Barba opened one eye and immediately closed it again, unable to bite back his groan. He felt someone stirring against his arm, and a nervous flutter added to the roiling nausea in his stomach. His head was pounding, and it felt as though someone had lined his mouth with cotton.
“Raf?” a voice croaked beside him—just one syllable, and he knew it was all she could manage. His name, said with a mixture of pain and confusion.
Oh, Jesus, he thought, forcing his eyes open. His heart was now thudding erratically in his chest, which only made the hammering in his head worse. He glanced blearily, between squinted eyelids, at the unfamiliar room. What the hell did you do?
He struggled to swallow as he carefully turned his head to look at Benson. She was wearing his shirt from the previous evening, and all the air seemed to leave his lungs. She had mascara smeared below her eyes, and her hair was a tangled mess about her face. She was pale beneath what remained of her makeup, and Barba knew that she felt as terribly as he did.
A hangover was the least of his worries, though.
“Where are we?” she asked, barely audible. “What…” She glanced down at herself and let out a breath.
Barba was wearing his undershirt but knew he was naked from the waist down. He was pretty sure she was, too, as he could feel her bare leg against his beneath the blankets. “Christ,” he heard himself mutter.
She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “Let’s try not to panic,” she said. Her voice was strained.
“We—” He stopped and cleared his throat. “We did—” He couldn’t bring himself to say it, though. He could only remember bits and pieces, and he could feel the blood rushing to his face.
“Yes,” she said. “It gets worse.”
“Worse?” he asked. He had no idea how to process the word. There were too many thoughts and feelings at war within him, and he could feel himself reeling.
She opened her eyes, looking at him, as she held up her left hand. “Is this yours?” she asked, as his gaze slid to her ring finger.
“My abuela’s ring,” he answered quietly, his stomach squirming—not entirely unpleasantly, now, in spite of the nausea—at the sight of it on her finger.
“Why’d you bring your grandmother’s ring to Vegas?” she asked, as their eyes met again.
“My mother gave it to me yesterday. I forgot to take it out of my briefcase,” he answered.
“Well, here,” she said, moving her other hand to slip the ring off her finger.
“Wait,” he said without thinking, and her gaze slid back to his. “Just…I mean…let’s just take a…minute, and figure out what…” He swallowed again, wincing. “I need a drink.”
“That’s what got us here.”
He smiled. “I mean water. And a pot of coffee.”
She shifted her leg away from his and he felt a stab of disappointment. “One of us is going to have to get up first,” she said.
“I think you’re…more decent than I am,” he muttered. “If you go, I won’t look.”
She managed to arch an eyebrow, though it looked exhausting. “I think we’re past that, aren’t we?” she asked, and disjointed images from the night before flashed through his mind. He felt an alarming tightening in his groin and cursed himself, willing his body under control.
“I’d like to state for the record, that was not my best performance,” he said.
She was surprised into a laugh that she immediately regretted. She groaned, putting a shaky hand over her eyes. “I don’t remember enough to judge,” she said.
“Thank God,” he muttered.
“No, wait, it’s coming back,” she said. “No wonder I’m all sticky.”
He laughed—a real laugh, in spite of his physical pain and emotional turmoil and the heat of embarrassment staining his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he said, still laughing.
Lowering her hand to look at him, she reached over and patted him on the arm. “Don’t worry, you got the job done, Barba,” she said, and he laughed again, his cheeks flaming hotter than ever. “Eventually,” she added, suddenly grinning. “As I recall, you were very…determined.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, his laugh turning into a groan, and he mumbled, “Kill me now, Liv.” When he opened his eyes, he found her searching his face, and when their gazes locked, his breath caught and his heart stumbled in his chest. He felt a sudden and powerful flush of desire. He could remember the silky smoothness of her skin against his palms, could remember the sting of his scalp as she fisted her hands in his hair, could remember the sounds she’d made and the way she’d said his name. He could remember the way she tasted—all of her.
For him, nothing would ever be the same.
He wanted to kiss her, before the harsh light of reality could completely break through the fog of their hangovers, but he was afraid that he would soon see regret—or something worse—settle into her expression.
“How did we let this happen?” she murmured, studying him in the early morning light.
It wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t want it to, he thought, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. “I remember…shots? Were we doing shots of Patrón?” he asked, trying to think. “At the conference? And…”
“I think we went to a bar,” she said. “Afterwards.”
“It’s all a little…fuzzy.”
“Where the hell are we, Rafael?” she asked. “This isn’t our hotel.”
“I think we couldn’t remember where we were staying,” he said. He glanced around. “It doesn’t look like a place that rents by the hour, at least,” he added.
“Bite your tongue,” she laughed, and he stared at her, struck breathless—again—by her beauty. After a moment, she sighed. “I don’t know what time it is, but we need to figure this out before we have to be to the airport. I’ll get up and find your pants.”
When she started to move away, he reached out, impulsively, touching his fingers to her sleeve. “Wait, I—” He stopped when she looked at him. He swallowed, his heart slamming in his chest. “Can I—Can we just—” pretend for a few minutes? He gathered his courage and shifted closer on the pillows, searching her eyes for permission. His fingers were light on her arm, but she didn’t pull away.
He leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers, and her eyes closed as she drew a breath through her nose. Her hand went to the front of his shirt, and he knew she could feel the pounding of his heart. He hoped that she could feel the love that powered every thud—a love that he couldn’t voice, not now; things were too complicated, and he needed to gather his thoughts and let her gather hers.
He pulled back, looking at her, and her eyes opened.
“I need to find my phone,” she said. He nodded and started to shift away, but she put her hand around his head and pulled him back, kissing him again. She pressed her forehead against his for a moment, and said, as though she’d read his mind, “It’s complicated.”
It doesn’t have to be, he thought. He realized his hand had tightened on her arm, and he forced his fingers to relax. “I know,” he said.
He didn’t try to stop her when she rolled away, and he closed his eyes when she slipped from the bed in nothing but his half-buttoned shirt.
* * *
She stepped out of the bathroom in her dress from the night before—the dress she’d worn to the conference. Her hair was wet from the shower. She felt marginally better, though she wished fervently for some toothpaste, clean clothes, and something for both her nausea and headache.
She’d found her phone beneath the bed, and luckily there were no missed calls from home. Her battery was almost dead, however, and she didn’t have a charger. Their luggage was, presumably, in their rooms at their original hotel. All they had with them was Barba’s briefcase, which he’d had at the conference, and her purse.
He was standing at the table with the briefcase open before him when she emerged from the bathroom. He was still wearing his undershirt, but he’d put on his pants. He looked up as she walked out, and his gaze slid immediately to her left hand.
She was wearing the ring. She’d taken it off for the shower, setting it on top of the clean and folded towels so there was no risk of it falling into the sink or toilet or shower drain, and she’d tried to pretend that the tight feeling in her stomach, as she slipped the band off her finger, was nothing more than the churning of sour liquor. After her shower, she’d tried to tell herself that she was only sliding it back onto her finger for practical reasons—to keep it safe. It was too important to Barba for her to risk losing it by putting it in a pocket.
She almost had herself convinced; she just had to ignore the whispers in the back of her mind.
She saw him let out a breath when he spotted the ring on her finger. He seemed relieved, and that was understandable. It was his grandmother’s wedding ring, of course he’d want to keep track of it.
His gaze slid up to hers and she knew she should return the ring. He could put it back into his briefcase for safekeeping.
She held up his shirt and tossed it to him. As he caught it, he gestured toward a folder with his other hand.
“So, this is…” He cleared his throat. “Well, see for yourself,” he said. “I’ll take a quick shower. We have about three hours before we have to be at the airport.”
“Is that a marriage certificate?” she asked, eyeing the document from a distance.
“It is indeed,” he answered. “There’s also a ticket here from a jeweler’s, receipt for a limo rental—”
“Oh!” she said. “I think I remember a limo, now!”
He grimaced. “Yeah,” he answered, passing her on his way to the bathroom.
“Wait, you…made a file…?” she asked as she reached the table and looked down at the assortment of paperwork.
“Apparently. Check out the front, it’s not embarrassing in the slightest,” he added, disappearing into the other room and closing the door with a soft click.
She flipped the cover of the folder back to look. He’d written—on the folder itself, since he’d apparently lacked the motor skills to fit the words onto the tab—Our Wedding in Sharpie, dotting the i with a crooked heart.
Her heart skipped a beat at the sight, and she smiled in spite of herself.
She’d been trying to remember the wedding ceremony. She wasn’t even sure if she’d gotten married in her dress from the conference, the one she was currently wearing. She didn’t have any other clothing with her, and they clearly hadn’t gone back to the other hotel.
Now, at the sight of his uneven handwriting, an image swam into the forefront of her mind, an image of his face, green eyes shimmering with tears, as he said…
Of course I do.
She swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat.
Do you, Rafael Barba, take Olivia Benson to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?
Barba, with tears in his eyes, smiling: Of course I do.
She could remember how emotional she felt as she’d said her own I do, and how his face had blurred as her eyes filled with tears. She could remember the warm softness of his lips against hers, and how tenderly he’d pressed his hands to her face.
Benson swiped at the tears on her cheeks, staring down at their marriage certificate. She couldn’t remember much of the night, but she could remember how real and right it had felt, standing with Barba at the altar. She’d told him she loved him, and she’d meant it.
Of course she had. She’d been in love with him for years, she’d just never said it aloud. She was in love with him, and he was her best friend—the person whom she trusted above all others. And she was now married to him. Under any other circumstances, this should be one of the happiest days of her life.
Unfortunately, life was more complicated than that.
* * *
“I’ve got a spare deodorant in my purse. And gum. No toothpaste or…hairbrush or anything more useful, of course,” she said. “But if you don’t mind smelling like Lady Speed Stick…”
Barba smiled. “We’ll need all the help we can get. This suit already smells like sweat and alcohol and based on the sunlight trying to bore its way into my brain, it’s probably about five hundred degrees outside.” He didn’t mention that his shirt actually smelled like her. He was painfully aware of the fact that she’d slept in it, and he wasn’t sure he would ever wash it. He wasn’t going to say so aloud and make her uncomfortable, though.
“We need to check out of here, get something to eat if we want any hope of making it through the day—”
“And coffee,” he said. “Please may I have lots of coffee.”
She smiled as she finished: “—and we need to go to this chapel, the jeweler’s to see about this slip, back to our hotel to check out and get our stuff, then to the airport.”
“Hopefully one of those places has my credit card.”
“Your credit card is missing?”
“It’s not in my wallet. But I don’t remember—Do you remember going to a jeweler?”
“Why would we—You’re wearing the ring I already had.”
“Get it sized, maybe?”
“I don’t think so, there’s a ticket number to pick up an order, but it doesn’t say what it’s for.”
She scrubbed her hands over her face. “Guess we’ll find out. Maybe we got you a nice diamond ring.”
He laughed, but it sounded nervous. She lowered her hands to look at him. “We’ll figure it out. Let’s get our stuff and get out of here, we don’t have much time.”
* * *
“Morning, Mr. Benson,” the bored-looking man behind the counter said.
Barba, setting the room’s key card on the counter, hesitated. “Barba,” he said. “My, uh—She’s Benson,” he added, gesturing toward her.
The man stifled a yawn and picked up the card. “You were very explicit that you wanted to be called Mr. Benson,” he said. “You said you didn’t care what your credit card said, you just got married. I told you that’s not how it works, that usually the woman—if anyone,” he added, glancing at Benson with a no offense look on his face, “changes her name, but you said you’re a feminist icon, whatever that means. Gave me a business card.”
“A business card?” Barba repeated, despising the heat in his cheeks. It was apparently going to be a long and humiliating morning.
The man reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a card, sliding it across the counter. “You told me to keep it, said you could make more. I was gonna show my wife, she’ll get a kick out of it.”
Barba looked down at the card. He’d crossed out his last name and written BENSON above it, and he’d carefully printed FEMINIST and LIV’S HUSBAND in two lines beneath his credentials.
Beside him, Benson snorted, and Barba closed his eyes for a moment. His head was still throbbing, and he needed to get something in his stomach before it completely ate itself. What he didn’t need was to spend his morning being reminded of what a complete ass he’d made of himself the night before.
“Look,” he said, opening his eyes and meeting the other man’s gaze with effort. “I’m sorry if I was…obnoxious.”
“Obnoxious?” the man said, seeming surprised. “No, you were quite happy by the time you got here. You two couldn’t quit smiling at each other.”
Barba looked at Benson, and she raised her eyebrows, offering a small curve of her lips.
“I mean you had come straight from your wedding. Congratulations, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Barba said, pulling his gaze from Benson’s. “Did I give you a credit card, you said?”
“You did. You left it here,” the man said, pulling an envelope from beneath the counter.
“Thank God for that, at least,” Barba muttered.
“You also gave me a hundred dollar tip,” the man said. “For being…I think it was…the gatekeeper to your nuptial bliss.”
“Jesus Christ,” Barba said.
The man laughed. “Seeing as how you were a little inebriated, I thought it best to return it. It’s in the envelope.”
Barba pulled his credit card out and slid the envelope back. “Keep it,” he said.
“Thanks. Oh. I almost forgot, you left this here, too.” The man bent and lifted a bag from somewhere behind the counter. “Said it was for…Noah?”
“Noah?” Barba repeated, taking the bag with a glance at Benson. He handed it to her and she reached inside, pulling out an Elvis teddy bear.
“Sign here, please, Mr.—is it still Benson? Or back to Barba, this morning?” the man asked, sliding the room receipt onto the counter.
Barba cleared his throat and frowned, scribbling his name on the line. “Whatever,” he mumbled.
* * *
It was still early, and the heat of the day was already pressing down on Benson, adding to her nausea and headache and general sense of discomfort. She forced herself to choke down a breakfast burrito, even though she had to fight her gag reflex with each bite. She watched with a touch of envy as Barba made quicker work of his. He was already onto his second cup of iced coffee by the time she’d finished eating.
They hadn’t done much talking. Part of their reticence was due to their hangovers, but that wasn’t all of it. They didn’t have very long to piece together their journey from the night before. The repercussions of their actions would have to wait until after they’d boarded the plane back to NYC.
“Rafael Barba and iced coffee,” she said, as they sank into the back of a taxi with their cups.
He grimaced. “Evil necessity,” he muttered, glancing at her.
He looked pale, and his forehead was beaded with sweat.
She kept trying to wrap her aching head around how she could’ve gotten drunk enough to do something so impulsive and irresponsible. She had a kid at home. Plus, they had careers to worry about, and she and Barba had never stepped outside the boundaries of friendship before last night. And now they were married. So far as she could remember, their first kiss had been at the end of the wedding ceremony.
She thought there’d been quite a bit of kissing—and laughing—in the limo.
And then the motel…
She remembered how he’d seemed almost afraid to touch her at first, when they’d gotten into the room, how he’d fumbled—how endearingly sweet he’d been. She’d tried to encourage him and had been surprised by how eagerly his body had reacted to her touch. Too eagerly, as it turned out. He’d been embarrassed, but the alcohol had tempered it. She knew he must be feeling a lot more this morning, and wished she could reassure him. He’d done nothing to be embarrassed about.
She felt a blush darkening her cheeks as she remembered how absolutely dedicated he’d been to satisfying her needs. She could still feel the sting of his stubble on her inner thighs.
I’ll be better next time, Liv, he’d murmured against her neck when they were lying in a tangle of limbs and sheets.
Next time, she thought, with a stab of longing so powerful it stole her breath.
She reached out a hand and touched her fingers to the gray stubble on his jaw. He was surprised, and then for a moment—just a moment—he seemed to lean into her touch. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you go this long without shaving,” she said, quietly.
The ghost of a smile tipped his lips, and he said, “It’s my Vegas look.”
“I like it,” she answered, drawing her hand back reluctantly.
He regarded her in silence for a few seconds. “I like the I combed my hair with my fingers look you’ve got going on,” he finally answered.
She laughed, rolling her eyes. “We should take a picture to commemorate,” she said.
“I think we did. I seem to recall quite a few…selfies,” he said, with a clear disdain for the last word.
Her eyes widened. “Oh God, you’re right,” she said. “I didn’t even look, and my phone’s almost dead, I’m trying to save my battery.”
“Mine, too,” he answered. “My charger’s not in my briefcase, must’ve left it in the hotel.”
“We didn’t get much mileage out of those rooms,” she said with another laugh. “Glad we didn’t pay for them ourselves. I’ll split the cost of…the other one with you.”
“We got more—” He stopped, grimacing, and sipped his coffee.
“We got more mileage out of that one?” she asked, suddenly grinning. “Is that what you were going to say?”
He cleared his throat. “Of course not, Liv. I’m a feminist, remember?” he said, and she tipped her head back against the seat, laughing. She could feel his eyes on her, and when she turned her face to look at him, his lips were curved into a smile.
“I should’ve kept that business card,” she told him quietly.
“Apparently, I can make more,” he reminded her.
“Yeah,” she answered, sobering as she pictured him—bent over the counter, face flushed with liquor, brow furrowed in concentration, tongue trapped between his teeth—as he’d written out the words: LIV’S HUSBAND.
“Liv,” he said, but he didn’t finish whatever he’d been about to say. The cab pulled up in front of the wedding chapel, and she and Barba both looked out the window.
That’s where I got married, she thought. She was glad the place at least looked familiar. She was also glad to get out of the taxi. Her breakfast burrito was trying to climb up her throat, and the motion of the car hadn’t been helping.
They crawled out into the heat, both checking the backseat to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. They had their coffee. She had her purse and the bear for Noah. Barba had his briefcase.
They met on the sidewalk as the car pulled away, and they surveyed the place in silence for a few moments. It was pretty, with a garden arbor off the side for wedding portraits. We had pictures taken there, she thought. And…I don’t think I was wearing this. I think I was wearing a wedding dress. What the hell went on last night?
“This should be fun,” Barba said, and she snorted, looking over at him. He offered an encouraging smile. “Come on,” he added, bumping his arm against hers, lightly. “Let’s go see how many ways I made a fool of myself.”
* * *
“I wondered if I’d see you folks back here this morning.”
“You saw us last night, then?” Benson asked the older man at the counter.
“I got called in, yes. I own the place. My night crew was a little…unsure how to handle the situation.”
“Situation?” Barba said.
“Well, you were both pretty drunk.”
“We were obviously too drunk—don’t you have rules about—” Benson started.
“Your, uh, husband here threatened to sue us if we didn’t perform the ceremony.”
Benson took a moment to steady herself after that word—husband—sent her stomach into a flurry. “I’m sure you’re threatened by intoxicated people all the time,” she said, glad that her voice sounded relatively steady.
“Yeah. Most aren’t New York City district attorneys,” the man said.
Barba closed his eyes. “I didn’t—”
“Show us your credentials? Repeatedly.”
“Okay,” Benson said, holding up a hand. “Let’s just…work through this, alright? We came in, they didn’t want us to get married, they called you in. We’re sorry for the hassle, okay? We just need you to run us through the night, if you wouldn’t mind. What was the…process?”
“Process?” The man paused, regarding them. “Okay. After lawyer boy here spouted off a bunch of legal threats—which, by the way, most weren’t even real words—I gave you the book to pick out what package you wanted.”
“Wait, I remember Elvis,” she said, suddenly. “Oh my—We didn’t get married by Elvis, did we?”
“You wanted to. I told you that he wasn’t here, usually without a reservation there’s an extra fee for him to come in on short notice. Mr. Barba said, and I quote, ‘if Lieutenant Olivia wants Elvis, she’ll have Elvis.’ So we called Chris in, but when he got here, this guy flipped out because he wasn’t ‘the real Elvis,’ calling him an imposter and a fraud and creepy. So Elvis left.”
Barba sighed softly. “Sorry, Liv,” he said.
She uttered a surprised laugh, looking at the chagrin on his face. “I think I’m over the disappointment of not having an Elvis impersonator officiate my marriage,” she said.
“I know, but it was our first wedding—” He broke off, and she saw his expression tighten as he swallowed. “I mean, your first and my first, not—”
She put a hand on his arm. “Honey, relax,” she said, without thinking about her words—wanting only to comfort him. “It was a nice ceremony.”
“She wasn’t nearly as upset about it as you were,” the man volunteered.
“I’m assuming you charged us the fee for having him come in, yes?” she asked. When the man nodded, she said, “Great, so let’s move past it. I remember a wedding dress. Did I get that here, or…?”
“We have dresses and tuxes, yes,” he said. “You can see for yourself, your pictures are ready. You also purchased two copies of the video. Actually, Mr. Barba wanted to buy one hundred, but you talked him down to two. Well, not talked down so much as he said a hundred, you said two, he said okay. That’s mostly how the night went, to be honest.”
“We don’t have much time, here,” Barba said. “Could we just keep this moving along?”
“You picked a song—”
“‘Almost Paradise,’” Barba said as he remembered.
“Yeah, you asked if she’d call you Ren. Whatever that means? She said no but you pouted so she gave in and said just once.”
“It’s a Footloose—Nevermind,” Barba said.
“I’m sure you weren’t pouting,” Benson said, rubbing his arm.
“I’m sure I was,” Barba answered, shooting her a quick smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Looking back at the man, “So, we chose ‘Almost Paradise,’ I assume the whole actual ceremony is on the DVD?”
“Great. Okay, so did we already pay for that, or…?”
“We have your credit card on file, yes, although I thought it prudent to wait and see if you actually showed up for the stuff before charging the full price.”
“Very considerate of you,” Benson said. “Do you have a bathroom I can use?”
Barba looked at her. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I—yeah,” she said. “Sorry, I’ll be right back.”
“Down the hall on the left,” the man told her, pointing.
Benson went around the corner, down the hall, and slipped into the bathroom. She walked to the sink and looked at herself in the mirror, letting out a shaky breath. She swallowed a few times, trying to convince her stomach to hold itself together.
She looked terrible, with bags beneath her eyes and tangles in her hair. Her face was pale except a flush in her cheeks from the heat. Her dress was a wrinkled mess. She felt terrible, too—but it wasn’t just the nausea. Being in this place was bringing an onslaught of memories. Mostly they were hitting her in disjointed flashes—a young woman helping her into a wedding dress, posing for pictures, signing paperwork—but there were longer bits, now.
She could remember walking down the short aisle while ‘Almost Paradise’ was pumped through overhead speakers, could remember meeting Barba’s eyes as they were both struck by the lyrics at the beginning of the song. She could remember feeling remarkably sober in that moment, as the import of what they were doing hit her.
She could remember thinking this is crazy, what are we doing?
And then Barba reaching for her hand as she neared him. The tears in his eyes as he told her she was beautiful, and then…
I love you, Liv, but are you sure we should…
She’d laid her palm against his cheek, overwhelmed with love for him. I love you, too, she’d said. I’m sure.
She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, unable to catch her breath.
She could remember him buying the Elvis bear, telling the young woman that it was “for my new son.”
Even drunk—so drunk that she could still remember only a fraction of the night—they’d realized the impact of what they were doing. They’d considered the consequences and they’d dismissed them. They’d made the decision together. Barba had even given her an opportunity to back out, and she’d reassured him, instead.
Barba was blaming himself for all of it. She knew him well enough to know that the guilt was eating him up, and she realized that she’d been so wrapped up in her own embarrassment that she’d done little to relieve his worry. She had to make sure he knew that, no matter what they decided to do moving forward, they were in this together.
* * *
“Unfortunately we see a lot of this.”
“Regret is…not a word I’d use,” Barba said in a subdued voice, and Benson hesitated in the hallway.
“No? How about her?”
Barba didn’t answer.
“I mean, you know she could do better.”
“Obviously,” Barba said, and Benson rounded the corner, unable to stand Barba being insulted when he was already feeling so poorly.
“Still, I was rooting for you,” the man was saying as Benson turned into sight.
Barba looked over at her, and he seemed so miserable that it nearly broke her heart. Nevertheless, he offered her a small smile. She went to stand beside him, putting her hand on his back. “Okay?” he asked, searching her face.
She nodded, rubbing his back.
“So, annulments aren’t as easy as people think,” the chapel owner was saying. “Being drunk and impulsive isn’t actually a legal reason. Your best bet would be to say he…tricked you into it, lied somehow—”
“Why do you assume I didn’t trick him into it?” she asked. “You know nothing about us except what you saw last night. This man, Rafael Barba, is the best man you’ll ever meet, and anyone would be lucky to marry him. This is…clearly not our proudest morning, but we’re dealing with it, alright? Together. So let’s lay off a little bit. If we could just get our stuff, whatever we paid for—or are paying for, we’ll get out of your hair, we have more errands to run and we’re short on time.”
“Very well, let me just grab your packet and get you a receipt to sign.”
“Thank you,” Benson said. When the man left to fetch their items, Barba turned and, putting an arm around her shoulders, kissed her temple. She rubbed his back again, leaning against his side for a few seconds. “No matter what we decide to do, I won’t ever regret being with you, Raf,” she said, quietly. His arm tightened around her for a moment, and then he released her as the man returned with a large envelope.
* * *
The man pointed them in the direction of the jeweler’s, and because it wasn’t far, they decided to walk there. Barba regretted the decision as soon as they started out. He had his suit jacket in his briefcase, which for some reason made the briefcase feel like it weighed around fifty pounds. He was pretty sure Benson’s purse had gained mysterious weight, too, because she kept shifting it on her shoulder. She’d put the packet from the wedding into the bag with Noah’s bear, and as they walked toward the jewelry shop, with the sun beating down on them and their shoes dragging along the cracked sidewalk, he reached out to take it from her.
They’d thrown their empty coffee cups in the trash at the chapel, and Barba found himself fervently wishing they’d bought bottles of water. He could feel the sweat running down his back, and he felt so sticky and gross that he wondered if there’d been any point to taking a shower.
“At least we’re sweating out any alcohol left in our bodies,” she said.
“I might actually be sweating blood,” he answered, and she laughed beside him. “And I don’t think that store’s getting any closer. Are we walking backwards?”
She bumped her arm against his and said, “Do you want me to carry you?”
Laughing again, she said, “We’re almost there. Then we can get a ride back to the hotel, change out of these awful clothes—”
“I’ll burn this suit.”
“—and check out, get our asses to the airport…wander through the loud and crowded terminal…and then cram ourselves into a hot, crowded airplane for five hours…”
“I’m just gonna lie down over here,” Barba said, veering toward the empty lot they were passing.
Benson grabbed his arm. “Oh, no you don’t,” she told him. “Look, we’re almost there,” she repeated.
“Have we been here before?” he asked, frowning at the jeweler’s store as they approached.
“Apparently,” she answered.
“Doesn’t look familiar.”
“Neither did our motel room, and we spent all night there,” she said.
He glanced at her. “I wasn’t looking at the room,” he muttered.
“I remember that,” she answered. “In fact, all the most…uh…intimate moments—at the wedding, and…after…I can remember. It’s the bits in between that are still fuzzy.”
“The boring parts,” he said.
She grinned at him. “Right. I remember the parts that weren’t boring.”
He felt an unexpected rush of desire when she winked at him. “I’m flattered,” he managed.
“Don’t sell yourself short. You worked hard to make me happy last night.” He felt himself blushing under the flush of desert heat in his cheeks. “And I don’t just mean…you know. I mean at the chapel. All you cared about was if I was happy.”
“That’s all I ever care about,” he admitted before he could stop himself.
“I know,” she said, softly, looking at him. “It’s just that…we’ve never even…” She trailed off. She supposed there were a lot of ways to end the sentence, but she’d been about to say dated. But every morning coffee, every evening drink, every quick lunch, every late night work dinner—all of these things could technically be considered dates, if they’d ever decided to acknowledge them as such.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” he murmured. “Maybe we just—well, I, at least, tried for so long to pretend like I wasn’t—”
“I feel the same way you do,” she interrupted quietly, needing to reassure him. “I do, I have, it’s just that…this is—”
“Complicated,” he cut in. “I know. I’m not…I don’t want you to think I—or I don’t want you to worry that I—”
“Rafael, I’m not worried about—Look, you’re right, we ignored…things, for too long, and I guess last night we reached our breaking point. You put your hand on the small of my back and, God, I couldn’t—”
“Wait, at the conference?” he asked, stopping. He turned to face her on the sidewalk. And then he remembered. He swallowed. “Oh. Yeah,” he breathed, staring at her. They’d been standing side by side, talking to a couple of Nevada state police officers, and he’d put his hand on her back. He hadn’t even thought about it, at first; they touched each other all the time.
Then she’d shifted, and his hand had slid down—just an inch or two—and he’d felt the subtle line of her panties, and he’d been hit by a sudden flash of desire that had completely stunned him. Wanting her was not a surprise, and was certainly nothing new. But to be struck so suddenly, and so powerfully, at such an innocent touch, surrounded by people…
She’d looked at him, and they’d each seen their shine of desire mirrored in the other’s eyes.
And they’d started drinking, hoping to dull the feelings.
“Yeah,” she agreed quietly, offering him a smile. “The liquor didn’t help. Or at least not how we meant it to. Come on, let’s get in here and get this over with. I need to get out of the sun.”
“I hope I bought myself a diamond-encrusted pinkie ring,” he said, and she was still laughing when they stepped into the mercifully air-conditioned jewelry store. They walked up to the counter, and the woman looked them over, noting their wrinkled clothes and messy hair and pale faces.
“Morning,” she said. She was probably used to seeing couples crawling in in similar conditions. “What can I do for you folks?”
“Did you, uh, see us last night, by any chance?” Barba asked.
“I wasn’t here last night, I came on a couple hours ago,” she said. “Something wrong?”
“Oh, no, no, just wondering,” he said, setting his briefcase on the counter and opening it to pull out the ticket. He slid it across the counter. “We have this slip,” he said.
“Ah, very good,” she replied, turning toward the computer beside her. She typed in the ticket number. She glanced up. “Mr. Benson?”
“Sure,” he said, with a gesture of his hand.
“Looks like Larry did a custom engraving for you.” She bent and looked under the counter, searching for the ticket number, and straightened with a white box. She opened it and pulled out a black ring box, setting it on the counter. “If you’d like to check and make sure everything’s correct, then I can print you up a receipt—”
“You know what, just go ahead and give me whatever I need to sign,” he said. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He didn’t even want to imagine the expenses he’d racked up. He was surprised his credit card company hadn’t already called to check in with him.
“At least try it on, make sure it’s sized correctly,” the woman said, seeming to confirm the ring was for him.
He opened the box, feeling inexplicably nervous. It was a simple band, and it complemented the ring on Benson’s finger. He picked it up. He didn’t mean to tip it up to read the inscription on the inner curve, but his eyes found the words of their own volition.
For Rafa, my best friend, my husband. Love always, Liv.
He managed to keep his expression composed, but it felt like his heart was going to burst from his chest. So, the inscription hadn’t been his idea—and if they charged by the letter, it was going to be expensive.
He slipped the ring onto his finger. “It fits fine,” he said. He pointed at the ticket on the counter. “Can I keep this?”
“Sure,” the woman said with barely a glance at the slip. She was typing into her computer again, and in a few moments she was printing a receipt for him to sign. Barba put the claim ticket and the empty ring box into his briefcase. He could feel Benson watching him, but he didn’t look at her. When the cashier slid the paper onto the counter, he signed it, doing his best not to dwell on the dollar amounts listed.
“Could you do us a favor and call a cab? Both our phones are dead and we need to get back to our hotel,” he said.
“Of course. Feel free to wait in here, if you’d like. You look a little…warm.”
“Thanks,” he answered, taking the receipt she gave him and adding it to the collection in his case.
* * *
Benson hadn’t asked what the inscription said, because he clearly hadn’t been eager to volunteer the information. She had seen the bill that he’d signed, however, and she was going to pay him back for half, at the very least, whether he liked it or not.
She also hadn’t commented on the fact that he was wearing the ring.
They were both wearing their rings.
They didn’t say much of anything during the ride to the hotel. When they got out, she paid the cab driver before Barba could fork over any more money, and they walked into their hotel—their original hotel, where they had side by side rooms that they hadn’t paid for from their own pockets, the hotel where their luggage and chargers were, the hotel that they’d forgotten the name of when they were drunk.
“This looks more familiar,” she said, shooting him a smile. “Guess what?”
“Yeah, I know. Key cards,” he said, pulling out his wallet as they stepped into the elevator. “It’s almost like we didn’t actually want to find our way back here,” he added, grinning at her.
She pulled her key card from her purse and held it up. “Look, there it is. Name and address.” She laughed, shaking her head. “Well, I liked the other place, anyway.”
“That’s my favorite place,” he said, smirking at her.
She laughed again. “I think you’re starting to feel better,” she remarked as the elevator doors closed. They were the only two in the car. “All it takes to make you happy is a little air-conditioning, huh?”
He shifted the plastic bag into the same hand as his briefcase and turned toward her, cupping his palm to her cheek as he covered her lips with his. She was surprised, but her mouth opened to him without hesitation. She leaned into him, holding onto the front of his sweaty shirt as the elevator lurched to a stop. After a moment, the doors slid open, and he pulled back, searching her face.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“We have an hour before we have to check out,” he said, without taking his eyes from hers.
She suddenly realized that people were waiting to enter the elevator, and she grabbed Barba’s hand, pulling him out into the hallway and toward their rooms. She unlocked her door and tugged him inside without a word. She walked over and set down her purse before turning and stripping her dress off.
His eyes slid down the length of her body, and he swallowed, dragging his gaze back up to hers. He dropped the bag and briefcase and crossed the floor in three strides, kissing her as she fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. She’d only gotten two undone before he drew back far enough to pull the shirt up over his head and toss it aside.
“I’m sweaty and—”
“So’m I,” she said. “I don’t care.” She unfastened the button of his trousers and carefully lowered his zipper over his growing arousal. She met his eyes again. She didn’t care that her head was still thudding dully, or that her stomach was still a bit queasy, or that they’d only had mint gum to chew in lieu of brushing their teeth. She didn’t care that they’d been sweating inside of yesterday’s clothes for two hours.
She unhooked her bra and slipped it off; the air felt cool against her sweaty skin, and she shivered as his eyes once more skated her body. He shoved his pants and underwear to the floor, kicking them aside, and then she was backing toward the bed, pulling him with her. She sank down onto the bedspread and he tucked his fingers into the elastic of her panties, easing them over her thighs and down her legs.
He saw the pink abrasions on her inner thighs, and he lightly touched the pad of a thumb to the rash, raising his eyes to hers.
“I told you, you worked hard,” she murmured, smiling.
“Does it burn?” he asked, and she could see his concern.
“I’m not complaining,” she answered. She held up a hand, gesturing for him, but he hesitated.
“I can shave,” he said.
“Your face won’t be there this time,” she said, levering herself up so she could grab the back of his neck.
“No?” he asked, smirking as she pulled his mouth down to hers.
“No,” she said, kissing the smirk from his lips.
He took hold of her hips and shifted her up the bed, and then his hands were running lightly over her body. She was reminded of his touches from the night before, how he’d traced his palms across every inch of her skin, his caresses filled with reverence and wonder.
His hands were more confident this time, but no less reverent. Her skin tingled beneath his hot touches, and she gasped when his thumb skated a circle over her nipple. His movements were unhurried. He kissed her, claiming all of her mouth, as he slid a hand between her legs. She shifted against his fingers, closing her eyes.
Their bodies were still overheated, their sweaty skin sticking together at each point of contact, and she ran her hands over his shoulders and back, feeling his heat burning into her fingertips.
He slipped a finger inside of her, and she arched her back, turning her face from his kiss to draw a ragged breath. She reached between their bodies to curve her hand around his erection, and she watched his eyes close. They reopened in an instant, however, and their gazes locked.
“Together, this time,” she breathed.
His lips curved into a smile. “Yes,” he said. “I told you I’d be better the next time.”
“Oh, you remember that?” she laughed. She kept her fist loosely around his arousal, guiding him into place as he shifted over her.
He kissed her again as he entered her, and he kept kissing her as his hips fell into a slow rhythm. Her head was spinning from lack of air, and she could barely move beneath him; their stomachs and thighs seemed to be melded together. She held onto him, and she could already feel herself climbing toward climax.
He broke away from her mouth, lifting his head to look at her. She wanted to wait for him, but before she could say anything, he’d managed to slip a hand between them. She gasped in surprise, arching against him, as his fingers started a slow massage.
“Raf—” she said, clutching at his shoulders as she tightened around him. He was still moving slowly, his hips and his fingers, and she shuddered against him as she came. She cried out quietly, trying to bite the sound back, and he covered her mouth with his.
His hips stilled, and he drew his hand from between their bodies, giving her a few moments to relax into the bed. He lifted his head to look at her. He flexed his hips once, watching her expression.
“I need you to know that I love you, Liv,” he said.
“I do know,” she answered. Before she could say anything else, he started moving again, the motion of his hips robbing her of her ability to speak. He pressed a palm to her cheek, placing a quick kiss on her lips. He studied her face as he picked up his tempo, and she found herself meeting him thrust for thrust. The pressure was already building within her again.
She wrapped a leg around his thighs, arching up to meet him. He was moving faster, pumping his hips against her, and she knew he was close. His fingers found their way between her legs again, and her second orgasm rocked through her. He dropped his face into the crook of her shoulder as he came inside her, his hips jerking and then stilling.
His breaths were ragged against her throat, and she slid her fingers into his hair, stroking his scalp, holding his sweaty body against hers. She wanted to curl up beside him and sleep. She wanted to spend the day in his arms, making love with the air conditioning off so their bodies continued to fuse together.
But they had to get cleaned up, dressed, checked out, and to the airport. They had responsibilities waiting for them.
He shifted, slipping carefully from her body, kissing her shoulder as he withdrew. He raised his head and kissed her lips. “I love you,” he repeated.
She couldn’t speak around the lump in her throat, so she pulled his head down for another kiss.
* * *
They grabbed a quick lunch of cold sandwiches and ice water in the airport, and charged their phones while waiting for their flight. They sat mostly in silence, with their legs and arms and hands touching, neither wanting to acknowledge aloud how it felt like they were waking from a dream into the real world.
They went down the gangway hand-in-hand and boarded the plane together. She was supposed to have the middle seat, but he knew that she hated feeling boxed in, so he gave her the aisle seat and folded himself in beside the elderly woman at the window. As soon as Benson was seated, she laid her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Even though it was still early afternoon, she felt as though she hadn’t slept in days.
She woke when the plane started taxiing.
Once they were in the air, Barba pulled his briefcase from beneath the seat and pulled out their packet of wedding portraits. “Want to look at these, now?” he asked, and she nodded.
“I forgot, we have to look at the ones on my phone, too,” she said, leaning against his arm as he slid the photos from the envelope.
He let out a breath. “God, you’re beautiful,” he murmured. “Look at you.”
She smiled. “I’m looking at you,” she countered.
“We look happy.”
“We were happy,” she said, quietly, leaning her cheek against his shoulder. She held up her phone, and they scrolled through the photos they’d taken of themselves. They could track the progression of their inebriation by their faces. They’d also documented the whole evening, taking pictures at the bar, at the chapel, at the jewelry store, in the limo, in the motel. She was relieved to find that they hadn’t taken any indecent selfies.
“Should we take one now?” he asked, kissing the top of her head. “Our journey home?”
She hit the camera button and watched their faces appear on the screen. They didn’t look happy anymore, but she watched him curve his lips into a smile for the picture. She wanted to reassure him that this wasn’t the end, but she couldn’t help but feel like something was ending. She knew it was her fault. She was overthinking, second-guessing. She couldn’t help it, though. She’d done something impulsive, and she didn’t regret it.
She wasn’t sure how to reconcile such impulsivity with her “real life,” however. She had a son. A career. And a long history of commitment issues.
“Can we have dinner tomorrow night and…talk?” Barba asked quietly. “After we’ve had time to think…”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’ll meet you after work tomorrow.” She tucked her phone into the pocket on the back of the seat in front of her and closed her eyes.
She slept for most of the flight, with her head on his shoulder and his arm around her, waking only when the attendants came through with food and beverage carts.
* * *
Benson started to open her apartment door, and remembered her ring at the last second. She slipped it from her finger with a pang of regret, sliding it into her pocket as she heard Noah’s feet hurrying toward the door.
She stepped inside and dropped into a crouch, grabbing him into a hug as he came to greet her. “Oh, I missed you,” she said, kissing his head. It had only been two days, but it felt like a lifetime. So much had happened; so much had changed.
“Missed you, too!” he exclaimed. “Did you bring me a present?”
“I did,” she said, pushing to her feet. “Help me get my bag into the bedroom, would you? Careful, it’s heavy.”
“I can do it,” he said, pulling the suitcase toward her room.
Benson was exhausted, and it was already past Noah’s bedtime, so she was glad that Lucy had him in his pajamas. Once the babysitter left, Benson tucked her son into his bed and pulled out the Elvis bear.
“This is Elvis. He’s from…Uncle Rafa and me,” she told him.
“Thank you,” he said, hugging the bear.
She read him a story and kissed him goodnight before leaving him with Elvis.
She went into her room and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt. She slipped Barba’s ring back onto her finger and stood looking at it for a few moments. She got the wedding DVD from her bag and inserted the disc into the player on her way through the living room. She went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine before returning to the living room. She sank onto the couch and set her wine on the end table, picking up the remote.
There was a menu on the screen, with a picture of her and Barba. It had their names in fancy script, and the date, and the menu options were play video and photo gallery.
She selected play video and was surprised to see that the video was in split screen. On the left side, the camera was focused on Barba; on the right, her at the end of the aisle. It was high quality video, and looked far more professional than she would’ve imagined.
‘Almost Paradise’ started, and she saw herself beginning her walk down the aisle. She hit pause and grabbed her glass of wine, taking a quick swallow. Her phone buzzed on the coffee table, and she saw Barba’s name. She picked the phone up and read his text.
Can I call?
Rather than answer him, she dialed his number. He answered on the first ring. “Hey,” he said in a low voice that sent a shiver through her.
“Hey,” she answered.
“I wasn’t sure if Noah would be asleep.”
“He is,” she said, sipping her wine.
“Did you watch?”
“I just put it in.”
“Me, too,” he said. “You at the menu?”
“I paused it as soon as the music started,” she said. “Let’s synchronize. Hit play and I’ll start mine.”
“Okay,” he said. As soon as she heard the song start on his end of the call, she restarted her own video.
She watched his face on the screen as Mike Reno’s voice started:
I thought that dreams belonged to other men
'Cause each time I got close they'd fall apart again
She could see the emotion in Barba’s eyes as he watched her walking toward him. He was feeling those lyrics, and she had no doubt that he loved her, that he wanted to marry her.
When Ann Wilson started singing, Benson’s attention shifted to her own face, automatically.
I feared my heart would beat in secrecy
I faced the nights alone
She could remember how she’d felt in that moment, looking at him, walking toward him, but it was different actually seeing herself. There was no mistaking the look on her face, no mistaking the love glistening in her eyes.
Oh how could I have known
That all my life I only needed you?
She was just reaching him as the music began its build into the first chorus, and she hit pause again, impulsively.
She heard nothing but silence, and she realized that he’d stopped his video, as well. For several seconds, neither of them said anything. She wanted desperately to be able to touch him, even if it was just to take his hand. She wanted to watch the video with him, not just in tandem.
It was late, and they’d had a long, exhausting day. He was undoubtedly settled in for the night. She couldn’t go to him, and she couldn’t ask him to come to her, as much as she wanted to.
“Liv,” he said.
“Yeah,” she answered, closing her eyes.
“Can I…come over?”
“Yes,” she said quickly. She didn’t care if she sounded desperate; she was desperate. It didn’t matter that it had only been a couple of hours since she’d seen him.
“Half an hour,” he said.
“Okay,” she answered.
* * *
His knock was light; she might not have heard it if she hadn’t been eagerly anticipating his arrival. She opened the door and stepped aside to let him in. He smiled, but he seemed nervous. She closed and locked the door, then turned and moved toward him. He opened his arms without a word, and she stepped into his embrace, breathing in his familiar and comforting scent.
“I missed you,” she heard herself admit. “I didn’t want to say goodbye…”
“Liv,” he said, his lips brushing her temple, “I know this wasn’t…ideal. I know it’s complicated, but I want to spend my life with you. I’ve always wanted that.” He drew back to look at her face, and she knew why he was nervous. She could see the question in his eyes before he gave it voice, and her heart had already begun to slam in her chest. He sank down to one knee in front of her, and she couldn’t breathe; she could barely see through the tears in her eyes. “Olivia, will you please stay married to me?” he asked.
She knew there were a million things to consider, but she answered without hesitation. “Yes,” she said. She knew there was no way she could go back to the way things had been before, no way she could go back to denying her feelings.
“Yes?” he repeated, raising his eyebrows, and she laughed.
“Get up, I thought you were a feminist. You know the kneeling is arcane and—”
He rose and cut her off with a kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck as he claimed her mouth, but he pulled back after just a few seconds. “I know it’s complicated,” he repeated. “I don’t expect things—”
“It’s not that complicated,” she said. “Nothing we can’t figure out.”
He searched her eyes. “Together,” he said.
She nodded. “Together,” she agreed. “Always. I love you,” she said. “But…there’s something I need to know. What’s the inscription in your ring?” She watched his face split into a grin.