"I tell you, Eleanor, I've never felt this free."
Sheri did one more twirl in her first-ever own living room and looked expectantly at her best friend. Eleanor had one eyebrow raised, her body language screaming how not impressed she was with everything.
"So, you're telling me," she said. "That first you caught Brandon cheating, then on your way home you met a guy, you had a whirlwind romance that would have ended in a whirlwind marriage had your parents not gone all crazy about children, and now you live... here?"
"It's Brooklyn, not a swamp," Sheri defended. "This is where life happens, Eleanor. Everything in Manhattan is big and sparkly and oppressive."
Eleanor sighed. "Okay, fine. I get that you wanted to move out of your mom's. You're almost thirty, after all."
"So they tell me," Sheri mumbled.
"So, what's the plan?" Eleanor sat down on Sheri's couch, bouncing a little to test it. "Nice couch. Do you have a job lined up yet?"
Sheri shrugged. "Not yet. I figure I'll find something when I start looking, you know? I know there's a job out there to inspire me and bring the best out in me."
"More importantly," Eleanor continued. "Will you see Harry again?"
"Lidia Bastianich," Harry mumbled to himself as he collapsed onto the bed. "I can't believe I'm actually working for Lidia Bastianich."
Life as a sous-chef had been everything he'd dreamt of. Which was a good thing, because there was little time left for actual dreaming. Aside from the restaurant work, Lidia wanted him to go all out and come up with his own ideas, so the time he had at home was spent labouring over recipes, trying out different things over and over. He slept some three hours a night, but he'd never been happier.
The only thing missing was-
His phone chimed, and with reflexes Harry hadn't thought he still had the energy for he grabbed it off his nightstand.
Make me dinner sometime?
Harry grinned, elation flooding his body with renewed vigour as he tried to come up with the perfect recipe in his head.
Of course, he sent back to Sheri. Just give me some time to remember what dinner is.
Lidia's working you hard, huh?
You have no idea.
His phone rang, and he immediately picked up.
"You love it," Sheri said in his ear, and he could hear the smile in his voice.
"I do," he replied. "Oh, how I do."
He spent the next thirty minutes talking about the restaurant, the dishes he'd been making, the things he'd learned from Lidia, until he started yawning so much he couldn't get another sentence out.
"I've gotta go," he said, stretching out on the bed with his phone still in hand. "I'll let you know when I have some time off."
"I got the job," Sheri said, and Harry's smile could have lit up her living room.
"Congratulations!" He held up his glass to hers, and they clinked their glasses Zinfandel over the Bucatini all'Amatriciana.
"It's exactly what I wanted," she gushed. "It will challenge me, and allow me to be creative, and give me a chance to proof myself. It will be long hours, like yours, but if it's the right job, it's worth it, right?"
"It so is," Harry confirmed. He pointed with a fork to Sheri's plate. "Eat. And let me know what you think."
She almost moaned as she put the first bite in her mouth. At times like this, she had no idea why she'd ever though she could marry Brandon. Brandon, with his pressed shirts and his office assistant and his two left hands. For Brandon food had been about status, like pretty much everything had been for Brandon. He didn't even know where the kitchen was, let alone how to create something with his own two hands.
"This is divine," she said. "Family recipe?"
Harry nodded. "With a personal twist."
"Well, keep twisting," she laughed. "This is the best thing I've tasted in weeks."
"Move in with me." Harry looked at her expectantly, and Sheri shook her head, laughing a little.
"We were going to do it the right way around this time, remember?"
"I never see you," Harry explained. "And once you start working your own extremely long hours, when will we see each other then? And when is the right time to ask you this question?"
Sheri hated how much he had a point. She was determined to do it right this time, to make things work, and she knew in her gut that she was not ready yet for a life that permanently included someone else in her living room, no matter how nice it was to have him here now. She needed to find that independence she had given up when her father left.
"I'm not ready yet," she said, and to her relief Harry took that answer at face value. "I don't know when I'll be."
Harry mused over his tiramisu (again, a family recipe, though this was one she'd had before). "What about swapping one night?"
"What do you mean?"
"What if we decide on one night you stay at mine's, and one night I stay at yours? That way we'll at least be able to sleep next to each other two nights a week, even if we don't exchange any words because my nights go crazy late and you get up early."
Sheri swirled her Marsala, thinking it over. It sounded tempting, so very tempting, but that was exactly why she couldn't immediately say yes. Being seduced by this man had let her to propose before, so it was pretty obvious that her common sense wasn't functioning at full speed around him.
"Weekends are probably out because of your restaurant schedule," she said, half asking, half stating the obvious. "But maybe on Sunday night, after the rush is over and you can rest, you can come crash at mine?"
Harry nodded enthusiastically. "That sounds perfect. As long as you don't mind me sleeping till noon in your bedroom, 'cause I've got Mondays off."
"Not a problem." Sheri pushed away visions of waking up Harry and having her way with him before work, and then letting him go back to sleep in her bed as she left for the day, knowing that when she came home he would be gone, but his scent would still cling to the sheets when she went to bed.
"Obviously I don't know yet when my busy days will be," she continued. "But maybe I can aim for spending Thursday nights at yours?"
Again, Harry nodded. "Thursdays are actually relatively light, so we might even get to see each other before we crash."
"I love it." Sheri raised her glass, happy with the compromise they made. "To us!"
"To us," Harry echoed.
"You gotta go," he laughed, almost physically shoving Sheri out of his front door.
"Do I have to, though?" she asked, and turned around so they were face to face. Harry couldn't help but inch forward to kiss her, even though he knew that had probably been her plan in the first place. There was just something so kissable about Sheri when she looked up at him with those wide eyes that said how much she wanted to stay.
"You've been sleeping here for three days," he pointed out. "You wanted your independence, remember?"
He followed the internal war she projected all over her face, her longing for him fighting with the decision they'd made those three months ago, but still he wasn't prepared for the words that came tumbling out of her mouth: "What if we go looking for a place?"
"You want to- What?" He dropped the hands that had been resting on her hips and took a small step backward, so he could look her in the eye, not daring to believe what he was hearing. "Are you serious?"
"Yes!" Sheri's smile was so wide it seemed to light up the whole room. "I'm ready. I'm ready to find a place where we can both have our own space but also be together. I don't want one of us to have to fit themselves into the others' home, I want something new and special and just for us. Something with a grand kitchen for you and a sunlit office for me."
"I do not have your kind of money," he hesitatingly pointed out. It was actually one of the reasons he hadn't brought up the idea of moving in together again, because he'd only come to realize over the last couple of months how much money Sheri actually had and how he... definitely had not. He wasn't doing badly, not at all, and with Nonina's Biscotti even his dad's restaurant was climbing its way out of trouble, but that was a long ways away from the world Sheri lived in.
"That's fine," Sheri said. "I do."
"That's not-" he stammered, but stopped talking when Sheri laid her hands on his cheeks.
"My love," she said, her eyes roaming his until she seemed to find what she'd been looking for. "My love, I'm not going to keep my money away from you or hold it over your head. Don't let my wealth fool you into thinking that I'm somehow superior, or that you're some kind of kept man. I just want to spend money on our life, just like I want to spend time to build our life."
"You wouldn't stop cooking for me just because I can't boil an egg to save my life, would you?" she added with a smile, and Harry couldn't help but chuckle. Sheri had tried to make him breakfast one day and things had not exactly turned out... edible.
"You've got a point," he conceded, and added: "But not some kind of Manhattan apartment, okay? I want a place where I can feel at home, and not like I'm walking into a museum piece every single day. I've seen your mom's place."
"That's the last of it." Sheri contentedly looked around the room, her and Harry's boxes everywhere. Her mom and Harry's dad had flopped down on the couch and proclaimed they wouldn't get up for the rest of the day. Eleanor was laughing with Harry in the kitchen. Harry, who had already unboxed the main kitchen stuff so he could make them dinner, even after the hellish moving day they had.
"We could call for take-out," she had said when he'd announced his plan, but he had just shaken his head. "If it's the money-"
"It's not the money." He'd laid his hands on her and had looked her in the eye as if what he was going to say was some divine wisdom. "Food is about family. About comfort. About love. I won't have some stranger make the gratitude dinner for the people who helped us move."
Sheri smiled at the memory. She had wanted to hire movers, but Harry had thought that idea ridiculous. She had bugged him about it all day but now, as she looked around at their new place and saw her family making it a home, she conceded he might have had the right idea.
She plopped down on the couch between her mom and Big Harry.
"Thank you," she said, with a hand on Harry's and her head on her mom's shoulders. "You've really helped make today special, make this place into something more than just an apartment."
"That's what family is for," Harry rumbled, and he laid a hand over hers.
Her mom just smiled at her, but Sheri could see it all in her eyes. She stayed there until Harry called that dinner was ready, at which point she joined her partner in their kitchen, to serve up the first ever meal they would share as a live-in couple.
"Today's dish made especially for you." With a flourish Harry put down a plate, covered by a cloche, in front of Sheri. She looked at him with the brightest smile on her face, and as she made to open it up, Harry went down on one knee.
"Sheri," he said, as her eyes roamed over the cherry tomatoes he'd painstakingly arranged to spell 'marry me'. "One year ago, you asked me to marry you. I said 'yes', not out of some sort of obligation, but because even though we'd only known each other for a couple of hours, it felt like I'd known you forever. I knew that I would want to spend eternity by your side."
He could see Sheri was starting to tear up, and he had to blink a few times to keep from crying himself. "A lot has changed over the past year, but that feeling hasn't. So today, I return the favour."
He took one of Sheri's hands in his own, and said: "Sheri, marry me?"
"Yes," she said as she tackled him to the ground.
"Yes," as her hands roamed over his skin.
"Yes," she whispered, as they lay in a tangled heap, dinner long since forgotten.