Grant that their wills may be so knit together in your will, and their spirits in your Spirit, that they may grow in love and peace with you and one another all the days of their life.
i. a strength in need
But no--she was being ridiculous.
Allison might have only officially met Tess once, but this was Matt's mother. Her future mother-in-law, even if only one of them knew it. And Tess was in the hospital, would be in the hospital for what might be weeks more. Allison owed it to what she hoped her relationship with Tess might become to make this visit, even if she had years of etiquette lessons in her head, insisting that she was being presumptuous for visiting without an invitation.
She knocked on the door.
Tom Fletcher answered, a surprised smile creasing his face. "Allison," he said, his voice gruff, but warm. He looked tired. He looked like Matt. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see Tess," she said, holding her gift bag up for inspection. "Is she awake?"
"She is and she says you should come in," answered Tess's voice, though Allison couldn't see her.
Tom laughed and stepped aside so that Allison could join them in the hospital room. Allison followed him in and her breath caught, just a little, at the sight of Tess in the hospital bed. She seemed so small, when the woman that she'd met only weeks earlier over lasagna and an artfully conducted inquisition, had seemed anything but. She understood better why Matt looked so drawn, why Meg had been so stricken.
Still, she wasn't a teacher and before that, a veteran of endless country club dinners, for nothing. She pasted a smile on her face and stepped forward, to take Tess's hand, squeezing it carefully. "Hi, Mrs. Fletcher."
"Tess," she corrected. "It's so nice to see you."
"I wanted to come," Allison said. She set the gift bag on the tray that was mounted on the bed frame. "It's just been hard to get away."
At that, Allison saw Tess shoot a pointed look back over her shoulder at Tom. He coughed.
"We wanted to thank you," he said. "Matt's told us--"
Allison shook her head. "No, please, I was happy to help. I am happy to help."
"You'll let us thank you," said Tess sternly.
"You'd better do what she says," Tom said, stepping up next to Allison at the side of the bed. He looked down at her, his eyes twinkling warmly. "She's a regular tyrant these days. We're all afraid to say no to her."
"Stop it," said Tess, frowning up at her husband. "You'll give Allison the wrong impression."
Allison shook her head. "No," she said. She would be surprised if any of them ever told Tess no again. There was too much love there, too much fear. She could only imagine loving someone for forty years and having it all almost slip away in an instant. She never wanted to imagine it at all. "I think he's giving me the right one."
Tom gave her an approving look. "I knew you were a smart cookie."
Tess shook her head, all exasperated fondness. "Allison, will you sit with me for a few minutes? Maybe you can go get her some coffee for the trip back, Tom."
"I know when I'm being sent away," he said, and turned for the door. "How do you take your coffee, Allison?"
"You don't have to--" she started, but was cut off but a shake of Tom's head.
"I have my orders," he said.
"Tea, please. One sugar," she relented. "And thank you."
"My pleasure," he said. "You girls have a nice visit."
The door closed behind him and Allison looked down at Tess. "I didn't need coffee."
"I know," Tess said, and she patted Allison's hand. "Sit down so we can talk."
Allison obeyed, scooting the closest chair nearer to the bed. "Do you want to see what I brought you?" she asked. "It's not much, but Matt said you liked the others, so I thought I'd bring you some more."
"That was very sweet of you," Tess said. She reached for the bag and Allison slid it nearer. Tess pushed aside the tissue paper and drew out the stack of paperbacks.
"I wasn't sure what your favorites were, so I got some of everything," Allison said, almost nervously. "Matt just said romance and I didn't feel comfortable looking through your things to find out what you liked most."
"I like historicals, myself," said Tess, looking up from the books with a smile. "But Tom, he seems to like paranormals the best."
"Mister--" Allison choked on the words, unable to comprehend or to believe what Tess was saying. "Tom reads romance?"
"Only lately," said Tess. She laughed and then she coughed, setting the books down on the bedside table. "The doctor doesn't want me spending too long staring at tiny print, so he's been reading to me at night. He'll never admit it, of course, but he's enjoying himself."
"Of course," Allison said, her mind still utterly scattered by what Tess had said. It wasn't that she couldn't imagine Tom doing anything Tess wanted--she could, of course she could. It was just that she couldn't merge the two things in her mind to make them make a comprehensible whole. "I won't tell Matt."
Tess's eyes twinkled, just as her husband's had done earlier. "You should never keep secrets from your partner, Allison."
Allison stared at her. "Do you want me to tell Matt?"
Tess shrugged her shoulders, just a little. "Want is too strong a word. But if it came up, if it would make him laugh, then yes, you should tell him. I don't imagine any of them are doing much laughing these days, and they should." She looked at Allison more seriously, then, her face turned worried. "They're all alright, aren't they?"
Allison hesitated, unsure how much to say. She didn't want to lie to Tess and anyway, she didn't think Tess would believe her if she tried. But she would not be the one to add to her burden's. "They're fine," she said finally. "Or at least they're trying to be."
"And you're there?" Tess asked.
Allison took Tess's hand and squeezed it gently. "There's nowhere else I'd rather be."
ii. their nurture in the knowledge and love
She looked down at Taylor, who was standing next to her at the kitchen counter, concentrating furiously on peeling carrots. They're making dinner, just the two of them, while Josh was at basketball practice and Matt was finishing up for the day at the docks. Meg had left a note, saying she was visiting Tess and not to wait for her. The inn was empty of guests, and while the quiet was almost disconcerting, it was nice to have this moment where it was just them.
Taylor looked up, briefly. "Yeah?"
Allison resisted the urge to ruffle her hair, just barely. "Yes."
"Did I do something wrong?" Taylor asked warily, still armed with her peeler. "I didn't mean to--"
Allison held up a hand and laughed. This time she didn't manage not to touch Taylor, reaching out for her shoulder. "You didn't do anything wrong. Here, come sit down for a minute. The carrots can wait."
"Okay," Taylor said, still wary. She followed Allison to the kitchen table and perched at the edge of the chair, her arms crossed over her chest and Luke's cap tugged low over her eyes.
Allison took the chair next to hers and looked at Taylor carefully. "You know your Uncle Matt and I are getting married."
Taylor nodded and bit her lip. She still looked worried, far more worried than she should have for this conversation, Allison thought.
"What is it?"
"Nothing," Taylor said. She hesitated "Just--"
"What is it, sweetie?" She reached out to touch Taylor's knee with her fingertips. "You can ask me anything, you know that."
Taylor nodded automatically, then screwed up her face in determination. "Are you and Uncle Matt going to move somewhere else when you get married?"
Allison wanted to kick herself. Of course Taylor would worry about that. She'd lost her mother. Her father was still overseas. Tess was still in the hospital and Tom was mostly on the mainland with her. Meg was going to go back to New York. Of course she was going to worry about Matt and Josh leaving her too.
And she and Matt hadn't made those decisions yet, not completely. They'd talked about wanting their own space, a bigger space, with enough room for them and Josh and the family they'd build together. But no decisions were made, no timelines were in place, and she knew that no matter where they went, there would always be a space for Taylor in their home.
She just didn't know how to make Taylor understand that.
"I'm not sure yet," she said honestly. "We've talked about it, but we haven't decided anything for sure."
Taylor nodded again, her small face set firmly against any display of emotion. "I get it," she said. "You want to be alone. Madison said you would."
Allison raised an eyebrow at her. "Did you think we were going to leave Josh behind?"
A very small giggle escaped and Allison allowed herself a small smile of victory. "I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I won't lie to you. But whatever happens, wherever we would go, your Uncle Matt and I will always have room for you. Okay?"
Another nod, but this time Taylor smiled at her and Allison's heart clenched. Brave little girl, Allison thought. Her life was so much better for having Taylor in it.
"That wasn't what I wanted to ask you, though," she said.
"Yeah?" Taylor asked. She looked happier this time, lighter. "What?"
Allison straightened and held Taylor's eyes. "When your Uncle Matt and I get married, would you like to be one of my bridesmaids? I'd really like it if you would."
An actual smile lit Taylor's face. "Really? Me?"
"You," Allison said. She grinned at Taylor. "Is that a yes?"
"Do I have to wear a dress?"
Allison laughed. "I'm afraid so."
Taylor made a face.
"Will you do it anyway? It would make me and Uncle Matt very happy if you'd be part of the wedding."
"Yes," Taylor said and then she did something that surprised Allison to her core.
She hugged her.
Almost overcome, Allison wrapped her arms around the little girl and stroked her hair gently.
"Thank you," she whispered.
iii. in their work and in their companionship
Allison looked up from her attempt to twine greenery around the bannister to see Tom smiling up at her from the bottom of the staircase. She smiled back, ruefully. "Is it that obvious?"
Tom started up the steps, took the other end of the pine bough from her hands. "Years of experience," he said. "Weren't Josh and Taylor going to help you with this?"
Allison flushed, despite the lack of censure in Tom's voice. She hadn't done anything wrong by telling Josh that he could go to the Hamilton's to work ("to work") on the blog for the school paper. She hadn't done anything wrong by giving in to Taylor's pleas to go to Madison's to play. But still, depriving herself of assistants had maybe not been the best choice she could have made.
"It turned out they had other plans," she said. "Matt's going to help me when he gets home from his meeting with the waterman's association. And we're all going to decorate the tree together on Sunday."
"Hm," said Tom.
Allison watched his weathered hands expertly twist the greenery in and around the smooth wood of the bannister. His hands were like Matt's, effortlessly capable. It was fascinating to think of the things that they'd done, the places they'd seen. How did a man who was trained to hold a weapon go from that to Christmas decorations, and look so right with both?
"That's this done."
She blinked, looked down to see Tom securing the end of the greenery to the newel pole. "Thank you," she said gratefully. "I'm not sure what I would have done without your help."
Tom looked up at her, with a smile. "Oh, you would have figured it out. I don't doubt that."
She flushed again. From a man of relatively few words, compliments were like gold. She might not have known Tom Fletcher long, but she knew him well enough to know that.
"Still, I appreciate the help," she said. "I'm sure you were doing something else. Where's Tess?"
"She and Meg are watching a movie in the family room."
She raised her eyebrow at him. "You didn't want to join them?"
"Hell, no," Tom said. "They're watching something that had them both in tears. I'm a Marine. I know when to retreat."
Allison laughed. "Well, I'm going to start stringing the outside bushes with lights if you need an excuse to stay away."
Before Tom could answer, the front door opened, and Matt came through. He looked disheveled and harried and completely wonderful. He came over and gave her a swift kiss. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "Put a bunch of old men together in a room and they won't shut up."
Tom snorted. "Watch how you use the word old, son. You're not so young yourself."
Matt grinned at his father, and it was an echo of Tom's own smile. "Still younger than you."
"Be more than a little strange if you weren't," Tom returned. He smiled at Allison. "I'll let Matt give you a hand with the rest."
She smiled back at him. "Thank you again."
"My pleasure," he said. He looked at Matt. "Hold onto this one."
Matt tightened his grip on her waist. "That's the plan."
iv. for the help and comfort given
"Dad!" Taylor yelled, as she kicked off her shoes and dropped her backpack to the floor. "I'm home. Allison's here," she added belatedly. She smiled up at Allison with the quick Fletcher grin. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Allison said, charmed and amused all at once. "Go see your dog."
Taylor headed back towards her bedroom, where she would undoubtedly find J.D. Luke emerged from the kitchen as she passed and she paused briefly for a fast hug, before abandoning both of them.
"Hey, Allison," Luke said in his easy way. "Thanks for letting her come home with you."
"My pleasure," she assured him. "She's welcome anytime."
"Still, thank you." That out of the way, Luke eyed the object in her hands warily. "What do you have there?"
She thrust the large tupperware container at him, not giving him a choice but to accept it. "Soup. Because it's your midterms and I thought you'd have even less time than normal to cook."
"And despite what Josh and Taylor think, pizza isn't a food group?"
She smiled. "Something like that."
"Well, thank you for this too." He hesitated, and it was clear that his desire to be polite was at war with his curiousity. She could see the exact moment that curiosity won, because the expression was just the same as Taylor's. "But I didn't think you cooked."
"I don't," she said.
"Ah," he said. He eyed the container in his hands with something akin to dread. "Well. I'm sure we'll enjoy this."
She couldn't help but laugh. "I'm not trying to poison either of you. Your brother has been teaching me how to cook and even I can't really screw up dumping ingredients in a crockpot."
His expression brightened considerably. "That's true."
Allison laughed again and stepped forward to kiss his cheek. "Enjoy. I'm going to go next door and check in on Josh."
Luke followed her to the door. "You're welcome to join us for soup."
She paused, turned back to him and smiled. "Thanks."
"Any time," he said.
v. the gift and heritage of children
That was all Allison could manage to think as she pushed open the door to leave Virginia Dare Island School for the weekend. If there was a hell on earth, Allison was pretty sure that it was an American high school on Valentine's Day. It was hard enough to get students to concentrate on a Friday halfway through the school year, but when you added romantic expectations and shattered dreams, it was a totally lost cause.
Part of her was more than a little ashamed of herself, but she'd shown the Princess Bride to her third and fourth period classes. She'd offered extra credit to anyone who wanted to write an essay about film adaptations of novels as a sop to her conscience, but she had no expectation that anyone would actually be turning one in.
She walked towards her car, heels of her boots muffled against the concrete of the parking lot. It was half-dark, but there were still a handful of cars scattered around her, mostly from students who hadn't left basketball practice yet.
She frowned. She knew that Tess had asked him to come home as soon as he could after practice, because the inn was full of guests for the holiday weekend, and it wasn't like him not to do something that his grandmother asked. Maybe something was wrong with his car. He would have called her, though, wouldn't he? But maybe he hadn't known she was staying late supervising the computer lab. It wouldn't hurt to check.
Changing direction, she headed towards his vehicle instead of her own. When she got to the car, she wished she hadn't, because sitting in the front two seats were Josh and Thalia, only what they were doing really couldn't be properly described as sitting. More like making out furiously over the console between their seats and this really wasn't something that Allison needed to be seeing.
But she couldn't walk away either, not when she knew that Tess was expecting him home, so she rapped on the driver's side window. They broke apart immediately, Josh's head jerking up to hit the roof of the car.
She winced in sympathy. Well, at least they were both suffering now.
Josh twisted in his seat and went pale when he spotted her. Shit, she saw him mutter, but correcting his language was the least of her concerns.
He turned the key in the ignition and the window lowered. "Hi."
She raised her eyebrow at him. "Hi?"
He made a face. "Yeah. Sorry."
She wanted to laugh, but that wasn't going to do anyone any good. "Don't apologize to me," she said instead. "Weren't you supposed to be home half an hour ago to help your grandmother with guests?"
Now he really did curse, and he turned to Thalia apologetically. "I was. I'm sorry. Can I--"
"Call me later?" Thalia asked, unbuckling her seatbelt and extracting herself from the car with as much dignity as could be expected from anyone caught making out in their high school's parking lot.
"Yeah," Josh said. "Are you okay to get home?"
Thalia nodded. "I have my car."
"Okay. I'll call you," he said.
Allison turned discreetly away, to give them a moment's privacy, as Thalia rounded the hood of the car and bent to kiss Josh through the open window. She looked back when Thalia straightened and gave her a rueful smile. "See you Monday, Miss Carter."
Allison nodded. "See you Monday."
Thalia walked away, towards her own car, and Allison turned back to Josh who was watching Thalia walk away.
"Go straight home," she said sternly.
He grinned up at her. "Yes, ma'am." The grin fell away, and he asked, "Is there any chance we can not tell my dad about this?"
"I won't tell your dad," she said. "But what makes you think that your grandmother won't mention your tardiness?"
"Shit," he said.
She resisted to the urge to pat him on the head. "I'll see you later."
"Yeah, yeah," Josh said. "And Miss Carter--Allison--thanks."
She looked at him in surprise. Busting him making out with his girlfriends wasn't exactly something she expected a thank you for. "For what?"
He grinned again, the lightning fast Fletcher grin. "Grandma would have killed me."
Allison laughed and stepped back so he could drive away. She watched him peel out of the parking lot, winced, and headed for her own car.
She was never giving into her protective impulses again. Ever.
vi. for their mutual joy
Her mother was nagging over seating charts and flowers, and she was trying to reschedule her last fitting because Taylor had soccer practice and couldn't come with for her own fitting, and none of her students seemed to have retained anything she'd taught them about Much Ado About Nothing. All she wanted at the end of the school week was a glass of wine, Matt, and to relax, not necessarily in that order.
Instead, when she got to his cottage, she was blindfolded, bundled into his truck, and driven away into the night with him refusing to tell her where they were going. It wasn't at all how she'd envisioned the evening going.
"I'm going to make you pay for this," she told him.
"Hm," was his only reply, but she could imagine the small smile creeping around the corners of his mouth.
"Not the good kind of paying," she said. "The kind where there's no sex for you, so I hope you liked last night, because there's not going to be any of that for quite some time."
"We're getting married in two weeks," he said. "Wasn't the sex supposed to end then anyway?"
If she'd been able to see him, she might have hit him. Instead, she changed the subject back to what she'd been asking him since they drove away from the Pirates' Rest. "Where are we going?"
"We'll be there soon," he said. "Is this what our kids are going to sound like on car trips?"
Her breath caught. They'd talked about children, had agreed that they were something that both of them wanted. Someday. In the future. But his casual throwing of it out there like that, like it was a certainty--well, it was still something she was wrapping her head around.
"Do you mean to tell me that Josh didn't sound like that?" she asked, in lieu of giving voice to the feelings swirling around inside of her. "I won't believe you if you try. I've met your son, Matt."
She was sure he was grinning at her now. "No, he sounded exactly like that. So if he got it from me and our kids get it from me and you, well, I'm investing in earplugs before we take any family vacations that involve a lot of driving."
The truck stopped moving and Allison felt Matt reach behind her to untie the knot in the bandana that he'd pulled tight across her eyes. The cloth fell away and she blinked into the late March sun.
"We're at the house?" she asked, surprised. They weren't due to take possession until just after the wedding, so she wasn't sure why he'd brought her here of all places. No matter how much she loved it, not being able to march inside and start on the million and one things she wanted to do to it to make it their home, wasn't a stressor she needed right now.
"I talked to the realtor," he said. "She talked to the owners and they agreed that we could go in, do some more looking around. Start making plans. I thought you'd like that. Remind you what all this craziness has been for."
She would not cry. She slid over closer to him, brought her hands up to cup his face, and kissed him, slow and deep. When they parted, she said, "I love you."
His lips curled up into a smile against hers. "I was hoping."
She kissed him again, quick, then slid back across the seat and opened the passenger side door. She rounded the hood of the truck before he could even get his own door own and she was tugging him down to the ground, pulling him down the cobblestone path to the front door. She looked at him expectantly.
"Haven't you ever heard that good things come to those who wait?" Matt asked, laughing at her as he dug in his pocket for the key.
"Whoever said that was a liar," she said. "And your family certainly doesn't believe in waiting. I've heard the story of Tess and Tom too many times to believe that nonsense."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Matt said, with such obvious intention that Allison flushed. "Aren't there times you like waiting?"
"Yes," she managed. She curled her fingers in on themselves so she wouldn't reach for him and try to ravish him up against the door. That probably wasn't something that a person who didn't one hundred percent legally own a house should do. "The door?"
Matt slid the key into the lock, turned it.
She put her hand to the door knob and pushed. The door fell open in front of them, and the house stood empty before them, all promise and potential. She went to step inside, but then her feet weren't beneath her any longer and she was in Matt's arms, being carried across the threshold.
She laughed, helplessly, her arms going around his neck. "Matt! What are you doing?"
Once they were safely inside, he set her gently to her feet, drawing her close until they were pressed together as one. "Beginning as I mean to go on."
She was still laughing when he kissed her. If this was how they were meant to go on, that would mean that she would be laughing for the rest of her life.
Here. In this house. With him.
That was a future that Allison was ready to start.