deal,’ he smiled, heading for the bathroom.

 

It had been a long year for them both. Shooting Avengers had tested them to their limits. They had lived together in the same house and the long, hot, humid days had taken a toll on them. They had loved, laughed, cried, argued, and sulked their way through the five months of shooting. Jess had been sick for a couple of weeks, keeping them both up at night so they were even more fragile-tempered than usual. It had turned out to be the heat and the endless hours she spent in a costume so tight that you could see what she had for breakfast but it had crossed their minds that she could be pregnant. Their sex wasn’t particularly safe by that point and she had done two pregnancy tests, both of which came back negative, but it had made them think about the future and what they wanted.

            They had tried very hard to keep their relationship off the set, but the long breaks in shooting and the sporadic rainstorms had meant they had a lot of time on their hands. There had been many long, happy hours spent in their trailers, and a handful of a few quick minutes, too. There had been one time that they had been trying to shoot a fight scene. Chris hadn’t moved in the right direction and Jess had caught him right on the bridge of his nose with the heel of her palm. Blood had poured from his nose and there had been a lot of shouting and running around while they tried to work out if it was broken. Terrified she’d given him not only a broken nose but the black eyes that would follow, Jess had been devastated.

            Thankfully, it hadn’t been broken. He had been whipped out of his costume so they could get the blood out and sent to his trailer to coagulate. Jess, full of remorse and eager to make it up to him, had snuck in and, in full costume and makeup, knelt between his legs and given him the most amazing blow job he’d ever had. He hadn’t been able to look at her in public for two days afterwards because the flashbacks gave him a hard-on.

            They had both come to see the effects they had on one another’s lives. Jess had taught him to be more free-spirited, to enjoy walking around the house barefoot and half-naked, and the value of inspiring loyalty in others. In turn, he had shown her how to calm her anxiety, and that she could trust herself to just let go. They had settled into an easy routine together and were both looking forward to more freedom once they’d got the Avengers promotion out of the way.

 

Chris checked the GPS and hoped he was heading to the right place. They had been driving for almost three hours and were now in the middle of the desert with absolutely nothing around them and the last thing he wanted to do was get them lost. It wasn’t the end of the world if he didn’t find what he was looking for but it would take the edge off the evening. It was getting dark and they didn’t have much time.

            ‘Sweetheart, this is the craziest thing you’ve done by far. Where on Earth are we going?’

            ‘You’ll see.’ He could see a lonely, deserted gas station up ahead and he smiled. ‘Nearly there.’

            He pulled into the gas station and parked beside a dusty pickup. Jess gave him a sceptical look when he told her to get in it but did as he asked. He climbed in beside her, reached across to the glove compartment and pulled out the keys.

            ‘It’s not far now,’ he promised.

            He started the car and drove straight across the road onto a dirt track. It was rough and bumpy and Jess understood why he hadn’t wanted to drive his sleek car over it. After about ten minutes, he stopped the truck and turned to look at her. ‘Stay here a minute.’

            ‘Chris, is this where you kill me and bury my body in the desert where nobody will ever find it?’

            ‘Yup,’ he said, climbing out and closing the door.

            She smiled and took out her phone. There was no signal but she played Angry Birds until he opened her door. ‘Come on. You might want to put your sweater on, it’s getting cold.’

            She climbed out and looked around while she pulled on the hoodie she’d brought with her. There was not much to see apart from a nearby cactus and it was getting very dark indeed. Chris watched the way she pushed her hands under her hair to flick it out from under the collar. That was his money shot, right there. With a grin, he took her hand and led her to the back of the pickup, where he had laid out blankets and cushions. A drinks cooler sat in one corner. She looked at him, bemused, as he helped her up. ‘Kinky desert sex?’

            ‘Only if you really want to. Sit down.’ He climbed up and sat beside her. ‘Now, lay back.’

            She did as he said, looking up at the darkened sky. ‘Oh!’ She breathed as realisation dawned. She turned her head to look at him. ‘I honestly don’t deserve you.’

            They gazed up at the sky in silence for a long time and, eventually, the Milky Way began to come into focus and they both laughed in delight. Jess had never seen so many stars and she was completely overwhelmed.

            ‘It’s so beautiful,’ she breathed. ‘This is the first time I’ve realised that I’m actually looking into space.’

            Chris got to his knees, turning so he could look down at her face, wanting to remember her expression for the rest of his life. Mouth dry and heart pounding, he took a deep breath and wiped his palms on his jeans. It was now or never. ‘Jess?’

            ‘Yeah?’ She replied dreamily, not taking her eyes from the sky.

            ‘From the day we met I knew you were going to have an impact on my life, I just didn’t know how huge it would be. I fell in love with your mouth, the things you say and the way you say them. I fell in love with your honesty and frankness. I fell in love with your vulnerability. I fell in love with your willingness to see the best in everyone.’ She sat up suddenly, her eyes were wide with surprise and he felt his throat tighten as tears burned the backs of his eyes. ‘You are unerringly patient and kind to everyone who comes into your life, no matter who they, and you inspire me to be a kinder, more patient man. You love with your whole heart and I love you with my whole heart. You’re already a part of my family but I want us to be our own family, together. I want to protect you and support you and love you forever.’ He held up the ring box so she could see it and, with a shaking hand, flipped it open. ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?’

            Jess looked at him, stunned. For a moment she couldn’t react, the breath was sucked out of her lungs and she felt paralyzed. Then she suddenly burst into tears. ‘Yes, please.’

            Chris let out the breath he had been holding, a laugh of relief and joy bubbling up his throat. He dashed his tears away, took the ring from its box and slid it onto her finger. It fit perfectly. Then he pulled her into his arms and kissed her, on and on, until they had to come up for air. ‘For a second there I really thought you were going to say no.’

            She laughed, leaning back so she could inspect the ring. It was made of two strands of rose and white gold, entwined around each other like branches and set with tiny diamonds, and in the centre sat a huge diamond. ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful!’ She pressed her lips to his, her trembling hands on his face, then on the back of his neck. ‘I love you,’ she whispered between kisses, ‘I love you so much.’

            ‘I love you, too,’ he assured her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair. ‘You’ve made me so happy.’

            They held each other for a long time. He picked up her left hand and turned it this way and that, letting the diamond catch the starlight above them. Neither of them could wipe the huge grins from their faces.

            ‘Oh, I almost forgot.’ He reached across and flipped open the lid of the cooler. Inside was an iced bottle of champagne and two glasses.

            Jess laughed at his preparedness. ‘How the hell did you arrange for someone to leave you a truck and a bottle of my favourite champagne in the middle of the desert?’

            He smiled enigmatically as he popped the cork. ‘I made a few calls.’ He handed her a glass. ‘Thank you for agreeing to by my wife.’

            She laughed, clinking her glass against his. ‘Thank you for asking.’

            Chris pulled out his phone. ‘We need a picture of this.’

            In the end, they had to use the torch on her phone to light the picture on his phone but they finally got a clear shot of the two of them, grinning like fools, and the ring on her finger.

            Jess sat between his legs, leant back on his chest and sighed happily, looking up at the millions of stars above them. ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to contain this happiness.’

            He smiled, his lips on her neck. ‘You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I want to shout it from the rooftops but I’m also really enjoying the fact that we are now engaged and still nobody’s got a clue that we’re together.’

            His arms were wrapped tightly around her and his chin rested on her shoulder. She reached her hand up to stroke his face. ‘Let’s tell your family and our closest friends. Then, if we want to, we can come out after the premiere.’

            ‘Whatever you want, my gorgeous girl.’ He kissed her neck again and felt her shiver.

            ‘So, about that kinky desert sex…’

Chapter Text

It was pouring down with rain in London, but it didn’t matter, because Chris and Jess were trapped in a hotel room with two cameras, and about twelve people. They had arrived the previous evening and had hardly had time to grab dinner before being briefed by the PR team and sent to bed. They had two solid days of interviews and then a day of TV and radio before they flew to New York and did it all again.

            They had been teamed together for the first day of interviews. Chris could tell the PR team had been reluctant to do so as they didn’t want news of their engagement hijacking the publicity, but it was much better for Jess to be with him for her first time and they knew it. To mollify them, Jess had agreed to move her engagement ring to her right hand. She sat on his left, holding what must have been her fiftieth cup of proper English tea, looking apprehensive.

            ‘Babe, are you okay?

            She sighed. ‘Why are there so many people?’

            ‘It will calm down once we start. Josh and Sue will stay, and probably one or two of the PR people, just to make sure we don’t give out any spoilers or whatever.’

            Jess puffed her cheeks out. ‘I don’t know any. We had so many rewrites and new scenes that I didn’t have a clue what was happening.’

            ‘They’re more worried you’re going to say you’re Captain America.’

            ‘Like I’m going to admit to that. I’m still hoping they’ve changed their minds and edited that part out.’

            Chris laughed and quickly squeezed her hand. ‘You’re going to be awesome.’

            ‘I bet you $50 that the first question is ‘What can fans expect from this movie?”’

            ‘Haha! I’m not taking that bet.’

            A few minutes later people began filing out of the room and an interviewer came in with a guy who doubled as camera and soundman. Whilst he set up, the interviewer introduced herself and sat reading through her notes. Once they were rolling she looked up, smiled and said, ‘So, what can fans expect from this movie?’

            After about twenty-five interviews they were allowed a ten-minute break. Jess ran to the bathroom, beginning to regret all the tea she’d been drinking. She had been asked the same questions twenty-five times in twenty-five different ways but she still only had one answer. What was it like joining a big, established cast? Who did she get on best with on set? The beauty of that question was that they always added ‘apart from Chris, of course’ because he was sat right next to her. How long did it take to get into her costume? Did she have to train for her part? She found that one pretty insulting, anyone who had seen a picture of her before casting and then watched the trailers could see she'd had to train hard.

            She opened the door to go back, but Chris was right outside and slipped in, kicked the door shut behind him and flicked the lock as he reached for her. He backed her against the wall, his mouth on hers, his warm hands roaming over her legs.

            ‘I’m not sure this is in my contract,’ she said against his mouth.

            ‘It definitely is.’ He ran his hands up her thighs, bunching up her dress as he dug his fingers into her ass cheeks.

            ‘Easy, tiger,’ she said, twisting reluctantly out of his grip. ‘Don’t start something you can’t finish.’

            ‘I can finish,’ he grabbed her from behind and gently bit her neck as she squealed. ‘Hell, we’ve got ten minutes, I could finish twice.’

            Jess slapped his hands away, laughing hard. ‘This is terrible, Chris. Does it get any better?

            He sighed, ‘Not really. There’s a couple of cool journalists we haven’t seen yet so at least we’ve got something to look forward to, but what we’ve had so far is pretty much all there is.’

            ‘And the ladies love Chris Evans,’ she taunted. Some of the female interviewers had been very…obvious. One hadn’t asked Jess a single question, just flirted with Chris for five solid minutes.

            He looked at her, trying to gauge her reaction.

            ‘Stop looking at me. I don’t give a shit. Let them touch your arms and flatter you. They’re not the one wearing your ring or standing in the bathroom with your hands up their dress.’ She leaned in to kiss him, softly biting his lower lip.

            ‘I love you so fucking much,’ he breathed.

            ‘Stop. I already don’t want to go back out there, stop making it worse.’

            The next twenty-five interviews were much the same as the first. They started playing Word Sneak just to amuse themselves. Between each interview, they gave each other a word that they had to sneak into their answers. It soon descended into anarchy, with Chris randomly shouting ‘Parakeet!’ in a desperate voice, making Jess cry with laughter and the interviewer sit looking bemused while the two of them almost made themselves sick laughing.

            ‘You’re like children,’ Sue admonished during the next changeover, but Jess could see she was amused. ‘Two more interviews and then you can have lunch.’

            After the following interview, the room started to fill up with PR people, whispering frantically and showing each other phones and iPads. Chris and Jess were talking quietly and not paying a lot of attention, but eventually someone came over and handed them an iPad. ‘We’ve got a problem.’

 

‘I’m really sorry, guys. I deleted it as soon as I started getting notifications but it was too late.’

            Chris shook his head, ‘Don’t worry, dude, it’s fine.’

            Jess sat on the floor with her back against the end of the bed, eating a cheese sandwich. ‘No worries, Mark.’

            Mark Ruffalo had tried to DM their engagement photo to someone from the crew on Twitter but had accidentally posted it on his main feed instead. It had taken him thirty seconds to realise and delete it but by then it was too late. It had been copied, saved, screenshot and was now being posted everywhere. News sites were starting to pick up on the story. Their secret was finally out.

            ‘Mark, we’ve got to go,’ his assistant said, tapping his watch.

            Chris hugged Mark and Jess got up to do the same. ‘We love you, man,’ Chris said. ‘And really don’t beat yourself up about it, please.’

            When he’d gone, Jess and Chris were finally alone. ‘Are you okay?’ He asked her.

            ‘Yeah. I really am. I think it’s kind of a cool way to come out. Mark’s leaked everything else, why not this? What about you, are you okay?’

            He laughed. ‘I told you that I want to shout it from the rooftops. I could not care less.’

            There was a knock at the door and they looked at each other. ‘Let’s pretend we’re not here,’ Jess whispered.

            ‘I wish we could,’ he said, heading out to answer the door. ‘Better yet, I wish we really weren’t here.’

            He came back with Josh, Sue and a girl from PR who Jess thought might be called Kitty. They all looked the same, blade thin, blonde, SoCal girls. Jess sighed and sank back to the floor to finish her sandwich.

            ‘You guys are making my job so hard,’ might-be-called-Kitty said with a sigh. ‘You could have waited until after all this to get engaged.’

            ‘What?’ Chris said, swinging round to look at her.

            ‘Look,’ Jess said, putting down her sandwich, ‘you can’t tell us when we can and can’t get engaged, that’s just bullshit. It’s not in our contracts. We’re not bringing the movie or studio into disrepute or giving out spoilers, and those are the only two things you need to worry about.’

            ‘Now just a second -’ Might-be-called-Kitty started, but Jess was on her feet.

            'Uh-oh,' Chris muttered, moving to intercept.

            ‘No!’ Jess said firmly, holding up her hand. ‘You don’t get to talk to us like we’re the property of the studio and we must comply or like we’re just so inconvenient that you can’t even. We’re two adults with lives of our own and we’ve kept our relationship quiet for over a year. You didn’t even know we were dating, let alone engaged, until today.’

            Chris took her hand, tugging her back towards him. ‘It’s okay,’ he said quietly.

            ‘It’s been decided to split you up for the afternoon session. Jess will go with Chris Hemsworth and Chris will go with Brie.’

            ‘That sounds real sensible. Split us up so you’ve got the journalists asking about our relationship twice instead of just once.’ Chris said scathingly.

            Sue shook her head. ‘Kaylee, you should leave. I’m going to make some calls and we’ll get back to you.’

            Jess took a deep breath. If Sue was on their side then that meant they were in the right. She glared at Kaylee as she tossed her blonde mane and stalked out of the room. Sue went out into the corridor to make her calls and Josh turned to them, ‘Can I get you anything?’

            ‘Can I get a coffee, please?’ Chris asked.

            ‘Jess?’

            ‘No, thank you.’

            He nodded and left them alone.

            ‘I’m beginning to see why you left.’

            ‘This is the tip. At least on set people recognise your value and treat you with respect. Once you get into promotion the PR department acts like you’re an action figure out of its box.’

            Sue came back in and she was smiling. ‘You’ll be together this afternoon. It’s already been scheduled that tomorrow morning you’ll be with Hemsworth and Chris with Brie, then solo interviews in the afternoon and they want to stick with that. Oh, and we're going to ban relationship questions for all your interviews.’

            Jess smiled, ‘Thank you.’

            ‘We’ve pushed back your afternoon session to two o’clock to give you a little more time to relax and eat. I’ll get out of your hair until then.’

            Josh returned with a takeaway cup and set it down, then he disappeared too. Chris went and hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the door then closed the bedroom door for good measure. ‘Come here. I want to see how many times I can make you come in an hour.’

            ‘That sounds epic but please don’t. I’m so tired already, that will just knock me out.’

            ‘How about I make you come once and then you nap for the rest of the hour?’

            ‘That right there is why I am marrying you.’

            ‘Speaking of which…’ He took her right hand and removed her ring, then put it back on the ring finger of her left hand. ‘Now get naked and prepare yourself for three, maybe even four, minutes of primetime loving.’

            She laughed, ‘That long?’

            ‘God, I hope so.'

Chapter Text

Their afternoon session was a lot more fun and relaxed but they were both exhausted by the time they left the media suite and returned to their room. Jess stripped off and headed for the shower while Chris checked his messages.

            When she came out of the bathroom she found him sitting on the bed, looking troubled. ‘Hey, sweetheart, what’s wrong?’

            He sighed and looked up at her. ‘I went on Twitter.’

            ‘Well, that was dumb.’ She climbed up on the bed beside him.

            ‘A lot of people have said a lot of nice things. But some people have said some shitty things.’

            ‘We knew this, Chris.’

            ‘I know,’ he turned to look at her. ‘But some of it is really shitty.’

            Jess slumped back on the pillows. ‘Just tell me.’

            ‘There’s like three distinct camps. Nice people, cynical people and really shitty people.’

            ‘So nice people say nice things like yay Chris and Jess and they’ll give us a ship name like Chess or Chress. Cynical people say that because we have never been seen together that it’s all for publicity to raise my profile and we’ll quietly split up in a month or two and tell everyone our love was just too intense to last’

            ‘Wait, how do you know that? Have you been online?’

            ‘No, it’s just obvious. The first stage of grief is denial.’

            ‘That is almost word for word. Sometimes your intuitiveness terrifies me.’

            ‘Tell me about the really shitty people.’

            ‘Well, I got called a race traitor.’

            ‘Wow, what?’

            ‘It kind of happened once before and I think people are just jumping on that. The rest is really unpleasant and I don’t want to tell you.’

            ‘I’ll find out anyway so you may as well.’ She was clenching her jaw so hard that it hurt. ‘Race traitor? Really?’

            ‘Jess…’ Chris was regretting everything. He could see she was about to lose it in a big way and the last thing he wanted was to upset her. ‘Come on, babe. Let’s just go out for dinner and stay in our little bubble of blissful ignorance.’

            ‘Just tell me the rest, Chris. I’m already pissed off, don’t put yourself in the blast zone because you want to try and protect me.’

            He sighed. He really had not thought this through. He should have just smiled when she came out of the bathroom and pretended everything was fine. ‘People who think that Captain America should find a nice, blonde, blue-eyed girl and chain her to the kitchen sink. There were a few racist slurs and that’s pretty much it.’

            ‘Liar,’ she said, but she let it go. ‘You know, when you live in London or New York or Los Angeles, you forget the rest of the world isn’t as liberal as you. I know that we are living in hard times, with a racist in the White House, an awful right-wing government here, and fascist parties enjoying a resurgence all over Europe. Now people like that think that they have a voice, that they have a right to have their vile opinions heard. I’ve experienced racism since I was a little kid but never in my professional life. Not once. If this is what they’re saying to you, you wholesome white boy, imagine what they’re going to say to me when they see me holding that fucking shield.’

            Chris dropped his head. He couldn’t argue with her because she was right. There was going to be a contingent of people, much larger and more vocal than it had any right to be, who were going to despise having not only a woman but a woman of colour as Captain America. It was professionally where she would feel the strongest punches. ‘I’m sorry, Jess. It never crossed my mind that that would be an issue, and I can see clearly that it is.’

            ‘It’s too late now. I signed the contract. I was too excited and overwhelmed to realise that it was a mistake.’

            ‘It’s not a mistake, Jess. How can you say that?’ He watched as she got up from the bed and started to pull on her jeans. ‘What are you doing?’

            ‘I’m going out. I need some headspace.’

            ‘Please don’t.’

            She looked over at him and felt a tug in her heart. ‘Honestly, sweetheart, you don’t want to be around me for a couple of hours.’

            ‘If you can’t share this with me then who can you share it with?’

            ‘I don’t want to share it with anyone.’ She pulled on one of his hoodies and started looking around for her shoes. ‘Let me be angry and bitter and resentful on my own. Then when I get back I can be your Jess again.’

            ‘You’re always my Jess,’ he said quietly. ‘Even when you’re angry, bitter and resentful.’

            Why did he have to be so adorable when all she wanted to do was rage and smash things? She found her shoes, then crossed the room to stand in front of him. He rested his forehead on her stomach and she buried her hands in his hair. ‘I love you.’

            Then she turned and walked out. He watched her go, staring at the bedroom door for a few minutes. Then he picked up his phone.

 

Jess took the lift down to the lobby and headed for the hotel’s back entrance. As she strode along with her head down, she ran into Hemsworth as he was coming in. Literally. They collided painfully. ‘Oof! Jess! I was going to come up and see you guys. Congratulations!’

            She rubbed her head, ‘Thanks.’

            ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ He bent down to look at her. ‘Are you alright?’

            Tears came out of nowhere, splashing down her face without warning. Hemsworth put his arm around her and guided her back through the lobby to the lifts. He took her up to his room and sat her on the sofa, then he disappeared for a moment and returned holding a glass. Jess had thought it was water but it turned out to be a gin and tonic. She had to smile.

            ‘What’s going on?’

            ‘You know Mark accidentally posted our picture?’

            Hemsworth sighed, ‘That man can not be trusted with social media. I had heard, yes.’

            ‘Chris read his Twitter.’

            ‘That was stupid.’

            ‘That’s what I said!’ She rubbed her sleeve over her eyes. ‘So anyway, it’s not good and now I regret signing a four-film contract and agreeing to -’ she paused. ‘Do not breathe a word, Hemsworth. I’m the new Cap.’

            ‘Wow! That is huge! How have you kept it a secret for so long?’

            Jess laughed. She sipped at her drink. It was mostly gin. ‘Feige said he could have me killed and nobody would even miss me.’

            He laughed but crossed his heart and held up his fingers in a scout salute. ‘Your secret is safe with me.’

            ‘I’ve always been concerned about how the fans would react to that little nugget of information. But I was thinking purely along the lines of them rather having Bucky or Sam or anyone but me, a newcomer who comes in right at the end. I thought maybe my Britishness would be an issue. For the real fans maybe they will be the only issues. But for the casual, racist observer, I think my colour is going to be a huge issue.’

            Hemsworth scowled. ‘Fuck ‘em, Jess. You’ve got a massive opportunity here to do a lot of good, don’t let a few obnoxious twats ruin it for you.’

            ‘They called Chris a race traitor.’

            ‘What? That is insane!’

            ‘They’re gonna be like, who does she think she is, coming over here and taking our jobs and marrying our Captain America, and I know I should be like, I’m going to turn this around, I’m going to show people that a mixed-race immigrant can represent their new country, I’m going to show little mixed raced kids everywhere that they belong, but right now I just want to rip up my contract and punch stuff.’

            ‘I’d let you punch me but I saw what you did to Evans.’

            ‘That was an accident!’

            ‘Exactly!’ He laughed. ‘Imagine what you could do on purpose!’

            She laughed and wiped her eyes on her sleeve again. ‘You know, I never used to cry. Since I signed up for this movie I seem to do it all the fucking time.’

            ‘So what?’ He said dismissively, ‘It’s not weak to cry.’

            She loved his brutal honesty. They had become good friends during their time in Atlanta. They’d had a lot of scenes together and had spent hours between takes talking about all kinds of crap, and they’d got on really well. Whenever anyone said anything to her, he would repeat it in his Thor voice as if he was translating for her, and they would people watch while she pretended she could lipread and made up their conversations while he roared with laughter. He never talked behind a person’s back and if he had a problem with someone, he would tell them straight up. She admired that so much.

            ‘I know you don’t see colour or shapes or size. But so many people do.’

            ‘Then make them stop. Do something. Join a cause or a charity, make it your life’s work. Just don’t let idiots like that ruin your experience or drain your confidence.’

            She looked at him for a moment, her head suddenly brimming with ideas. ‘Can I hug you?’

            ‘Okay, but just this once and if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it.’

            Laughing, she got up and he wrapped her in a huge bear hug. ‘You give the second-best hugs out of everyone I know.’

            ‘But I’m still your favourite Chris, I know.’ He put her down, ‘You and Evans should come out and stay with us for a while when you’ve got some free time. No paparazzi, no press, no drama. We’d love to have you.’

            ‘I would love that and I’m sure that he would, too. Thank you!’

            ‘And listen, you’re one of us now. You’re part of the family and we’ve all got your back. If you need anything, you only have to ask.’

            She smiled, ‘Evans said something very similar the first day I met him.’

            ‘It’s the hive Chris mind we share.’

            ‘You always cheer me up, thank you,’ she hugged him again. ‘I shall call on you if I have need of you, Hemsworth.’

            ‘Send a raven.’

            Grinning, she left his room and walked down to the lift again. This time she made it outside. It was still raining so she pulled up her hood and headed down towards the river. She hadn’t been back to London at all since she moved to LA. It felt weird to return like this, teetering on the edge of something big and engaged to Chris Evans.

            Shooting the movie together had been a huge struggle but they had come out so much stronger on the other side. It didn’t matter how loud they shouted at each other, how many bitches he spat at her and how many knobheads she yelled at him, she had never thought that they were ending or that she wanted to leave him. That’s when she had known that she wanted to spend her life with him. He made her feel and she loved him for it, even if sometimes those emotions weren’t the nice ones.

            She hadn’t really had a chance to process his proposal yet. So much had happened since that she hadn’t been able to reflect. She had a lot she wanted to say to him, things that she wanted to make sure that he knew and understood.

            She reached the embankment. A bitter wind was whipping across the murky, dark water and made the rain into tiny daggers that stung her face. She pushed her hands into her pockets and kept walking. The weather had driven most people off of the streets and it felt a lot later than it actually was.

            As she walked, she pondered over the things Hemsworth had said. He had given her some great ideas. She would love to work with an anti-racism group but she wondered if there was something specifically for people of mixed race. Sometimes it was hard to be accepted by either community when you were half and half.

            Jess didn’t realise how long and how far she had walked until she got to the Tower of London. It loomed up ahead of her and suddenly she didn’t want to be walking in the dark any longer. She hadn’t brought her phone or any money, but she looked around for a taxi anyway. The hotel would take care of it and put it on her bill. As was the norm in London, there was never an orange light when you needed one and she stood at the side of the road for ten minutes, anxiety pressing in on her.

            Eventually, an empty cab came towards her and she climbed gratefully into the backseat. As London cab drivers are trained to spot a celebrity at ten paces, he immediately recognised her and spent the ten-minute drive telling her how much his kid loved Marvel movies. But it meant she was able to pay with an autograph and was safely deposited outside the hotel.

            ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’ Jess said, letting herself back into the suite.

            ‘I was getting worried about you, you didn’t take your phone.’ Chris appeared in the bedroom doorway.

            ‘I’m sorry. I ran into Hemsworth and then I went for a walk, but I walked too far and had to get a taxi home and I’m sorry.’

            He chuckled quietly, pulling her into his arms. ‘You’re all wet. And not in a good way.’

            ‘That’s what happens when water falls from the sky, Evans. You’ve been in LA for too long, we’ll have to get you back to Boston.’ She wriggled out of his arms and pulled off her hoodie.

            ‘I cannot wait to get back to Boston,’ he said, a distinct edge to his voice. He walked back into the bedroom and Jess followed.

            ‘We could go as soon as we’re done with the premiere. I’m not keen to hang around in LA now we’re public knowledge. Breaking news: Chris Evans and his fiancée pictured scooping poop in the dog park, more at 11.’

            Chris laughed, shaking his head. ‘That is probably more accurate than you think. I was thinking while you were gone, we could spend a few weeks in Boston and then maybe have a vacation.’

            ‘Funny you should mention it,’ Jess paused from peeling off her damp jeans, ‘but Hemsworth invited us to stay with him and his family.’

            ‘Perfect, let’s do that. When we get home, we can look at diaries and sort something out with him.’

            She pulled off her t-shirt and crossed the room to wriggle back into his arms. ‘I’ve got so much I want to talk to you about.’

            ‘Me too.’

            ‘But first,’ she reached up to kiss him. A long, slow kiss that left him in no doubt of her intentions. ‘I’ve been wondering all day how many times you can make me come in an hour.’

            Chris grinned devilishly, gently pushed her back onto the bed and said, ‘Hey Siri, set a timer for sixty minutes.’

Chapter Text

‘I need to talk to you about Jess,’ Chris quietly spoke into his phone. ‘She’s really struggling right now.’

            ‘I was going to come and see you all in New York anyway. I’ll be there when you arrive. Bring her to see me.’

            Chris hung up, his eyes on the bathroom door. He suspected Jess was crying in there but she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her. He could see that the reaction to their engagement coupled with the frenzied press tour and the sheer hype surrounding the movie was rapidly overwhelming her and she refused to lean on him.

            The Twitter hate seemed to be just too much for her to take on. He knew from his own experience how draining the junkets were, how you had to push down your anxiety to get through the day, how you felt so tired you could barely open your mouth to answer. On top of all that she was dealing with almost every single crazy fan and white supremacist racist on the internet. He understood but he was now used to it. People said crazy things when they were hiding behind a keyboard. You either didn’t read it or you just scrolled on.

            He felt powerless to help her. He couldn’t tweet what he wanted to, he couldn’t talk about it in interviews, he felt he had no way to publicly show his support for her, especially when she wouldn’t accept his support in private. He was beginning to feel a horrible disconnect from her which he knew was being amplified by his own anxiety, although that knowledge did not reassure him.

            He checked the time. They were leaving for the airport soon. Half of the London team were going to New York and the other half were off to Shanghai. There was another group in South America and they would eventually all meet in Los Angles in a few days’ time for the premiere. He felt nothing but relief that this was all over for him. Sure, this wouldn’t be his last ever junket but it was his last huge, demanding, time-intensive Marvel one.

            With a sigh of trepidation, he got up and knocked quietly on the bathroom door. ‘Babe? We have to go.’

            ‘Okay.’

            After a minute the door opened and she came out. He could immediately see that she’d been crying. He wanted more than anything to hold her even though he knew she wouldn’t let him. He watched as she put on her sunglasses, then pulled her hood up for good measure. He knew it wasn’t a disguise, it was a shield.

            He went to take her backpack for her but she swung it onto her shoulder. ‘I’ve got it.’

            ‘Jess, wait.’ He put his hand on the door as she tried to open it.

            ‘Chris -’

            ‘Let me speak, Jess,’ he interrupted, reaching across to take off her sunglasses. ‘You’re scaring me. I feel as if I’m losing you. I know you’re upset and I completely understand. I’m upset, too, and it hurts me to see you being treated like this. But it hurts even more that you’re shutting me out. I feel so detached from you.’

            ‘I don’t know how to come back,’ she muttered, looking down at her shoes rather than have to look him in the eye. ‘I just need some time.’

            ‘Are we okay though?’ He asked hesitantly.

            She paused and his heart went into freefall. ‘I don’t know.’

            ‘What?’ His voice was a whisper, a breath.

            ‘I love you, but…all of this… It’s eating away at me and I don’t know how to make it stop.’

            ‘We can start by deleting our social media. We don’t need to have it on tap, giving in to the temptation to read it. We don’t need to give those people a direct voice to us.’

            ‘Your fans would be devastated.’

            He shrugged. ‘Right now, you are devastated. I love the fans but I am in love with you. Jess,’ he couldn’t help but reach out and touch her face, even though she flinched, ‘you’re telling me that you don’t know if we’re okay or not. I will do anything to make it all go away.’

            She chewed her lip and he could see she was fighting back more tears. ‘Chris, that’s… not -’ She choked on a sob. ‘I-I...’

            ‘What’s the matter?’ He was alarmed, she was falling to pieces before his eyes. ‘Breathe, and just say it.’

            She took a deep breath, and then another, then closed her eyes tight. ‘I’m having a miscarriage.’

            He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. Completely stunned, insides hollow, he felt as if he’d forgotten how to speak.

            When his silence continued, she said, ‘I found out the day before yesterday. I realised I was late so Sue went and got me a test. Within an hour of me taking it, I started getting cramps and then I was bleeding and…’

            ‘Stop,’ he said gently. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

            ‘I thought you’d be angry,’ she said in a small voice.

            ‘What?’

            She dashed her hand over her eyes, dislodging her tears. ‘I thought you’d say that I was too stressed and -’

            ‘No! Jess, how could you think that? Don’t you know me at all?’

            She shrugged off her bag and went back into the bedroom, sitting on the bed. Chris stood in the doorway and looked at her.   

            ‘When were you going to tell me?’

            She looked down at her lap, tears splashing onto her jeans. ‘I don’t know. I thought maybe after the premiere.’

            ‘After the… Jess!’

            ‘I didn’t want to upset you!’

            He smacked his palm on his forehead, making her jump. ‘Upset me? Upset me?! What the hell do you think you’ve been doing for the past two days?’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she sobbed, burying her face in her hands.

            His heart twisted painfully. The shock was all that was keeping him together. He realised that there was no way they could leave, Jess was distraught and they really had to talk. ‘Stay here. I’ll be back in a minute.’

            He went down to the lobby and found Josh, pulling him to one side. He quickly explained that they couldn’t leave and Josh said he’d make arrangements for them to fly out later in the day, either by a chartered jet or on a commercial flight. Chris told him to go on ahead with Sue and the others, that they’d be fine flying back alone.

            Back upstairs he paused outside the suite door and took a very deep breath before going back inside. Jess was exactly where he’d left her. He hesitated, wanting to hold her and comfort her and be comforted, but he realised he was angry with her. After having been offended by her anxiety over the very same.

            ‘Jess,’ he said quietly. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I’m so sorry.’

            ‘I’m so angry with you for not telling me, for planning on keeping it from me for over a week. For not letting me help you. For fuck's sake, Jess!’ He couldn’t help raising his voice, but it just made her cry harder.

            ‘There is nothing you can say that I haven’t already beaten myself up about, Chris. I know you’re angry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.’

            He relented. He crossed the room and pulled her to her feet and into his arms. ‘I love you. There are surprisingly few things you could do to change that.’

            ‘I love you,’ she muffled from the crook of his neck.

            He sighed. ‘I told Josh to get us a later flight. I thought we could stay here for a while and, I don’t know, reconnect.’

            ‘Okay.’

            He knew that she didn’t care if they never made it to New York and at that moment he didn’t care much either. He guided her back to the bed and sat her down, then picked up the phone and called room service, ordering tea. ‘And some of those, what are they called? Like biscuits?’

            ‘Scones.’ Jess said.

            ‘Yes! Scones!’

            She managed a small smile and once he hung up she said, ‘Can you get me some tissues, please?’

            He went into the bathroom and retrieved the box of tissues for her. His phone buzzed and he checked the message. ‘It’s from Josh, he’s got us a private flight tonight, it will be ready from eight. The car will pick us up at seven and the hotel has said it’s fine to keep the room until then.’

            Jess dried her eyes and blew her nose. ‘I wish we were at home.’

            ‘Me too, babe,’ he said heavily, thinking of Sunday mornings in bed with her. He sat on the bed and held out his arm for her. ‘How are you feeling? Are you in pain?’

            She shook her head, shifting to snuggle up to him. ‘The worst part is over, I think. I want to get checked over when we get home but it’s been…straightforward.’

            Chris closed his eyes, thinking back over the past two days. He didn’t know how he failed to see that there was something more going on. ‘I’m sorry this happened.’

            ‘Me too,’ she said quietly. ‘But for an hour I was so happy. Everything went away and I didn’t care about trolls on Twitter or anything other than the fact that we were going to have a baby.’

            He kissed the top of her head, tears welling in his eyes. ‘We’ll have as many babies as you want, Jess. This time it wasn’t meant to be.’

            They held each other until room service knocked on the door, then Jess disappeared into the bathroom while Chris let them in and signed the bill. When she came back out she’d taken off her hoodie and washed her face. He knew that after she finished her tea she would probably go to sleep. Crying always exhausted her.

            He poured her a cup and added milk and sugar. ‘Weirdly tasty sweet biscuit thing?’

            ‘Scone,’ she reminded him with a giggle. ‘And no thank you.’

            Sure enough, Jess was yawning when he turned around with her tea. ‘We’ve got ages before we leave. Why don’t you have a nap?’

            ‘I can’t get to sleep.’ She took the cup from him and smiled. ‘You’re so good at tea now, I’m so proud.’

            ‘I will help you get to sleep.’

            ‘Oh no,’ she groaned, ‘you’re not going to tell me all the Pats game scores from the past ten years again, are you?’

            He looked offended. ‘Hey! Okay, you’re not getting your surprise now.’

            She laughed, ‘I’m sorry. What’s my surprise?’

            He picked up his bag and opened a side compartment, then took out something long and about an inch thick. At first, she thought it was a jewellery box but when he handed it to her she realised it was a huge block of hash. ‘You have no idea what I went through to get this for you.’

            ‘You’re smuggling drugs back into the States?’ She looked scandalised.

            ‘Always the lawyer.’ He continued digging in his bag, looking for his rolling stuff. ‘I thought I was going to have to ditch it if we got a commercial flight later, but Josh came through. And I wasn’t going to tell you until we got home because if someone did find it, I didn’t want you to be involved.’

            ‘Plausible deniability. The gift that keeps on giving.’ She looked at him, and he could see the corners of her mouth twitching. ‘That is criminally sweet. You big dork.’

            She sipped her tea while he rolled, inhaling the sweet scent of the hash as he heated it up. They went into the bathroom and leant out of the big sash window to smoke, then she climbed into bed, her eyes already closing. He set an alarm and lay beside her, holding her while they drifted off.

            When Chris awoke, it was to find Jess sitting beside a room service trolley laden with food, shoving chips into her mouth in a very unladylike manner. When she saw he was awake, she grinned broadly. ‘Evans! Do you think pigeons get afraid of the dark?’ and he felt his love for her swell inside him and he knew that they were going to be okay.

Chapter Text

‘I am actually excited.’ Jess gushed, impatiently tapping the button for the elevator.

            ‘I thought you would be,’ Chris grinned and took her hand. ‘It’s good to see you smiling again.’

            ‘Thank you for arranging it,’ she said earnestly, kissing his cheek. ‘That was exactly what I needed’

            They had just come out of a meeting with Kevin Feige, who had told Jess more of the plan for Moondragon and the arc of her three movies. Her mind had not only been put at rest but tucked in with a glass of warm milk and a bedtime story.

            ‘I told you to trust Marvel.’

            ‘I know, and I’m sorry I ever doubted them. Or you.’

            ‘Look, Jess,’ he turned to look at her. ‘I just want to forget London ever happened. I don’t mean in a bad way or that we shouldn’t feel grief, but just the whole negative experience. I don’t know if you can do that just yet…?’

            Jess blinked. She didn’t really know how she was supposed to feel about miscarrying. She had only known she was pregnant for an hour and it had been very early days. She was sad but most of the stress had come from the fear of telling Chris about it. Now he knew she was ready to move on and concentrate on the future. ‘I think that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to put it all behind us.’

            He pulled her close and rested his forehead on hers. ‘I want you to take me back there when we have some time. I want you to show me where you grew up and take me to all your favourite places.’

            ‘Okay,’ she grinned.

            They went back to their room and Jess kicked off her shoes and collapsed onto the bed, exhausted. She hadn’t slept since her pot-fuelled nap in London and she was ready for at least twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. Sadly, they only had six hours until they had to be up again.

            She mused over her conversation with Feige. He had urged her to hire a publicist and to consider using the media to her own advantage. She knew that was something that everyone else did, Chris had done it in the past and he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, almost every successful actor she had ever met had done or would do it. It had never crossed her mind because she’d never been in the position or needed to do it before now.

            Chris landed on the pillows beside her and she turned her head to look at him. ‘Can we talk about the wedding?’

            He grinned at her, ‘Sure.’

            She lifted her head so he could slide his arm under her, then tried to get comfortable on his bicep. ‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I assume Boston is a given?’

            He looked at her. ‘I’ve been thinking about it, too, and I don’t want it to be all about what I want. Don’t you want to get married in England?’

            ‘No, and neither do you. I guess there are places there where I would love to get married, though.’

            ‘Such as?’

            Jess bit her lip, staring up at the ceiling. ‘There’s a church called the Actors’ Church. It’s so lovely and I always thought I would like to get married there. And we just stayed in the hotel where I would have liked the reception. But I have literally no family, no ties left to England at all. There’s hardly anyone to sit on my side of a church or whatever. Just my friends and maybe some people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s nothing compared to even just your family. We’d have to fly everyone out and it would just be a big waste of time and money when the majority of the guests live in the States.’

            ‘We don’t have to have a huge wedding. It can just be close friends and family.’

            ‘Of course we have to have a big wedding, Chris. You’re only getting married once, you’ve got to have everyone there to see it.’

            ‘You might get fed up with me one day.’

            ‘Never going to happen. If you want a divorce you are going to have to sneak out in the middle of the night, change your name to Cristobal and start a new life in Nicaragua.’

            He laughed hard. ‘I’d have to live out the rest of my life as a coffee farmer.’

            ‘A single coffee farmer.’ Jess smiled but she didn’t want to be side-tracked. ‘I want to get married in Boston.’

            ‘Do you?’

            ‘Yes,’ she insisted.

            ‘Why?’

            ‘It’s not called New England for nothing. It reminds me a lot of my home and it is your home. I don’t see how we can get married anywhere else.’

            ‘But we can get married anywhere.’

            ‘You don’t want to get married anywhere, you want to get married in Boston. And so do I.’ She rolled onto her side to face him, ‘Why are you making it into a thing?’

            ‘Because it’s our wedding. Not just mine.’

            ‘Which is why I won’t be walking up the aisle wearing nothing but a Patriots shirt.’

            He gave her a look, ‘That is still on the table. What about LA?’

            ‘What about it?’

            ‘For the wedding.’

            ‘We both hate LA, Chris. Why would we get married there?’

            ‘Here then.’

            ‘Are you still high? New York over Boston?’ She tutted irritably. ‘I want us to get married in Boston, Chris, in the city where you were born and grew up, where we shared our first kiss, where we spent our first night together and where we’re going to live and raise our family. Okay?’

            He couldn’t keep the smile from his face. ‘Okay.’

            ‘Okay.’ Jess patted his stomach and sat up, swinging her legs to the edge of the bed. ‘Well, after all that I think the actual topic I wanted to talk about can wait for another day.

            Jess went to clean her teeth, then undressed for bed. Chris was reading something on his iPad when she returned, a frown of concentration creasing his forehead. ‘What’s up?’

            ‘Oh, nothing,’ he said breezily and she immediately knew he was lying.

            ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait to get back to LA. I miss Dodger and I feel as if I haven’t seen Jake in months.’ Jess pulled the covers back and climbed into bed.

            ‘I miss Dodger, too.’ He got up for his turn in the bathroom. ‘We should have a party when we get back. If we’re going to shoot off to Boston then go on vacation, we’re not going to have a lot of time to catch up with everyone.’

            Jess settled down, moving the pillows around until she was comfortable. So many thoughts were running through her mind. She was thinking about the wedding, about being Chris’s wife, about having children, about the Twitter trolls, about her future with Marvel and, a new thought, about her future as an actress.

            Chris climbed in beside her smelling of soap and toothpaste, and his arms snaked around her as he pulled her close. She smiled as he kissed her shoulder, his beard tickling her skin, and hugged his arms so that he held her even tighter, her back pressing into his chest. This was her favourite place in the world, she thought happily, and, best of all, he was portable.

 

They were joined in New York by Rudd, Holland, Renner, Elizabeth and Cumberbatch as well as retaining Hemsworth, Scarlett, Ruffalo and Brie from their London team. They were milling around the media suite waiting for the interviews to start, catching up with the new people and comparing the dark shadows beneath their eyes.

            Jess hugged Tom and made doe eyes at Chris. ‘Can we keep him?’

            ‘I already told you, no. Now put him down, you don’t know where he’s been.’

            Kaylee walked in, tossing her mane of blonde hair, and Chris and Jess exchanged glances, knowing there was no way in hell they were being put in the same room. Sure enough, she sent Jess off with Brie and Benedict and Chris with Renner and Scarlett.

            Chris was already in their room when she went up for lunch. ‘Hey you, how was your morning?’

            ‘It was fun,’ he said, holding his arms open for her. ‘We had a lot of laughs.’

            ‘We played Cards Against Humanity with one of the interviewers. I don’t think they’ll be able to air a single second of footage but it was hilarious.’ She kissed him then turned to the food laid out on the table. ‘I am starving.’

            ‘The club sandwich is good.’ He collapsed back onto the sofa and picked up his phone.

            ‘Have you been here long?’

            ‘Yeah,’ he said regretfully. ‘I have to go back in about twenty minutes.’

            Jess pulled a sad face and loaded a plate with food. She picked up her iPad and settled on the other end of the sofa. She opened her emails and started to catch up while Chris tapped out a message on his phone and ate his way through a bowl of grapes.

            ‘Chris?’

            He looked up in alarm, her voice sounded so different. ‘What’s wrong?’ She handed him her iPad and he could see her hands were shaking. He looked down at the screen. For a moment he didn’t understand what he was seeing. There was a picture of the back of a girl, she had a hood up and was walking along a street. Then there was a picture of Jess climbing out of the car outside the hotel when they first got to New York. Underneath it said, ‘Good to see you again, Jess. Next stop: LA’ He looked at the pictures again and realised that the first one was also her. ‘Was this in London?’

            She nodded. ‘It was after the leak when I went out for a walk.’

            ‘Who sent it?’

            ‘Well, the fairly obvious bet would be Andrew, but it’s been sent from an anonymous email address.’

            ‘You think he’s here in New York?’

            ‘I don’t know, that could be a paparazzi picture or he could have taken it. The one in London…’ She stopped, trying to slow her panicked breathing. ‘Look how close he was to me.’

            Chris moved so he could put his arms around her, shocked at how violently she was shaking. ‘You’re safe here in the hotel and you’re safe with me, okay?’

            She nodded but he could see it was hollow. He pushed down his anger and held her tightly. His mind was racing, wondering what they could do, whether they should go to the police or to their lawyers. Suddenly Jess pushed him away and jumped to her feet with a scream of rage.

            ‘That cunt,’ she raged. Chris looked at her in surprise, he’d never heard her use anything stronger than fuck before. ‘How fucking dare he?’

            ‘Woah, calm down…’

            ‘Calm down? Calm fucking down?’ She turned to him and he shrank back. She was angrier than he had ever seen her. ‘I knew this fucker would come for me, I knew it! Maybe you’ll get angry when he tells everyone your future wife likes to be tied up and knocked about while you fuck her like a whore because that is what he’s going to do.’

            ‘Jess!’ He was so stunned by her outburst that he didn’t know what to say. ‘Calm down. You’ve really got to calm down.’

            ‘He’s going to ruin everything, Chris. Why do you think he sent the email? He found me in London, he followed me and I didn’t have a fucking clue! Now he could be here and he’s threatening to be in LA. He’s not doing it to say hi, he’s doing it because he’s been waiting all these years until I got my break, just so he can ruin my life.’

            He got to his feet, grabbing her by the shoulders. ‘Stop! He is not going to hurt you. I won’t let him. I won’t let him blackmail or expose you. But you’ve got to trust me.’

            There was a knock at the door. They both froze, realising they were in the middle of a junket, that people were expecting them back in the media suite with smiles on their faces. ‘Shit,’ Jess muttered, heading for the bathroom.

            Chris answered the door and let Josh in. ‘We’ve got a problem. Can you get me out of the interviews or postpone them for a while?’

            ‘I don’t know, I can try.’ Josh took out his phone.

            ‘Jess, too. Call Feige if you have to. It’s serious, we need some time.’

            Josh went out into the hall to make a call and Chris picked up his own phone. He scrolled through his contacts and hit the call button, pacing the floor, continuing to try to keep control of his own rage. It seemed that every time they picked themselves up and were ready to move on, something else tried to knock them down again, and he was done. There was no way he was going to let that little prick have any kind of hold over Jess or upset her any more than he already had. ‘Hey, it’s me,’ he said when the call was answered. ‘It’s time.’

Chapter Text

Deemed too angry to return to the junket, Jess paced the room, brimming with fury. Chris had gone back down and, unable to calm her down, was distracted and quiet in his interviews to the extent that the PR girls had to tell him to at least pretend to be present. He could almost hear Jess’s furious pacing, and knowing that she was upset and alone filled him with helplessness and resentful anger.

            Jess tried replying to the email but it bounced back. She tried calling around people who might still know Andrew, but she’d cut most of those people out years ago. Out of around seven numbers, five had been disconnected and the other two went to voicemail. She left a fairly ambiguous message on both, then threw her phone down in disgust.

            She began pacing again, biting on a thumbnail. She would be damned if she would sit and wait for Andrew to come to her. It had been a long time, she was fitter and stronger now than she had ever been and she was not afraid of him. Snatching up a jacket, she stalked out of the room and headed for the lobby.

            ‘Woah, where are you rushing off to?’ Josh was standing outside the elevator with one of the security guys from the media suite.

            Jess looked at the two men, wondering if they’d really cause a scene in such a public place, with journalists coming and going the whole time. ‘For a walk.’

            Josh shook his head, ‘Sorry, Jess, you can’t do that.’

            She rolled her eyes. ‘Josh, don’t do this. Please.’

            ‘Chris wants you to stay in the hotel for your own safety. Clive here is going to be in the hallway on your floor, just in case.’

            ‘You can’t keep me prisoner, and neither can Chris. I want to go out.’

            Clive looked at Josh and said, ‘I could go with her.’

            ‘No, you could not!’ She snapped. ‘I need some time on my own.’

            ‘Then be on your own upstairs,’ Josh said firmly.

            ‘I cannot believe this!’ She turned away from the two men and then turned back. ‘Tell Evans to find somewhere else to sleep tonight.’

            She stormed back to the room, ripping off her jacket and kicking her shoes off. She let out a howl of rage and frustration and swept her arm across the table, sending plates, cutlery and food flying. Then she sank to her knees, hot, angry tears splashing down her cheeks, and wept.

 

‘Did she try to leave?’

            Chris had just finished his interviews and had found Josh waiting for him in the holding area. ‘Yes. She wasn’t very happy but I relayed your instructions.’

            ‘Was she okay?’

            ‘Okay is a strong word. She indicated that you should sleep elsewhere tonight.’

            ‘Oh fuck,' he muttered.

            ‘Clive is upstairs, he said it’s all quiet.’

            ‘Well, that’s good. Not that I think this lunatic is gonna try something here. I think if he’s got a next move it will happen in LA.’

            ‘I’ve already arranged extra security. They’re going to keep an eye on the house until we get back, just to be sure there’s nobody lying in wait.’

            ‘That’s great. Is Sue back yet?’

            ‘Not yet.’

            ‘Tell her to come straight up when she gets back.’ Chris took a deep breath and straightened his shirt. ‘I’m going to pour oil on troubled waters.’

            ‘I suggest you duck when you open the door.’

            He gave a mirthless laugh and headed for the elevator. He had known that stopping her from leaving would anger her even more but he just knew she’d want to go out looking for Andrew. She was convinced he was in New York although he disagreed. He felt that the hotel picture was paparazzi and that either he was still in London or already in LA. But Jess knew him best, a fact she despised, so he felt he had to cover all the bases. He also knew that she was feeling punchy, so letting her loose to find him wouldn’t be in her best interests.

            He opened the door and cautiously stepped inside. It was all quiet and for a horrible moment he thought she wasn’t there, but then he saw her kneeling on the floor with the remains of lunch scattered around her. ‘Jess?’

            ‘Yeah?’ She had her back to him and her voice was hoarse, her tone resigned.

            ‘What happened?’

            ‘I sort of lost it.’

            He crouched beside her, tentatively touching her shoulder. ‘Are you okay?’

            She turned hollow eyes on him. ‘I’m fine.’

            ‘Obviously not,’ he muttered. ‘Come on, baby, up you get.’ He hauled her to her feet and lead her to the bed.

            Jess said nothing as he put her to bed and covered her with the duvet, just gratefully closed her heavy eyelids. Sleep was waiting and took her almost instantly. Chris sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, tangling the fingers of one hand in her hair. She finally looked relaxed, the tension in her face dissipating as she drifted into sleep. He watched her sleep for a few minutes then got up to clean up the mess.

            He’d just finished picking up the shards of a broken plate when there was a knock at the door. It was Sue, and Chris stepped outside into the hallway rather than risk waking Jess up. ‘She’s asleep. She’s in such a state,’ he explained.

            ‘Do you think she’ll be okay for tomorrow?’

            He shrugged. ‘Your guess is as good as mine. How did it go?’

            Sue bit her lip and he detected a hint of chin wobble. ‘It…it was pretty bad. It’s all on here,’ she handed him a USB stick.

            Chris put his hand on her shoulder. ‘Thank you. I know it must have been hard. I really appreciate you doing it.’

            ‘As long as it helps.’

            ‘It will, I promise. What time is she supposed to start tomorrow?’

            ‘You’re both scheduled for eight.’

            ‘I’ll call as soon as I know how she is.

            Sue headed to her room and Chris stood in the hallway for a few moments. He didn’t know how to calm Jess down, but he knew someone who might. He pulled out his phone.

 

When Jess woke she could hear two voices speaking quietly. One was Chris, there was no mistaking that low growl in his voice that became more pronounced when he was tired. The other was another guy and sounded vaguely familiar. Then they both laughed and Jess scrambled out of bed with a grin on her face.

            ‘Finn!’ She exclaimed, crossing the room to where he sat on the sofa.

            ‘Hey, lovely!’ He got up to hug her. ‘How are you feeling?’

            ‘I’ve been better, but I'm so happy to see you. How are you?’

            ‘Enjoying some downtime and also very happy to see you, too.’

            Jess turned to Chris, sinking down beside him on the sofa and sliding her arms around him. ‘Thank you.’

            He looked surprised at her change in mood but he hugged her back. ‘Are you okay?’

            She nodded and kissed his cheek, swinging her legs up onto his lap.

            ‘Jess, I had a weird call from Lavinia earlier on. Do you remember her?’ Finn asked.

            ‘Yeah. I called her earlier, which is probably why she called you. I…’ She looked at Chris who immediately gave her a what did you do? look. ‘I was looking for someone who might have Andrew’s number.’

            ‘You were going to call him?!’ Chris exclaimed.

            ‘Yes,’ she said bluntly. ‘I was going to see if he is in New York and offer to meet him. Then I was going to kick the shit out of him.’

            Finn hid a laugh behind his drink while Chris looked furious. ‘That’s probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say.’

            Jess shrugged. ‘Maybe. Anyway, what did she say?’

            ‘Not much. She just said that she hadn’t spoken to Andrew in a long time and asked if I’d spoken to you recently. I had the impression she was fishing for info. She asked if it was true you were marrying Captain America and were you both living in LA. I told her as far as I knew you’d just made a movie together and I hadn’t spoken to you in a while.’

            Jess smiled her thanks. ‘So, she has spoken to Andrew, then. She probably knows exactly where he is.’

            ‘That’s what I thought.’ Finn took a tin out of his pocket and began to roll a joint.

            Jess turned to Chris. ‘I need to draw him out, sweetheart. I have to deal with him, or I’ll be looking over my shoulder forever.’

            ‘I know,’ he said quietly, looking at her intently. ‘But going in half-cocked is just dangerous.’

            She smiled and raised an eyebrow, ‘I do like to be fully cocked.’

            ‘Hey! I can hear you from over here you know,’ Finn objected while the two of them laughed.

            Chris hesitated, then spoke. ‘I’ve got something. It’s not ready yet but it will be by the time we get home. Then we just have to wait for him to contact you again.’

            ‘What have you got?’ She asked, surprised.

            ‘I’ve been working on something since you first told me about him. It’ll take a couple of days to pull it together, though.’

            ‘Chris, tell me. You know I won’t stop asking.’

            He sighed. ‘I hired a private detective to speak to your friends and find out more about him, then to track down other women he’s been involved with. We’ve found three and, let me tell you, what he did to you is nothing compared to them. They’re all willing to talk.’

            Jess looked at him with her mouth open. ‘You did what?’

            ‘I had to protect you somehow.’

            Finn lit the joint and sat back. ‘I helped.’

            She turned to him. ‘What?’

            ‘I told Chris where to start digging. Jake helped, too.’

            Jess chewed her lip and Chris wondered which way she was going to go. He knew she hated secrets but he hoped she would see that he’d only been thinking of her. ‘Wow. I don’t know what to say…’

            ‘Are you mad?’ Chris asked.

            ‘No. I don’t think so. I’m just shocked. Particularly shocked that Jake kept a secret for all this time.’ She leant across to take the joint Finn was holding out to her and inhaled deeply. ‘Who are they? Do I know them?’

            Finn shook his head, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know them. One of them is here, in New York. She moved here a couple of years ago but Chris found her.’

            ‘The other two are in London and we’re waiting for them to go to a solicitor and make a sworn affidavit. Once that’s done, it’s up to you how you want to proceed. We can either go to the police or you can just show him the evidence and use it to get him to fuck off.’

            ‘Preferably right off,’ Finn added.

            Jess gave the joint to Chris. ‘I can’t believe you did all of that.’

            ‘I wasn’t about to let him hurt you again and I knew you were afraid he’d do this at some point. I wanted you to have a counterpunch.’

            She looked at him and all she could think was how much she didn’t deserve him. Especially recently. ‘I love you,’ she told him, trying to put as much meaning into the words as she could.

            He smiled, his eyes soft, ‘I love you.’

            ‘Still here,’ Finn reminded them.

            ‘Sorry, love,’ Jess got up and went to sit beside him, hugging his arm. ‘I love you as well.’

            Chris smiled, watching the two of them laugh and talk. He realised that he was utterly unfazed by the two of them cuddling up together. He had first noticed a distinct lack of jealousy when she and Hemsworth had struck up their on-set friendship. Even when their relationship was in turmoil and they were arguing all the time, it never once bothered him to see her and Hemsworth huddled together. That was when he realised exactly how much faith he had in her.

            ‘Shall we order some food?’ He asked as Jess started to roll another joint.

            They smoked too much and stayed up too late. Finn left at around midnight and Chris saw him out. ‘Thanks for coming, dude. I’m not sure it would have gone so well if you hadn’t been here.’

            ‘It’s nothing,’ Finn said, shaking his hand. ‘I’ll see you both when you get back from Australia. If you need anything in meantime, you know where I am.’

            Jess was waiting for him when he walked back into the room. ‘Can I speak to them?’

            ‘Who? Oh, the other girls? I don’t see why not, we’d have to ask them first though.’

            ‘I want to.’

            Chris tucked a curl behind her ear. ‘I know. Are you up to rejoining the junket tomorrow?’

            She nodded, ‘Yeah. How was it today?’

            ‘I got told off because I was too busy thinking about you to concentrate on what was going on.’

            ‘I’m sorry.’

            ‘You don’t have to apologise for having emotions. You’re a person, Jess, with feelings and it’s completely okay for you to show them.’

            ‘I don’t want to be high maintenance,’ she said quietly.

            He laughed, a real belly laugh, ‘You are not high maintenance. Believe me. The only thing remotely high maintenance about you is your hair. Well, that and the insane number of hugs you need to get you through the day.’

            ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be so good at hugs, then.’

            He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight. ‘I can’t help it. It’s a natural talent.’

            ‘I’m really stoned.’ She said wearily, resting her head on his shoulder.

            ‘You want to take this hug to bed?’

            She smiled, lifting her head to kiss him. ‘Yes please.’

Chapter Text

The rest of the New York trip passed without incident. Every day was nonstop and they were exhausted, but they managed to return to some semblance of normal. On Thursday morning they finally packed their bags and joyously headed to the airport for their flight back to LA.

            Jess’s agent, Jodi, called almost the moment they touched down at Burbank and suggested that they give an interview where all the questions about their relationship could be answered. She was certain this would help ease some of the social media backlash, which she thought was caused by disbelief because news of their engagement had seemingly come out of nowhere. Jess mentioned it to Chris, who said that his publicist had already said something similar and he thought it was a good idea. Jess didn’t.

            ‘I don’t want to surrender our privacy like that,’ she said as they sat in the LA traffic. ‘Especially right now.’

            ‘We won’t be surrendering it. The questions will be approved by us first and we’ll be able to decide how much information to give in our answers. It’s not like they’ll just sit us down and let someone go at us.’

            Jess pulled a face. ‘It’s all so bloody cynical.’

            ‘Welcome to Hollywood, baby.’

            She sighed, staring out of the window at the free-moving traffic on the other side of the road. ‘I really don’t know if I like it.’

            He took her hand, his fingers interlacing with hers. ‘We can talk about it later. Have you had any thoughts about hiring a publicist?’

            ‘Yeah. I told Jodi to choose whoever she thinks is best.’

            ‘I thought maybe you should hire my publicist. It makes sense when we both want to say the same things.’

            ‘That’s a great idea. Will she have me?’

            ‘See, I’m not just a pretty face and a smoking hot body,’ he teased. ‘I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to take you on. I’ll make some calls once we’re home.’

            When they arrived home, Sue and Josh were there waiting for them, along with Dodger, who Scott had dropped off already. Dodger could not have been happier to see Chris and the feeling was obviously mutual, but he saved a couple of spins and jumps to welcome Jess home, too.

            ‘I won’t keep you long,’ Sue said, beckoning her into the kitchen. ‘We’ve stocked you up on the essentials, milk, bread, peanut butter. I just wanted to run through your schedule.’

            ‘Urgh.’

            Sue smiled, ‘You’ve got Kimmel tomorrow with Chris, and Ruffalo, Seb and Letitia. Other than that, you’ve got some downtime. You’ve been sent a lot of dresses to consider for the premiere, I’ve hung them on a rail in your room. If you need help with your outfit, give me a call and I’ll hook you up with a stylist.’

            ‘I think I’ll manage,’ Jess said uncomfortably. Chris used a stylist and that was great for him. She’d been in his wardrobe and she knew he needed help. But she liked to think that she could throw a look together on her own.

            ‘We’ll come by and get you tomorrow at around six.’

            Jess said her goodbyes, made a peanut butter sandwich and went to see the dresses while she munched thoughtfully. Sue hadn’t been kidding when she’d said a lot of dresses. There must have been at least thirty different gowns for her consideration. She sighed. She had already decided what she wanted to wear but she felt she owed it to every designer who’d thought of her to consider their dress.

            She wandered back to the kitchen to find Chris, who was sorting through the mail. ‘I got sent a lot of dresses.’

            ‘Ah, for the premiere? Yeah, that’ll happen. I’ve got a free hour or two, you want to model them for me?’

            ‘What a selfless and truly altruistic gesture.’

            ‘I’m a giver.’ He gave up sifting through the envelopes and reached out for her. ‘Do you want to have a party on Saturday? We could have friends over during the day, maybe cook a big meal, then a free for all in the evening.’

            ‘Sounds fun, let’s do it.’ She wound her arms around his neck as his hands settled on her hips. ‘I can’t wait to get away though. With Andrew’s presence hanging over us I don’t think I can relax here.’

            ‘You’re safe here, with me.’ He dropped his head to kiss the side of her neck as his hands roamed down to her ass.

            ‘I need to shower.’

            ‘Me too.’ His mouth moved round to her throat, making her tip her head back and sigh deeply.

            ‘But I’m enjoying this.’

            He pulled her hips into his so she could feel him, hard against the top of her thigh. ‘Me too.’

            She hooked her fingers into the waistband of his jeans and pulled him closer still. ‘I think that maybe we should compromise and continue this in the shower.’

            ‘Me too.’

 

After a long and exhilarating shower, Jess was standing in front of the clothes rail trying to make a shortlist of dresses to try on. Chris had found a box full of her t-shirts and hoodies, all of which bore slogans. He was laying them out on the bed and laughing himself silly at some of the captions.

            ‘Why do you have all these?’ He asked, holding up a vest that read If you don’t like tacos I’m nacho type. ‘And why are so many of them about tacos?’

            ‘Who doesn’t love tacos, Chris?’

            ‘No Juan,’ he said, cracking up at himself while Jess just looked at him. ‘Okay, but that doesn’t explain why you have so many.’

            ‘It was a joke with Daisy when I started working out. There was a shop by the beach selling them and she bought me the one that says My Disney princess name is Taco Belle. After that everyone would buy them for me. I’m into fitness. Fitness taco into my mouth, and It’s okay guacamole, I’m extra too, then Jake bought me this one,’ she reached into the box and pulled out a vest that read Train like you’ve just been asked to join the Avengers. Chris thought this was hilarious. ‘You can see why I couldn’t wear it in public.’

            ‘I love these. You should wear them all the time. This is my favourite,’ he said, holding up a hoodie that said My neck, my back, my Netflix and my snacks.

            ‘Maybe I should wear that to the premiere,’ she mused, casting a hot pink dress aside.

            ‘Yeah,’ Chris said, a dreamy look in his eye, ‘with like, hold-ups and high heels.’

            ‘Put your dreams away,’ she laughed, ‘they are never going to happen.’

            He stretched out on the bed and watched her as she dismissed a tiny piece of gold fabric that was somehow supposed to be a dress. ‘I’ve never realised before, but you’re quite a conservative dresser in public.’

            ‘What do you mean?’ She held up a gorgeous peacock blue dress, then held it against herself and turned to the mirror.

            ‘You don’t like to be on display or to show flesh. Even out of the nicer dresses you’ve dismissed all the backless ones or anything with a split.’

            ‘Huh.’ She turned to look at him, amusement etched on her features. ‘You have been paying attention.’

            ‘Well, I am quite interested in you.’

            ‘It’s true that I favour a more classic look.’ She held up a flowing, Valentino gown. ‘I don’t like anything tight or revealing.’

            ‘You don’t belong in Hollywood. At least not in this modern shitshow. You should have been around in the 30s and 40s.’

            ‘But then I wouldn’t have met you.’

            ‘Oh, I’d be there. Think of all the musicals I could have been in.’

            ‘No Twitter.’

            ‘No internet.’

            ‘No paparazzi.’

            ‘I’d take you out dancing every night.’

            Jess smiled sadly, suddenly feeling ridiculously emotional. ‘I’d love that.’

            ‘I like the blue dress,’ he said, his eyes on hers.

            ‘Me too,’ she said quietly. She sat on the bed beside him, picking up a vest that read I am unable to quit as I am currently too legit. ‘I feel like we haven’t had a chance to talk. I know we talk a lot but there’s so much that I want to say to you but shit keeps happening and I have to push it back.’

            He twisted her engagement ring around on her finger. ‘You don’t need to tell me anything.’

            ‘I want to though. There are things I need you to know.’ She folded the vest and put it back in the box.

            ‘Jess, I already know,’ he sat up, pulling her between his legs so he could kiss her. ‘I know that we want to be together always. That we cannot wait to be married. That we both want a big, chaotic family. I know that we both have a lot of different roles in our relationship and sometimes things aren’t easy but that’s life. Most of all I know that we love each other.’

            Jess sighed, but her mouth lifted in a smile and she felt reassured. ‘You’re everything to me, Chris. Nobody has ever gone out of their way for me the way you do, and you do it all of the time. You’re always thinking of me and how you can make my life better or easier or just happier. I feel as if I don’t do enough for you.’

            ‘Okay, that’s enough of that. You do plenty for me. You’ve shown me so much and made me realise things about myself that I never even knew before. Look at the press tour. Usually, by this point, I’m popping Valium like Tic Tacs and I’m a complete wreck. This time I hardly had any anxiety at all and I even enjoyed parts of it. That’s you. You make me happy and content.’

            ‘Even though I’m erratic and obnoxious and a bitch?’

            ‘Especially because you’re erratic and obnoxious. You’re not a bitch.’

            ‘You always call me a bitch when we fight.’

            ‘I don’t mean it,’ he said quietly as he stroked her hair. ‘Most of the time I’m thinking of how sexy you are when you’re angry.’

            Her gaze tangled with his and they stared at each other, seemingly content to sit and look. Jess felt her heart thud in her chest, no different to the day she’d met him. She knew she was lucky. Lucky to have even met him and lucky that he had fallen for her in return. After the stresses of the past couple of weeks, she really wanted to spend some normal time with him. ‘Let’s take Dodger down to the ocean for a run.’

            ‘Only if you wear this,’ he held up the Netflix hoodie.

            ‘Deal,’ she laughed.

Chapter Text

The following day, pictures of the two of them walking Dodger on the beach were everywhere. Neither Chris nor Jess were surprised. Jess knew that they were going to have to go on a few public walks until the furore surrounding their relationship died down. She hoped the pictures would help flush Andrew out so she could deal with him sooner rather than later.

            Chris had sent out texts and emails, inviting people over on Saturday. Most people would come, even though it was short notice. That was the nature of Los Angeles society, you went to the best event you were invited to, so an invite from an A-lister would feature highly on the calendar. Jess was in the kitchen planning a meal to cook for the lunch party.

            ‘What are you going to cook?’ Chris asked, walking into the kitchen.

            She looked up at him with a smile, tapping her pen on her teeth. ‘How does lamb curry sound?’

            ‘It sounds delicious.’

            ‘I need to go to the meat market. I’ll be back in time to get ready for Kimmel.’ She went to kiss him but he pulled away.

            ‘You’re not going alone.’

            ‘Chris, I -’

            ‘No.’ He said, and his tone told her it was non-negotiable. ‘I’ll come with you. I’ve got calls I need to make but I can do that in the car.’

            ‘Any news from the solicitor?’

            One of the women had given her statement and the other had been due to give hers that day. ‘I haven’t heard anything yet.’

            It was already five o’clock in London and it was Friday, so if she hadn’t gone to make her statement today, it wouldn’t happen until next week. Jess was anxious to not only collect the evidence but to find out if she could speak to them. Chris refused to show her what he had so far because he didn’t want to upset her. It had never occurred to her that Andrew would do what he’d done to her to anyone else and that was her own stupid fault.

            ‘Are you ready to go?’ Jess, pushed him from her mind, closed her notebook and picked up her phone.

            ‘Pretty much, I just need to put my sneakers on. Nice t-shirt, by the way.’

            Jess had been in her slogan box and pulled on one that read Shout-out to myself because I’m lit. She grinned. ‘Thank you.’

            Chris went to get his shoes on and Jess fished in her bag for her car keys. Pretty much the only thing she’d bought herself since she signed with Marvel was a Range Rover. She hadn’t really had time to buy anything else. It drank gas like water and wasn’t really practical in LA, but it was the only car she’d ever owned in England and it made her nostalgic.

            ‘So,’ Chris said once they were on the road, ‘the other day when we talked about the wedding, you said that what you had wanted to talk about could wait. What was it?’

            Jess took a deep breath, adjusting her grip on the wheel. ‘I want a church wedding.’

            ‘Really?’

            She nodded. ‘I know we’re both spiritually ambiguous, but…I don’t know, I don’t think I’d feel married if I didn’t have a religious service.’

            ‘Okay.’

            ‘Oka -  Wait, what?’

            ‘I said okay. Okay, we can have a church wedding.’

            Jess laughed, ‘Seriously?’

            ‘If that’s what you want, babe.’

            She grinned, glancing over at him. ‘You know we’re not even the same denomination?’

             ‘Does it matter?’

            ‘Well, no. Only one of us has to be christened an Anglican to get married in an Anglican church. Of which there are quite a few in Boston.’ She glanced at him again. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to think about it? I can’t imagine your mum will be over the moon.’

            ‘It’s not her wedding. Anyway, I think the fact that it’ll be in a church will be enough for her, even if it’s not Catholic. She’s worried we’ll get married barefoot in the woods.’

            ‘I only just got you to go barefoot in the house, what makes her think you’d get barefoot in the woods? Also…’

            ‘Yes?’ He said, drawing out the vowel.

            ‘I want to get married this year.’

            He raised his eyebrows. ‘That doesn’t give us a lot of time to plan it.’

            ‘I know.’ She shifted in her seat slightly and slowed down, preparing for a twisty section of road. ‘I know you said that you don’t want the wedding to be all about you and I don’t want it to be all about me, either, but these are literally the only three things I want. A November or December church wedding in Boston.’

            ‘Okay. If you think we can get it organised in seven or eight months, then that’s what we’ll do.’ Jess grinned and his heart melted. There was that look of delight he loved so much and he hadn’t even had to do anything to see it. He’d marry her tomorrow in a Las Vegas chapel if it would put that look on her face.

            ‘Did you know,’ she said slowly, ‘that the Old North Church only does weddings after 6 pm, by candlelight?’

            ‘That would be pretty cool, especially in at the end of fall when it would be dark already.’

            ‘I really thought you’d push back, Chris!’

            ‘Why? And why do you sound disappointed that I’m not?’

            ‘I don’t know, I just thought you'd be against a church wedding. I prepared a very compelling argument. There were slides and everything.’

            He laughed, reaching across to squeeze her thigh. ‘I’m compelled, honey. No need for a PowerPoint.’

            She sighed in mock disappointment. ‘You’re no fun’

            ‘I’m sorry that I want you to have the wedding of your dreams.’

            ‘Apology accepted.’ She grinned cheekily, unable to dodge his hand as he tickled her stomach. ‘Stop, before I drive us into a wall.’

            His phone rang as she joined the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard headed toward the 101 and she half listened to his side of the conversation as he joked with one of his friends. She was genuinely surprised that he had acquiesced to a church wedding so easily, but she was also genuinely happy. It meant a lot to her. The traffic inched forward and a moped pulled up in front of them, a paparazzo on the back.

            ‘Great,’ she muttered. They were going nowhere for the foreseeable future and he was just calmly snapping away. ‘How many pictures of us sitting in the car does he need?’

            Chris buzzed his window down, ‘Dude!’

            The photographer lifted his helmet, ‘Yeah?’

            ‘We’re just going to the store. There’s no story here.’

            He laughed, ‘Are you kidding? You two are the hottest story in Hollywood, I don’t care if you’re going to the dump.’

            Jess sighed, propping her elbow on her door and rubbing her forehead. The traffic began to move and she hung a right, trying to get to a street where the traffic was flowing more freely. The moped followed but didn’t try to get in front of them again, meaning they were happy to just tail them to wherever they were going.

            ‘It’s not worth getting a ticket for, Jess,’ Chris said when he hung up his call. She had sped up as the light changed to red. ‘We knew this would happen.’

            ‘Maybe I’m naïve but do people really care which meat market we go to?’

            ‘Unfortunately, yes. This is the price we pay for a year of being off the radar.’

            She turned to him and smiled, ‘But what a year.’

            ‘Totally worth it,’ he smiled back.

 

Their paparazzo friend, for whom Jess had made up a backstory and nicknamed him Kevin, followed them from the meat market to the liquor store then on to the grocery store and halfway back home. Jess and Chris did their best to ignore him and stock up for the party but they both knew the pictures would be all over the internet before they even got home.

            Once they’d unloaded the car and put everything away, Jess headed for the shower to wash her hair. She was in the dressing room drying herself when Chris came in looking for her.

            ‘It’s done, she made the statement.’

            Jess let out a deep breath. ‘That’s great.’

            ‘And they’ve all agreed to talk to you.’

            ‘Really?’

            He nodded. ‘Why don’t we invite them to New York? The three of them can meet each other, we’ll put them up in a hotel and then we’ll drive down from Boston so you can meet with them.’

            ‘Oh, that would be awesome! Do you think they’ll go for it?’

            ‘I don’t see why not. We’ll sort it out once we get there. This is for you,’ he handed her a USB stick. ‘But Jess, please don’t look at it. Not yet anyway.’

            ‘I won’t.’ She looked down at the black plastic stick in her hand and chewed her lip. ‘Is it bad?’

            ‘Yeah,’ he said quietly, watching her carefully.

            ‘Okay. Let’s just put it away until the day comes when we need it. I’ve given him more than enough thought over the past few days. Let’s go and do Kimmel, come home, fuck all night and party all day.’

            ‘That might be the best plan I’ve ever heard.’

            She grinned up at him and dropped her towel. ‘I’m not just a pretty face and a smoking hot body.’

Chapter Text

Jess lay awake and watched the room get lighter as the sun rose. Chris slept soundly beside her and she turned over to look at him. His hair was sticking up at all angles and she gently ran her fingers through it, smoothing it down. She smiled, wriggling a little closer to plant a kiss on his forehead. He stirred slightly but didn’t wake and she watched him sleep for a long time. Eventually, she couldn’t be still any longer and she got up, pulled on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, grabbed her phone and headed to the kitchen.

            Dodger was sitting by the bifold doors, looking desperate. She let him out then went to the utility room to feed him and change his water. It wasn’t even 7 am yet. Jess leant against the counter and sighed deeply, needing to clear her mind. She wasn’t in the mood for yoga or swimming and she couldn’t go out for a run because Chris would kill her for going out alone. She set the kettle on the stove for a cup of tea, then started gathering all the ingredients for lunch.

            She had only intended to prep the veg but by the time Chris woke up, she’d made a huge vat of curry that was cooking on a very low heat and prepared two batches of brownies, one with hash and the other without.

            ‘Something smells good,’ he wandered into the kitchen, yawning and scratching his chest.

            ‘It’s not me,’ she smiled, leaning back on him as he stood behind her and pulled her hips against him. ‘Good morning.’

            ‘Good morning.’ He nuzzled into her neck and she closed her eyes, enjoying the intimacy. ‘You’ve been busy.’

            ‘I couldn’t sleep.’

            ‘Really? After the workout I gave you last night?’ He said, mock-offended.

            She laughed, turning to wind her arms around his neck. ‘I think you overstimulated me.’

            ‘Hmmph,’ he grumbled.

            ‘Chris?’

            ‘Yes?’

            ‘Can we go out for a run?’

            He groaned, dropping his forehead onto her shoulder. ‘Babe…’

            ‘Okay, don’t worry about it. I’ll swim or something instead.’

            ‘No, we’ll go for a run,’ he said begrudgingly, nipping her shoulder. ‘Let’s go and get changed.’

            Jess swapped her shorts for sweats, dug out a sports bra and swapped her t-shirt for a slightly cleaner one that didn’t smell of curry. As she pulled on her battered running shoes, Chris asked, ‘You want to just run here or shall we drive to the park?’

            ‘Here is okay. I just need to clear my head.’ She started to braid her hair over her shoulder.

            ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

            ‘I don’t know what it is yet.’

            He pulled her to her feet. ‘Come on then.’

            They stretched quickly before making their way outside. They had a short one and a half mile circuit that they used to run when they were training for Avengers, and they both automatically turned into it. They ran in silence for about half a mile then Jess said, ‘I think I want to give up acting.’

            Chris stopped dead, staring at her. ‘Sorry, could you repeat that? I can’t tell you what I thought you said because it makes you sound fucking crazy.’

            She grabbed his arm, hauling him along. ‘Keep running.’

            ‘But -’

            ‘Keep running,’ she insisted. ‘It’s just a thought, Chris.’

            ‘What about your contract?’

            ‘Well, obviously that’s a thing I have to do. But after 2024 -’

            ‘That’s five years away. You’re gonna change your mind.’

            ‘We could have two, maybe three kids by then. I want to be a mum. I don’t want to be an actress with children.’

            Chris stopped again and Jess gave up, leaning against the wall of a nearby house. ‘You know, I used to think that I was an overthinker, but you…’

            ‘I’m not overthinking! I’m trying to plan our future.’

            ‘You can’t,’ he took a step towards her, tugging on her braid. ‘You can’t plan every step this far in advance, babe. What if the right script came up, an award-winning script, are you going to turn it down just so you can wipe applesauce off the walls and cook dinner?’

            ‘Urgh, I hate you,’ she pushed herself off the wall and started running again.

            He ran after her. ‘You hate me because you know I’m right. It’s not even me you hate, it’s the fact that I’m right.’

            ‘Fuck off, Evans.’ She accelerated but he kept up with her easily.

            ‘I don’t think now is the right time for you to make such a huge decision. You’ve been through a lot and I can understand why you want to take the pressure off. I’ve felt like you do now.’

            She sighed, ‘I know you have.’

            ‘Look, if you’re still seriously thinking about quitting when we get home from Australia, we’ll talk about it. But I can almost guarantee you that you’ll be feeling fantastically chilled out and ready to tackle that huge pile of scripts on your nightstand.’

            Jess was silent for a moment, chewing her lip as their feet pounded on the road. ‘I’ve never had so much choice before.’

            ‘So maybe you’re finding that a little overwhelming?’

            ‘Maybe.’

            ‘Your instinct is not to quit, Jess. You are not a quitter. Read the scripts, throw out the ones you hate and see what you’re left with.’

            ‘You really are irritating. Did I ever tell you that?’

            ‘Every day,’ he winked at her and ran faster, pulling away from her.

            Jess smiled and sprinted to catch him then stopped suddenly and clutched her leg. ‘Ow! Oh my God, ow, it hurts so much!’

            ‘Not falling for it, Finley.’ He called back. ‘You’ll never win an Oscar if that’s all you got.’

            She laughed, breaking back into a run and sprinting past him. ‘Keep up, old man.’

            ‘Old…?’

            Jess ran as fast as she could, laughing all the way back to the house while he chased her. He caught her as she was punching in the gate code, grabbing her by the waist and lifting her feet off the floor while she laughed and shrieked.

            ‘You’d better apologise.’

            ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ She laughed helplessly. ‘Put me down.’

            ‘I don’t believe you are adequately sorry.’

            ‘I am!’

            He put her down but kept a tight hold on her waist as they walked up the driveway. ‘I’m gonna hit the shower. You want in?’

            ‘I haven’t got time for your shenanigans. I need to make the naan bread. You shower first.’

            Chris aimed a hard slap at her ass and she jumped, ‘Ow!’

            ‘I’m not old, Jess,’ he grinned, heading for the bedroom.

            ‘Ow,’ she moaned, rubbing her ass cheek as she walked into the kitchen. She gave the curry a stir then gathered the ingredients for the naan. Her phone chirped at her and she picked it up, tapping the notification.

            Like oh my god you’re so cute together! It’s time to get down to business, Jess. Meet me today at 1 pm, room 12 the Hollywood La Brea motel. Leave Cap at home.

            There was a picture of her and Chris on the main road, taken just minutes ago. She went into the bedroom where he was stripping off his running gear. She held out her phone and his shoulders sagged. ‘He wants to meet.’

            ‘No. No way. That place is shady as fuck.’

            ‘I don’t have a choice.’

            She saw his jaw tense with anger and a muscle leapt in his cheek. ‘He was right around the corner?’

            ‘This is why I have to go, Chris. Look, you know where I’ll be, we have a room number and everything. My guess is that he wants to try to blackmail me, not hurt me.’

            He stepped towards her, roughly taking her into his arms. ‘I swear, Jess, if he lays a single finger on you…’

            ‘I know. But I can look after myself. All that Krav Maga training might finally pay off.’

            ‘I’ll drive you there.’

            ‘You can’t. People are going to be arriving for the party soon. Stay here, have a beer and brownie and I will call you as soon as it’s over.’

            ‘No. Call me before you go in and leave your phone in your pocket. Use your safe word if you want me to call the cops.’ His arms tightened around her. ‘Please be careful. Don’t do anything that might get you hurt.’

            ‘I won’t,’ she promised. She let out a shaky sigh. ‘I guess it’s time for me to listen to those files.’

            ‘Okay,’ he paused, choosing his words. ‘I have to tell you something first. One of them looks a lot like you. It’s actually disturbing how alike you are. And he really went to town on her.’

            ‘Okay,’ Jess wiped her hand over her forehead and pulled back from his embrace. ‘I’m going to listen to them. You go and shower.’

            She could tell he didn’t like that arrangement but he headed into the bathroom and she retrieved the memory stick from the drawer of her nightstand. She pulled her laptop out from under the bed and sat on the floor while it booted up, chewing on her thumbnail and staring into space, her thoughts a chaotic jumble again.

            The stick contained three audio files, one for each of the women’s statements, along with image files, for which she did not need a prize for guessing the content of. She looked at every picture while listening to the interviews, tears blurring her eyes. At some point, Chris came out of the bathroom and sat beside her but she barely realised he was there.

            When it was over, she wiped her eyes on her t-shirt. ‘Well. That sucked.’

            Chris put his arms around her shoulders and she leaned into him, her head on his chest. ‘I wish you’d let me come with you.’

            ‘I wish we had a gun.’

            He knew she was kidding but he didn’t think it was a bad idea. ‘What are you going to do?’

            ‘Punch him in the throat?’

            ‘After that.’

            ‘I don’t know. It’s not like we can threaten to take it to the media because he isn’t anyone, nobody would give a shit. But I thought I could tell him that we’re all prepared to go to the police.’

            ‘Are you?’

            ‘Sure, why not? Disney star enjoyed BDSM romps with former lover, details on pages 12, 13, 14, 15 and centre spread.’

            He laughed softly. ‘If it were ever to come out for whatever reason, you know I’d be right beside you, don’t you?’

            She lifted her head to look at him. ‘I know.’

            His eyes flicked between hers, then he put his hand on the back of her head and pulled her in for a kiss. ‘Shall I make you some tea?’

            ‘Yes please.’

            He stood up then pulled her up beside him. ‘Is there anything I can do for the lunch?’

            ‘No, it’s pretty much done. I’ll do the rice and stuff when I get home. I’m going to have a quick shower.’

            When she came out of the dressing room there was a mug of tea on her nightstand along with a long, black velvet box. A jewellery box. She snapped it open with trembling fingers and found a gorgeous antique diamond tennis bracelet. She was so stunned that she sat down heavily on the bed, cradling it in her hands. The diamonds were square and there must have been at least thirty of them, set in white gold. It was so beautiful.

            She got up and walked around the house looking for him, eventually finding him out in the garden putting chairs out for the party. She jumped into his arms, her legs around his waist, and he caught her with a faint ‘Oof!’

            ‘Thank you,’ she whispered, kissing him hard and slow. ‘It’s beautiful, I love it.’

            ‘I was going to give it to you on Monday for the premiere, but I guessed you needed cheering up today.’

            She kissed him again and again, trying to commune to him exactly how much she loved and appreciated him.

            ‘Jess…’ He pulled away and put a hand on her leg to indicate that she should get down. ‘Don’t go to that seedy fucking motel. We’ll find another way. Please.’

            She softened, wanting desperately to do as he asked. But she knew she had to go if she was ever going to get out from Andrew’s shadow. ‘I promise I’ll call you as soon as I get there.’

            She went back into the house to finish dressing and drink her, now tepid, tea. She put the bracelet back in its box and tucked it in her drawer. Finally, she pocketed the memory stick and went to search for her a car keys.

            Chris was standing in the hallway waiting for her, her keys swinging from his finger. She went to take them but he pulled them away slightly. He took a breath to say something, thought better of it and pulled her into a hug. Jess hugged him back. After a minute he took her out to her car and watched as she climbed in. Neither of them spoke but they looked at each other for a long moment. She didn’t want to go. Every atom in her body resisted her as started the engine.

            ‘You’d better be careful.’ He warned, his hands thrust in his pockets.

            ‘I will.’ She offered him a smile as she closed her door but he didn’t return it, just looked at her intently. With a sigh, she put the car into gear and drove away.

Chapter Text

Jess parked in a lot about a block away from the motel and walked the rest of the way. She felt as if an invisible force were pushing her back with every step she took. She knew this was a terrible idea on so many levels. She took a deep breath and strode along, trying to think not of Andrew sitting in some skeezy motel waiting for her, but of her friends and Chris, waiting for her at the party.

            She stopped a few doors down and pulled out her phone. Chris answered before the first ring finished. ‘Are you okay?’

            She smiled, closing her eyes and blocking out everything but his voice. ‘I’m almost there.’

            ‘Jake and Daisy are here, they’re worried about you, too.’

            ‘I’m fine. I’m finding it really hard to put one foot in front of another but I’m okay. I wish you were here.’

            ‘Not as much as I do.’

            ‘I’m putting you in my pocket now. If the call drops for whatever reason, don’t call me back.’

            ‘But -’

            ‘Don’t. I love you.’ Before he could protest or even tell her he loved her too, she slid the phone into her jeans pocket. She stood in the parking lot of the motel and looked around at the rooms for number 12. It was at the far end of the upper walkway. She checked her watch, she was ten minutes late and she had no doubt that he was watching her from the window.

            Trying her best to look confident, she strode along the walkway and knocked on the door. He opened it instantly, proving that he’d been at the window. He was a lot smaller than she remembered and he wore an ugly smirk that she was going to take great joy in wiping off his face.

            ‘Come in,’ he said, stepping back for her. ‘How have you been?’

            Her gaze flicked around the room but she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, so she walked inside. ‘This isn’t a social call. What do you want?’

            ‘Straight down to business. You haven’t changed a bit.’

            Jess looked steadily at him. ‘Thanks for the emails. The anti-stalking laws here are pretty strict.’

            He laughed, walking across the room and sitting on the end of the bed furthest from the door. ‘You won’t be going to the police, Jess. Just like you didn’t go to the police when we were together.’

            ‘You weren’t worth the smear on my reputation.’

            ‘Less so now you’re a Marvel hotshot, I’ll bet. What will Captain America say when he finds out what a whore his girlfriend is?’

            ‘Fiancée,’ she corrected. ‘I don’t have any secrets from him. You think he fucks me on my back and doesn’t see the scars?’

            ‘I don’t doubt it, but neither of you wants this particular scar on your Disney-employed asses.’

            So, it was blackmail. Suddenly she could see it all so clearly. ‘Andrew, there is nothing that you can do to either of us. Chris isn’t employed by Disney anymore and I’m under contract so it’s in their interests to protect me. I’m sure their legal department would bury you before you even picked up the phone. You have no proof. You have no pictures, no evidence, no nothing.’

            ‘You know I don’t need it. Just the constant rumours about your sexual tastes will be enough.’

            Jess laughed. ‘Do you know where we are? We are in the one town in the world that doesn’t give a shit. You’ve got nothing on me anyone here hasn’t heard a million times before. I had consensual sex with a grown man. That’s the most vanilla thing going on in Hollywood.’

            To her surprise, Andrew looked shocked by this. It was almost as if he hadn’t expected her to have an argument or to fight back. When he spoke, there was a tinge of desperation in his voice. ‘I want a million a year for life, or I go to the press.’

            Her laugh was genuine and she almost doubled over. ‘A million a year for you not to tell people that you sexually and physically assaulted me? Because believe me, Andrew, you’re the one that will come out of this looking like the cunt you are. I didn’t do anything wrong, you tried to mutilate me. Tell me whose reputation is most at risk here?’

            ‘You don’t have any proof, either.’

            ‘That’s where you’re wrong.’ She took the memory stick out of her pocket. ‘On here are three statements from the three other women we found, given to my lawyer. I don’t doubt there are more. You’re sadistic and cruel but you’re also arrogant and stupid, and you’re leaving a trail. Not everyone has something to lose and they’re all pretty pissed with you.’

            ‘What are you talking about?’ He blustered but she could see he was floundering. ‘There are no other women…’

            ‘Don’t lie! I’ve seen what you did to them. You carved your fucking initials on one of them.’ She threw the memory stick at him. ‘Keep it. I deleted the pictures though. I didn’t want you to have anything to jerk off to.’

            ‘What the hell are you going to do with it? The press won’t care about me.’

            ‘That’s what I said. But your mum and dad care about you. Your brothers and sisters. Your family. Your friends. Your boss and your colleagues, your business contacts. They’d all care if they opened their inboxes tomorrow and saw those files. Oh, and obviously I’d have to CC the police in those emails.’

            ‘You smug fucking bitch!’ He jumped to his feet, yelling in her face but she didn’t move, forcing him to back off again.

            She smiled, ‘Yeah. Not the cowering little sub you remember, huh?’ She opened the door. ‘Fuck off, Andrew. Crawl under a rock and stay there. If you try coming for me or any of others, if I hear you’ve harmed anyone ever again, you will deal with me and I will take great pleasure in destroying you.’

            ‘Rot in hell, you cunt.’ He spat.

            ‘Funny, I was about to say that to you.’ She left, walking fast, back down the stairs and out onto the main road. She felt like vomiting and she was shaking like a leaf. Her fingers fumbled with her phone, finally managing to pull it out of her pocket. ‘Are you there?’

            ‘Yeah, I’m here!’ He sounded jubilant. ‘You were phenomenal. God, babe, I can’t tell you how proud I am of you right now.’

            She smiled, still walking fast, needing to be a million miles away from this place. ‘I feel sick.’

            ‘It’s over, baby. He won’t be bothering you again. Not once he listens to those statements.’

            ‘I feel so stupid for ever thinking he had anything on me. All those years living in fear of what he could do to me. What a waste.’

            ‘Don't beat yourself up. It's finished. My favourite part was when you said that consensual sex with a man was the most vanilla thing in town.’

            ‘Well, it is, even if it is freaky sex.’ Jess climbed into her car and started the engine, sighing with relief. ‘Pour me a large gin and tonic, sweetheart. I’m coming home.’

 

There was definitely a party atmosphere in the house. They’d had a great afternoon with some of their closest friends and now the house had filled up with more people, there was music and everyone seemed to be having a great time. A lot of the cast of Avengers were in attendance, seeing as everyone was gathered for the premiere, and there were friends of both Chris’s and Jess’s milling around. It had taken her a while to relax once she returned home, but after she’d had a couple of brownies and a few drinks, she felt better and happier than she had in weeks.

            ‘Evans!’ Renner yelled as Chris appeared in the kitchen door. ‘Your woman is a hustler.’

            He walked up behind Jess who was sitting at the table with Renner, Mackie and a disgusted looking Seb. They were playing poker. He leant on the back of her chair. ‘You didn’t learn anything in Atlanta?’

            ‘Certainly not how to play,’ Jess said with a laugh. She threw a couple of chips onto the large pile in the centre of the table. ‘Call. What ya got?’

            Renner flipped his cards over. ‘J high straight.’

            ‘Very nice. Seb?’

            ‘I hate this game.’

            ‘Nothing? You know, you’re supposed to fold when that happens?’

            ‘I hate you, too.’

            ‘Mackie?’

            ‘Full house. Boom!’

            ‘Also a very nice hand. Congrats. I’ve got a flush.’ She flipped her cards as Mackie started celebrating. ‘A J high straight flush.’

            Chris laughed as she raked the chips towards her. He kissed the top of her head. ‘That’s my girl. Making bank!’

            ‘You know you were our friend first, Evans. You could be on our side every once in a while.’ Mackie said, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle.

            ‘But you never learn! You were ready to declare bankruptcy in Atlanta. Jess paid for her car off of you guys.’

            ‘I figured this time she’s a little drunk, a little buzzed, she’d be easier to beat.’ He grumbled.

            The doorbell rang and, after a moment, lots of people started shouting, ‘Pizza!’

            ‘Yay!’ Jess said.

            Chris went to get them and Jess excused herself from the game and wandered back into the kitchen. When he came in he could barely see over the stack of boxes and he set them on the counter. ‘Pizza’s here!’ He shouted, taking the top box and turning to Jess. ‘And for my beautiful girl…’

            ‘For me?’

            ‘Extra sausage,’ he grinned, sliding his other arm around her waist, ‘just the way you like it.’

            She raised an eyebrow and laughed, taking the box from his hand and holding it up so that it wasn’t between them when he leaned forward and kissed her. ‘You know me so well.’

            ‘You look incredible, by the way.’ Her little white dress had been driving him crazy all night. The spaghetti straps tied up on her shoulders and he longed to pull them undone and watch the dress fall to the ground.

            ‘Do you two ever put each other down?’ Jake appeared behind Jess, holding three beers.

            ‘Only when I need both hands,’ Chris said. ‘And sometimes not even then.’

            ‘I saw you were both dry,’ he said, passing them a bottle each. ‘You know Daisy and Chris Pratt have been sat in your spare room for the last three hours?’

            Jess’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Are they okay?’

            ‘Oh, they’re more than okay.’ Jake winked and disappeared into the crowd.

            Jess turned wide eyes on Chris, ‘How cool would that be?’

            ‘Very,’ he agreed.

            ‘We must nurture them!’ She started toward the door.

            ‘We must not,’ Chris laughed, pulling her back. ‘We must understand that they are grown adults and mind our own business.’

            She pouted a little and looked around. The kitchen had filled up since the pizza arrived. ‘I want to eat my pizza but I don’t want to share.’

            Chris laughed. ‘Come and sit out in the garden. I’ll fend off any potential pizza thieves.’

            The garden couch was miraculously free and he sat, pulling Jess down across his lap. ‘You know, it’s great to see you so happy.’

            ‘You know I love pizza,’ she said, flipping the box open. ‘Aw, you got them to take the green peppers off. I love you.’

            He laughed, ‘That isn’t what I meant. I suspect you know that.’

            She looked at him, cheeks bulging. ‘I’m sorry,’ she muffled from behind her hand. ‘Are you trying to have a moment?’

            ‘Yeah.’

            ‘Sorry,’ she repeated, chewing fast and then swallowing. She took a sip of her beer. ‘Okay, I’m ready.’

            He shook his head at her, laughing quietly. ‘You’re much more like your old self tonight. I’m really enjoying seeing you like this.’

            ‘I hope to be more like this from now on. I’m sorry I’ve been such a miserable bitch recently.’

            ‘Hey, no. You’ve had so much going on, and right in the middle of all the press for the movie. I think you’ve handled it pretty well, all things considered.’

            Jess bit her lip. ‘I don’t know if I’d have handled things so well if you hadn’t been with me. I draw so much strength from you.’

            ‘Please continue to do so.’

            ‘Hey, you two!’ They both looked up as Hemsworth took a seat. ‘I’m not interrupting, am I?’

            ‘You know you are,’ Chris said.

            ‘Good, good. I was just wondering if you’ve given any thought on coming out to stay?’

            ‘Yes, we have,’ Jess said. She picked up another slice of pizza. ‘We’re going to Boston this week, and we thought about coming straight after that. If that’s okay with you.’

            ‘More than okay.’ He watched in fascination as she crammed the whole slice of pizza in her mouth. ‘That is both disgusting and impressive.’

            ‘It’s like her superpower,’ Chris said, reaching across the table for a napkin and handing it to her. ‘We were thinking of maybe staying for a couple of weeks?’

            ‘Stay as long as you like. I’m planning on being there for a good two or three months.’

            ‘I wish, but I need to get back for a project by the end of next month. And we can’t leave Dodger for too long.’

            ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see your kids again.’ Jess rejoined the conversation. ‘And we can get Chris surfing.’

            ‘That is not going to happen.’

            ‘It’s going to happen,’ Hemsworth said. ‘Can I have a slice of this?’

            Jess looked at her pizza sadly. She loved it, but she loved Hemsworth, too. ‘Sure.’

            Chris looked appalled. ‘I honestly feel as if you just cheated on me!’

            ‘You want a slice?’

            ‘No, but I don’t want anyone else to have one either.’ She turned her head to whisper in his ear and a slow grin spread across his face. ‘Okay, we’re good.’

 

The party started to break up around 6 am and Chris and Jess called cabs and made sure everyone left and got home safely. It took almost an hour to see everyone off and the sun was already up but they were finally alone. Jess was already scooping red cups into trash bags and generally tidying up.

            ‘I’ve already found two purses and a jacket. How do people forget these things?’ Chris said once the last cab had gone.

            ‘I don’t understand how girls forget their bags.’ Her phone beeped on the table and she picked it up and read the message, twisting her hair around a finger absent-mindedly. ‘It’s from Jake. Are you ready?’

            ‘Go on…’ He had picked up a trash bag and was sweeping red cups, paper plates and napkins into it.

            ‘Despite the cynicism surrounding their alleged engagement, Marvel stars Chris Evans and Jessica Finley have continued to shy away from the public eye. Surprisingly little information is available to document their rumoured relationship. Aside from a few paparazzi shots and the leaked ‘engagement’ photo, the two have only been photographed professionally for the promotion of Avengers: Out of Time. But this morning steamy photos of the supposed couple emerged from a star-studded Los Angeles party.

            ‘Ah, come on!’ Chris groaned. ‘Who here would have done that?’

            ‘Finley is pictured sitting on Evans’ lap while they share a seemingly intimate moment and a pizza. ‘They were all over each other all night,’ said our source. ‘They couldn’t seem to keep their hands off one another.’ Then there’s a picture of you giving me my pizza, with your arm around my waist and another two pictures of us sitting outside. Your hand is very far up my thigh and I am stuffing pizza into my mouth. I’m not going to lie, they’re not flattering. It goes on,

            ‘It seems strange that the two, who claim to just want their privacy, would behave this way in public – in fucking public, it’s in our house! – where everyone could see them. Perhaps their PR machine has realised that the public remains both sceptical and incredulous at the claim that the pair have been together for over a year but were never seen in public once and figured this might be a good way to start convincing people. E for effort, Evans and Finley. Must try harder.

            ‘Bullshit,’ he muttered, but she could tell that he was genuinely annoyed by the article.

            ‘Sweetheart, who gives a fuck? It was probably someone’s date who sold the pictures. None of our friends would do this. And it’s a shitty tabloid site. We don’t have to give a single gram of fuck about it or its opinion.’

            ‘I’m sick of the disdain with which they talk about us. All that alleged and supposedly bullshit. Those pictures and others like them will never go away. I’m sick of people picking over scraps and making a judgement on us. We have to give an interview.’

            Jess sighed and sat down, looking at him carefully. ‘Is that what you want?’

            ‘No, of course it isn’t. But I honestly believe it’s the only way to shut down the rumour mill and maybe stop some of the online abuse.’

            She rested her arms on her thighs, her head down. ‘You’re right. I know you’re right. It just seems so…’

            ‘Grubby? Cynical? Fucking horrendous?’

            ‘Extra. But all of those things, too.’

            ‘When I spoke with the publicist the other day, she said she thought we should do a print interview with a big magazine.’

            ‘Okay. Let’s do it,’ she rubbed the back of her neck.

            ‘I know you don’t want to, babe.’

            She looked up at him, a smile on her lips. ‘No, I don’t, but you’re right. It’s for the best.’

            ‘Let’s leave the rest of the clearing up and get some sleep.’ He held out his hand for her and pulled her to her feet. He led her to their bedroom but on the way, Jess gasped. ‘What’s the matter?’

            She tiptoed to the guest room and pressed her ear to the door, then slowly and quietly opened it. Daisy and Pratt were sleeping on the bed, fully clothed and on top of the covers but holding hands. She turned to Chris and pulled an excited face and he suppressed a laugh and closed the door again.

            ‘I think they’re perfect for each other,’ Jess whispered as they continued to their room.

            ‘So do I, but you need to let them work it all out on their own.’

            ‘I will!’ She protested, starting to take off her dress.

            ‘No, wait!’ Chris said, grabbing her wrists. He tugged at the straps and, finally, watched the fabric fall to the floor. He sighed happily, ‘I’ve wanted to do that all night.’

Chapter Text

Chris looked out of the window as the car inched along Hollywood Boulevard. The crowds were huge, the biggest he’d ever seen and he felt a jolt of sympathy for Jess. It really was the wrong movie for her to be making her debut not only as an Avenger or his fiancée but her first ever premiere.

            He squeezed her hand. ‘Are you okay?’

            Jess nodded, squeezing back. He wore a dark charcoal three-piece suit with a white shirt and a stormy blue tie. He looked so handsome. She grinned at him. ‘Fuck this, let’s go home and bang.’

            He threw his head back and laughed. ‘While it’s true that I can’t wait to get you out of that gorgeous dress,’ his eyes roamed up and down her body, ‘I think you’ll find we are contractually obliged to attend this premiere.’

            She wore the peacock blue dress. Her hair was a mass of glossy curls spilling down her back and held back from her face with a silver clip. On her right wrist she wore her new tennis bracelet and, except for her engagement ring and silver studs in her ears, she wore no other jewellery. He thought she looked stunning.

            ‘Ready?’

            ‘Yes.’

            Chris leant in and kissed her carefully, not wanting to spoil her in any way. ‘I love you.’

            ‘I love you, too,’ she smiled, rubbing her fingers against his beard.

            He climbed out of the car first, waving to the yelling crowds as Jess scooted over. He held out his hand and she took it, climbing carefully out of the car and straightening up beside him. She adjusted the flowing skirt of her dress before taking his hand and they stepped onto the carpet.

            The assembled cameras yelled and shouted, frantically snapping away, the flashes lighting up the shadowy afternoon sky. Jess looked around and saw Josh and Sue getting out of the car behind them and a woman with flame red hair came up and introduced herself as Lila, their handler for the evening. She was clutching an iPad and had a discreet earpiece in her right ear. ‘You both look great,’ she grinned at them as she guided them to their first mark.

            Chris put his arm around Jess’s waist and held her tight and close. He turned his head to whisper in her ear, ‘You look so beautiful. Just smile.’

            Her heart was pounding and she felt sure the fabric of her dress must be moving in time to the thud, thud, thud in her chest. She had never seen anything like the display in front of her as tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment focused on their faces.  They stood in serried rows, the ones at the back standing on step ladders and the ones at the front crouched down. They shouted their names, trying to attract their attention. She felt like a rabbit in the headlights. She tried to keep her gaze fluid and her smile natural but she was so nervous that she felt sure that Chris must be able to feel her heart banging against her ribcage.      

            Lila signalled them to move on and led them toward the enclosure where the fans were. She was so terrified that they would hate her, hate her character, hate that she was with Chris, but she needn’t have worried. They told her they were excited to see Moondragon onscreen and wanted pictures and autographs. There was a huge Avengers: Out of Time billboard over their heads where her face was blown up to about six feet. It was incredibly surreal.

            Chris was slightly ahead of her, taking selfies, answering questions and signing simultaneously. She envied his apparent ease, even though she knew he got nervous, too.

            ‘Jessica?’

            She turned to look at the girl who’d said her name and smiled. ‘It’s just Jess.’

            ‘Jess, sorry. Um…I saw your pictures from when you and Chris were walking Dodger and I really liked your hoodie. The Netflix one.’

            She laughed, ‘Thank you.’

            ‘I bought you these.’ She lifted a paper carrier bag over the barrier and held it out to Jess.

            A security guard stepped forward as if to stop her, but Jess held up a hand to stop him. She reached out her other hand to take it. ‘Can I open it?’ The girl nodded and Jess put her hand in the bag and felt soft fabric. She pulled out two t-shirts. One said Chris Evans is my boyfriend and the other I love Chris Evans. Get over it. ‘Oh my God, these are so cool! Thank you so much!’

            ‘You’re welcome. I’m really glad you like them.’

            ‘I love them. I promise you I will wear them. Hey, Chris, look!’ She held up the boyfriend t-shirt so he could see it.

            He squinted at it then burst out laughing. ‘Who gave you that?’

            ‘This young lady right here. And look…’ She held up the other t-shirt.

            He grinned mischievously. ‘Oh, that one is perfect.’

            ‘What’s your name?’ Jess asked.

            ‘Alexis.’

            ‘Have you got anything you want signed?’

            She produced a movie poster and unrolled it. ‘You’ve got a lot of fans, Jess. I know Twitter sucks but there are people who love you.’

            She bit her lip, trying very hard not to let her eyes well up. ‘Stop, because you will make me cry.’ Jess personalised her autograph, wrote a brief message and signed it as clearly as she could. Her eyes scanned the other signatures. ‘Has Chris signed this?’

            ‘No, he missed me out.’

            ‘Well, that won’t do.’ She winked. She turned around to see where he was, beckoning him over. ‘This is Alexis.’

            ‘Hi, Alexis! How are you doing?’ He flashed her a devastating smile.

            Alexis stood with her mouth open, her eyes like saucers.

            Jess laughed. ‘It’s okay, I wasn’t cool when I first met him, either.’

            ‘She really wasn’t,’ Chris agreed, eliciting laughs from those around them.

            ‘Sign her poster, please.’

            ‘Sure thing,’ he said easily, taking the pen.

            ‘Thank you both so much.’

            ‘No, thank you,’ Jess told her quietly. ‘I mean it.’

            ‘Jess, we need you to finish signing,’ Lila said, appearing at her elbow.

            ‘Okay. Yes. Sorry.’ She looked around for Sue and held the bag out to her. ‘Can you make sure this gets in the car, please?’

            ‘That was sweet,’ Lila told her as they moved down the line.

            ‘There’s been so much negativity recently that I’d forgotten there are still nice people out there.’

            Her smile felt much more natural now and she happily finished going down the line of fans in Chris’s wake. When they were done, Lila lead them over to a cluster of their fellow cast members. They were being wrangled up for group photos but right now everyone was hugging and laughing, exclaiming over hair and outfits.

            ‘Jess,’ Lila touched her arm. ‘It’s time for your interview.’

            ‘Alone?’

            Lila nodded, leading her over to a red-carpet reporter stationed in front of the stage where the group photos were about to happen. Sue appeared beside her and Jess smiled, finding her presence calming and reassuring.

            ‘Ah, here’s Jessica Finley who’s new to the Marvel franchise,’ the reporter said as Jess stood on an X made from masking tape on the carpet. ‘Hi, Jess!’

            She was blinded by the level of ‘perky’ this reporter had achieved. ‘Hi.’

            ‘You look beautiful, what a great dress!’

            ‘Thank you,’ Jess managed a smile.

            ‘Now, you play Heather Douglas, also known as Moondragon, a brand-new character to the MCU. Tell us what it was like joining such a huge, successful franchise at this late stage?’

            ‘Daunting. But everyone was so welcoming and made filming so much fun. By the time we wrapped I’d forgotten I hadn’t been there forever.’

            ‘What can you tell us about your character?’

            Jess shifted, her eyes flicking over the reporter’s head to where the original six Avengers were assembling – she inwardly laughed at her own joke – on the stage. Chris gave her a wink and she grinned. ‘Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s all a secret. She’s got a pretty complex backstory. She’s definitely not comic book Moondragon, but she’s retained a lot of her powers and personality traits.’

            ‘Can you tell us what her powers are?’

            She looked at Sue, standing over the reporter’s shoulder, who nodded. ‘She’s incredibly intelligent, a very powerful telepath, telekinetic, which she uses to fly, and she’s a master martial artist.’

            ‘We saw in the trailer how she uses her telepathy to make Thor fall in love with her, how did it feel to have that much power?’

            She laughed. ‘That’s kind of her thing, she does it to everyone. I had a lot of scenes with Hemsworth and our characters have shared history, so it was fun to film with him.’

            ‘How hard did you have to train?’

            ‘Incredibly. I wanted to learn as much of the martial arts as I could but I had no hope of reaching her level in just a few months. I needed to be a lot fitter than I was on the day I got cast.’

            Lila was making wind it up signals to the reporter, who glanced down at her clipboard. ‘We know you have three more movies in your contract. What’s next for Moondragon?’

            ‘I don’t know yet,’ she lied with a bright smile.

            ‘Thank you, Jess. Enjoy the movie!’

            Sue took Jess’s elbow and guided her away. ‘Well done.’

            ‘I hate talking on my own.’

            ‘I know. But you did really well. They’re almost ready for group photos.’

            Jess puffed her cheeks out and rejoined her castmates. The original six were being interviewed up on the stage and it was being beamed directly into the theatre where the majority of the audience would already be seated.

            Someone came up behind her, squeezing her waist and she turned to find Pratt. ‘Oh, hey you! You disappeared pretty quick yesterday.’

            He and Daisy had left while she and Chris slept and, except for a ‘thanks for a great night’ text, she hadn’t heard from either of them. ‘Yeah, sorry. We went out for food.’

            ‘And?’

            ‘We had tacos. I like her a lot.’

            ‘I’m glad,’ Jess smiled, rubbing his arm. ‘Really glad.’

            ‘I told you no interfering,’ Chris sidled up next to her and took her hand.

            She looked at him, a smile lighting up her face. ‘I wasn’t. We are talking about tacos.’

            ‘I can confirm that the subject is tacos,’ Pratt agreed.

            ‘Everyone up on the stage, please.’ Someone yelled.

            Like very well-dressed sheep, they filed up on the stage, smiling and waving at the fans and cameras. It reminded Jess a lot of filming; nobody was paying any attention and they were all talking amongst themselves.

            ‘Hi guys,’ Tessa squeezed in beside them.

            ‘Hey!’ Jess hugged her. She’d loved working with Tessa and didn’t see nearly enough of her. ‘We missed you yesterday.’

            ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come’ she said regretfully. ‘I’m shooting in New York and I only got here a couple of hours ago. I’ve got to go back straight afterwards, too.’

            ‘That sounds horrendous. We’re going to Boston tomorrow so maybe we could hook up at some point?’

            ‘Will there be margaritas?’

            ‘As many as you can shake a stick at.’

            ‘Then I should be delighted.’

            They all smiled for a big group picture and then handlers started to appear to whisk people off to interviews or more pictures. Jess felt a lot more relaxed than she had when they’d first stepped out of the car. Having Chris by her side and their friends all around them made it easy. She didn’t see the cameras or hear the shouts and there was an almost carnival atmosphere about the whole thing. Everyone looked great and seemed genuinely excited.

            Lila beckoned them over and took them to the huge pen where the TV cameras were. She explained that they were running a little late and that they’d only have time for one or two questions each. Jess looked at the cameras all lined up, leading towards the door of the theater. It seemed as if it would take forever. In the end, everyone seemed to ask the same questions and before she knew it, she and Chris were standing in the foyer and it was over.

            ‘Congratulations,’ he grinned at her. ‘You’ve survived your first ever red carpet.’

            ‘It wasn’t that bad. It went a lot faster than I thought.’

            ‘Now you get to see yourself on the big screen for the first time.’

            Jess swallowed. She really wasn’t looking forward to that part. She had never enjoyed watching herself on TV and she didn’t think she was going to enjoy seeing herself on a gigantic screen any better. ‘How are you feeling after your last Marvel red carpet?’

            He smiled. ‘Very mixed feelings. This one was a lot of fun. And it’s not really my last one, I’ll be at all of yours, too.’

            ‘Oh yeah!’ She grinned. ‘I didn’t think of that.’

            He carefully pushed a loose curl back from her face. ‘There are a lot of premieres in your future, Jess. You can’t give it all up.’

            She looked at him, opening her mouth to say something and then closing it again. The past couple of days had knocked that thought out of her head. Now he’d pushed it right back to the front.

            Once they finally took their seats and the movie started, Jess found herself immediately sucked in. It was amazing to see it onscreen with all the CGI and special effects added. She forgot they were stood in front of green or blue screens for the vast majority of it. That they didn’t really fly. That they all didn’t really have powers. The audience was rowdy, something she had never experienced before. They yelled and cheered when each character made their entrance. The biggest cheers were reserved for the original six and she joined in wholeheartedly. And she teared up whenever someone died but she actually cried when Steve Rogers died and Chris had to give her his pocket square to wipe her eyes.

            She closed her eyes, knowing what was coming. She heard footsteps crunching over debris. Her footsteps. A long pause and then a new version of the Captain America theme, slightly darker. And then something she wasn’t expecting. Everyone went crazy. She opened her eyes to see herself on the screen, holding the shield. People were turning to look at her, shock and surprise written across their faces. But they mostly looked impressed.

            Chris put his arm around her and pulled her close. ‘I’m so proud of you.’

            Jess watched the rest of the movie in a daze. As the credits rolled, everyone stood up, clapping and cheering. She turned to him and hugged him, whispering in his ear, ‘Thank you, Cap.’

            It took them ages to get out. Everyone wanted to congratulate Chris and pat him on the back, while their fellow cast members wanted to berate Jess for keeping her true identity a secret. Lila was waiting for them outside to take them to their car where Sue and Josh were waiting for them. They weren’t going to the afterparty as their flight to Boston was scheduled early the next morning so the car took them straight home.

            They rode in silence most of the way. Jess thought about Chris no longer being a part of all that and found herself getting upset again. He was a big loss to the franchise and everyone was sad that he’d gone. As difficult as Atlanta had been, she had loved working with him and she was disappointed that it was already over. She glanced across at him, seeing that he was also lost in his own thoughts. Even though she knew that he felt regret, she knew that it wasn’t his overriding emotion. But spending so much time with the people he looked upon as family over the past couple of weeks and now knowing it was over must have been hard for him.

            She squeezed his hand and he turned his head to look at her. ‘Are you okay?’

            He nodded and raised her hand to his lips. ‘Yeah. A little melancholy but mostly glad that all the interviews and photo shoots and press conferences are over and we can have some time to ourselves.’

            ‘Except for that one interview.’

            He sighed. ‘Yes. That one interview.’

            Jess turned back to look out of the window. Neither of them wanted to do it but it seemed as if they had to. She wondered if it really would help or if it was just going to exacerbate things. Twitter had died down a little for both of them, although she suspected that pictures from the premiere would make it all blow up again. Chris’s agent, who would soon become their agent as far as being a couple was concerned, was lining up a magazine interview as fast as she could. At least someone found their decision thrilling.

            Once they got home they both went to change out of their finery. Regretfully, because she loved the peacock blue dress, she turned her back for Chris to undo the zip. He pushed her hair to one side and kissed the back of her neck. ‘You were flawless tonight, in and out of the movie.’

            ‘And you,’ she turned to him, clutching the dress to her chest, ‘have been very stoic, but it’s okay if you’re upset.’

            ‘I am, a bit.’ He ran a finger from her temple to her jaw. ‘But there’s a lot to look forward to.’ Jess let her dress fall to the floor and he grinned. ‘Such as your underwear, apparently.’

            ‘I see a lot of pretty French knickers in your future, Chris.’

            ‘As long as you’re the one wearing them.’

            She picked up her dress and went to hang it up and put on a pair of yoga pants. After she fished a t-shirt out of her drawer, she remembered her gift. She took out the I love Chris Evans. Get over it shirt and pulled it on. ‘What do you think?’

            He paused from unbuttoning his shirt. ‘It’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen you wear.’

            ‘She was a sweet kid, I wish I’d done more for her.’

            ‘She’s certainly got the temperature of the current climate down.’ He pulled his phone from his pocket and pointed it at Jess. ‘Smile.’

            She beamed at him and he took the picture. ‘Just don’t post it on Twitter.’

            ‘Oh, I’m posting it.’

            ‘What?’ She had been joking. She hadn’t seriously thought he’d do any such thing.

            ‘I have realised that I don’t have to sit back and let people talk shit about you. In fact, not only am I going to post it, I’m going to make it my new profile picture.’

            ‘Chris…’ She groaned.

            He tapped away at his phone, then threw it on the bed. ‘Done.’

            She shook her head. ‘It’s almost as if you enjoy the drama.’

            ‘It’s not dramatic to tell people that I love you.’

            Jess didn’t want an argument. She wanted to eat pizza and snuggle up on the couch with him and Dodger. ‘Okay.’

            He eyed her warily but didn’t say anything. He finished changing while she ordered the pizza and they went into the lounge. He flicked the TV on and started searching for something to watch and Jess got comfortable on the couch beside him. They ate pizza and watched a documentary about the Amazon river while the fire Chris had started with his tweet raged out of control.

Chapter Text

Jess smiled, stretching her limbs out. ‘That’s nice.’

            Chris laid kisses on her shoulders and the back of her neck. Despite her shower, she still smelled of sunscreen and tasted of salt, her skin heated by the sun. Arousal coursed through him. He snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her closer as he moved his hand to her breasts, the flat of his palm grazing her nipples which stiffened under his touch. ‘I’m guessing you like that, too,’ he murmured, having elicited a soft moan from the back of her throat.

            ‘Stop teasing me,’ she grumbled, turning in his arms to face him.

            ‘I like it,’ he smiled, softly kissing her mouth. ‘You taste so good.’

            Jess ran a hand over his new buzzcut. ‘You know I love your hair longer but this…’ she brushed her fingers over the back of his head, loving the suedey texture of his hair. ‘This is seriously sexy.’

            ‘I’m worried ab—’

            ‘Seriously. Sexy.’ She interrupted, knowing he was worried about his hair thinning and that it was more obvious cut like this, which she didn’t think it was. She kissed him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pushing herself as close to him as she could. ‘We should get dressed for dinner.’

            ‘I feel as if I’ve only just got you undressed.’ He traced the tan line on her shoulder with a finger. ‘You’re really brown.’

            ‘So are you!’ She had finally managed to get him to tan. It would probably fade as soon as they got home, but right now he was looking decidedly sun-kissed. He had a smattering of freckles across his shoulders that she pressed her lips to before working her way up his neck, across his jaw and back to his mouth.

            ‘I thought you wanted to get dressed for dinner?’ He asked between kisses.

            ‘I said that we should.’ She hooked a leg around his waist and kissed him again.

            His hand caressed her thigh, ‘We should at least wait until the kids are in bed.’

            On cue, one of them went screaming past the bedroom door and they both froze. Jess laughed, ‘And we want to voluntarily do this to ourselves. Alright, I’ll take a rain check.’

            ‘You get ready, I’m going to need a minute.’

            She laughed again, pressed her lips to his one last time and reluctantly released her hold on him. Chris watched her get up. Her hair was beginning to escape the fat braid that snaked across her shoulders and her tan made her look like she wore a caramel coloured bikini. They were halfway through their holiday and he was already dreading leaving. Life here was a lot different, so much more laidback and peaceful. Never before had he wished that his parents had emigrated to Australia. Okay, there were snakes and some huge spiders, and the ocean was full of sharks and jellyfish, but he tried not to think about all of that. Jess ran in and out of the water without a care in the world, but he was more of a land-based mammal. She’d persuaded him in a couple of times but he drew the line at going in deeper than he could stand.

            She pulled underwear out of a drawer and started to get dressed. He loved to watch her dress almost as much as he loved to watch her undress. He had fallen in love with her all over again this past week. She was so relaxed and happy. They weren’t thinking about anything other than having a good time and being together. After he’d sent that tweet, they’d hit another sticky patch, sticker than ever before. Jess’s Twitter exploded into abuse and threats and she wanted to deactivate it and, for a couple of days, she was so consumed with rage that he really thought she would leave him.

            They had flown to Boston barely speaking to each other. His anxiety, which had been so much better in recent months, returned in full force. He was worried about losing Jess, worried about his career, questioning every tiny choice and constantly second-guessing himself. Then they’d had to do their magazine interview – Jess had chosen Vanity Fair from a list of publications that wanted them – with everything hanging over their heads as they talked about how much they loved each other and how wonderful their lives were with the other in it. The only good thing to come out of that, as far as he was concerned, was that Jess started to thaw a little.

            Then they had flown out here and life had changed completely. They spent every day on the beach and every night sitting outside talking and laughing, chilling out with a cold beer. Hemsworth and Elsa were fantastic hosts and both he and Jess were instantly a lot more relaxed and that had only intensified as the days passed.

            The thing that made his heart feel as if it would burst was how great she was with Hemsworth’s kids. Nothing was too much trouble. She played with them, read to them, made breakfasts and took them out for walks on the beach to let Hemsworth and Elsa catch another couple of hours of sleep. She doted on his nieces and nephews and now she doted on the Hemsworths. It could not be more obvious that she was ready for kids of her own.

            He watched her pull on a long. sleeveless dress, the white fabric of which only served to make her arms look even more tan. She took out her braid and pushed her fingers into her hair, fluffing it out. ‘You look beautiful,’ he said, making her swing around to look at him. ‘Sometimes I wonder how I managed to make you fall in love with me.’

            ‘Oh, sweetheart,’ she frowned, crossing the room to him. ‘I’m not going to lie, it was the muscles and the fact that you give such good hugs.’

            ‘But now I don’t have the muscles,’ he said sadly, as if that were a deal breaker.

            ‘You’re pretty much the same size as when we first met. Okay, I loved it when you got really big for filming, but these muscles are pretty impressive. And you still give great hugs,’ she grinned, sliding onto his lap. ‘Oh, and the beard.’

            ‘How could you forget the beard?’

            ‘I didn’t forget. I didn’t want you to be jealous of our love.’ She stroked his face tenderly. ‘You were easy to fall in love with, Chris. I’m the one who’s lucky to have you. I get to wake up with you every day. Your voice is the last thing I hear at night and the first thing I hear in the morning. Every day I thank the universe that you chose me.’

            He gathered her hair up in his hands and pushed it over her shoulders. ‘I don’t want to go back to how things were before we came out here.’

            ‘Neither do I. I’ve kind of forgotten all about it, to be honest. Maybe it’s time for me to delete the social media and we can just get on with our lives.’

            ‘What about Alexis?’

            Jess chewed her lip. She had found her in her mentions on Twitter and followed her back, and Alexis had introduced her to a huge group of fans whom Jess adored. They fought off trolls, sent her loving and supportive messages, links to amazing artwork and such cute cartoons of Moondragon and Thor and Cap. She followed as many of them as she could, opening up her DMs to them. She couldn’t always reply to them all but she read their messages, and that little read receipt seemed to mean as much as a reply to most of them. ‘I wish there was a way to keep them and lock everyone else out.’

            ‘Maybe there is. Let’s talk to Josh when we get home.’

            ‘Okay.’

            ‘But in the meantime, I want to enjoy the rest of the holiday. I’m having such a great time.’

            ‘Me too. I love seeing you so chilled. You’re just an actually getting in the ocean away from being a surfer dude.’

            He laughed. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’ He glanced at the clock and patted her ass to get her to move, ‘I need to get changed.’

            Jess got up, going back to the mirror to finish her hair while Chris moved around her, putting an outfit together. ‘You know, you and Hemsworth are so close, I’m surprised you haven’t been out here before.’

            ‘He invited me a bunch of times but…’ Chris hesitated, knowing that the truth sounded terrible. ‘I didn’t want to come. I was so envious of everything he had, his wife and his children. I know how bad that sounds.’

            ‘It doesn’t sound bad. I get it.’

            ‘When we filmed Infinity War and everyone moved their families to Atlanta, that was hard. You know I wasn’t exactly on the rails when we met. That just pushed me over the edge a bit.’

            ‘But you feel differently now?’

            ‘Of course I do. I know we want to get married first and do it properly but I am ready right now.’

            Jess looked at him. She did want to get married first. They could get married next week in Boston if they really wanted to. Yes, she had her heart set on a big wedding with all of Chris’s family and their friends, but what if they didn’t do that? What if they went home and had a small City Hall wedding with their closest friends and family?

            Chris looked up to find her staring at him. ‘What’s the matter?’

            ‘Nothing,’ she said, her voice quiet. ‘I was just wondering how badly I want a big wedding.’

            ‘Very badly, Jess. You’ll regret it if we don’t.’

            Would she? She wasn’t sure, torn between her dream wedding and having a baby. She bit her lip.

            ‘I know what you’re thinking and you need to stop,’ he said, his voice low and firm. He gripped her shoulders, making her look at him. ‘We’re not having a quickie wedding just so we can have a baby a few months sooner than planned.’

            ‘But –’

            ‘No, Jess. I won’t do it. Man, I should have kept my stupid mouth shut.’

            ‘You were being honest. You literally just said that you’re ready now. I’m ready now.’

            ‘I didn’t mean that we should drop everything and get pregnant right away. You’re not ready. Neither of us is. We’re going back to Boston, we’re going to the church to start the process and we’re sticking to the plan.’

            ‘Chris –’

            ‘No! I want to get married, Jess. I want us to be settled in Boston. I want everything in place first and that’s not negotiable. You know I want children just as much as you and if I thought it would work out then I’d baby you up right now, but what happened in London made me realise that it is not the right time for us. Just be patient. A few more months. I can’t even say that I want us to get back to normal because we don’t know what our normal is. We need to find that and live it for a while. You’re going to have your hands full with wedding plans and work. I need to concentrate on my movie. Let’s just…settle for a while. Okay?’

            Her dark eyes flicked between his, assessing whether or not she could fight him on this. Then she sighed heavily. ‘Okay.’

            ‘Okay.’

            She sat on the edge of the bed and waited for him to finish changing, her mind still turning over. Deep down, she knew that he was right, but spending every single day with such little darlings played havoc with her hormones. At least in Boston she got a break from the cuteness overload. Her heart yearned for a family of her own and she couldn’t make that go away.

            He turned and saw her brooding. ‘Babe, come on. This wasn’t an issue two minutes ago. I should have thought before I spoke.’

            ‘It’s okay for you,’ she said quietly. ‘You’ve got a fucking massive family. And they’ve been great to me, they really have, Scott’s like a brother to me already and the longer we spend in Boston the closer I feel to your mum and your sisters and you know I love your nieces and nephews to bits, but they’re not my family. Not yet. I don’t have anyone, Chris. Nobody to invite to our wedding, nobody to walk me down the aisle… Friends are great and I love all of mine dearly, but it’s not the same.’

            ‘You’ve got me.’

            ‘I know, sweetheart, and like I said, I thank the universe for you. But you’re not my mum or my dad, or a brother or a sister.’

            He stood over her, one hand cupping her jaw. His next sentence was a risky one and he weighed it up very carefully in his head before deciding to say it. ‘Your dad’s out there, Jess.’

            She closed her eyes. ‘I know. I’ve been thinking about it.’

            ‘You have?’ He was surprised. She was always so adamant that she didn’t want to contact him and shut down conversations pretty quick.

            ‘Yeah. I mean, not to walk me down the aisle or anything, but just to talk. I don’t know. Whatever.’

            Her voice was gruff and he could tell she was trying hard to sound like she didn’t care. He pulled her to her feet. ‘I think you should. If nothing else it will be closure for you. I’ll help you find him.’

            She looked into his eyes, hating herself for keeping secrets from him. ‘I already know where he is. He lives in Brooklyn.’

            His eyes widened, ‘How long have you known that?’

            ‘Pretty much always. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I just –’

            ‘It’s okay,’ he soothed, ‘I know you don’t like talking about him.’

            There was a knock on the door that made them both jump. ‘Yeah?’ Jess called.

            Hemsworth stuck his head around the door. ‘Are you guys ready? I’m starving.’

            ‘Yup. We’re just coming.’ She waited for him to close the door again then turned back to Chris. ‘We’ll talk later.’

            He put a hand on the side of her neck and stroked her jaw with his thumb. Their gazes tangled and for a second, he could feel the turmoil in her head in the weight of her gaze. He kissed her once then took her hand. ‘Okay. Let’s go.’

 

They didn’t talk about it that night. Jess had one too many margaritas in the tapas bar and Chris had to put her to bed. She woke the next morning with a splitting headache, but he was already there with orange juice and painkillers and a peanut butter sandwich.

            ‘I love you,’ she mumbled, squinting in the sunlight.

            ‘I know.’

            ‘Did I do anything embarrassing?’

            He laughed, reaching out to wipe a smear of peanut butter from her cheek. ‘No. You were unusually well-behaved. Just very drunk.’

            ‘Oh,’ she sagged back on the pillows in relief. ‘You look suspiciously unscathed.’

            ‘I didn’t drink as much as you. I was thinking about what we talked about last night and I wasn’t really in the mood to knock it back.’

            ‘Which part?’

            ‘All of it, but mostly about your dad.’

            She pulled the crust off her sandwich, paying far too much attention to the action. ‘What do you think I should do?’

            ‘I think you should meet him.’

            She looked away, her eyes down. ‘Yeah.’

            He studied her face, noticing the increase of freckles since she’d been catching so much sun. ‘There’s no rush, babe. No pressure. We can go to New York whenever you’re ready.’

            She looked back at him, her heart turning a somersault. She hoped that feeling would never go away. Putting the sandwich to one side, she wriggled close and wrapped her arms around him. ‘Let’s finish enjoying this first. I feel so close to you right now and I don’t want it to end.’

            ‘It doesn’t have to end.’ He held her tightly, the way he knew she liked best.

            ‘I feel as if we’re back in our bubble, before every fucker started to get involved in our relationship. When it was just me and you.’

            ‘It never stopped being just me and you. We both have to stop letting the outside have any influence over us.’

            ‘I know,’ she whispered, pressing her face into his neck. He smelled of shower gel and something herby, almost spicy. ‘What time is it?’

            ‘A little after 11. Hemsworth is down at the beach with the kids already. He said we should feel no obligation to join them and to enjoy having an empty house.’

            Jess laughed, Hemsworth was as subtle as Thor’s hammer. ‘Let’s stay here then.’ She pressed her lips into the crook of his neck. ‘We can run lines for your movie, if you want.’

            ‘That would be great,’ he said, relief edging into his voice. He was beginning to worry that he’d made the wrong decision but he was stuck with it. Better to give it his all and move on. ‘You hit the shower, I’ll make us some brunch and then we can chill.’

            ‘Perfect,’ she mumbled, kissing his neck. ‘Just like you.’

Chapter Text

Leaving Australia was hard, but they were both looking forward to being back on home turf and reunited with Dodger. After thirty hours of flying, they arrived home with no clue what day it was or what time zone their bodies thought they were in. They stopped by Chris’s mum’s house to pick up Dodger and drop off gifts. Everyone was either at school or work so they headed straight home afterwards. His mum had been over to stock up the fridge and the mail sat in two neat piles on the kitchen counter.

            Chris took Dodger straight out into the garden and started throwing a ball with him. Jess made tea, then took her mail and went to join them. There were a couple of big, thick envelopes that could only be scripts. While they were away she had read, or tried to read, the huge pile she’d already accumulated but nothing jumped out at her. There were some good scripts, they just didn’t feel as if they were for her. At least her suitcase had been lighter on the way home.

            Occasionally Dodger brought her the ball instead of giving it to Chris. She stroked his ears and gave him kisses which were really all he wanted. She sifted slowly through her mail, putting business stuff to one side. The scripts had been redirected from LA. She tapped her finger on the table thoughtfully and turned to Chris.

            ‘Sweetheart?’

            ‘Yes?’

            ‘I’ve just realised something. About LA.’

            ‘You’re not going to going back anytime soon? Yes, it crossed my mind.’

            ‘Yeah.’

            He sighed. They had been arguing when they left LA and it hadn’t occurred to him that she might be leaving for good. ‘I wish we’d thought of this before we left.’

            She shrugged. ‘We had the pre-premiere party. We can pretend it was our leaving party.’

            ‘Not just that. You didn’t really spend much time with Daisy and Jake. They deserved a proper goodbye, too.’

            She bit her lip, turning her head away. She missed them so much. ‘Yeah.’

            He stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. ‘Okay, here’s a plan. We’ll arrange a weekend to go back and pack up personal stuff. We’ll have a small soiree to say goodbye to our friends. Then once we’re organised here, I’ll go back and supervise the big move.’

            ‘You have the best plans.’ She tilted her head to look up at him and he bent to kiss her.

            ‘Well, you have the best legs. I have to bring something to the relationship.’

            ‘Hey. You bring the beard. Don’t ever think that’s not enough.’

            He laughed and ruffled her hair, turning to throw the ball for Dodger. ‘Anything good in the mail?’

            ‘I don’t know. You left yours in the kitchen.’

            ‘Fine. Anything good in your mail?’

            ‘I got a couple of scripts. One of them looks interesting. The cover letter says it’s about racism and colourism.’

            ‘Jeez. That’s a bit on the nose.’

            ‘I know…’ she said distractedly, leafing through the pages. She took a sip of tea and started reading.

            Chris laughed quietly, realising he’d lost her attention. He watched her for a while. It must have been a good script because she sat with her mug raised halfway to her mouth for at least three pages. Dodger nosed his hand, impatient for another ball throw. He grinned to himself. Just him, the woman he loved and their dog, spending an afternoon in the garden.

 

Jess wiped the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her hoodie and sniffed hard.

            ‘Honey?’ Chris’s voice was all concern. ‘What’s the matter?’

            They were laying on the couch and she had her head in his lap. He absently played with her hair while he read news articles on his phone and kept half an eye on ESPN, and she finished devouring her script. She shook her head, ‘Nothing. It’s this story.’

            ‘That bad, huh?’

            She laughed, giving him a nudge. ‘It’s incredible.’

            ‘Are they happy tears?’

            ‘Kind of. They’re oh my god this script is speaking to me tears.’

            ‘What’s it about?’

            ‘I think you should read it. It’s about this woman who lives in a small town in Louisiana. She’s mixed, and she and her mum, who’s black, are basically ostracised from the black community because of it. Then she moves away, to Boston, actually, and she falls in love with a white guy and they want to get married. So, she takes him home and the mum hates that he’s white, but his family accept her without question. There are some really powerful messages and the characters are so strong.’

            ‘It sounds as if you’ve already made up your mind.’

            ‘I have, but that’s not why I want you to read it. The male lead, the boyfriend, he is perfect for you.’

            ‘For me?’ He echoed.

            ‘Yes. I can only see you in my head and hear your voice saying his words, no matter how hard I try to think of someone else.’

            ‘I’m stunned you’d even consider working with me ever again.’

            ‘What do you mean?’ She turned her head and looked up at him.

            ‘You know, after Atlanta.’

            She tutted. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. That was relationship growing pains, not down to working together. I’ve been sad that we might not work together again.’

            ‘Then of course I will read it.’

            ‘It’s probably going to have no budget and get shown in three cinemas but I think we would both benefit from doing it.’

            ‘Are you hoping I might learn something?’

            ‘Did I say that?’ She looked offended but he saw her mouth twitching.

            ‘Mmm!’ He took the script from her hands and flicked it open at the first page.

            ‘I’m going to start dinner.’

            ‘Okay, babe.’

            It felt good to be cooking again. There was a ragù simmering on the stove and she was measuring out ingredients to make pasta, her trusty KitchenAid by her side. It was nice to have someone else cook for her now and again but she had really missed it while they were away.

            Chris came in holding the script. ‘Oh my god.’

            She looked up with a smile, ‘I told you.’

            ‘It’s like someone’s been listening to all our conversations.’

            ‘How far have you got?’

            ‘To where she and her mom leave the church because of racism.’

            ‘Oh, it gets so much worse.’

            ‘It makes me feel things. Like, now I’m angry, but earlier on I was sad.’

            ‘You’ll be sad again. Happy. More angry. A lot more angry. Then happy but like, crying happy. So, shall I let them know you’re interested?’

            He gave her a duh look as he made his way to the fridge. ‘Beer?’

            ‘No thanks,’ she pointed to her wine glass. ‘So how do I do this? Do I put them in touch with your agent or tell your agent to contact them or what?’

            ‘Uh…’ He cracked his beer open and threw the cap in the bin. ‘I think you should probably let them know I read it and I’m interested, then give them my agents details if they don’t say no outright.’

            ‘They’re not going to say no. What’s better than having a Captain America in your movie?’

            ‘Having two Captain Americas in your movie?’

            ‘Exactly.’

            He laughed quietly, sitting at the breakfast bar and watching her hands as she kneaded the pasta dough. ‘Jess, your logic…’

            ‘Irrefutable, right?’

            ‘That isn’t the word I was looking for.’

            She poked her tongue out at him and then pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, leaving a smear of flour on her forehead. He toyed with telling her but decided against it. He didn’t think she knew quite how much he enjoyed this domestic time with her. Watching her cook was one of his absolute favourite things. They had returned from Australia much happier and closer than when they left, but just being with her in the kitchen was almost intimate and always made him feel close to her. It was time they never had to share with anyone.

            ‘How are you feeling about your movie today?’

            ‘Ugh,’ he grunted, sipping on his beer.

            ‘That good, huh?’

            ‘The rewrites have completely killed the story. It’s nowhere near as good now. I’ve got a free to walk clause in my contract I could invoke, but....’

            ‘So there’s a way out?’

            ‘Yeah, but it will still make me look like a huge knobhead.’

            Jess laughed, shaking her head. ‘I’m sorry, I just love the way that sounds coming out of your mouth.’ She rolled the dough into a ball, threw it in a bowl and covered it with cling film. ‘Maybe it’s okay to be a knobhead. This is your career, after all, and you’ve put a lot of effort into building it up. Tell them you hate the rewrites and you’re going to walk.’

            ‘Are you serious?’

            ‘Yes, I’m serious. Why should you have a black mark against your name for something that’s not your fault? If the story’s not the same as the one you signed up for then I think that’s a perfectly good reason to back out. Other people pull crap like that all the time and it doesn’t seem to affect their castability. If you don’t want to tell them it’s shit, say you’ve got a scheduling conflict or a personal issue.’

            ‘Is castability even a word?’

            ‘Give me a break, Chris, I just gave you a rousing motivational speech.’

            ‘And I am feeling both roused and motivated. Good job!’

            She shot him a withering look. ‘Just stop.’

            He laughed. ‘There’s only a month until filming though. I don’t know, it feels like a dick move.’

            She shrugged, starting to gather ingredients again, weighing out flour and butter. ‘As I said, it’s your career. It’s your decision. You know I’m with you no matter what. I’ll even admit that I know you at the premiere, although I’ll tell people that I just happened to be passing.’

            He laughed hard at that and she smiled. When he was recovered he asked, ‘Are you making a cake?’

            ‘No, I’m making a béchamel sauce for the lasagne. But if you want cake I will make you one.’

            ‘Please.’

            ‘Any particular flavour?’

            ‘The one with jam.’

            ‘I don’t know if we have any.’

            ‘Oh.’ He looked crestfallen.

            ‘That’s what happens when you eat it out of the jar with a spoon, Evans.’

            ‘But it’s so good!’

            ‘Check the cupboard, maybe you’ll get lucky.’

            Chris checked the cupboard and returned with a miraculously unopened jar of strawberry jam. ‘I didn’t know this was in there.’

            ‘Which is why it’s still there. Alright, I’ll make you a cake.’

            ‘What about your career? We said we’d talk about you quitting when we came home from Australia.’

            She sighed, weighing out more butter before answering. ‘It’s more complicated than I thought. I assumed that the rules here would be the same as in Cali, but they’re not. They’re the same in New Hampshire, but if I want to practise law in Massachusetts I’d need a Juris Doctor degree from a US law school, which is two years. I’m not ruling it out completely, but I have no idea if I can make that work with my Marvel schedule, which will also dictate when we can get pregnant.’

            ‘I’m sorry, babe.’ He got up for another beer, taking out the wine to top up Jess’s glass at the same time. ‘Maybe your movies will be three years apart and you’ll have time to do the degree.’

            ‘If they’re that far apart I’ll be busy punching out a couple of kids.’

            Chris laughed, ‘I do love your turn of phrase.’

            ‘I studied law, not poetry.’ She winked at him over the rim of her glass.

            ‘I still think you’re crazy for wanting to give up something that you’re so good at.’

            ‘I’m good at law, too. Anyway, I haven’t decided to give up acting. Yet. I want to do this movie, hopefully with you.’ She turned the mixer on to cream the butter and sugar, then reached for the eggs. ‘I really want to do this movie.’

            ‘It would be a great platform for you to start a multiracial campaign, too.’

            ‘Hey, you said multiracial,’ she grinned. ‘I’m proud of you. Even if I prefer the term mixed race.’

            ‘It’s such a minefield.’

            ‘And that is something I would like to combat.’ She started sifting flour into the mixing bowl. ‘What are you thinking? About your movie,’ she elaborated when he looked confused.

            ‘I don’t know. I’ll run it by my agent.’

            Jess smiled at him. ‘Don’t overthink it, sweetheart. Go with your gut. We’ll make it work whatever you decide.’

            He thought about her words as she poured the cake mixture into two tins and put them in the oven. She gave him the bowl to lick while she started on the béchamel sauce and he concentrated hard on what his gut was telling him. It told him that it wanted more cake mix, so he reached across for the spatula and licked that, too. Then he got up and started to rinse the stuff she’d used and stack it in the dishwasher, while she rolled out the pasta and assembled the lasagne.

            ‘Can you take the cakes out, please?’ She asked as she sprinkled grated cheese on top of the béchamel sauce.

            He looked around for the oven gloves, took the cakes out and put them on the counter to cool. The fluffy golden-brown sponges filled the kitchen with the scent of warm vanilla.

            ‘Walking behind.’

            She put the lasagne in the oven and adjusted the temperature. ‘There. Teamwork.’ She held up her hand for a high five but he pulled her into his arms. ‘You going to leave me hanging, Evans?’

            ‘No,’ he said quietly, kissing her mouth. ‘I love you.’

            ‘I love you too,’ she was smiling but she looked puzzled. ‘What’s the matter?’

            He looked at her, at the smudge of flour on her forehead. He smiled, rubbing it away with his thumb. ‘For once, absolutely nothing.’

Chapter Text

New York was even hotter and more humid than the last time they were there. The only comfortable place to be was in their hotel room, lying naked under the aircon. They were in town for two, possibly three, reasons. The first was to meet the other three victims of Andrew’s handiwork. Two of them, Grace and Bailey, had just arrived from the UK and the New York-based Amanda would be joining them later that evening for dinner. Jess was keen to draw a line under the whole thing and move on. Their second was to meet with the director and producers of their next movie, The Color Philosophy, to discuss the project and meet everyone. There was also a slim chance they were going to drop in on her dad, but she was completely conflicted about that one. Chris wanted her to decide on her own so he didn’t push her on it.

            He had decided not to back out of his movie and he only had a few days before he left for Poland where the majority of the shoot would take place. Now they had a date for the wedding, December 7th, there was suddenly a hell of a lot going on in their lives. Jess was all over the place, happy and content one minute and full of doubt and anxiety the next. He knew that once she made a decision on whether or not to meet her dad, she would feel a lot better, but she changed her mind hourly.

            To take her mind off of everything, Chris had persuaded her to go out for lunch and now she was covered in a film of sweat and her hair was frizzing out.

            ‘It’s incredible, I can literally see it getting poofier.’

            She fanned the hem of her My spirit animal is a gummy bear t-shirt, trying to get some relief from the heat. ‘Don’t think I won’t make a scene in the street, Evans. You and your hair kink are the reasons I look like a 70s disco diva right now.’

            He laughed, squeezing her hand. Then he dug in his pocket and produced a hair tie. ‘Will this help?’

            ‘Wha –’ She looked at him in surprise, her mouth hanging open. ‘Why have you got a hair tie in your pocket?’

            ‘They’re everywhere, Jess. I pick them up all the time.’

            She took it from him and lightly punched his arm. ‘Then you are the reason I can never find one when I need one!’

            They ducked into a doorway to get out of the stream of pedestrians, and he watched as she tested how stretchy the band was before putting it over her hand and deftly winding her hair up into a bun.

            ‘Where does it all go? It’s like witchcraft,’ he shook his head in disbelief as her cloud of fluffy hair disappeared, which would have earned him another arm punch if he hadn’t dodged it. He grinned and took her hand again. ‘Come on.’

            ‘This had better be good sushi, that’s all I’m saying.’

            ‘It is,’ he promised. ‘And the restaurant is fully air-conditioned.’

            He loved walking in New York. Everyone was too busy to look at them and even if someone did recognise either of them, they rarely, if ever, approached. They waited at the crosswalk for the lights to change and Chris’s phone beeped in his pocket. He took it out and read the message. ‘Josh says they’ve all signed the NDAs.’

            Jess took a deep breath and nodded. ‘That’s good.’ She had been worried about asking them to sign, but it was in all their interests, not just hers, and she had signed one, too. Anything discussed that night would remain a secret. She had even agreed not to tell Chris, which was going to be really hard.

            They crossed the street and he could see the sushi bar up ahead. ‘Are you okay?’

            ‘Yeah, just…I don’t know. Not nervous but angsty, I guess.’

            ‘I imagine it’s going to be a cathartic experience for all of you.’

            ‘I hope so. God knows we all need the closure.’

            He opened the door of the restaurant and they were hit by cool, refrigerated air. She sighed happily. It wasn’t too busy, they’d missed the lunchtime rush, and their server sat them under the air conditioning vent at Jess’s request.

            ‘Don’t you dare complain that you’re cold in ten minutes time.’ Chris warned.

            ‘I am never going to complain about being cold again.’

            By the time their sushi and sashimi arrived, her teeth were almost chattering but she would be damned if she told him how cold she was. She sipped gratefully at the hot green tea.

            He looked at her in amusement. ‘Was that a shiver I just saw?’

            She gave a snort of derision. ‘No!’

            He laughed softly, beckoning over the server. ‘Could we please move? My fiancée is a little chilly.’

            Once they were seated by the window and Jess’s lips had stopped turning blue, she said, ‘I think I’m more nervous about the meeting tomorrow than I am about seeing the other girls later.’

            ‘I forget that this is only your second movie.’ He offered her the last sashimi but she shook her head. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, it’s just a getting to know you meeting.’

            ‘Mmm…’ She murmured distractedly as she pushed her chopstick through a little puddle of soy sauce on her plate, moving it around to draw a flower.

            Chris smiled, reaching out to take her hand. ‘You’ve got a lot on your mind, Jess. You need to stop worrying. Let’s just get through one thing at a time.’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she dropped her chopstick and sat back. ‘You’re right, I need to focus on tonight first.’

            ‘Let’s go for a walk.’

            She looked at him sceptically. ‘Are you sure?’

            ‘We can have a stroll through the park. Come on, I’ll even buy you an ice cream.’

            ‘Hey, big spender,’ she muttered with a smirk.

            ‘Fine. No ice cream for you.’

            ‘I have my own money,’ she said smugly, putting her hand in her pocket. Then she checked her other pockets. ‘Back at the hotel.’

            He laughed, pulling out his wallet and paying the bill. ‘Come on, Finley. I’ll take care of you.’

            They walked to Central Park, skirting around The Pond and heading up towards the zoo. It felt a little less hot in the open space and there was even a small breeze that cooled them as they walked. It was nice, although not as peaceful as Chris had hoped. It seemed as if half the city was there.

            They talked while they walked, of nothing in particular. Jess was calmer while they walked hand-in-hand and she told him what she had planned for the evening. The hotel had arranged a private dining room and was laying on a Mexican feast for them.

            ‘Any excuse for a taco,’ Chris said with a laugh, shaking his head, ‘and a margarita’

            ‘We’re having tacos for our wedding breakfast,’ she teased.

            ‘Babe, if it made you happy, I would not care.’

            ‘Maybe we shouldn’t walk up as far as the zoo,’ Jess said, glancing behind her. ‘You know that’s where we’ll get recognised.’

            ‘You’re right,’ he said, pulling Jess out of the path of a woman jogging with two dogs tied to a stroller. ‘Let’s cut across to Strawberry Fields and then we can get a cab back to the hotel.’

            ‘And find ice cream.’

            ‘Do you think we should move?’ Chris asked once they were on a quieter path, shaded by the leafy canopy overhead.

            ‘To New York?’ She asked doubtfully.

            ‘No, silly. To a different house.’

            She looked at him in surprise. ‘Where did this come from? Your house is perfect for us.’

            ‘That’s my point, it’s our house now but I think maybe you don’t see it that way. And will it be perfect forever? Don’t you want somewhere that’s ours, that you can put your mark on?’

            Jess thought. Their house was spacious but not family sized and they would, if children were in their future, have to move again at some point. ‘It doesn’t matter whose house it is, it’s our home. It really hasn’t crossed my mind.’

            ‘I can tell. I got an email this morning from a buddy of mine who’s a realtor. He says there’s a house coming on the market in the next few days, not far from where we are now, but it’s much bigger. More bedrooms, a huge yard, further back from the road with woods around so a lot more private. It sounds like the perfect place to bring up a family. I thought we could at least go see it. There would be no rush to leave where we are now so we could renovate it exactly as we both want it. You could have a big European-style kitchen.’

            Her eyes widened excitedly. ‘Stop talking dirty to me!’

            ‘Yeah, you like that, baby?’ He said, laughing. He whispered, ‘Welsh slate countertops. Belfast sink. Butler’s pantry,’ in her ear and she gave a quiet, orgasmic groan that reduced them both to giggles.

            ‘Anyway, he’s happy for us to see it a day or two early and have first refusal. What do you think?’

            Still excited from the words big European-style kitchen, she nodded enthusiastically. ‘There is no point in not seeing it. Even if it’s not for us, it will give us an idea of what we ultimately want.’

            ‘The more I think about it, the more I think it’s better to look now. There’s no stress, we’re not under any time pressure, we can find somewhere and spend months getting it right without tripping on all the other stuff we have to do.’

            ‘So we’ll see it before you go?’

            ‘As soon as we get home, probably.’

            ‘Oh, ice cream truck!’

            Up ahead was indeed an ice cream truck, complete with a huge queue of people. ‘Okay. You go and find somewhere to sit, I’ll stand in the huge queue and try not to get recognised.’

            Jess turned to look at him and adjusted the peak of his cap. ‘There.’

            ‘That’s great. I feel almost invisible now.’

            ‘Happy to help,’ she smiled in the face of his sarcasm. ‘I’ll be over there, somewhere.’

            ‘Chocolate?’

            ‘Please.’ She grinned at him and walked across the grass until she came to a vacant bench, taking her phone from her pocket before sitting down. She scrolled through her emails and found nothing that couldn’t wait until she got back to Boston. Her mind drifted to her plans for the next couple of days. She wasn’t so much nervous about tonight as apprehensive. She was nervous about the movie meeting, though, and she tried to quiet the jumble of thoughts that brought with it.

            She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to let go of the anxiety. A child laughed closeby and Jess opened one eye. A little girl, no more than about eighteen months old, walked alone across the grass. She toddled over to where Jess sat, looking up at her through thick dark lashes. ‘Hello, gorgeous. Where’s your mummy?’

            ‘Da!’

            ‘That doesn’t really help. I’m going to need more specific directions.’

            The girl put a pudgy hand on Jess’s knee and started to try to climb up.

            ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. Potential lawsuit.’ She jumped to her feet, careful not to knock the child off-balance. She quickly picked her up and stood her on the bench, hoping that whoever was in charge would see her and come to claim her. She squinted in the direction the child had come from, but she couldn’t see anyone who even remotely looked as if they’d lost a baby.

            The little girl was holding her arms up, starfishing her hands open and closed to tell Jess she wanted to be picked up.

            ‘You’re far too cute, stop it.’

            Chris came back with the ice creams and stopped in his tracks when he saw the girl. He looked around confusedly. ‘How-how long have I been gone?’

            Jess laughed. With her dark hair and eyes, and those ridiculous lashes, the child could probably pass for theirs. ‘She just came up to me. I can’t see anyone looking for her.’

            ‘Which way did she come from?’

            ‘She sort of appeared on the grass just there,’ Jess pointed. She looked at the girl, ‘Maybe this is where babies come from, they just materialise in front of you when you least expect it.’

            ‘There’s a woman over there with a stroller,’ he pointed a fair distance away. ‘Let’s take her over.’

            ‘Are you sure? I mean, if I pick her up and the mum freaks out…’

            ‘It will be fine,’ Chris soothed. ‘Come on.’

            Cautiously, Jess picked the girl up and swung her onto her hip. She immediately started babbling and laughing happily, her little fingers playing with the silver hoop in Jess’s ear. Jess saw something pass over Chris’s expression and she smiled to herself. They walked towards the woman with the stroller, which looked empty. They could see she was having a heated conversation on the phone.

            ‘Excuse me? Ma’am?’ Chris called, the woman swung around, a look of horror on her face when she realised that two strangers were carrying her child.

            She threw the phone down and jumped to her feet, rushing over to them. ‘Rosie!’

            ‘Sweet name,’ Jess murmured.

            ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see her wander off, I was arguing with my sister. I’m just having a really bad day. Thank you so much.’

            ‘No worries,’ Jess tried to pass her over but Rosie wasn’t having any of it, clinging to her like a koala. ‘She wandered quite far, though.’

            ‘I’m sorry, I was so distracted. She really likes people.’

            ‘You know, I can tell. You’re going to have to help me out here.’

            The woman started trying to detach her daughter from Jess. ‘Wait. I know you. You’re in the Avengers movie! My son is obsessed, we had to take him to see it three times.’

            Jess smiled. ‘Yes, that’s us.’

            The woman’s head whipped around to look at Chris and Jess realised she hadn’t recognised him at all. Usually, people recognised him first and then her by association. ‘Oh wow, Captain America as well. This is incredible. Can I please take your picture? He’ll never believe it otherwise.’

            Jess looked at Chris who shrugged. ‘Sure.’

            The woman retrieved her phone and snapped a picture of the three of them, then prised Rosie from Jess’s arms. ‘Wait until your brother hears who rescued you,’ she cooed.

            ‘All in a day’s work, ma’am’ Jess quipped in a hearty American accent. ‘Bye Rosie,’ She tickled under her chin, getting a giggle in return. ‘She’s gorgeous, by the way.’

            ‘Thank you both again.’ The woman beamed happily, sitting back down in the shade with her daughter.

            Chris gave Jess her ice cream and they walked back to the bench. ‘You know that will be all over the internet, right?’

            She sighed. ‘Yeah.’

            They sat down and ate their melting ice creams in silence for a while. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. ‘I saw that look on your face.’

            ‘What look?’

            ‘The one that said man, I wish I’d said yes to the quickie wedding and knocked her straight up.’

            They both laughed. ‘Yeah,’ he said, turning to look at her, ‘I did have a pang.’

            ‘Too late now, we’ve got enough on our plates. Like planning the wedding and making two movies. Oh, and now possibly buying a new house. All in the next six months.’

            ‘It’ll be fine. What’s life without a little pressure?’

            She smiled wryly, slipping her hand into his. ‘I really wouldn’t know.’

Chapter Text

Chris glanced at the clock, it was almost 11 pm and he was expecting Jess back at any minute. He was worried about how the evening was going to affect her. He didn’t want her to be upset, especially when she’d sworn not to discuss it with him. He scrolled down the page on his iPad. He’d been attempting to read the latest rewrites he’d been sent for his script, but he had lost the will to even try. He wished he’d walked when he had the chance. Jess had told him not to overthink it but he had and here he was. It was going to be a fucking disaster.

            Annoyed with the script and himself, he put his iPad to the side and picked up his phone. He and his Boston buddies were trying to arrange a date to catch a game but his schedule was preventing it being anytime soon. He was checking his calendar against the game schedule when the hotel room door clicked open and Jess came in. She smiled widely and he felt relief wash over him.

            ‘Hey, babe. How did it go?’

            ‘Mostly good. There were some tears but we got all that out of the way early on and then just enjoyed the meal. I liked them a lot. I wish you could have been there. They all told me to say hi, by the way, and thank you.’ He had organised everything, including the flights and hotel rooms.’

            ‘I understand why I couldn’t be. Are you going to keep in touch?’

            ‘Yeah. We’ve got each other’s emails.’ She tugged the scarf from her hair and let her curls loose as she kicked off her shoes, then she padded over to where he sat on the bed and leaned in for a kiss. ‘How was your evening?’

            ‘Very quiet.’ He pulled her onto his lap. ‘As predicted, Rosie’s mom posted her story on Facebook and now it’s gone viral. It’s a cute photo, though.’ He picked up his iPad and found the image to show her.

            Jess looked at the picture of the three of them and smiled wistfully, ‘She is a cutie.’

            ‘Of course, the more the story gets picked up, the more it gets embellished. At this point, you practically ran into a burning building to save her from a pack of rabid dogs.’

            ‘I am such a hero.’

            ‘A superhero.’

            ‘Ah, I see what they did there.’

            ‘The internet loves you, at least for tonight.

            ‘I am sure normal service will be resumed shortly.’ She stifled a yawn, ‘I’m done.’

            ‘Then come to bed.’

            She stroked his hair thoughtfully, smiling as he pushed his head into her hand to indicate how much he liked it. It had grown a little and now felt more like velvet than suede. ‘I’ve made a decision. I want to go straight home after the meeting tomorrow.’

            Chris was very careful not to show a reaction. ‘Okay, that’s cool.’

            ‘I’ve just got rid of one load of stress and I don’t need to open myself up to another, especially with you going away. I can come back here at any time if I change my mind.’

            He rubbed her back, ‘That sounds sensible. I don’t want you to feel pressure. I think maybe you’ve been through enough emotional trauma and it’s time to take a step back.’

            ‘Maybe?’ She said incredulously, her eyebrows shooting up her face.

            ‘Just maybe,’ he smiled. ‘You’ve got a lot to do when we get home. And something’s been bothering me. At no point have you mentioned finding a wedding planner. Surely you don’t intend to run this whole show on your own?’

            ‘The mere existence of your mother in this universe means that I will never be alone. You know that.’

            ‘Fair point.’

            ‘But I have been thinking about it, especially if the movie shoots this year. And also just because I’m new to Boston and I don’t know places or literally anyone at all.’

            ‘I might be able to hook you up with a couple of people before I leave. I’ve got a friend whose sister is a wedding planner, I don’t know her but he’s a stand-up dude. I could try and get you both together.’

            She nodded, lost in thought for a moment. ‘I’m going to need your guest list before you go, too.’

            ‘I’m working on it. What about you?’

            ‘Jake and Daisy. That’s pretty much it.’

            He laughed. She kissed his cheek and got up to get ready for bed. He watched her move around the room. ‘What can I do to help you while I’m away?’

            ‘Nothing,’ she stood in front of the mirror to braid her hair, looking at his reflection over her shoulder. ‘Concentrate on your movie. If I need to make a major decision then I’ll email or Facetime or whatever. The most pressing thing is getting the invitations out and, unless you’re really fussy about what kind of card I pick out, I can do that on my own.’

            ‘I only want artisan card made from kale pulp with ink made from ethically sourced blueberries.’

            ‘Then you are marrying the wrong lady. They are going to be fancy AF. I thought maybe we should send out a quick save the date, partly to give me more time to choose but also because it’s only six months away.’

            ‘That might not be a bad idea, especially as it’s so close to Thanksgiving.’

            She pulled off her dress and looked around for her nightshirt. ‘So that’s my plan while you’re gone, basically. Oh, and your mum wants to take me to a couple of events so I can meet people.’

            ‘Well, be careful. She’ll have you making muffins for coffee morning fundraisers until your fingers bleed if you don’t watch out.’

            She paused on her way to the bathroom. ‘Don’t worry, I know how you feel about my making baked goods for anyone but you.’

            ‘You should make the wedding cake.’

            She snorted, ‘No, I should not. Not unless it’s just one big hash brownie, which isn’t actually a bad idea. I know we’re going to end up with two cakes anyway, we’re never going to agree.’

            ‘I like marzipan,’ he called over the sound of the tap running.

            ‘That’s because you’re a freak,’ she yelled back.

            He laughed and began to clear his stuff off of the bed so they could sleep. Jess hated anything that had even been in the same room as an almond. He knew her tastes and, even though they didn’t always agree, he trusted her judgement so he was content to let her choose whatever she liked best. But he didn’t want to make her feel that he was just along for the ride or paying lip service.

            When she was done in the bathroom, Jess flicked the main lights out and slipped into bed beside him, immediately scooting close for a cuddle. ‘We really haven’t spent a lot of time apart since we met.’

            He moved his arms so she could get comfortable, waiting for her to settle before wrapping them around her. ‘I used to think that a close quarters relationship would drive me crazy. But I couldn’t imagine it any other way, and even when we were first together I really hated to be apart from you. We’re comfortable. I like it.’

            ‘It’s going to make the next few weeks difficult though. Who’s going to make my peanut butter sandwiches and kiss me awake in the morning?’

            ‘I’m sure Dodger will take care of the kisses. I’m not sure he should make your sandwiches, though. He’d just eat all the peanut butter.’

            Jess giggled, tracing his tattoo with her finger. ‘I’m really going to miss you.’

            ‘I’ll miss you too.’ He stroked the back of her neck. ‘I’ve been working out the time differences. You’ll be getting up at around my lunchtime, so I should be able to call you then, and I’ll be going to bed late afternoon your time, but you’ll be going to bed very early morning for me. Maybe if I have an early start we’d be able to talk then, too.’

            ‘Just call when you can,’ she mumbled. ‘I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night.’

            ‘You say that now,’ he chuckled, ‘but I can just imagine the expletive loaded tirade that calling at 3 am would earn me.’

            ‘That’s when you wake me up for sex and stuff. Missing you will be different.’

            ‘And stuff? Like, say, phone calls?’

            ‘Just…call me.’

            He laughed softly, reaching over to turn out the bedside light. ‘Goodnight babe.’

            ‘Night.’

 

They slept in the next morning, a rare luxury, and had to rush to make their lunchtime meeting on the other side of town. Jess fretted the whole way there, to the extent that Chris had to keep up a kind of low-level monologue telling her not to worry and that everything would be fine.

            Of course, she needn’t have worried. Everything was fine. The director, who was also the writer, was a young mixed-race guy named Ray, and Jess had immediately fallen in love with him. When Chris listened to him speak, he realised that Ray wanted the exact same things from the movie as Jess did and it made him understand clearer than ever that it had an important and extremely relevant message. There were two producers also present and it was quite a laid-back, fun meeting. They had a lot of arts grants funding although the budget was still very small. They wanted to shoot in Louisiana and Boston with a maximum of two units. The best thing was that they didn’t intend to start shooting until early the following year. Anything sooner would fall during hurricane season and the tiny production couldn’t afford that kind of risk. It would be a long way from the epic production of Avengers but they both already knew and welcomed that.

            When the meeting was over, they had Chris and Jess record a scene together which, at that point, was merely a formality and, by the time they were back in the car heading back across town, they were both buzzing with excitement.

            ‘I liked him. Did you like him?’

            Chris chuckled, ‘Of course I did.’

            ‘We should defer our salaries.’

            ‘Yes, we should.’

            ‘And maybe pay our own way on location.’

            ‘We can do that.’

            ‘Are you excited? I’m excited.’

            He smiled, taking her hand in his. ‘Really? I can’t tell.’

            She looked at him. ‘I’m sorry, I’m just really…’

            ‘Excited?’

            ‘Yes.’ She took a breath, leaning back in her seat. ‘I really think this movie has legs. I know it’s going to be tiny and distribution will probably be non-existent but I really believe if we could get bums on seats it could go somewhere.’

            He nodded, ‘I’ve been thinking that since I read the script. It gives off a definite vibe.’

            ‘We’ll have to help it along where we can. Well, you more than me, obviously.’

            He looked at her, a smile on his lips. ‘Babe, I have got a feeling that after this movie, your voice is going to be much, much louder than mine.’

            ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

            ‘I’m not.’

            She looked at his smile then looked away. ‘I’ve done one film, Chris. One. You’ve done like fifty. I think your stock is higher than mine.’

            He sighed, raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. ‘I can’t make you see what I see. But you will see it eventually.’

            Jess scowled, irrationally irked by his words. She watched as he pulled his phone from his pocket to check a text. He laughed, part disbelief and part resignation. ‘What’s up?’

            ‘I’m not going to Poland.’

            ‘What? Why not?’

            ‘The director just quit.’

            ‘Holy shit!’ Jess’s first feeling was sheer joy. Chris would never have been happy with that movie but he was too nice to walk away. ‘It’s kind of ironic.’

            ‘They’re going to try to replace him but everyone else can and probably will walk now.’

            ‘You should direct it. You can rewrite it back to how it was originally.’

            He looked at her. ‘I know you’re kidding but that might actually be a great idea.’

            She shrugged, ‘No harm in telling them you’d be interested and seeing what happens. Either way, you don’t have to make a movie you don’t believe in.’

            ‘And you say I have all the good ideas.’

            ‘You do.’

            ‘At least I don’t have to go away now. I can help out with wedding stuff. And make your peanut butter sandwiches.’

            ‘And finally go catch a game.’ She grinned and felt relief. She had played down how much needed to be done because she hadn’t wanted him to feel bad about leaving, but having him home was going to considerably lighten her load. ‘You’d better start sourcing those kale pulp invites.’

Chapter Text

Although Chris had pretty much perfected the big romantic gesture, he wasn’t really fussed about receiving them in return. For him, her sitting with him to watch the game was the height of romance, even though she had absolutely no clue what was going on and couldn’t hope to match his level of enthusiasm and rowdiness. She had planned to at least learn what the hell was going on in football, the sport he was most passionate about, but it made no sense to her. So she had to find other ways to surprise him.

            She had discovered pretty early on that he loved lingerie and was very appreciative of finding expensive underwear beneath the most mundane of her clothes. He liked to spend time in bed in the mornings, cuddling and talking while they checked their emails or caught up with the news. He liked afternoons on the couch, watching old musicals and Disney movies. Basically, really simple stuff. But she had had an idea that she was pretty sure would blow him away. It had been arranged for today because he was supposed to be away, but now that wasn’t happening and she was too excited to postpone. One of his friends had hooked her up with the right person for the job and she had an appointment later that afternoon. But first, they were going to see the house.

            Jess suspected that Chris knew a lot more about this house than she did and he was doing a poor job of hiding his excitement. He had her halfway to the car before he realised she didn’t have her shoes on, then he stood waiting while she pulled on her Converse’s, impatiently jingling the car keys.

            ‘You’ve either already seen it or you’ve seen pictures,’ she said suspiciously as they pulled out of their drive.

            ‘No!’ He said, too offended to be believable.

            ‘Okay, so you like it and you think I’m going to like it, too.’

            ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

            ‘Sure…’

            It was less than a ten-minute drive away, a little further out of town where the houses were bigger with a lot more space between them. Even when he pulled into the drive the house wasn’t immediately visible through the trees and their first glimpse of the brick, Colonial house wasn’t until they were almost parked right outside.       

            ‘It’s huge!’ She turned to him, her mouth open in shock.

            ‘Always something a guy likes to hear!’ He grinned as he cut the engine and they climbed out.

            Andy, the realtor was already there and Chris made the introductions and they all shook hands. Jess was itching to get inside. It was so quiet, nothing but birdsong and the distant sound of a mower could be heard. Once inside she quickly realised that not much at all needed to be done to the house, aside from redecoration. She wondered if Chris had already known that. The ceilings were high and all of the windows were huge. It was light and airy and she could already see where she would put furniture and how she would arrange things.

            It would be far too big for just the two of them, this was a house built to have a big family under its roof. But she knew they could fill it. She could already see it in her mind's eye. Once they’d been in every room from the basement to the attic, Chris took her hand and talked her through his vision as they meandered back downstairs, revisiting each room. He wanted a claw-foot tub in the master ensuite and another door leading into what he thought might be the nursery and he knew she hated wood panelling but the study looked amazing and all it needed was a lot of books and some Chesterfield couches, and how he’d turn one of the basement rooms into his man cave for having his buddies over to watch the game, and, of course, her kitchen, over which she would have free reign to kit out as she wanted. Personally, she thought that was a dangerous statement because she had some extravagant ideas about kitchens, but she didn’t tell him that. And it was obviously a trade-off for the probable Imax sized TV he wanted in his man cave.

            The back garden was vast, leading into private woodland that stretched on and on. A summerhouse stood at one end of the pool and Jess could see her own office in there, with room for a little pre-swim yoga session. At the very end of the garden on the edge of the wood, a rope swing hung from a tree branch and she sat down, looking back up at the house.

            ‘What do you think?’ Chris asked, leaning against the tree trunk and watching her carefully.

            ‘I love it, you know I do. It’s amazing. I already have an urge to buy a Volvo and bake cupcakes to raise money for our kid’s soccer team.’

            He laughed, shaking his head. ‘You’re definitely more of a Range Rover girl.’

            ‘I should think the two are interchangeable around here.’

            ‘We could easily get this place ready before the wedding and move in as soon as we get back from our honeymoon.’

            ‘Honeymoon?' She raised an eyebrow. 'Where are we going?’

            ‘It’s a surprise.’

            ‘You’ve already decided?’

            ‘I’ve already booked it.’

            She smiled, showing him a flash of teeth. If it was a surprise that meant it was something he was particularly proud of. ‘I can’t wait.’

            ‘Tell me what you see.’

            ‘A window seat in the bay in the living room, a piano in the dining room, shelves in the alcoves beside the fireplaces, huge squashy sofas in the den, new hardwood floors upstairs, a kitchen to rival all kitchens that ever were and ever will be, and between four and six children to fill it up.’

            ‘Six? Really?’ He wasn’t surprised, just interested.

            ‘Yeah. I think we could easily squeeze out six.’

            He giggled which made her laugh. ‘I do love your mouth, Jess. The things that you say and the way that you say them.’

            ‘You don’t think we can manage six?’

            ‘I’d love to think we could but I think we’ll probably get to three or four and admit defeat.’

            ‘Lightweight,’ she muttered, turning her gaze back to the house. ‘So, back to business. How much is it?’

            He told her.

            ‘That is nowhere near as much as I thought. I’ve been living in big cities for too long.’

            ‘I mean, we can make an offer, we might get it cheaper, but I’m tempted to just offer the asking price if they agree to push it through fast.’

            ‘So we’re doing this?’

            ‘I think we should. It’s perfect and who knows how long it will be until another house like this comes onto the market?’

            ‘We don’t want to look at anything else?’

            ‘Why? What can be better than this?’

            She shrugged. ‘I’m just checking.’

            ‘What, that I’m sure?’

            ‘That this is what’s best for us.’

            ‘Of course it is, Jess.’ He pushed himself off of the tree and pulled her up from the swing. ‘We would be crazy to pass this up.’

            ‘Okay. I’ll make some calls and free up funds.’

            ‘Woah, wait. What? No.’

            ‘Um…’ Jess frowned. ‘I’m paying half. Did you not say that you wanted me to feel that it was our house?’

            ‘It will be. Well, actually, it’s going to be your house. But your money is no good here.’

            She looked at him, ‘Chris –’

            ‘No, Jess. Non-negotiable. Consider it your wedding present.’

            ‘You’re supposed to buy me earrings or something.’

            ‘I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to spend more than $5 on a pair of silver sleepers, which are literally all you wear. This is happening. I’m going to put it in your name so that if it ever all goes wrong, there’s no argument about it.’

            She felt tears well in her eyes. ‘Don’t say that.’

            ‘I’m just covering all our bases.’

            ‘You know I don’t understand sports.’

            He half-laughed, wiping his thumbs across her cheeks. ‘I’m going to look after you, Jess. You never have to worry.’

            ‘I hate the thought that we won’t make it.’

            ‘Hey,’ he said gently, holding her shoulders. ‘It’s just a precaution. We’d be stupid not to consider all outcomes.’

            ‘I know, I just hate to think about it. It’s like those dreams I have where you leave me and I wake up and can’t stop crying.’

            ‘And you get angry with me for the rest of the day for dream cheating, or whatever it is that I had absolutely no control over.’

            ‘They feel very real!’

            ‘Look,’ he put an arm around her shoulders and turned her back to face the house, ‘this is our new home. It will be the first house we set foot in as husband and wife. We’re going to bring our children home from the hospital and teach them to walk and talk and read and write under this roof. This is the home we’re going to return to when we’re done filming and we haven’t seen each other for weeks. We’re going to laugh together and love each other and I’m going to sit in your big European-style kitchen and watch you cook. Those are the things that I’m really thinking about. It’s not going to matter one bit whose name is on the deeds or who paid for it. In a year’s time, you won’t even remember. And I am damn sure it's never going to be an issue.’

            Jess chewed on her lip. ‘You know I hate it when you make well-reasoned arguments.’

            ‘Come on. Let’s have one last look around and then we’ll talk to Andy.’

            Business was talked, hands were shaken and Chris and Jess climbed back into the car. Andy had promised them first refusal so he was about to call the vendors with their offer and, hopefully, they’d hear back before the end of the day. Jess glanced at the time and realised she was going to be late for her appointment.

            ‘If they accept, how long will it take until it’s ours?’

            ‘If everything goes smoothly and the inspection doesn’t throw up anything major, which I don’t think it will, it could be done in a couple of weeks. But I expect it’ll be more like a month.’

            ‘That’s still pretty quick.’

            ‘Plenty of time for us to argue over wallpaper and color palettes, don’t worry.’ He grinned.

            ‘I wonder what other huge projects we could take on? I don’t feel as if planning a wedding and buying and renovating a house while moving from one side of the country to the other is going to be challenging enough for me. I’m worried I’m going to be bored.’

            ‘We’ll delegate. I know you don’t want anyone’s influence on the house but ours, so no interior designer, but we can still hire tradesmen to get the job done. I don’t think the LA move is going to be that bad, it’s mostly boxes, it’s not as if we’re bringing a lot of the furniture. And we’re going to have a wedding planner soon, so you’re going to be sitting at home with your feet up reading Elle Décor and Vogue Bride whilst making increasingly outrageous demands and sacking people for looking you in the eye.’

            She laughed. ‘I’m going to make everyone turn their backs when I walk in.’

            ‘And only address you in the third person.’

            Jess glanced at the clock again. ‘Sweetheart, can I take the car? I’ve got to be somewhere and I’m already late.’

            ‘Sure. Where are you off to?’

            ‘Er…optometrist. I told you I’m starting to struggle with close reading.’

            ‘Okay. You’ve reminded me to call the freight company about shipping your car, though, so I’ll do that while you’re gone.’

            ‘It would be cheaper to sell it and buy another one here.’

            ‘But then it won’t be the car that you bought with your first movie paycheck.’

            ‘You’re such a romantic.’

            ‘I don’t attach sentimental value to a lot of things but I like those kinds of milestones.’

            When they got home, he climbed out of the car and watched as Jess scooted over into the driver’s seat. ‘Will you be long?’

            ‘I shouldn’t think so. A couple of hours maybe. I’m going to stop off at the store on the way back, so I’ll call you.’

            ‘Be careful,’ he leaned in to kiss her then closed the door and waved as she backed out of the drive.

            Jess drove into the city, thinking about the house the whole way. She had never had the chance to buy a place of her own with her first paycheck because she’d already all but moved in with Chris by that point. She knew that she was in the fortunate position of never having to worry about money again. Even if she and Chris did split up and he never gave her a penny, she could support a home and family on what she was making from Marvel alone.

            Chris was kind of old-fashioned in that he loved to pay for everything, from dinner to the household bills. She had no real position on letting him when it was something insignificant, but a house… She shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. However, she knew that once he made his mind up about something, like he had about this, it was pointless arguing with him. She could spend the next 50 years feeding money into his account a few dollars at a time and he’d still turn around and write her a check at the end. Sometimes she wished he would give her a heads up when he started thinking about something but often by the time he rolled around to telling her what was on his mind, he’d already made it up.

            Traffic slowed as she reached the outskirts of Boston and she switched the radio on to help quieten her thoughts. She knew that the house was a gesture, something that he’d thought about and was proud of, knowing, or at least hoping, that it would make her happy. Which is why he hadn’t discussed it with her first. In her darker moments, she worried that she relied on him more than he relied on her, especially when it came to making decisions. A part of her knew that it wasn’t true. She was impulsive and would blurt out every passing thought, preferring to duke it out with him to ascertain its importance. Chris was more measured and would think something through before deciding if it was important enough to share.

            Frustrated with herself, she squeezed the steering wheel, trying to erase the negative thoughts. She felt the familiar pulse of anxiety push through her core, burning her insides and making her brain go into overdrive. Her problem was that she was restless. Yes, she had a lot coming up and her time would be mostly occupied, but she had done nothing since promoting the movie. Before Marvel, she had always worked and had a normal 9-6 life. Since the promotion for Out of Time she’d been at home kicking her heels and it wasn’t enough.

            It was why she constantly questioned her career. Giving up acting would mean getting a normal job and working every day, which she craved. She didn’t want to give it up, not really, but she needed more to occupy her time and her mind. Now was a really bad time to start thinking about it again, she decided. Nothing was ever going to occupy her time like a wedding and not one but two house moves. Her phone buzzed on the passenger seat and she quickly checked it at the next red light. It was only two words. Offer accepted.

            Jess took a deep breath. She knew he hadn’t offered the asking price. He wanted the house too badly. For them to accept without even putting it on the market he must have gone above and, knowing him, probably beyond. She had to face facts, her life was changing. It was evolving into something new and exciting, with Chris at its centre and she had to surrender some control to him. He gained happiness from making her happy and she had to let him.

            Once she’d found somewhere to park, she called him. ‘That’s great news, sweetheart. I’m so happy.’

            ‘Me too.’ She could hear his smile. ‘They were more than willing to push it through so I don’t think it will be long before we can get in there and start work.’

            ‘I can’t wait.’

            ‘Are you okay?’

            ‘Yeah. My thoughts got away from me a bit while I was driving.’

            ‘Babe…’

            ‘I’m fine. But I’m also very late. I’ll call you when I’m done,' she promised.

            ‘I love you.’

            She closed her eyes, her mouth finally lifting into a smile. Wasn’t that all that really mattered? ‘I love you, too.’

Chapter Text

How Jess kept her secret for the rest of the day, she did not know. Once her appointment was done she went home, unloaded the groceries with Chris, and then spent the rest of the afternoon doing life admin and speaking to her agent in LA. They had gone to Lisa’s for dinner and all the time her secret burned, although not literally, thankfully, and she felt sure that he must sense that there was something different.

            Now they were home and getting ready for bed. She had managed to fend off his shared shower suggestion and now she was checking out her reflection in the mirror while she dried off.

            ‘Babe, have you seen my –’ Chris walked in and stopped dead when she hurriedly covered herself with her towel. ‘Did you…did you just cover up?’

            She tried to lean nonchalantly on the vanity. ‘No.’

            He frowned, walking slowly towards her. ‘What are you up to?’

            ‘Nothing!’

            ‘You, who needs to be reminded to put on clothes before leaving the house, just covered up when I walked in the room. Again, I have to beg the question, what are you up to?’

            She rolled her eyes, wrapping the towel tighter around her and attempting to look haughty. ‘I’m trying to get ready for bed. Have I seen your what?’

            ‘Have you seen my sneaky fiancée who is up to something? I’m sure I left her around here somewhere.’

            Jess laughed and, while she was distracted, Chris whipped her towel away. ‘Hey!’

            He looked at her, not immediately seeing what it was she was hiding until she tried to reach for the towel. ‘Wait, is that a tattoo? You got a tattoo?’

            His voice was hilariously high and she got the giggles. ‘Technically five tattoos, but really just one collective tattoo. Yes.’

            ‘What? I think I need to sit down.’ He perched on the edge of the bath and pretended to hyperventilate. She shook her head, turning back to the mirror and picking up the bottle of cocoa butter. ‘You went out…no, that’s not right. I have to go even further back. You thought of getting a tattoo and you then decided exactly what it was that you wanted, you found somewhere and booked an appointment and then went and got tattooed, all without saying a word?’

            She gave up trying to moisturize, turning to look at him. ‘It was supposed to be a surprise.’

            ‘Oh, I’m surprised.’

            ‘You were supposed to be in Poland and I was going to get them done today and then when you got home they’d be all healed and we’d be making out and celebrating you being home and you’d take off my top and surprise! But now you’re not going for a while and I thought about postponing, but I was so excited so I went and got them done anyway.’

            ‘Come here,’ he held out his hand and pulled her closer. ‘Let me see.’

            She lifted her arms. They were DMS coordinates, three under her left arm and two under her right, along her ribs where the band of her bra would sit.

            ‘God, they’re amazing!’

            She could only grin, thrilled that he liked them.

            ‘They’re so neat, too. Where did you go?’

            ‘Permanent Record. Steve told me where to go.’

            ‘Let me dreg up my vague recollections from high school geography class and see if I can’t work these out. Is this one Boston? 0°, that’s got to be London. Er… much farther west, so LA? Boston again and not LA but close enough to still be California.’

            ‘Very good,’ she was impressed.

            He was still studying them, moving her arms so he could see. ‘Where I was born, where you were born, where we met, where we first got together and where I proposed. And a space here for where we get married?’

            ‘Yay! Extra credit.’ She leaned forward to kiss him. ‘Technically it’s where we first kissed but I’ll give you the point.’

            ‘Jess, they’re so perfect. I love them. I love where you have them, too.’

            ‘I already want more.’

            ‘Uh-oh, you’ve been bitten.’

            She couldn't stop smiling. ‘I’m really happy you like them.’

            ‘I want them, too,' he said. 'I’ve been thinking about a tattoo for you for ages and these are so clever.’ He traced his thumb across the skin beneath the three on her left side, careful not to touch them. ‘Did you put anything on them?’

            ‘Not yet.’

            ‘Can I do it?’

            She nodded, watching as he washed his hands and picked up the little tin of Tattoo Goo, squinting at the instructions on the back. ‘Do you really want them, too?’

            ‘Yes, really.’

            Jess bit her lip. The thought that he would want to share them with her hadn’t crossed her mind. It made her feel something she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but it filled her chest and her head with a strong, nameless emotion. She watched his face as he gently rubbed the salve over her skin.

            ‘Is that okay?’

            ‘It stings a little.’

            He raised his eyes to hers. ‘Like sunburn?’

            She smiled. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never had sunburn.’

            He threw his hands up. ‘Of course you’ve never had sunburn. How stupid of me.’

            She giggled then shrieked as his fingers moved over her stomach, tickling her belly button. ‘It’s not my fault I have superior melanin production!’

            He caught her in his arms and kissed her until she kissed him back, wrapping her arms around his neck. ‘I thought you’d never want a tattoo,’ he said quietly when they finally ran out of breath and broke apart. ‘I thought it would be traumatic for you.’

            She frowned and then understood. ‘Well, there’s a big difference between voluntarily getting a tattoo, especially one specifically for the man that you love, and being scarred against your will. Anyway, that whole chapter is over. I don’t even see those scars now. These are just for you and me. Every day they’ll remind me of how lucky I was the day that you came into my life.’

            Chris pushed her hair back from her shoulder so he could kiss the skin hidden beneath, then pulled back to look at the tattoos again. ‘Look how far apart we were born. We lived in the same city for two years before we even met. It’s insane. Look at how much had to happen to put us in the same room together for the first time. Sometimes I cannot believe that’s just down to chance.’

            She shrugged, ‘Whatever it is, I am thankful for it.’

            ‘Me too.’ He couldn’t drag his eyes from the neat lines of black ink. ‘I know you wanted to surprise me but I don’t think you realised just how completely you’ve accomplished that. The tattoos are a surprise, of course they are, but it’s your whole thought process. You have no idea the sheer number of times I’ve wanted to say hey, let’s get tattoos together and I didn’t. I was worried that you’d think…well, anyway. Then you go off and do it all by yourself. And they’re so deeply personal. I love it and them and you.’

            Jess beamed, laying her head on his shoulder and enjoying his warmth. It was getting chilly standing on the cold tiled floor with no clothes on. He folded his arms around her, his lips pressed to her temple and she sighed happily. It felt so good to have nothing hanging over them and they’d been riding a wave of increasing intimacy since they’d finally sorted things out in Australia. She realised that the feeling she’d been having was contentment. She hadn’t recognised it because she had truly never felt it before now.

            ‘Chris?’

            ‘Yeah, baby?’

            ‘I think I’m having a feeling.’

            Laughter rumbled in his chest, ‘We’d better get you to bed to sleep it off. I’m sure it’ll be gone in the morning.’

Chapter Text

As they both knew it would, time began to accelerate and the next three months passed in a flash. They had taken to having a meeting every Sunday morning to plan the coming week, inputting everything into their shared calendar and setting alarms and reminders. The shoot for Chris’s movie, which he was now directing as well as starring in, had been moved to September which couldn’t have been a worse time. It came around much faster than either of them would have liked. He wouldn’t return from Europe until the beginning of November, just four weeks before the wedding.      

            He was trying his hardest to get the house ready before he left so that Jess would have nothing to do but take delivery of furniture and show people where to put it. To her credit, she and Samantha, the wedding planner, had everything wedding-related completely under control and Jess seemed quite relaxed about it. They had moved out of the LA house and all of their stuff had arrived, which meant there were boxes literally everywhere in both houses. So much of the work would fall on Jess and he felt terrible, even though she took it with an awful lot of grace.

            ‘I need a list of all the things you have scheduled to happen over the next few weeks,’ she said, scribbling fast in her notebook. ‘I know the carpets will be ready in two weeks so that’s when I’m looking to start getting furniture in place.’

            ‘Not a problem.’ He smiled. She was starting to pick up an accent. It wasn’t obvious, just a small inflexion on some words, but he could hear it.

            ‘And you need to pack up anything you don’t want the removal guys to pack for you before you go.’

            ‘Pretty much done.’

            ‘And I’m going to fucking miss you so make sure you call me whenever you can, I don’t care what the time is.' She carried on writing notes and didn’t even look up at him.

            ‘Consider it done,’ he said with a smile. ‘Come here, baby.’

            She put her pen down and looked up at him. ‘I don’t have time to come all the way over there.’

            ‘You’re sitting right next to me. And you’ve got at least six minutes until you need to issue another instruction and I have to think of a three-word response.’

            ‘I knew you were doing it on purpose!’

            He chuckled, leaning back on the cushions so she could sit on his lap. ‘I want you to promise me you’re going to take it easy.’

            ‘I can’t promise, sweetheart, you know that.’ She knelt up, her hands on his shoulders as she swung one leg over his and sat back on his thighs. ‘But I do promise to boss around as many people as necessary in order to achieve my goals.’

            ‘Atta girl.’ He kissed her cheek, breathing in the smell of her hair. There wasn’t a part of him that wanted to leave her and, although he was finally excited about his movie, his priority was making sure he was pulling his weight and taking pressure from her shoulders. ‘Is there anything you really need me to do before I leave?’

            ‘Actually, there is,’ she took his hand and placed it high up on her thigh with a lift of an eyebrow.

            ‘You wanna go there?’ He laughed.

            ‘Go where?’ She asked innocently, looking at him from under her lashes.

            ‘I know what that eyebrow means.’

            She clutched at imaginary pearls, ‘I don’t know what you mean, Mr Evans. I can assure you that I am not that kind of girl.’

            ‘Oh, yes, you fucking are,’ he growled, putting a hand to the back of her head and pulling her close to kiss her mouth. He could feel her lips curving into a smile even as she oh so gently sank her teeth into his bottom lip whilst simultaneously positioning his hands on her hips. ‘Do we have time?’

            ‘Yeah, but…. we’re going to church. I’d feel weird.’

            He laughed, kissing her again. ‘You’re right. It is a bit weird.’

            They were going to hear their banns being read for the first time. As part of the conditions of them getting married in the church, they were supposed to attend weekly for six months prior to the ceremony. Because of the short time before their wedding and because of who they both were, the reverend had relaxed the rules a little but suggested they should attend as often as their schedules would allow, so Jess would continue to go whenever she could while he was away.

            It had been a surprisingly enjoyable experience for them both. They appreciated the spirituality and sanctity of the church itself, and the services always led to interesting theological debates on the way home. The congregation had been very welcoming, too, and didn’t treat them any differently other than, perhaps, being a little more protective of them and their privacy.

            Jess reluctantly slid off his lap, sitting cross-legged beside him. She picked up her notebook again and started deciphering what she’d written. ‘When’s your bachelor party again?’

            ‘November twenty-third. When’s yours?’

            ‘Not really having one. We’re aiming to do something on the thirtieth but it’s more likely to be shopping and a show in New York than it is a big party or a night out.’

            ‘You’re so classy.’

            She smiled. ‘I’m sure I’ll be exhausted by then after moving and hosting my first Thanksgiving. I’ve told Daisy and your mom that I just want to do something that will put me in bed before midnight.’

            He noticed the way that she said mom rather than mum. That had been happening a lot recently. ‘You know mine’s probably going to be pretty rowdy, right?’

            ‘Of course, sweetheart. I wouldn’t expect anything less. I’m sure Scott’s going to take you to every dive bar in town and then on to any number of strip clubs. I know you know how to behave, even when you’re wasted. I’m not worried.’

            ‘Scott knows what you’ll do to him if he lets me get into trouble.’

            ‘Exactly,’ she smiled and winked. ‘We should be getting ready. You know what church traffic is like.’

            Chris put his hand on the back of her neck. ‘Please don’t overdo it while I’m gone. Lean on everyone if you have to, let them be exhausted.’

            ‘I won’t. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.’

 

‘Everything hurts and I’m dying,’ Jess groaned, putting the box she was carrying on the kitchen counter.

            ‘You’re overdoing it,’ Jake said, pausing from wiping glasses before he put them away.

            ‘This is the last one. I think it’s skillets. Skillets made of lead.’

            ‘You want them in the cupboard with all the other pots and pans?’

            She nodded, pulling her notebook out of her pocket and checking the numerous to-do lists she’d written. She was in the midst of pulling off the biggest surprise ever; moving house without Chris knowing. Her plan all along had been to complete the move before he got home from Poland and have the house ready, everything unpacked, by the time she picked him up from the airport. Jake and Daisy had flown in to help and a huge contingent of Chris’s family and friends had also leant hands to help get everything done in one day.

            She looked around her kitchen, which had only been completed a couple of days ago, and wanted to hug herself whilst baking cakes and wiping the surfaces down. There were boxes everywhere but she had all the time in the world to unpack. Well, a week, until Chris got home. Same thing.

            ‘Have you seen Daisy?’

            ‘I think she’s upstairs with Carly, making beds.’

            ‘I’m going to run down to the store to get some beers for everyone. Do you want anything?’

            Jake put down his tea towel and reached across the counter to snatch her keys from her hand. ‘I want you to take a load off for five minutes. I’ll go to the store. Go and sit on one of your huge couches until I get back.’

            ‘I had forgotten how bossy you are.’

            ‘You pronounced loving and caring incorrectly. Go! Sit! I won’t be long.’

            Jess sighed and wandered into the den, sinking down into the huge squashy couch. She ached all over and she longed for a long soak in a hot bath. Maybe later when everyone had gone. She looked around the room with a sense of satisfaction. Everything was just as she and Chris had talked about. The whole house had been decorated beautifully, although the spare bedrooms had just been painted white for the time being, and now all of the furniture had arrived it was starting to really come together.

            She stretched out on the couch, trying to ease the ache in her back. The next thing she knew, Lisa was gently shaking her awake. ‘Honey, we ordered food. Come and eat something.’

            Jess opened bleary eyes and squinted at her watch. She’d been asleep for hours. ‘Ugh.’

            ‘Before you start complaining, I told everyone not to wake you. You’ve been running yourself into the ground this week and Chris will go nuts when he finds out.’

            ‘Then don’t tell him,’ Jess said groggily, pushing herself into a sitting position and taking her phone from her pocket. ‘He’s been trying to call. Let me call him back and then I’ll come eat.’

            It was late in Warsaw and she didn’t expect him to pick up, but he answered on the first ring. ‘Hey, babe!’

            ‘Hey, sweetheart. Sorry I missed you earlier. I fell asleep.’

            ‘I figured. How are you?’

            ‘Groggy but okay. How are you? How was your day?’

            ‘Tired,’ he chuckled softly. ‘But we had a good day filming today. We’re ahead of schedule.’

            ‘That’s great! I’m so happy that’s it’s going well for you.’

            ‘It’s made a pleasant change, as you can imagine,’ he said ruefully. ‘How’s Dodger?’

            ‘Missing you. He had a real sulk after you spoke to him called last night.’ They had Facetimed and Jess had put Chris on loudspeaker which had whipped Dodger into a frenzy. ‘Well, we both did.’

            ‘Only a few more days.’

            ‘I am ticking off the minutes, believe me.’

            ‘Me too, baby. I cannot wait to see you. It’s been…’

            She sighed, ‘Difficult.’

            ‘Yeah.’

            They were quiet for a moment. Jess picked at a loose thread on her jeans, swallowing back tears. She heard him stifle a yawn ‘It’s late, you’re sleepy. Call me in the morning before you go to set.’

            ‘That’s going to be the middle of the night for you.’

            ‘I don’t care. I’ll be awake, I’ve been asleep all afternoon.’

            ‘Alright,’ he said doubtfully but she could hear the smile in his voice.

            ‘I love you, Chris.’

            ‘I love you, too, babe.’

            She hung up and sat holding her phone between her palms, staring at the carpet. The first couple of weeks had been hard, but she had been so busy that most of the time she couldn’t dwell on his absence. The last two weeks, however, had been so difficult. That was when her body started to miss him. Not just in a sexual way but all of the cuddles they shared and the kisses and those little touches that he gave her throughout the day. The last couple of weeks were when she cried for him at night. She’d even dug out her body pillow and put one of his t-shirts on it, but it didn’t help. A body pillow couldn’t stroke her hair and tell her it loved her.

            But they were on the home stretch, she reminded herself, just six more sleeps and she’d be driving to the airport to pick him up. She got up, stretching her aching limbs and back. Now all she had to do was unpack a couple of hundred boxes and find homes for all of their things before then. She straightened her clothes, rubbed the sleep from her eyes and headed out to the kitchen.

 

Five sleeps later, Chris knew something was up before the cab even got to the house. There were no cars in the driveway, not even his. He didn’t want to call Jess because he didn’t want her to know he was home. He gave the cab driver the new address and sat back in his seat. They had wrapped two days earlier than planned and he had said hurried goodbyes to everyone before getting on the first flight out of there.

            They pulled up on the drive and he saw both his and Jess’s cars parked in front of the garage. He distractedly paid the driver and horrendously over-tipped. Far from the late summer they’d been enjoying when he left, almost all of the leaves had fallen from the trees. He wheeled his suitcase up to the front door and opened it. The first thing that hit him was the general smell of their house, like beeswax polish and the faint smell of coconut, not the usual fresh paint and new carpet smells.

            He put his keys in the bowl on the table and then realised that the bowl and table were there and not at the other house. He looked around, all of their furniture was there and even their pictures were hung on the walls. Everything was here. He crept quietly towards the kitchen, which had been a building site when he left, but was now finished and immaculately clean with everything put neatly away. He found Dodger sleeping in the utility and spent a few minutes saying hello. He didn’t want him to start barking and alert Jess, so he settled him back down and continued on his wander through the house, taking everything in whilst hardly able to believe she had done so much in the time he’d been away.

            There was no sign of Jess so he took the stairs two at a time and carefully opened their bedroom door. She was sound asleep, hugging a body pillow that looked like it was wearing one of his t-shirts. He quietly undressed then carefully wrestled the body pillow from her grasp. She stirred but didn’t wake, and he climbed into bed beside her. She automatically curled up in his arms and he laughed softly, torn between wanting to wake her and enjoying holding her.

            He looked down at her sleeping face and decided he couldn’t wait another second. He gently kissed her mouth, soothing her as she jumped awake. ‘It’s me, baby, don’t panic.’

            ‘Chris?’ She pushed herself away to focus on his face. ‘Oh my God, did I forget to pick you up?’

            ‘No, honey, I came home early. I wanted to surprise you. But I see you got there first.’

            Her voice was monotone as she mumbled sleepily, ‘I didn’t want you to come home and have to deal with the move. It didn’t seem fair.’

            ‘But you’ve done so much –’

            ‘Shhh. I can’t believe you’re here.’ She kissed him so sweetly that he couldn’t remember why he ever thought it was a good idea to leave her behind. ‘I really missed you.’

            ‘You know what? The body pillow wearing my t-shirt made me think you might have missed me a tiny bit.’

            ‘Just keep kissing me.’ She put her hands on his face and drew him back to her mouth, her body shifting against his to get comfortable. ‘You’ve been working out,’ she murmured between kisses.

            ‘I need to get in shape for the honeymoon.’ His hands roamed across her back, her skin warm beneath his touch.

            She smiled, brushing her fingers through his hair, ‘You don’t think I’m going to give you a good enough workout?’

            ‘I’m worried I won’t be able to keep up!’

            She laughed and wriggled even closer, ‘I don’t recall that ever being a problem but it has been a while. Maybe you should refresh my memory.’

 

Much later, Chris woke up to the smell of warm vanilla. Jess was gone and her side of his side of the bed was cold. He looked around the bedroom. He couldn’t see a single thing out of place. Nothing was where he wouldn’t have put it himself. He got up, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and headed downstairs.

            He could hear Jess talking in the kitchen.

            ‘I don’t know yet,’ she said, ‘we still haven’t made any firm plans.’

            He peeked around the door and grinned. She was making a cake, spreading jam over golden brown sponges while she chatted on the phone. Her hair was tied in a thick braid down her back and she wore her standard weekday uniform of an oversized t-shirt and nothing else. She really did have incredible legs, he thought to himself.

            ‘Daisy and Jake are due on the day before Thanksgiving, so you can either come and spend that with us or we can meet you in New York on the Saturday and you come back with us then.’

            Finn? He wondered. She had asked him, as one of oldest friends, to give her away. He watched her drop the spoon back in the jam jar and absently lick her thumb.

            ‘Believe me, one more for Thanksgiving is going to make absolutely no difference…Well, let me know. I’d love it if you could spend that week with us. If not then just get here when you can.’ She turned around and their eyes locked. He saw her jump but she didn’t trip on it. ‘Okay, love. Call me when you know for sure. Take care. Were you eavesdropping?’ She asked once she hung up.

            ‘Not really. I was watching you move. I guess I’m not out of director mode yet.’

            ‘You want me to do another take?’

            ‘No. They don’t call you One-Take Finley for nothing,’ he crossed the room and caught her in his arms, lifting her up onto the counter.

            ‘Nobody calls me that.’

            ‘Everybody calls you that.’ He stood between her legs, his hands on her hips as he leaned forward to kiss her.

            Her dark eyes flicked between his and she put her hands on his biceps, ‘Your arms are huge again. I hope you’re still going to fit into your suit.’

            ‘I haven’t had my final fitting yet. That’s why I felt I could bulk up a bit. I know you love it when I get big.’

            She smiled salaciously, ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’

            His hands were on her thighs now, pulling her closer. ‘You look so good, Jess.’

            ‘Thank you. I, too, have been working out.’

            ‘I can tell.’ He dropped his head and kissed her neck. ‘I’m hungry.’

            ‘It’s kind of late for lunch but too early for dinner. You want me to make you something real quick?’

            ‘Not for food,’ he smiled, gently biting her neck.

            ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Oh!’

            He kissed around to the front of her throat. She smelled of cake mix and strawberries with bottom notes of sleep and cocoa butter. It was a heady mix. ‘Do you realise you’re getting an accent?’

            ‘Am I?’ She sounded surprised.

            ‘Yeah. It’s getting quite noticeable.’

            ‘Damn.’

            ‘Anyway,’ he said firmly, nudging her forehead with his own. ‘Still hungry.’

            She pushed him away so she could get down and he watched as she went back to the cake, cut a slice and put it on a plate. Then she took the plate and the jam and headed past him towards the door.

            ‘Where are you going?’ Chris asked as she walked out of the kitchen.

            ‘Your cake and I are going upstairs. We’ll be waiting for you. Oh, and we’ll both be covered in jam.’

Chapter Text

Jess had very clear lines between superstition and tradition. As an actor, her life was steeped with superstitions and she was careful not to get bogged down in them. She and Chris had talked at length about how they wanted their wedding day to go. There was an argument for seeing each other before the ceremony to alleviate nerves and tension and have the big dress reveal in private. They were already spending the week before the wedding apart. Chris was staying with his family and Jess was shacked up in the hotel with Daisy, Jake and Finn. They wouldn’t see each other until the rehearsal, which would take place later that afternoon.

            ‘Well, look,’ Daisy said, ‘if he comes here before he goes to the church, you can have ten minutes alone time, get your tears out of the way and get rid of all those thoughts that one of you might bolt at the last minute.’

            ‘Thanks, Daisy. I wasn’t having that thought at all until just now!’

            ‘I’ve seen you in your dress,’ Jake added, ‘and I know he is going to cry when he sees you. Maybe it’s better for him to see you and get that initial reaction out of the way.’

            ‘I said that to him and he said that even if he did see me before the ceremony, once he’s in the church with the atmosphere and the candles and the music, he’ll probably still cry anyway.’

            The three of them looked at each other as they imagined the scene and their own eyes welled up. Jess laughed, reaching for a tissue. They were sitting on the floor in the lounge of her hotel suite, trying to choose a nail polish. Each of their fingers was painted a different colour and a vast array of bottles littered the carpet.

            ‘I don’t know. I know it’s a superstition but I think that the whole point of us being apart this week would be ruined by him coming here in the morning. We wanted to miss each other. We won’t be alone until we’re in the car coming back here for the reception. There’s something special about that.’

            ‘Okay, so no seeing the bride before the wedding,’ Daisy said. ‘How about tossing the bouquet?’

            ‘Yes, I’m going to do that at the reception, before the evening party.’

            Jake frowned at one of his nails. ‘I like this one.’

            Jess leaned over to see. ‘That is nice. Which bottle is it?’

            He looked down at the pile in front of him and shrugged.

            ‘You were supposed to lay them out…you know what, never mind,’ she reached over to stroke his arm. ‘We’ll find it.’

            ‘Something old?’ Daisy persisted.

            ‘My mom’s hair comb.’

            ‘Something new?’

            ‘Literally everything, but let’s say my dress.’

            ‘Something borrowed?’

            ‘Lisa’s necklace.’

            ‘Something blue?’

            ‘My garter.’

            ‘You’re being very cool,’ Jake observed. ‘Daisy’s got more nervous energy than you.’

            Jess shrugged. ‘I’m sure I’ll be nervous tomorrow.’

            There was a knock on the door and Jake got up to answer it. Jess began looking through the pile of nail polish for Jake’s colour. ‘Is Pratt here yet?’

            ‘He should be, he landed about an hour ago.’

            ‘You know I won’t be offended if you spend the evening with him?’

            ‘No way. I want to spend your last night as a single lady with you.’

            Jess found the colour and held it up to the light. ‘I’m still not sure I want painted nails. Toenails, yes, but fingernails? I hardly ever paint mine.’

            ‘Then just have a manicure and clear polish. Nobody’s going to be mad.’

            Jake returned with three suit carriers hanging from his fingers. ‘Your dresses have arrived.’

            Jess took a deep breath and got to her feet. She took one from him and hung it on the door to unzip it. It was the coat she would wear over her dress to and from the church, and for some of the outdoor pictures. The second was her wedding dress, she could tell by how bulky it was in the carrier, so the third would be the dress she would wear at the evening party.

            ‘What were you saying about nervous energy?’ She said, her fingers trembling as she zipped the carrier back up.

            ‘I’ll hang them in the bedroom for you,’ Jake said.

            Jess wrung her hands, pacing back and forth for a moment. ‘I’m okay,’ she said, more to herself than anything. ‘I’m okay.’

            Daisy checked the time. ‘Let’s get this all cleaned off. It’s almost time for lunch.’

            Jess had arranged to have lunch with some of her guests. Almost everyone arriving in Boston was staying in the hotel and she had thought it would be fun to have lunch with some of her British friends that she hadn’t seen for a while. Now she wished she hadn’t.

            ‘Breathe,’ Jake intoned when he came back and saw her pacing.

            She took a couple of deep breaths.

            ‘Come here,’ Daisy said, ‘I’ll take your nail polish off.’

            She sat back beside her on the floor and held out her hand. ‘Have you got Chris’s present?’

            ‘Yes, Jess. Like I’m going to leave that laying around. It cost more than I earn in a year.’

            ‘Do you think it’s too extravagant? I mean, he did buy me a huge house, it seemed as if I should spend a few grand on him.’

            ‘Calm,’ Jake intoned, sitting down beside her. ‘Breathe with me. In… and out…In….and out…’

            Jess got the giggles which did just a good a job of dispelling her anxiety.

            Jake’s phone beeped and he pulled it out to read the message. ‘It’s from Finn, he said he’s on his way back.’

            ‘Hmmm,’ Jess muttered. It had become clear fairly early on that Finn was a double agent, working for the groom. He was always on the phone or, like today, out ‘running errands’. How many errands did he need to run in a city he didn’t even live in? She strongly suspected him of helping to facilitate whatever surprises Chris had in store for tomorrow.

            ‘Other hand,’ Daisy said, loading a fresh cotton ball with acetone.

            ‘I know Chris can be very persuasive, but you would tell me if he was up to something, wouldn’t you?’

            ‘Absolutely,’ Jake nodded firmly.

            ‘Yup,’ Daisy agreed.

            ‘You’re both such terrible liars.’

            ‘He made me swear,’ Jake said.

            ‘He said if I told you anything then kittens would die.’

            Jess laughed and shook her head. ‘I notice he couldn’t bring himself to say puppies.’

            ‘You know it’s not going to be anything that you won’t love.’

            ‘It probably also won’t be anything that won’t make me cry.’

            ‘You should go and get changed. We’ll come back and get you in about half an hour.’ Daisy started scooping all of the nail polish into a plastic crate.

            Once they’d gone back to their own rooms, Jess wandered into the bedroom. Jake had taken her dresses out of their carriers and hung them up. Her wedding dress hung from the clothes rail the hotel had thoughtfully provided, even going as far as to raise it on blocks so that her long dresses didn’t pool on the floor. Jake had left the clear plastic cover on but it did nothing to diminish the beauty of the design. Her heart skipped a beat as she looked at it. The seamstress would come in the morning to help her get into it and to complete any last-minute alterations. Increasing her workout to tone up her body had resulted in the dress being taken in twice already.

            Jess liked clothes but she often felt stiff and awkward when she had to dress up. It had taken a long time for her to find a wedding dress that she felt comfortable in. Shopping for her bridal wardrobe had been hard because she didn’t want strapless or backless or plunging necklines or thigh-high splits. She liked demure.

            For the lunch, she had a chosen a soft grey, above the knee, wraparound dress and black court shoes, which she changed into quickly. There was a knock at the door as she secured the ties of the dress and she padded out into the hallway to answer it. It was Finn.

            ‘Hi,’ she smiled, standing back to let him in. ‘Where have you been?’

            ‘To get a little something to help you sleep tonight.’ He dug a block of hash out of his pocket. ‘Your groom hooked me up with a dude.’

            Jess laughed, closing the door. ‘You really have thought of everything.’

            ‘You look lovely.’

            ‘Thank you. You are coming to the lunch, aren’t you?’

            ‘Of course I am, I’ll go and get changed in a sec. Honestly, you should see the lobby, it’s like a Marvel actors reunion all trying to check-in at once.’

            ‘I’m just happy so many people have made the trip. Any more news on the weather?’

            ‘Well, it’s going to snow tonight, they reckon only 2-3” in the city, more outside. Which is nothing here, so there’s no need to worry. It’s the big storm they’re expecting on Sunday that will affect people going home but there is no need to worry about that, either, because you’ll already be off on your honeymoon.’

            ‘I hope people don’t get stranded.’

            ‘Not your problem, Jess. You’ve got enough to concentrate on.’

            She sighed. ‘I know.’

            ‘Everything’s under control.’

            ‘Okay.’

            ‘I’m going to change. I’ll see you downstairs.’

            Jess closed the door behind him and went back to the bedroom. She applied a little make-up and carefully tucked away a few stray strands of hair. Her phone beeped with a notification and she crossed the room to check it. It was a message she’d been waiting for from Alexis. She now had a private Twitter account and a very select number of followers, and nothing on it would arouse suspicion over who it really belonged to. She mostly used it to read and respond to their DMs but sometimes she tweeted cryptic little messages to let them know what she was up to. So far it was working out really well, it had been months now and nobody had snitched on her.

            She sat on the edge of the bed and tapped out a reply. Alexis had agreed to do a very important job for them tomorrow. She was going to leak the one and only wedding photo that they would release publicly. Sam had spent three days writing a limerick asking guests not to share photos of the wedding online and they hoped they’d leaked enough false information about the time and location to keep the paparazzi at bay, but it was going to be a big ask with so many celebrities in town. Jess told Alexis to check her Twitter at some point after midday Pacific time because they would send it as soon as they could after the ceremony.

            She heard the door open and Jake and Daisy walked in. Jake wore a dark grey lounge suit that made him look ridiculously hot and Daisy had on a pretty, dusky pink tea dress that showed off her long, tanned limbs. She had her phone pressed to her ear and Jess turned to Jake. ‘Is she talking to Pratt?’

            ‘Who else would it be?’

            She turned to Daisy. ‘Tell him to come to lunch.’

            ‘He says he doesn’t want to intrude.’

            Jess sighed and held her hand out for the phone. ‘Hi Pratt, how are you? That’s great, so come to lunch. You won’t be intruding, I promise.’ She listened for a second then handed the phone back. ‘He’s going to tag along.’

            Once she had her chief bridesmaid’s full attention, they left the room and headed down to the restaurant. There were so many people milling about that Jess got caught up greeting people and, by the time she got to the restaurant, everyone was already seated and had drinks.

            Jess looked around at the thirty or so people sat at the long table that had been set up for them. She hadn’t seen most of them for at least three years, some even more, but here they all were, three thousand miles away from home, just to see her get married. She felt ridiculously emotional. Before she took her seat she quickly splashed some wine into a glass and raised it in the air.

            ‘Hi everyone! I can’t believe so many of you are here and I’m so thrilled you’ve made the journey to Boston. I know I’m shitty at keeping in touch but I always read your emails and messages with the intention of replying, and they do say it’s the thought that counts. I hope you enjoy your time in Beantown and you don’t get snowed in on Sunday. Please join me in raising a glass, to friendship!’

            Once they had toasted, she sat down. On her right was one of the first directors she’d ever worked with, who now had a big police procedural drama on the BBC and on her left was a friend of hers and Finn’s from drama school.

            Jess ended up not eating. Instead, she moved down the table and talked to everyone, wanting to spend as much time with them as possible. Sam would be there soon to collect her for the rehearsal and she wanted to speak to everyone before she had to leave. As much as she had enjoyed her hen weekend in New York with her LA friends, this was even better. She was reminded of how many people she had in her life who were eager to share her news, who had brought her photographs of their young families and encouraged her to keep in touch more. She found herself wishing that all her guests were there, and it took her far too long to realise that that’s what the reception was for.

            After a couple of hours, Sam arrived and walked around the table, tapping the bridal party on the shoulders like she was playing a children’s game. Obediently they all got to their feet and said their goodbyes. Jess rushed upstairs to change – it was like being in a play where she only had a few lines between scenes and had to hurriedly change in the wings – before they were all bundled into a people carrier and whisked off to the church.

            ‘I’ve got a banging headache,’ she confessed, and Daisy dug in her bag, producing two Tylenol and a small bottle of water. ‘Damn, Daisy. I am impressed.’

            ‘Honestly, I am prepared for everything.’

            Jess smiled and squeezed her hand. She swallowed the painkillers and closed her eyes for a minute. As they pulled up at the church, she opened her eyes. A kind of marquee had been set up between the parking area and the door of the church. The car stopped inside it and they all climbed out, completely shielded from the street. She turned to Sam, ‘Was this your idea?’

            ‘Yes. I thought it was better to be safe than sorry so I got permission from City Hall.’

            ‘I am not paying you enough.’

            ‘Oh, don’t worry. My bill will reflect that.’

            They laughed and walked into the church. The groom’s party were already there, sitting around in pews and talking. Jess’s eyes snapped onto Chris as soon as she walked in. He was standing close to the altar speaking with the reverend. He turned around to look when he heard them walk in and their eyes met. She had missed him more this week than the entire time he was away. Not speaking to him every day was a much worse punishment than not seeing him. Her body flooded with relief.

            ‘Hi, everyone,’ she said. His mom and dad were there, sitting a safe distance apart, Scott, Shanna and Carly, the three small girls they had chosen from his family to be her bridesmaids, the assortment of his friends that made up the groomsmen, and Hemsworth and Chris’s best friend, Tara, who they’d asked to do the readings.

            ‘Hey, you,’ Chris smiled, taking her hand and kissing her cheek.

            ‘Hey,’ she grinned, wishing she could throw all of her limbs around him and kiss his face off.

            He was wearing a navy suit with a white shirt open at the collar and he so obviously couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. ‘How are you?’ His eyes flicked over the plum coloured flowy trouser suit she wore. ‘You look great.’

            ‘So do you. I’m much better now you’re here. How are you?’

            ‘Same.’

            They smiled at each other until the reverend politely cleared his throat and sent her and the bridal party back down the aisle. The groom’s party were manoeuvred into position and then the music started to play. Jess had opted for a British entrance, with the bridesmaids and her man of honour behind her, rather than walking down the aisle with the groomsmen first. She took Finn’s arm and waited for the music to start, then for Sam’s nod to tell them to start walking. It took them three goes to get the timing right. It was a lot like blocking a scene in a movie. When Jess arrived at the altar on time, the reverend talked them through what would happen and how close they should stand, then they went to the room where they would sign the register along with Scott and Jake, whilst music would be played to the congregation, then they all filed back to their places again. Hemsworth had them all in stitches by reading his passage in a very loud Thor voice, which earned him a ticking off from both the reverend and Sam.

            The whole thing took about an hour and a half, by which time Jess’s stomach was rumbling painfully. They thanked the reverend, who said a few kind words about how he was looking forward to marrying them, then Chris took Jess’s hand and led her down the aisle. Daisy was waiting with a package that Jess grabbed on the way past. Once they got outside, Chris opened the door of the waiting car and waited for Jess to get inside and scoot across, then he got in beside her. ‘Can you just park around the corner and give us a few minutes, please?’

            The driver nodded and Chris turned to Jess. ‘I have missed you.’

            ‘I miss you too. This was a really crappy idea.’

            ‘Next time we get married we’re not spending a whole week apart.’

            Jess laughed. The driver found a parking space and got out, walking a little way up the road from them. ‘Poor guy, it’s freezing.’

            ‘This won’t take long.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small parcel. ‘This is for you.’

            She looked at him. ‘You’ve already given me a wedding present, remember? We live in it.’

            ‘This is just a token.’

            Jess gave him her package. ‘This isn’t just a token. Can I open mine now?’

            He nodded and they both unwrapped their gifts at the same time. Jess was left holding a jewellery box which she flicked open and then laughed. Inside was a pair of white gold, diamond-studded sleepers. Not too big, about the size of the ones she usually wore. ‘They’re beautiful, thank you.’

            ‘They cost me more than five bucks so don’t wear them in the shower.’ He ripped off the last of the wrapping paper and his eyebrows immediately shot up. ‘A Hublot?’

            She shrugged. ‘It was tough to compete with a house.’

            He flipped the box open. ‘Jess…It’s stunning.’

            ‘I know you’ve secretly wanted one. It’s number thirteen of the limited edition. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it.’

            Chris pulled her close and kissed her and she sighed happily. She missed their intimacy and although she knew that after tomorrow she could have it whenever she wanted, right now she needed it. ‘Thank you…’

            ‘We could get stuck in an infinite loop of no, thank yous here. Look,’ she took the watch from his hands. ‘Tomorrow, when the big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the three, I will meet you in this church here. Don’t be late.’

            ‘Wild horses will not keep me away,’ he promised. ‘I love you.’

            ‘And I love you.’

            ‘My phone’s going crazy in my pocket. It’s probably Sam threatening me with all kinds of vile punishments unless I bring you back.’ He signalled to the driver who got back in and drove them back to the church. ‘Which car is yours?’

            ‘The black SUV.’

            He walked her over to it and opened the door for her. ‘Relax, get some sleep, you have got nothing to worry about. Okay?’

            ‘Okay.’

            ‘Okay. See you tomorrow.’ He leaned in and kissed her once, then stood back to let the rest of the bridal party get in. He hugged them all and told them to look after her on pain of death. Then Sam climbed in the front, Chris closed the door and the car pulled away. Jess turned in her seat to look at him, watching until the car turned the corner.

            She was quiet for the rest of the evening. Jake, Daisy and Finn fussed over her and they had a good time together, watching movies and working their way through Finn’s hash, but at about eleven o’clock, Jess announced that she was tired. She hugged her friends’ goodnight as they left to return to their own rooms and she turned out the lights on her way to the bedroom.

            She had not expected to sleep at all, but the mellow buzz she got from the hash coupled with the sheer exhaustion from the last few weeks made it so she could barely get undressed before falling into bed and into a deep, dreamless sleep.

           

Chapter Text

‘Hey, sweetheart. It’s 8am and I’ve just woken up to this beautiful breakfast you made me. Thank you! I’m going to make you a couple of videos so you can share in the next few hours with me. Obviously, I can’t send them until you’ve seen me at the church so you’ll just have to watch them later. I slept really well, almost nine hours, actually, and I’m feeling good. Nervous but so excited and impatient. I’m about to jump in the bath and wash my hair because the hairstylist is coming in an hour. I hope you’re well-rested, properly hydrated and feeling good. Love you.’

 

            Chris climbed out of the car and nervously shot his cuffs. It was freezing cold and a flurry of snowflakes made it under the marquee and swirled around them. Sam stood in the doorway of the vestibule, speaking into an earpiece and clutching both a clipboard and an iPad. She smiled at him and gave him a quick hug.

            ‘Hi, congratulations! How are you feeling?’

            ‘Like a flock of birds are nesting in my stomach.’

            ‘Perfect!’

            Behind her, the Reverend was waiting to accompany him and Scott up the aisle. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and Chris was calmed by his reassuring demeanour. Sam spoke into her earpiece again and the music changed. She gave a nod to the Reverend and he turned to lead them up the aisle. It was much more nerve-wracking than he had anticipated. All heads turned to watch them. He waved to a couple of people who caught his eye, but mostly he tried to keep his eyes in front.

            The church looked amazing. They had chosen white roses, dark purple sweet peas, ivy and a dark green foliage that he couldn’t remember the name of, and they made for simple but striking arrangements. Most of the light came from the fairy lights strung up as part of the Christmas decorations, along with candles set at intervals along the walls and around the altar.

            They arrived at the altar and the Reverend showed them into the front pew to wait. Chris took a couple of breaths as he sat beside his brother. He’d spent almost every minute of the day thinking about Jess and this moment. He hadn’t slept much and had taken Dodger for a long walk at five in the morning, his phone burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted to hear her voice so badly.

            He had arranged a couple of surprises for her throughout the day. He’d made her a peanut butter sandwich and tea in a travel mug, and one of the groomsmen had driven into Boston to deliver them to Daisy, who woke Jess up with breakfast in bed. He’d made a playlist of her favourite songs for her to listen to while she got ready and had the hotel deliver a tray of her favourite cocktails to the suite.

 

‘Hey you! It’s almost one and you’ve just sent us alcohol! As you can see, preparations are well underway. We’ve all had a mani-pedi and my hair is almost dry, you’ll have to excuse the curlers. You are going to flip out when you see it later. I have been waxed, plucked, oiled and perfumed to within an inch of my life. I can show you now because you’ll already have seen it, so here’s the dress. It’s made from loads of layers of gathered silk tulle but it doesn’t stick out, it’s just kind of…fluid. No toilet roll covers in this wedding! The top layer has this really delicate hand embroidery…and the bodice is really soft lace with these sweet raw edges and I know you don’t know what half of these words mean but the whole thing is just exquisite. Urgh, I could talk about it all day. Oh, and here’s a sneak preview of what you’re going to find underneath it tonight. I’m mostly excited right now and I cannot wait to see you later. I love you.’

 

            Jess had arranged a few surprises of her own. She handwritten ten notes for Scott to give to him at different times of the day, the first when Scott got up and the final one in the car on the way to the church, each of which documented a different time in their relationship and made him well up. Daisy had sent him black and white pictures through the day of little things, like a dressing gown hanging on the back of the door, an artfully arranged pile of hair curlers, and the small posies that the bridesmaids would carry. The last picture had been her, Jake and the bridesmaids all dressed and ready to go which she had sent with the message wait until you see her.

            He couldn’t wait. It was five minutes to three.

 

‘You look so beautiful,’ Jess cooed. Her little bridesmaids were wearing matching ivory dresses with dark amethyst satin sashes and they each had a posy of roses to carry. They looked adorable.

            Daisy wore a gold satin one-shoulder dress that made her look like a Greek statue that had got lost on its way to the Parthenon. It clung and flowed over her body before pooling on the floor and had a caped train that she could detach later but would keep her warm until the reception. Jake and Finn wore dark grey morning suits with amethyst cravats tied in a Windsor knot, which had come from the groom’s side.

            Jess sighed happily. Everything was just as she wanted it. ‘You all look awesome. Thank you so much for all of your help and support. I couldn’t ask for better friends. I love you guys.’

            ‘Thanks for not making us wear neon pink tartan meringues,’ Jake said.

            ‘That was my second choice.’

            ‘Time to go, guys,’ a voice called from the door. It was Sam’s assistant, Mikki. She was just as terrifying as Sam.

            Jess waved at them as they filed out, not wanting to risk getting makeup or sticky fingers on her dress. Then they were gone and it was just her and Finn and silence.

            ‘Do you want a quick drink before we go?’ He asked.

            ‘No, thanks. I’m too nervous and I don’t want to need to pee all the way through the service.’

            ‘Don’t be nervous. You know for a fact he’s going to be there, everything has been planned down to the millisecond, and you look fabulous.’

            She smiled, smoothing the fabric over her stomach. ‘Do you think he’s going to like it?’

            ‘Love, you could be wearing a bin bag and he’s still going to think you’re the most beautiful woman to ever walk the face of the earth. But, for what it’s worth, yes, I think he’s going to love it.’

            ‘Thank you, Finn. For everything.’

            ‘Don’t mention it. I love you and I’m so happy that everything has worked out for you.’

            ‘I love you, too. Now stop, before you set me off.’

            The room phone rang and Finn answered it, said thanks and hung up again. ‘The car’s here.’

            ‘Can you just give me a few minutes on my own?’

            ‘Sure. Are you okay?’

            ‘Yeah, there’s just something I want to do.’

 

            ‘Chris!’ Scott hissed, bringing him out of his thoughts.

            ‘What?’

            ‘She’s here. It’s time.’

            He looked up and the Reverend was standing in place, beckoning him to stand up and take his place at the altar. He glanced at the time. Five minutes past three.

 

 ‘Okay, last one. It’s just you and me, the bridesmaids just left and my car is ready, but I sent Finn out for a few minutes. As you can see, I’m in all my finery. The photographer has been taking a thousand photos, some of which might be a little risqué, if you’re lucky. The little bridesmaids are so excited. Daisy’s sending you a picture so you can see them. Um…I’m really nervous. Like throw-up nervous. I hope you’re not anxious or nervous. I know as soon as I get to the church and I see you standing there, everything will be okay. I cannot wait to be able to call myself Jessica Evans. Chris, I love you so much. You are by far and away the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. I think about what you said when I got my tattoos, about how much had to happen to put us in the same room, and I think about that a lot. I think where I would be if I hadn’t got the part and we had never met. I think I’d probably be back in England, being a lawyer, settling for someone who wasn’t you, never knowing how much better my life would have been if only I’d met you. Getting the part was never the plan, I see that now. Meeting you, falling in love with you, that was the plan. I was so alone. Sure, I had all my friends around me but…we’ve had these conversations before about belonging, that I never felt as if I truly belonged anywhere. But when I met you, I knew I belonged with you. You’re my family. From the very first day we met, you’ve been looking out for me and supporting me…and coming to that realisation…it was the sweetest feeling. You know that sometimes I wonder if I do enough for you. I hope I do. I’m always ready to do more if you need me to. It’s not going to be smooth seas all the way but life isn’t supposed to be like that, however much I wish the wind would be always at our backs. It’s about finding a safe place and holding on to each other through the storm, not wasting time and energy trying to navigate around it. You taught me that. And now I’m going to make myself cry, so I guess I’ll leave it here. I’ve got someplace I need to be.’

 Chris’s heart was beating out of his chest. If he suddenly dropped dead he was going to be so mad. He hadn’t decided if he wanted to turn to watch her walk up the aisle or not. Jess had told him that in England the groom generally didn’t turn, whereas in all the weddings he’d been to, the groom faced the bride as she walked towards him. He knew he was going to be useless as soon as he saw her anyway.

            The music began and he heard everyone stand up behind him. She had wanted The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba but they had decided it was too fast and her bridal party too small to really do it justice. Instead, she had chosen Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which the organist was playing at a fairly sedate pace, and it was actually giving him goosebumps. Scott looked over his shoulder and immediately turned back, ‘Don’t look round.’

            Chris raised his eyes to the ceiling and puffed his cheeks out. ‘How does she look?’

            ‘I can’t tell you that, we’re in church.’

            He managed a half laugh. He tried to focus on something, anything, until she arrived beside him. The Reverend was smiling serenely and Chris focused on him, reminding himself to breathe. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. God, this was taking forever. Maybe he should just turn and look. Why were hands so stupid? They were too big and he had nowhere to put them. The Reverend was looking at him, raising an eyebrow and nodding.

            He took a breath, turned to his left and had it immediately sucked out of him. He felt tears well up in his eyes. She was so beautiful, so elegant, more so than even he had expected. He took a couple of deep, shaky breaths, doing his absolute best not to cry. Finn stepped back and she turned to give her flowers to Jake. Chris couldn’t take his eyes off of her. ‘Hey.’

            ‘Hey.’ She grinned.

            ‘You’re perfect,’ he murmured, just for her. ‘You literally took my breath away.’

            ‘And you look so handsome.’ He wore a navy suit with a tailcoat over a dark grey waistcoat and an amethyst tie. Handsome was an understatement. ‘I love you.’

            ‘I love you too,’ he mouthed back.

            The music ended and they both turned to face the Reverend who gave them a final reassuring smile before launching into the service. ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God to join this man, and this woman in holy matrimony…’

            After the Reverend completed the welcome, they sang the first hymn. Mindful of the fact that a lot of their guests weren’t churchgoers, they had stuck with traditional hymns that everyone would know. Jess had suggested, with her tongue firmly in her cheek, Jerusalem, which Chris had felt was fighting talk as they stood in a church not far from the harbour where an awful lot of British tea had been spilt. They had eventually agreed on All Things Bright and Beautiful. As the hymn came to an end, they turned to face each other and he lifted her veil.

            ‘If any person here can show cause why these two people should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.’

            The pause felt too long and the silence, although welcome, was oppressive.

            ‘Christopher Robert, will you take Jessica Ruby to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?’

            ‘I will.’ He returned Jess’s dazzling smile.

            ‘Jessica Ruby, will you take Christopher Robert to be your husband? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and protect him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?’

            ‘I will.’ She grinned at him and his heart stopped trying to beat its way out of his chest.

            ‘Who gives this woman in holy matrimony to this man?’

            It was Finn’s big moment. ‘On behalf of all that have gathered here, and of all those not able to be with us today, I do.’

            Jess blinked and he could see that her eyes had filled with tears. He longed to hold her.

            There was a prayer and Tara read 1 Corinthians 13, then they all sang Lord of All Hopefulness. It surprised him to hear everyone singing because he had completely forgotten anyone else was there.

            Afterwards, Chris held Jess’s right hand in his and he repeated his vows line by line. ‘I, Christopher Robert, take you, Jessica Ruby, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law. And this is my solemn vow.’

            They swapped hands so that she held his and she repeated, ‘I, Jessica Ruby, take you, Christopher Robert, to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God’s holy law. And this is my solemn vow.’

            She squeezed his hand before letting it go.

            Scott came forward with the rings, thankfully didn’t drop them, and placed them on the bible. The Reverend said a brief prayer over them and then offered the book to Chris. He took Jess’s ring and then her left hand. ‘Jess, I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.’

            Jess picked up his ring and slid it onto his finger. ‘Chris, I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.’

            ‘In the presence of God, and before this congregation, Christopher and Jessica have given their consent and made their marriage vows to each other. They have declared their marriage by the joining of hands and by the giving and receiving of rings. I therefore proclaim that they are husband and wife.’

            They were grinning like idiots as the Reverend took their hands and joined them together. ‘Those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder.’

            They both laughed, a mixture of joy, relief and the realisation that they were actually married. They kissed, sparking a chorus of applause and cheers from their assembled guests. The Reverend led them to the vestibule, along with Scott and Jake, to sign the marriage certificate. The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur. The highlight was Hemsworth’s reading of Love’s Philosophy, which he managed to do without either hamming it up or a Thor accent.

            Before either of them knew it, it was over. As it was now dark outside and they couldn’t really all line up on the steps of the church for pictures anyway, the Reverend had agreed that they could do a few family shots in the church and the rest of them would be done back at the hotel. Chris hugged and kissed his family and accepted congratulations but all he really wanted was to grab Jess’s hand and take her away.

            Finally, Sam ushered everyone back to their seats, Widor's Toccata began playing and they were walking down the aisle, followed by Scott and Jake. Sam stood waiting for them at the doors, holding Jess’s coat which she helped her into while Jake and Chris held her veil out of the way. She gave Jess a small bag that contained her phone and the key to their suite, then opened the doors for them to go outside to their waiting car.

            ‘Get in, quick,’ Sam said. ‘Or you’ll start drawing even more attention than you are already.’

            He climbed in first, then helped Jess step up as she gathered her dress over her arm. Once she was in, Sam shut the door and the driver pulled away.

            ‘Mrs Evans.’ He couldn’t wipe the smile from his face, even as he leaned in to kiss her. ‘I’m never going to get bored of calling you that.’

            ‘I’m never going to get bored of hearing it,’ she grinned. ‘We really did it.’

            ‘Yes, we did.’ He kissed her again. ‘Mrs Evans,’ his smile got even broader, ‘can I just say that you look sensational?’

            ‘Thank you. I’m glad you like it.’

            ‘I love it. It’s so…you. You look so poised and elegant.’

            ‘I knew as soon as I saw it that it was the one.’

            ‘I can’t imagine you in anything else.’ He took her hand, admiring the ring on her finger. ‘Thank you for those beautiful notes, although they all made me cry.’

            ‘I cried writing them,’ she confessed.

            ‘I can’t wait until we’re alone,’ he said quietly, running his thumb over her bottom lip.

            They pulled up outside the hotel a few minutes later. The hotel had opened a side exit for them and their guests. The street was deserted but for one of their own photographers who took a few shots of them in the back of the car before Mikki came out and told them to get inside.

            As soon as they walked in, the hotel manager was there waiting for them. The handful of staff hanging about clapped and the manager shook their hands and congratulated them. He took them up to the ballroom which was where the first part of the reception would be held. It was a formal sit-down affair and it was there that they would do the speeches and cut the cake, then the party would move upstairs to the roof terrace for the rest of the evening.

            Everything looked perfect and Jess realised how hard Mikki and Sam had been working behind the scenes. Jess’s phone beeped with a message from the photographer. It was a beautiful picture of her and Chris walking down the aisle together. She showed it to him. ‘This is for Alexis. What do you think?’

            ‘You know I think that it’s more than the internet deserves but I know that you want to reward Alexis in some way and this makes her a small part of the wedding.’

            ‘Huh,’ she murmured, looking at him through narrowed eyes as she sent the tweet. ‘Can you help me take this coat off, please?’

            He helped her pull it down over her shoulders and untangled it from her veil, carefully placing it over the back of a chair. Then he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her close. ‘I can’t believe I fooled you enough to actually marry me.’

            ‘Keep fooling me, sweetheart, I’m not going anywhere.’ She smiled as she wound her arms around his neck.

            He kissed her, the kind of kiss that disregarded whether or not her makeup would come off or her hair would get ruffled. Jess leaned into him, wanting a week’s worth of affection before she even considered letting him go. It was Chris who broke away, albeit very reluctantly. ‘Our guests do not need to see us consummating our marriage on the top table.’

            Jess laughed, sliding her arms down around his waist and laying her head on his shoulder. ‘Are you going to tell me about the honeymoon yet?’

            ‘No,’ he gently stroked her back as they swayed to imaginary music. ‘It’s all a surprise.’

            ‘Will we be home in time for Christmas?’

            He sucked air in between his teeth, ‘Can I tell you that? Okay, I’ll tell you. Yes, but it’s going to be close.’

            ‘I’m definitely not cooking then.’

            His chest hiccupped in a laugh. ‘Mrs Evans…’

            Jess realised that she could hear music and looked around to see that the pianist had taken his place and was accompanying them with a quiet rendition If I Ain’t Got You. And that was their first dance, on an empty dancefloor and alone but for the pianist. A secret that no one else would ever know.

Chapter Text

In the months after the wedding, things seemed to be even crazier than they were before. Their honeymoon on an idyllic island in The Maldives began to feel more and more like a speck in the ocean of craziness. Chris had been away in New York a lot editing his movie and then they had both gone to Louisiana for pre-production. Jess had stayed on in the week between that and principal photography to work on her accent while Chris had flown out to LA to take a bunch of meetings. When he rejoined the cast and crew, their shooting schedule was nonstop and after, seven weeks, they took the second unit to Boston for another ten days of filming before they finally wrapped.

            Jess was completely emotionally drained from the whole experience and slept for sixteen hours straight on their first day at home. It seemed to take her a long time to recover. Chris comforted her and told her that sometimes it was hard to let a character go but he knew she was still frustrated with herself.

            During the editing of his movie, it had become clear that several reshoots were needed and they’d had to delay them until he was done in Louisiana. The last thing he wanted to do was leave Jess to fly out to Prague but they just did not have the budget to reshoot in the States. So, it was some reluctance that he packed his suitcase for ten days away.

            Jess lay on the bed, watching him with sad eyes. She had dark shadows under her eyes and her face looked gaunt. Chris frowned, wondering how he hadn’t noticed before. ‘Babe, you need to go to the doctor.’

            ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I will.’

            ‘I don’t want to leave you.’

            She smiled, kneeling up so she could kiss him. ‘You have to. I’ll be okay. Go, be fabulous and then come back home.’

            ‘When are you going to LA?’

            She had some events to do with Marvel that she really needed to be well for. They weren’t going to want her in her current state. ‘Not for three more weeks. You’ll probably be back in the edit suite by then.’

            ‘Married life, huh? We see less of each other than before we were married.’

            ‘It’s only for a few more weeks. Once you’re done editing and we’ve done any reshoots for TCP we’re both going to have a few months downtime before we start promoting.’

            He sighed, laying a hand on her cheek. ‘I can’t wait.’

            ‘Me neither.’ She put her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. ‘I love you.’

            ‘I love you, too. Jess, you need to promise me you’re going to look after yourself while I’m away.’

            ‘I promise.’

            ‘Stop eating peanut butter sandwiches for every meal.’

            ‘I’ll try.’

            ‘But most of all, go to the doctor. I’m getting worried about you.’

            In the end, Jess had no choice about seeing a doctor. A few days later she went out running with Dodger. An unpleasant buzzing suddenly started in her ears and everything sounded very distant, then her vision narrowed to a pinprick before everything went black. The next thing she knew she was waking up in a hospital room with a drip in her arm and a concerned looking Lisa hovering beside the bed.

            ‘What happened?’ She croaked. Her voice felt dry and papery.

            ‘Oh, you’re awake!’ Lisa leaned over her and stroked her hair. ‘You’ve had me so worried.’

            Jess tried her voice again. ‘What happened?’

            ‘You passed out in the woods. Another hiker heard Dodger barking and they found you out cold.’

            ‘Dodger? Is he okay?’

            ‘He’s fine,’ Lisa hushed her. ‘He’s at home, probably pining for you and Chris.’

            ‘Does he know?’

            ‘I had to tell him.’

            ‘Lisa!’ Jess sighed, exasperated.

            ‘You’re his wife, Jess,’ she said defensively, ‘he needed to know.’

            ‘You know he’ll jump on the first plane out and fret the entire way home.’

            ‘He said he wouldn’t.’

            ‘Jump or fret?’

            ‘Jump. The doctor wants to speak to you then you can call Chris and stop him fretting. They’ve been running a lot of tests but they haven’t told me what they’ve found,’ Lisa smoothed the sheet over Jess and she could see the worry etched into her eyes. ‘I’ll go and get the doctor for you.’

            Jess collapsed back on the pillows, exhausted. Her head ached and her legs hurt, as if she’d had bad cramps. She looked around the room for her phone but she knew Lisa was way too savvy to leave it anywhere that she could reach it. After a few minutes, the door opened and a doctor walked in brandishing a clipboard.

            ‘Mrs Evans?’

             Jess smiled despite herself. She’d never get bored of hearing that. ‘Yes.’

            ‘We’ve run a few tests and discovered that you’ve got severe iron-deficient anaemia. So much so that we’re going to give you a red blood cell transfusion before we let you go home.’

            She sagged. All she wanted to do was go home and crawl into her bed. ‘How long will that take?’

            The doctor checked her watch, ‘Probably only a couple of hours. If you don’t have any adverse side-effects I’d be happy for you to go home afterwards. How have you been feeling recently?’

            ‘Tired,’ Jess sighed. ‘I just finished shooting a movie a couple of weeks ago and I thought it was that.’

            ‘How long have you been feeling fatigued?’

            She shook her head, trying to think back. ‘I guess about three weeks before the end of the shoot, so about five weeks in total?’

            ‘Anything else out of the ordinary?’

            ‘I’ve been really emotional. Like the smallest thing will make me cry.’

            ‘Any idea why that might be?’

            ‘It was a pretty emotional movie, we thought maybe I was having trouble letting it go.’

            The doctor sighed and scribbled a few notes. ‘So, you don’t know that you’re pregnant?’

            ‘No. Wait, what?’

            ‘You’re pregnant.’

            Jess opened her mouth and closed it again. ‘I am?’

            ‘Yes, you are. Do you know when your last period was?’

            She tried to think back. ‘I don’t know, I’m sorry. I’ve lost track.’

            ‘I’d like to do a quick scan just to check and make sure everything’s okay, we can get a date from that.’

            ‘Um…’

            ‘You seemed surprised. Are you on birth control?’

            ‘No, but…’

            ‘Are you and your husband having sex regularly?’

            What kind of question was that? ‘Define regularly?’

            ‘Once or twice a week?’

            ‘Mmmhmm…’ Jess hummed non-committedly. More like once or twice a day, but she wasn’t going to share that.

            ‘Then nature has taken its course, Mrs Evans.’ The doctor smiled at her over the clipboard.

            ‘Does my mother-in-law know?’

            ‘No, we haven’t told her.’

            ‘Can you not? Only my husband is away and I really don’t want him to find out until I’m ready.’

            ‘Our lips are sealed. You can be anaemic for any number of reasons and we’ll run a few more tests just to be sure, but in your case, it looks to be the pregnancy that’s causing it. You’ll need to take iron supplements for the rest of your term and have regular blood tests and check-ups.’

            Jess couldn’t take it all in. This should be one of the happiest days of her life but she was tired, achy and miserable, missing Chris and stuck in a hospital bed. Lisa came back and Jess had to persuade her to go home. She promised she’d call when she was ready to leave and retrieved her phone. As soon as she left, Jess called Chris.

            ‘What did I tell you before I left?’ He demanded in lieu of a hello.

            ‘To look after myself,’ she said in a small voice.

            ‘Exactly. And what is passing out in the woods?’

            ‘Not looking after myself?’

            ‘I’ve been so worried. Are you okay?’

            ‘Yes. Although I feel as if I've been hit by a truck. I’m severely anaemic. I’m having a blood transfusion and then they’re letting me go home.’

            ‘I’m coming home.’

            ‘You can’t.’

            ‘I can. I’m the director.’

            ‘Exactly, they need you. You need to finish your movie, sweetheart. I’ll be there when you get home.’

            ‘We’re almost done. I can push it and see if we can wrap up a couple of days early.’

            Jess closed her eyes. Selfishly, she wanted her husband. She missed their intimacy and their private jokes and the way he looked at her when they caught each other’s eye. ‘If you can do it without rushing it then by all means… But you need to be careful, you won’t be able to reshoot again.’

            ‘I miss you, Jess. I hate that you need me and I’m not there with you.’

            ‘It’s okay,’ she soothed. She looked up as the door opened and the doctor returned with a nurse and another woman wheeling in an ultrasound. ‘I’ve got to go, sweetheart. My blood’s here. I’ll call you as soon as I know what’s going on.’

            Once she hung up, the doctor talked her through what she could expect from the blood transfusion and the possible side-effects. They hooked it up to the cannula in her arm and Jess watched as the dark red liquid snaked down the tube and into her arm.

            The radiographer had her lift her hospital gown and applied gel to her stomach. Jess felt a pang that Chris wasn’t here to see their baby for the first time, although she really couldn’t be that far along.

            The doctor turned the screen away while she and radiographer talked quietly then, once she was happy everything was okay, she turned it back for Jess to see. It just looked like a lot of static but the doctor pointed out her baby’s heartbeat and she could see it sort of fluttering.

            ‘And the second heartbeat is right here,’ she said with a smile, and Jess frowned. Her baby had two hearts? ‘They’re fraternal twins.’

            Twins. Twins? ‘Twins?’

            ‘Yes, twins. Too early to ascertain the gender but you’re eleven weeks along.’

            ‘Eleven weeks?’ Jess felt like a parrot but she was so shocked. Eleven weeks would mean she conceived around the time they started filming TCP.

            ‘You’re due around November twenty-eighth. Twins are generally a little early, around thirty-seven weeks.’

            She wasn’t taking any of this in. ‘Can you please write all of this down for me?’

            ‘Of course. We’ll give you a couple of pictures to show your husband, too.’

            Her mind wandered to how she was going to tell Chris. He was going to lose his shit, she grinned to herself. She couldn’t wait to see his face.

            Once the blood transfusion finished, Jess felt a bit woozy but a lot better. The doctor prescribed industrial strength iron tablets and released her into the care of her mother-in-law. Lisa brought her a change of clothes and drove her home, fussing over her the whole time. Sometimes Jess liked being mothered so she let her, even going as far as to let Lisa cook for her while she rested up on the couch and talked to Chris again.

            ‘How are you feeling?’

            ‘Still like I’ve been hit by a truck, but a slightly smaller one going a little slower.’ She heaved her aching legs up onto the couch. ‘Mom’s here, making a fuss, so you know I’m okay.’

            ‘I’ll be home before you know it,’ he promised.

            ‘Chris…’ She stopped. More than anything, she wanted to tell him but she knew she would regret not being able to see his face or share those first few moments with him.

            ‘What’s the matter, honey?’

            ‘Nothing. I’m all good. It must be really late over there. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?’

            ‘I’m wound far too tight.’

            ‘I wish I was there to unwind you.’

            ‘You are no in condition to be doing any such thing,’ he said firmly, but she could hear him smiling. ‘Although right now I’d be content with just holding you.’

            ‘Me too.’ Oh God, she was going to cry. ‘Try to get some sleep. We’ll speak tomorrow.’

            ‘Okay,’ he sighed. ‘And you just rest up. I don’t want to hear you’ve been lifting anything heavier than a cup of tea.’

            ‘Night sweetheart.’

            ‘Night babe.’

            Jess curled up and closed her eyes. She dreamed that Chris kept saying he was coming home but he never did, and she got bigger and bigger and nobody seemed to notice. When she woke, it was dark, the house was quiet, and Dodger slept soundly on her feet. Lisa had covered her with a throw. She retrieved her phone from the back of the sofa and found it was 2 am. Gently sliding her feet out, she sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her stomach was growling so loud she was surprised Dodger wasn’t growling back.

            In the kitchen, there was a note from Lisa telling her that her food was in the fridge and to call if she needed anything. There was a lot of underlining and exclamation marks. Jess smiled fondly, pinning the note to the fridge as she opened the door. There was a bowl of chicken, broccoli and rice, incredibly bland but probably just what she needed to ease her into eating again.

            At some point, it had occurred to her that she needed to tell an awful lot of people that she was pregnant. She wasn’t sure when TCP was being released but they would need to know. Marvel needed to know, kind of urgently. They’d pencilled in pre-production for her first solo movie for the following February and there was no way she would be fit by then. She picked up her phone and sent Chris a text letting him know she was awake. It was 8 am for him so an ideal time for them to talk a little before he left for the set.

            Chris called a little while later, apologising that he’d been in the shower when she’d messaged. They made small talk about everything and nothing while he got ready to go to the set and she picked at the food she’d heated up. She loved how deep his voice was in the morning before he’d properly woken up and his Boston accent always came out more when he was far from home. It was hardly surprising that she was picking it up.

            Once they’d said their goodbyes, Jess put her plate in the dishwasher and made sure the house was locked up on her way upstairs. She’d had an idea for their first anniversary that she was thinking of adapting as a way to reveal the pregnancy to Chris. It was almost 3 am and she knew she should go back to sleep but she also knew she’d toss and turn, and she needed to let her food settle.

            In her closet was a box of photographs that she’d been gathering with the intention of putting them in an album to document every year of their lives up until their first anniversary. She took the box down and emptied it onto the bed. Lisa and Carly had been supplying her with pictures of Chris as she went through her own albums for pictures of her. Some of them were approximate but she’d managed to gather at least one picture from each year of her childhood. Their adult lives were much easier to document. There were thirty-eight pictures of Chris and thirty-one pictures of her. She’d had an idea for her thirty-second.

            They were just over a week away from their six-month anniversary. Could she keep it a secret until then? She highly doubted it. She carefully put the pictures away and climbed into bed. She had spent so long wondering how to tell Chris and thinking about how happy he was going to be that she hadn’t really let the reality sink in. She was pregnant. Actually pregnant. With two babies! The thought made her panic a little. She’d never imagined having more than one at a time. And they’d been hiding in there for almost three months without anyone knowing.

            ‘You’re going to give us a lot of trouble,’ she whispered, ‘I can already tell.’

 

Chris refused to let Jess pick him up at the airport. Instead, one of his friends went to get him and dropped him at home. Jess was, as she always seemed to be whenever he came home, baking a cake in the kitchen.

            ‘Hi honey, I’m home,’ he said from the kitchen door.

            ‘Oh, yes, you are!’ Jess flew into his arms and smothered him with kisses, covering him with icing sugar in the process. ‘I’ve missed you so fucking much.’

            ‘Look at you! You look a lot better. You’ve got some colour in your cheeks.’

            ‘I have been taking it easy,’ she lied, ‘not lifting anything heavier than a cup of tea.’

            He looked at her sceptically. ‘Uh-huh.’

            Dodger came barrelling in from wherever he’d been sleeping, jumping up at Chris and demanding his attention. Chris got on the floor with him and said his hellos, patting his sides and stroking his ears.

            ‘How are you, how was your journey?’

            ‘Uneventful, which is really what you’re looking for a long-haul flight.’

            ‘Are you hungry?’

            ‘Starving.’

            ‘I made a lasagne last night, it’s in the fridge.’

            He calmed Dodger down then got up to wash his hands before he cut himself a slice and put it in the microwave. He turned to watch Jess poke holes in the cake and pour runny icing made with lemon juice all over it. His mouth watered. ‘Not that I don’t love it, because I really do, but why do you always bake a cake when I come home?’

            She smiled and lifted an eyebrow. ‘Association therapy. When you come home the house smells of cake, which makes you think of how warm and inviting home is and how loving and thoughtful your wife is and how you’d never dare risk that by being an idiot.’

            ‘Hey!’ He half-laughed, grabbing her by the waist. ‘I don’t need a cake to remind me of that. Ever.’

            Jess stroked his neck as he kissed her, her whole body shivering in delight at his touch. ‘Well, there is also the fact that we just like cake.’

            ‘We do like cake. Honestly, Jess, I can’t believe how different you look. What was in that blood transfusion? You’re so much more energetic than when I went away.’

            ‘Just iron, apparently. I’ve been taking supplements every day, too.’

            ‘Do they know what’s causing it?’

            Shit. She had really been hoping that question wouldn’t come up. ‘A combination of things.’

            Thankfully the microwave beeped and he took out his plate and went to sit down.

            ‘I’ve got something for you,’ she said, wiping her hands on a tea towel and crossing to the dresser.

            ‘As well as lasagne and lemon drizzle cake? I need to go away more often.’

            ‘I think not.’ She handed him a box and leaned against the counter to watch him open it.

            ‘I bought you a Toblerone,’ he said.

            ‘As anyone travelling by air always should.’

            He took out the album and looked up at her, knowing it wouldn’t be what it seemed. He flipped it open. The first two pages covered Chris’s first five years, then he flipped the page to find a picture of six-year-old him opposite a picture of her as a baby. ‘Oh, Jess, this is amazing!’

            She grinned as he flicked through. Some of the early years had them standing by their birthday cakes or she’d chosen two pictures taken at Christmas. While she was putting it together she'd thought about how strange it was that he was out there all that time, having birthdays and Christmases and school photos the same as her, with neither of them knowing what was in store for them.

            She was going to cry again so she went to the fridge to get Chris a beer, then made herself a cup of tea.

            ‘God, when I was twenty you were only fourteen. That is filthy.’

            ‘Yeah, I chose not to dwell on that. Thirty and thirty-six were definitely better ages for us to meet.’ Eighteen more pages, she thought to herself, trying to find something to occupy her hands with until then. She began loading the dishwasher.

            ‘I have had some really questionable fashion choices,’ he sighed, ‘and you always look like you. Oh, this is when you were in Complex!’

            Four more pages. She grabbed a cloth and started wiping the counters down.

            ‘When was this?’

            She peered over his shoulder. ‘My thirtieth birthday party.’

            ‘I forget how different your body was when we first met. I mean, I love you now and I really admire your commitment to working out, but I liked you all soft and curvy like that.’

            Good, she thought. Because things are about to get pretty curvy. Two more pages. She tried to sip her tea but her hands were trembling too violently. She hurriedly put her cup down before he noticed.

            ‘This is lovely, Jess. Thank –’ He flipped the second to last page and stopped. There was a picture of him which she had taken on the set of The Color Philosophy. He was laughing at something she couldn’t remember, but the look in his eyes was pure wait until I get you home and she was pretty sure it was around the time she would have conceived. Opposite that was a picture of her she’d taken a couple of days ago. Her t-shirt read Pregnant AF. ‘Jess?’

            ‘Hmmm?’ She tried to be casual but she was bursting to laugh or to cry or for him to hold her. Or maybe even all three.

            ‘Jess, are you pregnant?’

            ‘Turn the page,' she said quietly.

            He put the album down and wiped his palms on his jeans, his eyes on hers. He slowly turned the page to reveal the images from the ultrasound. She had drawn little red hearts around their heartbeats and labelled them baby Evans #1 and #2.

            He cried. She had known he would. She was crying too as he stood up and pulled her into his arms.

            ‘I can’t believe you kept this a secret,’ he admonished, holding her face between his hands and kissing her mouth. ‘So is this why you’re anaemic?’

            She nodded, ‘Yeah. They’re taking all the good stuff, but I don’t mind.’

            ‘When did you find out?’

            ‘The day I passed out. I’d just found when I spoke to you on the phone. When they came with the blood transfusion, they did the ultrasound at the same time. I’m twelve weeks now.’

            ‘Twelve?!’ He said in disbelief. ‘How did we not realise before?’

            She shrugged, leaning back in his arms to wipe her face on her sleeves. ‘I guess I lost track of things with the movie and everything.’

            He looked down at the photo album again. ‘Twins,’ he shook his head. ‘Are they identical?’

            ‘No, they’re fraternal.’

            He grinned, tightening his grip on her. ‘Mrs Evans… You’re so beautiful and clever and I am so, so lucky. I love you.’

            ‘I love you.’ Jess smiled and snuggled into his arms. He held her for a long time and she felt all of her pieces click back into place.

            Eventually, Chris sighed deeply, pulling away to look sadly into her eyes. ‘Now I feel bad for only buying you a Toblerone.’

Chapter Text

‘God, you’re huge,’ the interviewer said, taking a seat in front of Jess and Chris. ‘When are you due?’

            Jess checked her watch. ‘Any minute now, so you might want to speed up the questions.’

            Chris laughed quietly beside her. This was better than any Marvel junket he’d been on. The focus was, of course, Jess’s bump. They still had two weeks to go but she liked freaking people out by acting as if birth was imminent.

            They were on the press tour for The Color Philosophy, although it wasn’t much of a tour. The media team had arranged for it to take place in Boston because nobody wanted Jess to travel. The movie had wowed the critics and early audiences, and the producers had been encouraged to release it during award season. Rather than wait another year, it had been decided to pull it forward and for Jess to do as much promotion as she felt she could. The film was doing better than anyone could have hoped for but no better than it deserved. Both Chris and Jess were happy to do promotion if it meant that more people would see it and hear its message.

            Jess shifted in her chair. One of the babies was on her back which made it painful to sit down for too long. She caught Sue’s eye and shook her head, and Sue nodded hers in understanding. As soon as the journalist left the room, Jess hauled herself to her feet, pushing her hands into the small of her back. ‘This baby is right on my spine,’ she grumbled, pushing her shoulders back to try to stretch out some of the pain.

            ‘Do you need to lie down?’ Sue asked, handing her a fresh bottle of water.

            ‘Yeah. Sorry to bail, sweetheart, will you be okay?’

            ‘I’ve got it, don’t worry. You go up and rest. I’ll see you later.’ He kissed her briefly before she was bustled out of the room.

            Sue took her straight to the elevator, although Jess’s progress was slow and cumbersome. They’d given her a room for naps or just to relax and nobody minded if she left interviews when she got too uncomfortable. Sue waited until she was settled, a pillow at her back, one under her bump and one between her knees, to leave her to it, telling her to call as soon as she was ready to either rejoin the junket or go home. Her back still ached horribly but it took some of the pressure off

            Somehow, she managed to fall asleep. When she woke up Chris was sprawled on the sofa eating a sandwich and drinking coffee.

            ‘Hi,’ she said, making no effort to move.

            ‘Hey, babe,’ he smiled and got up, crossing the room to kneel beside the bed. ‘How are you feeling?’

            ‘Crappy. My back hurts so much.’

            ‘You want me to rub it for you?’

            ‘Yes, please. How was the rest of the morning?’

            ‘Not bad.’ He got up and walked round to the other side of the bed to sit beside her. ‘Everyone said nice things and told me to tell you how great your performance was.’

            Jess was quiet, chewing her lip as Chris’s hands rubbed slow circles on her back.

            ‘I know you don’t believe them, or me, or anyone else.’

            ‘I just don’t see it.’

            He sighed. ‘You’re a big part of the reason the film got pulled forward. Everyone – except you, apparently – is expecting you to get nominated.’

            ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s only my second movie and –’

            ‘Your second movie in which you kill it. You killed it in Out of Time, too, but you think that because it’s a blockbuster with a huge cast that it doesn’t count somehow. And you’ve been nominated for a BAFTA in the past, so we all know you can act.’ Jess harrumphed uncomfortably. She was so British where praise was concerned. He took pity on her and changed the subject. ‘Have you thought any more about names?’

            Jess closed her eyes. At the rate they were going their kids would be called Thing 1 and Thing 2 because they didn’t agree on names at all. She guessed that somewhere along the line they had to be incompatible and it turned out to be on baby names. ‘No. And I really don’t want to argue with you.’

            ‘I’ve thought of a solution.’

            She raised an eyebrow. ‘Really?’

            ‘Yes. I name one and you name the other.’

            ‘Abiding by the blacklist?’

            ‘Of course.’ They had a blacklist of names that could not be used, at the top of which sat Brady. ‘If the first one is a boy, I pick first and if it’s a girl, you pick first.’

            ‘Sounds sexist, but okay.’ Chris’s hands were working miracles on her back and she was almost drooling into the pillow. They had chosen not to find out the genders at their last scan and the nursery was decorated in the prettiest yellow with pale green accessories. ‘But I swear if you call my child Brad or Mike or Carl, we are going to have issues.’

            He laughed quietly, ‘I was thinking more of Mercedes, or Tiffany or Britney.’ She rolled over to hit him, which was a big effort for her so he pretended that it hurt. ‘Don’t lay on your back, you’ll undo all my hard work. Are you going to be up to doing the afternoon session?’

            ‘Yeah. As long as I can get up and move around I should be able to get through it.’

            ‘Only another couple of weeks, babe, and your two little squatters will have been evicted and everything will be back to normal.’

            ‘I hope. Whichever one is on my back is causing me some serious problems. Can you help me up please?’

            Chris helped her first to sit up and then to stand. She waddled into the bathroom and he couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He knew she was miserable and uncomfortable but she was so beautiful to him at that moment. As much as he couldn’t wait to meet their babies, he would miss Jess being pregnant.

 

Jess, naturally, couldn’t wait to not be pregnant. The days dragged and she was in more and more pain to the point where she thought that childbirth would be a relief. With three days to go, she was barely sleeping and finding it almost impossible to get comfortable. She spent a lot of time on her hands and knees as it was the only position that took the baby's weight off of her back, much to Chris’s amusement every time he walked into a room and found her with her ass in the air.

            Something had woken her but she didn’t know what. Carefully and laboriously, she heaved herself into a sitting position and shuffled to the edge of the bed. She checked the time, rubbing her belly absent-mindedly. She needed to pee. Somehow, she got herself on her feet and shuffled to the toilet.

            Knowing she wouldn’t get back to sleep, she went downstairs and switched the stereo on low. She stood at the French windows in the living room, looking out over the garden as the music washed over her. An almost full moon bathed the lawn in its silvery light and she stood there for a long time, her thoughts calm and peaceful.

            'You look so beautiful.' Chris’s voice came from the door and she turned to look at him, smiling at him in the semi-darkness. 'Are you okay?'

            She nodded, 'I'm fine, sweetheart. I needed the bathroom and my back hurts.'

            He went to her, standing behind her and wrapping his arms around her bump as best he could. 'Not much longer. They'll be here soon.'

            ‘Everything’s going to change.’ She said quietly.

            'I can't wait, Jess,' he whispered in her ear, kissing her neck.

            She turned in his arms as best she could, one hand reaching up to cup his cheek. 'You're going to be such an amazing dad.’

            He tipped his head forward until his forehead rested against hers. He moved his hands over her stomach, bending down to lay a kiss on her taut skin before straightening up and kissing her mouth as hard as he dared. 'I love you.'

            ‘I love you, too.’ She missed him. She felt too big and uncomfortable to be desirable and she’d been keeping him at arm’s length for over a month now. He took it with his usual good humour but she knew he missed their easy intimacy as much as she did. ‘Take me to bed.’

            He happily obliged and she drifted back to sleep almost immediately, only to be woken up by a sharp pain blossoming through her. She stared into the dark, waiting, not quite knowing what it meant. A minute or so later, another pain tore through her, making her gasp and cry out.

            ‘Chris?’

            He woke with a start, immediately wide awake. ‘What’s wrong?’

            ‘I don’t know. Something’s not right.’

            He switched the light on and they saw the pool of blood spreading from between her legs. ‘Oh, Jesus!’

            He grabbed the phone and dialled 911. Jess was in shock, her hand slick with blood as she looked down at the sheet. He answered the questions as fast as possible, grabbing towels for Jess to lay on and making her lay back on the pillows. Every minute or so she’d cry out in agony and he didn’t know what to do. Even he knew that this wasn’t normal labour.

            ‘It’s alright, honey. Everything’s going to be fine…’ He soothed, stroking her hair. She was clammy and pale and he was terrified.

            He grabbed the hospital bag that they had lovingly packed only a few days before. He didn’t want to move her but he cleaned her up as best he could before helping her into a clean nightshirt. He had just pulled on his own jeans and a t-shirt when flashing lights lit up the room and the doorbell sounded. He didn’t want to leave her for a moment but he went downstairs to let them in.

            The EMT’s took one look at her before inserting a cannula into her arm, fixing her up to a drip. They took her vitals, placing an oxygen mask over her face, and then transferred her to a stretcher. Chris wanted to throw up, but there was no time. Instead, dazed and shocked, he followed them out to the ambulance, pausing only to pick up his keys and lock the house up.

            Sirens wailing, he held Jess’s hand as they tore through the streets. The closest hospital was almost twenty minutes away but they made it in ten. A doctor was waiting for them. He examined Jess before they even got out of the ambulance. He turned to Chris. ‘We’re going to take her straight to theater. Follow close behind and we’ll show you where to wait.’

            Another bed was summoned and Jess was transferred. She reached out a hand for him, squeezing it as they rushed down corridor after corridor. He could see the fear and confusion in his eyes and felt his own fear rising within him but he pushed it down, not wanting her to see it. A midwife appeared and ushered Chris into a lounge-like room that was obviously meant to keep him calm and out of the way. He heard voices trail away and a door bang, and then silence. It was 5 am.

            Immediately he pulled his phone from his pocket and called his mom. Lisa answered on the second ring and he couldn’t hold it together anymore. ‘Mom…Jess is bleeding. We’re at the hospital and they’ve taken her into theater to deliver the babies.’

            ‘Oh no! What happened?’

            He sniffed, wiping the back of his hand over his eyes. ‘I don’t know. She woke up in pain and she was bleeding heavily.’

            ‘Honey, she’s in the right place. Do you need anything? I can go by the house, take care of Dodger and bring you anything you need.’

            ‘I don’t know.’ He felt so numb, like he was the one who had been anaesthetised.

            ‘Let me know if you think of anything. I’ll be there just as soon as I can.’

            Chris hung up and began pacing, but he’d barely got into a rhythm before the door to the room opened and a midwife walked in backwards, wheeling a crib. ‘Congratulations Daddy! Baby boy, 6lb 8oz, five minutes old.’

            He spun around, staring in astonishment at the crib. ‘But…she only just went in…’

            ‘They deliver them fast because of the general anaesthetic. Someone’s bringing the other baby as soon as it’s been checked over.’ She smiled and left him alone with his son.

            For a moment, he couldn’t move. He was a dad. His son was just a few steps away. In all the imaginings he’d had of childbirth, he’d never thought that they would not share this moment together, let alone that neither of them would be present at the birth. Jess would be under the anaesthetic and he was stuck in a generic relatives’ room. But his son was right there. He looked over, his head swimming, and took a tentative step, and then another.

            ‘Hello,’ Chris whispered, peering into the crib at the tiny baby wrapped in a blanket who looked just like his own baby photos. His heart exploded. Tears slid down his face and got lost in his beard.

            He was wondering if he could pick him up when the door opened again and another midwife brought in a crib. ‘Baby girl, 6lb 4oz. Mom is absolutely fine. The doctors are stitching her up which can take a while, then we’ll make her comfortable in recovery and you’ll be able to see her.’

            Chris crumpled with relief. ‘Are you sure she’s okay?’

            The midwife nodded. ‘Now the babies have been delivered and the bleeding has stopped, she’s fine. The hard part is over.’

            ‘Thank God.’ Chris looked down at his daughter, almost unable to comprehend that these were his babies. He thought she looked like Jess. ‘And these two are okay?’

            ‘Absolutely. We’ll leave them with you for now and come to get you when Jess goes to recovery.’

            Once the door closed behind her, he scooped his son up into his arms, cradling his head in the palm of his hand and laying his little body along his forearm. He gripped Chris’s finger ferociously. He smiled, ‘What is your mommy going to say when she sees you two?’

            After a few minutes of just staring at him, watching him sleep, Chris put him carefully back in the crib and picked up his daughter. She was wide awake, dark eyes taking everything in and looking at him intently, making him laugh softly to himself. ‘I bet you were the one laying on your mommy’s back. We’re going to have to keep an eye on you.’

            He started thinking about names. The cards attached to their cribs read Baby boy/girl Evans. As per their deal, he got to name their son. He’d had a few ideas and he was fairly sure he could think of something that Jess would approve of.

            He had no idea how much time passed while he sat there, staring at his son and his daughter, but the door opened and the doctor came in with a midwife. ‘Everything is fine and Jess is doing very well. We’re giving her a blood transfusion to top her up but she’s coming around from the anaesthetic. We’ll get her settled into the ward a bit later and she’ll probably stay in for a few days.’

            ‘What happened?’ Chris asked.

            ‘One of the placentas was covering her cervix and when the contractions started they caused it to detach, causing a haemorrhage.’

            ‘But everything’s okay?’

            With a kind smile, he nodded. ‘Everything is fine.’

            Chris wanted to cry with relief. ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’

            ‘If you come with me, I’ll take you to the recovery room.’ The midwife said.

            He shouldered the hospital bag and they took a crib each, wheeling them down a long corridor with a set of double doors at the end. Through the doors was a large room with two beds separated by a curtain. The closest bed was empty, the equipment dormant. In the second bed lay Jess, an oxygen tube under her nose, drips and blood flowing in her arms and various tubes snaking under the covers. He carefully parked his crib beside the bed and walked over to her.

            ‘Jess?’

            ‘She’s still a bit out of it,’ said the nurse standing at the end of the bed. ‘She’s got morphine for the pain and she’s only just starting to shrug off the anaesthetic. But she’s doing great.’

            Chris smiled. ‘I’m so proud of you,’ he stroked her hair. ‘You made two beautiful babies.’

            The midwife wheeled the second crib over. They were both sleeping, tiny fists clenched up by their faces. Chris sat down, holding Jess’s hand, waiting for her to come around.

            Eventually, Jess blinked her eyes open, focusing on Chris. She tried to talk but nothing came out. She licked her dry lips and managed to croak, ‘Water?’

            Chris grabbed a cup and put the straw between her lips. She cleared her throat and tried again. ‘The babies?’

            ‘They’re gorgeous, Jess. A boy and a girl.’

            She smiled, threading her fingers through his. ‘That’s perfect.’

            A nurse came over, helping her to sit up a little and checking her over. She had a few more sips of water before Chris placed a baby in a blue blanket into her arms. She looked down at his face in surprise. ‘Oh! He looks just like you.’

            ‘I know!’ He grinned. ‘He was born first, at 5:10 am. 6lb 8oz.’

            He had almost strawberry blond hair and blue eyes and he was gorgeous. Jess kissed his forehead. ‘Hello, sweetheart.’

            ‘I thought we’d call him Thor.’

            ‘What?’ Jess said, her voice dangerously low.

            Chris laughed, ‘I’m kidding. How about Alfie?’

            ‘Oh, Alfie! Yes please.’

            ‘And this is our daughter.’

            She grinned, taking her in her free arm. The complete opposite of her brother, she had dark hair and eyes and looked a lot like Jess. ‘Uh-oh. Look at those eyes. This one’s trouble.’

            ‘That’s exactly what I thought.’

            ‘She’s going to have you under her thumb and wrapped around her little finger.’

            ‘Like her mom,’ he said, looking up into her eyes.

            She grinned innocently, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is probably a little narcissistic, but I like Ruby.’

            ‘Ruby,’ Chris mused, looking down at her. ‘Are you a Ruby?’

            Ruby glared at him under her dark lashes. She was so intense. Her expression said what am I doing here and who are you people?

            ‘She’s a Ruby,’ they said together.

            ‘You’re so beautiful!’ Jess told her.

            ‘She was born at 5:13 am, 6lb 6oz.’

            Jess was crying but they were definitely tears of happiness. She had not been prepared for the instant rush of love she felt on seeing them. It was very surreal to go to sleep pregnant and wake up with babies. She hadn’t had time to mentally prepare for their arrival. But they were so beautiful, so perfectly formed and she was relieved that they’d arrived safely. She felt very happy and peaceful and contented. ‘Thank you.’

            ‘What for?’

            She looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears as her emotions overwhelmed her. ‘You’ve given me everything. I have the best husband in the world, our dog is the goodest boy, we have a wonderful home that always smells of cake, and now we have the two most beautiful babies who were ever born. If nothing else good ever happens to me, this would be enough.’

            He grinned, holding her the back of her head as he pressed his lips to her forehead. ‘Yes, it would.’

Chapter Text

Almost Six Years Later

‘Daddy! Daddy, me next!’

            Jess paused at the front door, listening to the shrieks and screams coming from upstairs. Chris still didn’t know jack about calm, quiet bedtimes, preferring instead to roughhouse and tire them out. She smiled, closing the door quietly, not wanting them to know she was home. Dodger padded out of the living room, his muzzle greying and his legs a little shaky, but he thumped his tail as she bent down to stroke his ears. ‘Who’s a good boy?’ She whispered.

            Kicking off her shoes, she shrugged her coat off and hung it up, listening to the bedtime mayhem with resigned amusement. She crept up the stairs, looking through the bannisters into Ruby and Molly’s room where Chris stood, holding Molly up by one ankle and swinging her back and forth while she laughed her little head off. He was going to make her sick if he wasn’t careful.  Alfie was clinging to his leg, his face upturned and shining with devotion for the father he hero worshipped, whilst Ruby stood patiently waiting for her turn, watchful as always and Kit sat on the floor watching them, his cheeks pink from teething and his eyes drooping with tiredness.

            The twins were just about to turn six, although Ruby was an old soul and often came across as older than both of her parents. She looked a little like Jess. They had the same eyes and hair, but the shape of her face was all Evans. Alfie was the spit out of Chris’s mouth, same hair, eyes, face, skin tone, everything. There wasn’t a drop of Jess in him.

            Molly was four and the perfect Finley-Evans mash-up, Chris’s eyes and lashes, Jess’s nose, mouth and cheekbones. She had Chris’s hair but Jess’s curls, which was a nightmare come hair washing time and the source of many tears and tantrums. Some of them Molly’s. Kit, who’d had his first birthday a couple of weeks back, was the Jess clone, with all of her features and darker skin than his siblings. He was a smiley, happy baby who had to be woken up to be fed when he was younger. He was at that stage where Jess was still his favourite because he didn’t understand how much more fun his dad was.

            All of her children doted on their dad, and that was okay. Chris was a great dad. Chris let them eat junk and splash around in the tub and run around the house with their pants on their head, and he enthusiastically joined in with them. Chris organised the Disney trips and took them to premieres and on days out to the zoo or to build forts in the woods. Jess made them eat apple and carrot slices and do their homework and watch nature documentaries on BBC America and go to bed on time. She fixed them up when Chris brought them home with grazed knees and made sure permission slips got signed and book bags were packed and took them to donate their old toys to the children’s hospital. But when it came to discipline and dishing out punishment, they were always a team and Jess appreciated that more than anything.

            ‘Okay,’ Chris was saying. ‘One more and then a story because if you’re not in bed by the time your mom gets home, she will kill me.’

            ‘She won’t kill you, Daddy,’ Ruby’s serious voice said. ‘She’ll say, Chris, what’s the point in enforcing a bedtime routine if you just let them do what they want?’

            Jess stood with her mouth open. The little madam had perfectly imitated her strange English/Boston accent and the impatient tone of her voice. That child did not miss a trick.

            Chris threw his head back and roared with laughter. ‘Yes, sweetheart, she will.’

            She listened as they shrieked and screamed some more, then Chris herded them into bed. Jess slid down the wall and sat on the floor, listening as he settled them down and tucked the girls in He’d carry the boys to their rooms when he was done. ‘Which story shall we have?’

            ‘The Cat in the Hat!’ They chorused and she smiled. They loved to hear him read Dr Seuss.

            He started to read and he immediately had their rapt attention. He had the growl in his voice that came out when he was tired, and his Boston accent was stronger than ever. She closed her eyes and listened.

That is what the cat said…

Then he fell on his head!

He came down with a bump

From up there on the ball!

And Sally and I, we saw all the things fall!

            Jess woke with a start about half an hour later. It was all quiet and she tentatively put her head around the bedroom door. Chris had fallen asleep in the chair, Alfie across his lap and Kit on his chest, his pudgy little arms thrown around his dad’s neck. She got to her feet and tip-toed into the room. She thought about waking Chris but he looked just as peaceful as his children. Instead, she took a throw from Ruby’s bed and did her best to cover her three boys in the armchair. She picked up a couple of stray toys and books from the floor and quietly put them away.

            She paused at the door, taking a long look at her sleeping family. Her eyes landed on Chris and she smiled. She could tell him about number five later.

 

The End