Caroline stared, in complete shock, as Richard waved at her from the gallery in the church, whilst trying to soothe his crying son. She vaguely heard her mother say something about an exit, but all of her brain capacity was focused on trying to figure out if this was real or if she was dreaming.
Richard is here. Richard is here? He’s HERE. Why? Why would he come to my wedding? How did he even know I was getting married? What does he want? Is he here as a friend, or is he…?
The questions were racing through her mind, so quickly she couldn’t really keep up with them, and the room had started spinning. Everything was getting blurry. There was a constant echo of noise inside her head. Finally, she met a black wall, and everything went quiet.
“Caroline? Are you okay, sweetie?”
She opened her eyes to see her mother’s concerned frown hovering over her, and she realised that she must have passed out. She sat up, but immediately regretted this decision as a wave of nausea hit her. Fortunately, Randy, always a doctor, had thought quickly and somehow managed to find a plastic bag, so when she threw up at least she didn’t throw up on the floor.
“Oh god,” she groaned. She felt absolutely lousy.
“Honey, are you okay? Do you feel dizzy? Have you got a headache?” She looked up to see the concerned face of her fiancé, and she smiled weakly at him.
“How did you know to get the plastic bag?” she croaked.
He chuckled softly. “Adrenaline rush. It happens when people pass out, and very often leads to vomiting.”
“Oh.” She paused, realising that she did, indeed, have a headache. “My head hurts.”
“Right. I’m taking you to the hospital,” Randy declared.
“But what about the wedding?” she protested weakly.
“Caroline, you probably have a concussion. The wedding can wait.”
Feeling a twinge of sadness, she agreed. He was right, as always.
By the time she got to the hospital, she had already thrown up four times, so she was admitted and placed in a room with an IV-drip. She wasn’t entirely convinced that the drip was necessary, but they were worried about dehydration and she was too tired to argue with them. Her family had left her alone, telling her to get some rest. Her parents had said they’d be back after they’d had something to eat, and Randy was off dealing with wedding related chaos. So now she was just lying there, wondering how the hell “the happiest day of her life” had turned into this.
And then it hit her: Richard. She had seen Richard. Or had she? If he’d really been there, where was he now? He was there one moment, and gone the next, it seemed, and it made no sense whatsoever. Maybe she was going mad.
A soft knock pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to see who was there. She expected another nurse, or perhaps one of her cousins again, but it was neither. Her heart leapt into her throat.
“Hi,” he said quietly.
“Richard…” she whispered.
His eyes were full of regret, she could tell, and she motioned for him to come over and sit by her bed. He seemed reluctant, but eventually agreed, making his way over and carefully sitting down in the chair next to her.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, studying his worry lines, the same lines she had seen so many times before. She could tell that something was wrong.
His frown intensified. “I should be asking you that question,” he said. His voice was quiet. Concerned. She felt a vague flutter in the pit of her stomach, but dismissed it, chalking it up to the fact that she had hit her head and puked four times.
She smiled at him, and his face softened at that. “I’m okay,” she chuckled. “But really, is everything okay with you? Why did you come here?”
Richard didn’t know how to respond to that. He came because he had to see her, but now that he was here, he kind of wished he wasn’t. Not only had he ruined her wedding, he’d also been painfully reminded of how much he loved her. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking, when he bought that plane ticket, when he got on that plane, when he ran into Del outside of her apartment and bought a subsequent plane ticket to Wisconsin… the reality of it was that he hadn’t been thinking very much at all. He’d been reduced to a state of panic, but at some point, when he was in the air on his way to this godforsaken place she called home, he had decided that he just wanted to see her get married and wish her luck.
What a joke.
He wasn’t stupid. He knew he had no chance of getting her back, but now that he was here… he realised that, no matter what, he wanted to be in her life. She was his best friend.
“Everything is fine. I heard you were getting married, and I wanted to be here.” He paused for a second, smiling weakly. “You’re still my friend, you know.” And I love you. I LOVE YOU.
She gazed at him, her eyes suddenly glossy, and he realised that she was going to cry. Of course, he thought to himself.
“I’ve missed you,” she sniffled, as a tear finally rolled down her cheek.
His heart skipped a beat. “I’ve missed you, too,” he said, almost in a whisper. More than you will ever know. “I’m sorry I ruined your wedding,” he continued.
She laughed softly through her tears. “Oh, Richard… you didn’t ruin anything. Well, you did,” she amended, smiling wryly, “but not on purpose.”
He chuckled. “You’re right. Unfortunately, I have no control over that little bugger.”
Her smile, though still in place, turned melancholic for a few seconds, and he cringed, because he knew exactly why. But then she recovered, and the sadness was replaced with a smirk.
“Look at you, being a dad,” she mused, and then her brow creased slightly. “Where is he, by the way?”
“Oh, Stefano? I left him with Del,” he replied humorously. “He’s probably using him to pick up women.”
She laughed loudly at that, and then she winced, putting her hand on her head in response to the sudden jolt of pain.
“Are you okay?” he asked worriedly.
“Yeah, sorry.” She grimaced. “Concussion. I guess I shouldn’t be laughing,” she joked.
“I’ll try not to be so funny, but I can’t promise anything,” he quipped, and she was glad to note that his sarcasm was still intact.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“For what?” he inquired, raising his eyebrows.
She smiled at him. “For being here.”
“Of course,” he said quietly.
I will always come back to her, won’t I? No matter what happens, something always pulls me back to her. I can’t escape from it. I can’t move on. I am never going to stop loving her.
He smiled back at her, and, without thinking, reached out to grab her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.
He found Stefano in the waiting room where he’d left him, but instead of being with Del he was now being bounced around by Annie.
“I gotta say, Richie, this one didn’t turn out so bad. No horns, no tail… he looks normal.”
“You know, Annie, I’ve actually missed you,” he said with a smirk.
Her mouth curled into a genuine smile at that. “I never thought I’d say this, and I can’t believe I’m about to now, but… I’ve missed you too. Life just isn’t the same when you’re not around to make fun of,” she smiled wryly.
“Touché,” he quipped.
“So how was she?” Annie inquired, handing Stefano back over to him.
“Well, as you can see, she didn’t bite my head off. She said she was happy to see me.”
Annie eyed him carefully. “And how do you feel?”
He threw her a wary look. “Caroline is my friend. I wanted to see her get married… wish her luck.”
“Right,” Annie said sarcastically. “You’ve never been able to fool me, Richard. I don’t know what makes you think you can start now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied dismissively.
“Cut the crap, Richie. I’m not blind. From the moment you walked into this waiting room earlier, it was written all over your face.”
“What’s written all over whose face?” Del interrupted, walking back into the room with two cups of coffee.
Richard rolled his eyes. “It’s written all over her face that she’s a pain in the ass,” he said dryly, shooting Annie a look of warning. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t push it any further. He knew, though, that she wasn’t going to drop it completely. She never did. He remembered how much she had tormented him with those copies she had of his letter; she was relentless, and he knew, without a doubt, that she was going to give him hell about this, too.
Del shrugged. “Can’t argue with that.”
Annie shot him her usual fiery glare, but instead of just ignoring it, he noticed that Del actually flinched a little. Why would he do that? Since when did he give a damn about what Annie thought?
“I’m going to take Stefano for a walk in his stroller. It’s time for his nap,” he announced. There was a curious tension in the air between the other two, and at the moment he did not want to deal with whatever nonsense this was about.
“Okay, man, see you later,” Del replied. Annie, with her arms crossed, just gave him a stiff nod. Poor Del was clearly about to get a mouthful.
He walked along the quiet streets of backwoods Wisconsin, Stefano fast asleep in his stroller. He still couldn’t believe people actually lived here. It seemed so dead…. so sad, and empty, and utterly devoid of life. He couldn’t imagine ever living here, but he knew that Caroline loved this place. She had always wanted to get married here, and now her dreams were finally coming true. Or well, they had been about to, if he hadn’t come here and ruined it for her. She told him she was happy to see him, but it was a well-known fact that she was the most caring and patient person on the face of the earth. If this were anyone else, they would have been furious, no doubt.
The thought of her getting married to someone else made him feel sick. He never should have left her. He never should have told her he didn’t want children. He had been so set in his ways, so sure that what he’d been telling himself for years, ever since he was old enough to understand just how unfair the world was, would always remain true. He’d been convinced that he would never want children, and when he’d been hit by the news that he suddenly had one, he hadn’t been able to think clearly. He’d told the love of his life that he didn’t want to have children with her. If he had just opened his eyes to his new reality, he would have realised that it wasn’t true anymore. The thought of having children with Caroline wasn’t soul destroying, it was a thought that actually made him smile. And now he would be haunted for the rest of his life by the fact that he threw it all away.
He should have married her. He should have given her everything she wanted. His whole world had been unravelling, but Caroline had still been there. She had made him happier than he ever thought he would be, more than he’d thought possible, and yet… he had driven her away. He’d destroyed the best thing that had ever happened to him. He didn’t deserve her. He never had.
That night, the last night in her apartment before they were going to fly to Italy… it would stay with him for the rest of his life. He’d had this horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, that he was going to lose her, and it had pained him so much that all he wanted to do was touch her and be as close to her as humanly possible. He could still remember it like it was yesterday…
“Richard…” she whimpered, trembling underneath him, every perfect inch of her covered in sweat. He buried his face into her neck, occasionally kissing and sucking her skin gently, wanting to taste her and savour everything about her.
“I love you so much,” he whispered.
She let out a muffled sob. “Oh god. I love you too.”
He pushed himself deeper into her, and she arched her back, causing him to emit a quiet moan. She let out a small, strangled sound, and he covered her lips with his, kissing her deeply and intensely.
His feelings were so overwhelming that he had to fight back tears. “You’re so beautiful. You’re perfect. I can’t believe you’re mine. I’m so in love with you, it hurts. It actually hurts.” He couldn’t stop himself; the words were just pouring out of his mouth. Caroline’s eyes were squeezed shut, and she was trembling and whimpering with every word he spoke, and with every deep thrust.
“You mean the world to me, Caroline. I can’t imagine my life without you. I want to hold you forever. I want to LOVE you forever.”
She came, crying out his name, and feeling her contracting around him, he came as well. Inside, he was breaking. He loved her, desperately, but he knew, somehow, that he was going to lose her. He was losing his mind, and he wasn’t thinking clearly, and he was going to lose her.
Even now, the mere thought of that last night they’d had together made him ache so much he almost couldn’t breathe. He’d held her in his arms afterwards, listening as her ragged breathing had slowed down, finally becoming soft, and quiet, until it was obvious that she had fallen asleep. The next day, he’d made the stupidest decision of his life, and he’d lost her.
He knew, with absolute certainty, that he would never love anyone else. Ever. He was going to love Caroline until the day he died.
Caroline tried her best to pay attention as Randy went through the list of things they needed to figure out.
“So, the church…” he continued. “It's fully booked for the next month or so. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” she replied weakly. She really didn’t know. She suddenly had this strange, nagging feeling that she was making a mistake, and she wasn’t sure where it had come from. She pushed it away; of course she wasn’t making a mistake. She loved Randy.
“You still want to get married in this church, right?” He looked at her questioningly.
“Yes, of course,” she said softly. “But I’m not going to hang around here for a month, I have to get back to work. Besides, I don’t think we can expect any of our friends and family to commit to another wedding so soon. Maybe we should just postpone it for a while?” she suggested.
He eyed her cautiously. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Richard, does it?”
She looked at him sadly. “How can you even ask me that?”
“I’m sorry,” he sighed, shaking his head. “I just… I know how much he meant to you.”
She reached for his hand, squeezing it gently. “Richard still means a lot to me, but I’m not marrying him, am I?” She smiled. “He’s here as my friend, that’s all.”
“Are you sure about that?” Randy asked sceptically. He didn’t trust Richard. He definitely wanted to trust Caroline, but he didn’t trust Richard.
“Randy…” Caroline sighed. “Of course I’m sure. He was here earlier. He just wants to be friends.”
“Okay,” he nodded. He didn’t want to push it any further, especially as it might upset her. But he wasn’t convinced, not at all.
Richard had checked into a small B&B in town, one of the two that actually existed in this bleak, desolate place. The owner had provided a crib for Stefano, where he was now sleeping peacefully, his small, chubby hands grasping the blanket Caroline had bought for him. He couldn’t sleep without it, and for the past seven months Richard had seen it as a reminder of her. It had become almost symbolic.
He could still see her face when she waved goodbye to him at the airport. As usual, he had listened to his head instead of his heart, because he was a stubborn idiot; instead of marrying her like he so desperately wanted to, he left. Instead of re-thinking his stance on having children, he kept telling himself that he’d take care of the one Julia had dumped in his lap, but he’d never be that careless again.
But he’d been such a fool. He loved Caroline. She meant everything to him, and if he had only realised what that really meant, how that changed absolutely everything he’d been telling himself his whole life, he’d be happily married now. He wouldn’t have had to come here, to Peshtigo, to see her get married to another man. He wouldn’t be sitting in this room, wrapped up in his own misery, if he’d only realised that things change. Life changes, and evolves, and his certainly had. But it had gone over his head. He’d been oblivious to it. He deserved to be alone.
Turning his attention back to the crib, he watched his beautiful son as he slept soundly; blissfully unaware of everything that was going on. Richard thought about his future, how he was going to grow up without a mother, and his heart ached for the little boy, who, through no fault of his own, had been abandoned by his own mom. He’d been carried into this world by one of the most selfish women who had ever lived. Julia made Richard so angry; he tried not to think about her too often because it just made him want to punch things, but Stefano still deserved to know his own mother.
But that was never going to be his son’s reality. Julia had given him full custody; she had no interest in raising a child, as it interfered with her glamorous lifestyle. There was a part of him, though, that was relieved that this horrible woman was out of their lives. He tried to tell himself that Stefano didn’t need the constant disappointment and the terrible influence she no doubt would have been if she had stuck around. He would be better off in the long run, surely.
It’s not fair. Every child deserves a kind, selfless, loving mother; the kind who puts her children’s needs above everything else… a nurturing, caring and emotionally available mother. Every child deserves a mother who would walk through fire for them, someone who would be there for them no matter what. Every child deserves a mother like Caroline.
And he hadn’t wanted to have children with her? He’d intended to marry her, and not have kids? It made no sense to him now. People everywhere were popping out children they couldn’t take care of; people like his own parents, and this had previously made him think that having children was a bad thing. What he should have realised sooner was that there were exceptions, and that Caroline was one of them. If people were going to have children, it should definitely be people like her. And he wanted those children to be his. He wanted this so much it was eating him up inside.
He went straight back to the hospital the following morning. He didn’t want to disturb her, but he did want to know how she was doing, so he sat in the waiting area, twirling a cup of coffee in his hands while Stefano was sucking on a toy in his stroller. He figured that if he just waited there, someone would eventually show up. He sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be Randy, but he wasn’t going to hide from him.
He was grateful, however, when the first people walking through the doors were her parents.
“Richard?” Her mother approached him, looking curious. “Why are you sitting out here? Don’t you want to go in and see her?”
He smiled apologetically. “I don’t want to disturb her. I just want to know how she is.”
“Oh, don’t be silly! You’re not going to disturb her. Come on, let’s go in,” her mother said cheerfully.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Of course,” her father chimed in.
Richard hesitated for a second, but then got up and followed them to the elevator, which took them to the second floor, after which they proceeded to walk down the hall to Caroline’s room.
“Hey sweetheart,” Margaret chirped.
“How are you, puddin’?” Fred asked, planting a kiss on the top of his daughter’s head.
“We found this one sitting downstairs!” Margaret chuckled, nodding her head in Richard’s direction.
“Hi,” he said, waving awkwardly.
“Hey,” she replied, her lips curling into a sweet smile.
“See? We knew she’d only be happy to see you,” Fred told him, smiling brightly.
“With me, that’s not exactly a given,” Richard muttered, mostly to himself.
“Richard,” Caroline said, giggling softly. “I’m always happy to see you.”
For a second he thought he had stopped breathing, and when their eyes met he couldn’t help but gaze into hers slightly longer than he should have. They were always so warm and loving, her eyes; all she had to do was look at him, and he would feel a rush of love so intense he wanted to cry.
Thankfully, Caroline’s attention was quickly redirected towards the stroller, where Stefano had just made some sort of gurgling sound.
“Oh, look at you,” she said in a half-whisper, looking awestruck for a moment. “Is that…?” She trailed off, and her eyes shifted back onto Richard. “Is that the blanket I got for him?”
Richard nodded. “He can’t sleep without it.”
Her eyes had gone blank with tears, but the smile on her face was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. He mentally kicked himself. Stop looking at her like that, you idiot.
“Can I… hold him?” she asked.
He smiled at her. “Of course.” Lifting Stefano out of his stroller, he handed him over to Caroline, and as soon as the baby was in her arms he seemed to light up, somehow. Or maybe I’m imagining things, Richard thought to himself.
“Hi there, Stefano. I’m Caroline, your daddy’s friend. You and I are going to be friends, too, aren’t we?” She was speaking in an affectionate tone of voice, making Richard’s heart ache as he watched her interact with his son.
“Oh, Richard, he’s gorgeous,” she beamed. “He looks like you.”
Richard looked down at his feet for a second, trying to compose himself. “Yeah,” he chuckled. “Poor kid.”
“Oh, shush,” she said with a giggle.
He looked back up, his eyes meeting hers again. He really hoped his love for her wasn’t written all over his face, because it was bubbling very close to the surface now. He was finding it increasingly difficult to contain it, because every second he spent with her reminded him of how amazing she was. It was so painful, being back where he started, not being able to love her the way he wanted to. All he could do now was watch her from a distance.
Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice. She was too preoccupied with Stefano. Nervously, he looked around the room, and then his eyes fell on Fred and Margaret. Fred appeared to be dazzled by Stefano as well; he was handing him a toy, which Stefano proceeded to shake, causing both him and Caroline to laugh.
Margaret, however, was clearly studying Richard. When she noticed that he was looking at her, she simply smiled at him, before joining Fred and Caroline as they fussed over Stefano.
Richard felt even more uncomfortable after seeing that look on Margaret’s face. Something wasn’t quite right about it.
She knows, doesn’t she?
Caroline was released that afternoon. She was now sitting in bed in her parents’ old house, which she now owned, and where they had been staying while they were in Peshtigo to get married. Some of Randy’s stuff was still there, even though he had been living in New York for nearly four months, and they were still talking about what they were going to do with the house. Caroline was so emotionally attached to it that she couldn’t stand the idea of selling it, but her home, and her life, was in New York. She couldn’t live in Peshtigo, not at this time in her life. She’d probably continue to lease it, but she would wait until after the wedding, and that was still a few months away.
It had been a bizarre couple of days. She was still trying to wrap her head around it all; she still wasn’t married, she’d sustained a pretty serious concussion, and Richard was back. Richard was back, and he was a dad now. That was still a concept she found hard to grasp.
Because of the concussion, she had been advised against flying back home for another week. Del had left that morning, saying he’d sort everything out for her with the company, so at least she didn’t have to worry about that. She was a bit stressed out about the strip, she didn’t like it when they had to print reruns, but she wasn’t allowed to do any work. The doctors had lectured her about not straining herself in any way, and being engaged to one of them made it impossible for her to get away with ignoring this advice. She supposed that was for the best, really.
She looked up to find Annie, poking her head around the door. She smiled; the arrival of her best friend served as a wonderful distraction.
“Hey, Annie.” She motioned for her to come inside; Annie nodded her head as she entered the room.
“How are you feeling?” she inquired, sitting down in a chair next to her bed.
Caroline grimaced. “My head hurts, and I’m bored. I’m not allowed to do anything! I can’t draw, I can’t read, I can’t watch TV, so I’m just sort of… sitting here, really.”
“Well, I’m here to entertain you now,” Annie said with a playful smirk.
Caroline chuckled. “And I’m beyond excited about it.”
“You better be,” Annie quipped.
Caroline grinned. “Honestly, I’m so grateful you’re still here. I thought you would have gone back to New York with Del.”
Annie’s expression turned defensive. “Why would I have gone back with him?”
Caroline smiled wryly. “Oh, Annie, just admit it already. You’re a couple. You’re not fooling anyone.”
“We are not a couple!” Annie objected.
“Sure you’re not,” Caroline teased. “What’s so bad about having feelings for someone, anyway?”
Annie scoffed. “Speaking of feelings… Richie’s back.” She arched her eyebrow in a very suggestive manner.
“Richard is here as my friend,” Caroline replied calmly.
“Oh, come on Caroline! He is here because he loves you.”
“He does not!” Caroline protested.
“Oh yes, he does!” Annie threw her hands up in exasperation. “I can’t believe that after all this time, you’re still just as blind to it as you were four years ago. My god, Caroline, wake up! The man is so obviously in love with you, he might as well have it tattooed on his forehead.”
“I really don’t think so, Annie.”
“You know what? Fine. Ignore it. Let it fester.”
Caroline smiled, shaking her head carefully. “He just wants to be friends. He said so himself.”
Annie furrowed her brow. “Oh please, he’s full of crap. He’s lying.”
“How can you be so sure about that?” Caroline asked quietly.
Annie shook her head. “Just wait and see. He’s going to crack at some point. His ‘I just want to be friends’ act isn’t going to last, trust me.”
“I think you’re wrong,” Caroline said with a soft smile. “He seemed sincere to me.”
“Whatever you say,” Annie sighed. She knew she wasn’t wrong, but there was no convincing Caroline of that, and she didn’t want to get into a huge argument about it, not when Caroline was supposed to rest.
“So, what’s the plan now, anyway?” she continued, changing the subject. “With the wedding, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” Caroline replied. “We still want to get married in this church, but it’s completely booked for the next four weeks or so. We’re not going to wait around for that long, obviously, so I think the wedding has been put on hold for a little while.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Annie said. “There’s no rush.”
Richard had gone back to New York the following day to look for an apartment. The Mazzonis were contributing financially, for now, but as soon as he could afford to, he would cut them off completely. They were only doing it out of some sort of twisted catholic guilt, anyway.
He was still in contact with Regina Abbott, the gallery owner who, just a few months ago, had promised to make him famous. He’d called her with updates on his work every so often, just to reassure her that he was, in fact, working on his new “sick and twisted” paintings, but the truth was that he’d barely been able to paint at all. He had been far too busy settling into his role as a father to think about anything else.
He’d barely even thought about Caroline. He’d been so consumed by this new creature in his life, this little person who had slowly changed him in ways he could never even have imagined. Stefano had opened his eyes to a world he had never really seen before; a world full of love in all shapes and sizes. It had made him realise that love could conquer fear, which was a concept that used to make him cringe in the past, and now he was finally ready to let himself love, completely, with everything he had.
The problem now was that the only woman he had ever truly loved in his thirty-five years on this planet was getting married to someone else. He’d been here before, with Caroline, when she was marrying Del, but this time it was about a hundred times worse. He wasn’t going to run away again, though; he refused to, because he’d been so miserable without her during his three months in Paris.
He should have stayed in Italy, blissfully in denial of her existence, because now that he had seen her again, he just wanted to be near her. There was no turning back. The first couple of months with Stefano had been so hectic; he’d been sleep deprived and exhausted, and in constant stress over how he was going to make ends meet, especially if the Mazzonis stopped their flow of money. Thankfully, they hadn’t, but he’d still started to think about how he could make a better future for the two of them, on his own, in New York. This had eventually led him back to Regina Abbott.
During his time in Italy, he’d registered with an agency, and painted a few portraits of people who were too rich for their own good. He’d also done a commissioned mural, for which he’d been compensated nicely, so he had some savings of his own, which he could now use to rent a decent apartment for himself and Stefano. He’d have at least a couple of months to find a job whilst working on the series of paintings he’d promised Regina; he needed time to find his way back to the darkest corners of his mind so he could give her what she wanted.
“What do you think, sir?”
He snapped out of his own thoughts, and turned his attention back to the estate agent.
“I like it,” he said, with his best attempt at a smile. “How soon can I move in?”
“If you come down to the agency with me after this, we can look at the tenancy agreement together, and once you’ve signed it, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to move in over the next couple of days.”
“Perfect,” Richard replied.
It was a two-bedroom flat in Tribeca, which was a neighbourhood he had come to love over the last few years. He wasn’t lying to himself; he liked the fact that he would be close to Caroline here, but he also really liked the atmosphere. It was a nice area to raise a child in; relatively quiet, with people who were mostly friendly. They were on the fifth floor, and from the living room window he could see the river, which was only a few miles away. There was a nice little café on the corner, and a small playground across the road. Although he mostly had bad memories of playgrounds from his childhood years, he would make sure to create some good ones with Stefano.
He wondered how long he should wait before he went to see Caroline again, once she got back to New York. He yearned to see her, to be in her presence, but at the same time he knew it was going to be hard.
Caroline’s bags were packed, and she was ready to take off for New York in just a few hours. She’d been going stir crazy for the past two days; she couldn’t wait to get back to her life.
Peshtigo isn’t exactly exciting, is it?
Their flight was at 7pm, so they’d decided to leave at 3pm, in case they ran into traffic on their way to Green Bay. It was still only 11am, though, and Randy had gone off to hang out with some of his old high school friends, so she’d invited her mother over for coffee.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay, sweetie?” her mother asked for what seemed like the fiftieth time.
“Yes, mom, I’m fine.” She smiled at her mother’s sceptical frown.
“If you say so,” was her mother’s simple reply. “So how are things with Richard?”
Caroline eyed her curiously. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, honey, it’s just that… well, your father and I were talking about it, and you were awfully sad when he left you, sweetie. Are you sure you’re completely over him?”
“Of course,” she said quickly, perhaps a little too quickly, because her mother’s frown seemed to intensify. If she were completely honest with herself, she didn’t blame her; she really didn’t know anymore. Ever since she’d seen him again, she had started to question what she was doing, marrying Randy. She’d started to question everything. And every single time Richard’s name was mentioned she felt that little flutter in her stomach. In fact, it seemed to become more intense each time. Or maybe she was imagining that, she wasn’t sure.
“Richard is my friend,” she added.
“Yes, but sweetheart… I think you are more than a friend to him,” her mother said sympathetically.
Caroline shook her head. “He told me he just wants to be friends. I think that’s all.”
“Now, Caroline, don’t just take his word for it. I’m not convinced, and your father isn’t, either. That man looks like he would do just about anything for you.”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t want to have children with me,” Caroline muttered.
“I don’t think that’s true anymore,” her mother argued.
“I don’t know about that, mom,” she whispered.
“Do you love him?”
Caroline’s eyes widened at this question; she had no idea how to respond.
“I… I don’t know.”
Her mother gave her arm a gentle squeeze. “Then you need to figure it out.”
She sighed. “I don’t think it even matters how I feel, though. He’s moved on."
“Oh, honey,” her mother said softly, “he looks at you like he’s been in the desert for a week and you’re water. He loves you, and I think you love him. I know he’s a bit difficult…”
“A bit?” Caroline quipped humorously.
“Okay, he’s very difficult!” her mother conceded with a laugh. “Look, I adore Randy, you know that, but… whenever I see the way Richard’s eyes fall on you, my heart actually aches for him. I think he loves you the way you really deserve to be loved.”
Caroline had tears in her eyes. “You don’t think Randy loves me?”
“Oh, Randy loves you,” her mother stated with certainty. “But for Richard… I think you’re it. You’re the one.” Margaret had tears in her eyes as well, and she stared intently at Caroline. “I was watching him at the hospital. He loves you so much I think it physically pains him.”
A tear rolled down Caroline’s cheek, and she brushed it away. “You’re wrong.”
Her mother simply shook her head.
“If Richard felt that way about me, he would have told me by now,” Caroline continued.
“What makes you think that?” her mother inquired. “Has he told you about his feelings in the past?”
“No,” Caroline whispered.
“Well, there you go. I’m sorry, dear. I’m not going to push you on this. It’s up to you to decide which one you want to be with. Just… choose carefully, okay? Go with your heart.”
Caroline smiled weakly through her tears. “I will.”
On the plane back to New York, while Randy was dozing off in the seat next to her, she thought about the conversation she’d had with her mother. Was she right? Did Richard really love her? And, perhaps more importantly, did she love him?
She was so confused. Randy was the perfect guy; they were so compatible in almost every way, it was crazy, and they wanted all the same things. They were completely on the same wavelength. From the very beginning, it had been so easy; he wasn’t cranky, cynical or difficult, he was cheerful and optimistic, just like her. They had so much in common, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. But now, after seeing Richard… something didn’t feel right. It was almost as if something was missing, which made no sense because Randy was so perfect for her. He was exactly the kind of guy she’d pictured herself ending up with… before she met Richard.
Richard had changed her. She’d had to fight with everything she had to get him to open up, and it had been a real struggle, but, in the end, what she had found underneath his protective shell had been worth the effort. He was so special, so unlike anyone she had ever known, and once she began to peel away his layers, she found that he was exceptionally thoughtful, and loyal, and, most of all, caring. He had a really big heart, beneath that hard exterior of his. She found herself wanting to crawl inside his mind, to find out what it was really like in there; she wanted to get to know him, inside out.
Eventually, she fell for him, and she fell hard. She’d never been so in love before in her life. It was hell, watching him with Julia, trying desperately to come to terms with the fact that she could never have him. She had been crumbling to pieces on the inside on a daily basis. But somehow, amazingly, Richard had felt the same way about her. That night when he’d followed her back from Spain, and finally kissed her… the thought of it still made her shiver.
In fact, there were several moments with Richard that made her tingle and ache just by thinking about them. That time he’d been stuck in a vent, and she found that map he’d made for her, so romantically titled “Caroline and Richard’s New York”; the first night they’d slept together; the day he proposed. Even little things made her stomach flutter, like that time he’d decided to use the bathmat she’d given him, despite his initial reluctance to allow anything of hers into his apartment. To her, that gesture had seemed so significant, somehow; like he was finally able to trust and commit to her fully. Every little thing with Richard had seemed significant.
She had no such memories with Randy. There were no moments that made her shiver just by thinking about them. Nothing seemed particularly significant. It had just been so easy, like sliding your hand into a perfect glove. How could something so right suddenly feel wrong?
Then a sudden thought hit her: where was Richard now? She hadn’t seen him since the hospital. Had he gone back to Italy? Or had he gone to New York? She hoped for the latter. She wanted to see him again.
Walking into her loft, she was immediately greeted by Salty, rubbing up against her leg.
“Hey, sweet girl. Mommy missed you!” she cooed, lifting her cat up to give her a proper cuddle. She scratched behind her ear, and Salty purred in satisfaction.
Her super had agreed to feed Salty while she was gone, and when she told him she would pay him to clean her litter, he had agreed to that as well. Other than that, though, Salty had been alone for two weeks, so she was clearly starved for attention.
“You’ve been lonely, haven’t you?” Caroline fussed, and Salty rubbed her head against her neck.
“You do realise it’s just a cat, right?” Randy commented with a laugh.
“Hey, don’t say that, she has feelings!” Caroline replied in mock-huffiness.
“Of course she does,” he quipped, chuckling as he put their luggage down before moving over to the couch and collapsing onto it.
“I’m so exhausted,” he complained. “Do I really have to go back to work tomorrow?”
Caroline giggled. “Life is brutal, isn’t it?”
“It really is,” he whined. “Could you carry me upstairs?”
“If you wouldn’t mind having a crippled wife, sure!”
He groaned. “Fine,” he said, lifting himself up to face her. “I guess I have to do everything myself,” he continued with a cheeky smirk.
“Oh, absolutely. You’re a big boy now.” Caroline grinned, before grabbing her suitcase and heading for the stairs. “I’m going to bed, anyway.”
“Okay, I’ll be right up,” he replied.
She shook her head in amusement, before ascending the stairs to her bedroom. She was pretty tired, herself, and she had a lot of work to catch up on, meaning she had a busy day ahead of her. She was currently between colourists, as well, as the previous one, Tanya, had quit about a month ago so she could fly back home to take care of her sick mother. Caroline supposed that was admirable of her, but it did leave her in a bit of a crunch as she had to colour everything herself. Being busy with the wedding, she hadn’t had time to look for a new assistant.
Luckily, the greeting card division had extended her deadlines, so her workload hadn’t been too heavy. The only thing she’d really had to do was the strip. Starting tomorrow, though, she would have to get to work on the cards again, which meant that hiring a new colourist would be an absolute necessity.
She’d definitely have to put out an ad this week.
Richard had always been a self-destructive person. He had always gone out of his way to make sure he’d be as miserable as he possibly could be, because on some level he felt like he deserved it. It was the way it had always been, and the thought of not being miserable and alone had been a very uncomfortable one.
One self-destructive thing he’d done more times than he could count was spend time with people he didn’t like. He’d spent a lot of time with people who were bad for him. He had also dated several women he couldn’t even stand being around, and he could never just dump them because he didn’t think he deserved any better than that.
He was supposed to be miserable. He wasn’t supposed to be happy. His default position had always been defeat, because he had learned from a very early age that life would always disappoint him. It was better to just accept the inevitable misery that was lurking around the corner; he might as well invite it over, instead of waiting for it to come to him.
Even Julia had been a self-destructive choice. She had caused him a world of angst and pain from the very beginning; he knew she was bad news from the moment they met. So naturally, he’d been drawn to her; the darkness inside of him made sure of that. And no matter how many times she hurt him, he always let her back in, because he was convinced, deep down, that he was supposed to be with someone like her. He was supposed to suffer. His brain was playing cruel tricks on him, making him think he actually loved Julia; but it wasn’t love, it was just an illusion. It wasn’t real. Her beauty had always captivated him, but it was only skin-deep; if you tried to look beyond that, you’d only find ugliness.
He had always clung to these meaningless relationships, because they made sense to him. It was supposed to be like that. He’d never experienced love; he didn’t think it existed. No one had ever shown him genuine affection. No one had ever really cared about his wellbeing. No one had truly touched him on a deeper emotional level, because he’d always made sure they never could, either because he didn’t like them in the first place, or because he’d distanced himself from it entirely.
Caroline had changed all of that. Caroline, with her cheerful disposition, her relentless optimism and her constant need to fix everything… Caroline had stepped into his world and turned it upside down. Slowly, but surely, she had closed that distance between them, and broken down the barriers, and made him fall so stupidly in love with her that he nearly lost his mind.
Of course, his immediate response had been to run away from it. His feelings for her had terrified him, and when she was about to marry Del, and he thought he was losing her, he’d done the most rash and senseless thing of his sorry little life: he’d left a note for her in her apartment, written in an alcohol-induced frenzy, and he’d gambled away everything he had ever cared about in a fit of passion.
So he ran off to Paris; out of sight, out of mind, he’d thought. He’d been wrong, of course, and the self-destruct continued. She was everywhere; in his dreams, in his paintings, in everything he said or did, and he’d been driving himself to the brink of madness.
Inevitably, he had failed. Defeated, sad and alone, he had been forced to go back to New York, back to where he had started… where he belonged, really. Nothing good was supposed to happen to him.
He went back to his old job after running into Caroline completely by accident and discovering that she’d never actually found the letter he wrote for her, but his walls were back up. When it turned out that Annie had found the letter instead, he had panicked, denying any feelings for Caroline so vehemently he’d almost believed it to be true himself. It obviously wasn’t, but he wasn’t about to admit that to anyone, and certainly not to Annie.
Everything after that was a constant struggle to keep a safe distance from his employer. There were times when he nearly slipped up, like when he took her to the awards ceremony and danced with her, or when he allowed her to crawl into his lap and cry after being cheated on by that scumbag Joe. These were times when his emotions were very close to the surface, trying to burst his bubble of denial, but he wasn’t going to let that happen. He was going to continue to suffer in silence, closed off to any relationship that could possibly be meaningful.
But somehow, Caroline had still managed to lure her way back in. He loved her so much he just wanted to push her away, but he couldn’t, it was impossible. So when Julia came into the picture again, it didn’t take much for him to run back into her arms… literally. When Caroline had walked down the stairs and found the two of them in a passionate embrace, she had reacted in a way he didn’t understand; she’d been upset, and she had yelled and cried while he had tried to figure out what was going on with her. And then there had been that moment… when their eyes had met, hers blank with unshed tears, and she’d been about to say something… he didn’t know what, but something about her tone of voice had caused him to stop and turn back around, meeting her gaze, and he’d been so sure he had seen something there. But if she had been about to say something else, she’d changed her mind about it, because she ended up saying that she’d just been acting, after all, pretending to be the betrayed wife she was supposed to be as far as Julia was concerned. The way she had looked at him, though, with so much pain and sorrow, he was sure she’d been about to say something completely different… but no. That wasn’t possible.
Staying true to his self-destructive behaviour, he had followed Julia instead, and married her, probably out of desperation. Being with Julia made sense; he was supposed to be with her. He wasn’t supposed to be with Caroline.
It wasn’t until he was nearly trampled to death by bulls that he finally realised that he couldn’t keep lying to himself about his feelings for her. When he was finally with her, however, he did everything he could to sabotage it. He constantly tried to push her away, and he hadn’t even been aware of it most of the time. The rules of his life were clear, though: he was supposed to be miserable, and he was supposed to fail. Caroline was forcing him out of his comfort zone by actually making him happy. She was caring, supportive and compassionate, all of which were foreign to him, and none of which he deserved. His life wasn’t supposed to be like that.
Consequently, when he’d received the news about Julia giving birth to his child, he’d found a way to ultimately destroy his future of happiness with Caroline; it had been his ticket back to the safe corner of misery, and he’d grabbed it. He didn’t want to have any more children. He didn’t want a happy family life. He would be a father to Stefano out of duty, but that was it. He wasn’t going to enjoy it.
But he did. He loved it. Becoming a father had taught him that life wasn’t actually black and white, it was so much more than that; there was beauty in it, beauty that Caroline had tried to show him so many times over the years. He hadn’t been open to it then, but he was now. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. She had moved on, and he didn’t blame her. The self-destructive part of him had wanted her to move on, but that part of him had diminished significantly at this point, and what he wanted now, more than anything, was to go back in time and beat some sense into his former self.
What he wanted was, of course, completely and utterly impossible.
“Hey, Caroline!” Annie called out as she barged into her apartment in her usual style.
Caroline, who was busy making coffee, turned to look over her shoulder. “Good morning, Annie. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” she declared, as she slumped onto the sofa. “I was hoping I could hang out here for a while.”
“Of course,” Caroline replied, pouring coffee into two mugs, before walking over to sit next to Annie, handing her one of the mugs.
“Thanks,” Annie said gratefully. “So… how are things?”
Caroline eyed her curiously. “Things?”
Annie shrugged. “You know… stuff. A lot has happened in two weeks.”
“You’re right about that,” Caroline said with a chuckle. “But I have a feeling you are referring to something a bit more specific.”
Her best friend smirked. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen or heard from the Dark Lord yet?”
Caroline laughed. “No. I’m not even sure if he’s in New York, or if he’s gone back to Italy.”
“Trust me, he’s in New York,” Annie insisted.
Caroline shook her head, smiling wryly. “Oh, Annie, I wish I had your psychic abilities.”
“Excuse me,” Annie huffed, “I do not need to use my psychic abilities to tell you that Richie is in New York. It’s getting pretty dark and chilly outside.”
“That’s because it’s October.”
“If you say so,” Annie said with a shrug, sipping her coffee.
“Yes,” Caroline chirped, “it’s only October because I say so. I am in charge of the seasons.”
“Look, I know Richie,” Annie said with certainty. “He’s here. He’s not going anywhere.”
Caroline sighed heavily. “You’re not going to let that go, are you?”
“What? That he loves you?”
“He doesn’t,” Caroline stated firmly.
“Yes, he does!” Annie countered. “And one of these days, he will come knocking on your door, because he is incapable of staying away from you.”
Caroline raised her eyebrows. “Would you put your money on it?”
“There’s something about the idea of betting money on Richie that just seems fundamentally wrong,” Annie declared.
Caroline chuckled loudly at that. “You’ve missed being able to make fun of him, haven’t you?”
Annie pursed her lips, but she couldn’t contain her smirk for very long. “I’ll admit it is fun, having a human punching bag.”
Caroline giggled. “I think you both secretly love each other.”
“We do not!” Annie exclaimed.
“Speaking of love…” Caroline smirked playfully. “Where’s Del?”
“Oh, he had a meeting this…” She trailed off, and her eyes widened in horror, but a second later they narrowed significantly. “Why would you even ask me that?” she inquired defensively.
Caroline tried not to, but she couldn’t help but burst into laughter. “Annie Spadaro, you’re starting to crack!”
“What do you mean, ‘crack’?” Annie hissed.
Caroline grinned. “You’ve said that Richard is going to crack, but if anyone is about to crack, it’s you.”
“Oh, shut up,” Annie muttered.
Caroline placed both of her hands on her chest in an overly dramatic fashion. “My two best friends are in love with each other,” she declared.
“Give me a minute,” Annie quipped, holding her hand up. “I’m trying to remember why we’re even friends in the first place.”
Caroline smiled wryly. “Okay, well, while you think about that, I’m going to get started on the Christmas cards. Your boyfriend,” she teased, receiving a less-than-impressed glare from her best friend, “has given me two weeks to produce a batch of twenty cards, and I’m still assistant-less, so I need to get the wheels turning,” she continued.
“Have you put out an ad for a new one?” Annie asked.
Caroline sighed. “Not yet. I’m going to do it this week, but it’s such a tedious process. Why can’t a decent colourist just fall down from the sky, or something?”
“Or just float down with an umbrella, like Mary Poppins,” Annie suggested.
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“Maybe that’s her now!” Annie quipped, making her way over to greet whoever was outside.
The door swung open to reveal Richard standing next to a stroller, where Stefano appeared to be asleep. Annie grinned gleefully.
“Richie! We were just talking about you.”
“I’m sorry,” Richard said dryly. “Have I got the wrong apartment?”
Caroline was momentarily dazed by his presence; she truly hadn’t expected to see him, and definitely not so soon.
“Richard?” she inquired, making her way around her desk to get a proper look at him.
“Hi,” he said softly.
“And that is my cue to leave,” Annie trilled, throwing Caroline a brief, but triumphant smirk before slipping past Richard, making her way across the hall into her own apartment.
“Was it something I did?” Richard asked, a smirk slowly creeping onto his face. “If so, please let me know so I can do it again.”
She laughed, realising just how much she had missed his sarcasm. The smile on his face softened, and then his eyes met hers…
They locked in a gaze that seemed to say so much more than any exchange of words ever could. For what felt like several minutes, they just stood there staring at each other, speaking a language that only they understood, and for a brief moment Caroline thought there was a flicker of something in his eyes, something she had seen so many times before, and it stirred up a very familiar ache inside of her… but a second later he averted his gaze, and the moment was over. In fact, she’d probably just imagined the whole thing.
Snapping out of her daze, she realised that he was still standing in the hallway.
“Come in,” she said, smiling at him as she made a gesture with her hand, urging him inside. Once he had closed the door behind them, he placed Stefano’s stroller by the fish tank; he was still asleep, and probably would be for another thirty minutes or so.
“Coffee?” Caroline turned towards him, having already poured some into a mug for him, anticipating his response.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling as he took the mug out of her hands. It took him a couple of seconds to realise that it was the black mug he had claimed as his own while he was working for her. The fact that she’d remembered this made his stomach flutter, but he tried his best to remain composed.
“So… you’re working from home again, huh?”
“Yeah,” she replied with a chuckle. “I go into the office once a week, maybe twice, but only for a few hours. I think the company realised that it would make their lives much easier if they just agreed to this arrangement.”
He smirked. “What a shame,” he quipped. “You must really miss that daily dose of Plum.”
“You know me so well,” she joked.
Richard chuckled softly. “I bet those animators are heartbroken,” he continued.
Caroline frowned. “What? Those guys will barely look at me! It is so funny. Every time I so much as wave at them, they practically recoil.”
“They both have a crush on you,” he said wryly.
“Seriously? No,” she responded, clearly amused. Richard just shook his head. She had always been completely oblivious to these things.
“Oh, come on,” he argued. “It was so obvious. They used to shoot me these little glares, like I was the enemy or something.”
Her lips curled into a sweet smirk. “People look at you that way all the time, Richard.”
“Good point,” he quipped. “So am I interrupting something?” he asked curiously.
She shook her head briefly. “Not really. I was just about to get some work done, while Annie was busy denying that she’s in love with Del. I need to get these cards done by-“
“Hang on,” he interrupted. “Let’s go back to the part about Annie and Del for a minute. They’re… in a relationship?” He eyed her incredulously.
“Yes!” Caroline exclaimed. “But neither of them is willing to admit it.”
Richard could not think of a response to that. Instead, he just laughed. He laughed until there were tears in his eyes. Annie and Del!
“Oh my goodness,” he breathed, wiping his eyes. “That is the funniest thing I have ever heard.” He contemplated this for a moment. “It’s also terrifying,” he added.
Caroline giggled. “But it makes sense, right?”
“Oddly, yes,” he agreed. Then another thought suddenly hit him. “Oh god! What if they reproduce?”
This caused Caroline to laugh out loud. “Oh, Richard.”
“No, really. There should be a law against that sort of thing,” he continued.
“You’re horrible,” she joked.
“Thank you,” he replied sarcastically. “So what are you working on?” he inquired.
“Oh, just a batch of Christmas cards,” she said. “I have two weeks to come up with twenty of them, and I also have to finish next year’s calendar, as well as some designs for new lunchboxes. I’m actually screwed.” She grimaced slightly. “I’m currently between assistants, so I need to find a replacement, which is another thing I haven’t got time for.”
The words left his mouth before he’d even thought it through. “Maybe I can help?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t mean…”
“I’d be more than happy to step in, if you need help,” he assured her, and was surprised to note that he actually meant it. He really didn’t mind. He wanted to spend time with her, and this would give him an excuse to do just that.
“Are you sure?” she asked, a look of concern on her face.
“Of course,” he replied softly.
She smiled gratefully. “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. That ache in the pit of her stomach had definitely just intensified.
Richard had never been fond of his family; his father had been absent, and his mother had been drunk most of the time. He’d never known his grandparents very well, nor did he have any particular desire to; he knew his mother’s mother had been an alcoholic, so Natalie had stayed true to the family script and followed the same path. Natalie’s father had, from the sounds of it, worn himself thin in order to make ends meet for both her and her older brother, and his relationship with their mother had been strained, at best. He knew even less about his father’s parents; he knew that Ben had been the second youngest of four, and that they’d had to travel a lot because of his father’s job. This had taken its toll on Richard’s grandmother, Eliza, who, according to his father, had ended up in the hospital after having a nervous breakdown.
At least he had one relative he could relate to.
He’d always thought he would never care about any of his family members, that they were no longer going to be a part of his life, but things were different now; he wanted Stefano to have a grandparent. He wanted Stefano to have a family, so he decided that he would get in touch with his dad, now that he was back in New York. He deserved to get to know his grandson, as well, Richard had come to realise; he deserved that second chance, and he was going to throw him a bone. Besides, having a bit of support wouldn’t hurt him, either. It might give him some time off to rediscover his muse so he could finally start painting again.
“Richard?” his father said, sounding nothing short of baffled as he opened his front door to see his son standing in front of him.
“Hi,” Richard replied, smiling weakly.
“What brings you here?” Ben asked, returning the smile.
“I, um… this is…” He gestured towards Stefano, who was in his stroller, happily sucking on his hand. “This is your grandson.”
“Oh my goodness,” Ben managed, as his eyes fell on an oblivious Stefano. “This little thing is…?”
“My son, yes,” Richard confirmed. “His name is Stefano.”
“And who is…?”
His father, obviously still in shock, seemed incapable of finishing any of his questions, but Richard knew what he was going to ask.
“Julia, my ex-wife,” he said, smiling ruefully.
“Oh, the Italian one?” Ben furrowed his brow. “I never liked her.”
“You never met her,” Richard pointed out.
“I didn’t have to. She didn’t sound nice.”
Richard chuckled wryly. “Well, she wasn’t.”
“So where is she now?” Ben inquired.
“She’s in Italy… or somewhere else in Europe, partying with her spoiled friends and their alcoholic pets. I don’t know.”
His father looked mildly confused for a second. “Did you… did you want to come in?” he finally asked.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Richard replied, and Ben stepped aside, allowing Richard to get through the door with Stefano’s stroller.
“I’m just going to make some coffee,” he said, as he walked in the direction of the kitchen. “Take a seat, I’ll be right back.”
Richard sat down, and looked around. He’d never really been there before; it was a cosy little apartment, and if his father’s act was as neat and put-together as this place, this might actually be somewhere he could leave Stefano for a few hours, maybe even overnight, so he could get some time alone to paint.
“Here we go,” his father said, reappearing from the kitchen with two mugs of coffee. He put them both down on the table, and sat down next to Richard on the sofa.
“So… I’m a grandfather now?” he said with a chuckle.
“Yeah. Unbelievably enough,” Richard replied, somewhat humorously.
“Well… he looks alright,” Ben pointed out, a slight grin spreading across his face.
Richard couldn’t help but laugh. “He’s great, actually.”
“I bet he is.” Ben’s grin had grown even wider. “Well, can I hold the little rug rat? What kind of name is Stefano, anyway?”
“Julia picked it,” Richard said with a shrug, lifting the baby out of his stroller and handing him over to his grandfather.
Ben looked sort of awkward with Stefano in his arms. “Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve held one of these,” he quipped. “Hello there,” he said, addressing Stefano, who was just staring at this complete stranger that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
“Don’t worry, he’ll probably say it back in about a year or so,” Richard remarked sarcastically.
His father laughed. “I look forward to it! So, what are you up to nowadays?”
“Not much,” Richard replied. “I’ve just moved back here from Italy, so I’m just getting settled in at the moment.”
“Right. And what about that woman?”
Richard’s head shot up. “What woman?”
His father eyed him curiously. “The mother, of course. What other woman would I be talking about?”
Richard shook his head. “You’re right,” he said, chuckling nervously. “Julia is out of the picture. She’s given me full custody. She never wanted him.”
Richard frowned. “No, but things change.”
Ben smiled, nodding his head. “Of course.”
A few seconds of silence ticked by before Ben spoke again. “And what about the other woman?”
Richard raised his eyebrows. “What?”
His father gave him a knowing look. “The cartoonist. What happened to her?”
Richard looked down into his lap. “I…” He trailed off.
“Did you two ever…?”
He looked back up at his father. “Ever what?”
“You know… get together.”
Richard sighed. “Yeah, but I messed it up. She’s engaged to someone else now.”
“That’s a shame,” Ben said, bouncing Stefano up and down, trying to keep him somewhat entertained. “I really liked her,” he continued.
“Me too,” Richard said quietly.
Ben furrowed his brow. “Do you still love her?”
Richard managed a pained smile. “If I lie, will you pretend to believe me?”
“I’m sorry,” his father said sympathetically. As if on cue, Stefano started to cry in a way that could only mean one thing.
“It’s time for his nap,” Richard said, lifting the baby up and carrying him over to his stroller. “I’m going to take him for a walk. Did you… want to come?”
Ben smiled appreciatively. “I would love to.”
For Caroline, it was like going back in time, watching Richard as he worked on the other side of the partners’ desk. She found herself studying him intently when he wasn’t looking; just watching the usual way he frowned as he contemplated what colour he needed to use next. But there was something different about him this time around; he used to hate doing the work, and it showed, but now he actually appeared… content? Happy? She couldn’t determine exactly what he was thinking or feeling, she never could, but he definitely didn’t come off as annoyed.
Maybe it’s because it’s temporary, Caroline thought to herself. He’s just doing me a favour, as a friend. That’s probably it.
It was nice, though, seeing Richard in a good mood. She could definitely get used to it. Somehow, his whole demeanour seemed different, like he had fundamentally changed, and it filled her with an emotional ache she couldn’t quite define.
Do I love him?
It seemed impossible at this point in time; she was engaged to someone else! But the more she studied him, the more she realised that it was definitely a possibility, no matter how much she tried to deny it. She’d never felt about Randy the way she felt about Richard.
Felt. She had felt that way about Richard. But she had moved on. Surely she had moved on? Surely they both had?
She tried to shake off the feeling – the thoughts of what could have been.
“I finished another one,” she said, sliding the panel down on his side of the desk.
“Keep them coming,” he replied with a smirk, without looking up from the one he was currently giving colour and life to.
“You got it,” Caroline chirped.
She’s so beautiful. I love when she pins her hair up so I get a full view of her gorgeous face. Her hair has grown longer since I last saw her. I want to touch it. I want to smell it. I want to smell her… no, stop it, Richard!
He tried to turn his focus back to the drawing he was colouring in; he tried to smile and appear focused. He was enjoying being so close to her, it was what he’d wanted, but it also hurt, and it hurt even more than he’d thought it would. He didn’t think that would be possible, but now he was beginning to realise that there was no limit to how much he loved her. If he could, he would give her the world.
He loved how she sometimes chuckled quietly to herself while she was working. He loved listening to her soft humming as she made coffee, and he loved how she chewed on her pen when she was feeling stuck. He absolutely loved watching her with Stefano, though it made his heart ache in a way it never had before; she had already bonded with his son after just a couple of days, as he had always known she would. Earlier she had offered to put Stefano down for his nap, and he had fallen asleep within five minutes. It was like she had some sort of magic touch.
She looked up from her side of the desk, and as soon as their eyes met he couldn’t stop himself; he smiled, and she smiled back, and there was that pain in his heart again. It was like a constant stream of stings, every time she did something beautiful, which was more or less all the time.
“What?” she asked curiously, with a hint of amusement in her tone. He realised, with slight unease, that he might have given himself away with his eyes, the windows into his soul, but then he remembered that she’d always been clueless about such things. She seemed unable to notice even the most obvious signs of infatuation directed her way.
“Nothing,” he replied casually, with his best attempt at a smirk, before once again returning his attention to the drawing in front of him.
You have to stop doing this to yourself. She’s getting married, you idiot. You are lucky to even have her as a friend; she was much too good for you and you need to move on.
But I can’t, can I? I’m so stupidly in love with her that I can’t move on. Everything about her captivates me; every little thing she does makes me love her more.
He knew that these feelings carried the potential to destroy him, to drive him insane, if he couldn’t contain them. He could see a breakdown looming on the horizon, flashing its warning signs, but he was determined to fight through it because he valued her too much to let her go completely. If nothing else, she could be his best friend and maybe a maternal-type figure in Stefano’s life. Of course she was going to have her own children; he knew that she wanted them more than anything else, but he also knew that she would grow fond of Stefano, because she couldn’t help herself, and maybe that would stick, somehow? Or maybe she’d get her own family and slowly drift out of their lives. He couldn’t know for sure, but the latter didn’t sound like the Caroline he had come to know and love, so he would remain hopeful.
Well, as hopeful as he was capable of, anyway.