Welcome to the Twin Oaks Inn
Day 1 (Sunday)
This story is rated PG-13 due to some of the language and an adult theme that exists, but does not get explicit. If I toned it down any more than it already is, it would also lose its flavor (the two main characters are ex-military).
Richard Fitzwilliam, retired Army colonel and owner of the Twin Oaks Inn in Meryton, Conn., was dead on his feet. At ten o'clock on a Sunday morning.
He was working solo. His cousin, Georgiana Darcy Bailey, co-owner and newlywed, having been married the day before in the huge expanse of yard between the inn and her groom's house next door, was now on her honeymoon.
The inn had been closed in preparation for the grand event, but guests were checking in this afternoon, and the inn was almost completely booked for the coming week. If he had been thinking, he would have kept it closed another week, but no, brilliant businessman that he was, he had thought he could handle it.
Of course, that was before Georgie's brother Will and expectant wife Elizabeth decided to take a cruise to Bermuda. Elizabeth's father, who had been living at the inn and giving a helping hand, was now needed at Pemberley Farms, where Will and Lizzie helped raise his twins, Meredith and Christopher.
To make matters worse, Charles Bingley, Will's medical partner, and his wife, Jane, decided to go on the cruise, too. Not only was Dr. Bennet needed to be with his children, then, but he was going to take patient emergencies for the two doctors while they were away.
Georgie, bless her heart, had insisted on delaying her honeymoon when she learned Richard would be on his own, but he wouldn't hear of it.
Now he wished he hadn't been so noble. A noise and a water stain had alerted him to a possible leak upstairs in the bathroom of the Nutmeg Suite, and the dining room still needed to be tidied after friends and family had continued the wedding celebration inside - until 2 a.m. If Will hadn't been the designated driver, out of deference to his pregnant wife, Richard had no doubt Jane and Charles would have spent the night in one of the guest rooms. What party animals the Bingleys could be. Thank goodness he didn't have beds to make and breakfast to fix for anyone but himself, because Georgie had spent the first part of the previous week cleaning and sprucing up all the rooms.
Fortunately, Georgie was only going to be gone for a week. He was praying for her to be gone only one night by the time the afternoon rolled around.
First, a more demanding lot of guests he had never seen in his life. One couple didn't like having to share a bathroom, even though the inn brochure specifically stated that those rooms on the second floor had communal bathing facilities. A second guest said there should be televisions in all the rooms, instead of only one in the first-floor parlor, and a large-sized couple with a piggy-looking boy of eleven were stomping around in the Connecticut Suite next door to where he was trying to fix the plumbing. Three separate guests on the floor below had already sought him out to register their complaints about the thumping guests. He really wanted to tell them all to leave if they weren't happy, but he had heard from one guest that it was freshmen orientation weekend at Meryton College, and nigh near impossible to get a room at one of the motel chains closer to the highway. If he didn't get that damn leak fixed, there would be one less room available.
Offering free snacks in the dining room to the disgruntled guests, and making a mental note to speak to the clod-hopping people next door, he went back to work.
Then he got a call on his cell phone. The chef he had lined up to help out in Georgie's absence called in sick.
"I'm not going to ask 'what next,'" he muttered. No sense tempting fate.
Fortunately, Dr. Bennet dropped by with the twins, and Richard took a quick break, long enough to give the kids some cake left over from the day before, and then send them next door with a key to check on Spit, Alex's cat.
"I've got to get back to that leak," he finally told the doctor.
"I'll keep an eye on things down front for you, if you'd like. I left a box of my things in your office that I have to go through, anyway," said Dr. Bennet as they went up to the third floor to inspect the plumbing.
"Works for me."
The doctor gave him a snappy salute and headed downstairs, only to appear about twenty minutes later.
"Are you going to be much longer on that leak? I have a little lady downstairs whose car broke down, and she needs a room."
"If she doesn't mind a huge suite, and its huge price, I'll be done in about an hour. Can you stay that long?"
"The kids are out climbing trees. I'm not going anywhere for awhile. May I bring the lady up now to have a look and drop her bags?"
"Sure." Richard had removed the toilet and was on his hands and knees over the hole in the floor. There seemed to be something plugging the pipe.
"It's right in here, ma'am," he heard the doctor say about five minutes later. "I hope it meets with your satisfaction."
"It's beautiful," an oddly familiar voice replied. "And it comes complete with its own well-built plumber," she added. "Very handy."
Richard felt eyes on him, and they weren't staring at the back of his head. He felt...exposed.
"Sorry," he drawled, eager to put a stop to that. "I don't come with the suite." Straightening up and turning around, he saw the blood drain from Diana Forrester's still-beautiful little face.
"Colonel!" she breathed.
"Diana," he coolly replied. He had forgotten just how petite she really was. Only three inches over five feet tall, she had short auburn curls and green-gray eyes that clouded when she was angry. They had been clear before she realized who he was, but now they were starting to mist over. She was dressed today in a little pair of light blue jeans, a pale yellow T-shirt and white tennis shoes. Her hair was tied up in a yellow bandanna and she looked about sixteen years old.
"I...um...I think I'll just go check on my children," Dr. Bennet said and quit the room. Richard was still staring at Diana.
"Welcome to the Twin Oaks Inn," he said softly.
"Thank you. I didn't know you were a plumber."
"Plumber, proprietor, and chief cook and bottle washer. I converted the old family home into an inn a few years ago, and my cousin is co-owner. And what are you up to these days?"
"I have my own security consulting firm in New Jersey. I was on my way to Boston to meet with a client, and my car broke down. Fortunately, the appointment is not until Tuesday."
"Security? That sounds like you."
She grinned, the first smile he had seen since her arrival, and her eyes cleared. "Yes, I always was a scrapper."
"Scrapper, hell!" he exclaimed. He was going to continue in that vein, but reined in his enthusiasm. She was here for the night. Tomorrow she would get her car fixed and then she would be out of his life again. With a nod, he turned back to the plumbing.
"If you want to take a look around downstairs or outside, I'll be here awhile longer. Dr. Bennet, the friend who showed you upstairs, will be glad to get you something to eat or drink, I'm sure. We start serving dinner at six, although my relief chef called in sick, so I suppose it may be delayed, if I get stuck up here."
"I can take care of myself," she insisted.
That has always been the problem, he thought bitterly.
He didn't turn around as he heard her leave the suite.
Diana Forrester, retired command sergeant major, was agog to discover her host was her former commander. She thought she was over the attraction she'd felt when they had worked together. Tall, imposing colonel and scrappy little sergeant, she'd always known it was someone's idea of a joke that she should be assigned to his office.
Then there had been the night of his retirement party...no, she would not think of that. She would take his suggestion and go downstairs, outside, anywhere but in the same room as he, looking fit and handsome in a pair of faded khakis and a black T-shirt.
He'd shaved off his mustache and grown his dark hair long, she mused, surprised at first to see that what she had always thought of as "sissy" on guys was just incredibly sexy on him. Ten to one he had an earring, too.
Finding herself back downstairs at the front desk, she was greeted by the man the colonel had called Dr. Bennet. A kindly-looking man with graying brown hair and twinkling blue eyes, she had taken to his friendliness the instant she had walked in the front door.
"All set? Come have a glass of lemonade and meet my children," he invited.
She followed him past a parlor and a dining room, and into a large commercial kitchen. A clock sat at four p.m., and the doctor wondered aloud at the absence of a cook.
"The colonel said he called in sick," Diana volunteered.
"Oh, dear. Who knows how long Richard will be upstairs."
"I can cook," she found herself saying. "It's not Cordon Bleu, but it's good homemade stuff."
"That's what they serve here, too. How are you at large quantities?"
"I'll manage. Does this place have a menu?"
"No. On Sunday evenings, Richard usually offers a couple of entrees and gives just a few choices of side dishes. You'll need at least two desserts, too."
"I'll give it a try."
At that moment, the nine-year-old twins came racing into the kitchen.
"Dad! Dad! Come quick! Spit is in the tree and he won't come down!"
"Hello! And who are you?" Diana asked, and the twins were temporarily diverted from trying to drag their father out the door.
"I'm Merry and this is my brother, Kit. Georgie's kitten is in the tree. Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm Diana, and tonight I'm a cook. What do you like to eat?"
"Macaroni and cheese!" shouted Merry. Kit, however, just stood staring at her.
"You're short!" he blurted. Merry dug an elbow into his ribs and Dr. Bennet groaned, but Diana only laughed.
"I certainly am short. You, I can tell, will be as tall as your dad someday. Soon, by the look of things..."
He beamed, but Merry's face fell.
"What about Spit? Georgie will be upset if she comes home from her honey...honey..."
"Honeymoon?" Diana supplied. Merry nodded vigorously.
"Honeymoon! That's it! That's when you get married and go away for awhile and make babies and then come home," she told Diana.
"Really?" Kit's eyes were as big as saucers.
"Maddy told me!" Merry proudly told them.
"Maddy is a five-year-old," Dr. Bennet said in an aside. "And we have a kitten to catch."
"Can I help?"
"Yeah, Dad. Diana can climb up easier than you, and you can catch Spit when she throws him down."
Diana tried not to laugh, but these children were delightful. She was glad she was dressed casually as she followed them out into the back yard.
A half-grown black kitten sat on a low oak limb that appeared accessible, and when it caught sight of the children, it began to hiss and spit.
"Well, I can see where it gets its name," she remarked.
"It's a boy kitty," Kit told her as she made it to the cat's limb - the kitten was out further, and Diana straddled the limb next to the trunk.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," she called. "Psst! Psst!" The kitten turned toward her, walked a few paces, and then sat down and started to groom himself.
"Did you get him?" Merry called from the ground.
"Not yet!" she replied. "The little bugger wants to bathe first," she grumbled under her breath. Movement in an upstairs window caught her eye and she saw the colonel watching them. Then the kitten pounced on her outstretched hand and she grabbed the little hairball amid the cheers of the children.
"And she didn't even have to toss him out of the tree!" Kit told his father with no little admiration as they watched Diana climb down, kitten clutched to her chest.
"Ur, um, no," Dr. Bennet agreed.
The children took little Spit next door with the promise to check his food and water, and Diana rushed back indoors to start cooking.
Richard had finished cleaning out the pipes, had put the toilet back in place, and had cleaned up the bathroom for his guest. The little scuba diver toy he had found in the pipe, he pitched into a trash can behind the front desk. He wandered back through the inn on his way to the carriage house - a shower and change of clothes were a must if he was going to get dirty all over again - and noticed a variety of appetizing smells emanating from the kitchen. Perhaps the doctor had taken pity on him and had started dinner.
No, it was Diana, bustling around several pans of meatloaf, a pot of boiling potatoes and the fresh green beans Georgie had so thoughtfully prepared yesterday morning while Elizabeth and Jane had fussed over her hair.
"Richard!" Merry, covered in a huge white apron, cried, spying him. "Diana is letting us help!"
"What are you making?"
"Macaroni and cheese!" she happily replied. "I'm grating the cheese."
"I have some helpers, as you can see," Diana interjected, visibly flustered, as if he had caught her in an illegal act.
"Me, too!" Kit hollered from a corner, where he was rolling tableware into napkins.
"You have some good workers here," he told Diana, his blue eyes twinkling.
"I know," she agreed, visibly relieved by his calm demeanor. "When they're done here, they are going to set up the dining room with their dad."
"I wondered where he had gotten off to. You don't have to do any of this, you know," he added.
"I know. But who else do you have to help?" Without waiting for an answer, she turned to the food processor and began to make dough.
Richard shrugged and went on through the kitchen and out the back door to his apartment in the carriage house.
Diana almost fainted when the colonel walked back into the kitchen.
He had an earring in his left lobe, a small diamond that didn't look fake. His hair was damp, and pulled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing a red polo shirt with the inn's logo on it, a newer pair of khakis and a pair of well-worn Nikes.
She couldn't help but stare as he donned a white apron and peered at the blackboard menu.
"Meatloaf, eggplant parmagiana, Mickey Rooney and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, garden salad, rolls with butter, apple pie, peach crisp and a melon medley. Sounds good."
"Roger. Dr. Bennet said you usually have a fixed price on Sunday nights, and then give everyone one choice of each."
"That's right. It's easier that way."
They stood there staring at each other for a long moment before the doctor came in with a long, leggy blonde.
"Candy is here, Richard, ready to learn the ropes. Why don't you show her how you do things in the dining room while I make coffee and tea?"
"And I'll finish up the food," Diana added.
"New waitress," the doctor said, watching her frown after the retreating colonel and blonde.
"Oh! Is that a common occurrence around here?"
"Not really. Georgie and Richard are easy people to work for, but the previous waitress starts school next week, and the chef that called in was just temporary, to cover for Georgie's absence."
"Georgie is the chef here, then?"
Dr. Bennet laughed. "Georgie is the maid and bookkeeper, if you will. Richard is the one who does most of the cooking."
"Really?" She never would have guessed. All those years in the Army, he never did anything remotely domestic, and here he was, chef and innkeeper.
"Everything smells delicious," the colonel said, coming back into the kitchen a moment later. "I'll seat our guests and try to help out in the dining room, sir," he told the doctor, "if you'll assist in the kitchen."
"OK - you're the boss."
Diana was relieved, in a way, not to have to work with the colonel, but she felt let down, too, as if he didn't want to be with her, even for old-time's sake.
It was a long night of dishing up food and putting dirty dishes in the commercial washer as they came back empty, but she was still smiling when it was all over, the dining room closed and cleaned, and the kitchen put in order once again.
"What a team!" the colonel praised them with a beaming smile as he dug into the large refrigerator and pulled out a couple of bottles of champagne. "I had to pry these out of the hands of Jane and Charles this morning about 1 a.m.," he told the doctor. "I think we all deserve a drink. Except for the twins, of course," he added, looking around. "Where are they?"
"In the carriage house watching TV," Diana told the doctor. "They said there was one there they could watch. I sent them over with a big bowl of popcorn about a half hour ago, so they probably haven't gotten into too much trouble. I hope."
"You, my dear, are a gem," the doctor told her. "I can't imagine how Richard managed to lose track of you."
Diana watched in amazement as Richard actually flushed a bright red. So, he was at least a little ashamed about the way they parted company, she thought smugly. As well he should! But she didn't need the nice doctor asking too many questions, so, pouring them all a round of the champagne the colonel had handed her, she launched into the story of how the two of them ended up in the same office.
"The colonel had just been given his first command post, and had requested a security aide. Being so full of himself as he was, he made several tactical errors. First, he had insisted on an officer of some rank, and not a 'non-comm barely able to wipe his own a**.' Second, he didn't want any women on his staff, and third, when he was told he was getting a master sergeant for his pains, he called an office to complain, thought he was talking to some peon, and called her 'little missy.' Imagine his surprise when 'little missy' just happened to be General Melissa "Missy" Hancock."
The doctor, who had polished off two glasses of sparkling wine in short order, roared with laughter and reached for the champagne bottle, but Diana, with years of practice dealing with military types who liked their drink, smoothly took it from him and got up to make coffee instead.
"If you thought that was funny, Dr. Bennet, you don't need any more of that stuff to drink. Besides, you have those precious children to drive home tonight."
"Indeed I do," he agreed. "But won't you call me Tom? I've been calling you Diana all evening."
"Why, thank you, Tom. While that coffee's brewing, let me finish telling you about the colonel." The colonel in question rolled his eyes, but he let her continue.
"We'll never know how he managed to get the general on the phone directly, instead of one her own staff...and after he managed to tick her off royally, she started looking around for the smallest, scrappiest sergeant she could find."
"Surely, not you!"
"Oh, yes! I had been grounded down in Alabama for picking fights with guys ten times my height and weight - I was a helicopter pilot, believe it or not - and the doctors down there were tired of having to patch people up after I finished with them."
"They called her Diane Perish," the colonel dryly interjected. "And it fit."
"Anyway, I had come to the general's attention, and she sent me to Fort Benning to the colonel. I arrived a day early, wanted to get the lay of the land, and made an appearance in the colonel's office in civilian clothes. He thought I was someone's kid."
"And today you look like a teenager," he told her.
"Thanks. I think. I'll admit I gave him hell that day, especially when he told me to go outside and play!"
The colonel chuckled. "It didn't sit too well with her. She and the rest of my staff made my life miserable for about six months, until I apologized for that and numerous other offenses. Then everything went like clockwork."
Diana snorted. "Or so we made you think, anyway. Well, time for bed. I need to be up early in the morning so I can call the mechanic. Say goodbye to the children for me, please, Tom, and it was a pleasure meeting you, as well."
To her surprise, Dr. Bennet had stood when she did, and he took her proferred hand and kissed it. "May we meet again soon, lovely Diana."
It pleased her to see the colonel scowl, but she didn't linger. It had been a long day.
Georgie Bailey picked up her cell phone and dialed a familiar number.
"Twin Oaks Inn."
Richard sounded exhausted, and Georgie immediately felt guilty.
"Are you OK? How did it go? Are you still alive?"
"Georgie Girl? I can't imagine Alex is happy with you trying to check up on me on the first full day of your marriage," he replied with some asperity.
Georgie only giggled. "Alex loves me, so I can do no wrong. Not yet, anyway!"
"Where are you?" Alex had kept the honeymoon plans so close to his chest, not even Georgie had known where they were headed. Now she snorted.
"Typical Alex...we're in Florida City. In the Everglades. It's August, it's hot, and there are mosquitoes everywhere!"
"Which is precisely why you are there, right?" Alex was Dr. Alex Bailey, entomologist and head of his own research laboratory.
"Right. I can't complain too much, though. He's taking me to The Breakers in Palm Beach tomorrow for a couple of days, and then I want to go to Disney World."
"So, what are you doing?"
There was a long pause, and then Georgie laughed out loud. "If you have to ask, Richard, you are more naive than I thought!" She covered her phone, but he could hear her say something, and then he heard a loud shout of laughter.
"I'm glad I'm so amusing," he said dryly.
"And how is Spit? Have you checked on him yet? Have you had time?"
"The twins were here today, and I sent them over to keep him entertained, and to check his food and water. Then he got up in a tree, and Diana had to get him down..."
"Diana?" Georgie pounced on the name. Now that was interesting. Something about a Diana niggled in her brain, but she couldn't think too clearly. Alex was nuzzling her neck.
"A guest at the inn. And my old sergeant."
Ohhhhhhh, that Diana. "That's nice." She wasn't sure if she was talking about Alex's nuzzling, which had gone further south, or Richard's old flame hanging out at the inn. "I just wanted to let you know that we will be home Thursday afternoon," and she gasped, because Alex...well... "because Alex has a meeting he can't get out of...hmmm...on Friday. Hang in there...baby...and I will call when I get in."
It appeared that Will had given his new brother-in-law advice on how to keep phone conversations to a minimum.
"OK. Take care, Georgie Girl. And tell Alex to keep it down. I can hear him all the way up here in Connecticut."
Georgie laughed once more, but as soon as she was able, which was not as soon as she had planned due to Alex's ministrations, she called her friend Maria Lucas and gave her an interesting piece of news.
Long after the doctor and his children had left, Diana had gone to bed and the other guests had retired to their rooms, Richard sat in the parlor, his feet on the coffee table, the second bottle of champagne by his side.
Why the hell had she shown up now, just when he thought he was over her? Of all the women on his staff - and he'd had plenty, the general had seen to that - she was the one he had relied on the most. She was the one he had always turned to when he needed something, and, despite their shaky beginning, she had never let him down. He had completely mucked that up, of course, the night of his retirement party.
The men and women under his command had gone to a lot of trouble to rent conference rooms at a local hotel, and had even set him up in a suite for the night, in case he was too wasted to drive back to the base. Which turned out to be prophetic. He remembered dancing with Diana, and then passing out somewhere, and when he woke the next morning, he was in bed, in the suite, naked, with Diana by his side. There was no one else around. He didn't even remember what happened between the two of them, but the circumstantial evidence that next morning was damning.
He managed to get out of there without waking her up, asked the hotel staff to bill him for another night, so she could stay there as long as she needed, and left. He hadn't seen her again until today.
He knew he had managed it badly, and had been embarrassed for her that morning, but when he woke up and realized just how wonderful it had felt, having her by his side, he had gotten scared, and he ran.
So much water under the bridge...
He got up, took the champagne, which he hadn't even touched, to the kitchen sinks and poured it down the drain.
At least she would get her car fixed sometime tomorrow, and then be on her way. She would forget all about him. The problem was, would he be able to forget about her?
Day 2 (Monday)
Diana was up with the dawn, dressed casually once more, and then realized it was much too early to call the shop where her car had been towed. But she couldn't just ramble around her suite, either. She went downstairs and headed out the front door. Standing on the porch, she wondered what to do. It was not quite seven o'clock, and already it was getting warm. Maybe she would go for a walk.
"Always up with the sun, aren't you?" The colonel's rumbly voice came from the porch swing, and Diana turned in his direction.
Really, the man was much too handsome as it was to look so downright delectable this early in the morning! He was wearing another polo shirt, this time in hunter green, and tanned legs covered in dark hair stuck out from a pair of khaki shorts. He was unshod, and his lean feet had long toes and neatly trimmed nails. A pair of deck shoes sat idly under the swing. He was also holding two cups of coffee.
"I knew you would be looking for some of this," he added, handing her one of the steaming mugs. "I can't believe you've changed all that much."
"Thanks. No, I still need caffeine in the morning."
"I'm glad to hear some things never change. How about some breakfast? I'm not serving a hot meal this morning, so it's only along the lines of fruit, cereal and bagels, but I can offer some of Georgie's homemade strawberry jam."
"I thought you were the chef?"
"I am. But she takes care of those little homemade touches, and she makes the world's best fruit pies."
"Well, I am hungry..."
"Come on, let's see what we can find for you." Slipping into his shoes, he led her indoors.
"What do you mean the car won't be ready until Wednesday?" Richard heard Diana shout into the phone at the front desk an hour later. He didn't realize he had been holding his breath until she raised her voice at the mechanic, but now he let it out in a relieved whoosh. He realized last night he didn't want her to go, and this was the best that could happen, short of locking her in her room.
"Can you believe that?" She had marched into his office behind the counter, the little office that had once been a couple of closets.
"What?" He made his voice sound as if he had not been listening in on the conversation.
"The car is going to take until Wednesday to fix. They have to send to Boston for parts. Maybe they can give me a lift up there when they go to pick them up. Now I have to rent a car, and then I have to come back here and wait." She made it sound like a fate worse than death.
"I will be glad to keep your suite for you while you are in Boston. As for a ride, Dr. Bennet and his children will be driving up there tomorrow, to visit his soon-to-be ex-wife. Would you like me to call him and ask if he will drive you, as well? How long is your appointment, and will you be able to accomplish it in a few hours?"
"What business is it of yours?" she demanded. Really, he wasn't her boss anymore.
"I need to know for the doctor..."
"I'll call him right now, and ask." He sounded so calm and cool, even to his ears, and she was hard-pressed not to accept.
He got the doctor on his cell phone and quickly explained the situation. It took him a few moments, but he was smiling.
"He says he can pick you up at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning. Is that OK with you?"
Now Diana was smiling. "That will be fine."
"Do you need anything else?"
She shook her head, not wanting to be too beholden to him, but she wondered aloud what she should do with the rest of her day. Big mistake.
"I could use some help around here. With Georgie gone, there are beds to be made, bathrooms to be scrubbed, dishes to be washed..."
"What had you planned to do if I weren't here to help?"
"I was going to do it all myself. However..."
"Where do you keep the supplies?"
He grinned far too smugly, as if he had planned this all along.
"Let me show you."
"OK, but don't get too comfortable, Sultan," she added, unconsciously using one of his old Army nicknames. "Yesterday's work was on the house, but I expect to get paid for scrubbing latrines."
"I will be glad to pay you, or you can consider your room and board covered."
She gasped. "Surely there is not that much work to do! That suite costs the earth! Don't you have a smaller room I can move into?"
His grin turned feral, and she wondered if he had been waiting for this moment.
"I have an apartment upstairs in the carriage house you are more than welcome to move into. I'll be spending the nights here, to keep an eye on the place, so it will be empty the rest of the week."
She thought about that for a moment. "I'll have it all to myself?"
"Not unless you want to keep Spit there, too."
"OK. I'll move in right now, and then clean my suite first, while I wait for the other guests to vacate their rooms."
"Good. And make as much noise as you can, will you? The people in the room next to you are so obnoxious, I don't want them to be too comfortable."
Richard gave Diana Georgie's keys and told her to make herself at home. So she went upstairs and packed, and hauled everything out through the kitchen door in one trip, taking it across the small garden behind the house and over the gravel drive to the carriage house. The colonel said the apartment was upstairs, so she opened a door, took the stairs leading up, and found herself in a tiny living/dining room.
There were also two hole-in-the-wall bedrooms, a minuscule kitchen and a bathroom with a shower. That was it. Her biggest question, of course, was where to sleep. Feeling like Goldilocks, she sat down on the couch, not really certain she should be sleeping in either bedroom.
But the couch was rather lumpy, and narrow, so she moved into the more feminine bedroom and stretched out on the bed. Nice, and not too firm, but it was one of the few rooms in the apartment with a large window, and she thought the way the sunlight came in that it would be rather annoying to the sleeper.
Moving to the other room, which was spartanly furnished and could only be the colonel's personal space - the tightly-made bedcovers reminded her of boot camp - she sat down gingerly on the bed. This room would be ideal, because she liked to sleep in almost total darkness, and the bed was comfortable, too, large enough to accommodate someone of the colonel's size and then some, taking up most of the space. She went back to the living area for her bags, and placed them in his room.
He watched her move her belongings downstairs and out through the kitchen, and when she had settled in, she reported back to the office for further instructions.
"Where do I find the housekeeping supplies? And where is the laundry room?"
"Supplies are in a closet on the second floor, and the laundry room is on the first floor of the carriage house. The keys to both are on that ring. Feel free to ask as many questions as you like. I'll be shuttling back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen."
"Roger that." She gave him a smart salute and a cheeky grin, and started up the stairs.
He glimpsed her from time to time over the next couple of hours, and while he was on the phone with the Meryton Observer, placing an ad for kitchen help, he was sure that mountain of white sheets heading out the back door included her.
"All ready for inspection, sir," she reported at eleven.
"No time for that now," he said rather testily from the heat of the kitchen. "Can you finish setting up the dining room for lunch? I don't know where the hell Candy is!"
"OK." She disappeared once more, without a murmur, and he made a mental note to apologize as soon as he could. On the other hand, he got a warm, fuzzy feeling that they had slipped back into their old working roles, and she had always had a sixth sense when it came to his temper. It was if she could tell if his anger was directed personally at her, or not. If she wasn't his target, she tended to ignore his anger and keep on at her work. Like now, when he was really angry at Candy.
"Diners coming in," she told him a while later.
"How are you at waiting tables?"
"I've been known to keep the food on plates and out of customers' laps. Why?"
"I just saw Candy and she doesn't look well. I thought a couple of extra hands would keep her from being so overwhelmed. The dining room is booked solid for lunch."
"If she is coming down with something, maybe she should go home."
"I don't think it's illness. She seems more nervous than anything."
"You poor man." Diana clicked her tongue in mock sympathy.
"You're almost too nice for a guy. Where did you get all that sensitivity training?"
"In the Army," he dryly replied.
"Who knew?" she asked with a smirk.
After Candy's third spill, right in the middle of the lunch rush, Diana couldn't stand it any longer and she pulled the younger, taller girl aside.
"Are you OK, honey?" Diana would never, ever address one of her "sisters," as she called her three closest former co-workers, as "honey." They'd kick her a**. But it seemed to open a flood of tears on Candy's part.
"Oh, dear," Diana moaned. She was not very good at the whole touchy-feely, girlie thing, and wasn't quite sure what to do. Fortunately, Candy took matters into her own hands and began to blurt out boyfriend woes. Diana was grinning broadly by the time Candy had told her exactly why she and her boyfriend had had a fight.
"...I told him there was no need to be jealous of Colonel Fitzwilliam, but he didn't believe me, he just didn't believe me!" the blonde wailed. "Why won't he believe me?"
Diana schooled her mirthful look into one of sympathy just as Candy looked her in the eye.
"Maybe it would help if this..." she gestured, as if searching for the boyfriend's name.
"Dwayne," Candy supplied.
"...Dwayne came down here one night and had dinner. Then he could see just how 'hands off' the colonel is with his waitstaff."
"Think about it. Above all, the colonel is a gentleman. He hasn't done anything inappropriate yet, has he?"
"Let me tell you a story. It'll be quick...The colonel's driver and I had gone to the officer's club to pick him up one night, and the driver, a very tall, beautiful black woman, got into a fight with two extremely pi-, er, drunk captains who took exception to the fact that she was a different race than they were. While she was in the process of physically convincing them otherwise, the colonel appeared."
Candy's eyes were round as she listened to the tale. "What did he do?"
"He kicked the crap out of them and told them to go home and sleep it off. They tried to press charges, but he slapped them with reprimands concerning racial and sexual issues, and they backed down. So you can see, he doesn't put up with that kind of nonsense. OK?"
Diana patted Candy awkwardly on the shoulder and steered her back to the dining room to get on with the job. Only one thing bothered her as she watched the colonel seat a couple at one of her designated tables. How did that girl manage to cry and look as if she had never shed a tear? A bit disgruntled at that thought, she went back to work.
"Table for two, please."
Diana was the hostess that evening, clearing tables, too, while Richard cooked and Candy waited on the guests. She looked up from the lecturn where the seating chart was kept and saw a familiar face staring at her.
"Denny? Sgt. Denny James, how the hell are ya?"
The two hugged and slapped each other on the back, much to the delight of the burgundy-haired woman, dressed all in black, at his side.
"Diana - this is my fiancee, Maria Lucas. Maria, meet the best damn security expert and organizer in the whole damn army - Diana Forrester!
"I'm so pleased to meet you!" Maria said. "Denny has told me so much about you!"
"A pleasure to meet you, too, Miss Lucas."
"Oh, it's just Maria."
"OK, Maria. And I'm Diana, please. May I show you to a table?"
"You work here now?" Denny exclaimed, wanting to ask her more about it, but a warning look from Maria shut him up.
"Long story, really, but tonight I do. I'm heading up to Boston tomorrow morning for an appointment and my car, which is in the shop, should be ready on Wednesday to drive back to New Jersey."
"How is your family doing without you while you are delayed?" Maria wondered.
"Well, I'm single, and I have no pets or children, so it's not that big a deal."
Maria hid a triumphant smile. "Perhaps we can go out to dinner together tomorrow evening," she asked. "Before you go home."
"May I call you tomorrow afternoon? I don't know when I'll return from Boston; it depends on my ride."
"Aren't you renting a car?"
"Dr. Bennet has offered to take me," was all she said.
Denny and Maria exchanged glances as Diana sat them at a good table.
"Candy will be your server tonight. Don't run off later, though, without giving me your number."
After dinner, Denny and Maria found her at the big table in the kitchen with her feet propped up on another chair. Richard sat across from her, nursing a cup of coffee.
"All set?" Diana asked, bringing her feet down. "Do you two know the colonel?"
Richard laughed. "We're practically related! Denny works for Alex Bailey, Georgie's new husband, and Maria and Georgie went to school together."
"Here's my cell number." Maria handed a business card to Diana, and she nodded.
"As I am traveling with the doctor and his kids, and they have to stop to see his ex-wife, I don't know how long it will be. If nothing else, maybe you two can come by and have a drink? I'm staying in the carriage house apartment - we can meet there, if you like."
Maria and Denny exchanged another glance that did not go unnoticed by Richard.
"We'll say goodnight, then," Denny told her. "Until tomorrow."
"I'll walk you to your car," Richard told them.
"Oh, no need, Richard," Maria protested.
"There is every need..."
"OK, you two, spill it!" Richard demanded as he stood in the parking lot with Denny and Maria. Maria was digging for her keys, leaving Denny to face the colonel.
"Spill what?" he said innocently.
"How soon are you to report back to Georgie?" he asked Maria.
"As soon as we...um...Georgie? Who said anything about Georgie?"
"Now come on, you two! I know my cousin and I know how she is when she wants some information. My only consolation is that Will and Lizzy are out of town. Otherwise..."
"Colonel?" Diana called from the front porch. "There's someone named William on the line, he says it's long distance."
Richard sighed and let Denny and Maria go. Georgie was small potatoes compared to her brother.
"Maria? It's Georgie. Did you go to the inn?"
"For supper. Oh, Georgie, Diana is very cute - she's tiny, not much more than five feet tall, and has short auburn curls and the most amazing green-gray eyes. Oh, and she uses four-letter words in almost every sentence, and she's staying in the carriage house!"
"What?" Georgie yelped. "Wow! She works fast! In other words, though, she's perfect?"
Georgie gave a sigh of pure contentment.
"Having a good time, are we?"
"Actually, that sigh was for Richard." She sighed again. "This one is for the huge tub I'm in, up to my earlobes in bubbles."
"You aren't alone, are you?" Maria was aghast.
"I didn't say that," Georgie said with a smirk. "So I'll make this quick. What else is going on?"
Maria told her how Diana's car had broken down, how she was working at the inn and how the doctor was to drive her to Boston the next day.
"Oh, no, no, no, no, no! He can't! I mean, what if she falls for the doctor? He's nice and all," she amended, "but she's not the one for him!"
"I doubt much will happen. He's taking the children to see their mother..."
Georgie let that sink in a moment.
"That's OK, then," she said brightly. "The children are lovely, but no one in their right mind would get involved with a man who has an ex-wife like his!"
Day 3 (Tuesday)
Author's note: As usual, there is a suggestion of strong language.
Georgiana Bailey was going to die.
Richard told himself this over and over and over again for the two hours it took him to open the kitchen, cook and serve breakfast, see Diana off with the Bennets, and clean up. Then he had time to think about the discussion with his other cousin the evening before.
"Richard! Who was that sexy-voiced female answering your phone?"
"Hello, Lizzie. I thought Will was calling."
"He was, but when he told me who answered the phone, I just had to say hi."
"You spoke to her?" Richard was startled.
"Not much, but I would like to. I hope she will still be there when we get home..."
"I don't think that is likely," he stiffly replied. "How is the cruise?"
"We're in Bermuda. Thank goodness. The nausea was getting to me."
"Sea sickness or morning sickness?"
"Not me! Let's just say Will is not a very good sailor. Serves him right, though, telling me all those months of morning, noon and night sickness were just in my head! See if I ever marry another doctor!" She made a funny noise and Richard imagined she was sticking her tongue out at her husband. "Here's Will!"
"Hi, sailor!" Richard breathed into the phone, making Will laugh.
"Evidently not! Now, tell me about the lady you are keeping company with at the inn!"
"I am not keeping company with her!" Richard said through clenched teeth. "She is - was - a paying guest who just happens to be my former sergeant, Diana Forrester."
"Forrester?" Will choked. "Forrester is a female? You never told me Forrester was a woman!" He went off into whoops of laughter, and Lizzie took the phone once more.
"Ignore him. Tell me her name again?"
"Diana, and she is a guest at the inn and an old friend from the army."
"She sounds lovely."
"She is. Tomorrow she is going to Boston with your dad and the twins, for a business appointment she was on her way to when her car broke down, and Wednesday she is getting her car back and leaving for New Jersey." He knew he sounded sad, but with Lizzie, it was OK to say these things.
"I see. Well, take care of yourself. I'll give laughing boy a quick kick in the rear for you, and we will be home Sunday afternoon."
"Have you heard from Georgie?" he asked quickly, before she could hang up.
"Oh, yes!" Lizzie's voice was very cheerful. "Who do you think told us about your lady friend in the first place?"
Diana, looking cool and professional in a navy blue business suit with mint green blouse, had her briefcase, had left numbers with the colonel in case of emergency, had been tucked into the doctor's comfortable Lexus and was speeding down the highway with him and his children.
"While we are on the road, won't you tell me more about you and Richard in the Army? The colonel is incredibly close-mouthed about that entire chapter of his life." The doctor glanced in the rear-view mirror to check on the kids, who were absorbed in hand-held electronic games, headphones on their ears.
"I'm no gossip..."
"I never said you were. Tell me more about how Richard crossed the general and came to acquire you." His query was quietly said, designed to draw information out a patient. Or a driving companion.
Diana laughed. She could see where this man would be a successful doctor, if this was his bedside manner. "I'm not the only one he acquired. The general gave me explicit instructions when it came to choosing the colonel's staff. She was very angry, and I had little choice but to follow her orders. That's how we ended up with Shanti as his driver."
"The most beautiful woman on the face of the planet. As proud as an African princess, she's even taller than the colonel. She insisted on driving him around in a canvas-top Hummer - only with the top down, in all sorts of weather."
The doctor chuckled. "Richard hates the cold..."
"Exactly! And Georgia can get fairly cold, too."
"But Richard was her commanding officer...couldn't he..."
"We weren't exactly in his good graces, not at first, anyway. There were four of us, and we managed to make him a laughingstock, by appearance alone. Shanti Williams was an Amazon; Private First Class Bunny Olsen was a tall, buxom girl of Swedish descent in charge of information systems; and Kimi Shiga was his administrative assistant, a delicate Hawaiian flower of Oriental lineage who stands a hair taller than myself. She looks like a gentle breeze will blow her away.
"The colonel, tired of the Fitz's Harem jokes going around the base, had us all go with him to the gym because he thought it would be a good joke to put us in our places. Until he had to pick himself off the mat a couple of times. Kimi is a black belt in karate, and Bunny used to be a gymnast before she got too tall. Shanti learned street fighting at her mother's knee, and while I am never going to be able to throw him over my shoulder, I kicked his a** on the firing range more than once.
"It took him about six months to start taking us all seriously and let us do our jobs, and then we all got along just fine. Even the Colonel Studmuffin jokes died down after awhile..."
The doctor started to cough, as if he had swallowed the wrong way. "Colonel what?"
"Studmuffin. Shanti called him that all the time."
"So he finally earned your respect and then everyone left him alone?"
"Hell, no - excuse me. The rest of the base still thought he was pu- ummm, hen-pecked, but he got to the point where he didn't care what everyone else thought."
"Hmmm, I think Georgie should give you ladies medals. If he hadn't been such a feminist when he got out of the Army, Richard never would have invited her to go into business with him. Not as a full partner, anyway.
"Just doing our job."
Richard was in a foul mood. The Nutmeg Suite toilet was clogged again, there were four rooms to turn out before they were claimed that afternoon by more guests, and Candy had spent the lunch hour dropping more dishes. He was forced to scrub bathrooms while his waitress made a list of the dishes she had smashed and swept the remains into the trash.
He wished Diana was there. She could have been cleaning rooms and offering a sympathetic ear to Candy while he played plumber once more. For some reason, the thought of relying more and more on Diana did not seem to bother him.
"Boss man?" It was Tony, the relief chef.
"Tony?" He stopped wiping porcelain to give the man his whole attention.
"Ummm, I hate to do this to you, bud, but I gotta go. I got an offer to work in a restaurant in the city and it starts tonight, so I'm outta here."
"Outta here as in, 'I'll see you tomorrow?'" Richard wondered icily, "or 'I'm outta here forever, man'?"
The younger man was silent for a moment, giving Richard the answer he needed. "See ya 'round then," he said with a sigh, and went back to swiping down the two sinks in the communal bathroom without a backward glance.
Fortunately, an hour later, a Meryton College student answered his ad for doing kitchen prep work, and was hired on the spot for a week's trial. The kid seemed slow, but thorough, but he also made a pass at Candy, so Richard had to smooth that over, too.
Then there were more beds to make and guests to check out, and the obnoxious people in the Connecticut Suite had managed to break their toilet seat and put a big chocolate stain on the Oriental rug.
Coming back in the kitchen, he heard Candy wishing aloud that Diana was there.
"Who is Diana?" Gary, the new help, was not exactly in her good graces, despite an apology, but she answered anyway, not having anyone else to talk to.
"Diana is Colonel Fitzwilliam's girlfriend," she blithely replied.
Richard was about to disabuse her of that notion when his phone rang. It was Maria Lucas, wondering if Diana had returned yet, and could she have her cell phone number.
The colonel was not about to admit to Maria that he had already memorized Diana's number and had started to call it several times that day, so he pretended to have to go look it up in the office, thereby managing to avoid the rest of his employees' conversation.
Diana was, uncomfortably, sitting in Mrs. Bennet's expensive-looking Boston apartment, trying to watch TV with the twins while her "hostess," for lack of a better word, berated her soon-to-be-ex in another room. She tried to think about her earlier appointment, which had turned out to be exactly as she expected - the company she spoke with that day was going to have her overhaul its security system and protocol - but the walls of the apartment were anything but thick. She tried to tune out the shouting, just like Kit and Merry, but could not. Those poor kids...
"Just who do you think you are, bringing that, that, red-headed floozy here with you, Tom? With my children! How dare you! We aren't even divorced and you flaunt that, that, fancy piece of yours right in front of me!" A low rumble meant Dr. Bennet was trying to explain, but it seemed to no avail.
The woman screeched on and on, and Diana wondered if she would be able to take any more of it, when she felt someone put their hand in hers. Looking down, she saw where Kit had crawled over from his spot on the floor to her side.
"It's OK, Diana," he whispered.
"Yeah," Merry added, coming over and sitting herself in Diana's lap. "She does this all the time, it doesn't mean anything."
Diana, tears in her eyes, smiled at the children and suggested that when they were done here, it would definitely be time to find some ice cream. The children cheered softly, gave her a quick hug and then dove back to their places in front of the TV just as footsteps were heard in the hall.
"All ready?" the doctor said too cheerfully. "We have a drive ahead of us, don't we?" Mrs. Bennet was nowhere to be seen, and Diana quickly grabbed her purse, eager to leave. The twins were almost as fast as she was, but she still beat them to the door. However, before they could scoot past her, she held up a hand.
"You may not be happy to be here, guys, but she is still your mom. I suggest you at least tell her goodbye."
Merry, the ringleader, seemed to agree, because she nodded and ran into the other room. Kit hesitated only slightly before following his sister.
"Thank you," Dr. Bennet told her. Before she could reply, the kids returned and they all went out for ice cream, relieved to have that over with. The children, however, were very revealing once they stopped for their snack.
"Lizzie is more like our mom, really," Merry said out of the blue, letting her cone drip over her hand a little, while Kit was temporarily mute, shoveling his sundae in as fast as he could manage. "But our mom isn't Lizzie's mom..."
"Really?" She looked at Dr. Bennet for confirmation.
"Lizzie's mom died, and I remarried, and now I have Merry and Kit, too."
"And Lydia," Merry added.
"Who is Lydia?"
"She's our sister, too. But our mom is her mom."
"I see. Where is Lydia now?"
"Somewhere," Merry said with a shrug. "She doesn't like us, but we don't care, 'cause we don't like her, either. Sorry, dad," she added with a look from the doctor.
"And Will is our second dad, 'cause he's married to Lizzie." Kit, having finished his sundae in record time, was eager to join the conversation. Next to his dad, Will was the best guy in the whole world.
"Don't forget Charles! And Richard!" Merry told her brother, not to be outdone. "And Alex!"
"Yeah, Alex is cool," Kit agreed. "He likes bugs!" Merry made a face at the mention of bugs.
"Charles and Will share a medical practice," the doctor told Diana, who was beginning to become confused by all these names, only some of which she had heard in passing over the last couple of days. "Jane is Charles' wife, and they have three children, Maddy, Aaron and Grace. Alex is Georgie's new husband, and Richard, of course, you know."
"That is some family!" Diana exclaimed. She worried less about the children then she had earlier. It sounded as if they had a large support system in place. It must be lovely to have such an extended family, she told them.
"We would not be adverse to adding several more to the fold," the doctor told her with a wink. "And a consulting business could be operated from Connecticut just as easily as it is from New Jersey...
Richard was so happy to see Diana walk through the back door around supper time, he almost pulled her into his arms and kissed her. Almost. The fact that the doctor and twins were right behind her was a deterrent, as was the way the doctor had a proprietary hand on Diana's back, and was propelling her toward the dining room.
"Hello, sir..." Diana called over her shoulder as she was ushered into the other room. "We're all having dinner together," she added unnecessarily.
"Yeah, I see that," he said softly, extremely jealous, even though he knew he had no right to be. If he had wanted the lady, he had had his chance four years before. It was probably too late now, even if the doctor had not been here to sweep her off her feet.
Depressed, he went back to work, pausing only when his cell phone rang.
"Richard? It's Maria. Have you seen Diana? I tried to reach her phone earlier, but it was turned off..."
"She is back, but is somewhat busy at the moment," he told her, not wanting to admit that she was busy with the doctor and his children. "I recall her inviting you and Denny for a drink. Why don't you drop by in an hour or so. She should be free then."
Diana and the Bennets showed back up in the kitchen just as Richard and his new assistant were done with cooking for the night. All but the cleaning up had been accomplished, but even as Richard put on a fresh apron in which to finish the dishes, waving to Gary as he left, Merry ran up to him and gave him a big hug.
"Richard! I didn't know you had another name."
"I have several names, Miss Meredith, just as you do. Richard Arthur Blake Fitzwilliam, to be exact. Why do you ask?"
"Oh." Merry began to pout. "I heard your name is Colonel Studmuffin!"
Taken aback, Richard could only stare at the little girl.
"Merry!" Diana gasped. "Where did you hear that from?"
"You, Diana," she replied, somewhat confused. "You told dad this morning in the car. Maybe I didn't hear you right. I had my earphones on, but they kept slipping down. Richard, is it true that Diana used to kick your a** on the firing range?"
Dr. Bennet cleared his throat. "I think it's time I took these two home."
"I think so, too," the colonel agreed, frost in his voice. Diana avoided looking at him, walked the Bennets to the door and gave the doctor a kiss on the cheek as she thanked him for the ride.
"My pleasure, Diana. We will see you soon." Giving her a kiss in return, the doctor nodded to the colonel without making eye contact, and they left.
"I'll wash up for you," Diana mumbled as she came back to where the colonel was still standing. Picking up an apron, she tied it on and headed to the alcove that held the commercial dishwasher and a large utility sink full of pots.
"So, you've been discussing me with your new friends, have you?" Richard asked, having followed her into the alcove.
Diana jumped three feet, but ignored him and began to load the washer.
"And had you considered, Miss Forrester, that I might have stories to tell, as well?"
She gasped and turned in his direction. "You wouldn't!"
"Wouldn't I? Do you remember the night we had to sit out on the airstrip and wait for the general's plane together? That damn Shanti left the top down and then disappeared, we couldn't get it back up, were alone for about an hour, froze our butts off and had to hold each other just to keep warm? And you admitted that you always wanted me to kiss you? Hmmmm?"
Diana's cheeks flamed. "You promised you would never speak of that night!"
"Oh, come now, Diana. Gary has just left and Candy is gone, and we are alone. I believe my promise was never to tell anyone else. Even Shanti, to this day, has no idea. Or does she..." He gave her a steely gaze that had her mesmerized.
"No...no," she admitted, turning her head away. "I never told Shanti or any of the others."
"I never kissed you, either," he mused. "Yet you let a stranger of two days' acquaintance kiss you!"
"It was a friendly gesture!" she insisted. "Like a handshake!"
"A handshake, she says! If you want to be kissed, why don't you just ask me? I would be more than glad to oblige!"
"Oh, you would, would you?" She cried, incensed now.
"Yes, I would!" he shouted. Without another word, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. It wasn't a friendly kiss, and it wasn't gentle, either. He kissed her hard, all the pent-up feelings he had felt for her since her arrival put into the pressure he put on her lips. It was also a kiss of short duration, and when he released her, they were both breathing heavily.
Before he could do anything further, though, she reached up and slapped him soundly on the upper portion of his neck. She couldn't reach any higher.
"Damn you, Fitzwilliam! If you had wanted to kiss me, why didn't you do it that night we spent together at the hotel? You might have done a lot of things that evening, but I damn well know you didn't kiss me!" The colonel was silent. "Well? Think about it, and when you have an answer, please let me know!"
She quickly untied the apron, threw it at him and then stormed off to the carriage house.
He waited until she left the room, then sat down on a kitchen chair. He'd never kissed her? What else did he do, though? Didn't she remember? He sure as hell didn't.
The worst of it was, now he had to apologize for something he didn't do, and he had to do it without admitting he hadn't a clue as to what really happened!
"I need a drink," he mumbled, and went in search of the bottle of scotch he kept in the office.
"Well, what?" Maria had already gone to bed, and was not expecting a call from Georgie. She was groggy when she answered the phone.
"What's going on? Did you go to see Diana?"
"Yeah, we went, for all the good it did."
"What? Tell me, tell me! Yes, Alex, I'm coming to bed," Maria heard Georgie call. "Just a minute!"
"Well, we went to the inn and Richard, very coldly, I might add, told us we would find - and these are his words, not mine - that 'infuriating vixen' in the carriage house. He had been drinking, too. I could smell scotch on his breath." Maria was clearly put out, but Georgie only crowed with delight.
"Oh, this is wonderful! Oh, he must be in deep to react like that. He is the most stoic person I know, next to Will, and he rarely gets out his bottle of the hard stuff. I wonder what happened?"
"Well, the only outward sign I could see was a huge red spot on his neck."
"Like a hickey?" Georgie asked breathlessly.
"Like someone had smacked him. There were fingerprint marks."
"Well, well, well. And what about Diana? How did she act?"
"She was upset about something, but she wouldn't go into any detail. We had a drink and went home, although we have her New Jersey address and phone number. Her car will be ready tomorrow, and she plans on leaving then."
"Oh, dear. Let me think about this - there must be something we can do to get these two together again. I'll call you later this week."
Maria agreed, and they hung up.
Day 4 (Wednesday)
"What do you mean the car won't be ready until Saturday?" Diana shouted into the phone. "You said it would be ready by Wednesday! Today is Wednesday! I want my car!" Somewhere, a baby wailed, and it was beginning to get on Diana's nerves. "What do you mean, the part is not here? If I can go to Boston and back in one day, you can damn well do the same!" The baby's cries became louder. "Would someone please shut that baby up!" she screamed, bringing Richard, whom she was trying to avoid, running to the front of the inn.
"Where is that baby crying at?" he wondered. There were no infants staying at the inn, that he recalled.
Diana hung the phone up on the mechanic with a bang and cocked her head. Where in the world was that crying coming from? Ahhh, the porch. Perhaps a mother had taken her baby outside, to keep from waking others...
She stalked out onto the porch and almost tripped over a baby carrier that contained a squawling baby, a blanket and a note.
"What the-?" Richard exclaimed, coming outside behind her.
"Don't touch anything!" Diana commanded, taking in the situation at once. "Get me a pair of gloves, will you?"
He went to do as she bid, the disposable gloves being kept in with the housekeeping supplies. Once he returned and she donned the gloves, she knelt down for the note, which was not in an envelope, and jiggled the carrier to calm the baby while she read aloud:
I remember the day we met at the park and I knew then you deserve this baby more than I. I'm not fit to take care of myself, let alone a child. You seem like a nice, deserving person. Please take my little Sabrina into your home and your heart and be her mother - the mother I could never be.
"Lydia? Oh, no!" Richard ran to the front desk phone, dialled 911 and reported the abandonment, and then took the cell phone from his shorts pocket and dialed another number.
"Tom? It's Richard. There has been a baby left on the doorstep of the inn. Yes, I'm on the phone with 911 right now, but I think its going to need a doctor to...wait. Diana?" he called. Still wearing the gloves, but now carrying the baby in her arms, she stepped back indoors.
"Yes? Look! She just needed to be picked up!" The baby, who was indeed a girl, had snuggled down into Diana's arms and was quiet, but alert.
"It's a girl," he told his cell phone. "Yes, there was a note. Tom, the baby was left for Georgie by name, and although there is no last name, the note was signed Lydia. I thought you might. See you shortly."
The incident of the evening before seemed to have been forgotten in light of the abandoned baby. A couple of diapers had been tucked down into the carrier, and after being changed, Sabrina was now back in it and fast asleep. Diana worried, though, about what to do when she woke and needed to be fed.
Richard, wearing another pair of gloves, had put the note in a plastic bag and moved the carrier into the kitchen, where the two of them found themselves side by side, watching the sleeping infant.
"My car isn't ready yet. Might I stay a few more days? If you are allowed to keep this little angel, I can stay and help. My cousin has young ones that I've helped with over the past couple of years, so experience is not a problem."
"Of course, you can stay!" Richard said a little too anxiously. He turned to look down at her. "I'm sorry about last night. I didn't mean to...I was so..."
"Jealous of the doctor?" There - she'd admitted it for him. He could only nod.
Diana put a hand on his arm and looked up into his brilliant blue eyes.
"You should know by now, Richard," she whispered, daring to say his name out loud for the first time in her life, "that there is only one person I'm interested in." Have been for years, she silently added.
Having put the baby's carrier in a quiet corner of the kitchen, she went into the dining room without another word and began to set everything up for breakfast. She was still in there, serving the cold breakfast Richard had decided was all he was going to have time to offer his guests, when the police arrived.
"Officer Parker would like to have a word with you when you are done," the colonel told her at one point, and she suggested the men have a cup of coffee while they waited. They were settled at a table in the dining room, and Richard had just returned to the kitchen, when Diana heard the baby begin to wail. She flew into the kitchen and retrieved her from the carrier.
"I'm not sure what to feed her though," she admitted after determining that the baby did not need to be changed, and therefore must be hungry. "We'll just have to wait for Tom to get here and check her out. Is the Lydia in the note the same as the Lydia who is his stepdaughter?"
"You've heard about her, then?" he wondered.
"From the twins. I wonder why she chose Georgie to take her baby?"
"I have no idea," the doctor admitted, coming into the kitchen at the tail end of her supposition. "As far as I know, they've only met once, briefly, late last year when Lizzie and Will got married."
"Richard," Diana suggested, "will you please ask the officers to come into the kitchen now? I believe everyone is fairly settled with breakfast. I'll bus the tables later." Now that she had finally dared use the colonel's first name, she found she liked it. There was something intimate about it to her, despite the fact that even the twins called him by his first name. Where were the children, anyway, she wondered of the doctor, who was examining his possible step-grandchild.
"I left them with Mrs. Reynolds, at the farm. She's the Darcy's housekeeper."
"Good idea," Richard agreed, coming back in with the policemen. The phone rang and he excused himself to answer it.
"Well, she looks healthy enough. A little undernourished, but that is easily remedied," the doctor told Diana and the officers, one of whom was taking down this information. "She appears to be about a month old. I'll write out a list of formulas to try, because I don't know what she might have a reaction to. Try this first," he said, taking a little notebook and pen out of his breast pocket and writing down a brand name Diana recognized, "and go from there. If the mother of this little sweetheart is our Lydia, I doubt she had the benefit of breast milk."
Richard, coming back into the kitchen, nodded in agreement and took the baby from the doctor.
"Diana has graciously agreed to stay a few more days, courtesy of the Meryton Garage, but she's going to want to rent a car and head home to New Jersey when she hears my news."
Diana, distracted by Richard as he unconsciously cuddled Sabrina to his chest, snapped out of her reverie. That the baby had quieted against him was not lost on her, either.
"It seems I - we, if you agree - are going to keep the Bingley kids for a couple of days. Their Aunt Louisa has caught a cold, and she's afraid they will catch it, too. I said OK - what's three more, and if they take our little angel away..." He left it hanging and looked at the officers.
Diana was quick to notice the look, and jumped into the fray. "I can't think why we cannot keep this one, at least until the mother is found. If you wish to check our credentials, the military security clearance on both myself and Colonel Fitzwilliam is available. No need to do a further background check than that, although I know you will wish to have Social Services send a caseworker out to check on her. Oh, and that note should be dusted for fingerprints. If this Lydia is Dr. Bennet's stepdaughter, we might have a way of tracking her, but if it is another Lydia..." She left it hanging, not willing to jeopardize her tenuous connection with the baby by antagonizing the police.
"Thank you, Miss Forrester. We called the station and you can keep the baby for now. She seems to be in good hands. Social Services has been notified, and they are the ones who decide if she goes or stays, so you'll have to deal with them on that." He made a face. "We'll take the note. Thanks for being careful with it. Here's our card, and we'll be in touch." They left, as did the doctor, who said he had to go to the hospital and check on one of Charles' patients.
"I'm shocked," Diana admitted. "I thought they would be here longer than that."
"Well," Richard admitted, "I did give them all our information while you served breakfast, and it helps to have a good reputation with the local force." He didn't add that he had known the police chief since childhood.
"Are you going to hold that baby all day?" she now asked, because the little one was still snuggled up on his chest. "Or are you going to do some work? I have to run to the store and get more diapers, some formula and bottles, and whatever else I see that I think she needs. Definitely more clothes."
"OK. I'll bus those tables, then, since my temporary help is running out on me to go shopping. Take the inn's van. The keys are in my top desk drawer. I'll give you some money, too, to cover the baby's expenses..."
"No, that's not necessary. I have plenty. I...I'd better go now, while she's asleep. You are going to need some of this stuff well before I get back."
The picture of him standing there, tenderly holding Sabrina, was seared in her brain. She needed to get out of there and clear her head.
If someone had told Diana even earlier that morning that she was going to shop for a newborn, and love it, she would have said they were nuts. However, she did enjoy herself, heading straight for Wal-Mart. She could do some one-stop shopping and get back as soon as possible. It would be too much to hope the baby would still be sleeping by time she got back, because Diana knew she would be crying with hunger very soon.
She ran back into the inn an hour later, laden down with a zillion plastic bags, and was glad she had hurried. Not only was Richard walking up and down with a howling baby, but a toddler was trying to get into the pantry, a little boy was helping her, and a little girl about five was sitting at the kitchen table, beating a tattoo on the chair with her sneakers. The Bingley children must have arrived.
"Let me warm up some of this formula," she hollered over the baby, and Richard nodded gratefully. "You might want to check on those two," she added, pointing to the kids in the pantry, who had found a couple of large cans and were trying to peel the labels off them.
"Maddy," Richard asked patiently, "will you please get your brother and sister out of the pantry? I'll get you all settled as soon as we feed this baby."
Madeline Bingley did as she was told just as Richard's cell phone started ringing.
"Georgie Girl, what in the...um...heck do you think you're doing, calling here all the time? Alex is going to divorce you if you don't spend some time with him." Mindful of the children, he checked his language just in time.
"What's that noise?" she said without preamble, ignoring his admonition.
"A baby, what do you think it is? Oh! The baby! Georgie, I'm glad you called. We had a baby left on the doorstep this morning."
"Actually, you had a baby left on the doorstep this morning," he clarified, grinning into the phone. Diana, having hastily warmed the bottle, took the baby from the colonel and began to feed the hungry little mite. She drank so greedily, they both stopped and stared at each other in amazement.
"When was she last fed?" Diana whispered.
"Knowing babies, it could have been an hour ago," he replied. "What, Georgie? Oh, we were just feeding the baby."
"We? Is Diana still there? I thought you two had a fight..."
"Georgiana Bailey, when I want you to know about my personal life," he said coldly, "I will tell you. That goes for Maria Lucas, too."
"OK, OK, I was just worried about you. All alone at the inn, no help, everything falling down around your ears..." she added dramatically and then made one of her mercurial thought shifts, this time toward the practical. "Now tell me about this baby on the doorstep and how you know it's for me."
"The note had your name on it, for one thing, and it was signed Lydia. We suppose that was Lydia Bennet, but are not sure. You only met her once, briefly, at Will and Lizzie's wedding, as far as we know. But the note says you met at the park."
"The park? The park! I remember! That was Lydia Bennet? It could have been, I suppose. All I remember is a pregnant woman who was very sad. She left her baby to me? Richard! Have you called the police? Dr. Bennet? I can't have a baby!" she wailed. "I just got married!"
"Calm down, Georgie. Diana and I have taken care of everything. The police have been and gone, and Dr. Bennet checked her out. She's fine, and Diana has been to the store for baby supplies. We've got the Bingley kids here, too, and Diana doesn't know it yet, but I'm bunking them all down in the carriage house with her."
"The kids, too! Richard, what is going on there?"
"Seems Louisa Hurst caught a cold, and she didn't want the kids to get sick."
"Probably so she wouldn't have to nurse them, more than anything," Georgie retorted. She had little use for either of Charles' sisters.
"Probably," Richard dryly agreed. "I'm going to get Spit and put him up in the apartment for the night, too," he added with a grin for a surprised Diana. "Might as well throw them all in together."
"I have a better idea. Why don't you put Diana and the kids up at my house. There is more room for them to run around in, the baby won't disturb anyone at the inn, and there are more places for Spit to hide from Aaron and Grace."
"I don't care what Will says about you, Georgie. You are a jewel."
"I know," she smugly agreed. "Alex says so, too."
Diana moved the children to Georgie's beautiful Victorian house next door, but was too busy helping Richard move everyone's belongings to appreciate the architecture or the furnishings. He didn't hang around, though, citing work at the inn as his reason for deserting her with four children and a cat.
Aaron and Grace, as predicted, began chasing the poor cat around the house, but gave up the chase once Spit ran upstairs and Diana barricaded the stairs. Diana promised herself she would make it up to Spit later, if there was a can of tuna hanging around the house.
Thinking of food, she brought the baby carrier into the kitchen, and she and Maddy began to hunt through the cupboards for something to eat, the little girl chatting as they tried to decide on the lunch menu.
"Georgie says Alex eats too much junk," she reported, just as Diana found the pantry, which was filled with a lot of convenience foods. Including canned ravioli and some tuna, which she set aside for the cat. Diana silently thanked Dr. Bailey for his predisposition towards such stuff as she pulled out more cans. No child in his right mind ever turned down Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, at least not in her experience. She often fed it to her cousin Alyson's five kids behind her back...
"Is that so?" she answered Maddy, much amused as she allowed the little girl to help set the table. "What else does Georgie say?"
"Not much. She's too busy kissing Alex. Yuck! Mommy kisses Daddy a lot, too, and Lizzie and Will are really mushy. Mommy says they should get a room, but I thought they already had one. Their house is really big. Merry has her own room, and so does Kit, and they both live there. Richard doesn't have a lady to kiss though, and that makes Mommy sad."
"Oh? Why?" She was beginning to enjoy the world according to Jane Bingley, as repeated by her daughter. Opening the cans, she spooned the ravioli carefully into a sauce pan.
"Because she says Richard either likes men or has a girlfriend we don't know about."
Diana looked down at the pint-sized town crier at her side and started to laugh. She made herself another mental note: Never discuss adult matters if there is even the slightest indication a Bennet or Bingley child might be listening.
Once they were fed, and the tomato sauce hosed off Aaron and Grace, Diana found a small bedroom on the first floor and settled the two younger Bingleys down on the bed's old-fashioned chenille bedspread for a nap. She sent Maddy upstairs with a plate of tuna for Spit, and then sat down to feed Sabrina, who had woken just as the kids nodded off to sleep. Maddy came back downstairs, telling her Georgie and Alex had filled the old nursery with toys, and asking if she could go back upstairs and play. Diana agreed, and had just settled the baby back down when the doorbell rang.
"Miss Diana Forrester?" The woman was tall and angular, with a beaky nose and a sour expression.
"Mrs. Hill, Social Services. I'm here for the baby."
Diana reluctantly let the woman in. She didn't like the look of her, nor the clipped tones she used when she spoke, but if she played her cards right, she might get to keep the baby, at least temporarily.
"Yes, please, come in."
"Nice home," the other lady said, glancing about. "Is it yours?"
"No, it belongs to friends of mine," she lied, hoping she liked the Baileys well enough if she ever got to meet them. "Georgie and Alex are on their honeymoon, and Colonel Fitzwilliam..."
"Yes, I've met the colonel." Diana looked for a softening of the lady's features; if anyone could charm this old bat, it would be Richard. Her features didn't change. "He told me as much as he could," she added with a sniff. "It wasn't much. Where is the baby?"
Diana led her over to where the carrier sat on the floor, under a low table for protection, the baby sleeping like an angel. The social worker knelt down and pulled the carrier out into the open. That's when Diana saw the woman's features begin to thaw. She liked babies!
"Has she been asleep long?" Mrs. Hill whispered. "I don't want to wake her, but I need to pick her up."
"Here, let me help," Diana offered, eager to show off her infant care knowledge, earned on the job over the past several years at the expense of her cousin's children. She sent up a short prayer in praise of her cousin, who had insisted Diana learn how to take care of her babies.
"Hmmmm...hmmm..." The woman was aggravating an impatient Diana as she made noises in her throat while examining the baby, who was still sleeping. "Well, she looks OK. No bruises, no apparent abuse. The doctor's report said she was slight undernourished, but that can be remedied."
"I've already acquired formula, diapers and some other baby supplies." Taking a deep breath, she plunged in. "I know you must have foster homes set up for this, but if it is at all possible, I would like to keep her until a permanent placement is decided."
The social worker looked down her nose, literally, at the short, auburn-haired women in front of her, now holding the baby as if her life depended on her.
"Well, we have already checked into you, as requested by the Meryton Police Department, and you and the colonel have a very high clearance, indeed. Your backgrounds are both impeccable and my superior has decided you may keep the baby. For now. It doesn't hurt your case, Miss Forrester, that foster homes are in short supply. I will need the phone number to this house, to keep in touch, please."
Diana settled the baby back into her carrier and retrieved a business card from her purse. She wrote the Bailey number on the back after a quick glance at the phone on the table next to her purse, pretending she knew it by heart. "And my cell phone number is on the card, Mrs. Hill, in case I don't answer here. I may be next door at the inn."
"I see. Thank you, then, Miss Forrester." With another sniff, Mrs. Hill gathered her belongings and Diana walked her to the door. "We will be in touch."
"We will be in touch," Diana mocked after the social worker was gone. "Love that royal we," she added under her breath, hearing Maddy's light footfall on the stairs.
"Is the witch-looking lady gone?" Maddy wanted to know, peeking around the banister.
"Yes, Maddy. Gone, but not forgotten!"
"Diana, guess what? I found a cradle upstairs for the baby!"
The rest of the day went well enough for Diana. The Bingley children were full of energy, but they were generally well-behaved. She took all of them outside to play at one point, once the heat of the day had passed, and was pleasantly surprised when Richard came over, bringing a tray of homemade lemonade and oatmeal cookies.
"I, um, can't stay," he stammered, distracted by her tanned legs stretched out on a lounge chair as she and the baby sat under an old oak watching the other children. Even Spit was outside, but Diana told him he was staying out forever if he even looked at a tree.
"Mrow," he saucily replied.
"Conversing with cats, now, are we?" the colonel wondered, having regained some of his equilibrium. "I have to get back to the kitchen, but bring the kids over when you are ready and I'll feed them. I have pizza on the menu tonight."
"Goat cheese and spinach?" she teased.
The colonel, discomfited, coughed and replied in the affirmative. Diana laughed and said she thought cheese pizzas, with cheddar and mozzarella, would work just fine, and he agreed. But instead of leaving, he just stood there, staring. At her legs.
"Don't you have pizzas to make?" she queried.
"Oh, um, yeah. You know," he told her in parting, "we are going to need to talk about all this sometime."
"Yes, I know."
"But not today."
"No, not today."
Like she had that first day at the inn, she admired his figure as he hurried back to his work.
When Richard's cell phone rang late that evening, he knew it was Will.
"Hi cuz," he began.
"Richard, what is all this I hear from Georgie about a baby? Oh, wait a minute. Here's Elizabeth."
"Richard? The baby is Lydia's? How could she...why did she... Why Georgie?" she finally asked.
"Ah, now that is the ultimate question, isn't it? We don't even know if the mother is your stepsister. Your dad is trying to help the police track her down, but Frances dear seems to be hindering the investigation."
Lizzie snorted at the mention of her stepmother. "She would. Where is the baby now?"
"Next door. Georgie and Alex have given Diana, little Sabrina and the Bingley kids free run of the house. Care to make a wager, however, on how long it takes Georgie to convince Alex to bring her home early?"
Lizzie laughed. "No, because I think we would all be surprised if she showed up any later than tomorrow morning."
"Well, it would be great if she did. I could use a few extra hands around the place. One of the toilets is clogged again, my kitchen helper keeps hitting on my waitress, and the trolls in the Connecticut Suite have put cigarette burns in the rug..." He continued with his complaints, unaware the person on the other end of the phone was now his cousin once more.
"I say throw 'em all out!" Will blandly remarked. "Now that Georgie has other concerns, it's about time you closed the lodgings part of your operation and just opened the place up for lunch and dinner. If you made the parlor into another dining room, you could knock out a few walls and put your office in the downstairs bedroom."
"But what would I do with the upstairs?"
"Gee, I don't know. Get married and have a family to fill the rooms? Just a suggestion."
Richard frowned. There were some things about his life even Will didn't know, even if he was his physician. He quickly ended the call, assuring Will that he and Lizzie were not needed at the moment, and to have a good time in Bermuda. Nor were they to have the Bingleys cut their vacation short.
For a moment, he allowed himself to dream about raising a family in the old house. He and Diana would have several offspring, he decided, at least two of each, not to mention Sabrina. The Connecticut Suite would make a great master bedroom, and the Nutmeg Suite could be used as a connecting nursery until the children were old enough for their own rooms...
He fought back the urge to throw his cell phone across the room, and settled down for the night with it by his side, instead, in case Diana needed him. And it was no use thinking about a family. That dream had already been long denied to him.
Day 5 (Thursday)
Diana's day did not start well. Sabrina was fussy, Grace and Aaron woke with the sniffles, and Maddy complained of a headache. No one ate any breakfast except the baby, but hers came back up all over Diana's shoulder. When she tried to get the kids to settle in front of the television set while she tended to the baby, Grace and Aaron began to fight.
At 8 a.m., a kind-faced, grandmotherly woman at the door said she was Diana's savior, and Diana was in no mood to dispute her.
"Actually, dear, I'm Alex's mom, Donna Bailey. Alex said they could not be home until this evening, so I volunteered to come help. You must be Diana. Georgie speaks highly of you."
"She doesn't even know me!" Diana exclaimed.
"I think she rather does," Mrs. Bailey cryptically replied before going into action.
In no time at all, Mrs. Bailey had run to the store and back, the children were dosed with cold medicine, tucked back into bed with books and toys found in the quaint, old-fashioned nursery at the top of the house, and the baby was cleaned up and fed again. This time the formula stayed down.
"Poor little mite," Mrs. Bailey cooed at Sabrina, holding the baby while she and Diana sat over coffee in the kitchen. She was prevented from making any more comments, distracted by a knock at the back door. Diana went to open it, and it was Richard.
"I came to see how...Mrs. Bailey! What a pleasure!" He rushed in to give Alex's mother a hug, and that lady blushed at the attention. "Where is Georgie? I thought she would be home by now. Good thing I didn't make a real bet with Lizzie..."
Mrs. Bailey laughed and explained how they were delayed, and how Georgie had called and asked for help. "And of course I said I would come. Good thing, too. Your Diana is a very competent young lady, but with three sick children in the house..."
"Sick? The baby's sick?" Richard was truly alarmed, and took Sabrina from Mrs. Bailey, as if that would assure him of her good health.
"No, no, just the Bingley kids," Diana hastily assured him, while Alex's mother looked at him with interest.
"Well, we can't let Sabrina get sick. We should probably take her back over to the inn."
"Usually I would say nonsense, that there is no time like the present in letting her build up immunities, but because we don't know her health history, I have to agree. Diana, dear, why don't you take the baby over and watch her there, and I'll stay here and nurse the others."
"Are you sure? I told the social worker I would be here."
Mrs. Bailey's "Hmpf!" told Diana exactly what she thought about such creatures. "I'll tell her where to go...if she calls," she added. "Richard, you get the baby stuff together, including that cradle. I can't believe that old thing is still around..." she mused. "My aunt said once it has rocked every baby in the family since the early 1900s."
"We can't use that, it's an antique!" Diana exclaimed.
"Of course you can! Richard can come back for it once he gets you resettled at the inn. Off you go!"
"Whew! She's worse than General Hancock!" Richard confided as they set off across the yard with the baby and most of her belongings. Richard was carrying the infant. "But you are not going back into the carriage house," he added as she headed in that direction. "The downstairs suite is free for the rest of the week, after you clean it up, of course," he said with a smirk. "I want you and the baby to stay in there, so I can help care for her. Did you get any rest last night?"
"Some," she admitted. "This little one was almost as tired as I was. Are you sure you want us in the inn, though?"
He stopped just as they reached the front porch and looked down at her as he cradled the baby. "Diana, I cannot, in all truth, think of a better place for the two of you to be."
Without waiting for a reply, he went inside and headed straight for the downstairs room, missing her becoming blush.
It had been a long day, full of cleaning and cooking, getting a little nap and keeping an eye on a mostly-sleeping newborn. Now even Diana was tucked into bed, and it was time for a few phone calls.
"Alyson? It's Diana. Fine. Um, Connecticut. No, I'm not home yet. That's why I'm calling. I was on my way to Boston when my car broke down. A small town called Meryton. I know it's not exactly on the way to Boston. I took a detour... What? Oh, well, now I'm taking care of an abandoned baby and...hmmm? Yes, I know I have clients. I know I have obligations. I know I just took a vacation last month. Someone recently told me it was just as easy to work from Connecticut as it was from New Jersey, and I have to agree. Most of my files are in my car anyway. No, not expensive. If you must know, an old Army friend owns an inn here, and he needed help this week, and I'm working my butt off making beds and scrubbing latrines. The thought of me cleaning and tending to children is not that funny, Cupcake. OK. You have my cell number and here is the number to the inn, just in case. OK, and give my love to the family...Bye."
Taking a quick peek at the baby, sleeping peacefully in her cradle, Diana went back to her phone and called her best friend, who lived in Atlanta.
"Shanti? Diana! You, too - where in the hell are you? The background noise is deafening! New York? No way! No, no, don't go to New Jersey to see me. I'm not home. I'm in Connecticut, and before you say anything..." She gave a great sigh as she listened to Shanti rant in her ear. Alyson had been a tough sell, but this was going to be worse, because Shanti knew exactly where she was, and whom she was with. "I didn't plan to..." She started to protest again, but thought better of it. "If you want to know all, why don't you just get your a** up here, girlfriend, and find out for yourself? Fine! It's the Twin Oaks Inn, Meryton, Connecticut, as if you didn't know. You are the one who found it on the Internet in the first place! Yes, I know, I'm the idiot whose car broke down here, not you. I couldn't help it, I just had to see... OK. But I'm warning you - I'm telling Richard you're - Yes, I'm actually calling him by his real name...Oh, for goodness' sake, Shanti...Bye!"
Great - Shanti Williams was now on her way to the Twin Oaks Inn.
2 a.m. Friday morning
"Waaaaaaa! Waaaaaa! Waaaaaa!"
"Shhhh! It's OK, little princess, it's OK," Richard soothed, coming into the room and picking up a wet and hungry baby. "We'll just get you changed and fed and shhhhhh! Let's not wake Mommy, OK?" Putting the baby down on a blanket on the rug, he quickly and expertly changed her diaper, softly talking to her the entire time.
In bed, Diana lay still, listening to the two of them, large rumbling man and tiny gurgling girl, unwilling to interfere with this bond that seemed to have been forged sometime in the past two days. She only exhaled once Richard had padded out of the room with the baby, most likely to warm up a bottle in the kitchen.
All too soon, though, he returned, talking softly to Sabrina as he fed her. Diana thought he might have stayed out of the room until he was through, but he seemed to be hanging around. She sat up and looked - he was sitting on the suite's sofa, watching her while the baby guzzled formula.
"Hi," he whispered. "Did we wake you?"
"Wha? No, I was up. Want me to do that?" she offered.
He rose and approached the bed, but he didn't hand the baby over into her outstretched arms.
"No, I can do this," he said, propping a pillow up against the headboard of the antique cherry bed before settling down next to Diana.
"Cozy?" she asked in an amused voice.
"Nope. Needs something else." His left arm propping the baby on his shoulder, so he could expel some of the air she had ingested with the bottle, he extended his right one around so that it held Diana by the shoulders. Snuggling down further into the bed and stretching out his fleece-covered legs, he gave an exaggerated sigh.
"Now I'm comfortable."
"So, did you have a pleasant evening, or were those phone calls I heard all business?"
"You are nosy, sir! Actually, I called my cousin in New Jersey to let her know where I am. The second call was to Shanti. Shanti!" she cried, sitting straight up in bed. "Shanti's in New York!"
"And?" He reached out to bring her back down to the pillow again, but she was too quick for him.
"You don't understand." Diana jumped out of bed and began pacing the room. "Shanti lives in Atlanta. I called her cell phone and she's in New York. She said she was coming to New Jersey to see me, so I told her I was here."
"So, she's coming here! To see me! To see us!"
"That's nice. I haven't seen Shanti in almost a year, although we e-mail each other all the time."
"You've seen... you e-mail..." This was too much for Diana and she sat down on the sofa.
"But I have not heard from Kimi in awhile. Is she still in Hawaii?" he asked conversationally.
"Yes. She works in her family's import/export business." She rambled on about Kimi and her family for a bit. "Bunny is in Minneapolis. She has her own Internet access company. Is there anyone else you wanted to...Richard? Richard!" she whispered. Her only reply was a couple of soft snores.
He was asleep. So was the baby. She picked up Sabrina and put her on her side in the cradle before returning to the bed and pulling the comforter up over Richard's chest, dropping a light kiss on his forehead. Taking the other pillow off the bed, she went over and stretched out with it on the sofa. She was asleep in moments.
Day 6 (Friday)
Sunlight streamed through rather sheer curtains into the room at the Twin Oaks Inn, and it woke Diana with a start.
"The baby!" she gasped, and flew off the sofa. But Sabrina was still sleeping, and she sat on the bed with relief. Then there was a knock at the door, and someone came in with a tray without waiting for permission to enter.
"Rise and shine, sleepyheads," Georgie said cheerfully. "It's a beautiful day!" She set down the tray and whipped aside the curtains, the sun hitting Diana in the eyes with full force.
"I brought breakfast!" Georgie continued. "For you, too, lazy," she said with some asperity to the lump in the bed, giving it a shove, and only then did Diana remember that Richard had gone to sleep there.
"Wha? Georgiana Bailey, I'm going to wring your - " He sat up, realized where he was, and blushed beet red, much to his cousin's delight. But before he could say anything else, Georgie was squealing and rushing over to the cradle.
"She's beautiful!" she cried. The baby chose that moment to wake up crying, and Richard jumped out of bed and took her in his arms.
"Now look what you did! We'll get her all situated, though," he cooed to the baby. "What are you doing over here so early?"
"I work here, remember?" She pointed to the clock. It was 8:30. "And a good thing, too! There were hungry guests to feed. I've taken care of them, but there are still dishes to wash and rooms to clean. I looked in on you earlier, after I had checked the apartment and then saw this door ajar, and everyone in here was still dead to the world...and where are my manners? You must be Diana!" She rushed Diana and folded her into a big hug. "Welcome to the Twin Oaks Inn, and thank you so much for being here just when Richard needed you most! Now, I have to get a move-on. Alex has a big meeting this afternoon, and it's hard to get ready for it when there are three children running about. They are feeling much better today. Donna was a dear to pitch in, but I sent her home this morning. See you in a few!" In a whirlwind of movement, Georgie was gone.
"Well...um, er..." Richard looked embarrassed as he changed the baby. "Um, I'm sorry about last night."
"You're sorry you got up and changed and fed the baby?" she teased.
"No! I'm sorry I fell asleep in your bed. Did I snore?"
Diana chuckled. "I wouldn't know. I was across the room on the sofa, myself," she told him, to put him out of his misery, if nothing else.
"You were?" Relief warred with dismay across his face, which startled her. Had he wanted to wake up with her in the same bed? Well, well... They really needed to talk.
"I...I'll take this little princess into the kitchen and get her a bottle, and see what Georgie has going on. That will leave you free to um, get dressed or whatever." He quit the room as fast as he could.
Having nibbled from the breakfast tray while she got dressed, Diana was in good shape to take the baby from Richard when she entered the kitchen. He thanked her and then tackled a big bowl of fruit and yogurt before insisting he had to get dressed for the day. He was heading out toward the carriage house when Georgie came in from the dining room.
"Richard gone? Good! Can I hold the baby?," she pleaded with puppy-dog eyes. "Richard wouldn't let me," she added with a pout. Diana laughed and handed Sabrina over to this pretty blonde cousin of the colonel's. "She is adorable. Have they found her mother yet? I couldn't believe it when Richard told me the note had my name on it."
"I think they have some leads, but nothing definite yet. Connecticut has a baby abandonment law, but I'm not sure this Lydia will be covered, because she left Sabrina here instead of with a law enforcement officer or at a hospital..."
"Oh, dear. This poor baby..."
"Georgie...I know she was left to you, but if you don't want her..."
"You do? Oh, Diana, I'm so thrilled to hear you say that! I hope to have kids of my own someday, but I just got married! I couldn't possibly think of babies for some time...and Alex agrees. We talked about little else all the way home. If we get some say in this matter, believe me, I will be glad to let you have the prior claim. After all, you found her."
Diana sighed with relief. "Thank you. But I can't take all the credit. I just happened to be on the phone, screaming at the mechanic at the time, and I... Well, I was not in the best of tempers."
Georgie went over to Diana and laid a hand on her arm. "I'm glad you decided to stay," she said softly. "Sabrina needs you. Richard needs you."
"I don't know about that..."
"Well, it's true. Now," she said briskly, "what's on the agenda today?"
"I don't know. When do you have to go back next door and relieve your husband of baby-sitting duties?"
"Alex! I almost forgot!" Georgie was at the door when she turned back. "Can you handle everything while I..."
"Go check on your poor husband!" Diana said with a laugh. "I'm surprised he hasn't already called you for support!"
"Me, too! I'll be back as soon as I can!"
Georgie called about ten minutes later and told Diana she would be back over before lunch to help with the crowd, that she and Alex had the Bingley children under control, and that a woman named Mrs. Hill had called, and would be coming by the inn to see Diana that afternoon.
Georgie was glad she was back at the inn later when Shanti Williams arrived. She had met her several times before, and liked her very much, when the older woman had spent a few days at the inn visiting with Richard. But her favorite part of Shanti's visit was always her welcome. No one was safe from her huge bear hugs.
"Hey, Studmuffin Man, where are you?" Shanti's voice boomed the moment she walked through the front door, and the rafters reverberated with the sound.
The piggy kid from the Connecticut Suite had just come down the stairs when Shanti came through the front door, and she snarled at him, causing him to blubber like a baby and run back upstairs for his mommy. She cackled.
"Shhhhhh!" Richard fussed, coming out of the kitchen. "The baby is asleep, and I just got her there."
"Come here and give me a hug, Studmuffin Man! And then tell me what you are doing with a baby!" Georgie and Diana, coming to the kitchen door, were in time to see Richard wrapped into Shanti's considerable body and held there, probably against his will.
Once he was released, she punched him in the arm and said she always knew his name was accurate. Only Diana saw the fleeting look of pain on Richard's face at Shanti's words. To fill the void, she stepped forward and brought her friend's attention to herself.
"Hey, Pipsqueak! Where's my hug?"
"What? You aren't going to give me hell for being here when you told me not to?" Diana asked. Then she found herself in Shanti's arms and having the breath squeezed out of her, several feet off the floor.
"I'll give you hell later. And here's Legs, waiting her turn," Shanti cried, and Georgie was hugged so hard, she thought she heard a rib crack. "I have a wedding present for you, Legs. Sorry I couldn't make the ceremony."
"That's OK, Shanti. I'm just glad you could come for a visit."
Diana watched this interchange with wide eyes. When the hell had Shanti ever been here? Obviously at least once, she surmised, because she and Georgie seemed to be old friends.
"Now, ladies, show me this baby! Then me and Studmuffin Man are gonna go somewhere and have a little chat." She laced her fingers together and cracked her knuckles, as if she was going to take the colonel out behind the woodshed and do some serious damage to his pretty face. Diana wouldn't put it past her.
"Her name is Sabrina, and the colonel and I found her abandoned on the front porch of the inn," she explained, walking with Shanti back to the kitchen. "They are trying to find her mother."
"And knowing you, you want to keep her. Well," she told her friend bluntly, "I think you are going to have to go through that man to get her!"
Diana flushed. There was only one man Shanti could be referring to.
"Which reminds me," Shanti continued. "Me and the Studmuffin need to have a talk. Richard!" she bellowed.
"Shhh! Shhh! What did I tell you about the baby?" He appeared like magic, his immediate concern for Sabrina.
"Never mind that now. Where can we go that's private?
"So you are telling me, Richard, that you want to keep this baby? And Diana?" She started to laugh. "Aren't you glad I sent her to you, then?" The two had gone up to the carriage house apartment, both of them looking rather large in its tiny interior.
"Of course! She wasn't going to come otherwise, no matter how desperately she wanted it. So I showed her the website you had Bunny create for the inn and let her natural curiosity do the rest. You aren't exactly on the straight route to Boston, you know. The best part is, she thinks I'm dead-set against this. It was the easiest way to get her to do what I wanted, the stubborn girl. Let's face it, Fitz, the girl has had it bad for you for many, many years, but she wasn't doing a freaking thing about it. I got so tired of it once, I deliberately left the two of you out on that airstrip, hoping you would find yourselves in each others' arms. Instead, I come back and you idiots are on either side of the damn hummer!"
"Shanti, might I remind you that I was Diana's commanding officer at the time?"
She waved that away with a swish of a hand. "But you wanted to, right?"
"I wanted to the minute she walked into my office, and I found out she wasn't jailbait!"
"Aha! And what stopped you from declaring yourself the night of your retirement party, Mr. Officer-and-a-Gentleman?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean, Fitz! I got her in there, so what did you do to screw it up?"
"I don't know. I wish I knew..."
"You don't know? Damn! I named you wrong, didn't I?"
"I know I didn't kiss her. She said so. The other night. When I kissed her."
"Woo hoo! Now we are getting somewhere!"
"No, we are not! This is none of your damned business, Shanti. It's between Diana and I. I...I need to fix this, but there have been little opportunities for serious discussion. I don't want her to leave, and I want to keep her and that baby here for the rest of our lives. What do I do?"
"You don't give her a way out!" Shanti's grin was positively feral as she outlined her plan.
"Mrs. Hill? Please meet Ms. Shanti Williams, a friend of mine. The colonel, I believe, you know." It had been after 4 p.m. by time the social worker had arrived at the inn, and Diana led her into the parlor and introduced her to her friend. There was no way she was going to face removal of the baby alone.
Mrs. Hill looked down her nose at the colonel, but then she noticed the baby, held securely to Richard's chest, as usual, and she softened just as she had several days before. "Ms. Williams," she acknowledged with a sniff. "As you know, Miss Forrester, we have left the baby in your care due to a lack of foster homes. Your case has been reviewed, and you have tentatively been approved to adopt the baby. However," she cautioned before anyone could openly rejoice, "there are a few stipulations.
"First, I want to say this is the fastest case of adoption I have ever seen. One of you must have very high connections, indeed. The push for this came from the highest level of my office."
Shanti and Diana glanced at Richard, who shrugged, but gave them an extremely smug smile.
"Second, there is the matter of you being a single parent."
Diana began to open her mouth, but Richard stepped in with a serene smile. "You may wish to congratulate us, then," he told the social worker. "Diana and I are engaged, and fully prepared to give Sabrina a two-parent home here at the inn."
Diana choked, and Shanti pounded her on the back so hard, she almost spit in Mrs. Hill's face. But she didn't say a word. If Richard wished to lie to secure Sabrina's future, far be it from her to interfere. They were going to need that talk very soon, though. Very soon.
"Yes, well, er, um, no one told me," Mrs. Hill said stiffly. She began to rifle through her files.
"It's in part of the letter from the senator," Richard said. "Halfway through the third paragraph. The letter you should have received by fax this afternoon."
"Oh." The social worker seemed at a loss for words.
"Senator?" Diana squeaked.
"An old school friend, actually. His father is a judge... Anyway, you were saying, Mrs. Hill, that there were stipulations?"
"Yes. We have obtained an affidavit from the infant's mother, signing away all rights and obligations, but we need one from the father."
"And have you determined that the Lydia who left Sabrina on our porch is Lydia Bennet?" Richard demanded.
"Really, colonel, I do not have to answer that."
"Oh, I think you do. If the mother is Lydia Bennet, I know who the father is, and I know where to find him."
"You do? A Mrs. Bennet in Boston, the child's grandmother, insisted that the father could not be located, which usually means she has a fair shot at taking the baby. An extremely tiring woman, but our best source in such matters so far..."
"Yes," Diana agreed, "extremely tiring."
"And lying," Richard added. "Lydia Bennet has admitted to my cousin's wife, Elizabeth Darcy, who is also Lydia's stepsister, that the father is George Wickham, a man who recently went to prison for embezzlement."
Diana and Shanti exchanged glances. "I shoulda sent you here sooner, Pipsqueak. Seems you missed all the excitement," Shanti murmured.
"So it seems... Engaged?" she mouthed to Richard while Mrs. Hill looked down at her files. He didn't reply.
"Yes, well, everything else seems to be in order. I will be in touch as to the paperwork concerning the baby's father, once I confirm his identity. If this Mr. Wickham is the father and you can get him to sign the baby over to you, the grandmother will not be able to dispute it." Gathering her papers, she rose, and Richard did too, the baby sleeping against his chest.
"Allow me to show you to your car, Mrs. Hill," he offered, and escorted her out.
"Engaged?" Diana repeated.
"The man has brains," Shanti admitted. "Sometimes. He's got a cute butt, too..."
"Engaged?" She liked the idea, even if it was temporary in order to gain the baby. She would play along for now.
"Will you get over that?"
Richard came hesitantly back into the room, afraid of the reception after dropping his bomb.
"I want a ring!" was all Diana said. If she was going to pretend to be engaged, she was going to have a ring. She would return it later.
"You got it," he replied, relief written all over his face. "How about an engagement party, too? Is tonight too early?"
An entire section of the dining room was roped off that evening for the family's use, ostensibly to celebrate the engagement of Richard and Diana.
"Might as well give ourselves a party," he told Diana when she protested. "If Mrs. Hill thinks we are lying, there could be hell to pay if we don't celebrate properly. Her spies could be anywhere," he said with just the right touch of paranoia to make her laugh.
So Diana demurred and a party was quickly planned. Alex brought over the Bingley kids and Shanti insisted on helping with the dinner crowd so that Georgie could spend time with her family. Denny and Maria were there, and Doctor Bennet and twins, and everyone ate shrimp scampi over rice, a large salad and long loaves of crusty French bread. There was a chocolate cake and champagne for dessert, and little Sabrina was much made over, although Richard refused to relinquish her once he had been relieved from kitchen duties.
"Are you going to hold that baby for the rest of your life?" Diana teased when he finally handed her over while he popped corks on the champagne bottles.
"Yes. Could you go to the store and get me one of those snuggly carriers so I can get more work done?"
"You got it, Sultan. Speaking of which, just how many women do you plan on keeping here?"
"Two. This little angel...and you." he finished pouring drinks and took the baby once more.
"Uh, huh. And when did you plan on asking me? All I heard was you telling Mrs. Hill we are engaged..."
"Didn't I? I..." He would have said more, but four old friends chose that moment to walk in and join the party.
"Are we missing something?" Lizzie wanted to know. She, Will and the Bingleys were all smiles as their children attacked them with glee.
"Diana and Richard are engaged!" Meredith exclaimed, her arms around her sister's neck. "And we're celebrating!"
"That had better be apple juice in her glass," Lizzie admonished, giving Richard a sound kiss and taking one of Diana's hands. "You could only be the indomitable Diana!" If she was surprised at how quickly Richard and Diana had come to some terms, it did not show.
"Hello, Shanti," Will wheezed, having been pulled into a hug from that Amazon that took even his breath away.
"I'm Elizabeth, if you hadn't already guess," the visibly pregnant woman introduced herself to Diana, "and this is Georgie's brother, William. I know, Richard, I told him not to come home right away," she informed her husband's cousin, "but he wouldn't listen, and neither would the Bingleys." She turned back to Diana with a smile. "Now, when did you get engaged?"
Diana had the grace to blush. "Actually, Richard never asked me. Not officially, anyway."
"What?" Will, who had managed to shake off Shanti, returned to his wife's side just as Diana made her admission. "We will need to remedy that... Richard!"
Will put an arm around him and steered him away from the crowd. "Give me that baby and take Diana off somewhere and officially propose, before I make you do it in front of everyone here."
Richard grinned. "You'll have to pry the baby from my cold, dead...never mind. She's asleep. I'll get Diana to go in with me to put her to bed. You can hold her some other time." He called to his "fiancee," asking if she would help him settle the baby down for the night.
She readily complied, ignoring the telling looks being exchanged between most of the guests.
"You wanted something?" she asked when they were in the bedroom.
"Let me put the princess down. That's better. I really gotta get one of those snuggly things... My arms are killing me!"
"You don't have to carry her about every waking second, you know."
"Sure I do. Come here a minute, will you?" he asked, sitting down on the sofa.
"OK," she said with a shrug.
"We need to talk."
"Yes, now. We've been putting it off for several days, you know, and if nothing else, we need to discuss our engagement. Diana, will you marry me?"
"Why, sir," she teased, "this is so sudden!"
"Go to hell, Diana - I'm serious!"
She sobered. "Me, too. Look, Richard, you don't have to do this. I'm sure Sabrina and I would manage just as well on our own."
"You could," he agreed, in no doubt as to what kind of mother she would make, single parent or not. "But they are not going to let you have that baby alone. Besides, I need you, too. I need you both. Will you marry me?"
"Yes." Why not, she thought with a shrug. It's not like I haven't thought of it for every second of the last hundred years. And when I have the baby, he will send me home like a good little girl, and that will be the end of that.
"I would seal our agreement with a kiss," he told her bluntly. "Not like the one the other night..."
"No, not like the one the other night," she softly agreed, tilting her face up to meet his, their lips barely touching, like the light caress of a butterfly. In for a penny, in for a pound...
"Diana," he groaned, and deepened the kiss. They were then lost in their own little world, and didn't hear the door open, or see a little face peering inside.
Madeline Bingley, however, raced to report to her mother the good news.
"Mommy! Mommy! Richard doesn't like men after all! He's kissing Diana!"
Day 7 (Saturday), Part I
Sabrina, screaming at the top of her lungs as only a baby can do, woke Diana, but, as usual, Richard came racing in to take care of her.
"I'm surprised she didn't wake up the Baileys..." she drawled as she lay there watching him change a diaper and cuddle the little one in anticipation of a bottle.
"I hope she woke up everyone else," he retorted. "Will suggested the other night that I forget about lodgers and just take in diners. That idea is looking better and better all the time. What do you think?"
"I don't know...ask me again when my brain is functioning."
"OK. We're off to the kitchen for a snack. Want anything?"
He reached down and gave her a lingering kiss. "Will that send you back to dreamland?"
"Thank you, kind sir," she murmured. Hell, no, she thought wildly. Now I'm wide awake. "But now that I'm awake..." She pulled herself out of bed and padded into the kitchen behind them. Was it too early to make some coffee?
"It's not too early for coffee, you know," Richard said, easily reading her mind.
"How do you do that?"
"Nothing," she groused and went to make coffee while he began to heat a bottle for the baby. They went about their business like any old married couple with an infant, and then took everything back to the room, where it was more cozy, Richard insisted, and he could sit up on the bed.
"So why don't you?" Diana asked once she had some caffeine in her system. She sat on the edge of the bed and watched Richard give the baby her formula.
"Why don't I what?"
"Make the inn into a restaurant. You could live upstairs, rent out the carriage house apartment and have part of your life to yourself."
"I think that would be our upstairs and our lives, don't you think?"
"Oh, come now, Richard, you don't expect me to play along with that little game this early in the morning, do you?"
Richard looked stricken. "You think this is all a game?"
"Isn't it? A nice little game to get Diana the baby, and then, when we are settled in New Jersey, it's back to Connecticut and sayonara, baby!"
Richard started to laugh. He couldn't help it, really, not after what he had learned the day before from Shanti. His mission, as he chose to accept it, would be to convince Diana that he wanted her and that baby to stay here for all time. Her reluctance to take him seriously was a defense mechanism and nothing more.
When had her conviction of his regard become such a priority, he wondered. Since that first day, when he turned around from fixing the toilet to find her standing there, staring at him. It wasn't love at first sight, technically, but it was love at re-sight. So why did she have to be so prickly about it? She was the one who had loved him for a much longer time. Well, there was no time like the present to fix some things, he supposed.
Expertly burping the baby, who promptly fell asleep, he put her in the cradle and then sat back down on the bed.
"Will you go out with me tonight?" he asked.
Diana was so surprised, she almost fell off the bed. "What?" she yelped.
"I asked if you would go out with me tonight."
"Like on a date?"
"Yes, on a date."
"But what about the baby? What about the inn? What about..."
"What about saying yes? We've been holding down the fort all week. Everyone else is home now, and there are plenty of people to run things and watch the baby. I'll ask Elizabeth to baby-sit, and Dr. Bennet knows how things are done here, maybe he can come and assist Georgie and crew. Shanti will help, too, if we ask."
"A real date," she said softly, turning the thought over in her mind. Only one glaring problem stood out. "I don't have a thing to wear! Where are we going? Should I dress up?"
"Does this mean yes?"
He was momentarily taken aback at the soft glow in her eyes, and wondered why he hadn't thought of this before. Then he watched as she stifled a yawn and took pity on her. "Come here," he said, and she slid over the bed to him. He pulled her up to the pillows and tucked the covers up around her, much like she had done for him the night before. "I'll call for you this evening at seven, Miss Forrester. Please be ready. Do you think your slave-driving boss will give you time after breakfast to go shopping for something to wear?"
"I think the Sultan can spare me for a couple of hours," she sleepily replied. "I'll leave the Amazon in my place."
Richard smiled and kissed her forehead. "Get some rest. I'll come back in a couple of hours and wake you."
"Hmmmm," was the only reply he got. She was already asleep, and she didn't wake until two hours later, when he brought her breakfast in bed.
Richard was whistling as he sliced fruit for breakfast and kept an eye on the bacon. Georgie smiled as she came in the back door.
"It's hot out there!" she exclaimed. "And it's almost September! Doesn't that weather guy know it's supposed to get cooler soon?"
"I think it's a beautiful day!" Richard exclaimed, and went back to his whistling. Georgie stood there and stared at him for one long moment before she started to laugh.
"You should see yourself! Gads, did I look that moony when I fell in love with Alex?"
"You had the goofiest grin ever, Georgie Girl, from that first day he knocked you over into the dirt."
"Well, look in the mirror, then, Colonel Studmuffin, cuz you are about to see history repeated."
"Would you please not call me Studmuffin?" he asked with a pained expression. "And I do not have a goofy grin. Do I?" He rushed over to the mirror hung over the sink where employees washed their hands, and stared. "Nope, no goofy grin."
"Oh, then Diana must be the one with the goofy grin. I think I will go check."
"Don't you dare! That baby stays asleep longer and longer every night, and I won't have her disturbed! Now get that tray of fruit in the dining room for me, please. Candy called in sick. Can we get someone to help cover the dining room this evening? Alex, perhaps?"
"Um, sure, but now that his big meeting is out of the way, he and I thought we would go out to dinner tonight. I guess Candy calling in changes all that. With you and Gary in the kitchen..."
"I'm not going to be here. I'll help out before I go, though, and you can press Shanti into service. She won't mind. I have a date."
"With Diana?" Georgie squealed. "Wonderful! But why do you need to go out? You're engaged now."
"Why do you need to go out now, you're married," he mocked.
"Good point," she conceded.
"We're going out because we have never been on a date, engagement or not. I'm going to ask Elizabeth to baby-sit once it's late enough to call. No need having Will take an axe to my head because I called and interrupted something."
"Too true. She and Will will enjoy watching the baby. Tell them it's time to practice. Oh, that reminds me. I need the inn closed Tuesday night. I checked, and we have no guests that evening, so let's close the restaurant, too. I want you to go off and find something to do." They had no guests, because Georgie had put a note on the calendar telling Richard not to book any. Either no one wanted that night, or he had paid attention for once. Probably the former.
"No way. I have a baby to care for," he smugly told her.
"I don't care if you have quintuplets! Take the baby over to my house, call Will, Charles, Denny and Dr. Bennet to meet you there and sit around and drink beer all night with Alex and watch some sport thing on TV. But you are leaving Diana here, and you men are watching everyone else's kids. I'm giving Lizzie a baby shower."
"You are? Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"I told you a month ago I was doing this."
"Yeah, but a month ago, I wasn't listening."
Muttering dire comments about men who paid her no attention, she started finalizing the plans in her head.
"Darcy residence," Elizabeth answered the phone that morning.
"Elizabeth? Richard. I need a favor," he said without much ado. "I'm taking Diana out on a date tonight and-"
"And you want me to baby-sit?" she finished for him. "Oh, yes, yes! I would love to! No need to twist arms here! She is such an angel!"
Richard let her prattle on for a few moments, because she was gushing about his baby, and then he gave her the details.
"Do you want me to keep her overnight? It might be best..."
"It might at that, but won't Will be annoyed? All that waking up and going back to sleep, and waking up..."
"Oh, he's used to that," Elizabeth insisted.
"Really, Elizabeth, I don't want to hear about your love life," he teased.
"Oh, you! You know good and well that's what happens when he's on call! Now, are you bringing her over, or do you want me to come get her? I can do it now..."
"Elizabeth, it's ten o'clock in the morning. Diana hasn't even gone shopping for a dress yet."
"No problem. I'll take her shopping, and when I bring her back, I'll take the baby home with me."
The shopping expedition became a safari that afternoon after Shanti and Georgie (and Jane, after Georgie called her and told her about the date) insisted on accompanying them. The children were all dropped off at the inn, and Richard, Alex and Dr. Bennet found themselves knee-deep in small fry while the ladies went to Jane's favorite boutique.
Shanti drove the van, and she and Diana were urged to share stories of their military days. Diana began by repeating how they all came to be assigned to the colonel, and then launched into the story about Richard coming to Shanti's rescue outside the officer's club. But part way into it, Shanti had to interrupt.
"That's not exactly how the story goes, Pipsqueak. It's true those men were trying to teach me a lesson just because my skin is a different color than theirs. But Richard paid a hard price for that thrashing he gave them..."
"What do you mean?" Diana demanded.
"Remember how he went on vacation right after that?"
"Yes... He was away for several weeks."
"He was in the hospital at another base."
"What?" Georgie cried. "What happened?"
"One of those b*****d's kicked him in a very private spot, ladies, and he didn't want anyone to know."
"How did you know," Diana wondered.
"Well, someone had to drive him there. You had to stay with the bully boys at the club, remember?"
"Oh." That explained a lot. And meant so much more. If that incident had caused permanent damage, then Sabrina was infinitely more precious to Richard than she had even imagined. Yet he had gone out of his way to get Sabrina adopted by herself. And him, too, her conscience told her. Did he truly want them both, or did he want the baby desperately enough to take her as its mother?
Diana stayed deep in her own thoughts even after they arrived at the boutique. Not even Shanti could pull her away from them when she ran into a dressing room with a gold lame dress and came out looking like a pop star. Everyone else laughed. Diana was thinking about Richard.
Elizabeth was looking through the evening gowns, determined to fit into her pre-baby size after it was born, and having Jane talk her out of it for now. "Things have a way of getting rearranged, and I'd hate for you to put it on one night and sit there and cry because you couldn't fit it around a particular part of your body. I ought to know," she amended, patting her own body in several places. Elizabeth could find nothing wrong with Jane's figure, until Jane tried on a silky one-piece suit with a halter top, and then she began to laugh.
"It's not funny," Jane grumbled.
Georgie, who was a ray of sunshine in most instances, tried to get Diana interested in a shiny gray sheath the color of her eyes, but to no avail. Diana just wanted to sit somewhere and think about the implications of Richard's injury.
"What size are you, Diana?" Georgie wanted to know.
"I'm a 10," she vaguely replied, and did not even remember talking to Georgie at all. Richard's cousin rolled her eyes and set several dresses on the counter, telling the clerk to ring them all up.
"She can try them on at home, and the ones she doesn't like she can always return," she told Shanti, who eyed her lost-in-thought friend and agreed. Jane and Lizzie had begun a friendly discussion about Jane's hips and the others were reluctant to interrupt. They did not want to be talked about next.
But then Jane suggested they walk down a few shops to an exclusive baby store, and both Diana and Lizzie perked up.
"I want to see your snuggly carriers," Diana promptly asked the saleslady when they entered the store. "Something masculine, please."
The woman said she had several carriers for dads, and showed Diana and Lizzie the ones in less-feminine fabrics, including one in camouflage. Diana passed on that one. Lizzie liked the ones with fuzzy little duckies on them, and bought one for herself to use. "But ducks are not really Richard's style."
They finally found one they agreed on, quilted navy blue cotton with no frills, and bought one apiece. "Richard and Will are going to look so cute with dueling babies on their chests," Lizzie chortled.
The ride home was quiet, and when Diana had put away her bags, and had managed to pry Sabrina away from Richard, Georgie pulled her back into the downstairs bedroom and began to rummage through her own bags.
"I bought a couple of things while you looked at carriers," she admitted when Diana asked what all the bags and boxes were for. "I'm giving Lizzie a baby shower next week, and I would love it if you and Shanti would be here for it."
"I don't exactly know what is going on," Diana admitted. "But if I can be here, I will. Now, what do you want to show me?"
"This!" Georgie pulled the gray satin dress out of a bag and urged her to try it on. "You didn't even notice that you hadn't bought a thing to wear tonight!"
"Well, I was preoccupied in the baby store..."
"You were preoccupied all afternoon!"
"OK, maybe I was... May I try on the dress? It's beautiful!"
Day 7 (Saturday) Part II
Diana presented herself in the lobby at 7 p.m. that evening, only to find Richard waiting with one very notable difference about him, one she did not like in the slightest.
"You cut your hair!" she shrieked. "Why did you go and do such a stupid...I don't believe this!" Placing her accessories down on the front desk, she sat him down in a chair, put her hands up over his shoulders and felt the back of his head, where the entire length had been severed and styled close to his head. "Why?"
"Why not? It was getting a little too long to manage... isn't that what all you ladies say? I don't see yours any too long." She was still fondling the back of his head, so he put his hands on her waist.
She shook her head in disbelief. "Your beautiful hair." Then she stepped back and noticed that he was wearing formal evening wear. "Wow!"
"Wow, what?" he asked with a grin. "And I could say the same of yourself. I'm surprised you could even find something to wear amongst that shopping committee of yours." To his surprise, Diana blushed, reluctant to tell him that she had done no shopping anywhere but in the baby store, that Georgie had come to her rescue.
Instead, she twirled about in place on the gray brocade heels Georgie had dug up for her from somewhere, the soft gray satiny folds of the dress floating about her. "Do you like it?"
"I love it. Now where shall we go this evening? Dinner, of course. Dancing? Bowling? Miniature golf? Over to the farm to pick up our child instead of missing her all night? I'm open to suggestions." He rose from the chair, towering over her once more.
"Hmmm...Dinner, of course," she repeated, "and then...bowling!"
Richard's mouth dropped open. "Are you serious?"
"As serious as DEFCON 1."
"That serious, hmmm? Are you going to bring clothes for bowling, then?"
Diana grabbed her purse and shawl off the front desk, started out the front door and told him "Nope!" over her shoulder as she waltzed out onto the front porch. There she stopped dead in her tracks. There was a limousine in the parking lot.
"Uh, oh, someone important is here. Perhaps we should stay..."
"Not a chance, Pipsqueak." Calling her by Shanti's nickname, he took her elbow and escorted her down the front walk. "That is our limo and I plan on having a good time. No talk of work this evening! You may, however, discuss our child as much as you like." Without waiting for a reply, he handed her into the limo, settled her dress about her, gave the driver the go-ahead to leave, and then reached for a bottle of champagne.
"It seems to be turning into a family tradition that limo rides should be accompanied by champagne," he said conversationally. "I find it a pleasurable experience."
"Then I shall, too. Where are we dining tonight?"
"Le Chenille, recommended by our good Dr. Bailey."
Diana only smiled. She had not had much of a chance to get to know Georgie's husband, so she did not have much to say.
The dinner, however, was superb, and Richard entertained her with stories from Alex's courtship of his cousin, including how they met and how Richard caught him daydreaming about her in the supermarket.
"He left as soon as he learned you and Georgie were not involved? Leaving the cart and groceries behind? That is funny!" she crowed as she spooned up the last of her chocolate soufflé.
"I'm so lucky," he told her, reaching out and taking one of her hands in his.
"Because I have you. And Sabrina. And you did not reject my first proposal, not the way Lizzie rejected Will's." He grinned at her shocked reaction.
"What? But they are so happy! What happened?"
"My big, dumb cousin had fallen for Elizabeth practically the first time he laid eyes on her, but he wouldn't let her know." Must be a family trait on the male side, he decided, remembering that first time she had walked into his office at Fort Benning, and recalling that Georgie had not had the same problem. "He wanted to marry her and take care of her - she really needed a little tender loving care at that point in her life - so he proposed a business agreement, a marriage of convenience, if you will."
Diana just sat there and stared. "I don't believe it! She turned him down, didn't she? Of course she did!" she scoffed. How could that beautiful, confident doctor's wife ever have even entertained such an offer?
"Actually, she eventually agreed, they got married and fell in love. Sounds like something from a romance novel, doesn't it?"
"Very much so. And now they're living happily ever after..." She didn't know he was watching as she sighed, but he rubbed her knuckles with his thumb. "Ready to go bowling?" she asked just as their snooty French waiter came over with the bill. The man gave a sniff at her words, and she and Richard burst out laughing. "Last one to the limo has to bowl first," she called, getting her things together and heading toward the ladies room.
Richard was lounging against the door of the limo when she reached the restaurant's portico, and she smiled. "Looks like I bowl first." She was still grinning when he settled her back in the limo. Once they were on their way, she started to tug at his lapels. "That jacket has got to go!"
"Hey! You are not undressing me!"
"OK - take it off yourself, then. You can't bowl in that thing."
He paused in the act of removing his jacket. "You're really serious about bowling, aren't you?" Up until this point, he thought she had been teasing.
"I am serious! Now, off with the jacket." He did so, and she sucked in her breath at the sight of him in a white pleated shirt, black tie and cummerbund. "Now the cummerbund. Richard," she pleaded when he hesitated. "If you do not take it off, I'll do it for you."
"OK." Settling back, his hands behind his neck, he waited. And waited, and waited. "Well?"
"Well, what?" she replied, tickled him under the arm and when he sat up in protest, she reached behind him and whipped it off. "Now the tie. Allow me."
Very slowly, she reached up and tried to unhook it from the strap around his neck when she realized it was a real, genuine bow tie. "Did you tie this?"
"Sure. I know how to tie my own bows. I learned in preschool."
"Tying your shoes is a lot different from tying one of these things. It's easier to untie one of these than it is to tie it..." She suited action to words and sat back with the tie in her hand, caressing it softly. "I'm very impressed."
"With the tie or me?"
"Both. Can I have some more champagne?" She had had two glasses before dinner, wine with dinner, and a cognac after dessert. He wondered how she was going to be able to throw the ball, and said so.
"With my hand. How else do you throw a bowling ball?" she asked a little owlishly.
"Diana Forrester, you're drunk!"
"Am not! I've always been able to hold my likker."
"Ha! What about the night of my retirement party?" Richard stunned even himself. He could not believe he actually said that.
"I was drunk the night of your party?" she whispered after a moment of hesitation. "I was sure I was awake for that. At least I thought I was awake. Was I awake?" She seemed confused.
"I don't know. I saw you were getting tipsy, and then more so, and more so, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up with you the next morning in that room."
"Oh, no, what?"
"I didn't have any clothes on!"
"Why, I do believe you were stark naked, Miss Forrester."
"You saw me naked!" she exclaimed, flushing to her roots.
"Yes," he said slowly, "I did. It was rather unavoidable, if you know what I mean."
"And then you left me."
"Yes. And I have regretted it every day since."
"Then why didn't you do something about it?" she cried.
"Why didn't you? I've never known you to back down from anything else you wanted."
"Who said I wanted you!" she retorted.
"Didn't you?" His voice was soft. Pulling her closer, he put both arms around her. "Don't you now?" he whispered in her ear before trailing a series of little kisses down the side of her neck.
The limousine stopped in front of the bowling alley and Diana pulled away. "But not until after we bowl!" she announced.
Ignoring the stares as they strolled hand-in-hand into the Meryton Lanes, Richard paid for a game for each of them and for shoe rentals.
"If I had known I was going to be bowling, I would have brought my own stuff from Jersey," Diana admitted to herself, hefting a series of the balls provided to find one that fit her tiny fingers. Richard was away at another rack, trying out bowling balls with bigger holes. "All the ones with small holes are too light," she complained. "Ah, this will do for tonight." Taking her choice back to the lane, she took off her heels and tied on a pair of green and cream-colored shoes.
"Isn't that going to be awkward?" he wanted to know when he joined her, looking at her dress with some concern.
"Nope. I've been known to bowl in costume a time or two. This should be no different. Me first," she said after setting up the electronic scoreboard with their names. Richard glanced up and sighed. Tonight's game would be bowled between Colonel Studmuffin and Diane Perish. It hardly seemed a fair match. After her first frame, which was a strike, he knew it was going to be a bad night for his male ego.
"Where did you learn to bowl like that?" he asked, all admiration for her oversetting the blow to his pride.
"I bowl every Tuesday night in a league..."
"Ahhh, that explains a lot. Didn't they miss you last week, though?"
"We're off for the summer. Your turn."
He barely pulled off a spare, but if he thought she would stand there gloating over her superior bowling skills, he was surprised. She jumped up and down with excitement as the last two pins went down, and then gave him a high five as she went to retrieve her ball.
For Richard, that first turn was a fluke, and he was barely knocking down the pins for the next few frames. Watching Diana bowl in that dress contributed to his inattendance, he feared, and he vowed next time not to bring her unless she was dressed in a shapeless tent.
The game continued in that vein until the seventh frame. Then Richard's bowling skills, dormant since college, kicked in and they were more evenly matched. Diana won the game, but again she did not gloat, only gave him a big hug for taking her out, and the two were in complete charity with one another as they returned their shoes and strolled out to the limo.
"That was fun. Let's do it again sometime," she told him without thinking as the car took them home.
"Yes, let's," he agreed. "You are an excellent bowler, Miss Perish."
"You aren't so bad yourself, Studmuffin Man, when you get into your groove." She had snuggled up against him and was getting sleepy. He put an arm around her and relaxed as well, reveling in the feel of her.
There would be time tomorrow to discuss their past, he thought as he heard her lightly snore. And then they could start to work on their future.
Day 8 (Sunday, Week II)
"Rise and shine, sleepy little love," Richard cooed, and Diana rolled over and covered her head. Let Richard get the - "Richard! What are you doing? The baby is at -" She heard him chuckle as he pulled the covers completely off her body.
"We've work to do, and I heard from Georgie and Shanti this morning that you have a present for me."
"No! Go away! Let me sleep!" she groused. Then she smelled coffee. She went perfectly still and inhaled loudly through her nose.
"Yes, dear, that's exactly what you think it is. Now get up!"
"But it's Sunday!"
"Well, welcome to the Twin Oaks Inn, sweetheart. Here, it's a day just like every other day, except that the big meal is served at lunch. Now, what should we serve today? We have to get going...Elizabeth is bringing the baby home after church."
That did it. "She is?" Diana jumped out of bed and started pulling on her robe and slippers. "Why didn't you say so? And I do have a present for you," she added, bringing out a bag from the baby boutique. "Georgie is a tattletale..."
She handed him the bag, sat back and watched with delight as he pulled out the carrier.
"Diana! It's perfect! I can put Sabrina up against my chest and still have my hands free to - to what?"
"Well, you can't cook like that... too dangerous. Load the washing machine? Sweep floors? Wipe tables? Fold towels?"
"I'll manage, I'm sure." Sweeping her into his arms, he gave her a swift kiss. "Thank you. Now get dressed, Pipsqueak. We have work to do."
Richard's entire extended family congregated at the inn after church, intent on eating their Sunday dinner together. To everyone's surprise, Will had the baby in his own carrier; he handed her over to Richard without any fuss. Then he gave Diana a hug and kiss, whispering his thanks for the privilege of baby-sitting the evening before. Elizabeth, too, gave her thanks for the opportunity, saying the twins were very eager to become aunt and uncle.
Heading out to the kitchen, Dr. Bennet announced his intention to help wait on the family; Georgie came out and said Gary had made roast chicken, mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus for lunch. She flagged down Richard, coming in from the bedroom, where he had set the sleeping baby, and said Candy had showed up for work.
"And?" he asked.
"And she shouldn't be here. She has a hefty shiner, and I think her boyfriend gave it to her. Will you go talk to her, please? She has already gone out to wait on tables..."
Richard sighed and headed to the dining room. "Candy?" he asked, and the waitress turned around. He whistled at the sight of her eye, still purple, and knew why she had called in sick the day before. "Whew! Are you OK? Want to talk about it?" The dining room was not full, and he saw Shanti coming out to take orders. Pulling Candy aside, he set her down at an empty table and suggested she tell him all about it.
"Dwayne... He hit me. Said I was encouraging Gary, and he wasn't having no two-timing..." She started to cry, and Richard did what he had always done for the females in his family. He put an arm about her shoulders and let her cry.
Diana, in the meantime, had taken in the situation at a glance and, like Georgie, let Richard handle it. She had no patience with a woman who let a man hit her, and she had no patience with tears.
She had no patience with the people from the Connecticut Suite, either, as they shoveled their food in too fast, the son especially uncouth in his eating habits. It was while she was watching them that disaster struck.
The kid, gnawing grossly on a chicken leg, suddenly began to choke. At first she thought he might swallow it, but then he turned purple, and then blue, and she jumped into action.
"He's choking!" she yelled at William and Dr. Bingley, and Will ran over and began to perform the Heimlich on the kid. Diana did not have much time to do more than glance at them, confident that the kid was being taken care of, when she heard Dr. Bennet and Gary hollering in the kitchen, and saw black smoke pouring into the dining room.
Choking herself now, on the smoke, she picked the dining room fire extinguisher off the wall and headed for the kitchen, where there was a fire on the gas stove. Telling someone to call 911, she pointed the extinguisher at the stove and sprayed out white foam.
Then there was a cry from the dining room - it was Candy and she was screaming "Dwayne, no! Dwayne, no!" Canister still in hand, Diana raced back to the other room, saw Lizzie and Jane evacuating the children, and realized Candy's boyfriend had tackled Richard and they were both on the dining room floor, punching each other.
"Stop it!" Diana hollered. "Stop it! You leave Richard alone!" she yelled. "You!" she said to Candy, who was staring at the two in fascinated horror, "Get out! Go on!" Without waiting to see if she was obeyed, she jumped into the fray, swinging the extinguisher and catching Dwayne in the head, knocking him out cold.
Candy, who had not left the room, cried out her boyfriend's name and tried to wake him up, but he was down for the count.
"Thanks, Pipsqueak," Richard said breathlessly.
"He must have caught you off guard," Diana said.
"What did you do to him?" Candy cried. "You've hurt him. Oh, Dwayne, honey, can you hear me? Look what you did!" She turned on Diana. "I thought you were my friend! How could you..."
Diana and Richard exchanged shrugs and went outside, where they could hear sirens. The police and fire departments had arrived, followed closely by an ambulance.
The kitchen and dining room, black with smoke, were declared closed, and Richard had the unenviable (or enviable, in his case) task of helping his guests find other accommodations. The Connecticut Suite guests threatened to sue him for their child choking on food, as if it had been his fault, until he reminded them that he had documented proof of the damages they had inflicted on their suite. They packed their bags quietly, under the supervision of a scowling Shanti, and left.
Dwyane was hauled away in a police car after several people came forward and said he had attacked the colonel with no cause, and Richard was of a mind to just let him stew in his own juices for awhile before dropping the charges. He called later and discussed the incident with his friend, the chief, and Dwayne never came near the inn again.
Gary was treated for a burned hand and sent home for the duration, and Candy was let go. Diana said she would have liked to have been the one doing the sacking, but Georgie insisted it was her job, and that Diana would probably end up choking the girl instead. Candy still insisted all the damage had been caused by Diana and her extinguisher.
Up in the front of the house, Sabrina slept through the entire ordeal.
"Well, here we are," Richard said that evening, curled up on the couch in the carriage house apartment, Diana in his arms. The baby was in her cradle in Georgie's old room and Shanti had been invited to stay at Pemberley Farms with the Darcys.
"Yes, here we are..."
"Diana, would you believe me if I told you that I want this engagement to be real?"
"Maybe..." she prevaricated, remembering the story Shanti had told her the day before.
"Perhaps I should have said 'sort of'?" She sat up and looked him in the eye. "Tell me something. Did you engage yourself to me for the baby's sake? Do you only want me so that you can have this baby and a mother for it, too?" She was getting worked up, now, so she took a deep breath and calmed herself down. She wasn't being fair to Richard, not giving him a chance to explain himself.
"I'm impressed, Diana."
"A few years ago, you would have already blown your stack, not giving me a chance for rebuttal at all."
"I haven't let you speak yet..."
"Yes, but you did calm down. I call that progress."
"Oh, yeah?" A dangerous glint sparkled in her green-gray eyes.
"Now, in answer to your questions," he continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "No, I did not get engaged to you for the baby's sake. I engaged you for mine, because if I just flat out tell you that I love you and want to marry you and live with and love you the rest of my life, you won't believe me. I do not consider you 'just a mother' for that child, either, although I think that the three of us have gotten off on the right foot as far as being a family is concerned." He would not look at Diana as he spoke, but if he had, he would have seen a suspicion of tears in her eyes. He got up from the sofa and paced what little living area there was in the room.
"You don't know this, but I am physically unable to father children. Is it too much to ask, then, that the three of us belong to each other? We need each other, damn it - you need me, and if you deny that, you're lying. I need you, too, and not just to mother a child I did not think I was ever going to be able to have. We both need that baby, and she definitely needs us. I don't care what we did or didn't do the night of my retirement party, or before that on the airstrip, or several days ago when we argued. I want to start now - right now!" he insisted, "and if it means a long engagement until you feel comfortable enough to get married, then so be it!"
He stomped off into his room and slammed the door, heedless of the sleeping baby, or the woman sitting on the sofa with tears of joy streaming down her face.
A few moments later, Diana wiped her face, blew her nose and went to check on the baby. Sabrina was sleeping peacefully. Reassured, Diana opened her suitcase and dug through her belongings for the perfect outfit. Sweat pants and a T-shirt? Hardly the stuff a seduction was made of, she thought miserably. Her granny nightgown was an equal bust. She was looking through her lingerie, disgusted with the pile of white cotton panties and bras she found there, and then discovered a plastic bag on the bottom. She had never seen it before.
Reaching inside, she drew in breath as she pulled out a mint green silk nightgown. It had a v-neck and no sleeves, and it fell in one graceful fold past the knees. A little white card dropped to the floor, and Diana almost began crying all over again when she read the note:
There will come a time in the near future when I know you are gonna wish you had one of these. I hope now is that time. Use it with joy. With much love,
Ahhh, was there ever a sister as wonderful as she? Flying into the bathroom, the gown streaming behind her like a banner, she took a quick shower and brushed her teeth. Once she was sure she was completely dry, she threw the gown over her head and slithered into it with a sigh.
The top part of it fit like a glove, the skirt of it loose and flowing, and it was, thoughtfully, a petite. No need to worry about tripping over the hem. When in the world had Shanti bought this? Before she sent her on this wild treasure hunt to Connecticut? While she was in New York? The day before at the boutique? Trying not to think about it too hard, she fluffed out her curls, walked solemnly to Richard's bedroom door and knocked.
"What?" he said crossly.
"Can I come in?"
"Will you come out?"
"Not even for Sabrina?" She said that little white lie with her fingers crossed, knowing, technically, that she was doing this for Sabrina as well as herself.
"What? What's wrong?" He flung open the door and almost ran her over in his worry about the baby. But he was brought up short by the sight of her in the green nightgown.
"Actually, she doesn't need you right now. But she will later," she said impishly. "Her first word...her first steps...her first day of preschool..." As she talked, she backed him into his room. "The day we adopt her a baby brother or sister..."
Richard eyed her suspiciously. "What brought all this on?"
"Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it was the thought that you didn't remember anything about that night of your retirement party..." Here she faltered, unable to continue along those lines. "Actually, I don't remember anything either. I made up anything I said the other night because I was angry with you. I was downstairs in the ballroom that evening, and Shanti kept plying me with..." She thought about that one for a moment and then she saw red. "I'm gonna kill her!"
Stalking out, she went to her room and began rummaging around her bag for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. "If I was her size, I'd beat her into the ground. I'm still gonna kick her...where the hell are my car keys?"
"With the car at the mechanic's," Richard drawled from the doorway. "But we can take the van."
"Because I'm gonna help you kick Shanti to the curb, that's why!"
Diana started laughing. The thought of the two of them against Shanti was too funny. Chuckling, Richard strolled in and took her in his arms. "So that's not a good idea, huh?"
"No, I don't think so. I don't think we would get too far... Richard?" She just realized he was holding her, and she looked up into his darkened eyes. "I...we...I..."
"Shhhh!" He looked down at her nightgown and grinned. "I can't believe you put this on just for me. Nice..." She tossed her curls in righteous indignation.
"You know it's better than 'nice'! But now that we've gotten this far, what are you gonna do about it?"
Richard's grin was wicked. "Do about it? Not a thing. Someone has to protect your reputation. Good night," he called, leaving the room. "Don't worry about the baby. Leave your door open so I can listen for her, please." He went to his room, left his door open, too, and crawled into his bed. It was only then she realized he was wearing pajama bottoms and was ready to go to sleep. "See you in the morning," he called, and turned out his light.
Disgruntled, but amused just the same, Diana left the slinky gown on, climbed into her bed and turned off the light. "Good night," she whispered. She lay there for about two seconds, threw off the covers and then got up and went into Richard's room.
"Yes?" he drawled in the dark.
"I don't want to be alone," she whined almost convincingly. "Can I sleep with you?"
"OK, but don't make a habit of this. Come on." She heard the whisper of his sheets as he pulled them back for her, and then she was down under them, nestled up next to his warm body. "Now go to sleep," he told her. "And if you behave yourself, I'll try not to wake you when Sabrina gets up."
"OK," she said drowsily, and went right off to dreamland. For Richard, though, sleep was a long time coming.
Day 9 (Monday, Week II)
"Good morning..." Richard whispered just above Diana's ear. At first she thought he was talking to her, but he wasn't. "Be vewy, vewy qwiet," he said in his best Elmer Fudd voice. "I'm hunting wabbits..."
Diana giggled to herself. What in the world was he doing? She heard a distinct gurgle and realized he was talking to the baby. No, she corrected herself, now he was singing to the baby, still in the Elmer Fudd voice.
Rolling over, she found Richard sitting up on the bed, his legs bent and the baby being propped up against them, watching him with her mouth open as he played the fool for her benefit.
"I'll bet Uncle Will was nowhere near this funny, was he? Was he?" he asked the little girl. She just stared at him in wonder, and Diana noticed Richard was doing the same in return.
"Is this a private game, or can three play?"
"Look! Mommy wants to play!" Richard cooed at the baby. "And here I thought Mommy wanted to go over to the farm this morning and kick Aunt Shanti's, er, um, backside..."
Diana groaned. "Funny how that does not seem like such a good idea in broad daylight. What am I going to do with her?"
"I think we need to go over there so the two of you can talk. I know. We'll pack an early supper, take the baby down by the creek and invite her along. Then, if we have to dispose of her body, there will be fewer witnesses."
"In the meantime..."
"In the meantime, we have a kitchen to put back in order."
Diana groaned again. "Do we have to?"
Richard rolled toward her, baby in his arms. "No, we could stay here and indulge in family snuggle time..." Wrapping an arm around her, he pulled Diana closer.
"I'd like that. Did you really mean what you said last night?"
"What did I say last night?" he asked innocently.
"Richard! I have an excellent memory..."
"Except when you don't," he teased, remembering her admission the evening before. "I don't advise you to drink and think."
"...and you said, 'I love you and want to marry you and live with and love you the rest of my life,'" she continued, ignoring him.
She was gratified when Richard loomed over her, baby between them, and kissed her. "I meant every word. Now," he said briskly, "shall we put on some old clothes and get to work? That kitchen wall has to be scrubbed, and the stove checked, and..."
"I get it. OK," she agreed. "What time is it? Ten o'clock! Oh, no!"
"What? What's your hurry?"
"I've never slept this late in my life!"
"There is always a first time for everything," he told her, staring intently with glowing blue eyes, and she got the impression he was not just talking about sleeping in. A little shiver ran down her spine at the thought.
"I have to make a few phone calls this afternoon, clients and such. It's not going to be easy moving everything up to Connecticut, no matter how easy it sounds on paper." She was amazed, however, at how easy it was to say. No lingering doubts, no worries about the past...and she would not worry about the future, either. Not yet. For now, it was enough that she was there, and he was there, and they had the baby.
Richard, without a word, kissed her till she was breathless. "That was easy, too," he told her, and then set about getting ready for the day.
Richard, Diana and Georgie spent several hours scrubbing down the kitchen, fielding phone calls from concerned customers and family members, and discussing plans for the future. Mrs. Hill also had called and scheduled a meeting with them for 2 o'clock.
"If it's OK with you two," Richard said at one point, "I'd like to buy out Georgie's share of the business."
"Really?" Georgie asked. "I mean, we talked about this a bit before the wedding, and I really would like to stay on and help, but one of these days I'm going to be a stay-at-home mom to my own brood and not want to rush over here for more than a cup of sugar. Alex and I have discussed this, of course, and he says I may do whatever I wish, which is very sweet of him. Maybe I will just stay home and sell my baked goods to the restaurant. Will said he had advised you not to reopen the lodgings, but to concentrate instead on the restaurant. I like it."
"So do I," Richard agreed. "I plan on us living upstairs and turning the downstairs room into a larger office. We can rent out the apartment, or we can keep it empty, whichever we choose. What do you think, Diana?"
"Wha? Oh, you're actually consulting me?" She thought he had been including her in the conversation out of politeness. "I say it's your money, Richard, and you may do whatever you wish with it. If Georgie wants to sell out her share, it should not be sold to a stranger."
"I had hoped you would say that. I'll call my attorney this afternoon and get the paperwork started. We'll put a desk in the office for you, too, Diana, for your own business, and leave the little office behind the desk for restaurant employees to use."
When Mrs. Hill came to the inn that afternoon, she was horrified to see it was closed, and immediately questioned allowing two unemployed people to adopt a child.
"For your information, Mrs. Hill," Diana exclaimed, drawing herself up as far as five feet and three inches will allow, "I have my own consulting firm, and remain firmly employed!"
"Self-employment!" the social worker said with a sniff, running one finger along the dining room table where she had been seated. "Colonel? Besides what is probably a meager military pension, you have..."
"I have this in the bank," he said calmly, and showed her the balance in his checkbook. She whistled softly. "And that is the balance on this checkbook, Mrs. Hill. I like to think I manage my inheritance and my investments wisely."
"OK," she said slowly, having been put firmly in her place. "And here are the papers that must be signed by George Wickham, as father of this child. You are going to have to make your own arrangements as far as visiting and signing are concerned." She seemed to think this beyond them once more, which Diana thought rather foolish of the woman. Didn't she see she was dealing with Richard here? The man accomplished anything he set his mind to.
Richard took the papers and set them aside. Looking Mrs. Hill squarely in the eye, he said, "This child will be ours. We will be in touch. Good day, Mrs. Hill."
The two women watched as he got up from the table and regally walked back into the kitchen. A wail from the front bedroom, however, spoiled the effect somewhat as he went dashing back through the other way to tend to the baby. Diana smiled. The man had his priorities straight.
It was late afternoon, and the summer sun was still high when Richard, Diana and Sabrina arrived at the farm with a picnic lunch and the multitude of baby equipment needed to take an infant on an outing. Shanti waited on the front porch with even more food packed by a generous Mrs. Reynolds. Diana watched as Richard strolled into the barn and she wondered if he was going to appropriate a horse to play pack mule for what she understood to be a pleasant stroll down to the creek.
To her amazement, he came back in a golf cart, the twins riding on the back as far as the house before they clambered off and with shouted greetings, ran into the house.
"I told them it was a private matter," Richard explained softly to Diana when Shanti wondered why they weren't coming along. "And that they could come down and play with the baby in about an hour."
She nodded, decided against the stroller and began to put the folded travel crib and a beach umbrella on the back of the cart.
Shanti, of course, insisted on driving, and Diana was relegated to holding on to equipment on the back of the cart while Richard and the baby sat up front.
"It is not far from here," Richard told her as she clutched the back of the cart.
"It's beautiful," she had to agree when they arrived. The clearing was surrounded by a ring of old oaks, the far end giving off to a little beachy area next to a busy, bubbling creek.
She and Shanti followed Richard to the edge of the creek, where it was shady, and he set up the umbrella just in case, and set the baby on a blanket underneath. The girls brought over the food and other baby accessories, and they all settled down on a larger blanket and lolled about, in no hurry to eat.
"So," Diana began, "Richard and I talked last night," she said nonchalantly to Shanti.
"Uh huh... About time," came Shanti's drowsy reply.
"Yeah. Funny thing about the night of Richard's retirement party..."
She had some of Shanti's attention now. One eye was half open.
"Funny thing about it was how neither he nor I could ever recall what happened..." Diana finished that line off with a little chuckle designed to sound amused.
"You don't say," Shanti drawled.
"Well, actually, I did say. Several nights before - only I was wrong. Nothing happened, did it?"
"Are you sure about that?"
Richard, with the wisdom of his years, kept his mouth shut through all of this.
"Yes, upon reflection, I am."
"Good!" Shanti replied, sitting up. She began rummaging through the hampers. "That's settled then, let's eat!"
"Whoa, hold on there, Amazon Lady! I wasn't finished," Diana told her. "You let me believe all these years, that he, that I, that we... How could you?"
"Why not?" Shanti shrugged. She refused to feel guilty. "It brought you back together again."
Diana looked at Richard, who looked back at her and gave a shrug of her own. If Shanti wasn't going to rise to the argument, and it looked like she wasn't, there was no sense beating a dead horse. Diana, however, had one trump card.
"Thanks for the fancy nightgown, Shanti - I put it to good use last night!"
Shanti had the good grace to blush as red as her dark skin would allow, and Richard and Diana laughed out loud as they began helping set the food out on the blanket.
The twins showed up later, and helped polish off the food, and then asked them all to come up to the house and visit with Elizabeth, who was feeling fat and cranky, the children said. They insisted that they were repeating Will's words, but somehow Richard could not see him saying that about Elizabeth. Ever. Not and live to see his child born, anyway.
Shanti, though, took one look at the dark BMW parked in the driveway upon their return, and began making excuses for not going into the main part of the house. She kept insisting Mrs. Reynolds would be fussing about the hampers, but then Mrs. R. came out for them herself, and Shanti was roped into accompanying them inside.
Richard seemed to have sensed the reason for Shanti's unease even before they entered the house, and Diana took one look at the tall, dark-skinned gentleman seated with Will and Lizzie and knew why.
"Mark Robinson," he introduced himself to Diana. "Richard's attorney. He called and said you would be here this afternoon, and as I have been advising William on something else, I thought I could kill to birds with one stone. Miss Williams," he said and nodded at Shanti, and Diana watched as her friend blushed for the second time that day. "Here are those papers, Richard, I suggest you and Miss Forrester review them before I make arrangements for the biological father to sign the baby over to you. Those other papers will be ready by Friday afternoon." He handed an envelope to Richard, and then excused himself to meet with Will in another room.
"What are those?" Lizzie wanted to know.
"The papers I need Wickham to sign to release Sabrina to us. If they are in order, I will be paying a call to our favorite embezzler and attacker of women on Wednesday."
Lizzie sighed. "Good luck."
Day 10 (Tuesday, Week II)
Georgie had planned a month ago what she was going to do for Lizzie's baby shower. However, she gladly altered those arrangements slightly to allow for the closing of the inn and for the addition of Sabrina and Diana to the family. Actually, the fire had done her a huge favor. Now, with no guests to annoy, and vice versa, she didn't have to scrimp on the activities she had planned.
The cleaning downstairs continued, and then Georgie found time in the afternoon, after Diana and Sabrina had gone to the apartment to take a nap, to set up for the event.
The evening started innocently enough. Georgie had roped Richard into helping her prepare an elegant meal for Jane, Lizzie, Maria, Diana, Shanti and herself, and she was very generous with the bruschetta, chicken Marsala, Caesar salad and triple chocolate brownies, as well as the wine. Then everyone sat around and watched as first Lizzie, and then a very surprised Diana, opened baby gifts.
Diana was pleased to note that a good portion of her gifts had come from that exclusive baby boutique, and that among them were items the ladies had initially said were presents for Elizabeth. She should have known Lizzie was not going to require multiple pink outfits when she did not even know if her baby was a boy or a girl.
Georgie topped that portion of the evening off with more sweets and champagne, and by the time all the ladies except Lizzie had gotten a good buzz, she was herding a giggling crew up to the top floor, where the two suites were opened up into each other and more delights were planned.
"It's slumber party time!" Georgie announced, throwing open the door to the Connecticut Suite to reveal a karaoke machine, more champagne and a pile of lingerie boxes.
"I can't spend the night!" Jane wailed. "What about my children?"
"Taken care of," Georgie promptly replied. "The guys are babysitting overnight next door. OK - any other questions?"
"But I don't have anything to wear!" Jane protested. Georgie sighed. Who knew Jane whined when she had too much to drink?
"I gotcha covered, girlfriend," she told her. "Here." She walked over to the lingerie boxes and opened the one on top. "My gift to you, ladies. Baby doll pajamas!"
"Oooh!" Maria squealed. "I love lingerie!"
"This yellow one goes to Diana," Georgie began, and threw the box at her. "And emerald green for Shanti. Hey, this pink one is a tent! Must be for Lizzie," she joked, and tossed that box to her scowling sister-in-law. "This one is mine..." She held up a white set. "And the black one is for Maria. Janie, you get baby blue. Did I leave anyone out? OK, next I want everyone to take their cell phone and throw it in this box." She held up a box for inspection and tossed her own phone in. "If one rings, we will spin the bottle to see who answers. When you answer, you have to use a sexy voice and say something naughty."
After everyone quit groaning, Georgie left them to change into their nighties and went into the adjoining suite, where she had bedding of every sort arranged, harem-style, all over the place. "We'll sleep in here," she called. "After we sing!"
"I get the bed," Lizzie insisted, rubbing her lower back. "At least part of it."
"Or most of it," Georgie quipped. "Whatever you need. I have another bottle of that sparking apple cider in the cooler over there for you, too."
"You think of everything," Lizzie told her. "But don't you dare go to sleep, Georgiana Bailey... bad things happen to sleepover organizers who try to snooze at their own parties..."
Just then, a phone rang in the other room, and the ladies all squealed.
"I got the first one," Shanti insisted. "You can spin the bottle next time, Legs." Picking up the phone, which was Diana's, she looked at the caller ID and started to laugh. "This is gonna be good. Hello," she said in a rich, throaty voice that sounded very similar to her friend's. "Welcome to Diana's Hot Tubs. I let my hands roam under the foam, baybee."
"I'll be right over!" everyone heard Richard shout, and they howled. "Diana? Diana?" he said when all he heard was laughter.
"Give me that!" Diana said with a sigh. "What!" she demanded into the phone. "No, that wasn't me! Didn't you recognize Shanti's voice? In the diaper bag," she told him. "Bye." There was more laughter when she hung up and blithely tossed her phone back into the box.
"How long do you think it will take them to catch on to our little game?" Lizzie wanted to know.
"Who cares? Now, it's time to sing. Maria, you go first."
"OK." She flipped through the selection list while Georgie cranked up the machine.
"Oh, one more thing!" Georgie cried. "I want to make a souvenir of this for everyone!" Reaching in the closet, she pulled out a camcorder, already mounted on a tripod and ready to go.
"Oh, no!" Lizzie moaned. "I look...big!"
"You look pregnant, honey," Jane told her. "I look big."
"Nonsense!" Georgie replied. "You both look terrific. Janie, no one could ever tell you've had three kids."
Jane blushed. "Yes, and possibly one more this year..."
"What?" Everyone was all over Jane in a heartbeat, demanding details.
"I'm not telling you everything," she said with a grin. "Let a girl have a few secrets. However, I can say there might be a chance we are going to have another one. I've been this maybe route before, though, and..."
"...and now you have three kids!" Georgie finished for her. "Come on, everyone. What are you going to sing, Maria?"
An hour and three champagne bottles later, after Diana sang "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)" and Lizzie had belted out "Like a Virgin," a phone rang once more.
Georgie quickly grabbed one of the empties and gave it a good spin, watching with her own satisfaction as it landed on Jane.
"Oh, dear." Jane bit her lip as she answered Lizzie's phone.
"Hello, Dr. Darcy," she purred. "I'm in need of emergency care, and only you can resuscitate me..."
"Hi, Jane. How's my wife?"
"Who needs just a plain old wife, Will, when you could have Jane Bingley, domestic goddess?" she asked in a breathless voice.
"What have you been drinking? Hey, Bingley! You're wife is plastered again! Sounds like you would get a very warm reception if you slipped on over to the inn right about now... Come on, Jane, let me talk to Elizabeth."
"There's no Elizabeth here right now, but if you'll leave your name, number and current location, we'll get back to you as soon as possible. Beeeep!" She hung up the phone and tossed it back into the box, ignoring Lizzie's pout.
"But I wanted to talk to Will!"
"Where therez a Will, therez a way," slurred Shanti. Everyone giggled.
"What do you want to do next?" Georgie asked. "I'm not out of party ideas by a long shot, and we can always go next door and toilet paper the porch..."
"Let's play truth or dare," Maria suggested. Georgie agreed, and said she would go first. Looking around the room, she thought Diana could wait until they got warmed up, but she was going to have to answer a few questions...
"Lizzie - truth or dare?"
"Is it true that the first time you met Will, you thought he was so arrogant you stuck your tongue out at him?"
Everyone laughed, and Lizzie admitted that yes, Dr. Darcy had been absolutely horrid that night, and deserved everything he got. It was her turn, so she looked at Jane.
"Jane, truth or dare?"
"Aw, nuts! What am I going to dare her? I know - I dare her to go next door in her new outfit and show it to Charles on the front porch."
Shanti dug through the cell phones until she came to one that had Dr. Bingley listed in its directory, and dialed the number.
"Hey, Chuck!" she called into the phone. "Janie has a surprise for ya. Go out on the porch and wait for her."
Everyone trooped out of the inn, flitting across the already damp lawn like a bunch of scantily-clad fairies, Lizzie waddling in the rear. But she had a secret weapon. Revenge was so sweet, she thought with an evil chuckle, whipping out her cell phone and giving William a quick call so that when Jane got to the porch, someone would turn on the light and show all the women in their jammies.
Not going any further than the edge of the inn itself, she got her desired effect and was rewarded with a bunch of screaming women running back to the safety of the inn. Hiding the phone in her baby-doll bottoms, she waddled back in with the rest of them and then announced she was going to bed.
"Awww, Lizzie, we're just getting started," Georgie protested.
"You are just getting started. I'm finished!"
"Remember what you said about going to sleep at a sleepover," Georgie reminded her.
"I said you had to be worried, not me." Yawning, she made her way into the other bedroom and got comfortable on the bed, Georgie watching her carefully to make sure she was OK. "If I'm this awkward at the end of six months," she admitted to her sister-in-law, "imagine me toddling around in November!"
Georgie reached down and kissed her cheek. "Maybe it's twins. They run in your family." At the horror-stricken look on Lizzie's face, Georgie relented. "Anyway, you look beautiful. But that's why I didn't buy you the yellow outfit. I didn't want Will to think he had married a duck."
"Georgiana Bailey!" Lizzie cried, and before Georgie knew it a pillow hit her squarely in the face.
"Yikes!" Georgie yelled. "Didya have to go and-" Lizzie hit her again.
The next thing they knew, all the ladies were in there, throwing pillows at each other and whacking each other on the legs, the arms, heads, rears or wherever they could reach.
Lizzie finally shouted at them to quit, and let her sleep, and once they had calmed down and had shut the connecting doors so that Lizzie might rest, Georgie brought the game back to Truth or Dare.
"Truth or dare, Maria?" Diana asked.
"Is it true that Georgie had you come to the inn for dinner last Monday night so she could find out what I was like?"
Georgie had the grace to blush, and Maria nodded, which sent everyone into a fit of the giggles.
"Truth or dare, Shanti?" Maria wanted to know.
"Truth?" Everyone threw pillows at Shanti, but Diana leaned over and whispered something in Maria's ear and she grinned.
"OK - is it true that you have the hots for Richard's attorney?"
They all squealed. "Mark Robinson is one hot lawyer," Jane said with a burp. Shanti did not blush, like she had the day before, but she nodded and would not look anyone in the face, which had Diana cackling like mad.
A phone in the box began to ring, and Georgie grabbed the bottle, which landed on Shanti. Shanti picked up Diana's phone again, this time without looking, and answered it with a sexy drawl. "This is Diana Forrester, Twin Oaks Inn, how may I serve you? What?" Shanti yelped and dropped the phone like a hot potato. "It's Mark Robinson!" she hissed, sending everyone off into gales of laughter. Diana answered it correctly, had a short, polite conversation without laughing, although it was a major struggle, and then pitched the phone back into the box.
"Truth or dare, Shanti?" Diana asked.
"Ok - tell the truth about the first time you met Mark Robinson."
"Come on, that's the rule, girlfriend. Gotta tell the truth or take the dare. And before you even answer that, I dare you to tell the truth," Diana taunted.
Shanti, who could never resist a dare, nodded.
"OK, Pipsqueak. Listen up, though, 'cause I'm never telling this again!" Everyone moved in a little closer. "Last year, when I came for a visit, I was helping Legs and Studmuffin with the housekeeping and such, because they give me a room free when I do. Anyway, there was some party the night before and some of the guys stayed here overnight because they had had too much to drink. I didn't know that, and there was no 'do not disturb' sign on the door, so I just walked in without knocking and found the most gorgeous black man in existence sleeping in the buff. I must have made some sound..."
"Probably cursed out loud," Diana interjected. She got a frown from Shanti and chuckles from everyone else.
"Anyway, he sat up and told me I was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen and would I marry him." There was a collective sigh from everyone else.
"Of course, I said no, that he musta still been drunk, turned around and left. He asked me three more times that day, before he left. I said no all three times. He came back that night and asked me out to dinner. I went, and had to turn down another proposal from that man! He asked me at least once a day for the next four days, and then I went home."
"Has he asked you yet on this visit?" Maria wanted to know.
"No," Shanti admitted, "although I fully expect him to before I leave. I need to be able to turn him down again, just because I can!" No one knew what else to say and there was a moment of silence.
"Truth or dare, Diana," Georgie suddenly called.
"Oh, nuts," Georgie admitted to Shanti. "I was hoping she'd say truth."
"You don't know Miss Daredevil very well, then, do you?"
"What should we dare her to do?"
Shanti leaned over and whispered something in her ear, and Georgie's grin split her face from ear to ear. "Good one! OK," she told Diana. "I dare you to get married to Richard this coming Saturday afternoon."
Diana paled, but she thrust her stubborn little chin in the air and tried not to grin.
"I accept that dare and offer a challenge to you and Shanti in return. I double dog dare ya to pull off a wedding for me by Saturday!"
Shanti and Georgie grinned at each other with unholy glee. "We accept!" Georgie cried.
Day 11 (Wednesday, Week II)
Richard and Sabrina came back over to the inn the next morning to find the kitchen empty and the sound of giggles coming from the dining room. He peeked in and there were Diana and Elizabeth, sharing a pot of herbal tea, a plate of toast and early morning confidences. His heart turned over at the sight, but he was glad they had not come downstairs in those little skimpy things they had been wearing while cavorting on the lawn the night before.
"And then Richard said 'Forrester, could you at least wait until the general is out of the can?'" Diana was saying.
Elizabeth went off into peals of laughter at the punch line, and Richard chose that moment to enter. He thought he might be interrupting, but Diana saw him and actually ran over to him and gave him and the baby a big hug.
"Guess what?" she said, pulling his face down for a kiss and not giving him a chance to answer. "We're getting married Saturday!" She dropped a kiss on the baby's head for good measure.
"We are? What brought all this on?" he couldn't help but ask, and Elizabeth started laughing again. He looked to her for corroboration.
"I can't actually tell you," she admitted. "I had already gone to bed."
Richard unstrapped the baby from his chest and gave her to a willing Diana, and then went into the kitchen for his coffee. Bringing it back into the dining room, he set one chair in front of another, swung his long legs up into the facing chair and then looked at the ladies.
"I want to hear all about last night. I've only heard snatches, although I was looking out the window when Jane was on the porch."
Lizzie snickered. "That was a good one!"
"And whose idea was it to play games with the cell phones?"
Lizzie and Diana grinned. "Georgie!" they said together.
"I should have known. Speaking of which, where are the others? Still sleeping it off?"
"We suppose..." Diana said, the baby on her shoulder. "Well?" she asked.
"Aren't you going to say anything about us getting married Saturday?"
"Nope. Sounds like a good idea and a done deal, to me. What time, and how formally should I dress? Do you want me to whip up a family dinner the night before?"
"Two, semi-formal and yes, please," Diana promptly replied. "And you get to plan the honeymoon. Oh, and Mark Robinson must definitely be invited!"
"Our attorney?" Lizzie asked. "He's a nice guy, but why?"
"You had gone to bed last night before we got around to Shanti's Truth or Dare question," Diana said, beginning to tell the tale.
"Truth or Dare?" Richard started choking. "You played Truth or Dare?"
"Isn't that what you're supposed to play at slumber parties?" Georgie wanted to know, coming in the dining room in shorts and a T-shirt, her blond hair unruly. She was rubbing her eyes. "Wait. Don't tell this until I get some coffee." She headed for the kitchen and returned a few moments later with a steaming cup, and, surprisingly, Alex, who had chosen that moment to appear at the back door. The two walked over to the table with their arms about each other's waists. "OK, now whom were we talking about?"
"Shanti," Diana said with an evil grin. "I wonder if you know about her and Mr. Robinson," she asked Richard. "After all, it happened here last year."
"What happened?" He was bewildered.
"I didn't know, either," Georgie added. "Until last night."
"Seems Shanti saw Mr. Robinson when she was here last year. And I mean she really saw him... And evidently it was love at first sight on his part, and he has proposed a zillion times since then!" Diana told him, delight evident in her voice.
"No!" Richard's jaw had dropped to his chest. Alex started to chuckle.
"Yes!" Georgie crowed. "And she won't accept him, although I've never seen Shanti blush like she did last night."
"I have," Richard and Diana said in unison. "The other night at the farm, when Mark was there," Richard added.
"Hmmm," Lizzie said. "This could be interesting. Do you think he will propose again?"
"Now that he knows she is in town, who knows?" said Georgie.
"Who knows who is in town?" Will asked, coming in from the kitchen with a cup of coffee of his own. Sitting down next to his wife, he gave her a kiss.
"We're talking about Shanti," Georgie told her brother. "Seems she and Mark have quite the history. He proposes and she refuses."
"Indeed? Mark has never even mentioned Shanti to me." He looked at Richard, who shrugged.
"Me, neither, cuz."
"Did you tell Richard the good news?" Georgie demanded of Diana. She nodded.
"Yup, and Saturday is OK with him. Oh, Richard, I forgot to tell you. Georgie and Shanti are the wedding planners."
"Wedding?" Alex asked. Georgie looked at her husband and smiled.
"I dared Diana to get married to Richard this Saturday, and then she dared Shanti and I to pull it all together. Sounds like I have my work cut out for me! Good thing I stayed awake all night making lists." She shot a glance at Elizabeth, who could not help but smirk.
"I told you, Georgie, that the slumber party hostess was not allowed to sleep at her own party!"
"I didn't know it was going to be such hard work!"
"I got a call last night from Mark Robinson," Diana told Richard later, after everyone but Shanti had gone home. They were all back in the dining room, discussing how best to redecorate.
"I know," he said, his lips pursed together. "This is not going to be pretty."
"What isn't?" Shanti wanted to know.
"Getting Wickham to sign the adoption papers. Especially if he thinks any one of my family wants the baby." He explained about Wickham's past misdeeds, especially pertaining to Georgie, and Diana and Shanti looked stricken until Richard told them of his cousin's physical defeat of that man.
"Georgie was mortified at having kicked him right in the- she was at a party at Alex's parents' house, and had just met them for the first time. But now that you have met Mrs. Bailey, Diana - she thought it just the right touch." Diana nodded. Alex's mom would have been delighted, she was certain.
"Are you sure he will listen to me, Richard?"
"He won't even know who you are. How can he not sign the papers for you?"
Easier said than done, she thought several hours later as she stood in a chamber at the state penitentiary in Wethersford, staring with interest at a dark-haired man in an orange prison jumpsuit being led in by his own lawyer and a prison guard. Mark Robinson sat in an adjacent room watching through a two-way mirror, Richard at his side. The man seemed to have sized her up the minute he saw her, and refused to talk, let alone sign papers.
Every time Diana tried to open her mouth, he would make a funny noise, and then laugh as if she were the biggest idiot in the world. Maybe she was, she thought. Wickham's lawyer rolled her eyes and refused to comment. She had, of course, informed her client of this lady's intent, and he had smoothly agreed to meet her. This, however, was not going as planned.
Finally, Diana had had enough, rose from the table and told the lawyer she was much too busy to play these games, completely ignoring the inmate. Turning to leave, she heard the man whisper something to his lawyer.
"He wants to know how much you are willing to pay?"
"How much does he want?" she asked, looking at the lawyer and avoiding Mr. Wickham's smarmy gaze.
"Ten thousand dollars," the lawyer whispered.
"Done." In her mind, she could just see Richard jumping out of his chair in the other room, sure she was off her rocker. She wasn't, but never even having had a discussion with the man about money, she thought he was probably upset. Actually, she had half that amount in the bank, but if she could sell her home in New Jersey, there would be plenty of money for the adoption and to relocate to Connecticut.
"Done?" The lawyer seemed taken aback, but said nothing, only watched as Diana insisted the paperwork be drawn up as soon as possible so she could finalize the adoption.
Outside, she waited for the two men in the hall, and she realized she was trembling.
Richard, spying her first, ran up to her and gave her a hug. "You were magnificent!" he exclaimed, and gave her a kiss. "Go find your own woman," he told Mark over his shoulder. Then he blushed, remembering that Mark had found his own woman - Shanti. Diana laughed.
"I think he already has. Richard," she began as they headed down the hall, "I did not mean to offer so much money. I have about half of that, and I can raise the other...what's so funny?"
Richard was laughing, even as he propelled her down the hall, an arm about her shoulder. "Remind me to show you my portfolio sometime, Pipsqueak."
"Oh. Are you laughing because I'm worth more than you because you make bad investments? Or because my net worth is a drop in the bucket compared to yours?"
"Mine, yours, it's all ours, sweetheart. Let's just say we are getting ourselves a baby."
Diana let out a whoop and gave Richard a fierce hug.
Down the hall, a grinning Wickham's smile got even wider as he saw the little lady give Richard Fitzwilliam a hug. Then they led him away.
Mark, however, stopped an ecstatic Richard and Diana cold. "I wouldn't celebrate just yet, nor would I fork over any money before we know all the facts. Unless that money is going to pay some expenses related to the baby or its birth, you cannot buy a baby - that's illegal. However, if we can show proof Wickham wants to sell the baby, that's even more illegal, and we could put him away for a very long time..."
Day 12 (Thursday, Week II)
The phone rang early the next morning, and Richard rolled over and answered the extension next to his bed.
"Fitzwilliam," he said, no longer giving the inn's name. "Mark! How goes everything? The license, the adoption, the transfer of sale..." He listened for a moment and then sat straight up in bed. "What? He didn't! He wouldn't! That, that, slimeball!"
Diana came in at that moment with the baby. "Who's a slimeball?"
"What? Oh, yeah, that's great. Heh heh heh. What? No, I don't think so... Yes, I do believe Diana and I would be willing to give witness to - what? Oh, no, no, no, I am not subjecting Diana to that sorry excuse for a human being ever again!"
Diana glowed with pleasure at his words. She was sure he was talking about Wickham, but the instinct to protect her was there.
"Well, if I must, I must. That means another trip to Wethersford... Shanti? If you think it would help," he replied and gave Diana a thumbs-up sign in answer to her grin. "I'll let her drive."
He hung up after another quick conversation and then patted the bed, inviting Diana and Sabrina to join him, which they promptly did.
"So! I take it we are going to nab ourselves a bad guy? He gives me the creeps!" Diana shuddered and Richard put an arm around her and pulled her and the baby to his chest.
"I don't like this, but it's the only way we are going to get this baby... and we can put him away for even longer than he already is. I'm all for that."
"Me, too. Richard?"
"Does Mark want me to be wired? It's not the first time I've done this. Most of my consulting is passive. You know, check the premises and then advise on the best systems needed for each facility. However, I've been known to hire guards to cover public events, and I've been asked by a private investigator friend to wear a wire and help collect information. I'm not very proud of that - makes me feel awful - but when it is necessary..."
"What are you trying to say, sweetheart?"
"I'm saying I'll do whatever it takes to keep this jerk away from our daughter for the rest of our lives."
"I like a woman with attitude!"
"I know. That's why you're marrying me!"
"Diana! Roses or daisies?" Georgie wanted to know as soon as Diana entered the kitchen, the baby strapped to her chest.
"Whichever is easier to obtain. In another hundred years no one is going to know. Hell, no one is going to remember next week what flowers I had at my wedding!"
"Oh. OK, if you don't mind then... Roses it is," Georgie said brightly. "Now, what color is your dress."
"Your wedding dress, silly!" Jane said, coming into the room with three children in tow. "But she doesn't know yet, Georgie, because we're just now going shopping. What do you think of periwinkle blue?"
"Looks great on Pipsqueak," Shanti insisted, walking in the back door. "Anything but white - too stark for her complexion. Those bridesmaids dresses, though, make those darker."
"Bridesmaids?" Diana was startled. "Who had said anything about bridesmaids?"
"Yep, we're having those, too, but don't you worry about a thing. Ready to go shopping?" Jane replied.
"I can't! I have to go back to Wethersford today and...you know... and Shanti has to come, too. Mark said so."
"He did?" Shanti lowered her gaze. Diana could only stare at her friend. "What else did he say?"
"He said 'Shanti, will you marry me?'" Diana teased, to be rewarded by a big smile.
"Nope. Not today. Not to me, at any rate. Sorry, Amazon. Better luck next time."
"Ready to go?" Richard asked, popping his head in the back door. "Shanti coming?"
"After I take this girl out and kick her -"
"Shanti!" Jane fussed. "There are children present!"
Diana repeated her teasing words to Richard and he laughed. "Wait a minute, Shanti." He took the baby from Diana. "Now you can kick her -"
"Richard!" Jane yelled this time.
Diana sighed. "Will you go shopping with me tomorrow morning, Jane?"
"It will have to be tomorrow morning," Georgie insisted. "There is too much planned for the rest of the weekend, otherwise. Keep in touch on your phone, Shanti," she insisted. "I might have a few more questions..."
"Roger that!" Shanti agreed before running out of the room to change her clothes.
"Didn't she just get dressed?" Georgie asked.
"Possibly, but that was before she heard she was going to see Mark," Diana said with a smirk. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen..."
"Richard, everything set on your end?" Georgie asked. "Friday dinner for twenty-five sound OK to you?"
"Fine," Richard calmly replied.
"Twenty-five?" Diana cried. "I figured on that many for the wedding!"
"Oh, there will be more than that for the wedding. I have the guest list up to over two hundred at this point, have already called a lot of people, and everyone is coming."
What?" Diana was flabbergasted, but Richard seemed unconcerned.
"You know best, cuz," was his only reply.
"In this instance," Georgie replied, shooting a smug glance at Diana, "I believe I do."
The trip to Wethersford was uneventful. They dropped the baby off with Elizabeth and then Shanti headed the inn's van north toward the prison.
Once inside, however, Diana was relieved not to be wired. She noticed how Mark Robinson barely gave Shanti a glance, only asked if she would consent to be a witness, with several other people, in the adjacent room while Diana was admitted to Wickham's presence. One of the witnesses, it appeared, was that man's now former attorney, who made a point of telling Mark she was glad to help keep that idiot in jail for a very long time.
Richard watched from the two-way mirror as Diana nervously entered the next room. It was apparent to him - and Shanti, who amused herself by making rude hand gestures at the inmate - that she was agitated, and he would have taken her place gladly if he could.
Wickham, damn him, had asked specifically for Diana.
"Well, if it isn't Fitzwilliam's little lady," he said once Diana was fully in the room. The paperwork she needed signed was clutched in one hand.
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"I don't need to. I saw you two yesterday. Rather cozy moment," he sneered. "As if I would let my dear child go to that family."
Don't antagonize him, Diana told herself calmly. Get the paper signed and get the hell out. She thought of how Richard, behind the mirror, had probably reacted to that taunt, and smiled.
"Think it's funny, do you?"
"Well, yes, in a way," Diana told him with a little smile. "If it makes you feel any better, he probably hates you as much as you hate him." She wasn't sure about that, but it seemed to appease him. "Besides," she continued, "I was being cozy with Richard in order to get this baby. When you sign the papers, I'm going to pack up and head back to New Jersey with her, but without him. He's just a means to an end." Forgive me, Richard, for that lie, she prayed.
He seemed to have taken the bait. "Well, well, well, so you're into using the Fitzwilliams and Darcys as much as I am. I like you, pretty lady. I'm going to give you that baby... but it will cost you."
"Oh? How much were you thinking of charging." Come on, now, make me an offer...
"I want $25,000 in exchange for signing that baby over to you."
Diana slowly nodded, but only because she knew there would be no repercussions on her end. Didn't he realize he was doing something illegal? "Sign the paper," she implored.
He did, and she breathed a sigh of relief. And ran from the room, the release clutched in her fist once more.
Once in the hallway, she was passed by several people intent on taking care of Wickham - for a long time, she hoped - and then she burst into tears.
In the other room, Richard watched anxiously as Diana was admitted to Wickham's presence. She was nervous, and they all knew it, even the prisoner.
"Well, if it isn't Fitzwilliam's little lady," he heard Wickham say snidely. Diana ventured in a little further, papers clenched on one fist.
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
"I don't need to. I saw you two yesterday. Rather cozy moment," he sneered. "As if I would let my dear child go to that family."
Richard almost passed out. Don't antagonize him, he prayed. Get the paper signed and get the hell out.
To his amazement, Diana smiled.
"Think it's funny, do you?"
"Well, yes, in a way," Diana replied. "If it makes you feel any better, he probably hates you as much as you hate him. Besides, I was being cozy with Richard in order to get this baby. When you sign the papers, I'm going to pack up and head back to New Jersey with her, but without him. He's just a means to an end."
Richard tensed, but felt Shanti's hand on his arm, her dark eyes brimming with compassion. "She would say just about anything to get that baby for you, Studmuffin, and you know it."
Richard knew it, and nodded. Wickham took the bait and he breathed a sigh of relief. Once the paper was signed and Diana was out of the room, he went to find her. She was seated on a bench in the hallway, in tears, and he gathered her into his arms and held her.
"Shhhh! You did what you had to do," he told her. "You had to do it."
"I know," she wailed, "but the things I had to say to get her! Can you ever forgive me? I didn't mean a thing!"
"I know, sweetheart, I know," he soothed. "But we got our baby, didn't we?"
"Yeah," she agreed with a tiny smile. "We got our baby. Richard, if we hadn't been able to keep Sabrina, would you still marry me?"
"Diana!" He couldn't believe she could ask such a thing, not after all this time. He tipped her tear-streaked face up to his. "I want to marry you, Diana, not because of the baby - any baby - but because I love you. Please say you love me and will marry me on Saturday?"
"I do," she simply said.
"Hey!" Shanti called. "You OK?"
"Yeah. What next?"
Mark Robinson came up behind Shanti and took her hand. "Shanti has to stay for awhile, but I will be glad to bring her home. Why don't you two go on ahead."
Diana looked from Shanti to Mark and back again, then she looked at Richard and gave him a wicked smile. "I don't think Richard will mind driving himself home this once."
Richard put in a call to Mrs. Hill on their way home and made arrangements to drop off the paper, since Mark looked as if he was going to be busy for the rest of the day. If the man was smart, he was going to be busy well into the night.
Driving through Hartford, Richard asked Diana if she was hungry, and when she replied in the affirmative, took her to a little cafe on a street teeming with shops. The cafe, coincidentally in Diana's mind, was situated next to a bridal shop, and after a light lunch, Richard casually suggested they go inside.
The walls were covered with frothy white gowns, all very frilly and feminine and not exactly her cup of tea. She said so to Richard, who promptly hailed a salesperson.
"We're looking for something a little more simple, less frilly and in a color, perhaps a very pale buttercream?"
The salesperson nodded and excused herself for a moment. When she came back, it was with two gowns, one in very pale yellow, the other in a dove gray.
"These are both considered mother-of-the-bride dresses, but they are chic enough for a bride," she told them. Leading Diana into a dressing room, she told her to let her know if she needed help, and left Diana to change.
The gray dress was too stark and matronly, and both she and Richard rejected it immediately, but the yellow dress, a calf-length, silky sheath that did not make her look too short, was just right.
The salesperson asked if she wanted a veil, and Diana shook her head. Richard suggested a wreath of silk flowers with a piece of tulle hanging from it, and when one was placed on her head, he declared it perfect, and she did not object.
She went to change back into her street clothes, but Richard stayed her in front of the three-way mirror with a light hand.
"You know, you don't look very engaged to me, Diana Forrester-almost-Fitzwilliam."
"Perhaps if I sported that just-kissed look, it would be more believable," she teased.
"I'll get to that in a minute. No, I was thinking of something a bit more material."
Richard pulled a small item out of his pocket and took Diana's left hand in his. "I'm afraid you gave me rather short notice about the wedding, my dear, so I just got this back from the jeweler yesterday afternoon. It was my mother's, and she asked me to give it to the woman I chose to live the rest of my life with, when the time came. That time is now." He slipped a one-carat diamond solitaire on her ring finger. It was a perfect fit, and he bent down and gave her a lingering kiss.
The few other people in the shop all sighed as one. Diana blushed and hurried off to change her clothes. When she returned to the showroom, Richard was talking to someone on his cell phone while the saleslady carefully wrapped up her dress and veil.
"You can take her shopping for the shoes," Richard said into his phone. "Humor me, Jane. If I want to help shop for her dress, I will. So there. Bye." Diana giggled when he actually stuck his tongue out at his phone.
"Jane upset about not getting to help pick out the dress? She can help me pick out the lingerie to go underneath then," she teased. Richard pouted.
"I knew I should have let Jane help you choose the dress. Come on, we have to drop off the paper."
"But Richard, the dress...I need to pay for..."
"Nope. All taken care of."
Diana gave him a militant glare.
"Humor me, Diana," was all he said as he picked up their purchases and propelled her out the door.
Mark and Shanti had finished their business at the state penitentiary, and, much relieved that Wickham was being put away even longer than he already was, they headed home.
Like Richard and Diana, they found themselves stopping in Hartford to eat, but where the earlier couple had chosen a small cafe, Mark took Shanti to an elegant French restaurant.
"But I'm not dressed for a place like this," she protested, indicating the plain, slim skirt and sweater set she wore.
"Of course you are! You're the most elegant creature in the room," he insisted, waving his hand to encompass the entire restaurant.
The waiter took orders for their drinks and Shanti found herself staring at Mark, a loss for words.
"Cat got your tongue?" he gently queried.
"I..." She broke off her stare and looked down, toying with her fork.
"Shanti, about my proposal..."
The waiter returned at that moment with two glasses of sweetened iced tea, took their food order and left. Mark reached over and took one of her hands.
"About my proposals, Shanti, I want you to know I don't intend to..."
The waiter was back with bread and butter.
"You were saying?" Shanti asked when the man retreated once more. "You don't what about your proposals?"
"I won't be asking you again."
"You heard me."
"But, I wanted to..."
Mark tried not to laugh. "Shanti, I never said this was not meant to be. I just said I would not be asking you again. Think about that." He buttered a roll and turned the conversation to other topics.
Day 13 (Friday, Week II)
"Rise and shine!" Diana rolled over and groaned. If that man thought he was going to say stuff like this every morning she was going to... She was going to what? Take him out and shoot him? Hell, no! She contemplated a lifetime of mornings with Richard and decided there were other, more productive, things they could be doing. Well, the wait was almost over.
Still, the wedding hadn't happened yet. Rolling back over, she covered her head with her pillow, but that didn't work, because the baby had started to cry in the other room. The other room? Really, that man was going to spoil her. And Sabrina!
Finally deciding there was too much to do to lay in bed forever, she got up, put on a robe and followed her nose to the tiny apartment kitchen, where coffee was brewing, a bottle was warming and Richard was trying to soothe a hungry infant.
There wasn't much room, so he was forced to pull Diana into a hug as they all waited for liquid nourishment, but she didn't mind. The baby did, however, and wailed even louder. Richard groaned.
"I don't think she's going to be a morning person. Must be picking up on your 'I-hate-daylight' vibes..."
"Good. When Jane comes to take me shopping, you can babysit," she told him smugly.
"Now wait a minute!" he protested, even as he tested the bottle.
"Ah, ah, ah, Dad. It will be so much easier for her to stay with you while you cook and get ready for tonight than it will be for me to schlep about Meryton with a baby in tow."
"Good point." He kissed her soundly and took the baby and bottle back into the bedroom. She followed shortly with the coffee, and sat there and watched the other two make fools of themselves, as usual. Especially Richard. "Is it going to always be like this?" she wanted to know. "The three of us, snuggling in bed every morning?"
"As much as possible," Richard promised.
It was the shopping trip from hell.
At first, when Jane vetoed every single pair of shoes in existence, Diana thought she was just being picky, but when Jane dawdled over her cappuccino and then lunch, Diana was certain she was keeping her away from home for some reason. That was confirmed when, later, Diana pulled Jane back into the first shoe shop of the day, pointed to a pair of shoes she had already tried on, and Jane approved.
She was even more suspicious when she saw all the cars parked outside of Georgie's house. When Jane suggested they go in the inn for a cool drink instead of going straight to the apartment, Diana was glad she had worn something nice to go shopping in.
"Surprise!" everyone yelled as they entered the darkened dining room. Georgie was first, grabbing Diana and leading her over to a place of honor. Shanti pulled her into a bone-cracking body crush on the way, and when she was seated, Bunny and Kimi came out of hiding somewhere behind her chair and gave her a group hug.
"Bunny! Kimi!" she cried. And then she really cried. This was the best surprise anyone ever - "Alyson!" Her cousin was there, too, and Diana, who never shed tears, cried like a baby until Elizabeth herded her into the kitchen and gave her over to Richard.
"Sensory overload," she told him. "Calm her down and I'll send her friends and family in small groups." She grabbed some frappe with which to refill the punch bowl and headed back into the dining room.
Richard held Diana and talked softly to her for a few minutes, and then Alyson came in carrying Sabrina and the two cried together, Diana still holding onto Richard. "I'm so glad you're here! Where is the rest of the family?"
"Next door at Camp Alex," Alyson replied without batting an eye. "The man is good with kids. So is this one," she said approvingly of Richard. "I think you had better keep him."
"She doesn't have a choice," Richard replied.
After Alyson held her, the baby was passed to Kimi and then Bunny as they chatted excitedly about how Shanti had called them late Tuesday night and spread the word.
"Tuesday!" Diana exclaimed. "What did she do? Run into the bathroom at the slumber party and call on her cell?" The look on Kimi's face said she had done exactly that.
"Well! Remind me to tell you both about this man who has the hots for our Shanti..."
"Mark Robinson!" the two exclaimed. "We heard all about him from Elizabeth and Georgie!" Bunny added. "I wonder if he will propose again?"
"I don't know," Diana admitted. "She has been really close-mouthed about the entire thing. We'll just have to wait and see."
"Where are you going on your honeymoon?" Kimi asked.
Diana looked up at Richard, who just shrugged. "I thought that was your part of the plan," he teased.
"What? Unh uh, Studmuffin! You said you were going to..." She saw the smirks on her friends' faces and let it go. "Give me my daughter," she told Bunny. "You've gone over the baby-holding limit!"
Bunny just laughed. "I'm taking this one home with me."
"Oh, no!" Kimi protested. "She's going back to Hawaii with me!"
"Wrong!" Richard said. "She stays here! I mean that - take Diana back into the shower and leave the baby here." The three women grumbled, but Sabrina stayed in the kitchen while Kimi and Bunny escorted Diana back into the dining room.
An hour of games, food and presents followed, and while Diana showed Bunny, Kimi and Alyson to their rooms, Georgie and Elizabeth put the presents on display in the parlor. Then it was back downstairs for Diana and her guests, who were helping set up for the rehearsal dinner. Elizabeth went to take a nap, and Georgie and Jane went next door to help Alex and his mom with all the kids.
After running quickly through the ceremony planned for the next morning, the inn bustled with activity as everyone readied themselves for dinner.
Jane and Charles got to know Alyson and her husband as they watched their three children play with Alyson's brood and the twins; Dr. Bennet and Will kept Elizabeth and Sabrina company at one of the tables; and Shanti, Kimi and Bunny had Georgie and Alex entertained with Army stories centered around Richard and Diana. Shanti's tales, especially, illustrated for Georgie just how far back the relationship between the bride and groom seemed to reach.
Richard and Diana worked in companionable silence as they finished up the meal, smiling at the occasional outburst from the other room. At one point, however, he rolled his eyes.
"Stop her, will you?" he begged. "Shanti's getting ready to tell the airstrip story..."
Diana nodded and was about to fetch her from the dining room when Mark Robinson walked in the back door.
"Ah, just the person!" Diana said sweetly. "Will you do me a favor?" She whispered something in his ear, he grinned widely and strolled into the dining room, where she could hear him being hailed. Five minutes later he was dragging Shanti out the back door.
"Should we wait supper for them?" Richard wanted to know. Diana took a peek out the back door and shook her head. "They're in the swing, and it looks like dessert is on the menu. No, let's feed the hungry people in the other room. Elizabeth gets fed first so we can ransom our daughter back."
"You got it."
A buffet of lasagna and eggplant parmigiana, Caesar salad and crusty loaves of Italian bread was served along one wall, and Richard and Diana gladly sat and reclaimed their child while everyone else swarmed about the food.
"Nothing like catering your own rehearsal dinner," Richard remarked.
"At least the quality of the meal is ensured," Diana replied, calmly giving Sabrina a bottle in hopes she would nod off to sleep. "And Kimi, Bunny and Alyson have offered to clean up. I'm going to miss you tonight," she added with a sigh. She had gotten used to being in the same apartment, even if they did sleep apart.
"I've been informed that Sabrina and I are sleeping here in the inn so that you don't see me until the ceremony. Sorry, but that's what I've been told."
"Oh. Well, we'll see about..."
"No, Richard, please." Diana put a warning hand in his arm. "Let them have their fun, OK? Besides, I've been known to sit up for hours with Alyson, and if we add those other three to the mix, it could go on all night. You're welcome to sit up with us, of course..."
"No thanks. I think I'll pass. I'll take the baby with me, though."
"Oh, no you don't! If she wakes, there will be a half-dozen volunteers wanting to assist me, and I don't turn down free help. Not when I know they will be leaving in a couple of days and will want to spend some of that time with the baby. Richard!" she suddenly exclaimed.
"What are we doing with the baby on our honeymoon? Are we taking her with us?"
"I thought we should discuss that - I want to, but I don't."
"I know what you mean. I don't want to leave her, we worked too hard to get her, but on the other hand..."
"Exactly. Elizabeth, Georgie and Jane have all offered to take her."
"It's only for... how long will it be?" Diana still knew nothing of their plans, but she could sense Richard wanted to keep them secret, so she played along.
"Um, two weeks, but there is air travel involved..."
"Hmmm." She thought about that for a moment. There was no way she was leaving their child for that long. "Our first family vacation! I think our only problem at this point, then, is how well she will cope with a plane ride."
"We hope this is our first family vacation. We still haven't seen the final papers from Mrs. Hill."
"Oh. Well, if we have to delay leaving, we can always spend the night in the apartment." She wasn't too happy about that, and neither was he, by the look he gave her.
They got up from the table and went to the buffet to fill plates. They tried to eat, too, but between the well wishes from their friends and families, and pre-wedding nerves, they did not consume very much.
"I think if we put the baby down and slip out front to the porch swing..." Richard finally suggested. Diana nodded and they excused themselves on the pretext of putting the baby to bed in the downstairs room.
"Let's go outside," Richard whispered as they stood there watching Sabrina sleep for a long moment.
"You've been wanting me alone all evening," Diana teased.
"With good reason," he replied, opening the front door of the inn very carefully, and shutting it quietly before leading her over to the swing. "I have a present for you and I didn't want to give it to you in front of everyone."
"Oh. I have a present for you, too." She handed him a square jewelry box. "It was a good thing Jane hauled me all about town today, else I would not have had a chance to pick these up from the jeweler."
He opened the box to reveal a pair of gold cuff links, little rectangles of satin-finished metal with small, sparkling R's in them.
"They are beautiful!" he exclaimed.
"Real diamonds, too," she said proudly. "Oh, and the garage called. My car is ready, I can go home anytime I want," she teased.
"Don't you dare!" he growled, and gave her a deep kiss to say thank you for the gift. "Although you might run away when I give you your present."
"Oh?" She took the envelope he offered to her, and when she opened it up and read the papers inside, her eyes filled with tears. "Richard! I can't accept this! It's too much!"
"No, it isn't! If something happens to me, I want you and Sabrina well provided for."
"But, Richard! This paper makes me the sole owner of the Twin Oaks Inn! The house and everything!"
"I know," he said proudly. "I work for you now!"
"Don't make me cry," she pleaded. "I will, you know. It's too much," she insisted again.
"Diana, listen to me!" Richard took her by the shoulders and gave her a light shake. "I don't want you dependent on me, financially at any rate. We don't know what will happen in the future - what if I got hit by a bus on my way from the apartment to the ceremony tomorrow?"
She laughed. "Um, it's about fifty yards from the apartment to the ceremony, with no road between. I already have my own business," she also pointed out.
"So? This makes you quite the entrepreneur, then, doesn't it? My point is, the future is uncertain, and I want you taken care of - you and Sabrina. Got that?"
She nodded, more tears in her eyes.
"Oh, and there is one more thing, boss. I'm taking the next two weeks off from work. I'm going to be on my honeymoon!"
Day 14 (Saturday, Week II)
"Wedding day!" Shanti sang that morning as she came into Diana's room. Diana groaned and rolled over, but Shanti would have none of it. "Come on, blushing bride! Kimi has the baby and Bunny made coffee, and Alyson's kids are staking out the apartment to make sure Richard doesn't show his face. Get up and spend some more time with us before you're off to wherever Studmuffin is taking you on your honeymoon. Oh, and there is a sour-faced woman cooling her heels in the parlor with some papers for you."
"Mrs. Hill!" That spurred her to action like nothing else. Jumping out of bed, she picked up her cell phone.
"Good morning, Mrs. Almost-Fitzwilliam," Richard said when he answered.
"Richard! Mrs. Hill is here! What do we do? We have to sign the papers and Shanti won't let me see you!"
"Calm down, sweetheart. You sign the papers first and then send Mrs. Hill over here and I will sign. Is Mark there? I want him to check everything over before we sign."
"I don't know. Shanti!" she called. "Is Mark here? No? No," she told Richard frantically. "What do we do?"
"We wait," he said serenely. Diana could have cheerfully strangled him for his calm demeanor. "And so does Mrs. Hill."
"Oh!" She forgot her pique and giggled. "We have a couple of hours, don't we?"
"I love you."
"I love you, too. How's Sabrina?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "Someone around here has her... maybe Kimi?"
"Go eat some breakfast and take your time getting ready. Judge Phillips will be here in awhile. Will you have him sent over here?"
"OK. I'll try to eat some breakfast," she promised.
"I don't want you to faint at our wedding..."
"Coffee first," she grumbled.
"What? No one has brought you coffee? And you are carrying on a logical conversation? This is a first!"
"I love you, but you are a pain in the a**."
Mrs. Hill was not pleased when she was forced to wait for Mark Robinson, but Diana insisted. In the meantime, the house filled with ladies all intent on helping the bride get ready.
Diana was surprised there was an actual wedding party. Alyson was to be matron of honor, and Shanti was maid of honor. Will and Alex, she was told, were to stand up with Richard. Maddy and Grace Bingley, and Meredith Bennet, were steps and stairs flower girls in the light blue gowns they had worn two weeks earlier in Georgie's wedding.
"Pipsqueak!" Shanti called at one point, regal in her dark blue dress. "There is a gift for you upstairs in the room at the end of the hall. Go on up and have a look." Intrigued, and pleased to be away from her ever-growing circle of admirers, she went up to the second floor. Halfway down the hall, she heard someone sobbing in the communal bathroom.
"Hello?" she asked, opening the slightly-ajar door. "Jane?"
She went into the bathroom and found Jane sitting on the edge of the toilet lid, crying her eyes out.
"Jane, dear, what's the matter?"
"I'm not pregnant!" she wailed.
"Oh! Did you want to be?"
"Not necessarily, but it's so heartbreaking - just when I thought I was, and had gotten myself in that 'expectant' mindset, it didn't happen. I would have liked to have had another son..."
"Maybe next time. This wasn't planned - I mean, Grace isn't even a year old yet."
"Well, if it doesn't happen, maybe you can adopt?"
"That's a thought. Why are you up here instead of downstairs, being fussed over?"
"Oh! My present!" She grabbed Jane by the hand. "Come on - I want to see what I got!" Jane hid a smile and followed Diana down the hall, where they opened a door to find...
"Not just any luggage," Jane said. "Packed luggage. Packed with anything you might need for your honeymoon."
"What about the baby?" Diana wanted to know.
"What about her? She's staying with Georgie, isn't she?"
"Nope. She's going with us."
Jane thought about that for a moment, and then she grinned. "I suppose that might work."
"What? You know where we're going, don't you?"
"Yep. Someone had to pack the suitcases. Now that I know the baby is going with you, I'll just take this extra case...I wondered why there was one left over... and go pack the baby's things. Don't peek now. I'll get Shanti to bring them downstairs for you."
"Why couldn't I have just seen these later then?" Diana wanted to know.
"Keeps your mind off things for now," Jane replied. "I'll be back."
Finally, Mark arrived; he gave the attorney's approval to the forms and Diana signed the papers amid a few tears from all the ladies gathered around to witness. Mark and Mrs. Hill went out to the apartment, and Diana was taken off once again to finish the final touches on her hair, face and dress.
"What is Sabrina wearing?" she asked, seeing Georgie and Maria dressing the baby.
"Just a little something special," Georgie replied. "Look! Maria made her a dress out of the rest of the flower girl fabric! She matches!" Everyone oohed and aahed appropriately as Georgie held up the pale blue fairy child. "Maria even found little shoes!"
Shanti's cell phone rang at that moment, and when she finished with her conversation, she was grinning. "The papers are signed and the judge is here. Mark says it's almost time."
"Nervous?" Kimi asked Diana. "I'm so glad you two got back together again."
"Well, even when you were colonel and sergeant, it was obvious..."
"Is that so?"
"And then when we couldn't get you two together that last night..."
"Kimi! What is this 'we' business? I thought it was just Shanti!"
"Now, you should know better than that! Even Bunny helped..."
Diana blushed. "It was a conspiracy!"
"Yeah, for all the good it did us. Lucky for us, this time worked better. Leave it to Shanti to get you up here."
"Well, I'm glad she did. Now that I've seen how this place operates, I guess it would have been difficult to arrange it the other way around."
"Yeah, we had thought about that, too. Had to consider all the possibilities, you know."
Diana pulled her into a hug that threatened to crush the front of her dress, but she didn't care. "I'm so glad you did."
"Oh, and I'm supposed to tell you from Richard not to get too teary-eyed over me being in Hawaii and you in Connecticut, not for the next couple of weeks, anyway. I've been promised babysitting rights, too!"
"What? We're going to Hawaii?" she said loudly enough for everyone to hear. They all grinned and nodded. "Must mean we will be in Honolulu, then, if you get to babysit," she said to Kimi. Her friend beamed. 'I can't wait!"
"Time to go," Georgie said, still holding the baby. Diana went to take her, but Georgie would have none of it. "You are going to be busy holding this," she said as Alyson put a bouquet of yellow and blue flowers in her hand. "Bunny gets baby privileges for now, because she complained that Kimi gets her on and off for two weeks."
"And I get to hold her during the reception!" Alyson called as they gathered up the children and herded them out the door.
Georgie and Shanti were very well pleased with themselves over the wedding arrangements. Georgie had kept records and was able to procure most of the same people who had done such a beautiful job on her own wedding.
A small tent had been erected for the ceremony, with a larger one placed nearby housing round tables and chairs, blue and yellow decorations, a band, dance floor, head table and buffet. A large cake stood proudly in one corner and Georgie had managed to set up an unobtrusive fan to keep the frosting from melting too much in the heat.
All of that would come later, Shanti thought with satisfaction as a harpist played music and she and Alyson were escorted down the aisle by Will and Alex. Now it was time to get Pipsqueak and Studmuffin happily married.
Everyone stood as the harpist switched to a traditional wedding march, and Dr. Bennet led Diana toward Richard. The bridal couple smiled at each other the entire time, unable to look away, even as Dr. Bennet gently released Diana into Richard's care.
"Bigamist!" Frances Bennet screamed from the back of the tent. "How dare you, Tom, marry your floozy girlfriend before our divorce is final!" Dr. Bennet turned to face his almost-ex-wife.
"Fran, please, this is not what it looks like..."
"Really? I suppose next you are going to tell me that she's marrying him instead, and they are the couple trying to adopt my granddaughter!" She looked about wildly and when she saw Sabrina in Bunny's arms, she ran toward the baby. "Come to Grandma, sweetheart!"
Sabrina did not like the loud lady, and started crying.
"You're holding her too tight!" Frances insisted. "Let me have her."
"No!" Diana cried. "Take her in the house, Bunny," she told her friend. Bunny did not hesitate, and hurried the baby into the inn. "Now..." Diana said coolly, thrusting her bouquet into Richard's hands and mentally rolling up her sleeves as she advanced on the gate-crasher.
"You are denying me my granddaughter, you hussy! You're only marrying Tom to get to that baby, aren't you?" Frances screeched.
"For your information, lady," Diana said calmly, "I am not marrying Dr. Bennet today or any day. I am marrying Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam! Or at least I will be, if you will shut your damn mouth! As for that baby, I'll have you know both its biological mother and father have signed away all rights, and that child belongs to us! After this disgusting display, madam, I can only assume we have saved that baby from a fate worse than death - not only to have two totally irresponsible people as parents, but to have you for a grandmother!"
Frances stood there turning purple, her mouth working up and down like a fish. "Well! At least my own children want me! Don't you Christopher! Meredith!" she called.
"No!" shouted Kit, to the surprise of many. "No! Go away and leave us alone! We want to live with Dad, and Lizzie and Will and the new baby and we don't even want to have to see you again!" He turned his back on his mother and buried his head in Lizzie's shoulder.
"You!" Frances rounded on Elizabeth. "You are the one who poisoned my own children against me!" Lizzie started to get up, and Will left Richard's side to advance on his stepmother-in-law, but Diana held up a hand to stop him.
"Let me take care of this," she murmured. "Richard? Is this tent on inn grounds?" When he nodded, a puzzled look on his face, she grinned. It was not a pretty sight. "Mrs. Bennet, I'm only going to say this once. Get the hell off my property, and if I catch you here again, I will have your a** hauled away so fast it will make your head spin. Now get out!" Without waiting to see if the woman complied, she turned on one heel and marched back to where the wedding party waited.
"She's still standing there," Shanti muttered.
"Take care of my light work, will you?" Diana asked sweetly. "I'm trying to get married here."
"Of course." Shanti handed Alyson her bouquet, walked over to Mrs. Bennet and towered over her, a wicked gleam in her dark eyes. "You heard the bride, lady. Get out before I carry you out!"
"I will be glad to escort her off the property," Charles offered. Frances turned around and left, with Dr. Bingley following at a discreet distance.
"At least Georgie had a calm wedding," Will said with a smile.
"How did she get so unlucky?" Richard replied. They both shrugged and the ceremony went on as planned.
The reception was in full swing when it came time to drink to the bride and groom. Diana sat at the head table glowing as Will offered the first of several toasts, Richard at her side with the baby in his arms.
"To my cousin and his new family," Dr. Darcy said, holding his glass high. "Elizabeth and I have always thought the world of Richard, and his darling new wife and child already hold places in our hearts. May the three of you always have peace and prosperity."
Everyone drank to that, and then it was Shanti's turn. Diana watched in amazement as she rose with her head down, a slight flush on her face. Shanti never shied away from a public appearance. What was going on?
"Ahem." When Shanti cleared her throat and did not look at her audience, even Bunny and Kimi exchanged glances. "I will admit that it took a lot to get these two together - but I would not have missed it for the world." She straightened up, squared her shoulders and walked over to where Mark Robinson sat near the head table. "However, I had these two wonderful people, so in love, as my inspiration. Even as I toast Pipsqueak and Studmuffin, I want to know, Mark, if you will marry me?" She drank from her glass when everyone else did, but her eyes were only on Mark as he came quickly to her side.
"I thought you would never ask," he said, giving her a deep kiss. "And the answer is yes."
Everyone stood and applauded, and Diana was so excited she was bouncing up and down on her stockinged feet, having shed her shoes as soon as possible. Bunny passed Kimi a twenty dollar bill, and Will had to give his wife a fifty.
"Are we really leaving tonight?" Diana asked several exhausting hours later as she, Richard and Sabrina rode by limo to New York, where they were to catch a plane for the islands.
"It leaves in the morning. I thought we could stay in the city tonight. The hotel is providing us with a crib, too, in case you were wondering." He stretched out his legs, and then his arms, and pulled Diana close to him, the baby facing them in a car seat.
"You think of everything," she admitted.
"I only have to think of you, Mrs. Fitzwilliam," he said, "and everything else just falls into place." He brought her face up to his and kissed her softly. "Thank you for coming back into my life. I was only existing until you reappeared. Don't ever leave me, either, unless your business takes you away."
"I won't," she promised. "And I'll have you and our lovely child to come home to."
"We'll be waiting."
Epilogue (Christmas Day that same year)
It was Christmas Day and the Twin Oaks was closed to everyone but a private party. A family party.
Alex and Georgie had walked over from next door, Alex was wearing a tie Diana's cousin had bought him a few months before - it had been a present to say thank you for helping watch her children during Diana's wedding shower, and it had an insect print on it. Georgie came bearing a tray full of pies, and the inn's famous apple cake, just the kinds of desserts she was baking on a regular basis for the restaurant. Her home-based business had recently expanded to include another establishment across town.
Among the newlyweds in the old Fitzwilliam house that day were Denny and Maria James, and Mark and Shanti Robinson. Denny and Maria had had a traditional ceremony at Thanksgiving, but Mark and Shanti's wedding dated back to just after Richard and Diana's. After Shanti's unorthodox proposal, the two had eloped and were married in Niagara Falls sometime while the Fitzwilliam trio was soaking up sun in Hawaii.
Diana stood in the threshold of the dining room now, an almost-five-month-old Sabrina on her hip, looking about her in satisfaction.
Charles and Jane - undaunted by the fact that they were not going to have another child - had decided to get another one anyway, and were halfway through the process of adopting a two-year-old boy with special needs.
Thinking of boys brought Diana's gaze to the little guy in Will's arms. Only Lizzie, Diana thought, could get as big as a barn overnight and then suddenly have her baby a month early. Young William Charles Alexander Darcy was already two months old, but his name was still bigger than he was.
The plethora of babies in the family brought a smile to her face. There would be plenty of children for Sabrina to play with as she grew.
Richard brought a large platter of raw vegetables in at that moment, setting them out on the buffet table, and Diana's smile grew wider. He saw her, under the mistletoe in a green velvet dress, and came over to her side.
"Well, madame proprietor, what do you think of my catering abilities?"
"I think a bonus is in order," she said, looking up at the greenery over her head.
"A bonus for whom?" he wondered, giving her a kiss.
"Both of us. Actually, I have a different bonus in mind for you."
"Oh? I'm going to get another promotion?" It was a running joke that whenever Diana didn't have time to deal with an aspect of the restaurant business, she promoted Richard. He already held the titles of chef, caterer, office manager and bookkeeper.
"Well, yes, but this is a title you already have. I'm just going to add to its responsibilities." She was being vague on purpose, not wanting to give it all away just yet.
"What title would that be? Hostess?" he teased.
"No..." she said slowly. "The title I was thinking of was Daddy."
"Daddy?" His eyebrows knit together in confusion. "Diana, are we adopting again?"
"But... you know I can't...that I am..."
She just stood there, holding onto Sabrina, waiting for him to come to the right conclusion. Fortunately, Will was on standby, and strolled over, his son all but dwarfed in one of his arms.
"You know, if you'd ever thought to consult me, instead of that quack who told you that you were sterile in the first place, I would have been glad to have had you re-tested. You saved yourself some lab work and money, I see, by not being able to keep your hands off your wife."
"Was it Dr. Jones at Benning who told you?" Diana finally asked. She didn't even wait for a reply, just sadly shook her head. "Didn't you know he was the biggest practical joker on base?"
The look of alarm on Richard's face was priceless, and Will and Diana laughed so hard, the babies squawked in protest.
"What's so funny?" Georgie wanted to know.
"Richard just realized he has finally earned the title of Studmuffin!" Diana said loud enough for Shanti to hear.
"Woo hoo!" Shanti exclaimed, running over and pulling Diana and Sabrina up for one of her big hugs, cracking Diana's back in the process. "We're going to have ourselves a Baby Pipsqueak!"
"A baby!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "Wow, Richard, you work even faster than Will!"
Everyone laughed and crowded around Richard and Diana to offer their congratulations. While they were the center of attention, Elizabeth slipped out to the kitchen to check on the turkey.
It was almost done and she straightened up from the oven to feel two strong, familiar arms wrap themselves around her waist.
"Will... Where's the baby?"
"Aunt Georgie." A pair of warm lips nuzzled her neck.
"Hmmm... Did you ever imagine we'd be standing here like this?" she wondered with a sigh, even as one of her arms snaked back behind her and looped around his neck. "I look back at that silly girl laughing at the haughty doctor from the top of those stairs and I wonder what he ever saw in her."
"He saw a brave, sassy thing who needed all the good things in life given to her on a silver platter." He paused in his study of her neck and ear to bring a jewelry box out in front of her. "Happy anniversary, darling. Thank you for giving me a home filled with laughter, a beautiful son and more love than I deserve."
Lizzie choked back tears as she opened the box. Inside was a gold ring with three stones in it. The peridot on the left was for Will, whose birthday was in August. The diamond in the center was Lizzie's April birthstone, and the pink zircon was for young Will.
"It's beautiful!" she sobbed. Turning in his arms, she cried happy tears. "I love you."
"No, you are the beautiful one, my darling Elizabeth. And I love you, too." His consequent kiss left no doubt about that.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.
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