To be honest, I'm not really in the mood to write. But I'm bored. Bonnie asked me for a sequel for Backup, as I left a rather glaring loose end. She also liked Dr. Emily Kopacek For some reason, that sounds good, so I'll go with that. Particularly since Turnbull has left me high and dry.

I finally had to hunt Turnbull down and drag him back by his ear. He squeals like a girl, by the way. Somehow, this story has taken a turn towards the 'Twilight Zone'. I'm not quite sure what's up with Frannie, but something sure is. Maybe she can find happiness, too? What a surprise this one was. Now, that will leave Fraser, since Vecchio is still working on The Stella....

What's frightening, is that this turned into an NC-17...for <shudder> graphic sex between men and women. I have to admit to never having thought I'd ever be writing 'romance', but suddenly, I have. That will teach me to 'zone out' and let the musae take over. Many and Varied is having a field day.

As always, I'm using a lot of characters that don't belong to me (would that they did, and were real). Likewise, I'm still eternally grateful to their creators for their genius and continued largess for not suing me over their unauthorized use. I write because my musae won't leave me alone. I don't make any monetary profit from this, nor do I intend to infringe upon the rights of the owners of the intellectual property I use.

All I Ever Wanted Was A Cuddle


She awoke slowly. She could feel him snuggled up to her and she smiled. He had said that all he really wanted was someone who would give him a cuddle whenever he needed one. He needed more cuddles than any person she'd ever met. He'd also kept his word that sex wasn't of all that much interest to him. That worried her a bit. She was beginning to wonder if there was a problem he was trying to hide. She shifted slightly and he nuzzled against her; she realized that for probably the first time she had awakened before him. She shifted so she could look at him. She noticed that he used her like a 'body-pillow', his head cradled between her breasts and his body draped half across hers. She also felt his arousal. Smiling, she gently ran her fingers through his soft, short blond hair. He was very different from the men in her family, the smooth, hairless chest and scant body hair. Her father and brothers had a great deal of body hair, and the receding hairlines that generally went with it. He was different and she had fallen in love with him.

Of course, she hadn't told him. He had enough problems. He'd been beaten nearly to death just three and a half months earlier and was still recovering. He was back to almost ninety percent, but he wanted one-hundred-and-ten-percent. He was frustrated by his perceived lack of progress. He couldn't understand that if it hurt, he should stop, he was causing injury. He had been taught 'no pain, no gain' and bought into the fallacy. He was learning, though. At least he was back at work, and had been for a month, just two weeks after he got out of the hospital. He wasn't on full duty, of course, he had to be able to pass the physical, first. He'd passed the psych evaluation with flying colors, amidst much teasing by his colleagues, but she could tell that he was pleased, even if it did mean he had to wear a uniform again. It was better than being on medical leave.

She felt him shift as he began to wake up. Like a cat, he stretched against her, still asleep, and she smiled, letting the hand not busy with his hair run across his shoulder and down his back. She was more than ready to take their relationship to the next level, but knew she had to be careful not to frighten him. He'd been badly hurt by his ex-wife and had been convinced that he wasn't worth loving. She'd like to get her hands on whomever it was who had convinced him of that particular untruth. He had to be the most gentle, caring, loving man she'd ever known. His shyness only accentuated his appeal for her.

She was here with him. Again. He loved weekends. She would spend her entire two days off with him at his place, although sometimes they'd go to her house. He didn't feel intimidated by her and she gave the best cuddles. As usual when he awoke beside her, and almost as usual when he awoke alone, he needed to take care of a little problem. When he'd begged her to stay with him, back that first night out of the hospital, he'd promised that he could live without the sex, and he intended to keep that promise. He didn't want her to go away because he couldn't control himself. He eased a hand down to quickly get rid of the problem. The moment of pain always made him wince, but it kept him from messing this up. He'd meant it when he'd said that all he really wanted was to wake up to someone who wanted to be with him, no strings attached. They'd been together now for over a month, and in all that time he'd been more than content. He dreaded the day she either got tired of him, or he did something to make her hate him. His experiences had all told him that his inability to maintain a relationship with anyone was his fault. His fault he wasn't what his parents had wanted, his fault that Stella wanted a divorce, his fault...

But she was here, now, and he was going to hang on to these feelings for all the lonely nights he was sure would come. Then he realized that she was awake, and stiff... he could have cried, because he recognized that body language, even if his eyes were still closed. Stella had given it to him often enough at the end of their marriage, that 'you're touching me and I feel repulsed' stiffness. Sadly, wondering what he'd done to ruin the best thing he'd had in his life for a very long time, he pulled away.

"Sorry. I'm sorry." He couldn't look at her and see 'that' look, but oh, God, it hurt.

"Ray?" She sat up and reached out for him. "Why did you do that?"

"Do what?" He was genuinely puzzled. He had no idea what he had done to anger her, although, her voice wasn't angry, exactly. He turned to look at her and instead of anger, he saw hurt. What had he done? How could he ever have any kind of relationship if he didn't even know what he'd done?

She frowned. His expression told her that he was lost and afraid. She felt him shiver under the hand she'd laid on his arm. The realization hit that he had done it automatically, without thinking, believing that she wasn't... She smiled and reached for him, pulling him back down with her. She let her fingers trail down his body to touch him. "Never mind. Just don't do it again."

She was touching him... there. But... ohhh, yeah, just like that... that was good, she had gentle hands, soft and warm. He moaned softly in the back of his throat. Then he remembered and tried to pull away again.

"Wait, don't. I meant it. I don't need..."

"Need? No. I suppose not, but how about want? What about what I want? Have you considered that?" She stopped touching him so intimately and held him against her, nuzzling into his hair. "Hmmm?"

"I..." he had no idea what to answer to that. He really had meant it when he said he didn't need sex, but she was just so.... He took a deep breath, forcing himself under control and trying to think clearly enough to talk. "But that's not what I promised," he began, still trying to put his thoughts together.

"Promise? That wasn't a promise; it was a plea. You'd have promised anything I had asked at that point, if I would stay with you. Am I right?" She felt him nod. "Then, I think we need to rethink a few things and talk, don't you?"

He shivered. Talk? Yeah. He could talk. He'd do anything she asked, if she would just stay with him a while longer. She kept the lonelys away. She was warm and kind and gentle. She held him and kept the nightmares at bay, although he hadn't told her that, yet. He felt friendship for her, like he had with Fraser, but better, she knew how to hug and wasn't afraid to touch him, like most people were; well, not Fraser, he would pat his shoulder or touch his arm, sometimes. It just wasn't enough. He found that he desperately needed to be held, and on a regular basis. She gave the best cuddles he could ever remember, well, maybe Bubbie's had been as good. But she'd died when he was nineteen and he hadn't had as good a cuddle since, until he nearly died and this wonderful lady had come into his life to help him.

"Ray?" she interrupted his thinking. He started at her voice.

"Sorry. I was, uh, thinking."

She smiled, "Thinking is good. What were you thinking?"

He replied without thinking, "That you give the best cuddles."

She chuckled and hugged him closer. "I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me. Thank you."

"I should be thanking you," he murmured, nuzzling against her.

"Our own, private little 'mutual cuddling society'?" she said, teasingly. He chuckled and pulled away for a moment, then moved back for a kiss.

"I could handle that."

"Good. So, tell me what's going on? How long have you been doing that?"

He blushed and didn't try to pretend to misunderstand. "From about the second week. Once I started feeling better." He looked at her, his expression earnest and pleading for understanding and forgiveness. "Honest, all I ever really wanted was a cuddle. It's, like I'm addicted to them, or something. I just didn't want to be alone any more. I hoped that if I was good and didn't ever ask for more, that you might stay with me. I love waking up with you. I love the way you cuddle, and the kissing is the best. So, I figured that if my stupid body didn't understand, I'd do whatever I needed to so you wouldn't leave me."

In the two and a half months she had known him, that had to have been the longest speech on emotions he'd ever given. "Oh, Ray. And here I was, worried that there was something wrong. That I wasn't good enough; that you weren't attracted to me."

He frowned, "Why wouldn't I be attracted to you? You're about the nicest person I know. You're beautiful and fun to be with and you're warm and give great cuddles and you give wonderful kisses, what's not to be attracted to?"

She stared at him. "Ray, I'm forty pounds overweight, I'm built like my Romany ancestors, in other words, fat. My hair...."

"Your hair is beautiful. I love your hair. And you are not fat. You're soft, but you're stronger than most men I know. You're beautiful and I love you." He stiffened when he realized what he had said. He hadn't intended to tell her. Now she would reject him for sure. Once again, his unruly mouth had screwed up his life. He held his breath and waited for her to push him away and leave him.

She could see the terror in his eyes, fear of rejection, expectation that now that he'd told her, she'd push him away and leave him. Her mouth firmed into a hard line and she thought that if she ever, ever, found out who had done this to him, she was going to hurt them in a most unpleasant and permanent manner.

He saw the look on her face, the anger, fury, almost; and he thought it was for him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..."

She placed a hand over his mouth, stopping him. "If you say you didn't mean that, I'll have to hurt you," she said softly. She could see tears glittering in his eyes. "I love you, too. That's why I was so upset. I couldn't understand why you never reacted to me. Why you never...well, you know. So. What I want from you, right now, is a kiss, and some cuddles. If it goes beyond cuddles, that's wonderful. I am more than ready for that." She smiled at him, seeing his confusion and surprise. "What?"

"You love me?" He seemed bewildered.

"Of course. What's not to love? You're gentle, warm, kind, cute, cuddly; perfectly lovable, in fact."

He searched her face, not quite believing her. "I am?" His surprise was total.

She sighed. "If I ever find out who told you that you weren't worth loving so much that you came to believe it, I'm going to have to have a very long, very physical talk with them." She shook her head. "Yes, Ray. You are lovable; and I love you. Okay?" When he still looked dubious, she continued. "When Maedel says she doesn't like someone, do you trust her?"

"Sure. She's always been right." He wasn't sure what his dog had to do with anything, but this he knew the answer to.

"All right, and, when she takes to someone, and likes them right off? Do you believe her then?"

"Yeah. Like I said, she's never wrong about people."

"All right. Now, think about it, she worships you. Adores you, loves you with every cell in her body. You are her alpha and she will do whatever it takes to please you. Do you honestly think she would do that if you weren't worthy?"

Ray didn't know what to answer to that. "Uh..."

Maedel suddenly appeared, leaping onto the bed and pushing her way between them, plopping down to lick their faces. She was whining and Ray recognized her request that they get up and take her outside. Mostly, however, she was trying to tell them to stop talking and start feeling. Emily giggled and Ray laughed.

"Fine, Maedel. Get on out of here and let us up. Sheesh, can't even wallow on a Saturday morning. Some people," Ray grumbled, pushing at the dog, which jumped from the bed and headed out to wait patiently by the door. She knew how long it took them to drag themselves up and out.

"So, if Maedel thinks you're worth loving, why on earth wouldn't I?"

"Because she's just a dog and you're a lot smarter?" He didn't really mean it, but automatically tried to give her a way out.

"Nope. Guess again." She could see his expression softening as he started to hope that she was telling him the truth.

His eyes crinkled up in amusement, "Now, I know you're smarter than the dog...." He had a warm, tingly feeling in his chest that was spreading across his body. Maybe, just maybe.

"Goof," she laughed and gently smacked him on the shoulder.

"Hey!" His hands came up and his fingers started to wiggle against her ribs, tickling her.

She shrieked with laughter and started tickling him back, knowing just the right spots to make him squirm and giggle. Ray reacted by trying to grab her hands and soon they were wrestling, their contortions tangling the bedding around their legs as they tried to kick the restraining covers out of their way.

Ray twisted and caught her just right, managing to pin her to the bed, using his entire body to hold her down. They were both out of breath and panting as they laughed. He looked down at her in triumph, when his expression changed and he frowned.

"Are you sure?" he asked softly.

"No. But I'm willing to take the chance. How about you?" There was a challenge in her voice, but her expression was one of hope and love.

"I'd like to, but..." He looked away from her nearly black eyes.

"I know. I think you're worth the risk. Do you?"

He gave her a hard look, "You're more than worth it. I just don't want to screw this up."

"It takes two, Ray. Two to make it work, two to screw it up. But if we don't take the chance, we've already lost."

"God, Emily, I love you," his voice cracked as he said it.

She smiled. "I love you, too. So? Are we going to take the chance?"

He gave her the shy, adorable smile she loved. "I will, if you will."

She kissed him, or he kissed her, it would have been hard for anyone to tell, even the participants. It was definitely a start.

They were startled apart by the sound of a pager going off. Ray jumped, then went limp. "Since I don't have a pager, it must be yours?" He rolled off her and got out of her way as she found and scrounged through her purse to find the annoying device with such lousy timing. It was only six in the morning.

Emily looked at the page and groaned. "Oh, man. I'd better call." Ray handed her the cordless phone and rose to head for the bathroom, knowing that whatever might have happened certainly wasn't going to happen now. At least, not yet. His body tingled in anticipation and he shivered.

He was in the shower when she came in and asked, "Ray? What are your plans for tonight?"

He became still, the water pouring down his body. "Uh, I was kind of hoping to spend it with you,"

"Would you mind going out with me?"

"Of course not! Where to?"

"Polska Hall."

"Where?" He poked his head around the shower curtain to give her a puzzled look.

"The Polish Hall? You've never heard of it?"

"Huh-uh. What is it?" He pulled his head back under the shower and continued scrubbing his body.

"It's a club for Poles. You've never heard of it? How far are you from Poland?" She was shocked that he'd never heard of the club for expatriate Poles and their families.

"Uh, second generation. My mum and Dad were born here. Both sets of grandparents came over after the First World War. Why?"

"Really? I wonder why they never took you? I'm only first generation, myself. My parents and grandparents came over after the Second World War. I was born kind of late in their lives. I have brothers who retired when I was still in college. I practically grew up at Polska. Great parties, and the food!" Her voice made him smile.

"Sure. I don't mind going. You think they'll care that I've never been, before?"

"Of course not. I don't suppose you speak any Polish?"

"I'm a little rusty. My Bubbie died when I was nineteen. She never did learn to speak English."

"Sounds like mine. She's the one who called. She's holding court tonight and wants me there."

"Holding court?"

"She's one hundred and four years old, Ray. She's the oldest one left. She's kind of like the Queen of Poland, if you know what I mean."

"Guess I'd better wear a suit, then." Ray stepped out of the shower and she looked appreciatively at him. He had what she thought of as 'working muscles' as opposed to 'weight-lifting muscles'. He was slender, almost too slender, but she'd managed to put a few pounds on him by cooking for him. Without all the take-out he usually ate, plenty of exercise and good sleep, he was rapidly returning to his before-the-beating state, maybe even better.

"You don't have to, but it would make a good impression." She handed him a big, fluffy bath sheet.

"Not a problem. I got suits. I just don't wear 'em much." He grinned at her and took the towel, rubbing it quickly over his face and head, then wrapping the whole thing around him. She sighed and he looked startled.

"What, you don't like me looking?" she asked, her eyebrows going up.

He blushed and looked away. "It's just...."

"Hasn't anyone ever admired your body before, Ray?"

"Not for a real long time. Not since...."

"The Stella?" He nodded. "But she didn't like me boxing, so I quit, and then she didn't look much any more."

Emily frowned. "She used your body as a reason not to box?"

"I guess." He squeezed past her, drying himself as he went, not looking at her.

"The only thing I would worry about you boxing is if you broke your nose again. I like your nose." He froze in surprise and turned to look over his shoulder at her.


"Really. I don't like seeing you hurt, though, so I doubt if I'd ever go and watch you fight. But I'd never dream of trying to stop you."

He smiled. "Thanks. I was workin' with some kids down at the gym. I'm a pretty fair coach, you know? Better coach than I ever was a boxer."

"There's no shame in that, Ray. Now, coaching? That I think I could watch." He grinned and went to get dressed, while she took over the bathroom.

They were sitting over breakfast, when the phone rang. Ray frowned and got up to answer it. "Yeah, Kowalski." He listened, his frown turning into a grimace of disgust. "Fine. I'll be there. What time? Shit. Yeah. Tell him I'll be there. Just make sure that they're ready to go. I got stuff to do. Yeah. I know. Thanks, Frannie. Yeah. Bye." He hung up a bit more forcefully than absolutely necessary.

"What's wrong?"

"I gotta go down to the station and talk to the State's Attorneys. Seems I got a date in court on Monday and they forgot until just now that they forgot to tell me and don't know what I'm gonna say."

"What time do we have to be there?"

Her words weren't lost on him, and he frowned. "You sure? These things are like interrogations. They can go on for hours."

"So, what time do we have to be there?"

"They want me at two."

"That's plenty of time, then. What else did you want to do, today?" She smiled, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.

"I gotta do laundry," he sighed. That would waste a couple of hours. "Then I gotta figure out what to wear tonight."

"Tell you what, let's go see what you have, then we can take your laundry to my house. I do have a washer and dryer, you know."

"Yeah? It'll take a lot longer that way, though. Laundromat, in, do 'em all at once, out, about two hours."

"Yes, but think of what we could be doing while we're waiting," she practically purred. His eyes widened and he jumped up, heading for his bedroom.

"What color you gonna wear?"

"I have no idea. What do you have?" she replied, following him.

She carried his suit, while he carried his laundry. Maedel trotted along beside them. Ray dumped his dirty clothes in the trunk of his car and escorted her to her vehicle. "I'll follow you, okay?"

"I need to run a few errands. I'll meet you there. The washer and dryer are in the basement. Go ahead and get started."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure. I'll be just a few minutes behind you. You have a key, use it."

"Yes, ma'am." Ray grinned and watched her take off. Whistling, he headed for his car.

He'd just put his first load in the dryer when she arrived. She was carrying several bags and he offered to help her. She just smiled and let him take the things for the kitchen. He knew where everything went, so while she took care of her other purchases, he put the groceries away. When she was through, she came out and sat beside him on the couch.

"Now, where were we when we were so rudely interrupted this morning?"

Ray blushed, but wrapped his arms around her, giving her a hug. "Uh, as I recall, the first time, we were sort of wrestling. Is that what you remember?" He nuzzled at her temple, feathering tiny, light, kisses along her hairline.

"Mmmmm, I seem to remember some tickling going on, as well."

"I think I was done with that part," he kissed the tip of her nose, then shifted for better access and kissed her lips.

She couldn't remember anyone, ever, who could kiss better. Of course, she would be the first to admit that it might not necessarily have been his technique, but merely the man himself that caused her to come to that conclusion.

"I think we were talking, too. Weren't we?" she asked.

He stopped trying to seduce her and sighed. "Yeah. I guess so." He leaned back, but still held her.

"Ray, talking is important."

"I know," but he was afraid. Every time a woman gave him the 'we've got to talk' speech, he wound up alone. "I don't want to lose you," he whispered, his throat thick with fear and dismay.

"That's why we need to talk, Ray. I don't want to lose you, either." She frowned in concern when he let her go and stood up. He moved across the room to gaze blindly through the window. He wrapped his arms around his body, giving himself a hug, as though it was the only human contact he would be allowed.

"Every time someone says that, I wind up alone. Stella, my ex. She said 'we need to talk' She did all the talkin'. Our marriage wasn't working, maybe we needed some time apart for a while. She wanted me to move out. So I did. I'd do anything to make her happy. Anything but what she wanted. I couldn't be what she wanted. Suave and sophisticated. Somebody who wears a suit all the time. The next time she wanted to talk, she told me she'd filed for divorce, that we were over. 'Course, before that, my folks said they needed to talk to me, and they said that since I wouldn't listen to reason and dropped out of college and dropped a bomb on 'em by announcin' that I was gonna go to the police academy and become a cop, they decided to move to Arizona, to be closer to my brother. Oh, and let's not forget about six months ago. I thought me an' Frannie could really make it work, but she says 'we need to talk', and tells me that I'm a great guy, but I'm not what she needs. I'm just not what anyone wants, you know? So, here we are, you're sayin' 'we need to talk', so I'm freakin' out, over here." He was shivering with the cold wind of loneliness, and there was no shelter in sight.

"But what I want to talk about is how we can make this work. For example, we're getting ready to move up a step in our relationship. Beyond cuddles and waking up together. What turns you on? More importantly, what turns you off? Do you want to keep things as they are? We can do that. We don't have to take the next step. Maybe you're not ready for it. Maybe more cuddles is what we need. Maybe we don't know each other enough. What about living arrangements? Do you want to live here? Do you want me to live with you in your apartment? Do we want to shuttle back and forth? What do we do? If we don't talk. We'll get lost. I don't want to lose again." She had stood up and followed him, as she spoke; she wrapped her arms around him and pressed the side of her face between his shoulder blades. "At least they had the decency to tell you."

He turned in her embrace. His arms uncoiling to wrap around her, kissing the top of her head. "Tell me."

"I was engaged. Wedding was in about six weeks. He said he had to work late, so I ran around doing errands. It was getting later, so I stopped off at my favorite restaurant for something to eat. He was at 'our' table, with this beautiful blond woman. She was tall, thin, could have been a model. He was kissing her. I could have died."

"What did you do?" Ray's voice was soft, his arms tightened around her, offering comfort and support.

"I made a scene."

"Good for you." His hands started to rub up and down her back. Feeling the tenseness, he slipped one hand under her hair to knead at the muscles of her neck.

"I don't remember everything, but I know that I shrieked like a shrew. I know he was terribly embarrassed. I pulled off my engagement ring and almost threw it at him. Then I stopped, folded it into my fist, shook it at him, and said, 'I'll consider this payment for services rendered.' Then I turned on my heel and left."

Ray chuckled. "Good for you. What happened then?"

"I ran home and called the wedding off. Everyone seemed glad that I found out before it was too late, but a lot of our friends, his friends, really, I suppose, thought I should have given him back his ring. Most of the women were with me, though."

"You did the right thing, I think, unless it was an heirloom or something."

"No. It wasn't. But it was very expensive. Eight thousand dollars."

Ray pulled back, whistling in awe. "Wow. That must have been some ring!"

"Oh, it was. Diamonds and Emeralds. I used it for the down payment on this house, actually. He was furious, of course. Threatened to sue me, but someone told him that he had been the one to commit a breech of contract. He gave up, moved away and I haven't seen or heard from him since."

"That sucks. He sucks," Ray agreed.

"I've been very careful, ever since. I don't want to ever go through that again. And I haven't, until now. I want no secrets between us. I want to be able to talk to you and have you listen, and you be able to talk to me and me listen. What do you want from this relationship? What do you want from me? Where do we go from here?"

He held her tight, afraid to let go, afraid that if he did, it would all disappear. "I don't know. I never thought that far ahead, not on anything." He reluctantly released her and stepped back. "I just know I don't want you to go away. I want to keep wakin' up to you whenever you got the time."

She nodded, understanding. "All right. Maybe, for now, we need to keep things the way they are." She sighed and grinned ruefully at him, "I can wait. I can be very patient, when the reward is worth it." She stepped closer and leaned up to kiss him. "I think you're going to be worth it. I just hope that I am."

She turned to go down to check his laundry, leaving him standing by the window, dumbstruck.

"Uh, can we maybe, uh, make out on the couch while the clothes do their thing?" Her laugh brought a smile to his face and he hurried after her.

The last load was in the dryer and Ray was dressed in his suit. He'd chosen a nice, charcoal gray suit with a pale blue shirt that reflected that color in his eyes. She had opted for a dark blue skirt and a pale gray blouse and a sweater, that complimented him. They had discussed it and decided to go to his meeting and then go straight on to the hall, after she reassured him that the party was already going to be in full swing and had probably started before noon.

Frannie blinked when she saw Ray. She smiled tentatively at Emily and jerked her head towards the lieutenant's office, for Ray. He smiled at her. "Thanks, Frannie. Oh, you haven't met, yet. Emily Kopacek, this is Francesca Vecchio. Frannie's the civilian aide." He reluctantly left them together and headed on to the lieutenant's office, where he could see the lawyers already waiting.

Frannie gave the older woman a somewhat condescending smile. "So, you and Ray got somethin' goin', huh?"

"Something, yes." Emily was a little surprised that Ray had given up on this beautiful young woman. She looked around and found a chair. She pulled it up by Frannie's desk and sat down. "How do you like working here?" she asked, making small talk.

Frannie examined Ray's new lady and was surprised. She was a bit overweight and had to be close to forty, at least. She wondered what Ray saw in her. "It's okay. The guys are pretty good. Demanding, though."

Emily smiled. "I can imagine." She wondered how Ray could choose her over this young, vibrant, beautiful woman.

"So, you and Ray, uh, you're together?"

"I suppose you could say that."

Frannie looked around to see if anyone was around to overhear, "Has he given you the 'all I want is a cuddle' speech, yet?"

Emily frowned, "Yes."

"Well, I feel I should warn you," she leaned closer and lowered her voice. "When he says all he wants is to cuddle, that's all he wants. And he wants them all the time. Nothing else, well, kissing. He's good at that, too, but that's it. Nothing more. It's frustrating, you know? The guy just would not get a clue."

Emily stared at the younger woman for a moment, then shook her head sharply, once. "Did you ever wake up before he did?"

"Are you kidding? I swear that dog of his took lessons on when to get up from Fraser. What I'm sayin' is, he doesn't want anything but to cuddle. Capice?"

"Oh, I understand. Did you ever think to come right out and ask him for more?" Emily was surprised, but pleased to realize that the break-up happened because Frannie hadn't understood that she had to ask him for more.

"Hey I tried. He just didn't get it. I tried jumpin' his bones, but pffft, nothin'."

"I meant, did you come right out and ask for more?"

"Huh?" Frannie frowned, not understanding.

"Did you say to him, I want more than just cuddles?" Emily was coming to the realization that the reason Frannie had dumped Ray was miscommunication. She felt a sudden wave of relief. She'd already impressed on him that communication was important. She couldn't help the bit of triumph in her smile at the younger, prettier woman.

"Uh, no. I just kept trying to get him to, you know." She made a slight gesture, indicating what she meant.

The look Emily gave her was half pitying, half smug. "Did he promise that he would never ask for anything more?"

"Yeah. I thought it was a great line. Original, you know?"

"But it wasn't a line, Frannie. He made you a promise and he kept it. He made me the same promise and, like you, I was starting to think there was something wrong; until I woke up before he did and found out that he was interested, he just put a stop to it, thinking that I wanted him to keep that promise and never have anything more. I told him that more was exactly what I wanted, and that he wouldn't be breaking his promise, since I asked for it."

Frannie stared, her jaw hanging open. "You mean, all I had to do was say something?"

Emily's smile was commiserating. "That was all. Of course, I'm quite grateful to you."

"What for?" Frannie was still trying to come to grips with the knowledge of what she had thrown away.

"If you hadn't dumped him, we'd never have gotten together. I realize that at first it was need, on his part. The need to be held, to pretend that someone loved him. I'm sure you noticed that about him?"

"Oh, yeah. Seriously needy. Always wanting a hug or a cuddle, as he calls them. I finally figured that what he wanted was a mother, not a lover."

Emily smothered a laugh. "I can tell you, he's not looking for a mother." She sighed and glanced over towards the office, wondering what was going on. "He was mostly looking for a friend. Thanks to you, I think we've got a pretty good chance of making it work."

Frannie stared. She, too, glanced over to the lieutenant's office, thinking of the sweet, gentle man she'd dumped because she thought he wasn't interested. "I really blew it, didn't I?"

"I'm afraid so. But, like I said, I'm glad. I think we're good together. Of course, we'll know more after tonight."

Frannie looked shocked, "Tonight? You mean, you haven't...."

Emily grinned at her. "He's taking me to Polska Hall. That's why the suit. My grandmother called this morning and wants me there. Some kind of party. She's a hundred and four, so I'm not about to say 'no'. Ray's going, it's his first visit to the Hall. That's why the suit. I think he's afraid, but he'll do fine. After all, he's Polish, too."

Frannie nodded, a bit sadly. She really did like Ray, and had thought that they could have had something more, but in her own foolishness, she had dismissed him. Now, he had found someone new, and she knew that her chance was gone for good. Emily understood him better and had gotten past the stumbling block. She decided to be happy for him, for them. She grinned. "You hurt him, and I'll kill you," she warned.

Emily laughed. "Deal."

At four-thirty, the office door opened and a tired and annoyed Ray Kowalski came out, the lieutenant right behind him, leaving the lawyers behind. Neither man said anything until they had joined the ladies, who were watching them with concern. Ray slumped down on the edge of Frannie's desk, looking tired, dejected, and nearly ready to hit something.

"Ray," Welsh softly said, "They're jerks. Don't let them intimidate you. Who was there? Them or you?"

"I know that, Lieutenant, it's just that they tried to make it sound like I'm dirty. You know better than that, don't you?"

"Yeah. I know. So does anyone with half a brain. I don't think those two have that much between them," Welsh grumbled. He had a hand on Ray's shoulder, partly for support, partly in reassurance. "You go into court and you do what you have to do, understand?"

"Yes, sir. I intend to. If they don't like it, I guess they'll have to get used to it."

"Good man," Welsh patted Ray's shoulder and released him. He turned to Emily, "It's nice to see you again, Doctor Kopacek. Did I say that right? 'sack', not 'seck'?"

Emily smiled, "Yes. Ko-puh-sack is the way it's said." She glanced at the men in his office and frowned. "What was with them?"

"They tried to tell Ray what to say in court on Monday. Ray told 'em to stuff it."

"They didn't want you to tell the truth, Ray?"

"Not exactly. They just want me to say it in a way that makes it sound worse than it was."

Frannie frowned and glared towards the office, "What did they want you to say?"

"That I had 'foreknowledge of the events leading up to the arrest'. It made it sound like I knew what was happening before I got there. I didn't, and I told them so. They don't like that. They want me to pretend to know more, I don't know why. I got the feelin' that they're tryin' to set me up, or somethin'. I'm not going to play their game, though."

"You do what you feel is right, Ray. Don't let them dictate your testimony to you. And, if anyone asks, you tell 'em what went down here today. I'm with you. There's something hinkey goin' on. As soon as I can get rid of them, I'm gonna see about checking them out. Since the Feds are involved, I just might give them a call and ask. See if we can rattle their cage."

"Thank's, sir." Ray stretched and his expression changed, softening as he looked down at Emily. "So, you ready to bust outta this jernt?"

Welsh looked pleasantly surprised by the sudden change. He hadn't been able to see Ray much, since his beating, even though he was in the same building, but working the evidence lockup didn't give him a lot of free time to wander the halls, visiting. From what he could see, however, Ray was looking good. He'd put on a few pounds, and it looked good on him. The way the younger man was looking at his lady, that was good, too. He'd felt badly for him when Francesca had dumped him. But Ray had crawled back into the same shell that Stella had driven him into. It was obvious to him that Emily was good for him, and looking at her, it seemed that he might be good for her, too.

"When are you gonna go for your physical, Ray? I could really use you back on the job, here." Welsh surprised himself. He'd promised himself that that he wouldn't press Ray for his return, letting him heal and regain his strength and courage in his own time. But Vecchio needed a partner... needed Kowalski; and from what he could see, Kowalski was more than fit enough to come back.

Ray looked up at him in surprise. He turned to glance at Emily, a question in his eyes. "Uh, I don't know, I hadn't thought about it. I don't think I'm up to scaling walls, just yet, you know?"

"There isn't a wall. They changed the rules. They got some kind of physical testing equipment from the military. You just got to ride a stationary bike at a certain speed for a certain length of time while they hook you up to some kinda machine. Hell, it was the easiest time I've had passing my physical in years."

Ray looked surprised, "You had to take a physical?"

"Yeah, you know, the annual one, on your birthday?"

Ray nodded. He hadn't realized that even lieutenants had to take an annual physical. "Ride a bike, huh?" He looked again at Emily, who smiled at him.

"Well, I think you should probably contact them and ask about an appointment," she suggested.

"You think I'm ready?"

She smirked and with a sly grin at Frannie, replied, "I'll know better after tonight."

Both Ray and Francesca blushed at the innuendo. Welsh just grinned. Yep. They were good for each other.

"Good. That's good, then. Since this was supposed to be your day off, why don't you and your lovely lady get on out of here, now?"

"Yes, sir." Ray didn't need a second invitation. He jumped lightly to his feet and reached out a hand to Emily, who took it and rose elegantly from her chair, with a smile for him. Ray turned and offered her his arm, which she took and followed him from the room.

Welsh and Francesca watched them leave, Frannie looked a bit wistful, realizing just how much she had lost by not trying harder. Welsh smiled like a proud father seeing his child with the perfect mate.

"They look good together," he said, sounding somewhat surprised at the thought.

"I know," Francesca replied, remembering similar comments about when she was with him. She couldn't believe that she'd blown it so badly. Now she was feeling depressed, as she turned back to what she'd been working on.

Welsh was no fool, and he had been a pretty good detective before he got all the promotions, "I'm sorry, Francesca. I hope... well, you know."

"Thanks, sir." She shook her head, "I can't believe I blew it that bad."

Welsh frowned, not understanding, "What do you mean?"

She looked up at him, "I dumped him because I wanted more than cuddles. Turns out, all I had to do was come right out and ask him. Subtlety isn't his strong suit."

"Francesca, having watched you around men, you're about as subtle as a brick to the head. Maybe, maybe you should quit comin' on so strong and let a guy know that you're not gonna steam-roll him. Most guys don't want a woman who's a real flirt, you know? Guys don't want to have to worry if they're gonna lose their girl to the next good lookin' fella to come along. I know, guys look at women all the time, but they don't usually do more than look. A woman who flirts with every guy she meets, on the other hand, that's enough to make any man worry about a relationship." He met her eyes when she frowned up at him. "Just a bit of advice, is all. Up to you what you do with it." He turned to leave.

"Was your ex like that? Flirting with everyone?"

Damn. She should be one of his detectives. His shoulders slumped, but he didn't turn, "Yes," he said simply. "She always claimed that it was innocent, until the day I got home and she and my kids were gone." He stood, remembering the devastation he'd felt when he learned what she'd done to him. He was glad his kids were with him again, although he had been a bit saddened by her death, until he had heard the particulars of it, how she and her new husband had both been drinking and then driven home. He was just grateful that it had been a single-car accident and that no innocents had been injured.

"I'm sorry."

At that, he turned and grinned wryly at her. "Hardly your fault. I just thought you should know how it looks to guys. Flirting like you do, well, a lot of guys are gonna think you're somethin' you're not. Get my meaning?"

Her chin came up and she squared her shoulders, "Yes, sir. I get it. I'll try not to give an err... erroneous impression."

He smiled. "That's good, Francesca. Look, you've put in enough time here, today. Why don't you go on home, now?"

"You sure?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna get rid of the riff-raff in my office and head on out myself."

Frannie started to stand up to go, then changed her mind. "I'll wait and walk out with you, if that's okay?"

He nodded. "That's fine. I'll be back in a few."

Fifteen minutes later, the pair of lawyers were leaving. They were not happy, but Welsh used his size and the way he glared and clenched his teeth to intimidate the pair of weasels. Frannie had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from laughing out loud at them. When they were gone, Welsh had put his jacket on and was holding her sweater for her. They didn't say anything until he had escorted her to her car.

"Drive carefully, Francesca."

"I will, sir. Have a good what's left of the weekend, Harding."

He paused and looked at her, "You too, Francesca." He smiled. If she weren't so young, he'd be tempted. But he had his children to go home to, and for now, that was enough. He held her door for her and watched her until she drove away. Smiling a bit wistfully, he headed for his own car.

She watched him in her rear-view mirror. For a moment, she considered, wondering... Making a spur-of-the-moment decision, she stopped, put her car in park, and got out to call to him. "Harding?" He turned to see what she wanted.


She got back in her car and backed up beside him. She rolled down her window and he leaned in to listen. "Do you think a guy like you could ever go for a girl like me?"

He chuckled, "If I were twenty years younger, I'd be tempted." he admitted.

She looked at him, pensively. "So, other than that, what's stopping you?"

He was surprised. "You mean besides the fact that I'm twenty years older than you are?" he asked. She nodded. "I can give you some reasons. One, the age difference; two, I'm your boss and it's not considered a good idea to fool around with your employees. Three and four: your brother and Kowalski would kill me."

She frowned. "The age thing doesn't bother me. The policy thing shouldn't be a problem, not if we're mutually consenting, and as for my brother, it's none of his business what I do."

"But I'm his boss, too. I couldn't do that to him."

"What if I got him to say it was okay?"

He stood up and laughed, bending back down, he grinned at her, "Fine, you get him to put it in writing, and we can try."

She smiled at him, "Deal!" She put the car in gear and hit the accelerator. He shook his head, chuckling and unlocked his car.

She again watched him in her rear-view mirror, thinking of him as something other than a boss. She felt a shiver of anticipation, then she had to make a turn and he was out of sight and she turned her attention to her driving. He'd given her something to think about. She wondered what he'd be like as something more than a boss?

Ray followed Emily's directions and was surprised by the number of cars in the parking lot of Polska Hall. He found a parking spot and got out, circling around to open her door for her. She took his arm and they made their way into the hall.

She squeezed his arm, feeling how nervous he was. When he looked at her, she smiled and winked at him. He grinned back and took a deep breath to steel his nerves. "It'll be fine, Ray. You'll see."

He didn't bother to inform her that this was like meeting her family, since it was. He was so afraid that he'd make a bad impression on them and that they would hate him the moment he opened his mouth. She seemed to read his mind, however, and tried to reassure him that it would be just fine.

No one stared at them when they entered, although a few turned to see who had come in. Those who did look, however, turned to talk to their friends. The looks as they passed through the ballroom were curious, but friendly. Ray let Emily take the lead. They made their way the full length of the room, allowing everyone a chance to get a good look at them. There were speculative looks and curious looks, and even a few hopeful looks. Ray felt like the new kid in school.

They came to a stop before an elderly woman. Emily released Ray's arm and curtseyed to the matriarch. Speaking in Polish, she greeted the woman and when acknowledged, stepped forward and gave the old woman a kiss on the cheek. Turning, she introduced her escort. Ray was surprised that he understood what she said. When she had finished the introduction, he bowed low over the old woman's hand, gallantly kissing her fingers and saying in his own, more hesitant Polish, that he was greatly honored to meet her. He even remembered to call her 'grandmother'. She beamed at him and replied that it was nice to see that proper manners were still being taught to the new generation, despite being more American than Polish. He blushed, but made no reply.

When she asked him his ancestry, he replied that his grandparents had come over after the First World War, and she nodded and said loudly enough for anyone who cared to listen that for a second generation boy, he had very good Polish. Her simple announcement proclaimed him a welcome addition to the group. She asked him other questions, about his parents, his grandparents, and where they were from, but Ray didn't know a lot about those things. She dismissed his lack of knowledge and said that at least he spoke the language, which she had begun to think was a lost art. She was telling him about a family named Kowalski she had known, and where they had come from. He listened politely, making appropriate comments when necessary, but desperately wished to escape. Emily was patiently waiting for the interrogation to end, understanding that her having shown up not only with a date, but one who was and spoke Polish, was something remarkable.

"Ray?" a man asked from behind him, "Raymond Kowalski? It is you! Welcome!"

Ray turned only to find himself wrapped in a bear-hug. He gasped, first in shock, then a second time in amazement. "Mort? What are you doing here? I didn't know you were Polish?"

"Ah, I was at Auschwitz, remember?" He turned from him for a moment to pay his respects. He used the German term 'genedegefrau' to the elderly woman, who beamed at him and commented on his knowing Ray. He quickly explained that they worked together, sort of. The news that Ray was a cop brought a ripple of pleased surprise from the nearest members of the group.

After Mort paid his respects, he turned back to Ray, and spotted Emily. "Emily! Liebschen! It's been too long." He paused and looked from Emily to Ray and back again..."Perfect! You are together?" Seeing their faces, he laughed again. "Of course you are! Wonderful. I am happy for you both. Emily, a hug?"

"Of course, Mortislaw. It's been too long." She stepped into his arms and received his exuberant bear-hug, laughing. When he released her, she stepped back next to Ray. Mort beamed at them.

"Such a lovely couple you make." He glanced at the matriarch and spoke briefly to her. She nodded her permission, and he gathered Ray and Emily and herded them over to the buffet, chattering on about how long it had been since he'd seen either of them and that they must tell him how they had met.

The buffet had Ray practically drooling. Several trestle tables laden with every kind of Polish dish brought back memories of his grandmother. He could hardly wait to try some of everything. Emily beamed at his appetite. She often worried about him. To her, he didn't eat nearly enough for his high metabolism. Seeing him load his plate almost to collapse got her to thinking. If old-style Polish cooking was what it took, she would simply have to drag out her mother's recipes.

Seeing his choices, the older members of the Hall nodded and smiled, pleased that not only did this second-generation stranger speak Polish, he knew how to eat like a Pole. Mort visited with them for a short time, then left them to eat and mingle on their own.

Later in the evening, a band set up and there was dancing, both folk and more modern types. Ray surprised everyone, particularly Emily, by his skill, not only at his favorite ballroom styles, but also the folk dances. By the end of the night, they were both exhausted. A number of people told Ray that they hoped he would come again. He smiled shyly and held Emily's hand as he replied that he would be honored to return. The older members nodded and several paused to whisper to Emily, who blushed furiously with every whispered comment. When they were finally in the car driving back to her house, Ray glanced over at her.

"So, what were they saying?"

"Lots of comments about you. How handsome you are, how well you speak Polish, how good your manners are, how I should make sure I jump your bones often enough to keep you. Stuff like that."

He nearly choked. "What?" He started laughing. "They did not say stuff like that... did they?"

Her laugh was rueful. "Oh, yes, they did. One thing about the immigrants, most of them are quite elderly, and they feel that they've earned the right to give anyone younger than they are advice. The fact that you're second-generation, but speak Polish was a wonderful thing to them. Even better than if you'd been first generation. It shows that there's hope for their grandchildren and great grandchildren. You made a great impression."

"Oh." He drove in silence for several minutes, then glanced over at her. "So, uh, you gonna follow their advice?" he asked mildly.

"Hmmm? What?" She frowned, having gotten lost in thought.

"I asked if you were gonna take their advice. You know, about jumpin' my bones?"

She turned to stare at him. He glanced over, keeping most of his attention on the road. He looked so innocent... "Yes. I think their advice is almost always good. What do you think?"

"I am so down with that." He grinned and reached over to hold her hand. He started to accelerate, but backed off. There was time. No hurry. She was definitely worth taking his time with; with any luck, the rest of their lives. He shivered in anticipation.

Francesca got home and went searching for her brother. He was getting ready for his date with Stella. She watched him as he shaved. When he had a date, he did it the old fashioned way, with a hand held razor, instead of an electric one. She remembered watching their father shave, how much she enjoyed it, until the day he was in a bad mood and she had coughed at the wrong moment and he'd nicked himself. Her cheek still stung with the memory of that slap.

"What do you want, Frannie?" Ray asked, seeing the expression on his little sister's face.

"What do you think of Harding Welsh?"

"He's a good boss, why?" He turned his attention back to that one spot he had to be careful of, not to nick himself.

"What would you think about us dating?"

Ray jerked and cursed, grabbing for the styptic pencil. "Geeze, Frannie! Warn a guy, why don't you!" He stemmed the flow of blood and turned to his sister, who suddenly looked at him, afraid. He frowned. "What?"

"Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean... I'm sorry."

"Hey, forget it. No real harm done, okay?" He finally recognized the look on her face, it was the same one she'd get when their father would be on the warpath; and he remembered a time when the old man had cut himself shaving and beaten his little five-year-old sister unconscious. He reached out to give her a light hug. "It's okay. I'm not mad at you." He pulled off some toilet paper from the roll and handed it to her to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.

"Now, What's this about dating Welsh?"

"What would you think? Would it be okay?"

"Hell, Frannie, he's too old for you!"

Her face got that stubborn expression he hated on it. "He is not."

Ray stopped wiping the excess foam from his face and turned to look at her. "Frannie, he'd never go for it."

"What if he did? Would that be okay? Would you give us your blessing?"

Ray laughed. "Hell, sure, why not? But it'll never happen, Frannie."

She had to struggle to hide her glee. "Put it in writing, Ray."


"Put it in writing."

Still chuckling, he pushed past her, out of the bathroom. She followed him to his room. "Sure, Frannie, whatever you want. But what will Ma say?"

"She'll say he's a good man who knows how to treat a woman."

Ray laughed again and pulled a pad of paper from his desk and scrawled a note, giving his blessing to Harding Welsh to get involved with his sister. "It'll never happen, you know."

"We'll see." Francesca smiled and spun away, the paper clutched tightly in her hand.

She waited until Ray had left for his date. One of the advantages of being the civilian aide, she had the roster with everyone's home phone numbers on it. She looked up the lieutenant's and, with shaking hands, pushed the buttons. When he answered on the third ring, she nearly hung up.

"Yeah? Hello?"

"Uh, hi. Harding?"

"Francesca? Is something wrong?"

"Uh, no, sir. I just talked to Ray, and he said it was okay. For us, I mean. To, you know. Get together?"


"I got it in writing. He gives us his blessing."

"You're joking." How on earth was he going to handle this?

"No. You said if I got his permission in writing, you'd, well, you and me."

He had. He never in his worst nightmares imagined anything like this. Now what was he going to do? Francesca was a lovely young woman, emphasis on young. What could she possibly see in a broken down old war horse like him? But he had promised. He thought a moment as he listened to his kids. A slow smile graced his stern features. "All right. I'm takin' my kids to the carnival. You want to come?"

A carnival? Tonight? With his kids? "Uh, sure. What time?"

"We'll be by to pick you up in about half an hour."

"I'll be ready."

"All right, see you in a bit." He hung up and wondered what in the world he'd gotten himself into.

When his children heard that they were going to pick up their father's date, they were excited, asking all kinds of questions about her. Unbeknownst to him, they had had several long, fruitless discussions on his status as a single father. Not that they particularly wanted a 'mother', per se, but just that they were well aware that the only things in their father's life was work and them. Even at their young ages, they recognized that he needed more, before he worked himself into a heart attack. He told them that it was just a girl from work, who thought that she needed someone like him in her life. The children understood not to get their hopes up, as their father thought the woman unsuitable. They wondered why?

Jefferson stared at the woman. She was a lot younger than their dad, but she looked at him like... Well, like the way Ray Kowalski's dog looked at him. Total devotion. He remembered seeing her a couple of times when he'd gone down to visit his dad at work, but she'd usually been mooning over Constable Fraser, or, for a short time, Ray. Somehow, though, the way she looked at his dad was different. More like she'd just discovered something very valuable and wasn't quite sure how to react. He caught the eyes of his brother and sisters and saw that they were thinking the same thing he was. The couple in the front seat had no idea that there were four matchmakers in the car with them.

The carnival was fun. The children were wonderful, and they had a great time. Frannie screamed on the roller coaster, but was the first to want to go on it again. The children loved her right off. She could talk to them, as well as their dad. Most important, from the children's standpoint, Frannie made their dad smile. That was something he didn't do very often, and most of the smiles he gave were always tinged with sadness, unless he was bursting with pride at something one of them had done. The children knew that despite his love for them, their dad was lonely. That was why he worked such long hours. True, he didn't work as much as he used to, but it was still too much, as far as his children were concerned.

They were out until midnight, when the carnival closed. Both Adams and Abigail were asleep in the car before they even got out of the parking lot. Francesca suggested they take the kids home first and Harding, ever mindful of his responsibilities as a parent, readily agreed.

She watched him with the children. He kissed each one good night, even his sixteen year old son, who kissed him back. She found it endearing. Once the children were all asleep, which took almost no time at all, they were sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee.

"I hope you had a good time, Francesca." He was tired, as well. He'd put in a full day at work, and had been up before six. It was now after one, and he was exhausted. He was trying to get up the energy to drive Francesca home.

She had other ideas. "I want to stay the night. With you," she blurted out.

He opened his eyes and stared. "That's not a good idea, Francesca."

Her chin came up, belligerently. "Why not? We're both consenting adults."

He sighed. "Francesca, what sort of an example would I be giving my kids?"

"Proof that you're not dead?" she challenged. "I saw the way they looked at us. I heard them whispering. Didn't you?"

He blushed. Yeah. He'd heard. He looked at her, uncertain. "Francesca, I'm twenty years older than you are, what in the world would you want with a worn out, battle-scarred old war-horse like me?" He honestly couldn't understand her interest.

She stared at him. Sure, he was older than her. Not all that old, though; he certainly still had plenty of life in him, as evidenced by their evening. He'd had as much fun as his kids, and she'd loved every moment of it. "I think we could be good together, Harding. Like I said, we're both consenting adults. I'm more than willing, so why not? We're not kids, you know. I may be younger than you are, but I'm over 30." Oh, how it hurt to admit that. He frowned and shook his head, feeling that this was a mistake; but he was tired, and if he was honest, the idea of someone in his bed did sound nice. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been with a woman. It was before his wife left, although it had been a long time before she left him that they'd last... he shook his head. He was too tired.

"Fine. But I plan on sleepin'."

"That's fine," Frannie agreed. She followed him up to his room. He opened a drawer and pulled out some pajamas and a t-shirt. She shook her head. "Skin."

He frowned. He hadn't slept naked since... shrugging, he put the clothing back and began to undress. Had he been less weary, he might have been embarrassed. Frannie watched him as she, too, undressed. When he dropped his shorts, her eyes widened in shock. He was hung like the proverbial... she blinked and swallowed hard. Oh, my. She shivered and hurried out of the rest of her clothes. She moved around the bed and pulled back the covers to climb in. It was an extra-firm mattress and it felt wonderful. He turned off the light and settled in beside her, not touching. He lay on his back for a few minutes, wondering what he was supposed to do now? She did the same; then, taking a deep, careful breath, she turned towards him, reaching an arm across his chest and moving his arm so she could use his shoulder as a pillow. The weight against him felt good, he thought. She was such a tiny thing, though. He'd be afraid he might hurt her. He relaxed, finally, and fell asleep.

She was curious, she'd never been with a man who'd been circumcised, before. When she was sure he was asleep, she trailed her fingers down to explore. She remembered all the old wives' tales of how to tell how well a man is endowed. Feeling his hand on her shoulder, she could believe at least one of those tales. Gently touching him, she was curious to discover that he was quite proportioned. He was a large, heavily built man, and his penis, well, it was just as large and heavily built. She shivered again at the thought of them... together. His body was reacting to her gentle stroking. With a grunt, he awoke.

"Francesca? Don't. Please."

"Why? Don't you like it?"

His laugh was bitter. "Sure I do. That's not the point."

She sat up to look at him. "What is the point, then? I want you. Your body wants me. I don't see a problem here, Harding." She wrapped her fingers around him and gently squeezed. His breath caught and she felt his pulse leap.

"Why?" His voice was hoarse. "Why, me?"

"Because I think that you can make me happy. You're a good man, Harding Welsh. You care about people. You care about everything. Except you. You work like crazy, but you never have time for yourself. You've got nothing but the job. Yeah, your kids live with you, but how many times do you leave them alone while you work, huh? That's not fair to them. It's not fair to you. The job isn't everything, you know?"

"Francesca, that's none of your concern...."

"I want to make it my concern. I want you. Please?" Her fingers released him and slid further down, to cup his scrotum and gently manipulate the sack's contents. He groaned with desire.

"This is wrong," he whispered, hoarsely, his body's wants overriding his brain's warnings.

"Not if it's what we both want." She rose and straddled him, lying full length along his body. She rubbed her body against his. Playing with his chest hair and finally reaching up to kiss him.

The kiss was his undoing. His brain made one last plea for sanity. "I don't have any condoms."

She was up and away in an instant. He heaved a sigh of relief, until she was back with her purse. She scrounged around in it, and found two strips. She handed them to him. He stared, first at her, then at the condoms. He blushed. "Uh, I've never actually, uh, had to use them...."

She smiled and took them from him. "That's okay. I have." She opened one and carefully applied it to his erection. Her soft, cool hands made him shiver. She pushed him over onto his back and lay back atop him, rubbing her body on his. He allowed it for only a minute or two, then he shook his head and rolled, flipping her onto her back with him stretched out beside her. For a moment, he arose and left her, returning with some towels. Understanding, she shifted so he could lay them beneath her.

She tried to take the aggressive role once more, but he stopped her. "No. I don't want to hurt you." Seeing her about to protest, he kissed her, "Please. Trust me on this?" She nodded and he began stroking her body, teasing and arousing her. His mouth on her breast made her arch up into him with a moan, but when his large, blunt fingers found their way between her legs, she was lost. In a fleeting moment of mental acuity, she realized that his fingers were bigger than some men's.... then one of those fingers was inside her, while his thumb massaged her clit. She gave in to the sensation.

He had to make sure she was prepared for him. He was well aware of his size and the last thing he ever wanted to do was hurt her. While one hand prepared her, he used his mouth on her breasts, her mouth, licking and kissing her throat and face, suckling at her breasts. She moaned and began to thrash in the throes of orgasm; removing his hand, he shifted and carefully slid into her, keeping his weight from crushing her.

OH! Her body trembled and bucked, and suddenly he was inside her. She had expected his size to be uncomfortable, but she was so caught up in her orgasm, that she hardly noticed. His movements kept her on the precipice, gasping and shaking. It seemed to last forever, and when she felt him stiffen and softly grunt as he reached his own completion, she was still shaking with the aftershocks.

He was exhausted. He gently lifted himself from her. Still feeling her in orgasm, he smiled, knowing he had pleased her, and hoped he hadn't hurt her, as well. Taking a towel, he cleaned them and disposed of the condom. Stretching out beside her, he pulled her into his arms and held her close, drifting quickly into sleep.

He was asleep, but he was holding her. She hadn't been able to talk, right away. That was a miracle in and of itself, she thought. She ran her fingers through his chest hair, smiling contentedly. She never imagined sex could be so... so mind altering. Snuggling down into his arms, she drifted off to sleep, a smile gracing her lips.

He knew he hadn't been asleep nearly long enough, but Francesca obviously had other ideas. He opened his eyes to see her in his arms, her hands touching him, bringing him back to arousal. He sighed, a bit surprised that his body was so quickly recovered and ready to go again. She realized he was awake and smiled shyly at him.

"I want..." she bit her lower lip, afraid to ask.


Her eyebrows went up? "You mean that?"

"Anything within my power to give you. Yes."

She smiled, "Okay. I want you, but I want to be in charge, this time."

"Francesca, I could seriously hurt you."

"So, touch me, like you did before? Get me ready." He nodded and his hands reached for her. She shook her head and pushed him onto his back, rose up and straddled him. At his worried frown, she smiled, "It'll be okay. If it doesn't work, I'll stop, okay?" He nodded and began touching her again.

In this position, she could watch him, the way his fingers moved into her; it also freed up his other hand, which stroked and fondled her. She bent down and kissed him, then encouraged him to suckle, finding that to be tremendously arousing.

When she felt herself begin to shudder in the first throes of orgasm, she rose up and slid onto his waiting, straining erection. She'd been wise enough to apply the condom before he awoke, so there would be no mistaking her intentions. Like this, she could watch his face, the concern that he might hurt her, the awe that she could handle his size, the pleasure she brought him as she put her hands on his shoulders and began to move. She found herself in orgasm and had to fight her own body's reactions, to try and please him. She needn't have worried. His hands continued their caressing and arousing almost beyond her ability to withstand it. Finally, though, she reached her point of no return and with a soft wail, collapsed on his chest, shaking uncontrollably. He held her, his hips taking over, keeping her orgasm going while his own pleasure built and peaked.

She never wanted to move again, but felt she had to. She started to sit up, but he held her to his chest. "Stay," he whispered. She could feel him still inside her and calmed, nodding. Laying her cheek over his heart, she fell asleep.

He dozed, his mind taking the opportunity for some much needed rest, while his body recovered. He was surprised at himself, not just for his stamina, but her, as well. That she'd been able to.... one of his long-time fantasies had been this. To have a woman take the superior position and to be able to sleep while still joined. He shivered, his fantasy having become reality.

She was dreaming of a powerful, virile man, sweeping her off her feet, like in Sword of Desire, a big, stalwart man, well muscled, strong, but gentle. Her hips ached a bit, so she shifted, and felt...OH! Her eyes flew open as she realized that it wasn't a dream, and that she was with...

"Harding?" She whispered, smiling. She could feel him inside her, still, but he was no longer soft, but hardening, and she could feel him. She shivered and flexed her hips against him. His eyes lazily opened and he smiled. His hands came up and cupped her bottom, pulling her harder against him. They took their time, making it slow and gentle. Her orgasm was nothing compared to the other two, but more than satisfying.

Finally, she tried to rise from him, but hadn't the strength. He chuckled and lifted her easily, turning and tucking her close in his embrace. "Sleep. I gotta have some sleep. It's daylight, and the kids are gonna be up soon."

"Fine. Be that way," she said, teasingly. They were quiet for a while, but not yet asleep. "Harding?"


"Are you always that good?"

"Hmmm?" There was puzzlement in his response.

"I mean, well, you're really good, you know?"


She sighed in frustration. "I've, uh, I've never, I mean, it's never, well, like this."

He lay very still for a moment, then sat up and looked down at her. "Are you tryin' to tell me you've never had an orgasm before?"

"Uh, yeah? I guess I am. I always faked 'em. Figuring that's what guys wanted."

He stretched back out beside her. "Well, that's not a good thing to do. How's a guy to know if he's doin' it right, if you tell him he is when he isn't?"

"I never thought about it that way, before. So, are you always know?"

"Solicitous of my partner? I try. I almost have to be, so I don't hurt them. It's been a long time, though. Not since my wife."

Frannie lay there in shock, "That's what, six years?"

"More like over seven. We didn't do much after Abigail was born. I thought it was because it was too painful for her, but it was because of, well, him."

"I'm sorry. That really sucks, you know?"

"Yeah. I know. Can we sleep now?"

"Sure. Sleep is good." She lay there, cradled in his arms, listening to him sleep and wondered how any woman could give up sex like that? If she had any say in the matter, they'd still be doing it in another twenty years.

They were tired, when they got to her house. While she hung up their coats, he went to the back door to let Maedel in. One of the nicer things about staying at her house was that she had a fenced yard, which allowed the dog some time outdoors. He'd brought over a number of toys for her to play with, and she loved to visit. Just as long as she was let in with them at night. Her place was with her master, and that was where she wanted to be.

They undressed and practically fell into bed. Ray was tired but, as always, wanted a good cuddle. This time, however, she surprised him by pushing him firmly onto his back and almost aggressively kissing him. He allowed himself to meet her head-on and, since his hands were free, he let them start roaming over her body.

"Yes," she murmured, "Yes. More." His arms tightened around her and pressed her tightly to his chest. His kisses became demanding, almost desperate. She pulled away, and he let her go, a flash of fear crossing his face. She smiled and reached across him to the night table. Opening the drawer, she withdrew a new box of condoms. "I figured that we'd be needing these," she teased, handing them to him.

He chuckled, relieved. "I'm glad one of us is thinking with their brain. I know that I'm not." He accepted the box, opened it and took one out. "Econopak, huh?" He smirked at her as he opened the package and applied the latex.

"I'm hoping we'll need to buy stock, to tell you the truth," she said, still teasing.

He stared, then smiled. "Sounds like a plan."

He was a cuddler. She already knew that. She hadn't realized that his idea of making love also involved a great deal of touching. She would have sworn that he kissed every millimeter of her body, with frequent little nips and licks to go with them. She'd tried to reciprocate, but he stopped her. "This is for you," he whispered hoarsely, giving her another kiss. She finally gave in and let him have his wicked way with her.

And wicked, it was. He seemed to have an oral fixation on her body. When he settled between her legs and started licking and sucking... she nearly rose up off the bed from the sensation. "RAY!" He took it as encouragement and continued, until she was begging him. By the time he finally entered her, she'd had an orgasm and was still having aftershocks.

As he brought her to her second orgasm, she couldn't help but wonder what kind of woman would willingly give up this accomplished lover? Stella must be a cold fish, indeed, to have thrown this man away.

He loved it when she cried out his name; the way she arched into his touch, the way she thrashed when he brought her to completion, then the spasms of her aftershocks. Feeling her, tight and hot around him, that was the best. His contentment came from having pleased her. Afterwards, she cradled him against her breast, his favorite position, her fingers running through his hair, soothing him to sleep.

She'd called him a hedonist, but that was incorrect. A hedonist was only interested in their own pleasure. Oh, she knew she gave him pleasure, but she felt that what small pleasure he took was microscopic compared to what he gave. She had known that he was a gentle, loving, giving man, but had never imagined anything like this. Yet he was willing to forego all this, just for the comfort of having someone near to give him a hug. Well, he was going to get all the hugs he ever wanted, if she had anything to do with it. He was much too good to lose. His solid weight against her lulled her to sleep.

Jefferson frowned. His father usually slept with his bedroom door open. His siblings gathered around him, staring at the closed door. Madison cocked her head to one side and grinned.

"You think maybe Frannie stayed the night?" She was almost fourteen and had a modern fourteen-year-old's knowledge of sex and relationships.

"Could be," Jefferson agreed. He, having just recently turned sixteen, liked the idea of his dad with someone; and Frannie was fun, and they all liked her. The fact that she was only about fifteen years older than he was, well, that wouldn't be a problem for him, not if she could make his dad happy. The two youngest children giggled in embarrassment. They knew enough to understand why the door was closed, their mother had always slept with the door closed, but that hadn't been enough to keep them from hearing them, sometimes. It was awful quiet in there, though.

"I think they're just asleep," Abigail said. As the youngest, she was still very much 'daddy's girl', and of them all, least likely to be willing to share him with someone else.

"Probably," Jeff agreed. "Come on. I'll fix breakfast. Pancakes?" The agreement was enthusiastic and the children trooped downstairs, remembering to take care of their own dog, Tara, who had spent the night outside, since the weather was nice and they'd gotten home so late.

With the smaller children ensconced in front of the television, Jeff mixed up a batch of pancake batter and fixed breakfast for them all. Tara lay in the doorway to the kitchen, having been taught that she wasn't allowed to beg or even be in the kitchen when food was being prepared or eaten by the humans. However, that didn't stop her from laying in the doorway watching and hoping for a treat.

They ate their breakfast and Jefferson looked at the clock. It was after ten, so he put on a pot of coffee for when their dad finally woke up. It was unusual for him to sleep so late, even though it had been after midnight when they got home. Jefferson hoped that Frannie had spent the night and that he would sleep until noon, as he seldom slept enough, in his childrens' opinions.

Frannie awoke slowly; she smiled, feeling the arms enfolding her and hearing the heartbeat of the man holding her. She stretched slowly, the memories of the previous night bringing shivers of remembered pleasure. She looked at him, seeing the perpetual exhaustion in the lines of his face. She frowned and stroked his beard-stubbled cheek, he sighed in his sleep and leaned into her touch, his brow unfurrowing for a moment and an expression of pleasure smoothing his features. She smiled. Feeling the need to relieve herself, and the desire for a shower, she slid from his embrace and found her clothes where she had left them on the floor. She quietly opened the drawer she'd seen him take a shirt out of the previous night and took one of his t-shirts. Pulling her clothes on, she opened the bedroom door and guessed where the bathroom was. She took her time, availing herself of soap, shampoo and conditioner as she showered. She found the towels in the cupboard and luxuriated in the thick, fluffy cotton. Opening the medicine cabinet, she found the toothpaste and used her finger for a brush. She couldn't bear to put her soiled underwear back on, so she just slipped into her jeans and the t-shirt she'd taken from his drawer. On her, she could have worn it as a dress. The shoulders of the shirt hung off her shoulders, and the sleeves came half-way down her arms. She was glad she hadn't taken one of his tank-tees, as it would have revealed far too much. As it was, the soft, worn, cotton felt good against her skin. She opted to go braless, at least for now.

She'd put her blouse and undergarments back in his bedroom, by her purse and shoes, then headed downstairs, where she could hear the television going. Standing uncertainly in the doorway, she watched the children. They were sprawled across the couch, relaxed, watching the television. She was surprised to realize that they were watching the Discovery Channel, something about forensics.

Jefferson glanced up from the commercial and saw Frannie standing in the doorway. He smiled and stood up. "Hi, Frannie. Would you like some coffee and pancakes?"

She smiled shyly, "You don't have to go to any trouble for me," she began.

"No trouble. The coffee's done and the batter's mixed. It'll only take a couple of minutes, come on." He moved past her, leading the way to the kitchen, where he made her sit down while he served her. She was impressed, he was just as solicitous as his father, and she couldn't help but smile.

"You're a lot like your dad, you know?" she opined as he set a filled mug before her, along with a spoon, cream, and sugar, he paused and frowned for a moment.

"I'm sorry, I think Dad's got some artificial sweetner, if you'd prefer that?"

"This is fine. Thank you." She spooned some sugar into her mug and added cream. As she sipped her coffee, she watched the young man as he stirred the batter and heated the griddle. She couldn't help but smile, he was curious; she could tell by the glances he kept tossing her way.

"What do you want to know, Jeff?" she asked.

The boy blushed. "It's none of my business."

"He's your dad. Of course it's your business. Yes, we spent the night together. Yes, he's still sleeping. Yes we...well, you know." She blushed, not really wanting to go into that particular subject.

Jeff blushed, again. "Can I ask you something? A favor?"

"Of course." She watched him struggle with the words, trying to figure out exactly how to say what he needed to say without offending her.

Finally, he sat opposite her for a moment, his hands clasped tightly together. "Please, all I want is what's best for my dad. We all like you, but please," he looked up at her, pain and pleading in his eyes, "Please don't hurt him."

She could have hugged him. She smiled. "I'll do my best not to. He's pretty great, you know?"

"He's afraid, though."

Frannie was surprised that this young man was so aware. She nodded. "Me, too. He thinks he's too old for me."

He cocked his head at her and smiled, "You made him smile last night."

She smiled back at him. "He doesn't do that very often, does he?"

"Not hardly at all. He even laughed. I think I can count on one hand, the number of times he's laughed in the past year and a half. I know he loves us, but he's awful lonely. He needs someone in his life for him, you know?"

For a sixteen-year-old, he was very wise. She sighed and took a sip of her coffee as he stood up to take care of the pancakes. "I know. So do I. I ... well, he said some things to me yesterday. He was right. I asked him if a guy like him could go for a woman like me. He said he was too old for me. I don't think he is. What do you think?" She needed his approval, she realized. If she had his kids on her side, then she felt secure in her pursuit of their father...although, perhaps 'pursuit' wasn't quite the right term. She truly felt that they could be right for each other. She knew him well enough to know what he was like, and he knew her, as well. There was no infatuation between them, as there had always been before in her desire for a man. He certainly wasn't beautiful like Benton Fraser. But he was more approachable... more attainable. He was also the best lover she'd ever been with. She shivered again as the memory of the previous night came once more to mind.

He didn't quite understand why she shivered or the expression on her face, but Jeff felt that it was something to do with his dad and them, together. He just hoped that it was a good thing, but judging from the smile and blush, he surmised that it was. He smiled shyly at her, and she blushed even more and returned his smile.

"If you make him happy, then that's all we care about," he reassured her.

"We? Like, all four of you?"

"Yeah. We've talked about it. Dad's lonely. Yeah, he's got us, but it's not the same, you know? We know he loves us, he shows us every day."

"I noticed. I don't know many teen-aged boys who are willing to get a hug from their dad, let alone a kiss."

Jefferson blushed as he placed the pancakes on a plate and set them before her. "Well, it's kind of reassuring, you know? Mom hardly ever touched any of us. She and her husband kind of ignored us, most of the time, you know? Knowing that dad wanted us was important. He tells us all the time that he loves us, but he shows it, too, you know?"

She smiled, a bit wistful. "Yeah. It's pretty obvious that he adores you guys."

"I'll adore them even more if that's coffee I smell," Harding Welsh spoke from the doorway, still disheveled from sleep and his shower. He hadn't been quite sure he hadn't dreamed the previous night, except for seeing her purse, shoes and clothes on the corner of his dresser.

"Sure, Dad. You want some pancakes, too?"

"Yeah, that would be good. How long have you been up?"

"I woke up about an hour ago," Frannie informed him.

"We woke up about eight-thirty." Jefferson glanced at the clock, it was eleven-thirty; the latest his father had ever slept. He smiled and looked at his dad. He looked rested, for a change. His shoulders weren't tight and the perpetual scowl was missing. He caught Frannie's eye and winked at her. She blushed, understanding the unspoken message of approval.

"I saw the rest of the kids were watching TV."

"Yeah, The Discovery Channel has some good stuff on. We were watching one on forensics when Frannie came down. So, Dad, how many pancakes for you?"

"Two is fine, Jeff."

Jefferson frowned. He knew his dad had been trying to lose weight, so he shrugged and poured the batter. Francesca was in the midst of eating four pancakes and frowned as well, feeling that he required more that that. He was drinking his coffee black, too. But that was fairly normal for him, she realized. She was pleased when he sat next to her, instead of across the table. Jefferson realized that he wasn't in his usual seat and hid a smile.

"So, what are your plans for today?" Jeff asked innocently.

"Well, I got to take Francesca home, of course. We need to finish the laundry, too, and it's time to get some work done in the garden."

"We can do that, the garden and the rest of the laundry. I'll mow the front lawn, and the others can pull weeds. Why don't you two go do something, together?"

"Jefferson," Harding said, warningly.

"Dad," Jeff replied in the same tone of voice as his dad. He was built a bit more slenderly than his father, but he was already looking like him; and his voice was so much like his that Frannie couldn't help herself and giggled.

Harding glared at her, but when she saw his expression and paled, he quickly shook his head, negating it. "What would you like to do, Francesca?"

She blushed, glancing at Jeff, who was politely focused on turning the pancakes. "I'd like to spend today with you, Harding," she said wistfully, glancing up at him through her eyelashes.

He shivered. She wasn't trying to be provocative, but the effect was the same. He was shocked to feel his body react to her and blushed. She frowned for a moment, then realization came to her and she smirked at him and reached over to take his hand in hers.

"Uh, I'm not sure that's such a good idea, Francesca," he warned. His fear that she was just using him was not lost on either her, or his son, who frowned at her.

"Please, Harding?" There was honesty in her gaze, the plea to stay with him. He frowned, unsure, uncomprehending.

"Why?" he asked, plaintively.

Her chin came up and she was sure of herself. "Because I think we can make this work for both of us. I realize that we don't really know each other all that well, yet, but I think we can be good for each other."

"Francesca, I'm not what you're looking for...."

"How do you know? What do you know about what I'm looking for?"

"Francesca, I've been watchin' you for two years, now, more, since you came to work at the station. I'm not blind or stupid. We both know that I'm too old for you, I just turned fifty-two, and you're what, thirty?"

"I'll be thirty-four in a few months," she admitted, a bit reluctantly. "So, you're not twenty years older than me, only eighteen. That's not so bad, is it?"

Welsh sighed. Jefferson served the pancakes and left the room to give them some privacy. He was frowning, though. He agreed with Frannie, that they could be good for each other, but he didn't know for sure, since he had no actual experience on which to base his opinion. All he knew, was that they had had fun, last night, and she made his dad laugh, and smile...a lot. That had to count for something, didn't it?

He sighed and buttered his pancakes, then poured syrup. He ate a bite, trying to figure out what to say. "What do you want, Francesca? What are you looking for?"

She sat back and thought about it. What did she want? Someone to love her. Someone to love. She looked at him, critically, and realized that she'd felt...something, for him for quite a while, now. "I want to be loved by someone, someone who won't hurt me. Someone who will care for me and not beat me up, or tell me I'm stuipd, even when I am. Someone who will hold me close at night, and make love to me gently, and won't..." she paled, then blushed and looked away in embarrassment.

Welsh frowned, comprehending. "Your ex, he... raped you?"

She stood up and turned away, her arms wrapping around her body as she shivered, remembering. She didn't know what to say to him. She felt the sting of tears in her eyes and tried to control them. "Yeah," she whispered, her voice catching in her throat.

He stood and came up behind her, reaching around her slender body and holding her close, his chin resting on top of her head. "That rotten son-of-a-bitch. I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"How could you? I never told anybody, before. Ray never knew. Oh, he knew he beat on me, but not...I couldn't...I..." She lost control and began to cry.

"Shhh, it's okay, it's all right, Francesca, please, don't cry." He held her close. She turned in to him, burying her face against his chest and clinging to his shirt, sobbing.

He'd had no idea. He knew that her ex-husband had been abusive, but... he really shouldn't have been surprised, he guessed. He was a bit confused, though. She'd obviously been with other men, before, well, since her ex. He felt surprise that she could have been such a flirt after... then he realized that she'd used it as some kind of coping mechanism... that bastard had made her feel so worthless that she'd... at least, until Fraser. That man had always turned her down cold. Fraser'd always played the innocent with her, but he now suspected that the Mountie knew exactly what she was doing, and why. He was grateful, he admitted to himself, surprised. And Kowalski... keeping to a promise that she hadn't really been interested in his keeping. Their miscommunication had proven a boon for Kowalski and his lady... maybe he and Francesca? He shook his head, no. It was ridiculous. He was too old, although his body certainly didn't think so. Just holding her, trying to comfort her, and he was reacting; quite inappropriately, he thought.

"Please? Harding? Will you...?"

He knew what she was asking of him. He had been gentle because he knew he needed to be. She'd said she'd never.... He closed his eyes and sighed. "Do you know what you're asking, Francesca?"

"Yes. I'm asking for you to be gentle, to love me. To at least pretend that you care about me. I don't want to keep feeling like I'm not good enough, that I'm not...." Her voice trailed off, afraid.

"Francesca..." he groaned. He didn't know what to do. He realized that he was just as damaged, just as afraid as she was. "I'm not Fraser. I'm not always perfectly polite. I yell, just ask my kids. Hell, you've seen me on the job. I'm not a gentle man, Francesca."

"You're the gentlest man I've ever known, Harding." She pressed tightly against him, rubbing her body against his. Trying to tell him physically, as well as with her words. She reached up to pull his face down to hers for a kiss. Her kiss was demanding, insistent. When she forced her tongue into his mouth, he relented and held her tightly, his body responding to her.

"Francesca, are you sure?"

"I'm sure. You would never hurt me, at least, not on purpose. You... you're great in bed, too. Please? Can't you love me?"

"But can you love me, Francesca? I know, you think I'm safe, but I don't know that I am. Can you love a tired, worn-out old cop? What about kids? Don't you think I'm kinda too old to be havin' any more?"

She shivered, thinking about it. His children were wonderful, could she be satisfied with them and none of her own? She hoped so. She didn't want to drive him away. She could feel him weakening, submitting to her desire and, she hoped, to his own.

"I think I already do, Harding. And your kids. It's enough for me. I won't ask for anything more of you. Just hold me, and love me." She nearly laughed, that sounded so much like Kowalski asking for cuddles, and she suddenly understood...she wasn't going to make the same mistake. "Make love to me? With me?" She felt his shiver and his arousal pressing against her.

"Are you sure?" he whispered, already lost.

"No. But I want to, I need to try. I need you to love me, please? Can't you love me?"

He groaned, half in desire, half in dismay. He knew, with his head, that if he gave in, he'd be lost. And he knew he was going to give in.

"I want forever, Francesca. Do you understand that? Forever? Not just now, because you want someone to hold you, but for the rest of my life. Can you deal with that?"

She shivered at the thought. "Is that a proposal, Harding?" she asked, half teasing, half hopeful.

"Only if that's what you want. I'd never force you to stay with me, though. It's just that... I want forever. I always have."

She closed her eyes and hugged him as hard as she could. "Anything you want. Anything."



He knew he was lost. He fully expected her to leave him before very long, but he also knew that the possibility of forever was worth the risk. "Yes." His unfinished breakfast forgotten, he took her by the hand and led her back upstairs to his bedroom. His children pretended not to notice, but when they were out of sight and, more importantly, sound, they grinned at each other. Giving them a few minutes, Jefferson then doled out the chores and headed outside to start on mowing the lawn, while the others began weeding the garden.

They slept late, but when Ray awoke, it was to find Emily snuggled in his arms. He smiled, remembering the night before. Knowing that how his body felt when he awoke was not only pleasant for him, but encouraged by her. For the first time in a very long while, he let his body take over, gently touching her, arousing her, even as she slept. When she moaned and moved against his fingers, he smiled and kissed her awake.

"Mmmmm. What a wonderful way to wake up! I could get used to this," She murmured, then kissed him. "So, what's the plan for today?"

"Well, my laundry is done, my apartment is about as clean as it gets, so I guess we can do whatever you want?"

"Hmm. Sounds good. How about we spend the day in bed?" she suggested.

Ray blushed, "Yeah? You sure?"

"With you? Oh, very sure." She slid one hand down to stroke him. "Ooh, glad to see me, are you?" she teased.

"See? Yeah, see, hear, smell, taste, touch...very glad." He pushed her onto her back and lay atop her. "How about you?"

She smiled and ran her hands from his shoulders to his buttocks, pressing his hips into hers. Splaying her knees to the sides, she grinned. "What do you think?" she practically purred. He dropped his head to her shoulder and groaned.

"Condom. Need a ..." He reluctantly pushed away from her and groped for the box beside the bed. Tearing it open, he quickly had one on and was again resting atop her, nuzzling her throat. She loved his weight against her, the comforting feel of his body pressing down upon her. She wrapped her legs around him, encouraging him. With a soft moan, he entered her. She gasped and arched up to him, holding him tightly for a moment, then running her hands up his back and into his hair. They began moving together, excitement building. He'd always enjoyed sex first thing in the morning, the languid, gentle movements, none of the frenzied coupling usually experienced at the end, or even the middle of the day. This was tender, slow; more cuddling than anything else.

He was so gentle. Taking it slow, allowing the sensations to build; she found his love-making to be more than anything she'd ever experienced, his care and unhurried movements. Her orgasm wasn't earth-shattering, but like cresting waves of sensation, and just as satisfying as the more spectacular feelings from the night before. Like him, she liked the languid gentleness of first thing in the morning sex.

When he reached his own completion, she held him close as he trembled in the aftershocks, not releasing him, she held him tightly, feeling his erection flag, but wanting to maintain the contact as long as possible. He moaned softly and settled into the cradle of her body, relaxing. She smiled in contentment, his weight the perfect blanket.

"Em'ly?" he asked when he realized she was holding him in her.


"Don'cha want me to, uh, move offa ya?"

"No. I've got you right where I want you, Ray."

"Mmmmm. 'S nice." He dozed off, a smile on his face. She chuckled and relaxed her hold on him, knowing he'd remain where he was.

He was having this terrific dream. He was dreaming that Emily had wanted him; wanted more than cuddles. He'd had this dream before, but never quite so real. He could almost feel her beneath him as he thrust into her, feel the weight of her arms around him, holding him, encouraging him. He knew that he was going to have to change his sheets again, but that didn't matter, the dream was... the dream was... As usual, with this particular dream, he awoke when he ejaculated, and was startled to discover that it wasn't a dream. Seeing the expression on his face, Emily couldn't help herself and snickered in amusement.

"I think I like the way you dream, Ray. Particularly the way you share your dreams."

He blushed and collapsed on her, suffering from near-terminal embarrassment. "I'm...."

"Hopefully, you found it to be as pleasant as I did?"

"Oh, yeah. That was...that was greatness. The best. Better than the best." With a sigh, he lifted from her, still embarrassed. He glanced shyly at her. "So, that something you like?"

"I wasn't sure, but now I am. Yes, that is something I like. How about you?"

His shy smile could have lit the entire city during a midnight blackout. "Oh, absolutely. Like I said, greatness. Only better."

She laughed and sat up. "So, how about a shower? With me?"

He shivered. "I'd like that, a lot."

"Me, too." Her smile could only be called seductive and he caught his breath as he rose and followed her.

He enjoyed bathing her, running his soapy hands over her body; teasing and pleasuring her. Then it was her turn and he thought he was going to lose it when she knelt before him and took him into her mouth. He had washed her hair, earlier, and had applied conditioner, which was still in her long, black hair. His fingers massaged her scalp as she went down on him. He strangled out a warning, just in time for her to release him, laughing at the 'additional conditioning' in her hair. He wasn't embarrassed by it, though. He enjoyed washing her hair again, the way the silken strands felt between his fingers, the way his lips felt on hers; the way her body felt against his. When the water began to run cold, they reluctantly got out and enjoyed the pleasure of toweling one-another dry. They almost ended up back in bed, but common sense prevailed and she insisted on food, first.

After a good meal, they looked at each other. Ray had his head cocked at her, giving her a speculative look. She grinned at him and started unbuttoning her blouse. He took the hint and it was a mad dash back to bed, where they continued where they had left off, earlier.

They were both glad she'd bought the econopak.

Late Sunday evening, Harding took Francesca home. He insisted on walking her to the door. When they arrived, her brother was waiting for them, a scowl on his face. "Get in the house, Frannie," he practically snarled.

Her chin came up in defiance. "No."


Francesca opened her purse and pulled out the note he'd written. "No." She held it up for him to read. He turned an almost apoplectic shade of beet red. He glared at Welsh.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he hissed, furious.

Welsh was surprisingly calm. They'd talked a lot more, that afternoon, agreeing, finally, that they could be good for each other. He still didn't expect it to last. She'd find a younger, better looking, more exciting man before too long and he'd be alone again; but until that happened, he was willing to have a relationship with her. Deep down, he was hoping that she'd really fall in love with him, but his brain kept telling him that that idea was rather hopeless. Still...

"I was thinking that Francesca asked to stay, so I let her stay."

Ray, still furious, turned again to his sister. "Are you nuts?! He's your boss, damnit! My boss, too, for that matter. What, you think you can get a promotion for screwing the boss?"

Francesca's hand came up and slapped him, resoundingly. Her eyes sparkled with a fury of her own. "You gave your word, Ray. You said we'd have your blessing. You a liar, now?"

Ray was shaking in fury. He glared at Welsh. "I swear..."

"Raimondo." Ma Vecchio's voice came from behind him. "Did you give your blessing, or not?"

Ray immediately deflated, still glaring bitterly at his boss. "I didn't mean it. I figured he had more sense."

"But did you give them your blessing?"

Francesca held out the piece of paper to her mother, who took it and read the words written in her son's hand. "There is nothing more for you to say or do, Raimondo." There was disappointment in her voice, looking at Welsh. "I apologize for my son, Lieutenant. He forgets himself, sometimes."

"I apologize for causing any problems, Mrs. Vecchio." He was uncomfortable, realizing that Ray's reaction should have been expected, and he'd been so taken with Francesca, that he hadn't thought beyond her.

Mrs. Vecchio regarded him critically. He was too old for her youngest child. He could have children her age, she thought. Then she looked at her daughter, at the way she looked at him and saw something she never expected to see. She frowned for a moment, then moved back, holding the door open. "Please, come in. We will talk, yes?"

Ray opened his mouth to protest, but the quick glare his mother cast him had him closing his mouth and saying nothing, merely nodding and moving out of the way to let them enter. Frannie looked worriedly from her brother to her mother to Welsh, then lifted her chin proudly and took Harding's hand and led him into the house, heading straight for the kitchen, where she knew her mother would hold court. She was afraid. Afraid that they'd drive him away, like Ray had driven Fraser away, like she half-suspected that he had driven Kowalski away, ignoring the fact that it had been her choice to dump him.

"Coffee, Lieutenant?"

"No, thank you, Mrs. Vecchio. I think I've drunk enough for today," he replied politely, holding Francesca's chair for her.

His actions were quite natural, which was not lost on Ma Vecchio. She gave the big, gruff man a narrow-eyed look and nodded to herself. He knew how to treat a lady, at least. Perhaps...

"What are your intentions towards my daughter?" She came right to the point.

Welsh gazed calmly at the older woman. She was probably only about a dozen years older than he was, and he could imagine the thoughts going through her head. "I have no desire to hurt her," he began.

"Ma, don't blame him. wasn't his idea. Any of it." She blushed and wouldn't meet anyone's eyes. When she felt Welsh's hand cover hers, she looked up in surprise.

"It's just as much my responsibility as yours, Francesca. More, I suspect."

"You didn't jump me, I jumped you, Harding," Francesca insisted, blushing scarlet. Ray, who had been leaning in the doorway behind them, growled, only to be silenced by his mother's glare.

"So, you have been... intimate?"

"Yes.," Welsh replied simply.

Ma Vecchio closed her eyes, then looked heavenward, gesturing in dismay. Ray growled again, and was ignored.

"Don't blame him!" Francesca almost shouted. "Hell, he didn't even know how to use a condom!"

Oh, yes. Welsh thought, that went over well. He closed his eyes, blushing in embarrassment. Ray was ready to kill him, and Mrs. Vecchio...she was looking at him with...respect? Couldn't be.

"Is this true?"

"Yeah," he couldn't look at any of them, now.

"You will not hurt my Francesca?"

"Not if I can possibly help it. She's very special. We're still working things through. I...I know I'm too old for her, but...well, it's what she wants, for now." His voice told them that he didn't expect it to last, that she'd leave him as soon as she found someone younger.... And now Ray was glaring at his sister.

Ma frowned at her daughter. "Oh? Francesca, perhaps I am asking the wrong one. What are your intentions towards this man?"

Francesca looked surprised for a moment. She glanced at her still furious brother, then at Harding. Seeing his resigned expression, she realized... he didn't believe her. He thought she would use him, then leave him for someone younger. Yet, he was willing to be with her for as long as she wanted him. What had begun as curiosity and desperation, suddenly turned to something else. Something better.

"I want forever," she whispered. "I want always and forever."

He frowned at her, not quite believing. She slid from her chair, her hand still held in his, she added her other hand so she was grasping his in both of hers. On her knees before him, she looked up into the craggy face of a man who had, despite his misgivings and own emotional baggage, allowed her to take what she wanted from him. She shivered at the idea of spending every night for the rest of their lives with him. She knew it was far too sudden, but she knew what she wanted. "I want you. Forever. I want to be with you. Sleep with you, wake up with you. Make love with you. Hold you when you're tired or discouraged. Laugh with you when you're happy or amused. Love you for the rest of your life, and beyond." She searched his face, still seeing the doubt. She rose to her feet and sat on his lap, straddling his legs, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him; pouring every ounce of love and desire into that one, single kiss.

For a moment, he sat there, stunned; then his arms came up to hold her. Breaking the kiss, he buried his face in her shoulder, visibly trembling. "Can you do forever, Harding? Can you do forever with me?"

"I'd like to try," came the strained answer. He lifted his head and looked at Mrs. Vecchio, who was beaming benignly at them, nodding in satisfaction. Ray still looked unhappy, but not nearly as angry as he had. Meeting his eyes, Ray nodded his grudging agreement.

"You hurt her, I'll kill you."

"If I hurt her, you won't have to," came the solemn response. Ray nodded, accepting the vow.

Mrs. Vecchio was smiling, pleased. This was a good man, one who understood how to please a woman; it was only obvious to her. Welsh definitely was a gentle man. He had to be, to have won her daughter so quickly. Francesca had no idea that her mother knew about the things her ex-husband had done to her, but having been a battered wife, herself, she had recognized the signs and grieved for her daughter. After Ray had rescued his sister, she had feared that she would never find a suitable husband. She'd had hopes for a short time for Benton, but he was damaged, himself. And Frannie had dumped Ray Kowalski. Both had saddened her, as she felt that either man would have treated her daughter as she deserved. She'd never considered someone as old as the lieutenant, however. Still...

Frannie kissed him again, and stood up, sighing. "I know you need to give him the third degree, so I'll leave you to it. She looked at Welsh with a promise in her smile. "I'll see you tomorrow at work, okay?" Welsh nodded and watched her as she left the room. There was a looseness to her walk that he hadn't remembered. Apparently, neither did her mother or brother, who both watched her leave and then stared at him; Ray, narrowly, Ma, speculatively.

"Raimondo, you must get up early, why don't you go to bed, now?" his mother suggested. He looked at her in surprise.


"Go, Raimondo. It will be all right." She gave him a look that had him nodding and turning to leave. The last glance he gave to Welsh was one of reluctant commiseration. He wasn't sure what his Ma was going to say, but he was grateful that he wasn't going to be on the receiving end.

When they were gone, she again offered him coffee, which he again politely declined. Sighing, she settled down opposite him. "What do you know of my Francesca?"

He regarded her for a moment. "I know that her husband abused her."

She nodded. "What else?"

He realized that she knew. He looked away. "I know that he... raped her. More than once, but I don't have any idea how prevalent it may have been."

She nodded, satisfied. "Raimondo does not know this."

"I know. I'm sure that if he did, the ex would be dead and Ray would be in prison."

"Yes. He is not to know."

"He won't learn of it from me."

She smiled. "And you? Did you please my Francesca?"

He blushed and wouldn't meet her eyes. "I think so."

"You do not know for certain?"

He met her eyes. "I'm not comfortable discussing it with you."

"Ah. Did you discuss it with my daughter?"

"Yes. We discussed it."

"So, you pleased her?"

He sighed, realizing he wasn't going to be able to be a gentleman about it. "Yes."

"How do you know?"

His blush darkened. "I know how to please a woman."

"How do you know?"

His blush couldn't get any deeper. "I..." he shook his head. "Look you want details?"


"I...." He shook his head. "No. I can't discuss it. I know I pleased her. That will have to be enough."

"Did she... did you give her pleasure?"

He was still frowning. "Yes."

She examined his face, focusing mostly on his eyes, trying to ascertain the truth. "How can you be sure?"

He sighed, wishing he was home, away from this insistent woman who couldn't leave the details of his sex life with her daughter alone. "She told me."

"Ha! What did she tell you?"

"That she'd never.... " he swallowed hard and met her eyes, determined to shock her. "She'd never had an orgasm before. How do I know she wasn't faking? Because I didn't depend on my 'prowess' as a man, I used my hands and made sure, before I did anything else," he nearly snarled.

She sat back in surprise. Gazing at him speculatively. "Why?" She couldn't understand.

He groaned. "Please. Can't you just accept my word? Why don't you ask Francesca? She could tell you better than I ever could."

Mrs. Vecchio nodded. "Perhaps that would be best. When do you plan on seeing her again?"

He knew she didn't mean at work. "That's up to Francesca. Probably not until next weekend, though."

"Buono. Good. You will come for supper on Friday, yes?"

He knew it wasn't a request. "I'd be honored," he responded, once again proving his good manners to her.

"Very well." Mrs. Vecchio rose and he followed suit, realizing he had been dismissed. She escorted him to the front door and he turned before going down the steps.

"I care for Francesca, a lot. I won't hold it against her when she changes her mind."

She frowned. He didn't believe Francesca capable of committing to forever...but why should he? He didn't know her very well, yet. Still.... She found herself approving of this man. "We will have to wait and see, won't we?"

His smile was sad, "Yes. We will."

She watched him as he drove away, a frown on her face. He was a good man. She could tell. It would not be right for Francesca to use him badly. He, too, had been hurt. She turned to go upstairs. She and her youngest child needed to have a talk.

She tapped on her daughter's door. Francesca opened it. She was already prepared for bed, wearing her cotton baby-dolls. "You will tell me." Her voice was gentle, but there was no mistaking her meaning. Francesca blushed.


"Did he please you?"

Her face blushed scarlet and she smiled. "Oh, yes." She couldn't help the shiver from the memories. "He's...well, he's good. Real good."

"What do you mean by 'good'?" They settled on Francesca's bed. Frannie was embarrassed, but at the same time, wanted to brag and gloat and share.

"Ma, he's... he's huge!"

Ma frowned, concerned. "What you mean?" Francesca used her hands to describe his length and girth. The older woman's eyes grew large. "You joke!"

"No, Ma. No joke. Ask Ray. Maybe he's seen him in the bathroom?"

Ma shook her head. "No, if it is true, a man like that, he would not display himself, even in the urinal." She looked critically at her daughter. "He did not hurt you?"

Frannie smiled happily. "No. He, he did this thing with his fingers, first. I was coming so hard that I hardly realized when he pushed inside me. Ma, he was wonderful! I've never... three times, Ma!" Her mother laughed with her daughter and their conversation degenerated into comparing men they had known.

Two hours later, she patted her daughter's knee. "Buono. You take care to hold on to this man. He is too good to lose through foolishness, capice?"

"Yes, Ma." Francesca crawled beneath her covers and prepared to sleep. Her mother kissed her forehead and bade her good night. Talking with her mother had made her cement the memories, and she found herself missing the massive presence of the man she'd spent only one night and day with. She could hardly wait until the weekend, when they could be together again.

He couldn't sleep. He missed her. One night and day together, and he was pining for her. He shifted in his bed, punched his pillow again and tried to find a comfortable position. He ached for her, and he was miserable. He couldn't believe it. His brain told him he was being a foolish old man, but his heart and body...his body wanted her, and his heart was already lost to her. It made for a very unrestful night.

Frannie dug out one of her old stuffed animals and snuggled with it. It was a lousey substitute for Harding, but the best she could do. She dreamed of him, his hands, his voice, his body...

She had taken some clothes to his apartment. He lived closer to where they both worked and it made sense to sleep there Sunday through Thursday. They would spend any time off at her house. At least, for now. He'd also left some of his clothing at her house. Mostly, it was because they didn't want to be apart any more than absolutely necessary. He needed her frequent reassurance that she loved and wanted him. She needed to be able to give him those reassurances. She also wanted him; and he wanted her, for more than just cuddles. Having taken that step further into intimacy, more physical contact was strongly desired by them both. Maedel simply sighed and slept on the couch, instead of on the bed. Even she understood that she was superfluous to their relationship. Not that she was ever ignored, as both humans doted on her.

Moanday Morning. He groaned. He'd gotten almost no sleep. He was cranky and irritable. Not that that condition was all that unusual, but for the first time in many years, he'd had 'those' dreams. Obviously, he wasn't immune. Particularly after how he had spent the weekend. He was tired; more tired than usual. He had trouble dragging himself out of bed, having only managed to fall asleep less than an hour before his alarm went off. He checked on his children. They were sleeping peacefully, which brought a weary smile to his face; but then, whenever he thought about them, he'd smile. They were the best part of his life; although Francesca had been a more than welcome addition, for however long she might decide to stay. He sighed. Well, wanting wasn't going to get anything done. Steeling himself to face another day, he headed for the door. Tara was sitting in front of it, watching him.

"Come on, girl. You gotta move. Time for me to go to work."

Tara looked sadly at him.

"What's the matter? Is your bowl empty? Come on, let's go see." He turned towards the kitchen and the dog rose and followed. He hadn't even had any coffee, yet, nor had he eaten anything. Tara knew that, and sat in the kitchen doorway and stared at him.

"What? Your dish is full, Tara. Come on, move, girl. I gotta get to work."

Tara didn't move, just sat looking sadly at him.

He sighed. This wasn't the first time this had happened to him. He also knew that she wouldn't give up. Turning to the refrigerator, he opened it and took out a carton of milk. Getting a glass from the cupboard, he poured it full. He put the carton back into the refrigerator and drank the glass of milk. Finished, he rinsed the glass out and set it on the counter to be washed, later. Tara, satisfied, got out of his way, heading upstairs to stay with the children. He shook his head in wonder that the dog understood so very much. Then he thought of Tara's sister, Maedel, and was grateful that his dog wasn't quite that smart. Shaking his head in begrudging amusement, he headed out the door, his progress no longer impeded by his overly solicitus dog.

She startled awake with his alarm. It was loud, raucous, and all the way out in the kitchen. Ray simply snuggled closer and moaned softly, still asleep. Emily chuckled ruefully, understanding why the alarm was so far away. He might be able to sleep through it, but she couldn't. She squinted, trying to see the clock without her contacts in, and realized that they didn't even have to be up for at least another hour. Grinning, she got out of bed and went to turn the annoying noise off. Sliding back into bed beside him, she allowed him to snuggle back up to her. She was wide awake, and with so much time to spare, she decided that if she wasn't asleep, neither should he be.

"Mmmmm," he softly moaned, rocking into her touch. Slowly, he realized that it wasn't a dream, but reality. Waking, he reached for her, drawing her close for a kiss and a cuddle. She pushed him onto his back and with a soft murmur, mounted him. His eyes snapped open in surprise, quickly followed by joyful participation. His hands began wandering over her body, stroking and teasing. As her motions began to become frantic, he lifted his knees, letting her use his legs to brace against and then he curled up into a sitting position, with her still riding him. She moaned at the change in angle and began still more frantic movement. As she reached climax, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She whimpered and clung to him. As she tightened around him, he pulled her hips tighter against him and grunted his own release, sighing her name as he flopped bonelessly back onto his pillow, still cradling her against him.

"Oh, baby. I could so get used to this," he mumbled, kissing her cheeks, her eyes, her mouth.

"Hmmmm. Yeah. Me, too."

"What are you doing awake so early?" He shifted slightly and she moved off of him and laughed.

"Your alarm clock went off."

"My...oh, shit." He closed his eyes and blushed. "I'm sorry. I guess you figured out why it's clear out in the kitchen, huh?"

"Mmmm-hmmm." She nibbled at his ear, tugging at the lobe with her teeth as her breath tickled the canal. He shivered and let his hands wander some more.

"So, uh, what, now?"

"Well, if you're awake, we can get ready for work, if you like, although it's still pretty early, you know...

"Yeah. Usually takes me half an hour/forty-five minutes for the alarm to wake me. If I don't have to get up to shut it off, I'll just hit the snooze bar and go back to sleep."

"That's what I figured. Doesn't Maedel help get you up?"

"Nah. She likes to sleep in, too."

"Well, since we have so much time, how about a nice, hot shower and a leisurely breakfast?"

"Mmmm, are you on the menu?"

Her breath caught at his implication. "I suppose I could about you?"

"Maybe..." They shifted positions, so she was on her back and he began working his way down her body, using fingers, hands, lips and tongue, until she was shuddering with fullfilled passion. When she reached for him, to pull him to her, he pushed her hands away and groped for the condoms. He was somewhat surprised by how few were remaining, but then remembered that they'd left half the box at her house. Time to go shopping again...soon.

Sated, for the moment, they dragged themselves to the shower, and continued their enjoyment of each other. They lingered over breakfast, talking about their plans for after work.Both recognized that they were moving too fast, too frantic. Mutually, they agreed to back off a bit, to allow their new relationship to solidify and grow more slowly.

"It's gonna be hard, you know," Ray murmured.

"Trying to keep our hands and other parts off each other? I know. But I love to cuddle, and so do you So...."

"So, back to cuddling for a while. I can do cuddles," Ray grinned. The sex was fantastic, but they both wanted a great deal more than just good sex. They wanted it all, with each other.

The most amazing thing to each of them, was how easily the other agreed. It was almost scary, they were so attuned to one another, already.

Francesca awoke to her brother pounding on her door and shouting that if she didn't get a move on, she'd be late for work and that he wouldn't wait for her. Grumbling because he'd interrupted the most wonderful dream, where she and Harding were.... One last fist to her door and the dream faded as her annoyance grew.

"I hear you! Sheesh, Ray, go back to bed and get up on the other side, why don't you?" she shouted. Her brother merely told her again that he wouldn't wait for her. Shanking her head, she got up and, gathering her things, she headed for the bathroom for a shower.

By the time she was ready to go, Ray was pacing; a scowl on his face. She blithely ignored him as she headed for the kitchen for some coffee and breakfast.

"We don't have time for that, Frannie. If you got up at a decent hour, we wouldn't be running late all the time," Ray was even more surly and impatient than usual.

"Ray, go on without me, if you're in such a hurry."

"You think that just because you're boffin' Welsh he won't jump your case for being late?"

She glared at her brother. "It's only seven, Ray. We don't have to be there until eight, in case you forgot. We've got plenty of time."

Ray scowled. "I don't like gettin' there five minutes before shift, Frannie. I like to be able to get in, grab a cup of coffee and check the overnights,"

She looked up at him, sneering, "You're just pissed off because I'm getting some and you're not. Hell, even Kowalski's gettin' laid."

"Francesca! Shame on you!" their mother's voice interrupted them. Ray was shaking with rage, but he backed down from his mother, turning away.

"And you, Raimondo, you don't need to torment your sister, either. Francesca, your language is not befitting a lady. I do not think your gentleman would approve, do you?"

"Sorry, Ma," Frannie mumbled, blushing.

"It is not me you should be apologizing to, Francesca, but your brother."

Frannie glanced up at her brother, who looked just as chastised as she felt. "Sorry, Ray."

He shrugged. "Yeah, me, too. Look, go ahead and grab somethin' to eat. I'll wait for you."

"You will eat, too, Raimondo. You are too thin. You should eat more."

Ray smiled. "Ma, I eat any more, and I'll get fat."

His mother laughed and pushed him down, placing a bowl of hot cereal before him. He grimaced, picked up his spoon and began eating. His sister grinned at him and started eating her own breakfast.

At the station, it was a normal Monday, lots of new cases from over the weekend; grumpy detectives who, as usual, felt that the weekend just wasn't long enough; and bad guys swearing their innocence.

Welsh was acting perfectly normal. He was gruff and sarcastic with everyone, including Frannie; the only difference being the eye contact he made with her and the smile on her face every time he snarled at her. No one noticed anything different about either of them, not even Ray Vecchio, who watched them both like a surly hawk.

"Vecchio, will you chill out?" Kowalski finally snapped at his partner. "You keep glarin' at the lieutenant and he's gonna wonder what's flown up your ass." He'd been called early on in court and gotten finished well before noon. They'd had a cancellation at the clinic, so he'd gone in and passed his return-to-duty physical. Now, it was mid-afternoon, and he was back at his regular desk, and sniping at his partner.

"He already knows," Vecchio snapped back and continued to stare daggers at their superior.

Kowalski frowned at his partner, and asked, softly, "What's the matter? Somethin' wrong between you and The Stella?"

Vecchio jumped, startled. "What? Me? No. Nothin's wrong with me."

Kowalski frowned. "She likes flowers for no reason."

The non-sequitor made Vecchio blink. "Huh?"

"You heard me. She likes flowers for no good reason. She likes roses with baby's breath, one, dark red, in a bud vase. She also likes white roses, and tulips."

Vecchio frowned. "Why you tellin' me this?"

Kowalski shrugged, grinning. "Because me and Emily talked most of the weekend. She took me to meet her grandmother and all her friends...well, the people she grew up with, anyway. It went good." He nodded, twisted his head and shoulders to pop his neck, smiling.

"Shit. You're gettin' laid, too?!" Vecchio was nearly beside himself.

Kowalski frowned for a moment, then understanding dawned. "Frannie's got a new boyfriend? Good for her. Who is he?"

Vecchio glared, then his gaze softened. It wasn't the guy's fault that he was in such a foul mood. "Welsh,"

Kowalski blinked, then looked at the open door to the lieutenant's office. "Uh... you sure?" He frowned, thinking. He'd pretended to be Frannie's brother for almost a year, and he'd come to have some pretty serious feelings about her. Had they been more communicative, they might have still been together, but that hadn't happened. He knew full well that Vecchio had practically hated him when he and Frannie were together.

"Hell, yes. She spent Saturday night with him at his house and didn't get home until late last night." He turned his scathing glare back on Welsh, in his office.

"So, what makes you so sure that they, well, you know?"

Vecchio looked at him, pityingly. "They admitted as much. The son-of-a-bitch is boffin' my sister."

Kowalski frowned, thinking. "Ray, he's not like that. You know your sister, she comes on like a freight train. If she set her sights on Welsh, he probably never had a chance."

Vecchio was up and in his face in an instance, "You take that back! My sister isn't...."

Kowalski stood up and pushed his partner away. "Bullshit! You chased Fraser away from her, and you tried to chase me, only I didn't chase. Lucky for you, she dumped me, anyway. She's a grown woman and knows what she wants. You can't go chasing off every guy she gets interested in. What's the matter, you think you're the only one good enough for her? Is that it? Huh?"

Vecchio swung at him, but Kowalski easily ducked the wild attack, dancing out of the way. "Is that it? Is it, Ray? You got the hots for your own sister?" Kowalski taunted, keeping his voice low enough not to be overheard.

"I'll kill you, you sonovabitch!" Vecchio swung again and again, Kowalski danced out of range.

"You and what army, Vecchio? Huh?" Kowalski kept his hands up to protect himself, but made no move to strike.

Vecchio took a couple more wild swings, with Kowalski dancing out of the way of each one, taunting him. Eventually, Dewey realized what was going on and started egging them on.

"Come on, Kowalski, hit the sumbitch!" Of course, Dewey raised his voice, drawing everyone's attention to the altercation. Francesca turned and saw her brother take another wild swing at his partner, who once again danced out of the way of the blow. Welsh, coming to his office door to see what the fuss was all about put an end to it.

"Vecchio! Kowalski! My office, gentlemen!" The combatants stopped. Kowalski grinned at his partner and gestured for him to go first, patently not trusting him not to hit him from behind. Vecchio bristled, but then slumped and turned to go to the lieutenant's office.

Francesca, suspecting what the 'almost' fight was about, followed them in, frowning at her brother, who wouldn't look at her.

Welsh drew the blinds and closed the door behind them. "Sit down," he growled. He moved behind his desk and sat down, scowling at the three before him. He desperately wished that Francesca had not come but, like her, suspected that she was the cause of the problem.

"One at a time, what was going on out there?"

Vecchio just scowled. Kowalski shrugged. "We just had a disagreement, is all, sir."


"Nothin'," Vecchio mumbled.

"I didn't quite hear that, detective."

"It was nothing, sir!" Vecchio's head snapped up and he turned his most formidable glare on his superior, who was unmoved.

Welsh sighed, glancing at a most subdued Francesca. "What did you say to your partner, Kowalski?"

Kowalski looked calmly at his boss, then at his partner, finally coming to rest on Frannie. "Frannie, please wait outside?"

"No. It's about me, so I want to know." She wouldn't meet his eyes, though.

Kowalski frowned and looked at his partner. "You want her to hear it?"


"Francesca, would you please excuse us?" Welsh asked gently. Francesca frowned at him, then calmly rose and left the room, her injured gaze on her brother.

"What did you say, detective?"

"I told Ray that he ran Fraser off his sister, then he tried to run me off, only she dumped me before he could... not that I'd have backed away, mind you. Then I asked if he had the hots for her himself and if that was why he kept tryin' to keep every man who even looks at her away."

Welsh sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He really didn't need this. His body was crying out to go out the door and grab Francesca and carry her off with him. His brain was bemoaning the entire situation, and his heart was breaking. "Vecchio?"

The Italian detective slumped in his chair and ran his hands through his thinning hair. "Yeah. That's what he said."

"Is he right?" Welsh asked very softly.

"No. Not exactly."

"Talk, Vecchio."

He looked up. Both of these men had slept with his little sister. He was fiercely protective of her, and was terrified that she'd take up with some man who would hurt her again. "I don't want her to get hurt."

"You think either of us would ever want to hurt her?" Kowalski asked, before Welsh could open his mouth. Vecchio just shrugged, not looking at either of them. Kowalski sighed and glanced at the lieutenant. Seeing the grief in the big man's eyes, he realized he needed to fix this, somehow.

"Ray, like I said. You chased Fraser off. You tried to chase me off, but I wasn't gonna chase. The only reason me and Frannie aren't still together is some miscommunication. She dumped me, and I remember when she did. I was hurtin' like hell and you were the most cheerful I ever seen you. You were glad she dumped me. I'm not holdin' that against you. I understand. But she's a grown woman. She's over thirty, damnit. She's a big girl and she can decide those things for herself. Me, I feel I got lucky. If she hadn't dumped me, I'd never have found Emily. I wouldn't trade her for anything. She doesn't just talk to me, she listens, too. And she gives the best cuddles I can remember since my grandmother died." He looked at Welsh, who, like Vecchio, wasn't meeting anyone's eyes.

"You gonna chase off every half-way decent man she meets, she'll end up with another loser like her ex, maybe worse. You ever think of that? Maybe she was feelin' desperate? Not that the lieutenant's desperation time, but... well. Think about it."

"Her ex raped her. I just don't want her to ever get hurt like that again."

Welsh looked up in surprise, Kowalski only nodded. "I know. I figured it out when we first got together. That was one reason I promised I'd never ask for more than a cuddle. I needed someone to hold me, to hold on to. She was convenient, you know? At the same time, she was sweet and caring. It was hard, sometimes, keeping that promise. But I did, and she dumped me anyway." He chuckled a bit drily. "She and Emily talked on Saturday. After Emily and me talked. Seems that I have a hard time takin' hints. Emily had to come right out and ask me for more than cuddles. Frannie never did." He looked at Welsh and smiled sadly. "It's time to let her go, Ray. Let her grow up and take a chance at finding happiness. It it's with the lieutenant, who are we to say no?"

"He's too...." He broke off as the door opened and Francesca re-entered the room. She was frowning and looking sad.

"I'm sorry. This is all my fault." She wouldn't look at Welsh and he could feel his heart crumbling into dust. "I should never...." Her eyes came up to look at Welsh for just a moment, but long enough to see the pain and grief in his eyes. "I never meant to hurt anyone." She turned and ran out the door.

Vecchio frowned after his sister, then looked at Welsh and finally saw the agony he was going through. He made a snap decision. "Go after her. If you care for her at all, for God's sake, go after her."

Welsh frowned at the detectives, Kowalski stood up and opened the door, gesturing that he go after her, while Vecchio clenched his teeth and swallowed hard, once, and nodded. "You have to."

And Welsh was up and out the door.

And into mayhem.

Someone had a gun and Francesca by the throat. Dewey was on the floor, dazed, Huey had his gun out and pointed at the stranger. Three other uniformed cops had their guns out, as well. Welsh came out like a grizzly, roaring.

The man, seeing the fearsome lieutenant bearing down on him, pushed Frannie away from him and towards the big, fast-moving man, stepping back. Welsh grabbed her and spun, placing himself between the gunman and her. The man fired in fear. Welsh grunted as the bullet hit him in the back, pushed Francesca behind a desk and continued to turn until he was again facing the gunman. He was moving so fast that no one had a chance to react. There was a second shot, and then Welsh had swung his right hand backhand and knocked the gun away and grabbed the perp by the throat, lifting him up, his fingers digging into the man's larynx, trying to crush it. He didn't seem to notice that his left arm hung uselessly at his side, nor the blood running down his chest and back.

Kowalski and Vecchio came running at the sound of the first shot. By the time they cleared the door and had gotten across the room, the perp was gasping, frantically trying to pull the crushing fingers from his neck.

"Let him go," Kowalski whispered. "Come on, lieutenant; drop that scum. You're getting dirty just touching him. Come on, let him go. You're hurt. Let me try and stop the bleeding, okay?" He looked frantically around, Dewey was still sprawled on the floor, gaping up at them. Huey was also frozen in shock. Vecchio was helping his sister up, and the uniformed officers were standing in awe, just watching. "Frannie! I need your help, here!"

With her brother's help, she got unsteadily to her feet. She looked past Ray's shoulder and saw Welsh, saw the way his left arm hung, the blood on the back of his shirt and screamed. "Harding!"

There was a roaring in his ears and a red haze obscuring his vision. He was out of control and didn't care, until a voice snapped him back. Francesca. His right hand released it's deadly grip and the former gunmen fell to the floor, unconscious. He turned, his vision clearing, searching...

"Harding? Oh, honey, please, come on, here, sit down." She was babbling, nearly hysterical; she grabbed a chair and pulled it over to him and her lightest touch was sufficient to get him to sit. Kowalski was yelling and grabbing Vecchio's handkerchief from him and a wad of tissues from a box on a nearby desk and applying pressure to the two blood-oozing wounds. "Oh, Harding, hold on, please? You hold on, you hear me?" She wrapped her arms around his head and held him to her breast, stroking his hair as she watched in horror as Kowalski tried to stem the bleeding.

"Vecchio, call dispatch and get the paramedics up here, fast. Tell them we got an officer down and need an ambulance, too. Huey, take care of your partner. You, Walchec, take care of the perp. Cuff him first, then worry about helping him. You two, clear the way for when the paramedics arrive."

Vecchio was on the phone before Kowalski got more than four words out. The others, likewise, did as instructed. Huey hauled Dewey to his feet and shoved him down into a chair. By the time the uniformed officer had cuffed the unconscious suspect and started trying to bring him around, the paramedics had arrived.

Welsh was conscious. His breathing was ragged, and there was blood in his mouth. Lung shot. He was oddly aware, like he was outside, watching at the same time it was happening to him. He knew it hurt, but it didn't matter. The blood on his tongue bothered and worried him, but the numbness in his shoulder didn't. He watched as his people worked. How Kowalski jumped in and took charge, the way everyone fell to, following instructions. Francesca holding him. That felt nice, her soft breast against his cheek. He closed his eyes for a moment, but Kowalski yelled at him to open his eyes and stay awake, so he did. Then the paramedics arrived and everything changed.

He pressed hard on the two wounds. The one in Welsh's chest was leaking badly, and he knew it was a lung shot. The one in the back...that one scared him. He could feel the shifting of shattered bones under his hand. The bullet had struck the shoulder blade and, if he wasn't mistaken, shattered it. He was scared and yelled, not really aware of what he was yelling, but somehow knowing that everyone was doing what needed to be done.

"Hang on. Hang on. Help's on its way. Just hang on." Kowalski babbled, unaware he was even talking. When he saw the paramedics, he screamed for them to leave the perp alone and come take care of Welsh. Seeing the manic look on the wild-haired man's face, they immediately changed direction to care for the gunshot victim.

Frannie didn't want to let go. She was afraid that if she did, he might die. Of course, if she didn't, the paramedics couldn't do their job and save him. She was sobbing when her brother gently took her by the shoulders and turned her around to hold her against his chest. He didn't say anything, because he couldn't think of a single thing to say. He just held her and watched as they prepped Welsh for transport.

They were asking him questions. No, he was fine. Just a little trouble breathing. Shot? Yeah, he guessed so. Was Francesca all right? Did that sumbitch hurt her? He oughta... oh, he did? Oh. Sorry... but not really. Could he stand up? Sure, why not? Whoa, suddenly dizzy, there. Sit down on the gurney? Sure, he could do that. Lie back? Yeah. Wait! Wait! It was harder to breathe, and it really hurt! Please!

Everyone was concerned by how out of it Welsh was. He definitely didn't seem to be aware of much, although his face definitely registered pain when they put him on the gurney and strapped him down, crying out, the sound cut off by a sudden flow of blood from his mouth. The paramedics immediately adjusted the gurney so he was sitting up, reapplying pressure to the chest wound, as when they moved him, they realized that it was a 'sucking' wound, with air leaking in and filling up the chest cavity, which could cause the lung to collapse.

"Frannie, you go with him. Vecchio, you take charge here, try and get everybody's statements by end of shift, okay? I'll go get his kids. Oh, shit. What am I gonna tell them?" Kowalski was the one closest to Welsh and his children. He wished Fraser were here, but the Ice Queen had kept him busy with visiting dignitaries for more than a week, now. Shaking his head like his dog when she got wet, he headed out the door, leaving behind the chaos for the short time it took him to get to the private school Welsh's kids attended.

He went to the office, first. He identified himself, even though the secretary knew him. He explained what had happened and had Jefferson paged. When the boy entered the office, he took one look at Ray's blood-stained shirt and hands and thought the worst. He paled and nearly fainted.

"He's been shot. On his way to the hospital. Twice, one to the lung, the other I think shattered his shoulder. He was conscious when they took him out. I came to get you. He's gonna be all right." Ray was barely coherent, but Jeff understood. He hugged his friend and felt him relax.

"I'll get the others." Jefferson turned and headed out of the office to go and get his siblings. He was still afraid, but if Ray said his dad would be okay, he would believe him. At least until he talked to the doctor.

All four children were silent on the trip to the hospital. They were afraid. Not only afraid of their father's injuries, but fear that they might be left alone, like when their mother and step-father had died just a short year and a half earlier.

At the hospital, they joined Frannie in the waiting room. Ray tried to find out what was going on, but only learned that the lieutenant was in surgery. That didn't sound all that bad. Looking at Jefferson, he asked if he'd ever donated blood. The boy shook his head. Ray looked at Frannie and asked when the last time she'd donated was. Five minutes later, the three of them were down in the blood center, donating. By the time they were through, Ray Vecchio, Huey and Dewey had arrived to donate, as well as half a dozen uniformed officers. At the end of shift, there was a line out the door of off-duty officers, waiting to donate a pint of blood for their injured comrade.

It seemed to take forever. Four hours in surgery, and Emily came to talk to them. Ray hadn't paged her, because he didn't want to impose upon their friendship. She started to chide him for his actions, but seeing everyone's worry, refrained. Instead, she headed for the OR and brought back word. The bullets had been removed, the lung repaired. Now, they were doing what they could for the shattered shoulder blade. With a little good luck, there would be no nerve damage, but it was far too early to tell, yet. They were removing splinters of bone and using a teflon plate to attach the remaining pieces of bone back together. It was expected to take several more hours. The most important news, however, was that he was alive, his vitals were strong, and that they expected him to recover... the only question, really, the damaged shoulder.

There was a great deal of relief in the waiting room. Emily finally talked Ray into taking Frannie and the children back to Welsh's house, as it would be several more hours before he would be out of surgery, and the hospital rules forbade children under the age of sixteen to visit in Recovery or ICU. Reluctantly, they agreed, with the promise that they be called with any news.

Vecchio watched his sister with Welsh's kids. He hardly knew them, not even their names, for sure. The two little ones clung to her, while the two older ones stayed close to both Frannie and Kowalski. Ray saw how good the two of them were with the kids, and silently berated himself for being so over-protective of his sister. When Frannie scooped up the youngest girl in her arms and they cried together with joy that Welsh was going to make it... well, that settled it, for him. If they wanted to be together, who was he to stand in their way? He'd been stupid, and he knew it.


She looked up from little Abigail, cradled in her arms. "Yeah?"

"I'm, uh. I'm sorry. You and the lieutenant. It's okay. You have my blessing. For real, this time." He kept glancing at her and away, as though afraid she was going to hit him again.

"You mean that?" she asked in surprise. Kowalski watched silently from nearby, where he was holding Adams and had been rejoicing with Jefferson and Madison.

"Yeah. Kowalski... Ray, he was right. I been tryin' to drive every man away from you, since that bastard... well, I always thought that any guy you ever met was gonna hurt you again, and I couldn't stand the idea. I, I told Fraser to stay away from you, or else. I tried to tell Kowalski that, too. But then you dumped him. He's right. I was glad when you did, even though he was hurtin'. I'm sorry, Frannie. I can't run your life for you. I just want you to be happy, you know?"

Frannie smiled. "Yeah. I know, bro. I guessed about Fraser, but he was afraid of me, too. Ray and me... well, that was my fault for not sayin' what I wanted. Harding... I gotta tell you, Ray. That one took me by surprise. After Emily told me how I screwed up with Ray, he came over to give me some advice." She looked down at the girl falling to sleep in her arms and smiled. "Maybe I won't have any babies of my own, but these are some pretty great kids, you know?"

"What was the advice, Frannie?"

"That the flirtin' was scarin' guys off. That guys are afraid of real flirty women, afraid that they're gonna leave them, all the time. I asked if that was what his ex was like. He said, 'yeah'. It made me think, you know? Then, he walked me down to my car and made sure it started and everything. That's when I asked him." Seeing her brother's puzzled expression, she grinned and continued. "I asked him if a guy like him could ever go for a woman like me? He said if he was twenty years younger, he'd be tempted. When I said that age didn't matter, he said he had four reasons why it wasn't a good idea. One, the age thing. Two, he's my boss. Three and four, you and Ray would both kill him."

"He was right, you know."

"No. He wasn't."

"Not about you and him. About you flirting all the time. He was right about that."

"Yeah. I think so, too. I asked him 'what if I get your permission?' he laughed and said to get it in writing."

Her brother sighed. "Which you sneakily did."

"Hey, I learned from the best, Ray."

He winced. "Yeah. I guess you did, at that." He watched her shift the child in her arms. "Look why don't you let me carry her? You guys need to get them home."

Kowalski came closer. "You want to come help?" he asked, neutrally.

"You sure?"


"I got an idea. Let me call Ma. We can go there for supper, get them all fed good, before you have to take them home," Vecchio offered. Frannie smiled and looked at Kowalski, who shrugged.

"You guys like Italian food?" Kowalski asked the three still awake children. Their smiles provided the answer, and they turned to troupe out to the cars. Frannie rode with her brother, while Kowalski drove the children.

Ma Vecchio was thrilled. She was amazed at the excellent manners of the Welsh offspring. It was obvious to her that their father was raising them with discipline and love, in at least equal measure. Then she saw how they reacted to her own grandchildren, Gina, and most importantly, Francesca. They treated Kowalski like a favorite uncle, and her son, like the stranger he was to them.

Francesca introduced them. "Ma, these are Lieutenant Welsh's children. Jefferson," the boy stepped forward and shook her hand.

"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Vecchio. Thank you for inviting us."

"This is Madison," The girl stepped up and presented a very passable curtsy.

"How do you do, Mrs. Vecchio?" Ma beamed at her and patted her face.

"What a lovely child you are."

"This is Adams," Francesca continued. The boy smiled shyly and shook her hand, saying nothing.

"And this is Abigail." The nine-year-old was too shy to come out from behind the safety of Kowalski, despite his reassurances.

"You are most welcome to my home." Mrs. Vecchio announced. "You may call me 'Ma', like everyone else, si?"

The four Welsh children exchanged concerned looks. Jeff spoke up, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Vecchio, but I'm afraid our dad wouldn't approve. We aren't allowed to call adults by anything but mister or MS, without permission from him."

Ma looked surprised. She pointed to Kowalski, "What do you call him?"

"In public, it's sir, or Detective Kowalski."

"And in private?"

"Uncle Ray," Abigail announced proudly.

Kowalski blushed. "I kinda got adopted," he admitted.

"This is not a problem, at work?"

"Nah. I do my job, we're cool. I screw up, I get reamed. Just like normal."

"But outside of work?"

"We're sort of friends. We don't exactly hang out together, but we do stuff, sometimes. I helped him paint, for example, and he lets me play with his cars."

Ma's eyebrows went up in confused surprise. "Play with his cars?"

"Yeah, Ma," her son explained. "The lieutenant's got a bunch of classic cars."

"Yeah, Ray helped us fix up the lieutenant's brother's car. Got it running for him."

"Man, that was some car. Solid gold bodywork. What a beautiful thing."

"hmmm," Ma practically scowled. She almost asked why Kowalski hadn't been around, lately, but realized that the reason was her children. She'd known that her daughter had dumped him, and that her son resented him, although she couldn't understand either of them. Kowalski had done an excellent job of covering for her son while he was gone, using his own time and money to make the repairs to their house, rebuilding her son's car, and doing anything he could to make their life easier. She had hoped that he and Francesca... but that was not to be.

"Come, supper is ready. You must be starving."

To Ma, it was a simple meal; rigatoni with sauce Bolognaise. To the children, it was exotic and very special, and like any growing thing, especially children, they ate until they could hold no more. Best of all, to Ma's way of thinking, they even liked the Spumoni!

After dinner, while the adults cleaned up, Ma took advantage and got the four visiting children alone.

"So, tell me. What do you think of my Francesca and your father?"

They were a cop's kids. They recognized an interrogation, no matter how carefully worded. Still... They looked at each other, shrugging, then nodding. Jefferson, as the eldest, replied.

"We like her. She's fun."


"She went to the carnival with us, Saturday evening. She was great," Madison piped up.

"She made our dad smile," Jeff added. His words were greeted by the smiles and nods of his siblings.

"He laughed, too." Adams said softly.

"I like her," Abigail whispered. "She gives good hugs."

"What would you think of her as..." Ma frowned, trying to find an innocuous enough term.

"As a step-mother?" Jeff asked. "We think she'd be pretty good." Seeing the look of surprise on Mrs. Vecchio's face, he tried to explain.

"Dad's kind of sad. We figured that he's lonely. We know he loves us, and that he really wanted us, but it's pretty obvious that it's not really enough. He needs someone there for him. Like he's there for us. Well, not exactly, but sort of." He was blushing. Mrs. Vecchio understood.

"You are very wise, for being so young. You all feel this way? That your father needs someone besides his children?" All four heads nodded, solemnly.

"Buono." She nodded. "So, you think Francesca would be good for your father?"

"She already has been," Madison murmured softly.

"How do you mean?"

She blushed. "He slept later Sunday morning than he ever has. And when he woke up, he wasn't tired, and he was smiling, and his shoulders were down."

Mrs. Vecchio frowned, not sure she understood. "Down?"

Jeff nodded. "His shoulders are usually pretty high, from stress. He was relaxed." All the children nodded in agreement.

"And he even went back to bed and slept some more," Abigail announced, much to her two eldest sibling's embarrassment. Even Adams blushed slightly.

That, Mrs. Vecchio had no difficulty understanding. She beamed at the children. "If Francesca were to become your stepmother, then you would have to call me 'Ma', as you would be my grandchildren."

"Ma! What are you doing? Barbecuing the kids?"

"That's 'grilling' Frannie," her brother and Kowalski said in unison.

"Fine, grilling, then. That's not nice, Ma." Of course, Frannie was dying to know what they had talked about, but wasn't about to ask.

"I was just checking. I wanted to be sure that you have their blessing," Ma informed her.

"Oh?" Frannie looked at the children, only to be met with four bright smiles, and four pair of arms that wrapped around her in a hug. "Oh!"

Frannie insisted on helping Kowalski take care of the children. Primarily, because she wanted to get to know them better, and let them get to know her; but it was also because she wanted to test herself, to see if she could deal with them on a daily basis. Fortunately for all of them, they got along wonderfully.

Officially, the hospital didn't allow children to visit. With Emily Kopacek on their side, however, they quietly flaunted the rules. They weren't there the first time Harding awoke, but they were the second time, and since his first awakening wasn't even remembered by him, it didn't matter that they hadn't been there.

He had a drain tube for his damaged lung, and had to sit up, most of the time, to keep his lungs from filling up with fluid and to try and prevent pneumonia. It was also for his injured shoulder, to keep as much pressure off of it as possible. He was weak, and still somewhat disoriented, but his obvious joy at the sight of his children made everyone smile. Frannie stayed quietly in the background, until he was tired and Kowalski insisted they leave to let him rest. Abigail frowned when she realized that Francesca wasn't with them.

"What about Frannie?"

"Well, she wants to visit, too. We kind of Bogarted all the time, don't you think? So, we're going to let her stay for a while, when it's quiet."

"Ohhhh," Abigail said, "So they can do kissy-face."

Ray snickered, while Jeff blushed and Madison groaned. "Something like that. Is that okay with you? You guys had two hours with him, Frannie's only gonna get a few minutes, before visiting hours are over and they kick everybody out."

"That's fair," Adams agreed.

"Come on, let's go check out the gift shop!" With that, Ray led the children down the stairs to the lobby.

"Hey," Frannie said softly.

Harding opened his eyes, somewhat surprised to see her. "Hey, yourself." He hadn't realized she was there, she'd been so quiet.

"How you doin'?" She was almost afraid to get too close, that he might reject her.

"About as well as can be expected. You okay?"

"Me? I'm fine." She was surprised.

"I shoved you kinda hard, didn't I? I thought maybe you got hurt. I didn't mean to, I just had to get you out of the way, safe, you know?"

She stared at him, her mouth hanging open. "Harding, you were magnificent. I was sure he was gonna blow my head off, and suddenly, there you were, like this huge bear, coming at us. He shoved me at you, and you got me out of the way. I don't have even one bruise. You saved my life!" For the first time since it happened, she started crying. "I thought, when I saw the blood, I thought that you... That I lost you. That... that..." She couldn't speak any more, and covered her face with her hands. She felt his fingers, stretched as far as he could reach, just lightly brush her arm. She looked at him.

"Hey, come here." It was hard, holding his good arm out, as the muscles across his back were fairly torn up, but he managed. She moved closer to him, until he could wrap his arm around her and pull her close to him. With her head resting on his chest, she sobbed out her fears.

"I was so, so afraid I was going to lose you. And we just found each other, you know? I don't think I could stand that."

"You didn't lose me," he whispered, kissing her forehead. "See? I'm right here."

"I love you, Harding. I wasn't sure, before, but I am, now. I love you."

She lifted her head, she had to see his reaction. She was fearful, but the smile he greeted her with was more than she expected.

"You're really in love with a beat-up old flatfoot like me?"

"No." His face fell, until she continued, "Not one like you. I'm in love with you. Beat up, shot to pieces, battered and bruised. What do you think of that, Lieutenant Harding Welsh?"

His smile, though tired, was answer enough, but he added to it with words. "I think that's the best news I've had in years."

She smiled and leaned down to kiss him, careful to not touch him anywhere it might hurt, she cupped his face between her hands, while his good arm wrapped around her and weakly hugged her to him.

Kowalski drove them back to Welsh's house. She was surprised when he decided to leave her alone with the kids, but understood that he needed to be with Emily. The children were quickly finding that she was what they had hoped for, not only for their father, but themselves, as well. She brought her entire makeup kit for the girls to experiment with. She was careful to teach them that 'less is more', much to the boys' amusement, although, Jefferson found himself worried about Madison. She'd already been asked out by some of the boys at school, but their dad had said not until she was older; in fact, Jefferson was only now being allowed to go on group dates. He didn't really mind. He knew it was because their dad was a cop and just trying to protect them from some of the crazies out there. Frannie would have been easy to trick, but they decided that it would only mess things up, so they explained all their dad's 'rules' to her. She couldn't help but laugh, although she agreed that they had to abide by them, even when he wasn't home, and particularly since he was in the hospital, and would be there for several more weeks, at least.

Ray was exhausted when he finally got home. He expected that Emily was back in her own house, but he wished she was around to give him a hug. The District Captain had come down in person earlier in the day to commend him on his quick thinking and actions in the aftermath of Dewey's suspect escaping. He just wished he could remember what he'd done. He'd been embarrassed, and they were talking another citation, this time for Welsh as well as him. He insisted that it was a group effort, only the rest of the 'group' all denied it, placing all the responsibility for the fortunate turn of events on his and Welsh's heads. The five eye-witness accounts of Welsh's daring rescue of the civilian aide was of no surprise to Ray, after all, the man was in love with her. He'd protect her the same way he would his kids; and had. As for himself, he insisted he'd acted solely on instinct, which only got more praise heaped upon his head. Vecchio didn't help, when he described how he'd taken over and started issuing orders just like the lieutenant, all the while applying pressure to their superior's wounds. The whole thing left him beyond embarrassment; totally drained emotionally, and too weary to even bother to get anything to eat.

All he ever really wanted was a good cuddle.

He was practically dragging when he got home. He hoped that Maedel would forgive him for being so late. He knew she could contain herself for up to twenty hours (having on a couple of rare occasions had to put her to the test, due to the job). He preferred taking her with him, but some days, he left her home. The day Welsh was shot, he was glad she wasn't there, or she'd have gone for the gun and possibly, no, probably, been killed. Not that he wasn't upset by Welsh's injuries.

He hadn't seen Emily since it happened, being too busy with work and the kids. They'd spoken briefly on the phone, once, but only long enough to apologize. She'd been so perfectly understanding. It was almost like a verbal hug. But still not as good as the real thing.

He opened the door to his apartment. Maedel was waiting for him, dancing in her excitement at seeing him. He leaned down to ruffle her fur. "Hey, sweetheart, miss me?"

"Very much, Ray."

He jumped, his hand automatically reaching for his gun, when he recognized the voice. "Geeze, Emily! Do not do that!" He was shaking from the shock.

"I'm sorry. I thought you'd have seen my car downstairs." She frowned. "Are you all right?"

"Just tired," he admitted. He pulled his jacket off, then his holster and gun, dropping the jacket on the couch, he carried the gun into the bedroom and put it away in his night stand. Returning to the living room, he rubbed his hands over his face, trying to force himself awake. He was so tired....

"Come and eat. I know you haven't had anything today."

"Yeah, I did. Oatmeal with the kids this morning. Oh, and a couple of candy bars from the machines at work." He grinned, tiredly.

"Like I said, you haven't eaten today." She grabbed him by the shoulders and guided him to a chair at the table. She entered the kitchen and filled a plate from several pots on the stove. As she brought it to him, he sniffed appreciatively.

"What is that?" He felt the saliva start flowing in his mouth, anticipating what smelled absolutely wonderful.

"Like you can't tell? Kielbasa, homemade, by the way, and braised cabbage." She set the plate down before him and he dug in, eating like he was starving. "Polish comfort food," she added with a smile.

"Oh, this is greatness," he spoke through a mouth full of food, then shut up and got down to the business of eating. When he was finished, she brought him some babkas. He ate two and drank down the glass of milk she set before him.

"Feel better?"

"Yeah," He smiled up at her as he leaned back in his chair. "Still tired, though."

She looked disappointed. "Okay. You go and take a shower and get to bed, while I clean up the kitchen."

"I'd rather wait, so you can wash my back?"

She looked at him in surprise. Then she understood. "All right," she smiled. "Ten minutes."

He had the shower going, the temperature nice and hot, when she joined him in the bathroom. He held the curtain back for her to enter, following her closely. She turned, tilting her head back to wet her long, black hair. He moved close, until they were touching.

"I really, really, need a cuddle."

"I know. So do I." She hugged him. He hugged her back, as tightly as he could. They stood like that for several minutes as the water poured down on them, the heat and steam relaxing tense muscles, while the human contact relaxed troubled minds and souls. By mutual agreement, they released each other and set about washing the day from their bodies, being very businesslike about it. Afterwards, they dried themselves and headed for bed. As they approached the bed, Maedel jumped off and headed out to the couch, leaving them some privacy. Crawling, exhausted, into bed, they cuddled close and relaxed into sleep.

He awoke in his favorite position, snuggled close, his head pillowed between Emiliy's breasts. He smiled and nibbled his way over to suckle at one nipple. His left hand came up to caress the other breast, and his body gently undulated against her, rousing her from her slumber.

"Ray?" she asked huskily. "Mmmm. Nice. I love how you wake me up. Nice and warm." Her hands came up to run fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp as he nursed. He shifted, stretching up her body to bring his lips to hers, kissing her. Her hands drifted down to his shoulders, stroking and caressing.

He worked his way down her body, licking, sucking, gently nipping and nibbling with his lips. When he settled between her legs, she stopped him. He looked at her, hurt. "Turn around," she told him. Understanding lit his eyes and he quickly reversed in the bed. As he continued his oral ministrations to her, she began her own oral exploration. She was gentle, wishing only to excite, not to complete, whereas his goal was her total incapacitation. When she felt the shudders of her orgasm begin to build, she released him, her head going back and her hands grasping at him, wanting him. He turned back around, applying a condom as he did, nearly trembling in need as he quickly entered her. He lay quietly until her shuddering stopped, then he began a slow rhythm that brought her back to the pinnacle and over it. Afterwards, sated and content, he held her.

"I'd like to be able to do that with you for the rest of my life," he murmured into her ear.


"Yeah. Do you think you'd like that? With me, I mean?"

He was still so unsure of himself. She hugged him, hard. "Yeah. I know I'd like that. With you, anyway."

"You sure?"


They were silent for several minutes. Then he hesitently spoke again. "Uh, what about kids? I mean, do you want any, or not?"

"Kids might be nice. If so, it should be fairly soon, though." She was silent for a moment. "I have to tell you. I'm older than you are."

"I know. You're forty-two. I'll be forty in the fall."

She pulled back to look at him. "You knew? It doesn't bother you?"

He looked surprised, "No. Why should it?"


"What? Does it bother you?" he asked, suddenly fearful.

"No. It's just that..." she frowned in confusion.

"Emily, you're only two years older than me. That's nothing. Besides. Women live longer than men, anyway."

"When did you find out?"

"About a month ago. You had left your wallet open, after writing out some checks. I saw your driver's license. I don't have a problem with it. Honest."

She lay back down, resting her head on his shoulder. His arms tightened around her. "I love you, Emily. I want forever. I'd love to have kids. If you want to have my kids, well, that's just better than greatness, you know?"

Her arms returned his hug. "I love you Ray Kowalski."

"Stanley," he whispered.

She lifted her head and stared. "What?"

"My first name. It's Stanley." He couldn't meet her eyes, expecting her to laugh.

"I think I hate your parents," she muttered and kissed him.


"So, is Raymond your middle name?"


"Good. I promise to never call you by your first name, if you promise not to tease me about being older than you."

"You don't have to do that, but I promise to never say anything about your age."



"So, now what?"

"Well... do you want to get married?" He held his breath, waiting for her answer.

"Of course. I don't believe in having kids without it. Which reminds me, I want the wedding before the children, if you don't mind?"

"I don't mind at all." He shifted so he could snuggle against her. "What kind of wedding do you want?"

She was quiet, thinking. He lifted his head to look at her, expectantly.

"Polish," she finally replied. "I want a big, Polish wedding, at the Hall. I want to invite everyone there. It's big enough. It doesn't have to be fancy, but I think Bushka would be pleased if we did."

He nodded. "Okay. I don't have a lot of people to invite. My folks, my brother and his family, some people from work, Fraser, maybe the Ice Queen, just to be polite; although, if I invite her, I'd also have to invite Turnbull. He'd probably love it, though. He likes to cook and I think he might like Polish food."

"Well, my parents don't live in Chicago, but in Boston. I'm sure they'll come, though. Along with my sister and her family. I've a couple of cousins I'm fairly close to, as well. The rest would come from the hospital and the Hall."

"So, we're lookin' at less than a hundred people, right?"

"Right. And, the Hall would be more than happy to provide the food. They love parties and the cost is reasonable."

"Sounds good to me. When?"

"Well, when would you prefer?"

"Any month but June. Stella insisted on this huge, June wedding. I shoulda known then that we'd never make it work, but I was too...what's the word? Infatuated?"

"That's the word," she agreed.

"I was too infatuated to understand much of anything. So, when would you like to get married?" Saying the word made it real, and he shivered, half in fear, half in anticipation. She hugged him tightly again to reassure him.

"Well, it will take a couple of months, at least, to get it all set up. How about...." She thought about it, "Christmas?"

That was ten months away. Much too long. "Uh, I don't know that I could wait that long, unless, maybe you think you might change your mind and need time to think some more?"

She could have kicked herself. Of course he would be afraid she'd change her mind. He was used to people changing their minds about him; telling him he wasn't worth loving. "I don't need any more time to think. I just want you, forever. I know that you think I'll throw you away like everyone else has in your life, but I'm not them; and I'm looking forward to reassuring you on a very regular basis that you are worth my time, my caring, and my love. I promise to remind you of that on a daily basis, okay?"

He shivered. No one had ever.... "Okay." He buried his face in her hair. "I love you, Emily Kopacek."

"I love you, Stanley Raymond Kowalski." She hugged him tightly, then moved so she could kiss him. "So, what say we get married on Memorial Day? That's the end of May."

"Deal." He kissed her again, shivering in anticipation and trepidation. He wondered if the lieutenant would stand up for him? He'd have to ask. Providing he was up to it, by then. It was going to take quite a while before Welsh would even be out of the hospital.

"How's Welsh doing, anyway? Is he really going to be all right?"

"There was some heavy damage to the shoulder blade, but he's tough. Providing he doesn't develop pneumonia from the damaged lung, I think he'll probably be out of the hospital and back on limited duty in four to six weeks. I'll be keeping a pretty close eye on him, since he's under my care for the rehab on his shoulder. I doubt he'll ever be able to lift his arm to vertical, but if we can give him seventy-percent mobility, we'll have done well."

"Will that make him unfit for duty?"

"No. I've had a couple of patients who only got back fifty-percent mobility and remained policemen; and they were out on the streets, in patrol."

Ray frowned, "Even afterwards?"

She thought, trying to remember, "No, I guess not on the streets, I think they got jobs inside, desk jobs. But Harding already has a desk job, so that shouldn't change."

"Okay. Do your best for him? He's a good boss."

"I always do my best, Ray."

"Just making sure, is all. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

They lay quietly for several more minutes, slowly drifting off to sleep.

She was going to have to move his alarm clock. Getting out of bed to go all the way out to the kitchen was too much, on a daily basis. Maybe, when she was here, they could use the second alarm clock he kept in the bedroom. Of course, the advantage of the blasted thing was that it went off early enough for some nice early-morning cuddling and sex. She grinned as she bounced into bed, startling him awake.

"Wha'? Huh?" he yelped, sitting bolt upright in shock.

"We have wedding plans to make, remember?"

"Yeah. I sort of remember," He rubbed his eyes with the heel of one hand, trying to force his weary mind to function.

"Of course, we could discuss, or maybe practice for the wedding night?"

He chuckled. "I like that idea." He reached out and began tickling her. She laughed and tickled him back; quickly going from tickling to petting to, nuzzling and arousing, to sex. They both decided that they needed lots of practice.

Later, after they had showered and dressed for the day, and were lingering over breakfast and coffee, Emily became thoughtful. "You know, I haven't met your family, yet. Do you think they'll be okay with us?"

Ray blushed in embarrassment. "Not that it matters, but yeah. They'll like you just fine, once they find out you're a doctor. They'll hope maybe I got smart and got another wife like The Stella."

"I've never met her, but I hate her all ready."

"Don't bother. She's not worth it. It took me a long time to get over her. When I finally realized that she used me, first to piss off her folks, then to work like a dog to get her through college and past the bar...until her career started goin' good. Then, I was yesterday's leftovers. She's seein' Vecchio, now. I wish him luck. At least he can schmooze like crazy, and he likes those fancy suits she was always on me about."

"The ones in your closet you hardly ever wear?"

He chuckled, "Yeah. Them. They were never fancy enough, though. I went for classic styling and quality, not fancy and cutting-edge-fashion."

"Timeless. I like that. Like you." She kissed him.

He sighed. "I guess I should call my folks and tell them, huh?"

"Well, if you really wanted to be mean, you could wait until we send out the invitations...."

"Nah. I got better manners than that." He grinned, "Thanks for the offer, though." He sighed. "I guess I'll call them tonight." He looked at her, hope in his expression. "Be here?"

"Nowhere else for the next fifty years or so, with any luck." She smiled at him.

"Thanks," he whispered, kissing her again.

They lingered by their cars, kissing, before finally, reluctantly, parting for the day.

He got home, first. Maedel, who had once again been left at home, until he was sure his temporary supervisor wouldn't mind, greeted him at the door, dancing and 'talking'. "Yeah. I know. I been neglecting you, lately. How about a run in the park? You like that, sweetheart?"

For a response, the dog leaped into his arms, nearly knocking him down, in her enthusiasm. Ray laughed. "I'll take that as a 'yes', then. Let me change, and we can go, okay?" It was warm enough, so he wore shorts and a t-shirt. Since it was still daylight, he left his gun at home and started out at an easy run from the steps of the apartment building. Maedel trotted along beside him, her glossy coat and enormous size catching the eyes of everyone they passed. Two blocks to the park, and they were running on grass, Maedel dashing off to explore, but always keeping her master in sight. He didn't have to call her, she did it automatically. When she paused to relieve herself, he stopped and patiently waited for her, using a plastic bag to scoop up her waste and depositing it in the next trash receptical they passed. Forty-five minutes later, they returned to their apartment.

She spotted them down the street, coming towards her, as she parked beside his GTO. She got out, locked her car and leaned against it, watching and waiting for them. The moment Maedel spied her, the dog let out an excited bark and increased her speed, racing to greet her. She bent down and was ruffling the dog's fur when Ray jogged up, breathing hard.

"Hey," she greeted, looking up at him.

"Hey, yourself. I missed you," he panted, catching his breath.

"I missed you, too," She released the dog and stood up, giving him a quick, hard hug and a kiss. "I missed you a lot."

He kissed her again. "Yeah...lots." Taking her hand, they entered the apartment building and went up the stairs to his apartment.

He kept putting it off, until after dinner. She never said a word, but finally, he sighed and picked up the phone. She was careful not to watch him as he dialed. He slumped onto the couch as he waited for someone to answer at the other end. She finished in the kitchen and joined him, sitting close beside him and interlacing her fingers with his, holding his free hand.

"Yeah, hello? Dad? Ray. Yeah, your son? In Chicago?" She could feel his tensness grow. "Sure, fine, Dad." He closed his eyes and gently banged his head on the phone as he waited.

"Mum? Yeah, it's me. No, I'm okay. No, everything's fine. Mum.... Mum?" He sighed and listened patiently as his mother prattled on about things that had no meaning for her younger son. "Mum? I'm getting married again, Mum. Memorial day, end of May." He listened for another minute or two, then jerked the phone away from his ear as the voice on the other end suddenly increased in volume.

"No, Mum. Stella and me aren't getting back together. I met somebody new. She's a doctor, specializes in orthopaedics and physical therapy. No. Yes, I met her a few months ago, when I got hurt." He was silent again, for a long time, as his mother made all the excuses for not being there when he needed them. "Mum? Forget it." His expression indicated that being forgotten was nothing new for him. "Don't worry about it. You be where you want to be. I'm just letting you know. No, I haven't told Stella. Why should I? No, I will not be inviting Stella to the wedding. No, she hasn't met her. Look, I don't care, Mum. Stella's got a guy she's seeing. Oh, she didn't tell you? Ray Vecchio. Yeah, the guy I covered for. Uh huh." He listened for a while longer, as his mother chattered on and on about inconsequential things.

"Mum? I gotta go, now. Why? Because I've got this wonderful, gorgeous lady who wants my body...." He smiled at the shocked sounds from his mother. "I'll be sending you an invitation, if you want. You don't have to come if you don't want to. Oh, and it'll be at Polska Hall.... How come we never went there, before? WHAT!" He cast a horrified look at Emily and quickly interrupted his mother. "Look, like I said, I gotta go." He hung up even though his mother was still talking.

"Ray? What's wrong?"

"Mum says that there's a woman named Maria Wozniak there, who wouldn't bless her and dad's marriage. Is that your grandmother?"

Emily paled. "Yes." Seeing his dismay, she hurried on. "Let me call her and talk to her. Maybe there's a reason, or it was a misunderstanding." He nodded and handed her the phone. Looking worriedly at him, she quickly dialed.

"Grandmother! Emily Kopacek. Yes, I'm fine. I have a question for you." She looked at Ray, who murmured his parents' names. "Damien Kowalski and Barbara Kaminski. They say you refused to bless their marriage?" She listened closely, first in concern, then in relief. "Oh, good. I was worried. No. Ray. My Ray, yes. He's their son." She listened some more and ended laughing. "I'll tell him. Thank you, Grandmother." She hung up and turned to a still-worried Ray.

"It's not as bad as you think. It wasn't your parents, specifically, that she disapproved of, but your mother's family. She was afraid that they would exert 'undue' pressure on your father. She said something about her brother, in particular, that he was 'bad'." She smiled at him. "She never had anything against your mom, Ray." She saw how he paled, though, and cupped his face in her hands. "What is it?"

"Uncle Adolph. She knew about uncle Adolph, and was worried about him? Even before they got married, people knew?" He became agitated and stood up to pace. "Sonofabitch!" He wrapped his arms around his body, his hands running up and down his upper arms as though he was cold. "They knew. They all knew. They knew and let that...." He stopped when she was suddenly in front of him, holding him, shaking him.

"What? What did he do, Ray?"

"He molested me. Two years, every Friday, and sometimes on Saturday, too. They had him watch me when they went out. It started when I was six and didn't stop until my Bubbie moved in to stay with us, when I was eight or so. She said she didn't know, but she did. She knew all along." He was shivering uncontrollably.

"Oh, Ray. I'm so sorry." She pulled him tightly to her, refusing to let go. Eventually, he relaxed in her grip and she guided him to the couch. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I'm okay. I just...." He shook his head. "I don't think my dad knew. Maybe. Maybe not. I think Bubbie did, though. After she came to live with us, I never saw uncle Adolph again, until about two years ago. Had an accident and we were stranded. I busted my wrist and got a concussion. We were stuck where the cellphones didn't work, and Fraser had this tent. Me, Fraser and Welsh. We were all squished together in this little tent, and bein' so close together, I had a nightmare and remembered it all. Welsh figured it out and went after him. He was great. Made sure I was okay, even let me take down the door when we busted them."

"I remember that. I was working the ER that night when they brought in the children. They were all heavily sedated and will probably never remember a thing."

"Yeah. Lucky them. I still get nightmares, sometimes. Not so much, now. Since he and his buddies were sentenced and knowing what's happening to them in prison."

"So, you were the 'adult witness', the first victim who came forward thirty years later?"

"Yeah. That was me." He was suddenly worried. Now she knew that he was damaged goods. Would she call it all off, now?

"You are so brave, to have gone through that to make sure he was stopped. I'm so proud of you!" She hugged him tightly, again, then kissed him, hard.

He was surprised. "Really?"

"Of course, really. As for whether or not your folks come or want to meet me, I could care less. Bushka likes you. There will be another party at the Hall in a couple of weeks, so if it's all right with you, we could announce it then?"

"You still want to go through with it? Marrying me?"

"Ray, everything in your past has combined to make you who you are. Who you are now is the man I fell in love with, who I plan on loving for the rest of our lives. Of course I still want to go through with it... unless, you don't want to?"

He looked into her worried eyes and suddenly laughed. "We're a pair, aren't we? I'll make you a deal. I'll try real hard not to doubt you if you'll try real hard not to doubt me. Deal?"


Their lovemaking that night was slow and gentle. Both sought reassurance and affirmation from the other, touching gently, softly. There were no fireworks or explosions, only the gentle, incoming tide, easing up a beach. Afterwards, they lay together in a tight embrace, as though each feared that if they didn't hold on, the other would be snatched away.

In the morning, Ray awoke before the alarm. He was on his side, Emily still held tightly against him. His arms ached from the muscles having been clenched all night, but he didn't care. She was still with him, and with him was where she wanted to be. He smiled and gently kissed her awake.

"Hey. Wanna fool around?"

"Only if it's with my fiance."

"Fiance? Oh, yeah. I guess we are, huh? Yeah, that's good. So, you wanna fool around?"

She chuckled and pushed him away and onto his back; then she sat up and pounced on him. "You betcha."

Two weeks passed. Ray was working hard, sharing the care of Welsh's children with Francesca, as well as pulling his own full shift at work. Ray Vecchio seemed resigned to the idea of his sister and the lieutenant. Everyone covered for her three hour 'lunches' when she'd go to the hospital to visit him and after work either she or Kowalski would take his children to visit him.

He developed a slight case of pneumonia, so they put him on oxygen and were forcing lots of antibiotics into him via an IV, but his spirits were high. Particularly when his children came. They would carefully hug him, ever mindful of his injuries. This particular afternoon, Abigail had climbed up beside him and was snuggled against his right side, his arm wrapped around her and her head cradled on his chest. They didn't do a lot of talking, really, mostly just reported how school went and asking how he felt. Francesca, as usual, was sitting over in a corner.

They all looked up in surprise when Ray Kowalski and Emily came in. "Hey," Welsh said, his voice a bit weak, still, from fighting off the lingering effects of the pneumonia.

"Hey," Ray replied, smiling shyly. "Uh, we got sort of an announcement to make." Everyone looked at him expectantly and he cleared his throat and blushed slightly, glancing at Emily, who gave him a nod.

"Uh, me and Emily have decided to get married." He didn't have a chance to say anything more, because they were instantly surrounded by Frannie and the three older Welsh children, all laughing and congratulating them. When it quieted down, Ray was blushing fiercely and everyone was admiring Emily's ring. It had been his grandmother's and very old. It had not been Stella's. While they were busy with Emily, Ray slipped over beside the lieutenant's bed.

"Congratulations, Ray." He had a huge grin on his face, pleased that they had decided to try for happiness together.

"Thanks. Uh, I was wonderin'. We're gonna be announcing it tonight at the Hall, but I was hopin' maybe you'd be willing to stand up for me? It's not until Memorial Day, so there's time."

Welsh caught his breath, shocked. "Me? Why not Fraser?" he blurted out, unthinking.

"Fraser's my bud, but for this, I think...I know that I want you. You've helped me a lot the past couple of years. You were there when I needed help and you always stood by me, no matter what. I'm closer to you than my own dad, not that you're anywheres near old enough, but you know what I mean?"

He did. "Yeah. I'd be honored, Ray. Providing I'm up to it by then."

"Hey," Ray grinned, "You got two more months. You get better so you can help us plan, okay?"

Welsh smiled, pleased. "I'm touched, Ray. I'll be proud to stand up for you." They shook hands on it.

"Good. Now, you got to get better quick. It wouldn't do for Frannie to be all worn down from worryin', you know?"

Welsh frowned. "She's been worrying? Why?"

Ray shrugged. "Responsibility. Takin' care of the kids, work...that woman they sent us to sit in for you has no idea of what we do or how we do it. They imported her from some admin position in the Chief's office, so you know what she's like. I kinda suggested she talk to you about what's what, but I don't expect anything to come from it, except maybe a reprimand. Dewey loves her, though."

"That figures," Welsh chuckled.

Abigail looked up at them, having listened in on their conversation. She spoke at just the moment everyone else in the room was silent. "Daddy, when are you going to marry Frannie?"

There was a long, pronounced silence. Francesca blushed and Welsh looked surprised, staring at her. Finally, "That's sort of up to her, Abby. Whether or not she wants to marry me or not."

Abby turned her head to look at Frannie. "Frannie? Don't you want to marry my daddy and be our mom?"

All eyes focused on Francesca. She blushed darker and her eyes flitted from one person to another. "Uh."

"Don't you like us?" Adams asked very quietly. She looked down at him and saw the fear and hurt in his eyes.

"I love you. All of you," she blurted out, reaching for the boy and pulling him in for a hug. She watched Harding, whose expression softened into a smile.

"Would you want to marry me?" he asked very softly. "Would you want to marry us?"

She understood the question. If they were to marry, she would get his children as well as him as her lover. She was so unsure, whether or not she could handle it all. She loved him. She wished she had dared to curl up beside him on the bed when his children were there...she wished... Then Abigail was up and tugging on her hand, leading her to Harding, pushing her down beside him and telling her to kiss him. Seeing his expression, doubt, hope, love...she very carefully leaned over him and placed a very tender, gentle kiss on his lips. His right arm came up to hold her to him. When she withdrew, he encouraged her to lie beside him, as Abigail had, with her head on his chest and his arm wrapped around her.

Emily smiled. "Gee, that looked like a 'yes' to me." Ray chuckled and gave her a hug, then hugged the children.

"Looks like greatness to me," he chuckled. The children were beaming at their father and Francesca. They knew that there would have to be a great deal more discussion, but they were all hopeful that, just maybe, they could become a real family... together.

Ray glanced at his watch. "Well, you know, we'd better get going. I wouldn't want to upset your grandmother," he said to Emily. "You guys take care of each other. I'll keep you posted on what's going on at the station, not that I don't trust Frannie, but our... whatchamacallits... perspectives are a little different."

"Thanks, Ray. I'll see you later." Welsh didn't even watch them leave, he was too busy kissing his lady, while his children cheered.

After dinner at the Hall, Ray approched the matriarch and waited quietly to be acknowledged. After several minutes, he was called forward. He again bowed over her hand, lightly kissing the wrinkled old fingers. In his hesitant Polish, he explained his purpose in coming before her. When he finished, there was silence from the elderly woman. Then, her face blossomed into a smile and she spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear. The announcement was greeted with cheers and laughter. Total strangers pounded him on the back and congratulated him. All the women surrounded Emily and teased her and wished her well with the handsome man she had won. The semi-monthly dinner turned into an engagement party, as the older members began to plan the wedding for them.

Ray was about to have a panic attack. They were all so happy for them. He was so afraid he was going to screw it up, somehow; but then there was Emily, holding his hand and whispering encouragement and reassurance in his ear before she kissed him and the group burst out in cheers. Maybe he would survive, after all.

He was totally exhausted. Good thing it was Friday, because if he'd had to get up in the morning and go to work, he couldn't have. They shed their clothes and practically fell into bed. Tonight, all either of them wanted was to cuddle; so they did.

Cuddles were good. Cuddles were greatness. Particularly with someone who'd love you forever.

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