The Road Home is Often Longest
by Pretty Pretty

Part 3

 

~~~~~

Sara snuggled under the blanket on the couch as Ray rested in the recliner.

"You okay?" Rayís voice was soft and soothing. Sara leaned up on her elbow and looked at him as he stared back at her with his soft green eyes.

"Are you okay?"

"Me?"

"Ray. Itís me youíre talking to. I love you, remember? Tell me whatís going on in that head of yours."

Rayís shoulderís sank a fraction as he leaned his head back on the chair.
"I hate that you can do that." In a soft voice Sara replied.

"No you donít."

"No I donít."

"This is the first time weíve had a chance to talk. So, tell me." Ray rubbed his hand over his balding head and gave her a small grin. She knew him too well, and it felt good that she did.

"The Bureau offered me a position." Saraís expression was unwavering. Her eyes and voice were steady.

"As an agent?"

"Yeah."

"Are you going to take it?" Ray leaned forward and rested his head in his hands.

"I donít know."

"What do you want Ray?" Ray shook his head and kept his gaze focused on the floor.

"Ray, what do you want?"

"I donít know."

"You must have some idea. Tell me Ray." Ray knew what she was looking for. She was looking for the truth. He sat up and glared at her. Saraís expression never changed. She simply looked at him with her large green eyes.

"Tell me Ray." In a voice that seemed disconnected from his own mouth, he heard himself say what he had been thinking for three days.

"I want things to be the way they were." Sara took a deep breath and sat up on the couch.

"They canít be the way they were Ray. Things are different now."

"I know. You and Benny have Ray." Sara looked at the pain on Rayís face as he said Ray Kowalskiís name.

"Ray, it took a long time for me to accept him into our lives. I felt like I was betraying you. IÖ..wellÖ.I was mean to him. I was spiteful and did everything in my power to hate him." Ray didnít know what to say. He knew most of what had happened once Kowalski took over. His informant in the Bureau told him about the strained relationship Sara had with Ray.

"It was you who told me to give him a chance." Ray felt as if Sara had kicked him in the chest. He found it harder to breathe than before. He wiped his hand across his face and tried to make Sara understand how he felt.

"I donít know him." It was a feeble excuse, but it was all he had. Saraís face hardened and her eyes seemed to cut right through him.

"Neither did I."

Silence hung in the apartment for a long time. Finally Sara stood and put her hand on Rayís shoulder.

"We never stopped loving you Ray. Never. No one could ever take your place."

"But, everythingÖÖ" Rayís thoughts trailed off. His thoughts were selfish even to him. But they were his feelings all the same. Sara turned and knelt before him.
"Everything went on without you?" Ray felt a knot forming in his throat. Sara had managed to pull the emotions he had buried so deep right to the surface. In a breathy sob Ray agreed.

"Yeah."

"Ben and I shut down after you left. People may have thought we were handling things, but when it was just us, thatís when things were hard. For a while it seemed we just took turns crying at night. Some nights Ben would sit up for hours just staring out the window. It was so hard. The not knowing was killing us. We didnít know if you were safe or lying dead in some street somewhere. We had to be strong for Ma and Francesca. Maria and Tony asked Ben to help explain the situation to the kids. Poor Ben barely had an explanation for himself." Sara reached out and took Rayís hands. She watched as the tears slowly trailed down his cheeks. Her own tears wouldnít come. She had been so emotionally drained, she couldnít manage any more tears.

"No, Ray, everything didnít go on without you. But we did have to learn to adjust. I prayed every night for you to come home. Caroline has always been told about her Uncle Ray. Even Uncle Rah knew she would always know the difference. Iím going to tell you the same thing you told me in your note you sent with Promise Bear. Give him a chance, Ray."

 

~~It was nearly three in the morning when Sara woke up. She and Ray had fallen asleep in the living room. He had moved to the other couch and was stretched out with one of his lanky legs hanging over the side. Sara tried to focus her eyes in the darkness and make out the figure walking toward her. Seeing his size and stature, Sara called out his name.

"Jacky?"

"Shhhh, youíll wake Ray up. Why donít you go to bed?" Jacky pulled on Saraís arm and helped her stand. She nodded in the darkness and walked slowly toward her bedroom.

"What are you doing up?" Jacky was a few steps behind her when he answered.

"I had to go to the bathroom and saw the two of you laid out on either couch. How long did you to stay up?"

"I have no idea."

"Is he gonna be okay?"

Sara turned her bedside lamp on and saw the concern in Jackyís face.

"Itís goiní to take him some time to adjust."

"Yeah, no shit." Sara grinned at Jacky. He always had a way of making her smile.

"Whereís Dief?"

"Heís in Carolineís room."

"Ah."

"Ah? You sound like Ben." Saraís heart sank at the sound of his name.

"Iím still worried about him."

"I know. Youíre supposed to be. But heís gonna be fine. Nat said so."

"I just wish he was home."

"Heíll be home before you know it." Sara pulled the comforter back on her bed and sat down on her side of the bed. Jacky could see she was still upset.

"You want me to sit with you for a little while till you fall back to sleep." Sara nodded and smiled at Jacky. He lay on top of the comforter beside her and grabbed the remote. Turning the volume down, he flipped through the channels until he found MTV.

"Videos?"

"Sure. You cold? Ben has some sweats." Jacky looked at Sara like she was crazy. He had always been hot natured. His light t-shirt and plaid boxers were enough for him.

"Iím fine."

"Well my feet are cold."

"Your feet stink."

"Thatís your upper lip."

"Woo, Brittany Spears. Mm-mm, look at that."

"Sheís only nineteen."

"Yeah, but that donít mean I canít look." Sara rolled her eyes and settled into her blankets. Jacky reached over and pulled the quilt that had belonged to their mother up over her shoulder.

"Thanks, Jacky." They both knew that Saraís thank you was for more than what it seemed. Jacky smiled and acted like he didnít hear her. Sara closed her eyes and drifted back into sleep.

~~~~~

 

Ben and Ray had fortunately decided to wake early. Just after breakfast was served, the family came to visit. Sara and Caroline, along with Ray, Jacky, Turnbull and Debi graced one half of the hospital room. Jack, Rosa, Barbara and Damien Kowalski and Natalie occupied the other half.

"Hey, whereís Franny?" Ray asked over the din of conversations.

Rosa smiled brightly and announced her wonderful news.

"Francesca is with John. They are meeting with his agent and publicist to discuss the wedding."

"They finally set a date?" Sara was smiling a full bright smile as she held Caroline on her lap.

"Yes, Francesca has chosen a Christmas wedding. December the 23rd. That is really all I know. John mentioned something about checking with his people about details or something."

Ray Kowalski nodded and offered his two cents.

"Weíll have to keep the press away from Ďem. Otherwise theyíll be snappiní pictures and ruininí everything." Vecchio stood straighter and squared his shoulders.

"Over my dead body. No oneís going to ruin my sister's wedding." Kowalski nodded in agreement.

"Damn straight, no sister of mine is gonna to have her wedding crashed by a bunch of paparazzi." The room suddenly fell silent as everyone stared at both Rayís. Vecchio paled slightly then smiled. Kowalskiís face grew hot from the realization of what he had just said. For three years, Franny had been his sister. Ray took a step closer to his replacements bed. He placed his hand on the rail of Rayís bed and smiled.

"They wonít have a chance with the three of us on duty." The tension lifted like a balloon once the family saw Rayís reaction to another man claiming Francesca as his sister. Ben smiled at the two men he claimed as his best friends that were now smiling at him. Sara said a prayer of thanks to God.

 

~~~~~~~

"It seems like you just got here." Sara hugged Debi as tightly as she could. Jack, Debi and Turnbull were saying their goodbyes in the hospital corridor outside Ben and Rayís hospital room.

"I know, Iíll call you when I get home and let you know how things went." Sara nodded and reached out for Turnbullís hand.

"Good luck Ren. Youíre going to need it." She pulled him down to her level so she could plant a kiss on his cheek. As he blushed slightly, he hugged her in return.

"Iím sure everything will be fine." Turnbull tried to reassure himself.

"If you need me to pick you up at the airport on Monday, I will."

"Iím sure that wonít be necessary. Jacky has already extended the offer." Debi and Turnbull made their rounds and started walking out to the car. Jack Montgomery stood by Benís bed and waited until everyone had left the room.

"You sure youíre alright, son?"

"Yes sir. Natalie says I am improving daily." Jack reached out and placed a gentle hand on Benís shoulder.

"You know Iíll stay if you need me."

"Yes sir, I know. Thank you." Before Ben realized it, Jack had him in a warm hug and had kissed him on the top of the head. Ray tried not to stare but couldnít help but wonder at the emotion Mr. Montgomery was showing toward Ben. He was such a weather worn man that it seemed out of place in some sense.

"Well, you just get better soon. We love you, son."

"Thanks, Jack." Benís face had shaded to a soft pink by the time Jack removed him from his grasp. Ray quickly looked at the television so Jacky wouldnít know he had been watching them. Jack smiled and lumbered over to Rayís bedside. Ray looked up at the large man and smiled a boyish grin.

"Bye Jack." Jack once again placed a hand on Rayís shoulder and gave him a long purposeful look.

"Son, youíre a good man. You remember that. What youíve done here, for the Vecchioís and my family, it canít be measured. Youíre family now, son. Youíll always have a place with us. Donít ever forget it. Sara loves you. Ben loves you and my grandbaby loves you. In my eyes, that makes you one of the luckiest men on the face of the Earth." Ray felt the knot forming in his throat as Jack spoke. "You get better soon so you can come to the farm for a visit." Rayís face had grown hot. No one had ever spoken to him like that before. He felt as if he were ten feet tall. Jack Montgomery had Rayís full respect as a man, so Jackís words had always meant something to him. To hear him talk about him like this was just what Ray needed. Ben took a deep breath and smiled at the look of shear love and pride on Rayís face. For once, he didnít argue the compliment.

Jack pulled Ray into a hug and he too was rewarded with a kiss on the head. Ray couldnít have been happier if some one had just handed him a million dollars. What he had was worth more than that. He had his family.

~~Jacky waved goodbye from the airport window as the plane carrying his father, Debi and Turnbull started to taxi away from the gate. Jack had wanted to stay, but he had a meeting he had to go to in Columbia at the beginning of the week. Jacky called Dr. Chappell and asked if he would come out of retirement for about a week if he were needed. Large Animal Vets are few and far between in most communities. Having Doc Chappell made Jacky feel a lot better about things. Besides, Sara needed him, rather she knew it or not.

 

Turnbull felt his stomach twist itself into a knot as the plane lifted off. He had never been bothered with flying so he knew what was happening. He was terrified. In a few short hours, he would be standing face to face with Debiís father. He was not the type of man you wanted fighting against you. Turnbull tried to reassure himself as the plane leveled off and headed for Charlotte-Douglas Airport. * Heís a reasonable man. HE and I have always had pleasant conversations. Surely he knows his daughter will get married someday. What if he disapproves? Then what? Do I just accept that and live without the woman I love? Do I stand up to her father and demand his approval? Oh dear! What if we just eloped? Thatís it, we could elope like some old black and white movie couple. No one can do anything after the fact. No. Debi shouldnít be cheated out of a beautiful wedding. Sheís going to make such a beautiful bride.* Turnbull turned to look at Debi as she and Mr. Montgomery chatted across the aisle. * Sheís gorgeous.* Debi felt his eyes on her and turned and offered him a sweet and loving smile. Jack felt a swell of pride come over him as he saw the love in Turnbullís eyes. Debi was like a daughter to him and all he wanted was to see her happy. He wanted to intervene when she and Turnbull stopped talking to one another. Debi seemed so sad and distant. Now, the life was back. The spark was back in her eyes. He would have to give her daddy a call when they landed. He knew Rayford Johnson would terrify poor Turnbull. He wasnít anywhere the stature of Turnbull, but he just had a way about him that let people know that he meant business.

 

Ray stood in front of the vending machine in the hospital waiting room. Nothing looked particularly inviting, so he just continued to stare hoping something would jump out at him. He glanced at his watch for the four hundredth time in the last hour. He had a meeting with the FBI in about two hours. He still didnít have an answer. Did he want the position they offered? What would that mean to him and his family? Before he could finish another thought, a hand rested on his shoulder. Turning slightly, he was startled at who it was.

"Hi Inspector. What are you doing here?" Meg could see the confusion on his face. She knew she shouldnít have touched him. She shouldnít have been so forward.

"I stopped by to see how Fraser and Detective Kowalski were doing and to say goodbye to Turnbull. I thought I would take Sara a bottle of juice." Ray nodded and returned to staring at the various sugar filled snacks in the machine. He was still contemplating his choices.

"Ray, whatís wrong?"

Her tone took him off guard for a moment. She looked like the Dragon Lady, but she didnít sound like the Dragon Lady.

"Huh?" Rayís eyes met hers and she offered him a small smile.

"I asked you what was wrong. You look as if you have something on your mind."

"Yeah, you could say that."

"Is there anything I can help with?" Ray cocked his head to the side and stared at her for a few moments.

"Iím okay." Meg nodded and tried not to seem too pushy.

"If you ever need to talk, I donít mind listening. I imagine things have still been an adjustment for you."

"You can say that again."

"Are you going to return to the police department?" Meg didnít realize the weight of her question until she saw the look on Rayís face.

~~Sara offered Ben and Ray a weary smile. The room had finally cleared and now it was just the three of them.

"Whereís Ray? Did he leave?" Ben lifted his arm above his head and rested against the pillow of his hospital bed. Sara sat in a chair between the two beds and shuffled a deck of cards.

"I donít think so. He said he was going to go get something to eat. Heís got a meeting in a few hours."

Ray Kowalski looked away from the TV and tried to read Saraís face.

"FBI?" She schooled her features and nodded. *Damn, sheís getting like the Mountie. *

"They offer him a job?" Sara looked at Ben and nodded to Ray.

Ray didnít know if he should be happy or sad. If he took the job at the Bureau he could stay at the 27th. But would Fraser want him to stay? Sara could tell Ray had slipped into thought and she knew it was probably self-deprecating.

"I hope he makes the best decision for him, this time." Ben sighed as Sara nodded in agreement with him. Ray was still lost in his own thoughts.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Iím sorry. I didnít mean to say anything that would upset you." Meg had unconsciously placed her hand on Rayís upper arm as she apologized. Ray seemed perplexed. This was not the same Ice Queen that he knew three years ago. He tilted his head down and looked into her eyes.

"Whereís the Dragon Lady? What happened to her?" A small smile spread across his face as he saw the shocked expression on Megís face. He was also grateful he dodged her question.

"IÖ.wellÖ.I was just trying to help." Ray immediately felt guilty. Megís face was expressionless in typical Mountie form, but her eyes showed her hurt feelings. Ray sighed heavily and ran his hand over the top of his head.

"Iím sorry Meg. Itís just thatÖÖ"

"Whatís got you so upset, Ray? I know youíve had to make an adjustment to being back with your family. But itís something else, isnít it?"

"Yeah, itís something else. I just donít know what I should do, thatís all."

"You want to go get a sandwich in the cafeteria and talk about it." Before Ray realized it he had accepted her offer and was holding the elevator door for her.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"So what needs to be done?" John and Francesca sat across from Johnís publicist and waited for instructions. Francesca wanted everything regarding her wedding to be perfect.

"Well, this isnít going to be just a little family wedding. John Chamberlain getting married is going to be a media event. So, we can go two ways. Total secrecy and hope for the best and run the risk of being found and helicopters over head. Or we invite a few of the more reputable media and involve them in the process."

Francesca scrunched up her nose and looked at John for guidance.

"Huh? I donít know if I like the sound of that." John nodded and looked at Marty for answers.

"I agree with Fran. That sounds horrid. What does that all mean?"

"Well, it a nutshell it means we call Entertainment Tonight and People and give them the exclusives. Weíll give them a few details of the ceremony and reception. Tell them which designer Francesca has chosen for her gownÖ"

"Designer? Chosen? What? Jog that past me again."

"Designers jump at the chance to do a celebrity wedding. Itís like running a million dollar ad campaign to have a celebrity or a celebrities wife in one of their gowns splashed on the front page of nearly every magazine in the country."

"But, I hadnít really planned on spendingÖ."

"Oh honey, donít you worry about spending. Weíre only going to do this once. Money is not a concern." John leaned over and kissed Francesca on the cheek while Marty looked on and smiled.

"Iíll have a friend of mine to call you. Sharon Kincaid. Sheís a wedding planner. Sheís handled some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Youíll love her."

Francesca couldnít believe she would have her very own wedding planner. It was just too much to think about. John wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. He could tell she was about to burst with excitement.

~~Ray held his cafeteria tray in one hand and pulled Megís chair out with the other. Once they were settled, Meg posed her question again.

"Whatís going on Detective?"

Ray focused on his club sandwich while he organized his thoughts.

"Well, you may not be able to call me Detective anymore."

"Are you leaving the force?"

"No, wellÖ.I donít know. The bureau offered me a position." Ray looked up and searched her face. She simply nodded and took a bite of her chicken salad.

"What do you think I should do?"

Meg swallowed and took a long sip of water. Ray was leaning forward in an effort to make her talk faster.

"Two years ago I was offered a transfer and a new posting in Toronto."

"Isnít that where your family is?"

"Yes, My mother and father still live there."

"Why didnít you take it? You would be closer to your family."

"Are you sure about that?" For the first time Ray saw the woman behind the Dragon Lady.

"My relationship with my mother is somewhat normal. My father is a different story. No matter what I do, it isnít good enough. He sees my position here as no more than a glorified groundskeeper for Canadaís Consulate. I took a long look around me and then made my decision. I chose not to go because I wouldnít be happy there."

Meg could see she had Ray totally befuddled. She took another swallow of water and continued. "After Caroline was born, Fraser invited me to the farm with Ray and Turnbull. I donít know why I said yes. I just did. At first I thought I should decline because of protocol. Then, something just said ĎMeg, get over yourself and go.í So I did. I had one of the best times I can remember. I then realized how important my friends actually were. First I had to realize they Ďwereí my friends, and then I realized how important they were, but I digress. Am I making my point Detective?"

Ray nodded his head as he nervously pushed around his potato chips.

"Yeah, but what if I donít have a job at the 27th anymore?"

Meg tilted her head in confusion.

"Why wouldnít you?"

"Well, my job has been filled for three years and it looks like things have been just fine without me."

Meg leaned back in her chair and looked at the man before her. He was tired. His eyes didnít hold the same spark that she remembered noticing the first time Fraser had brought him to the consulate. There were a few more lines on his face and a lot less hair. The dark circles under his eyes told most of the story. This was a man that didnít know where he fit anymore.

"You need to talk to Welsh." Ray gave a snort and rubbed his hand over his head.

"You think?" Meg couldnít help but laugh a little at his reaction to her stating the obvious.

"Well, what are you waiting on?"

"I have no idea."

"What time is your meeting with the FBI?"

"Iíve got about thirty minutes to get there."

"Did you drive here?"

"We brought Saraís Jeep. In all the excitement I havenít had a chance to get my car back."

"Your car?"

"Yeah." Ray saw the look of panic flash across Megís face.

"What? Whatís wrong with my car? Fraser didnít let him scratch it or anything?"

"Perhaps I should drive you to your meeting. You ready?" As they both stood, Meg made a point not to make eye contact. She would either burst in to laughter or tears. She wasnít sure which and she knew Ray didnít need the trauma of finding out his precious Riv went up in a ball of fire three years ago.

"Meg, whereís my car? You know something about my car, donít you? Meg? Meg?"

 

~~Francesca flipped through a bridal magazine while she waited on John to finish shooting a scene for his series, Chicago Emergency. At first she was mesmerized by the studio set and all the actresses and actors walking around. Now, it just seemed like Johnís job and another day at work. She was still star struck at times, but for the most part she found everyone pretty normal. As she lifted her water bottle to take a drink, one of the actresses who played a doctor walked over to Francesca and sat down.

"I hear that all systems are go on the wedding plans."

"Oh hi, Haley. Yep, John and I are meeting with the wedding planner today."

"John said you were using Sharon Kincaid. She did my wedding. Youíll love her!"

"Really?! Sheís good, huh?" Francesca liked Haley. She was really down to earth compared to some of the other actresses on the show. Even though, Haley Parker-Thomas was in every teenage boyís vocabulary, and has been gracing magazine covers since she was 19, Haley was just a nice person. Francesca felt like she could always be herself around Haley.

"Oh yeah! When Scott and I got married, I had no clue. I mean, Iím from Iowa. You just get the little old ladies at the church together and throw a wedding, you know. But, Sharon handled everything. You just tell her what your dream wedding would be and she makes it happen. I was so blown away. My invitations were out of this world! I told her I had heard bout Sharon Stoneís invitations and how she had them packed in rose petals, you know."

"Yeah, I heard about that on Entertainment Tonight."

"Yeah, me too. So I told her I wanted something great like that and she had my invitations made of hand made paper and dried flowers. They were so gorgeous."

"She picked them out?"

"No, she brought all this stuff over. Youíre the final decision Franny. You pick everything out. She just finds it all for you! Itís great! Have you found a dress yet?"

"Not yet. Marty said something about designers."

"Iíd go to Vera Wangís first. Sheís the best."

"I couldnít ever afford a Vera Wang!"

"Why not?! Youíre marrying John Chamberlain. Your wedding will be news, Franny. Youíll have your picture on the cover of People."

"Oh God." Reality had hit Franny in the face. Her wedding was going to be a public affair.

"Yeah, thatís what I said. Donít worry. You have the wedding youíve always dreamed of. Donít do anything any differently than you would if it was just family and friends."

"Well, it is just going to be family and friends."

"Am I invited?"

"Of course!"

"Franny, think about it. Iím just Haley to you and John and my close friends. But to the world, Iím Haley Parker-Thomas. Super-Model, Actress, cover girl and an Emmy award winner."

"Yeah, I see what you mean. My family and Johnís family will be mixing with all Johnís theatre and television friends. Oh, crap, I bet Uncle Mario will want to get autographs the whole time."

"Everything will be fine Fran. Just worry about what you and John want. Make the day special to you. You are the center of attention. Not your maybe famous guests."

"Haley, your sceneís up next." Francesca and Haleyís attention turned Jake the stagehand as he made his rounds around the studio to set up the next scene.

"Thanks Jake. Iím on my way. Remember what I said Fran. Iíll do my part to make sure your wedding is all about how beautiful you are." Franny gave a comfortable laugh as she teased Haley.

"Who would want to look at me when they can look at you!?"

"Oh shut up! Iíve got to go do brain surgery."

"Break an arm."

"Leg, Franny."

"Well just break whatever youíre supposed to break."

~~"Calm down."

"I am calm."

"You look like youíre gonna puke."

"That is a strong possibility." Debi rolled her eyes as Turnbull steered Debiís car into her parentís driveway. This was the moment of truth. He was going to talk to Debiís father. Debi felt the knot forming in her stomach. She didnít know why Ren had to be so formal about everything. Well, she did know, but it still bugged her nonetheless. She knew if her Dad gave Ren a hard time that he would be crushed. As for her, she was going to marry Ren no matter what anyone said. But she wanted Ren to be happy with things as well. As Turnbull pulled the car to a halt under the large oak that stood guard in front of the Johnson home, Debi said a quick prayer and hoped her mother had sufficiently lectured her father.

Before they could exit the car, Debiís mom had swung the front door wide open and started waving frantically. Turnbull smiled at Debi and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

"At least she looks happy to see us."

"Come on, letís go inside before she busts somethiní." Debi didnít wait for Turnbull to open her door, a fact that often irritated him, and ran up to the porch.

"Hey Momma!" Diane Johnson grabbed her daughterís left hand and looked happily at the large diamond.

"Oh, Deborah itís beautiful. Oh Iím so happy. Have you two talked about a date yet? Oh, I canít wait to call your Aunt Becky. Sheís just going to have a fit."

"Breathe Momma. Youíre gonna hyperventilate."

"Oh you hush! Now let me go hug my future son-in-law." Turnbull ascended the steps into the waiting arms of Mrs. Johnson. She was much shorter than Debi but still managed to pull him down to her level and give him a big squeeze.

"Thank you kindly, maíam. Iím very happy."

"Oh so are we son. What did your parents have to say? Weíre they excited? Oh Iíve been just tickled to death."

"They were very pleased."

"Momma, is daddy home?" Debi tried to see a reaction in her motherís eyes. *There it is. Oh shit. *

"He went to get a part for somethiní or Ďnother. He should be back in a few minutes. He hoped he would have beat you home."

"Howíd he handle the news?" As Mrs. Johnson led them into the house and to the den, she started to talk to Debi and Ren about her father.

"Your Daddy is fine."

"Did he get upset?"

"Not like youíre thinkiní. Heís tickled. Just tickled. But, he nearly broke down after I told him. After all, you are his baby girl."

"Momma Iím 32 years old! I have my own business and I own my own home."

"I know, baby. But I started talking about how he was going to walk you down the aisle and give you away to Renfield and he tearíed up right there in the middle of ĎWalkerí."

Debi turned to a confused Turnbull and filled in the gaps in the conversation.

"He just about cried while watching ĎWalker, Texas Rangerí."

"Ah. Very good show. Chuck Norris is a fine actor."

"So heís not going to be mean to Ren?"

"Of course not dear. We love Renfield." Turnbull blushed at the affection Mrs. Johnson gave him.

"Thatís a relief. Ren was about to have a stroke. I thought I was going to have to give him one of Saraís valium."

"Saraís takiní Valium. Oh my land!" Mrs. Johnson held her hand to her mouth and gasped at the sound of Sara taking medication.
"Itís not a bad thing, Momma. She just wouldnít take care of herself. You know how she is. Natalie, you remember Natalie."

"That pretty doctor woman?"

"Thatís her. Well, she wrote Sara a script for Valium so she could relax and get some sleep."

"Howís her husband doing?"

"Heís doing much better. Ray should be getting out of the hospital in a few days and Ben should be out in about a week and a half."

"Whoís watching the little one?"

"Mrs. Vecchio."

"Oh thatís good. Poor little thing. Must be worried to death over her daddy."

"Sheís doing fine Momma."

"Renfield dear, are you hungry? I caní fix you a sandwich to hold you over Ďtill supper time."

"No maíam. Iím fine, thank you."

"Oh, you are such a sweet boy." As Turnbull blushed once again, the backdoor sounded shut and they heard Rayford Johnson call out to his wife.

"Weíre in the living room Rafe. Your daughter and her fiancť are here." Mrs. Johnson wrinkled her nose and smiled at the sound of that. Turnbull felt his stomach lurch forward as he heard Mr. Johnsonís footsteps through the kitchen. When Mr. Johnson entered the room, Turnbull sprang to his feet. Debi poked him in the side and whispered, "At ease, Constable." Turnbull could only swallow hard and nod. He stuck out his hand and shook Mr. Johnsonís.

"Sit down son. Youíve had a long trip. Debi, Sara alright?"

"Yessir, sheís doing better now. Jacky stayed with her. Jack had a meetiní in Columbia so Sara made him come back."

"Well, as long as Jackyís with her she oughta be fine."

"Look Daddy." Debi thrust her hand forward and Rafe took hold of it and whistled.

"Thatís a mighty pretty ring, baby." Turnbull stood once again and cleared his throat.

"Sir, if I may. I would like to apologize for not coming to you first and ÖÖ"

"Whoa there. Easy son. Youíre gonna bust something if you keep springiní to attention like that. Itís fine. Me and you will have a little talk later." Turnbullís face paled as he nodded his head and returned to his seat next to Debi.

"Be nice Daddy."

"What are you mouthiní about? Iím always nice."

"Iím marryiní him no matter what."

"Are you moviní?" Now it was Debiís turn for her face to pale.
"Yes sir."

"What about the drug store?"

"Iím not selling. Iíll just hire another pharmacist."

"Thatís smart. Good girl." Debi breathed a sigh of relief. If there was one thing her father could appreciate and respect it was Debiís business sense.

"Weíre going to buy an apartment and Iím thinking about working for a pharmaceutical company."

"You think you can handle city liviní?"

"Sara can, and I guess sheíll just have to teach me how." A comfortable silence fell over the room while Mr. Johnson beamed with pride for his daughter and Mrs. Johnson dreamed of a fairytale wedding.
"So when are you going to have the wedding?" Mrs. Johnson felt that the formalities were out of the way so now she could get to the real important matters. Wedding details.

"Ren and I talked about next September."

"Oh that gives us plenty of time. Sandra Mitchell can make your dress. And Myra said sheíd do your cake if you wanted."

"Really?! Oh Ren, she makes the best cakes in the county."

"Renfield, I must have your motherís number. Iíll need to keep her informed of the details."

"Yes maíam." Turnbull smiled at how things had worked out. Aside from a talk with Mr. Johnson, things were going well. He was starting to get just as excited about the wedding as Mrs. Johnson and Debi were. And to have Mrs. Johnson include his family made things that much better. He couldnít wait to start their new life together as a family.

~~Ray made sure Sara was okay and didnít need anything before he headed off to his meeting at the Bureau. His conversation with Meg had left him feeling much better but slightly confused. He had never seen the Inspector in that light before. She was actually a very nice person. As he entered the cab, he realized he was smiling. Smiling, for the first time in days.

~~~~~

Ray shut the door behind him and walked slowly down the drab hallway of the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For some strange reason he wanted to go see Meg and tell her the decision he had made. *Why her of all people? Why not Sara or Benny? What brought on the sudden urge to associate with Inspector Margaret Thatcher?* As he exited the building into the cold November winds, he hailed a taxi and gave the cabbie the address for the Canadian Consulate. * What the hell? *

The Consulate was silent as Meg sat behind her desk filling out the never-ending paper work that crossed her desk. With Turnbull away and Fraser in the hospital she had to admit it was lonely around there. She sat back in her chair lost in thought. Three years ago she would have dismissed the notion of loneliness. They were her junior constables and nothing more. It was inappropriate for her to show any feelings regarding them or their families. Then for some strange reason she accepted an invitation to dinner from Sara. Who would have thought that she and Sara would have become such good friends? Even she and Francesca had started to enjoy each otherís company on the occasional Saturday shopping outing. So many things are in direct contrast to the person she was when she first came to Chicago. Sent here as some form of punishment just as Fraser had been. She hadnít arrested one of their own, but she had stood up for herself in the wrong situation. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Now she was here in Chicago and actually was happy. She had friends who she cared about and that cared about her. Caroline was a source of constant joy for her. On the nights she would baby-sit it made her realize how much she wanted a child some day. Adoption was still an option. But she still clung to the hope that she would find a man whom she loved and who would give her the child she wanted. She smiled as she thought of her conversation with Ray this afternoon. She was glad in the fact that she had made him realize how much he was loved by the people around him. When he left for his undercover assignment, she too felt a loss. She would never admit it, but she actually liked the Detective. She was almost jealous of the friendship he and Fraser shared. She wanted a friend like that. She saw the pain and worry in Fraser in the weeks after he had found out about Rayís new assignment. She wondered if anyone would have that reaction if she were suddenly removed from their lives.

As Rayís cab pulled in front of the Consulate a familiar feeling washed over his body. He hadnít been there in three years. Walking swiftly from the cab, he bounded up the steps and walked through the heavy wooden doors.

"Anybody guarding this place?"

Jolted from her thoughts, Meg rose and stepped out into the hall. Seeing Rayís smiling face she offered him a smile of her own. Years ago she would have felt uncomfortable in his presence and merely told him Fraser was not there. But, now she considered him her friend. Now that she had learned how to accept friends and the love they offered, she could offer the same in return.

"How did the meeting go, Detective?"

"I didnít take the job." Walking toward one another the moment encased them and both embraced in a warm hug. For a split second each felt shock at what they had just done, but soon surrendered to the moment. Pulling away, Meg smiled at the goofy expression on Rayís face.

"Iím sure Sara and Constable Fraser will be delighted in your decision."

"Yeah, but now what am I going to do? I think Iím unemployed." Guiding him with a gesture to the kitchen, Meg offered him a cup of coffee.

"Have you spoken to Welsh?"

"Not yet. I havenít been to the station yet."

"When do you think youíll go?"

"IÖwell, I wantedÖ."

"Wanted what, Ray?" Ray looked up and grinned. He couldnít remember Thatcher ever saying his first name before.

"I kinda wanted to wait and go with Fraser."

"Thatís going to take a couple of weeks at minimum."

"Yeah, I know."

"Can you wait that long?"

"Maybe. I donít know. I could use the time to get my head back together. Iíve had a lot to digest in the last few days."

"I canít even begin to imagine." Ray nodded his head and took a sip of coffee. He finally looked at Meg and smiled.

"So tell me, whatís the deal with you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Who melted the Ice Queen?" At first she thought her feelings should be hurt by that remark, but looking at Rayís face and remembering the person she used to be, she couldnít help but laugh.

"What makes you so sure sheís melted?"

"Oh just a guess. Youíre talking to me. Thatís something I thought Iíd never see."

"Perhaps Iím feeling charitable. Canadians are like that."

"Right." Ray took another sip of coffee and looked at her from over the rim of his mug.

"Have you checked on Sara lately?"

"I called from the cab. She and Benny were playing cards with Ray and Natalie."

"Is Caroline still at your motherís?"

"Yeah, she was taking a nap the last I heard. The other kids are in school so she and Ma were making cookies for when they get home. They should be on a sugar high by now."

"Iíll have to call Rosa and let her know that I can keep her if she needs me."

"You watch Caroline sometimes?"

"Of course." Meg couldnít help but sound incredulous at his remark.

"Sorry, I just never figured you for the children type."

"Well youíve figured incorrectly. Besides, a lot has changed in the time you were away." Meg regretted the remark as soon as she said it. Rayís shoulders sank and a saddened look engulfed his features.

"I know."

"Iím sorry, Ray."

"Itís not your fault."

"You have your family back. Your friends are here for you again. Youíll fall back into your life in no time."

"I hope youíre right."

"I think I am. Would you like me to take you anywhere? Itís getting late and I think Iím going to close up for the night."

"I think I need to go home. I havenít slept in my own bed for over three years."

"Let me get my coat and Iíll drive you over. Oh wait, Iíve got something for Bug and Mariaís children. Iíve had it in my office for weeks now." Ray chuckled at Megís use of Carolineís nickname. It somehow seemed out of place with her image he remembered. I guess he would have to change his opinion of her.

Meg reappeared with her arms loaded down with her coat, her briefcase and a shopping bag. Ray quickly took her coat and then removed the other packages from her hands. Placing her briefcase and shopping bag on the stairs, he helped her on with her coat. As she turned, Ray was peering into her shopping bag.
"Nosy arenít we?"

"Whatís in the bag?" Ray looked up and smiled.

"Just a few things I ordered for the children from Toronto."

"RCMP Regulations manual?"

"Coloring books, actually. RCMP Coloring books. I thought Fraser would enjoy Caroline coloring pictures of Mounties and Canadian Landmarks."

"Heís going to love it. You got one for Mariaís kids too?"

"They werenít expensive and I know how fond they are of their Uncle Ben."

"Iím speechless."

"Why?"

"YouíreÖ..wellÖ.Iíve just neverÖ.."

"What, Detective?"

"Letís just say a lot has changed since Iíve been gone." With a pleasant smile he picked up her packages and her briefcase and followed her to the car.

~~Turnbull followed Mr. Johnson out on the porch and waited for the elder man to speak.

"Letís go check on my dogs."

"Yes sir." Turnbull felt the knot forming once again in his stomach as he walked along side Debiís father.

"So you and Deb-I are planniní on getting married."

"Yes sir."

"Have you thought this through?"

"Sir?"

"Do you know where youíre goiní to live? Do you have the means to support a wife?"

"Yes sir. Iíve never required much as far as material things, so Iíve managed to save quite a bit of money. As for a place to live, Debi and I will be looking for a new apartment once we return to Chicago."

"You donít plan on liviní in sin, do you?" Turnbull thought he would die of embarrassment. He could feel the heat on his face as the blush flamed against his skin.

"Oh no sir. I will retain my apartment or move into the consulate until our wedding."

"Good. Thatís good." Turnbull breathed a sigh of relief as her father opened the gate to the dog lot.

"Well, I know sheís no baby and she can make her own decisions. But, Iíd like to know one more thing."

"Sir?"

"Do you love her?"

"Yes sir. With all my heart, I do."

"Well, I Ďspose thatís all that matters. Just donít break her heart. Iíd have to hurt you then, son." Turnbull paled and then nodded. Mr. Johnson turned and smiled. He tried not to openly laugh as he called his dogs.

~~~~~~

Jacky stood in the doorway of the hospital room and watched. Sara was sitting crossed legged in the chair next to Benís bed and held his fingers through the cast on his arm. Fortunately it was just a fracture and not a complete break. Jacky smiled as Sara absently stroked his fingers with hers. Ray was telling Natalie some tall tale and he had the room completely engrossed. His parents had gone ahead with their trip to Vancouver much to Rayís relief. Natalie was finally able to take a few days off and decided to keep Ray company for a while. Sara looked over at the door and saw Jacky standing in the doorframe. She grinned at him and he walked into the room and pulled a chair over next to Sara.

"Did you get your errands run?"

"Yeah, I love online banking."

"Cool. You ready to take me to Maís? Iíve got to see Caroline. I miss her."

"Sure. Have you heard from Ray?"

"He called a little while ago. Iím not sure if heís coming back here or not." Sara stood and leaned over to kiss Benís forehead.

"Be a good boy for the nurses."

"Youíre funny." Benís dry tone made Sara laugh. She then leaned down and kissed him soundly on the mouth.

"You better get well soon. Iím tired of sleeping alone. I love you."

"I love you. Give Bug a kiss for me."

"Always." Sara then turned her attentions to the other side of the room. She bent over and gave Natalie a strong hug.

"Take your own advice, Doc. Donít wear yourself out."

"Donít worry. I plan on taking things easy for a while." Sara stood next to Rayís bed and smiled down at him. Ben felt a smile creep across his face as he watched his wife. She looked as if she were showing affection to a small child. She cradled his head in his hands and placed a lingering kiss on his forehead complete with smacking sound affects.

"Mmm-mm. I love you too."

"Youíre spittiní on me." Ray reached for Saraís hand as he teased her.
"I look forward to seeing you at the end of the week."

"Huh?" Ray was confused.

"When Natalie signs you out of this place, youíre coming home with me."

"Oh no! Iím goiní home."

"How are you going to get around with your leg all bandaged? Besides, you canít even get up to go to the bathroom by yourself so why am I arguing with you."

"Fraser! Tell her! Iím not goiní to your house. Besides, youíve got enough to worry about with Caroline and Fraser. Iím not addiní ta that."

"Isnít that cute Ben, he thinks I really care what he thinks." Ben couldnít help but laugh. He and Sara had already discussed the matter while Ray was in physical therapy. Ben was all for the idea and knew Sara was planning on hiring in home nursing care for the two of them. That was a point he insisted on. He wasnít going to have Sara wear herself thin trying to care for two injured adults and a three and a half-year-old.

"No."

"Bye Ray. See you tomorrow. Love you."

"No."

"I said love you."

"Love you. I mean it. No."

"Bye!" Saraís singsong voice cut right through Ray. The look on Natís face let him know Sara meant business. * I am so screwed. *

 

 

~~Meg pulled in to the driveway of the Vecchio house and was a little shocked to see Ray exit the car and dash around to open her door. Ray retrieved the shopping bag from the back seat and handed it to Meg. The two of them walked up the steps and through the front door. Ray was taken by surprise as Caroline came racing toward them. He was even more shocked when she ran straight to Meg and leapt into her waiting arms.

"Megs!"

"Hello there, sweetheart. Have you been good for Grandma?"

"Yes maíam. We made cookies! Dey were good."

"Did you save me and Uncle Ray any?" Caroline nodded and grinned up at Ray. Ray knelt down on one knee and looked at the little girl eyeing him so profoundly.

"And just what is so funny?" Ray smirked and poked her in the side.

"Grandmaís gots you a síprise."

"She does, huh? What is it?" Ray leaned his head down for Caroline to whisper in his ear. She bent over and cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered rather loudly.

"I canít tells you. Itís a síprise."

Meg laughed and headed for the den.

"Whereís Theresa and Anthony? Does Angelo have hockey tonight?"

"Meg Dear! I thought I heard your voice." Rosa walked down the stairs and embraced Meg into a hug. She then turned to Ray.

"Have you eaten?"

"No maíam."

"Are you staying here tonight?"

"Yes maíam." Rosa squeezed his hand and kissed his cheek.

"Good. Now, letís get into the kitchen and see how my lasagna is coming. Caroline, I need a helper." Mrs. Vecchio smiled down at the brown haired little girl with the piercing blue eyes. She had been so lonely for the past hour. After Maria picked the children up from school, they only had a few moments to enjoy the cookies Caroline had help Mrs. Vecchio make before they had to quickly change into the various uniforms and outfits required for tonightís activities. Caroline had envied her cousins as she watched Theresa change into tights and a dance leotard. Anthony raced past her in his hockey uniform and Angelo just managed to wave to her as he tied his karate belt around his waist.

"It smells great Ma. You have no idea how much Iíve missed your cooking."

"Meg, I trust you are staying for dinner."

"Oh, I couldnít impose."

"What are you saying? You are always welcomed here. Ray, hang up her coat." Ray smiled and took Megís coat from her hand.

"You heard her."

"Well, at least let me help in the kitchen. And Caroline, if you eat all of your dinner, I have a treat for you."

"I will, I pwomise!" Caroline bounced down the hall as the three grown ups walked into the kitchen.

As Ray opened the door he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His lungs filled with the smell of home. Nothing was like that smell. Rosa noticed her son and felt a lump form in her throat. She silently thanked God for answering her prayers.
Meg walked over to the sink and washed her hands. Ray took note that she seemed comfortable in his motherís kitchen. Without saying a word, Mrs. Vecchio handed Meg and bowl of lettuce and Meg began constructing the salad. Caroline stood beside her and watched intently. Mrs. Vecchio then opened the refrigerator and smiled.

"Iíve made your favorite dessert, Raymondo."

"German Chocolate cake?!"

"Yes dear."

"Datís your síprise, Uncle Ray!" Caroline beamed up at Ray with a large toothy grin. Ray bent down and lifted the little girl in his arms.

"Thatís a great surprise!"

"Uh-huh. I likes Germín Cake too."

"You do? Well weíll just have to get you a big piece." Ray tickled Carolineís stomach and she giggled happily. Ray sighed at the sound of her laughter. *Thank you God for this wonderful family. *

 

~~"Are John and Franny coming to dinner?"

"No, they are going to meet with the wedding planner. Something about invitations. Francesca was talking too fast when she called."

"A December wedding! How wonderful." Meg helped Caroline with her plate while Mrs. Vecchio and Ray continued eating at the kitchen table. Before any more could be said, Ray heard a car pull into the driveway. He knew it was be Sara by the way Dief turned his attention away from Carolineís plate.

"Anybody here?!" Sara and Jacky pulled off their coats and made their way through the house to the kitchen.

"Momma!"

"Hey Doodlebug! Mmm-mmm, let me give you a big ole kiss." Sara whisked her daughter into her arms and smacked kisses along her cheek and neck. Jacky walked over and took a seat next to Meg.

"Hey hot stuff." Rayís eyes widened at Jackyís remark. Meg swallowed the bite of food in her mouth and leaned over and gave Jacky a friendly kiss on the cheek.

"Man I have missed a lot." Ray shook his head and stared in disbelief at Jacky and Meg. "So are you twoÖ.."

Megís face took on one of shock as she violently shook her head. Jacky casually chuckled.

"Nah, Meg and I are just good friends." For some strange reason Ray felt relieved. *What the hell is up with that?! *

"Make yourselves a plate children. Jackson, there is some Kool-Aid for you and Sara in the refrigerator."

"Thanks Ma."

"Youíre welcome, dear. Sara, sit down and eat."

"Yesím. Did this little monkey give you any trouble?" Sara lifted Caroline high in the air before returning her to her booster seat at the table.

"Of course not. She knows Grandma doesnít tolerate foolishness. Isnít that right, little bug?"

"Grandma will whup ya wif da spoon." Everyone laughed as Caroline chewed on a piece of bread. Jacky prepared his plate and two glasses of Kool-Aid. Setting a glass in front of Sara, he bent down and kissed Caroline on the head.

"Uncle Jacky, are you stayiní at my house?"

"Yep, for a whole two weeks."

"Two Weeks?!" Sara looked at him in shock.

"Somebodyís gotta help you with Ray and Ben. Might as well be me."

"Youíre a vet, not a doctor."

"Animals, Ray, whatís the difference?" Jacky shrugged and crammed a large piece of garlic bread in his mouth.

~~~~~

Before long the meal was finished and everyone retired to the den. Sara had to practically hose down Carolineís face after she devoured her lasagna. Ray let out a loud contented sigh as he sat in his recliner. Rosa pulled Caroline onto her lap and rocked lazily in the chair. Meg and Jacky sat on the couch while Sara took up residence in the floor.

"How was Benton and Ray tonight?"

"Much better. Rayís not eating enough though. But who could blame him, Ma. The food is nasty. Ben doesnít complain but I know he hates it too."

"Iíll have to send something to them tomorrow. Ray canít afford to lose any weight."

"I know. Natalie was giving him a fit when we left." Sara stretched out on the floor and leaned her back against Jackyís leg. Meg looked over at Ray and noticed he was totally oblivious to the conversation around him. He had his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He looked as if he had melted into the chair. He had a full stomach, his favorite chair and he was home.

Jacky reached over and put his arm around Megís shoulder.

"So hot stuff, what are you doing on this Friday night?"

"Iím washing my hair." Meg gave him a sly smile as she watched Jackyís eyes sparkle.

"Wanna go out?"

Ray opened his eyes and leaned forward just slightly. * Friends, huh?*

Meg laughed comfortably as she leaned into Jacky.

"You forget that people know me in this town. It may damage my reputation to be seen with such a garish fellow such as yourself."

"Oh youíre funny. So you wanna go to the movies?"

"Whatís playing? Sara, are you and Caroline going?" Carolineís head perked up as she waited for her mother to answer.

"Not tonight. Weíre going home and going to bed early."

"Aw Momma!" Rosa patted the child on the leg as they rocked.

"You didnít take a very good nap today. You need to sleep."

"But Grandma, I wanna go wif Uncle Jacky and Megs."

"Little girls need to sleep so they can grow tall and beautiful."

Jacky squeezed Megís shoulder and jostled her around beside him.

"So, what do you want to see?"

"It doesnít matter. I really donít know whatís playing. Ray, would you like to go with us?" Ray was startled at the invitation. He hesitated for a moment and Jacky took the pause as apprehension.

"Come on Ray. Letís really get the town talking about the Inspector and the company she keeps."

"Well, I donít know."

"Itís early Ray. Why donít you go and do something normal. I bet itís been ages since youíve gone to the movies."

"Itís been almost four years actually." Sara felt as if she could cry from the look on his face. He had sacrificed so much for his job.

"Raymondo, I think you should have a nice relaxing evening. Go and get your mind off all the things that have been happening this week."

"Maybe it will do me some good."

"Sure it will." Sara smiled as Meg nodded her head. Jacky grinned and stood up. His tall muscular frame towering over everyone.

"Well, Iím going to stop by Saraís and grab a shower. Meg, you want me to pick you up here or at home?"

"Ray do you want to change or anything?"

"Uh, yeah. I can grab a quick shower and be ready in ten minutes."

"Jacky, Iíll take Ray back with me and you can meet us at my place."

"Sounds good to me. I better get going, by the time I get to Saraís youíll be ready to go to your place." As Jacky finalized their plans, Sara knew it would be wise to start gathering Carolineís things. Jacky didnít notice her moving about the house loading Carolineís things into a bag.

"Momma, are weís goiní now?"

"Yes maíam. You better give your kisses."

"But Megís has a síprise for me." Meg bolted from her seat and went to the stairs.
"Thatís right, I nearly forgot. This is for you sweetie. Iíve got one for your cousins too."

"Look! Itís got Daddy on the front!" Caroline held the coloring book up for all to see. Sara smiled over at Meg.

"Where did you find that?! Itís great!"

"I ordered them from Toronto. I knew she would like it."

"Can I color tonight?!"

"Of course, baby. Weíll color a picture to take to Daddy tomorrow. Howís that sound."

"Good!"

"Well, letís get your coat so Uncle Jacky can take a shower."

"íKay!" Caroline tore through the den and into the foyer. She jumped up and down until she finally managed to get her coat off its lower hook by the door. All the adults laughed as she called in a very loud voice for her companion.

"Diefenbaker!" It was amazing how the deaf wolf sensed when he was needed.

"Yíall ready?" Jacky shrugged his coat on and helped Sara into hers. Kissing Mrs. Vecchio goodnight, the three of them walked out to the car.

Ray closed the door and then looked at Meg.

"Shower."

"Right, Iíll be ready in a few minutes."

"Knowing Jacky, you better make it fast. He normally throws on the first thing he touches."

"You and he seem very close."

"Weíre very good friends. Go shower." Rosa smiled at the scene before her. Ray ran up the stairs two at a time. Meg returned to the den and sat with Rosa while Ray wondered how he ended up getting ready for a night on the town with Bennyís Superior officer and Saraís brother.

~~Ray went up to his room at full throttle. He was in a hurry to get ready. He was going to the movies withÖ.Inspector Thatcher! Then he suddenly stopped. He hadnít been in this room for over three years. He stood in the doorframe and looked at the darkened room. The shadows fell across the room in sharp patterns. Slowly raising his had to the switch; he turned the light on. Everything was the same. Nothing had been changed. He saw his suitcases he had dropped off earlier sitting upright next to the wall. Walking over he lifted one to place on the bed when he realized it was empty. He smiled as he opened his drawers and saw that his mother had washed and put everything away. Now he felt like he was home. He opened his closet and pulled out his favorite sweater. He held it to his face and took a deep breath. Exhaling he felt tears mist his eyes. His clothes no longer smelled like dry cleaning solution or smoky casinos. They smelled like home. Rayís head snapped up as he heard his named called from the hallway. He had left his door open and saw Meg approaching his room.

"Ray!"

"In here."

"Are you ready? Rosa and I didnít hear the shower."

"Sorry, IÖ.I meanÖÖIíll be ready in a minute." Meg saw the look on his face and her voice softened.

"Itís good to be home, isnít it?" Ray nodded and smelled his sweater again, not caring that Meg was watching him.

"Yeah, itís real good."

"Take your time. Jacky can wait. Heís used to waiting on Sara anyway." Meg smiled and turned and left Ray.

Ray tossed his sweater on the end of the bed and pulled a pair of slacks from his closet. Grabbing his robe from where he knew it was hanging on the back of his door; he jogged down the hall to the bathroom.

~~~~~

Jacky lumbered through the living room and into the kitchen of Saraís apartment. Sara was pouring Caroline a glass of milk when Jacky walked in and opened the refrigerator.

"Donít you need to get dressed?"

"Nah, Iím goiní in a towel." Sara knew that this was where Caroline got her sarcasm.

"Youíll freeze your patoot off." Jacky couldnít help but laugh as Caroline exploded in laughter.

"Iím just thirsty. Iíll get dressed in a minute."

"Ray seemed like he was doiní much better."

Jacky nodded as he started to put the carton of juice up to his lips.

"Glass. I donít want your backwash." Jacky grabbed a glass from the cupboard and poured him some juice.

"Yeah, I think tonight will do him good. He needs to get back to normal, you know?"

"I know. We all do."

"I wonder if Ren has talked to Rafe yet."

"Iím sure Debi will call if Rafe scared him away."

"Iím glad Iím not him."

"Rafeís not so bad. He just likes for people to think heís tough."

"Yeah well, Iím just glad Iím not Ren." Jacky sat his empty glass in the dishwasher and left the kitchen. When he returned to the living room, Sara and Caroline were snuggled together on the couch.

"You lookÖ.well, at least itís clean."

"What?!" Jacky looked down at his faded blue jeans and Clemson University sweatshirt that had seen better days.

"Nothing. Iím buying you clothes for Christmas, thatís for sure."

"Iíve got plenty of clothes."

"Grown up clothes, Jacky. Something other than sweatshirts and cowboy boots."

"What do I care. Iím just going to the movies."

"Youíre never going to get a woman."

"Iíve had women. I just didnít feel the need to keep them." Sara rolled her eyes as Caroline stretched her arms up for Jacky to give her a hug.

"Will you bwing me somepiní?"

"Sure, Iíll bring you some Jelly Bellies." Jacky kissed Caroline on the cheek and returned her to the couch.

"Do you have your key?"

"Yeah."

"Donít wake me up when you come in."

"Do I ever?" Jacky pulled his black leather coat on and opened the front door.

"Bye!"

"Later."

With a click of the front door, Sara and Caroline were finally alone. Sara slumped down into the couch and snuggled with Caroline.

"So Doodlebug, what are our plans for the night?"

"I donít know." Caroline played with her motherís fingers as the two of them lounged on the large leather couch.
"You want to color a picture for Daddy?"

"Will you color wif me?"

"Sure. I love to color. Go get your new coloring book and Iíll get the crayons." Caroline rolled off the couch and landed in the floor with a thump. Bouncing to her feet, she ran to the front door where Sara had left her purse and Carolineís bag. Pulling the large coloring book from the bag, she smiled at the picture of the Mountie on the front. Sara returned to the living room and placed the large box of crayons on the coffee table.

"Hey, why donít we put on our pjís and get comfy?"

"íkay!" Caroline ran over to the table and placed the coloring book beside the crayons. A few minutes later, the Fraser women were coloring away in their favorite flannel pajamas.

~~Ray sat in Megís living room waiting on her to finish showering and to change. He tried to push the thoughts he was having out of his mind. *Meg Thatcher is naked and wet in the very next room. Stop it! What are you saying?! How did you get here?! Two weeks ago you were Armando Langoustini. You were living by a prayer as The Bookman and now you are sitting in Inspector Margaret Thatcherís living room waiting to go to the movies. I think Iím going through culture shock. Maybe I should get a good therapist. God knows itís probably justified. * Ray leaned back and rested his head on the overstuffed couch. He closed his eyes and released a long exasperated sigh. He sat there for a few moments and tried to relax and remember what it was like not to look over your shoulder at every corner. He felt two hands on either side of his face. He opened his eyes and saw the upside down image of Meg leaning over him.

"You canít keep it inside, you know. It will eat away at you forever. Try to relax tonight and have a good time. Then tomorrow, promise me youíll go talk to someone." Ray smiled in spite of himself.

"Were you reading my mind?" *God I hope not! That naked and wet thing would probably piss you off. *

"Iíve got a number of someone you can call. Heís very nice."

"I just might take you up on that." Ray was now very aware that Meg had not removed her hands from the side of his head. He could smell the scent of her hair as it hung down on either side of her face as she spoke to him.

"Good. Jacky not here yet?" Meg removed her hands and walked around the couch to sit in the chair opposite Ray. She was wearing jeans and a turtleneck wool sweater. She looked totally different than what Ray was used to. Before he thought better of it, he blurted out what he was thinking.

"I donít think IĎve ever seen you in anything other than those buttoned up business suits."

Meg cocked her head and looked at him.

"I am a person you know. Iím not just Inspector Thatcher, RCMP. I didnít burn all my clothes once I became a member of the force." Ray could tell he had hurt her feelings.

"Iím sorry. I didnít mean toÖ.I meanÖ..IÖyou look great. I mean, you lookÖ.um, what I mean is, you look nice in casual clothes."

Meg couldnít help but smile. He was stammering on like Fraser does when he is nervous.

"Thank you. But is it such a shock to see me in a pair of jeans?"

Ray gave her his famous full-of-charm look as he answered.

"Kinda."

"Kinda? Whatís that mean?"

"It means Iíve just never seen this side of you."

"I didnít realize there was a side." Meg pushed her hair behind her ears.

"Oh this is a side alright." The two smiled at one another until the buzzer alerted them to Jackyís arrival.

Ray held the door for Meg as they walked down the steps to the street to meet Jacky. Jacky whistled playfully at Meg.

"Looking good, hot stuff."

"Oh God, youíre so full of crap."

"You love it." Jacky smiled at Ray as he held the door of the cab for Meg. Jacky gestured for Ray to get in the back seat. Jacky took a seat up front and the three of them were off to the movies.

~~~~~~

"Goodnight Daddy, I loves you." Caroline kissed the receiver of the phone and wished her Dad goodnight. She then handed the phone back to her mother and snuggled down into the blankets. Diefenbaker took his position beside her under the blankets as Sara turned off the lights. Sara returned the phone to her ear as she pulled Carolineís door to.

"She had a big day. She should be out like a light in a few minutes."

"What about you? Have you been resting?"

"I have. Bug and I colored for about an hour. She started yawning about 7:45 so I gave her another 15 minutes and then I told her it was time to call you for goodnights."

"I miss you."

"I miss you. Itís lonely here without you."

"I thought Jacky was there."

"He went to the movies with Meg and Ray."

"Oh really?"

"Uh-huh, maybe Ray will relax a little."

"We can only hope."

"Howís your bunkmate doing?"

"Heís rather irritable actually." Sara laughed as she heard Ray holler out.

"No Iím not!"

"What made him so grumpy?"

"Natalie told him he could go home on Sunday. But then she gave him a run down of his limitations."

"I see Iím going to have my hands full."

"Yes you are."

"Itís worth it though. Iíd rather have him here where Jacky and me can make sure heís taken care of. Besides, the physical therapist will probably be grateful to come here rather than his place."

"Most definitely."

"Are you feeling better?"

"Much, now that youíve called."

"Sweet talker."

"Thank you kindly."

"Caroline and I will see you tomorrow morning. Oh, and tell Ray that Ray was asking about his car."

"Oh dear."

"You can say that again. I donít know how much longer Meg can dodge the question heís been asking her."

"Oh dear."

"You said that. Just tell him. You blew the thing up one time. He should be used to disappointment by now."

"Thatís not funny."

"I bet he wonít think so either." Ben could tell she was smiling on the other end of the line. The whole situation struck her as completely amusing and he knew it.

"Stop smiling."

"What makes you think Iím smiling?"

"I can hear you."

"You can hear me smiling?"

"Yes."

"I see."

"Youíre doing it again."

"Yes, I know."

"I love you."

"I love you. Tell Ray heís loved and Iíll see you two in the morning."

"Goodnight Sara."

"Night." Sara placed the phone back in its cradle and smiled. Soon things would be back to normal. She just knew it.

~~Meg had chosen an adventure movie much to the delight of Ray and Jacky. Each man sat on either side of her as they watched the movie. Even though they had eaten a huge meal at Maís, Ray and Jacky ordered popcorn and large sodas. Ray offered to buy Meg a drink and she agreed. Once they were settled in their seats, the movie engrossed them. As the images of car chases and explosions whirled across the screen, Jacky absently crammed popcorn in his mouth. Ray was doing the same, but every few handfuls, he would offer some to Meg. Before long Ray and Meg were alternately eating out of the popcorn bucket Ray held in his lap. With the last explosion, their timing had been interrupted. Meg reached over without looking and felt in the carton for a handful of popcorn. Instead, she felt the strong hand of Ray Vecchio. Feeling her hand on his, he froze. Meg turned and looked down at the motionless arm attached to the buttery hand that was underneath her own. She then looked at the eyes of the man attached to that hand. They were staring back at her. Neither seemed to move for what felt like hours. Then Jacky nudged Meg in the side as the hero shoved his gun in the criminalís face. Snapping back to reality, Meg smiled and removed her hand from Rayís. *What was that? Meg, youíre looking at him like a moony-eyed schoolgirl. *

Jacky looked over at the two of them, thankful the darkness concealed the grin on his face. *Did I just see what I thought I saw? I think I did. Hot Damn! *

The movie ended and the three of them sat and waited for some of the crowd to exit the theatre. Jacky stretched and put his arm playfully around Meg. Because Jacky was looking for it, he noticed the look that quickly flashed over Rayís face. Meg was oblivious to the whole Ďexperimentí Jacky was conducting and merely sipped the last of her drink. Ray felt that enough of the crowd had dispersed so he stood and offered Megís coat to her. Meg slipped her arms into her coat and thanked Ray.

"Are we going for coffee?" Meg looked from one face to the other. Jacky nodded and smiled over at Ray.

"We always do after the movies. Starbucks sounds good right about now. Is that okay Ray?"

"Sounds great to me." Jacky smiled and led the way out of the theatre. He knew very well that he wasnít going to go with them to get coffee. He just had to think of a good excuse.

"Iíll meet you out front. Iím going to the restroom before we leave." Meg nodded and walked with Ray to the front of the theatre. Jacky ducked into the restroom and quickly called Sara.

"Hey, you need anything?"

"Huh?"

"Milk, bread, aspirin? Anything? Do you need anything?"

"Iím out of Smarties for Ray but that can wait until tomorrow."

"No, I need to get them tonight. Iíll tell you about it when I get home. Just stay on the line and play along." Sara knew not to question when Jacky had something cooking. He was the master. After all, he learned from the best. Jacky strolled through the lobby of the theatre with his cellphone against his ear. As he approached Ray and meg, he began his Ďconversationí with Sara.

"Yeah, okay. Iíll get it for you. No I donít mind. Iíll be home in about fifteen minutes. Sure, no problem Sara. Yeah, okayÖ.." Before Jacky could hang up, Sara laughed into the phone.

"Youíre worse than a woman!"

"Sure, Bye Sara." Jacky flipped his phone closed and started out the front doors. As he hailed a cab, he told Ray and Meg what he wanted them to hear.

"Sara needs me to go by the store for her. So you two go without me. Iíll see you tomorrow." Before Meg could say a word, a cab pulled to the curb and Jacky leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

"Bye Hot stuff, Iíll call you tomorrow. See ya tomorrow, Ray. Watch this one, sheís a wild one." With that, he leapt into the back seat of the cab and was gone.

As he watched the two motionless figures try to figure out what had just happened, Jacky openly laughed.

"Whatís so funny?" The cabbie twisted in the seat to see the large man laughing.

"Oh nothiní. Just shoving people through the door of opportunity." The cabbie shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette.

~~Meg and Ray stood on the sidewalk and watched Jackyís cab disappear around the corner. Ray cleared his throat and put his hand on the small of Megís back and guided her to the next waiting cab.

"You still want to go?" * Say yes! Yes. Just say yes. * Meg looked at Ray and then the door of the cab and then back to Ray. *Jacky is a dead man. He thinks heís so slick. I am perfectly capable of handling my own affairs. I donít need himÖ..my God his eyes are the greenest Iíve ever seen. Youíre staring at him. Speak! Speak!*

"Um, sure. We normally go to the Starbucks on 5th." Ray held the cab door open for Meg and instructed the driver to their destination.

~~~~~

Sara pulled her motherís old quilt around her shoulders and snuggled into the couch. She had managed to get Caroline settled into bed and now she was able to sit for a few minutes. She sighed and looked around the room. She was alone, the house was quiet and her husband and one of her best friends would be out of the hospital soon. Yawning, she pulled the quilt up to her chin and flipped the television on. The shows blended into a mindless wave of images as she relaxed on the couch. Her mind started to compile a list of things she needed to get done before Sunday. Ray would be released from the hospital on Sunday. She had already arranged for the physical therapist to come to the apartment. Rayís mail would be forwarded here for the next two weeks. She had changed the sheets in the guestroom after she put Caroline to bed. Jacky would sleep on the couch or where ever he landed. Sheís seen her brother sleep in a bathtub and never complain. She started a grocery list of foods she knew Jacky and Ray liked. She wanted to make Caroline some sugar cookies so she needed more flour. Sara closed her eyes and placed her arm over her forehead. She was just about to slip into sleep when she heard a key slide into the front door.

"What are you doiní up so late?"

"Itís not late. Itís only about 10:30."

Jacky pulled his coat off and draped it over the back of the recliner before flopping down on the end of the couch Sara was sitting on.

"Bug asleep?"

"Yeah, sheís been down for about two hours now."

"I brought her some Jelly Bellyís."

"Sheíll like that. Now tell me what the phone call was all about." Sara sat up and tucked her feet under her. Jacky propped his feet up on the coffee table and put his hands behind his head. In a smug voice he answered Sara.

"Oh, nothing. Meg and Ray are getting cozy at Starbucks right about now."

"Get out! Really?! Youíre the master!" Jacky caught the pillow Sara had launched toward his head.

"I have my moments. You should have seen them. I know Meg is interested. I can tell by looking at her. And if I had to bet, Iíd say Ray wouldnít put up too much of a struggle."

"Did you see the look on Rayís face when you were putting your arms around Meg? I thought his eyes would fall out of their sockets."

"Hell yeah, I saw it. Why do think I asked her to the movies? I wanted to see if sheíd ask Ray."

"And she did."

"Yes she did."

"You should have a talk show."

"Maybe I should move to California."

"I wouldnít pack my bags just yet. You still canít find a woman of your own." Sara regretted the remark once she said it. She saw Jackyís expression fall and his smile fade just a touch before he put a much faker one back in place.

"Yeah well, I just havenít found one yet." Saraís voice took on a loving motherly tone.

"Have you seen Jessica since she got married?" Jacky looked up and saw the love in Saraís eyes. She knew the whole story but held her tongue through the whole thing. He knew that Sara wanted to fly to Rock Hill, jump off the plane, drive to Jessicaís house and beat the snot out of her. But for Jackyís sake, she never said a word against her. She just listened when Jacky wanted to talk.

"I saw her at the bank the other week. David wasnít with her."

"You okay?" Jacky nodded and plastered another smile on his face.

"Sure. Why wouldnít I be okay? So the woman I proposed to turned me down because she didnít want to be a farm vetís wife and then married a rich lawyer out of Charlotte. Why wouldnít I be okay?"

For the first time, Sara saw the hurt in Jackyís eyes. She gathered her words for a moment and then she spoke.

"I know you already know this. But, youíre better off. She had no idea how much money you have. She just thought you were a farm vet that worked for your Daddy. Sheís superficial and a gold digger Jacky. Yeah, if you had told her your net worth was a few million, she would have come back to you running. But would you have really wanted that? To know that she chose another man over you because of the money and then come running back to you because you had more." Jacky released a long sigh and looked down at his lap.

"No. I know youíre right. Iíve told myself the same thing for a year now. ButÖ.."

"But that doesnít make it hurt any less."

Jacky nodded slowly and then turned to meet her eyes.

"Yeah."

"Donít worry. Youíll find your one true love one day. Look at me. I never thought I would be married to a Canadian Mountie."

"I always figured you for the wrecker driver type."

"I only went out with that guy one time!"

"He was dumb as a stump."

"Yeah well, we all canít be brightest bulb in the marquee."

"Well, he wasnít even up to dumb. He was just plain stupid."

""I figured that out." Jacky started to laugh at old memories and began feeling much better. Sara changed the subject and turned it back to Jackyís matchmaking.

"So theyíre having coffee, huh?"

"That was the plan."

"You think Meg really likes him?"

"I think so." The two of them sat in silence and thought about the two friends getting together. Sara loved Ray as much as her own brother and Jacky and Meg had become very close over the last three years. Sara just hoped things would work out and Ray would feel he had his life back.

~~"Double French Vanilla Cappuccino."

"Coffee, black."

"I donít think they have that here." Meg joked as Ray paid for their coffees. Meg led the way through the tables to a table for two by the large glass front window.

"Did you like the movie?" *Keep it light Meg. Heís your friend.*

"Yeah, it was great. I had forgotten how much fun going to the movies could be. Itís a shame Jacky had to leave."

"Well, heís always doing something. He canít ever sit still."

"The two of you seem to be real close."

"We are." *Oh great Meg, say something else. Thatís not what you meant. Youíre drowning.*

"Heís a great guy."

"Yes, he is very nice." Ray took a long drink of his coffee and then looked across the table at Meg. *Jacky, youíre a lucky man.*

"How long have you two been together?" Meg choked slightly on her coffee and then smiled at Ray.

"Jacky and I are just good friends, Detective. Thatís all."

"Ah." The corners of Rayís mouth turned up slightly at the blush on Megís face.

"Ah? You sound like Fraser. Whatís Ďahí mean?"

"I donít know. It just came out."

"I see." Meg took another drink of her coffee.

"How did the two of you become such good friends?"

"I guess it started when I went to the farm with everyone. Jacky and I were paired up, you could say by the mere fact that everyone else had a partner. Well, and then there was that night at the Holler."

"You went to the Holler?!" Ray looked around the coffee shop once he realized he had said that a little too loud.

"Yes, Ray, I went to the Holler. It was a really nice time untilÖ.."

"Until what?" Ray could see the embarrassment on Megís face and the wicked smile forming.

"Until I had a little too much to drink and Jacky had to carry me to the car." Ray erupted in laughter. The thought of the uptight Dragon Lady being carried, shit-faced to the car was an image he would treasure.

"Itís not that funny Detective. Iíve never been so sick."

"You wereÖ.hooo haahooÖ.puking too!?" Ray held his side as he laughed and despite her best efforts, Meg started to chuckle along with him.

"It was horrible. And to find out the next day that I was seen kissing in the hallway of the restroom area was really too much toÖÖreally Ray, itís not that funny." She tried to sound as serious as possible, but Rayís snorting as he laughed wouldnít allow it.

"I wish I could have been there to see that!"

"Well, we all wished you could have been there." Ray sobered and looked at Megís soft green eyes.

"Really?"

"Of course. You werenít forgotten Ray. Please donít think that you were. Poor Kowalski had such a hard time at first. Sara was crushed. Even IÖÖ" Meg stopped abruptly and took a drink of her coffee. She hadnít meant to tell him that.

"Even you, what?"

"Even I missed you when you left."

"You didnít even like me." Ray cocked his head at her in confusion.

"Why would you think that?" Meg too was confused. *Was I really that mean to you? *

"I just didnít think you cared."

"We wereÖ.acquaintances. We were colleagues in a sense. Iím not completely without feelings, Detective."

"I thought it was Ray."
"I beg your pardon?"

"Ray. Not Detective. Ray." Meg smiled as the smooth Italian gave her a smoldering look.

"Sorry, Ray."

"Much better. So you pined away after me, huh?" His charm was starting to disarm her. She grinned at his playfulness and was thankful his mood had lightened.

"I wouldnít go that far. But you were missed."

"Iím glad."

"What have decided to do about Welsh?"

"I have no idea. And actually, I donít care. I just want to have one night of total relaxation. Iíve been looking over my shoulder for three years. Tonight, letís just have fun, okay."

"Fortunately for you, fun is my middle name." Now it was Rayís turn to choke on his coffee.

 

 

~~Ray and Meg left the taxi and walked slowly up the front steps of her building. Meg felt a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. She had fun tonight. Lots of fun. Ray held the door for her and they walked up the stairs to her door. Meg tried to keep the conversation light and casual.

"So are you going to go talk to my friend? Heís a great therapist. It might help."

"Yeah, Iíll talk to him. Iíll call him on Monday. I had a good time tonight. Thanks." Meg stood at her apartment door and looked at the tall Italian. Ray hadnít felt so relaxed in three years. He placed his hand on Megís arm and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"See you tomorrow."

"Sure. Youíll be at the hospital?"

"Yeah, Iím driving Sara and Caroline over."

"Iíll see you there." The tension between them was evident. Ray had to fight the urge to grab her by the shoulders and kiss her on the mouth. But he still wasnít sure about her feelings. Besides, Jacky may not like it if things went too far. *What is the real deal between you and Jacky? * Meg could tell he wanted to kiss her. But did she want to kiss him? * What are you doing? Heís Fraserís best friend. * Ray smiled and turned to leave.

"Goodnight, Detective."

Ray turned on the landing and gave her his best look.

"Goodnight Inspector."

With an extra spring in his step, he descended the remaining stairs. Meg entered her apartment and leaned against the door.

"Whew. Iíve got to call Jacky."

 

~~~~~~

Ray opened the door to the family home and was met by the sounds of the television playing in the den. *Itís eleven oíclock. Who could be up at this hour?* Ray rounded the corner and saw Frannyís small frame stretched out on the couch.

"Franny?" Ray whispered his sisterís name to see if she were awake.

Franny lifted her head off the arm of the couch and greeted him with a huge smile.

"Whereís John?" Ray flopped down in his recliner and pulled his shoes off.

"Heís at home. Iím not tired, so I decided to watch some TV. Ma, said you went to the movies."

"Yeah, me and Meg and Jacky."

"What did you see?"

"Explosion on Main. It was pretty good."
"John and I went to the premier. I wasnít that impressed." Franny sat up and tucked her feet under her.

"You went to the premier?!" Ray stared at his sister in wonder.

"Yeah, John gets invited to all that stuff. I never thought Iíd get used to it, but I have."

"So you run with the jet set now, huh?" Ray chuckled at the thought of his baby sister hobnobbing with movie stars.

"Not hardly. John and I try to keep a low profile. Especially now with the wedding plans in full swing."

"Howís it going?"

"I have a wedding planner. Can you believe it? But, after Johnís publicist and agent explained all the things that can happen at a Ďcelebrityí wedding, Iím not taking any chances."

"Is Ma alright with you having a wedding planner?"

"I think so. I let Sharon know that Ma and me are in charge. What we say, flies." Ray shook his head at Frannyís phrasing.

"Whatís John think about all this?"

"In a way he would be perfectly happy running off to some small town and finding a justice of the peace. But, he wouldnít do that to his mother anymore than I could do that to Ma."

"So what have you planned so far?" Ray settled back in his chair and pulled the throw blanket over his lap. It occurred to him that three years ago he probably wouldnít have bothered with asking Franny about her wedding plans. He would have just wanted to know what he was supposed to do and what time he had to be at the church. But now, he was genuinely interested in his sisterís life. He wanted to know everything she had been doing while he was gone.

"Well, Iíve decided to have it catered. I donít want Ma killing herself trying to make all the food. Besides, thereís going to be so many people there, itís just not possible."

"How many people are you looking at?"

"With my family and Johnís family, friends, and some work friends, around 450."

"Youíre kidding!?"

"Nope. John and I have already started on the guest list. Guess whoís coming?"

"Who?"

"George Clooney."

"No way!"

"John and he are friends from a long time ago. Guess who else?" Ray shrugged his shoulders as Franny bounced in her seat.

"Rosie OíDonnell."

"Youíre weddingís going to be a whoís who of Hollywood, Fran."

"Nah, I wonít let it. I want it to be more for family than for the society pages. Iíve even arranged for our families to sit in the front couple of rows behind Ma and Johnís parents. I donít want any of my relatives stuck in the back of the church."

"I all sounds great, Fran."

"I hope we can get it all done." Iíve only got a month and a half. My dress has been designedÖ"

"What? Designed?!"

"Yeah, Iím wearing a Vera Wang dress. Itís beautiful. Ma cried." Ray beamed with pride as Franny described her dress. His little sister had changed so much. She was still flaky Franny to him, but she had matured in a way he never thought possible.

"Iím still giving you away, right?"

"Of course. But I wanted to talk to you about that." As the hours ticked by, Francesca and Ray sat and talked. Before they realized, it was two in the morning. Ray yawned and followed Franny up stairs. Waving goodnight, Ray entered his room and collapsed on the bed. Taking a deep breath, he smelled the familiar smell of his sheets. Cramming his pillow into a ball, he exhaled and drifted into a restful sleep.

~~Jacky grabbed the phone before the ringing woke Sara. She had finally gone to bed and he was flipping through the channels.

"Fraser residence, Jacky Montgomery speaking."

"You think youíre cute donít you?" Megís voice made him smile.
"Hey gorgeous. Couldnít get through the night without hearing my voice, huh? I know how it is. Iím hot. I canít help it."

"Oh God, please. What was that little errand boy episode this evening?"

"Sara needed some things. I canít let my big sis down."

"Youíre so full of it. I know what you were doing. Iím a trained member of the RCMP. I can tell when Iím being scammed."

"Did you have a good time?"
"What?"

"You heard me. Did he walk you to your door?"

"Yes, he did. Thatís not the issue! I donít need you playing matchmaker. Especially not with Detective Ray Vecchio."

"Why not? Not your type? Too Italian? Not enough man for you?"

"Of course not, Iím sure heís quite enoughÖ.Jacky! Iím not going to entertain this subject any further." Jacky started to chuckle at the irritation in her voice. He knew she was flustered and he reveled in it.

"You like him."

"I assure you that the Detective and I have a very professional working relationship that spans at least two years when he was working with FraÖ.."

"You like him. He likes you."

"He and I are acquaintances and thatÖ..You think he likes me? Why would you think that?"

"He nearly swallowed his tongue when I called you hot stuff. His eyes could have just popped right out and falliní on the floor when you kissed me over at Maís."

"What are you talking about? I didnít see anything like that."

"I did. Itís called jealousy, baby. The green eyed monster of love."

"Youíre making this entire thing up. Detective Vecchio needed some time away from all that his been happening around him and I was more than happy to provide him with an outlet."

"Well plug him in baby."

"Jacky!" Jacky laughed openly and could tell by the strain in her voice he had her completely flustered.

"Oh come on Meggy. Give the guy a break. Let him take you out."

"And you just assume that he wants to go out with me."
"Why wouldnít he? Hot lookiní thing like you. If I didnít know as well as I do, Iíd take you out."

"Youíre so kind."

"Really, Meg. If he asks, say yes. Donít pull that Inspector Thatcher logic crap on this, okay? For once, take the advice of your best friend. If he asks, go." Jacky heard a long sigh on the other end of the receiver.

"Why do I listen to you?"

"Cause Iím hot and you love me."

"Oh God." Meg groaned.

"I mean it. Donít pull out the Inspector shit. Just be Meg Thatcher. Sheís the most fun."

"What if he doesnít ask?"

"Heíll ask."

"Donít you dare say anything to him."

"I wonít have to. I can see it in his face when he looks at you. Heíll ask. It might not be right away. But heíll ask eventually. Just let him know that youíd go when he does ask."

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"Well, a good start would be not to scare the hell out of him."

"It was just that one time. Canít you let it go by now?"

"I think you turned the poor guy gay."

"I mistook him for a ÖÖ"

"You threw him to the ground and choked him out, Meg."
"He shouldnít have come up behind me like that."

"He was trying to surprise you."

"Well, Iím not good with surprises."

"You think?" Both of them laughed and Meg began to feel better.

"It was just a misunderstanding."

"He cried Meg."

"Well, that right there was reason enough not to go out with him."

~~Jacky pulled Saraís Jeep into the Vecchio driveway. He helped Caroline out of her car seat and carried her to the porch. Sara followed closely behind and carried Carolineís bag with her. As soon as they opened the door, the smell of breakfast hit them in the face.

"Mmmm, now that smells good." Jacky sat Caroline down and she immediately shrugged off her coat and ran into the kitchen to find her cousins.

"Now you see why I wouldnít fix you any breakfast. Ma always cooks when she knows weíre stopping by." Jacky hung up his coat and walked through the kitchen rubbing his stomach.

"Mrs. Rosa, it smells like a hungry manís heaven in here."

"I made waffles. Help yourself." Mrs. Vecchio smiled with delight at the expression on Jackyís face when he spied all the food on the stove. Jacky handed a plate to Sara and looked around to see if most everyone had eaten. Seeing discarded breakfast plates in the sink, he smiled. He waited for Sara and Caroline to fix their plates before he started to pile waffles, bacon, eggs and toast onto his plate. Sara rolled her eyes at the size of Jackyís plate as she finally managed to get Caroline settled in at the table.

"Whereís the family?"

"The children are going to a birthday party for one of their schoolmates. Tony is helping a friend move."

"Franny still here?"

"She left very early this morning. She and John were meeting the wedding planner. Sheís picking me up at eleven. Weíre going to pick out flowers and possibly bridesmaids dresses." Jacky was totally oblivious to the conversation going on at either end of the table. He and Caroline were concentrating on the glorious food that was quickly disappearing from their plates.

"Has Ray gotten up yet?"

"I heard the shower earlier. I think he and Francesca were up late last night. I woke one time and they were talking in the den. It was around one then."

"Iím up. What are you all talking about?" All eyes turned to a freshly showered and well-dressed Ray Vecchio.

"Just wondering where you were." Sara smiled as she helped a wiggling Caroline return to her seat.

"Morniní Uncle Ray!"

"Good morning squirt." Ray leaned over and kissed Caroline on the top of the head before taking a seat next to Sara.

"You seem chipper this morning."

"I am. I canít wait to get the Riv back." The room fell silent. Even Caroline stopped eating as the adults stared at Ray. Sara tried to keep her voice even and calm.

"The Riv?"

"Yeah, the Riv. Why does everyone ask meÖÖoh God." Seeing the paleness of Saraís face and the look of sorrow on his motherís he knew something was wrong.
"What?! What happened to my car? Meg avoided the subject like the plague. Sara, tell me what happened to my car." Sara swallowed hard and tried not to look him in the eyes.

"Your car?"

"Stop answering me with questions. Youíve never been able to lie to me Sara. Whereís my car?" Jacky pushed back from the table and looked at his watch.

"Whoa! Look at that! We are so late. We better get going. Caroline, letís go get your coat." Before Caroline could make a run for it, Ray grabbed her and held her on his lap.

"No one is going anywhere until I find out where my car is. Sara, start talking."

"Iíd really rather not."

"I donít care. Tell me."

"Maybe you should wait and talk to Ben and Ray."

"What did they do to my car?!"

"Raymondo, perhaps you should eat something. It will make you feel better."

"Sara. Car. Spill it." Sara looked from Rosa to Jacky. Jacky nodded his head and nudged her in the back.

"You might as well."

"Sara."

"Itís umÖ.well, you see the week after you left and we came home. You remember us telling you about the fire here?"

"Yeah, the car Sara. I want to hear about my car."

"Well, Ray and Ben were trying to figure out who was setting the fires and they were getting real close whenÖumÖ.Greta Garbo planted a fire bomb in the car."

"She blew up the Riv!!?"

"Not exactly."

Caroline covered her ears and waited for her Uncle Ray to blow his top.

"What do you mean not exactly?!"

"It just kinda caught fire."

"Kinda caught fire?!"

"Yeah, they almost had it put out when they ran it through the car wash but Ray hit the hot wax option by mistake."

"What?! Whereís the Riv?! Thatís all I want to know. Where is my car?"

"The Lake they call Michigan."

"What?!"

"At the bottom actually. Thatís the only way they could think of extinguishing it." Sara and Caroline were both covering their ears when Ray started to scream.

"WHAT?! They drove my car into Lake Michigan! First Benny blows it up and then he drives it in the lake! Why am I being punished?! What did I do in a past life to deserve such heartache?! Tell me God, what did I do?!"

"Raymondo! You should be thanking God that your friends were not hurt."

"No Ma, you need to pray to God that they wontí be hurt after I get through with them. Letís go! Weíre going to the hospital." Ray sat Caroline gently on the kitchen floor and sulked out of the kitchen.

"This is going to be a long day." Jacky nodded as he and Sara followed Ray and Caroline out of the kitchen.

~~The drive to the hospital was made in silence until Caroline decided she couldnít take it any longer. She looked over at the worried face of her mother and then to the angry face of Uncle Ray. Reaching over from her child seat, she tugged on his sleeve.

"Uncle Ray."

"Yeah." Rayís voice was hard but she didnít even flinch.

"Are you mad at my Daddy? Are you nots going to be his friend anymore?" Her words hit him like a brick wall. Fraserís eyes stared up at him waiting for an answer. He pushed the lump out of his throat and leaned over in the seat and put his arm around the little girl with her fatherís eyes.

"No. Iíll always be your daddyís friend."

"But you were yelliní."

"Well, youíll learn that I do that sometimes. Iím sorry."

"Momma gets mad when I yell."

"She gets mad when I yell too. Letís try not to do that anymore, okay." Caroline nodded as Ray placed a kiss on her forehead. His anger about his beloved Riv had vanished. Sara smiled to herself and cast a sideways look at Jacky as he drove. *Caroline, you are getting an ice cream sundae for that one. *

~~~~~~

The hospital visit went well. Ray and Ben were getting stronger by the hour. Ray was ready to go home but couldnít talk Natalie into releasing him a day early. Ray Vecchio decided not to mention the Riv. He didnít want to get them upset. Once Meg came in, he had long since forgotten his cherished car. After spending all day at the hospital, Jacky drove Sara and Caroline home. Meg had offered Ray a lift earlier and he jumped at the chance. Pulling into the parking garage, Sara sighed.

"What a long day."

"I bet youíll be glad when Ben comes home."

"You have no idea. I miss him so much."

"Come on, letís get up stairs. Iíll order us some Chinese food."

"Sounds good to me."

Jacky polished off the last of the fried rice while Sara put Caroline to bed. She grabbed her address book and the cordless phone and settled in on the couch.

"Who you calliní?"

"Iím gonna see if I can call in some favors."

"Huh?"

"Iíll tell you in a minute." Sara flipped through her book and quickly dialed the number.

"Frank, hey itís Sara FraserÖ.Thatís right, Jackís daughter. Listen, I know itís late and Iím sorry to call you at home, but I need a favor." Jacky smiled at the recognition of who Sara was talking to. Frank Williams was a friend of their fatherís. He owns one of the largest car dealerships in both Carolinaís.

"I know itís an unusual requestÖ.Thatís right. A 1971. Green. Make any repairs necessary and make sure it has a cigarette lighter. Look, money is no object. Once you find it, I need it repaired and delivered to Chicago. I donít care how it gets here. Put it on a plane, a train or have someone drive it. Iíll pay for return airfareÖÖYes sir, it is important. Thanks, let me know as soon as you find one. Thanks Frank." Sara hung up the phone and rubbed her hands over her face.

"You think heíll find one?"

"I donít see why not. They can find just about anything these days. I donít care if he has to drive the thing from Mexico."

"You ready for Ray tomorrow?"

"I think so. Iíve got Smarties, Cheetos and enough Pop Tarts to choke a horse. You decided where youíre going to sleep yet?"

"You know I donít care. I can sleep anywhere."

"Yeah, so Iíve heard."

"Bite me."

"No thanks."

"You are tired. You didnít even put up a fight."

"I better get some sleep before my little Ray of sunshine comes tomorrow."

"Thatís a good idea."

~~"I can walk."

"No you canít. So stop being a baby."

"Iím not a baby."

"Then stop acting like one." Sara helped Ray on with his coat while Jacky gathered his things. Ben was trying not to let Ray see the amused look on his face.

"I still donít see why I canít go to my place."

"Ray it wouldnít be prudent for you to be alone in your apartment with your leg still in bandages. You still need assistance getting around."

"Yeah, yeah. Can it Fraser." Ben smiled at the irritation in Rayís voice. Sara sighed heavily and shared a grin with her husband.

"Whereís Nat?"

"Sheís getting the paper work. She should be here directly." Ben rubbed his thumb across his eyebrow trying to hide his laughter at Rayís fidgeting. Sara was grateful that Ma insisted on keeping Caroline while she and Jacky picked up Ray. One child was enough at the moment.

"Ray, if you donít sit still Iím going to have Jacky sit on you." Ray waved a hand of disgust in her direction. He was ready to get out of there. He hated hospitals and having to be in one was sheer torture. He just wished Ben were going with him.

"Ray you really should sit still. Nat will be here soon with the wheelchair."

"I ainít ridiní in no wheelchair Fraser. Iím walkiní outta here."

"Not if I have anything to do with it." Ray looked up at Natalie and smiled. She leaned over and kissed him and then turned to Sara.

"Youíve got your hands full."

"I know."

"Iíll stop by later tonight after my shift. Do you need me to bring over any clothes or anything?"

"Nah, I waded through his apartment last night and found some things. Most of his clothes met me at the door."

"Yeah, should have warned you about that. I was going to go do some laundry but I never got a chance."

"Iím still here! I can hear what youíre saying!" Ray waved his arms in front of their faces.

"Be a good boy and Iíll make you some cookies when we get home." Sara patted Ray on the shoulder while Ben stifled a laugh. Poor Ray was in for a full recovery whether he liked it or not.

"Bite me."

"Thatís not buddies. Chocolate chip. Your favorite." Ray smiled slightly. He knew Sara would make them for him so he sat back in the chair and leaned on the crutches Natalie had given him.

"How do you do that?" Natalie laughed at Sara.

"He knows Iíll starve him to death if he doesnít do my bidding."

"Oh give me a freakiní break." Ray rolled his eyes. Sara then turned her attention to Ben. She walked over and sat on the edge of his hospital bed. He automatically slipped his arm around her waist. She ran her hand down the cast on his other arm and leaned in to kiss him.

"You better get out of this place soon. Between Jacky, Caroline and Ray I just might have some type of episode."

"I think youíll do fine."

"Well, I wouldnít take any chances. Ma wants to know what you want for supper tomorrow. Sheís going to send you some food."

"Anything is greatly appreciated. I have to admit, the hospital food leaves a lot to be desired."

"Itís horrible. No offense Nat."

"None taken. I try to avoid it whenever possible. Think of it as a deterrent to returning."

"Most affective."

Jacky entered the room with an orderly pushing a wheelchair.

"Okay, letís get this show on the road. Carís out front and Iím hungry."

"When arenít you hungry?"

"When Meg cooks." Everyone laughed knowingly and waited for Ray to climb into the wheelchair.

"I want to walk."

"That's good. Too bad it ainít gonna happen." Ray sighed as Sara walked over and took his crutches in her hand. Jacky grabbed his bag and waited on Natalie to give the go ahead.

"Iíll see you tonight. Donít give Sara any shit or Iíll slip something horrible in your coffee."

"Why do I fall for the sweet girls?" Jacky settled Ray into the wheelchair and turned him toward the door. He motioned for Jacky to stop and rolled over to Fraser.

"See you soon, buddy."

"See you in a week Ray."

"Tell your wife to take it easy on me, okay Frase."

"I donít think sheíll listen. She cares about you too much."

"Yeah well." Ray lowered his head and grinned at his friend and partner.

"Iíll see you in a week, Ray." Fraser reached out his hand and Ray grasped it firmly.

"Later."

"See you soon." Sara was now by Benís side. She engulfed him in a hug and kissed him soundly.

"I love you."

"I love you. Donít be bullied."

"Ray canít bully me."

"I was talking to Ray."

"Oh youíre funny. I married a funny man. Iíll see you tomorrow afternoon."

"Okay, bring Doodlebug. I miss her."

"She misses you. Love you."

"Love you." Sara kissed him again and took her place next to Jacky as they walked down the hall to the elevator.

"Letís get you home." Sara reached over Rayís shoulder and held his hand. Ray smiled and said a small prayer thanking God for such good friends.

 

Conitnued in Part 4


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