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It had been a gradual process, getting to where they were now. It wasn’t like he had planned it when he had asked her to come back. He hadn’t thought further ahead than the next day. Hadn’t thought more widely about doing what he could to support his kids.

They’d always maintained some form of contact over the years. Calls on holidays and birthdays. Brief chats when handing over kids to each other. They had watched graduations together. Had attended Kevin’s passing out parade. The grandchildren’s births and christenings. It was always polite, but distant. Neither of them spending more time in each other’s company than necessary. A little awkward at times. Never any difficult topics. The arguing had long stopped mainly because for many years they were never in each others company long enough to cause any. And if there was a disagreement it was always mediated through his mother.

Long gone was the crushing pain of when she had first walked out. The red hot anger that accompanied what he saw as the abandonment of his family. Of him. It had settled in to acceptance for what it was. Perhaps with a wistfulness at times, like when he caught a glimpse of her at Abby’s wedding and his breath caught at how beautiful she looked. The pang of ‘something’ when he realised how outside the family circle she was. How Connor and Jess practically ignored her. It was Kevin, sweet, reliable Kevin who had kept close to her followed by Abby in later years who had rebuilt a strong relationship with her. And then Bree , who only allowed her mother so far before she would bring the wall slamming down.

But these days everything had changed, and changed for the better. These days she’d be laughing with Connor over the dinner table or teasing Kevin with Jess and Bree, and he was proud at how far they had come. How far she had come. She had done what she set out to do and what he in a way had asked her to do by bringing her home. They hadn’t erased the past but they had begun to move past it. Accept it for what it was, apologise for what they had both done to the family so that they could all begin to heal.

To do that had meant spending a lot of time together, as parents and grandparents. As son and daughter-in-law. They began orbiting each other like binary stars. They’d sit together at family get togethers, chat out on the deck with a glass of wine, take trips to the beach with Carrie and Caitlyn. Breakfasts at home or at Sally’s. Host O’Brien family dinners that were actually enjoyable. All the normal things that families do when they haven’t been separated for 18 years.

It had taken a waitress of all things to force him to admit what might be happening. A trip to their old favourite restaurant where they had gone on one of their first dates decades ago. A waitress who had mistook them for an old married couple out on date night. There had been a brief moment of embarrassment and then they swept it under the rug like they did with most things. An awkward conversation a few days later about what did or did not constitute a date. The brief relapse into arguing that followed and an acknowledgement that perhaps they still had some things to get over and resolve.

Then came Bree’s book, which forced them both to confront some painful truths. The rug well and truly pulled back as they recognised what they had both done wrong, what they both had done to each other, how they both had created the messy divorce and the confusion and pain of the family separation. Writing the letter to Bree, which they shared with all the children, had caused tears but was also cathartic. The honesty with which they both voiced their feelings had given them a level of appreciation for the other that was long overdue. They had to go back to take a step forward and found that, without quite noticing, they had done that together.

They had started seeking the other out more and more. Discussions about the kids which led to lunches and dinners and would always end not about the kids at all. Gradually they had become a united front. The kids quickly learning that if you had told Mom something, Dad would soon know too and vice versa. A unit. A partnership.

When the inevitable happened - because it was inevitable - she’d been reminiscing up at the bluff about their wedding day and he was assaulted with images and feelings that he realised had always been there. The memories of her walking towards him, trying not to fall in the mud, his brother whispering that she was going to fall at any moment. He was more focused on how long it was going to take her to reach him. He had been impatient to start his life with her. This woman who he loved so utterly and completely.

Back in the present, the memories of that day had overwhelmed him. But it wasn’t just the memory of those feelings, of the immense love, desire and need he’d had then. He realised he wanted her in the here and now too. Not just in the physical sense, but in every sense.

So he’d kissed her, hesitatingly, gently, with a hint of the emotional turmoil inside him bubbling under the surface. And his world tilted on its axis.

Of course his first reaction was to run a mile. They were finally in a great place, the kids were happy, they were happy. Their relationship was strong, it was positive and their carefully nurtured friendship was treasured by them both. After working so hard to fix their family could they really take the chance to throw it all away by gambling on a romantic relationship that could end up tearing down all they had built over the last few years?

They’d agreed not. It wasn’t worth the risk. And he’d spent the next day at his and Trace’s bar, staring at a bottle of beer. Worrying about his professional life falling down around his ears and regretting he wasn’t nearly as brave in his personal life as he was in business.

It was Megan that had been the brave one, announcing they they shouldn’t fear what could be because of what was. His overwhelming feeling was gratitude, it was the step he hadn’t dare take but had wanted to so badly.

He’d told Jess they were taking baby steps. And they did take baby steps. They didn’t rush a moment, just slowly built and shaped a new relationship, built on a love that had never gone away but this time with a respect and understanding that had eluded them the first time round. He was happy. She was happy.

Which is why he couldn’t for the life of him work out why she had just walked away from him, in tears, after asking him to question whether the relationship was really what he wanted.

***

“Where is everyone?” Megan asked as she walked in to the kitchen, stealing Mick’s coffee with an unrepentant smile.

“Ma has taken the girls to the beach, Abbey is at Trace’s helping him with arrangements for the Family Ball tomorrow and the rest of them, unbelievably, haven’t come for breakfast.”

“Will wonders ever cease?” Megan said with a laugh, “Do you want to go along to this ball tomorrow, it could be fun.”

“Actually I had another thought.”

“I’m all ears,” Megan replied taking another sip of his coffee.

“You know you could get your own cup of coffee,” Mick said.

“What would be the fun in that?”

“Now if you want real fun…” Mick’s words trailed off as he bent his head towards hers. Megan lifted hers in response, and as their lips met that familiar shiver went through her. As it always did when Mick touched her. There were some things that time, distance, divorce and heartbreak had not erased and she thanked her lucky stars for it.

The coffee was forgotten on the side, along with their discussion about the ball as they melted in to each other, Megan wrapped her arms around him and deepened the kiss, revelling in a rare moment of solitude and privacy in the big house. She loved her kids, she did, but their presence always seemed to make Mick a little reluctant to be as demonstrative as she would have liked.

In private though the fire that had always burned through them was alive and well, and she was relishing the anticipation of what was to come as he pressed her against the counter and shifted his hips in an interesting way when a cacophony of voices signalling that the family was about to walk through the door registered. Before she knew it, Mick had pushed away from her and was on the other side of the kitchen, looking amazingly unruffled and she looked at him in confusion.

He’d done it again, pushed her away as soon as anyone else came near.

“Hey gang!” he shouted as Bree, Connor, Abbey and Jess walked through the door, “What are you guys doing here so late?”

“We met at Sally’s to check out the new competition,” Jess answered as she kissed her mother hello and poured a cup of coffee. Sally had hired a new pastry chef and Jess was worried her guests might start going elsewhere for their breakfasts.

“And?” Megan asked, still feeling a bit bemused by Mick’s behaviour but curious enough to ask.

“Well we’re here looking for food, so that should be the answer,” Connor answered with a grin, which fell as he looked at the empty table.

“Where’s the breakfast?” he whined and Megan had to laugh at her children’s faces. All grown up, professional, successful and sadly none of them with any domestic ability whatsoever. Only a child-like glee for their grandmother’s food. She wondered how any of them survived when they weren’t in Chesapeake. She was still laughing when she felt four pair of eyes on her. Big blue eyes, imploring, almost desperate.

She sighed dramatically, but she wasn’t afraid to admit to herself that these moments with her kids gave her unmeasurable amounts of pleasure. Moments when she got to be ‘Mom’, when they needed her, when they wanted her involved in their lives and yes, even when they just wanted her to cook.

“Pancakes?”

Her adult children cheered, she turned to the stove and caught Mick’s eye. He understood.

“Right I’m off to the office, see you guys later,” Mick said as he swooped his keys and glasses off the counter. Megan tilted her head for a kiss that didn’t come and turned to look only to see his back as he walked out the door.

“You okay Mom?” Abbey asked, picking up on Megan’s frown.

She smiled at her daughter, she’d deal with Mick later, “All good honey, I just had something to mention to your dad, but I’ll do it tonight. Right, pancakes,” she gave her children a look, “You want mickey mouse ones?”

They cheered more loudly than they had any right to at their ages and she pushed away the slight pang of concern at Mick’s behaviour and his habit of pushing her away whenever they were in company.

She wasn’t quite successful at keeping it at bay for very long, it niggled at her most of the day until she gave up and asked Nell to meet her for a coffee at Sally’s that afternoon. She was in need of her mother-in-law’s wise guidance, and it also helped that not many people knew Mick O’Brien better than Nell did.

“So,” Nell broached, “What is it that’s got you tied up in knots?” Nell asked in her useful forthright manner.

Megan sighed, she was hesitant to bring it up, because she wasn’t sure if she was just imagining a problem.

“I don’t know. I almost feel silly for raising it. Things have been going so well, at work, with my painting, with the kids -”

“And with Mick,” Nell interjected.

Megan smiled, “Yes and with Mick. We’ve been spending so much time together, talking more than I think we have ever done since we first had kids. He’s been so supportive of my painting, building my studio, I’ve been a sounding board for the problems he had over Dilpher. It’s been wonderful and when we are together…” Megan trailed off, unsure of how much to share with her mother-in-law, “I just can’t remember the last time I was this happy.”

“Well now, that all sounds grand, so why do I sense a but?”

“It’s just, when we are on our own, it’s wonderful. He’s attentive, caring, demonstrative - verbally and physically. And yet as soon as anyone else is around it’s like the shutters come down.”

“Mick is a private person,” Nell said gently and not unfairly.

“I know that, but it’s just…I don’t know…what if it’s more than that?”

“Have you asked him?”

“To be honest at first I thought I was imagining things. And also we’ve been so careful to take things slowly - we promised the kids we’d take it step by step and we have. I thought we were just helping everyone become used to the relationship.”

“I think everyone has.”

“I know, right? And there’s not many steps left for us to take now and he’s still really awkward when it comes to any physical demonstration of how we feel for each other when the kids, or you, or anyone for that matter is nearby.”

Nell looked at her thoughtfully, “Have you stayed overnight in the big house since you and Mick…”

“Nope,” Megan shook her head, “We’ve always stayed at mine.”

Nell reached for her hand and squeezed it, “Megan, there are times I have no idea what goes on in my son’s head. But I’ll tell you this, I have not seen him as happy as he is right now for a long time.”

“Maybe he has doubts? I wouldn’t blame him if he did, I just wish he’d talk to me about them.”

“Have you talked about the future?”

Megan shook her head sadly, “Baby steps remember?”

“But what do you want?”

“Him. I just want him. But I’d also like not to be pushed away the minute one of our kids walks in the room. We were walking along the beach the other night hand in hand, and then we bumped in to Kevin and Sarah. He dropped my hand like I’d burned him.”

Nell smiled kindly at her, “I think you need to talk to him. Tell him how you feel. He might just need time to be accustomed to being part of a couple again.”

“What if it’s more than that?” Megan asked, her voice trembling.

“Oh darling, I doubt very much that it is. But you have to talk to him.”

“I will. I just hope I can take whatever it is he has to say.”

***

Mick juggled the glasses and the bottle as he walked up to the look out point that he and Megan always favoured. Far enough away from the house, it afforded them privacy when there was a houseful. The rest of the family were in the kitchen being their boisterous selves cleaning up after dinner and he thought they’d steal some private moments with one of his better bottles of wine before the kids got their hands on it.

They hadn’t spent much time alone in the past few days but he had a grand plan to sort that and just hoped her schedule would allow.

“So,” he said exuberantly as he reached her and handed her a glass, “I’ve been thinking that we should take a trip up the coast. Perhaps take the boat out or even drive if you don’t fancy sailing.”

Megan stared at him, almost confusedly, “You want to take a trip?”

He grinned at her as he poured the wine into her glass, “Yeah, it’s not like we get any privacy or chance to be alone here - a few days away might be good.”

She nodded at him, but she wasn’t as excited about the prospect as he had hoped, “You don’t seem all that excited, is anything wrong?”

“A trip would be lovely Mick, it’s sweet of you to think of it. I’ve just had something on my mind and I wasn’t sure how to…” she trailed off and took a deep breath. It seemed to Mick that she was steeling herself for something and a nervousness took root in his gut.

He reached for her, brushing her face with his fingertips, “Hey, look, you can speak to me about anything, talk to me.”

“You mean that?” She asked him in a small voice.

“100%,” he answered resolutely as he took her face in his hand more fully and stroked her cheek.

The look of relief she gave him melted him and the small smile made him think that whatever it was she was concerned about wasn’t all that serious. She opened her mouth to speak when a noise from across the yard interrupted and he realised that the kids had headed from the kitchen to the fire pit. He dropped his hand from her face at the sound and took a step back, but when he turned back to look at Megan he was shocked to see her face fall.

“What? I don’t think they saw us?” Mick attempted to reassure only for Megan to shake her head vigorously.

“You think I mind if our kids see us standing together?” Megan said with exasperation.

“Well…you just seemed upset,” Mick started, confused.

“I am upset,” Megan retaliated, “But not at whether the kids see you embracing me. I don’t care if the kids see us holding hands or embracing or kissing or whispering sweet nothings…”

“I don’t think Im the sweet nothing type of guy,” Mick said, trying to inject some levity only to be quelled by Megan’s look. He hadn’t seen *that* look in a while.

“And don’t I know it.”

“Megan, look I’m sorry I don’t know…”

“Sweet nothings or not, I want us to be affectionate with each other in front of the kids. I don’t want to hide how I feel about you, or be embarrassed about our relationship.”

“You think I’m embarrassed? Honey, where is this coming from?”

“It’s coming from the fact that when it’s just you and me, no one else around, you are the sweetest, most attentive and affectionate man I could wish for. When it’s just you and me, I have no doubt about how you feel about me, how attracted you are to me or how much you just enjoy being with me.”

“Isn’t that good?”

“That’s great! What isn’t great is that as soon as we are out in public, as soon as any of the kids or Nell or Thomas or anyone at all - you can’t get away from me fast enough! The other night on the beach, we were walking hand in hand and as soon as you saw Kevin you dropped my hand like a hot potato. Or this morning - don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we make out in front of our kids but you made me feel like we were doing something wrong, like I’m some dirty little affair.”

“I don’t…”

“I know you don’t. And I don’t think you do it on purpose, in fact I’m not entirely sure you realise what it is that you are doing. But we promised each other we would be open and honest and we promised each other that if we weren’t happy with how things were progressing we would talk about it.”

“You’re not happy with how we are progressing?”

“Oh honey, I don’t think I’m the problem here. I’m saying perhaps you need to ask yourself that question. You obviously don’t feel entirely comfortable with our relationship if you don’t want us to share what we are to each other with the rest of our family.”

“But everyone knows we are trying again!”

“Yes they do. Theoretically at least,” she grabbed his face in her hands and he could feel her hands trembling.

“I love you. I know we haven’t said that to each other in a long time, but there it is. And as happy as you make me, as you have made me these past months, if you have doubts, any doubts then perhaps we need to take stock and think about what we are doing.”

He didn’t know what to say to her, he could see she was upset and he hated the fact that he appeared to be the blame for that.

“I’m going to go home, why don’t you think on what I’ve said and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Megan - “

“It’s ok, we’re ok, just think about what I’ve said,” she said and then turned away from him. He watched her go, trying to process what had just happened.

It was true he was a private person, but had he been feeling awkward about their relationship? Not consciously, but obviously he had been giving that impression to Megan. They’d been so concerned with how everyone else was going to react to their relationship, they had been quick to reassure everyone they were taking it slow, step by step - baby steps Jess had suggested. And to be fair that’s exactly what they had done. Perhaps, he thought, too much so. Perhaps they, he in particular, had been too concerned with everyone else, they hadn’t thought enough about them.

He walked back towards the house, passing by the fire pit where the kids and his mother had taken up residence. He normally loved nights like these, nights where they were all together. He and Megan would have joined them eventually, sitting together but he would have been careful not to be too demonstrative with her. Why was that? Not wanting the kids to feel awkward? Was that what it was?

“Hey Dad! Are you and Mom joining us?” Bree called out.

He turned back to look at his family. Indecision uncharacteristically befalling him.

“Your mom has gone home,” he said simply, walking closer to them.

“She okay?” Abby asked.

“I think I’ve upset her,” Mick blurted out, surprised at his own honesty. His family were surprised too if the shocked looks on their faces were anything to go by.

“Should one of us go after her?” Jess asked, starting to rise.

He shook his head and motioned for her to sit down, “Can I ask you guys something?” He asked, somewhat nervously and continued when they nodded, “Have you noticed…I mean, do I…” he laughed at his inability to get the words out. Maybe Megan had a point after all.

“Dad are you okay?” Connor this time, if Connor was worried then perhaps it was serious.

“Yeah. I’m fine. It’s just your Mom and I were just talking and it got me wondering. Do you think I’m affectionate enough with your mom when you guys are around?”

Silence.

Mick couldn’t help but laugh, “Okay that was helpful,” he said and shook his head in mock exasperation.

“Is this about you letting go of Mom’s hand as soon as you see us type of thing?” Kevin asked, “Because you did that the other day and Sarah thought it was weird.”

“You didnt?”

“Hey it’s weird for me seeing you guys together and not fighting. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Neither had I. But your Mom has, and I’m wondering whether she’s right.”

“Well we know you and Mom are taking things slowly and that’s great, but to be honest, now that you mention it, if it wasn’t for the fact that you are with each other 24-7,” Abby began

“ - And that we know for a fact you’ve been staying over at her house,” Bree interjected with a smirk and Mick rolled his eyes.

“Then, yeah, thinking about it, I suppose it would be hard for us to know that you and she were in a relationship,” Abby finished.

“Dad’s a private person though right, surely it only matters if he’s being open with Mom and how he feels about her? Does it matter if he’s not public about it?” Connor suggested.

“Yeah but could you imagine being around your family and not holding your girlfriend’s hand, giving her a kiss hello or goodbye. Curling up on the couch together?” Bree responded.

“Well what were you like when you were together? Before the arguing, I mean,” Jess asked.

Mick blushed, when they first got together he couldn’t keep his hands off her, “Well we were always pretty, y’know, affectionate and stuff. Plus,” he coughed awkwardly, “Five kids you know.”

Kevin and Abby smiled at each other, remembering “They were always affectionate. Would always hold hands as they walked along the street. They’d snuggle on the sofa to watch a movie. There was lots of dancing. With all of us kids, I don’t suppose they ever got much time together, but sometimes Abby and I would sneak downstairs after bedtime and they’d be slow dancing to some awful 80s power ballad.”

Mick smirked at Kevin’s memory and turned to Jess, “Dancing was our thing, in fact dancing probably led to all of you!”

“EEEW!”

Mick laughed and looked at his mother who had been uncharacteristically quiet so far, “Ma, what do you think?”

“I think that you and Megan have spent a lot of time and energy making sure that everyone else is happy with your relationship. You’ve been taking things slowly, which was right. You’ve put your family first and done everything you can to protect them from any possible heartache. But perhaps now is the time to focus on what you want.”

Mick took a breath, “I just want her.”

Mick looked at the faces around him, all smiling, some with tears in their eyes at his honesty.

“Dad, when was the last time you seriously dated?” Jess asked and Mick raised his eyebrows in response.

“Oh I don’t know, sometime around the first time I met your mother,” he laughed at the shocked faces in front of him.

“You haven’t dated a woman since you and Mom broke up?”

“Not really. Nothing that lasted more than a few dates. No one that ever really mattered enough to bring home.”

“Didn’t you take Maureen McNally to dinner after the divorce came through?” Abbey asked.

“Yeah, that was just to piss off your Mom, I was feeling bitter. It was one dinner too many and two hours of my life I will never, ever get back.”

His children stared at him, “Look, when me and your Mom broke up, it was hard. First I didn’t want to put you kids through that again, I promised myself that I would only ever introduce a woman to you if I was certain that they were going to be in my life permanently.”

“Is that the whole truth?” Nell prompted. His mother was far too knowing. She’d always been honest in her belief that he and Megan getting divorced was a mistake. She thought Mick should have tried harder. It was one of the few times he knew he had disappointed her.

He took a deep breath, “Honestly? No. After Megan left, I was hurt, heartbroken. Love was never the problem for us. Understanding each other, communicating, that was difficult. But once you’ve given your heart to someone so utterly and completely it’s not really ever yours to give to anyone else. I may have been divorced on paper, but..” His voice cracked, he’d never said any of this out loud, not to his mother and not to Megan. For all their great strides in communicating lately, he hadn’t been truly honest with her.

“But in here,” he pointed to his chest, “I was still married. I may have tried to convince myself I was just protecting you from any more failed relationships, which was true to an extent, but mainly the fact was there was no one who could compete with that or with her.”

The weight of his words sank over the group and at the same time Mick felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

“So - Dad,” Abby began with a watery smile, “Do you have someone in your life that you would like to introduce to us?”

Mick smiled at his eldest daughter, everything starting to make sense. He’d been so careful over the years not to involve his kids in his personal relationships, to keep any potential love interests separate from the family that perhaps he’d forgotten how to be in a relationship. And it wasn’t doubts over his and Megan’s relationship that had been holding him back. It was fear.

“Is everyone going to that Family Ball at the Bridge tomorrow?” Mick asked.

“Yeah we are all going. Why? Aren’t you and Mom going up the coast?”

“Maybe afterwards. I have something I’d like to do first, and probably some convincing about why she should come away with me anyway. Show not tell right Ma, isn’t that what you say?” Mick asked only to get six confused looks in response.

“What are you going to do?” Kevin asked.

“I’m going to show your mother how I feel about her but to do that I’m gonna need your help with some stuff,” he stated.

“You’re asking for our help?” Connor asked incredulously.

“Yep.”

“Is this going to be like the Parent Trap?”Jess asked with no small amount of glee only to get pelted with s’mores from her brothers and sisters.

“Something like that,” Mick replied.

“Then we’re in!”

***

Megan looked at her face in the mirror and sighed, a sleepless night never did any good for her complexion. She had tossed and turned all night, going over the conversation with Mick in her mind repeatedly. He’d been so confused, perhaps she was wrong to raise it when she did, perhaps she should have waited until their trip. Time together to really talk it through.

She had gotten a text from him late last night which hadn’t helped, “Let me know you got home safe. You were right. I missed you this evening.”

What she couldn’t work out was what he thought she was right about. Was she right about him having doubts? That there was a problem? She’d expected to hear further from him this morning but as the day turned in to the afternoon, she still had heard nothing. She picked her phone up in exasperation and was about to call him when there was a knock on the door.

She opened it and was surprised to find her three daughters on the step, loaded down with bags and what looked like make up cases, “Morning!”

“Good afternoon, Mother,” Bree grinned at her.

“Er, not that I don’t love to see you but what are you guys doing here?”

“We have been asked to participate in a mission,” Jess said with some glee.

‘Oh? Does this mission have a name?”

Jess went to open her mouth only to have it clamped over by Bree, “That’s a secret.”

“Guys what’s going on?”

“You should be receiving a message about —- now!” Abby pointed to Megan’s phone that was still in her hand.

Megan looked at her phone and sure enough a message came through from Mick, ‘Your carriage will arrive at 7pm. The girls have a present for you.’

“Carriage? What’s he talking about?”

“For the Ball at the Bridge,” Abby clarified.

“The Ball? I didn’t think your dad wanted to go?”

“Well originally he wanted to take you on a trip up the coast, but he had a change of heart.”

Megan didn’t know what to think, but he was obviously making an effort and considering he was involving the kids that had to be a good sign. She grinned at her daughters.

“A present?”

Abby held up a beautiful red dress, “Picked by Dad this morning, although I am told it was approved by Carrie and Caitlyn. He took them with him when he went shopping.”

“Oh my,” Megan whispered as she touched the fabric of the dress, he’d really gone all out.

“We are here to treat you to an afternoon of pampering and to help you get ready.”

“Your dad organised all this?”

The girls nodded, “He got us a bottle of wine too!” Bree shook the bottle in her face and Megan laughed as the girls rushed in the house in the excitement and looked at her phone again. She typed a reply, “It seems Cinderella shall go to the ball.”

A couple of hours later found them all sprawled across Megan’s living room, pedicures and manicures complete, face masks on and wine in their hands.

“I have to say,” Megan began, “This may be the best idea your father has ever had.”

“The wine was probably his best idea,” Abby giggled.

“I can’t believe the dress fit so perfectly!” Megan exclaimed with no short amount of surprise. She couldn’t remember him ever buying clothes for her.

Bree gave her a look over her wine glass, “Well don’t look at us, somehow he must have become well acquainted with your size.”

“He sure has,” she drawled with some mischievousness, the wine must have gone to her head.

“I’m not entirely sure how we are supposed to react to comments like that these days,” Abby wondered, “Now we’re adults.”

“Well,” Bree answered, “I think more wine will get us through it.”

“Mo-om,” Jess started and to which Megan gave a raised eyebrow. That tone always meant something was coming.

“Now you are all nicely liquored up…can I ask you something?”

“Oh God,” Bree said, ‘You’re not going to ask her about dancing are you?”

“Dancing?” Megan asked with a laugh.

“Ignore her,” Jess interrupted, “Did you or have you ever dated since you and dad split up?”

“Dated?”

“Like seriously, had a boyfriend or a special someone?”

Megan was glad of the mask otherwise she was sure they would have seen her face turning red. It wasn’t a conversation she had ever had with any of kids.

“Why do you ask?”

Jess shrugged and she saw Abby roll her eyes at her sister, “It may have come up in conversation and I said that I couldn’t remember in all the time that I lived in New York you ever talking about anyone or going on any dates.”

“Ah,” she whispered softly, “Well that was probably because there wasn’t much to tell.”

“In all that time?” Bree asked.

Megan nodded at her daughters, trying to find the best way to explain, “When I left, I wasn’t well. It took a long time for me to get well and when I did I was trying to rebuild my life. Get a job, support myself, try and find a way to have you guys come with me. There was no space in my life for any romantic relationship. It wasn’t something that even crossed my mind.”

“And afterwards,” Abby prompted.

“After the divorce and when it was clear that you guys were going to remain with your dad, I’ll admit I was angry. Angry at the situation, angry at myself and angry at your dad. And I went on a few dates, a few dinners - mainly first dates and none that went past three,” Megan trailed off, remembering.

“Weren’t you lonely? I mean Dad had his work and Gran and all of us but you…you didn’t have anyone?” Jess’ tone was all sympathy and it broke Megan’s heart.

“I had a lot of good friends. But yes, I was extremely lonely, but I guess I thought that was my penance, that was my karma for leaving and that was my price to pay. At least that’s what I would say to myself, but it was more than that.

She paused trying to collect her emotions, “Although the relationship ended badly, it wasn’t always that way. We had a lot of good times. He’s the only man I’ve ever loved, no one has ever come close,” she wiped away a tear and chanced a look at her daughters, who were all choked up.

“All those years Mom, you and dad…” Jess started and Megan smiled in response.

“A lot of time wasted, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“This was just our path. It wasn’t conventional and I don’t recommend it, but I like to think that your dad and I needed to find our own way before we could come back together. And we have. I’m not saying it’s perfect, or that we won’t ever face issues, but we understand each other a whole lot better now than we did. We certainly communicate better than we ever did.”

“You know Dad was the same - with the whole never really dating thing?” Jess said.

Megan laughed at her youngest, “I’m not surprised! Listen your dad never had time for me, when do you think he would have found time for anyone else?!”

The girls giggled in response, before Bree turned serious, “It was more than that though Mom. He said that he still felt married to you. Despite the divorce, despite everything.”

Megan stared at her daughter, “He said that?”

Bree nodded, “Last night. He asked us for our advice and we got talking.”

“He asked you guys for advice?!” Megan couldn’t believe it, maybe she’d definitely had too much wine…

“Well we are all in healthy, happy relationships. Apart from Bree.”

“Thank you for the reminder!” Bree toasted her sister.

Ignoring her, Jess continued “And Connor, and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly is going on with Abby and Trace…”

“Hey!”

“But obviously he was looking to the masters of romance for guidance. The masters being me and Kevin of course.”

Abby and Bree pelted their sister with pillows and Megan looked on them fondly, when a memory from a couple years previous came to mind and she laughed, “Maybe your dad was right after all,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“When your uncle Thomas and Robyn were renewing their vows, he said he couldn’t understand it because marriages never expire,” she took a happy breath, “Maybe ours never did.”

“I like that thought,” Bree said, “That even during all those years apart, in some ways you were never not together.”

Megan smiled at her daughter before her face fell, “Oh God, you’re not going to write about it are you?”

“Hey! I don’t steal all my story ideas from my family!”

They all laughed at Bree’s offence and then decided it was time to start getting ready and they shot off to get prepared, leaving Megan with the rest of her wine and thoughts. She looked at her hands, they had never felt quite right since she had taken her wedding rings off. All these years…

Baby steps. She reminded herself. Baby steps. And with one last swallow of her drink she followed her daughters upstairs.

At 7pm, all four of them were showered, dressed, make up and hair complete when the doorbell rang on time. Expecting Mick to be her carriage she was surprised to see her two sons. In full dinner suits.

“Oh my, don’t you two look handsome?!”

“Wow. Mom. You look absolutely stunning,” Kevin said as his kissed his mother on the cheek.

“Seconded,” Connor agreed, “You’re beautiful.”

Embarrassed but pleased at the praise she squeezed both boys’ hands, “Thank you. Are you my ride?”

“Madame, your carriage awaits,” Kevin said with a bow and with a sweep of his hand pointed her towards a black limousine.

Megan stared at it in shock and turned to her daughters who were all grinning from ear to ear, they obviously knew all about it.

“I have absolutely no idea what’s going on but okay, let’s go!”

***

Trace had done a magnificent job in decorating the bar, everyone was in their finery although only the O’Brien boys so far appeared to be in dinner suits, until Trace and David appeared and Megan started to get a little suspicious at the obvious uniform.

“Why are you all in dinner suits?” She asked with no limited amount of confusion.

Kevin grinned at her, “That’s a question you’ll have to ask Dad.”

Still suspicious she asked, “Where is he anyway?”

“Mimi! Mimi!” Megan turned at the sound of her granddaughters voices who then launched themselves into her arms.

“Did you like your dress?” Caitlyn asked.

“I love it!”

“Grandpa picked it, but we approved it,” Carrie explained.

“Well you have exquisite taste. Talking of your Grandfather, do you know where he is?”

“He’s coming, he had something to pick up from Main Street first,” Carrie and Caitlyn dissolved into giggles, obviously in on the secret mission too.

She was about to comment when she caught sight of a flash of red, and sure enough there was Mick, with the biggest bunch of red roses she had ever seen, dressed like the rest of the boys in a dinner suit.

“Oh my,” she whispered, her heart suddenly doing somersaults in her chest. She couldn’t remember when she had last seen him look so handsome.

He gave her his devastating grin when he reached her, looking her up and down without shame.

“Wow,” he said, “You look absolutely beautiful.”

“Must be the dress, thank you by the way,” Megan replied.

“Oh I don’t think it’s the dress, I think it’s just you,” he said and leaned in to kiss her gently on the lips. With the kids right next to them, her granddaughters almost bouncing with glee, she was convinced, if she hadn’t been already, that he had taken her words the night before to heart.

“These,” he said handing her the bouquet, “Are for you.”

“Oh Mick, they are beautiful, there must be over two dozen roses here.”

“A few more than that, probably over 40,” he smirked at her.

“Over 40?” She looked at him puzzled.

“There’s one for each year I’ve loved you.”

She turned to look at her kids, overjoyed, and saw that Nell had joined them with an encouraging smile.

“Now,” said Mick, suddenly all business and took the bouquet from her hands, “Abby, can you take these and make sure you place them in appropriate places?”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

He turned to Megan and held out his hand, “Megan?”

“Yes,” she took his hand and watched him signal to Trace who had by this point arrived on the stage guitar in hand.

“May I have this dance?”

She stepped towards him as the music changed to a slower number and caught her kids making faces at each other, “What?”

“I may have told them that dancing was our thing.”

“Did you tell them that dancing probably led to all five of them?”

“EEWW!!!”

Megan laughed as Mick led her towards the dance floor, nodding at old friends and acquaintances as they did so. She felt the eyes of the town on her and for once didn’t care. Right now she felt like she was walking on air.

Mick swept her into his arms, his eyes never leaving hers.

“Mick - all this, the dress, the suits, the kids, the flowers…”

“It’s all part of my mission.”

“Oh yes, the kids mentioned a mission. What is it?”

“Well Jess has called it the Parent Trap mission.”

“Parent Trap? Like the film?”

Mick nodded, “You know where the kids try and recreate their parent’s first date to help rekindle old feelings. They’ve been separated for so long and yet it becomes clear that they are only meant for each other. And finally, after a lot of interference from their kids, they reconcile and live happily ever after. At least that’s what Jess tells me.”

“I suppose I should be grateful I haven’t been covered head to toe in honey.”

“The night is still young!”

Megan paused and looked at him thoughtfully, “I don’t remember our first date being a ball?”

Looking at her with more seriousness than she’d ever known he replied, “No but your prom was where I first told you I loved you.”

Megan stared at him in amazement, she couldn’t believe he remembered.

“The tux…” she trailed off with a smirk, “You said you hated wearing it, you undid your tie as soon as we arrived.”

“Yeah but your reaction to me wearing it has always been pleasant memory,” he grinned wolfishly at her.

“I did always love you in a tux.”

“And for that reason I grew to love wearing them.”

She cocked her head at him, “How’s the tie?”

“Tight. My neck size wasn’t what it once was,” Mick grumbled.

Megan laughed and reached up to pull on his bow tie.

“What are you doing?”

“Making you more comfortable,” she grinned at him, slowly undoing the tie so that both ends hung round his neck. She then reached up to undo his shirt top buttons, letting her fingers stroke the skin she found there.

“You keep doing that and my mission is going to go off course,” Mick breathed in her ear.

“You wanted to recreate my prom didn’t you?”

“How’s it going so far?”

“Magical. Mick, I - ” Megan started only to be cut off, Mick’s tone turning serious.

“I’m glad you told me how you were feeling last night. And I wanted to show you how I feel about you. And by involving the kids I hoped it would show you how committed I am, to you, to us, to this family. I don’t want you to ever feel unsure about how I feel about you Megan.”

“You know the kids told me what you said to them last night.”

“Which part?”

“The reason you never properly dated.”

“Ah.”

“Why did you never say anything?”

“Pride. Embarrassment. Fear.”

“You know it was the same for me?”

“No boyfriends?”

“Nope.”

Mick smiled and lent his forehead on hers, “All this time, what lonely fools we’ve been.”

“We don’t have to be lonely anymore,” Megan whispered back.

“No we don’t,” Mick said as he tipped his head towards hers and caught her lips with his own briefly before pulling away sooner than she expected and she cocked an eyebrow at him.

He laughed and shook his head, “It’s that dress Megan. I keep kissing you and all I’m going to want to do is take you home.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I still have plans.”

***
A few turns around the dance floor later and Megan felt like she was have the time of her life. That finally everything was slotting in to place, and she was exactly where she should be. She’d had fun testing the limits of Mick’s patience, and was impressed that he was still sticking resolutely to his mission. She’d danced with both of her boys too, surprised by Kevin’s ability on the dance floor. Mick had danced with his mother and all three of his daughters but was now back in her arms swaying gently to the music, her head resting on his shoulder, their arms wrapped around each other more in an embrace than a dance hold. She was so relaxed and content that when he began to move away from her she was disorientated for a moment. He grinned at her confusion, “How do you feel about a sunset walk along the beach?”

It had been a beautiful day, the sun only now just beginning to dim, “I think it sounds perfect.”

Megan looked around for her family to say her goodbyes but was surprised not to see anyone, and then her attention was grabbed again by Mick who led her off the dance floor and out of the bar.

It was a beautiful evening, she loved walking along the shore at this time of night, the dusky light of the setting sun glinting off the water.

“We used to do this all the time, remember? When the kids were little and your parents were babysitting,” Megan reminisced.

“I remember,” Mick said as their hands, entwined, swung lightly between them, “It was the only time we got some peace and quiet.”

“Well, you did want that football team,” Megan teased.

“Instead we got our basketball team, and you know, despite everything…I’m glad we did.”

“Me too.”

Megan pulled him to a stop, “Would you look at that sunset? There really isn’t a more beautiful place to live is there?”

Mick smiled and pulled her back to rest against his chest, his arms wrapped round her, “There really isn’t.”

She felt his breath at her ear and then his mouth as it trailed down towards her neck, her flesh tingling in the wake of his light touch.

“You know, if you keep doing that I’m just going to want to take you home,” she giggled, repeating his words of earlier. He huffed a laugh in response and turned her to face him, his eyes dancing.

“Oh?”

“As long as you ignore all the impromptu spa day paraphernalia, my house looks like a bomb has hit it. Who knew that four grown women could cause such mess?”

“Well I was thinking perhaps you could come home with me?” Mick suggested to Megan’s immense surprise.

“We haven’t…?”

“I know and that was another mistake of mine, but I’d like you to.”

She was touched, and the thought of going back to the house, to the bed they used to share with each other felt right. As if where they found themselves now was always where they were meant to be. But she did have one practical problem, “Mick there’s nothing I would like more but I’m going to need to pick up some stuff, I am not staying over for the first time and doing the walk of shame in this dress,” she said matter of factly.

He laughed, “Although it might be amusing to see that over breakfast, that’s why I swung by your place earlier and picked up a few things for you.”

“Mick O’Brien, on the few occasions you’ve ever packed a bag for me, I always somehow found myself without underwear.”

“Well, that was intentional,” Mick answered with a laugh and she swiped him in response.

“You know we’ll need to think about what you want to do about your house?” Mick said lightly but his eyes told a different story, a little unsure, a little nervousness. On some level Megan wondered whether what he was suggesting should scare her but she didn’t feel scared at all. In fact it felt more like they had finally settled between them what they wanted. No more baby steps.

The emotion of the day hit her like a cannon ball and she pulled him to her, his head coming down to hers to kiss him with all the passion she had for him. He responded immediately pulling her tightly against him. Just as she feared they were becoming indecent, he slowed the kiss and pulled away to rest his head on hers.

“You know if I knew it would get that reaction I would have asked you to come home months ago,” he said breathlessly and Megan couldn’t help feeling a bit smug that she was still able to do that him after all these years.

“Oh Mick, sometimes all you have to do is look at me to get that reaction,” she replied, slightly breathless herself.

He pulled away from her with a smile and tugged on her hand, “Come on, there’s just one last thing before I take you home.”

They started walking again and up ahead Megan noticed candlelight flickering in the light breeze of the shore.

“Oh, look, I think someone is doing one of those beach proposals. I love that,” she said turning to him with a smile.

“I know you do,” he grinned back at her.

She turned back to look and as they got closer her brows furrowed, “Is that Trace? Is he proposing?!” Megan’s heart squeezed with delight for her eldest child but as they got closer still she could see Connor standing with Bree and Nell and she thought it strange that they would be in on the secret and not her and Mick. Or perhaps Mick knew and that’s why he had brought her here.

Then she saw Abby and Jess stand and look towards them, both with beaming smiles on their faces and Megan noticed the various familiar roses dotted around the candles and then her grandchildren standing with Trace and David, behind them Kevin and Sarah. Everyone moved to the side and she finally got a good look at the message. There in candlelight, bordered by the flowers Mick had bought her earlier and their entire family she saw the words, ‘Will you marry me? Again?’

Her hand came up to her mouth in shock and when she turned back Mick was down on one knee, ring box in hand, “Megan O’Brien,” he began as she could do nothing to stop the tears from flowing, “Will you do me the greatest honour by agreeing to be my wife…again?”

For a moment the whole word seemed to stop as she looked at this man, her only love, the father of her children and the only person she wanted to share her life with. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out, her vision clouded by her tears she could only nod at him.

“Is that a yes?” Mick asked with a laugh.

“Yes,” she managed to sob, “Yes, yes, yes,” and she dragged him to his feet so she could throw her arms around him, his lips finding hers as he enveloped her. She could hear her family cheer and whistle but she couldn’t tear herself away just yet. She poured all of her feelings into this kiss and he responded in kind.

“Are they going to be like this all the time now?” She heard Caitlyn say and she smiled through her kiss as did Mick and they broke reluctantly apart. Mick took her hand and gently placed the ring on her finger and a feeling of completeness overwhelmed her.

“Can we hug you guys too?” She heard Connor ask and before she knew it she was enveloped in hugs from every member of her family, Nell whispering in her ear, “I knew it would work out,” and she grasped her mother-in-law tightly. Her biggest defender and her greatest friend.

Tears were shed, hugs were given and received, champagne was poured, toasts were made and everyone walking past the O’Brien family that evening were infected by the happiness that poured out of all of them. Perhaps, Megan thought, after all the heartache, theirs was a family that could truly appreciate happiness when it was in their grasp.

Much later when the family had all dispersed and Abby, the girls and Nell had long gone to bed, Megan sat with Mick by the dying embers of the fire pit.

“You know,” Mick said, “24 hours ago I thought I had screwed up pretty bad.”

“You hadn’t screwed anything up, I just wanted you to be sure about what you wanted.”

“I’m sorry you ever doubted it. Hopefully though I’ve reassured you?”

“Do I detect a hint of smugness?” Megan replied and Mick chuckled as he nuzzled his face in her hair.

“Me? Smug? Never,” said Mick and Megan laughed at him as she rose from the bench to hold out her hand.

“What?”

“I’d like you to take me dancing now,” Megan whispered.

“I thought I already did that?” Mick argued back.

“That wasn’t the kind of dancing I had in mind.”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her to him for a kiss before he led her back in to the house. Their house. To begin the next chapter of their lives, together.