Chapter Twenty-Six

They were in Joe's SUV and headed into Bayport, New York. Joe's hometown. He'd arrived here sixteen years ago as a scruffy thirteen-year-old kid. The town was small then and small now. It hadn't grown much in the intervening years.

The town held a lot of memories for Joe. Some good, some not so good. One thing Joe knew was that this place had made him who he was. He'd experienced his first love here. Iola Morton. A dark-haired beauty with a pixie face. She and Joe had met in eighth grade. By the last year of high school they were a couple. That lasted two whole years. They might have stayed together longer. They might have eventually married. Or they might have broken up and gone their separate ways. No one would ever know. Iola had died suddenly and tragically in a car bomb meant for Joe.

The day Iola died, he changed forever. He was no longer the carefree, fun loving young man his friends and family had known. He didn't like to think of that day. He'd thought of it plenty after it happened. In the last year, he felt he'd finally come to terms with Iola's death. He'd made peace with it and moved on.

Life was for the living and he'd decided to live – fully and completely. Iola was his past. Vanessa was his future. From this moment on he intended to look forward, not backward.

He smiled at Vanessa in the passenger's seat, reached out, took her hand, and gave it a squeeze.

"My hometown. What do you think so far?"

Quaint houses passed by Vanessa's window. The post office and library. Shops and stores all decorated for Christmas. Small town America. People moved at a leisurely pace here. This was Vanessa's kind of place. It was a place she had longed for without even knowing it.

"The town square." Joe pointed through the windshield at a small park.

Patches of snow littered the grass. Spruce, pine, and maple trees stood majestically. Squirrels scampered along the ground, their tails flapping behind them. Vanessa saw one scurry up a tree trunk and disappear into the snowy branches.

Joe slowed the vehicle and pointed out a Douglas fir in the center of the square. "Bayport's annual Christmas tree. We have the best one around. People come from other towns just to see ours."

The huge tree, decked in holiday lights and ornaments, sparkled in the afternoon sun. A Nativity scene at the bottom brought a reverence to the square and reminded citizens of the reason for the holiday.

Vanessa took in scene then turned to Joe. "It's beautiful. I love this place already. I may never want to leave."

Joe smiled for Vanessa's benefit. He didn't mind a short visit in Bayport, but he could never stay. Not for long. Memories of Iola nipped at the edges of his mind. He thought of the places they'd gone and of the things they'd done together. The memories crowded in and he pushed them away. He reminded himself that he intended to move forward, not backward.

"Hardy house is the next stop," he announced. This time his smile was genuine.

A pang of doubt assailed Vanessa. Would Joe's parents like her? She'd only talked to them once, a few brief minutes in the police car after the home invasion. The Hardys had seemed nice that night, concerned for their son and Vanessa's safety, but that hardly counted as meeting them. Today was the real test.

"Can't wait," she said. She put on a brave front as butterflies danced in her stomach.

# # # #

Laura Hardy wanted everything to be perfect for Joe and Vanessa. Especially for Vanessa. The poor girl had been through a harrowing experience and Laura wanted to help her forget it.

To that purpose, Laura had made mulled wine, laid out an assortment of snacks, and had a chicken roasting in the oven. The house smelled heavenly. Thyme, rosemary, and other spices wafted in the air. In the living room a Christmas tree – a real one – and an evergreen wreath over the fireplace, scented the room with the smell of pine.

Christmas was near. Her younger son was almost here. Laura felt a small thrill of excitement.

The doorbell chimed and the door opened. Joe and Vanessa walked in bundled in parkas and lugging suitcases.

Laura rushed to the foyer and ushered them in out of the cold. Fenton appeared at the top of the stairs and quickly descended.

Laura gathered Vanessa into a hug and whispered in her ear, "I'm so happy to finally meet you. Merry Christmas, dear."

"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Hardy. Thanks for having me." Laura's innate warmth and kindness washed over Vanessa and her fears of meeting Joe's parents faded.

"Our pleasure, dear." Laura gave Vanessa one last squeeze then turned to her son and embraced him.

Fenton greeted Vanessa with a smile and a hug. "We're glad you're here. Laura's outdone herself in the kitchen. I hope you like roast chicken."

"I do and it smells delicious."

"I agree, it does smell delicious." Fenton looked at his wife. "How long until supper?"

Laura rolled her eyes and shook her head at her husband. "You're as bad as the boys when they were teens. That's all I ever heard, 'When's supper?' Dinner'll be ready soon enough. There's snacks and mulled wine in the living room. Joe, is this all your luggage?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Laura gave him a look for the ma'am, but held her tongue. "How about you and your father get those up to the bedrooms while Vanessa and I pour everyone some wine."

"Will do." Joe had almost said, 'yes, drill sergeant,' but knew his mother would not take kindly to it. You could take the boy out of the military, but you could not take the military out of the boy.

# # # #

The mulled wine eased Vanessa's tension as they sat in the living room chatting and munching on cheese, crackers, and fruit. Vanessa found herself slipping into a very relaxed, comfortable mood. Laura and Fenton Hardy were friendly, down-to-earth, and easy to talk to. They asked about Vanessa's childhood and background. Vanessa shared a few silly childhood stories – and with a worried heart – shared that she had been married once. She also answered questions about her mother. Mom was living in New York City with a boyfriend. They might get married, they might not. Vanessa couldn't say for sure.

Laura and Fenton took all of this information in stride. They showed no misgivings regarding Vanessa and for that, Vanessa was thankful. She had feared the Hardys might judge her. A failed marriage and a mother who was living with a man were not the most promising prospects in a future daughter-in-law. Not that Joe had mentioned marriage in front of his parents, but the thought was never far from Vanessa's mind.

Much to Vanessa's relief, the Hardys were not the type to judge. They accepted people as they were – warts and all. A few mistakes here and there were to be expected. It was part of life.

The next three days passed in a blur of happiness.

Vanessa and Joe snuck into town one day to buy gifts and have lunch at a cozy diner. The next day they strolled along the beach searching for seashells as an icy wind buffeted them. A snowstorm blew in on the third day and they built snow-people in the front yard. They adorned them with old Christmas scarves, some hats and mittens and deemed the effort their contribution to Christmas decorations for house.

Vanessa spent the late afternoons with Laura, helping with dinner while exchanging recipes and sipping mulled wine. Mulled wine was the second recipe Vanessa had asked for. The first had been for Joe's favorite meal.

Vanessa enjoyed Laura's company. The older woman was quick to share advice particularly about living with detectives. She told of long nights waiting in bed, wondering when loved ones would return home. Wondering if they would return healthy and whole or injured. She talked of cases that took her husband and sons to distant cities and how she had coped with their absences and sparse phone calls.

Vanessa absorbed every word. These were tales she needed to hear, told by a woman who had lived them. Laura Hardy held nothing back and Vanessa was grateful for the older woman's candor. It gave Vanessa a true sense of what awaited her as Joe Hardy's wife.

# # # #

Joe pulled up in front of the small grocery store and killed the engine. His mother needed milk. Joe had volunteered to run to the store to get some. It gave him a chance for privacy. Ron Preston had texted Joe earlier in the day and had more information on the Wakefield brothers.

Joe punched in Ron's phone number.

"Chief Ron Preston."

"Joe Hardy here. I got your text."

"Hey, how you doing? Everything going okay with the visit?"

"Everything's going great. The folks really like Vanessa."

"Great. Glad to hear it."

"So, what have you found out about the boys?" Joe refused to call them men.

Ron blew out a breath. Joe sensed the man running a hand through his hair. "Vanessa's lucky you got there when you did. You most likely saved her life."

Joe didn't say anything and Ron continued, "The FBI's confirmed that the Wakefields murdered four women in four different states."

"Damn," Joe hissed. "Not that I'm surprised. Not with all the weapons and ammo they had."

"All four women were shot execution style. The younger brother, Sean, has confessed to two of the murders."

"Why? Why'd he confess?"

"The FBI agent I've been in contact with says they've been working on the brothers separately. Haven't let them see each other. Seems solitary confinement doesn't agree with the younger brother. He's willing to talk in order to gain some privileges. They're breaking him down little by little. It's the older brother they haven't had any luck with. From what the agent told me, the older brother hasn't said a word about their crimes. Just sits there stone faced and tight lipped. The only thing he ever says is, 'Can I see my brother?'"

"I doubt they'll crack him. A hard case like him doesn't usually budge." Joe spoke from experience.

"You're probably right. Guess it doesn't matter now though since the younger one's talking. The agent said they're seeking the death penalty for the older brother and life in prison for the younger one – only cause he's cooperating."

"I can't complain about those results."

"Neither can I. Just thought you'd like to know how things were shaping up."

"Thanks, I appreciate the call."

"No problem. By the way, I got a question for you."


"Daphne said I had to ask." Joe heard the hesitation in Ron's voice. "She wants to know when you and Vanessa are getting married?"

"What? Did Vanessa say something?" Joe was surprised and caught off guard.

"No, I don't think so. This is just Daphne and her wishful thinking. She thinks you guys make a great couple. It's all she's talked about since you left."

Joe chuckled into the cell phone. "Sorry about that. If anything develops between Vanessa and me we'll let you know."

"I'm sure Vanessa will call Daphne the minute there's anything to report." Ron laughed.

"I'm sure she will. Keep in touch." Joe ended the call with a huge smile on his face. Oh, I'm sure she will, he thought as he got out of the vehicle.

# # # #

It was early morning when Joe and Vanessa slipped out of the house. His parents were still asleep upstairs. Thirty minutes earlier, Joe had awakened Vanessa and asked her to come with him. There was something he wanted her to see. Something he wanted to share with her.

Vanessa had rubbed the sleep from her eyes and quickly dressed. Joe wanted to share his history with her. She knew this just as she had shared her history with him … the cabin on the mountain.

Frosty air chilled their lungs as they walked along the salted sidewalk and down the slope that led to the beach. Vanessa could hear the ocean and smell the damp, salty air. The sky above was clear, the stars brilliant against the gray sheen.

They drew closer to the beach and Vanessa saw white mist floating over the water. The sun poked its head above the horizon.

Vanessa and Joe stood on the beach, hand in hand, waves lapping near their boots. They watched as colors seeped across the sky. Stunning in their beauty, they tinted the mist and water. Lavender, pale pink, rose, orange … and finally, a blazing yellow.

The beauty was astounding and Vanessa felt a sudden oneness with the earth. It was as if the sun had winked at her and said, only you and I know of this morning wonder.

Joe reveled in the sight, too. The wonder and amazement in Vanessa's eyes spoke volumes. That was what he had hoped to see. That was why they were here.

He remembered watching an ocean sunrise years ago, as a teen. It had quite literally taken his breath away. Today was no different. But today, by his side to share this special event was Vanessa.

They watched, without speaking, until the sun broke free of the horizon and hovered above the mist. Then, and only then, Joe turned to Vanessa and took both her hands in his. He gazed directly into her pale blue eyes and saw the morning sun reflected in them.

Vanessa stood calm and serene, still basking in the glory of the sunrise. A faint warmth brushed her cheeks.

Her eyes met his and he said, "I brought you here to share this." His head tipped toward the sunrise. "It's the most beautiful sight I know of. I .. I mean you're the most beautiful sight I know of. But an ocean sunrise is .. it .. it has special memories for me."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was messing up already. Getting his words twisted and jumbled. He probably sounded like an idiot.

She saved him. "I loved it, Joe. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. And I love being here with you and your family. Your parents have been wonderful. They've welcomed me with open arms and open hearts."

She paused to gather her thoughts. "I feel at home here. Bayport and your parents' home is a nice place to come to .. to forget the world .. when the world becomes too much." When the world becomes too ugly, she thought, but didn't say it. Now was not the time or place.

She looked into his eyes and saw love shining there. He felt the same. Bayport was his safe haven, too.

Joe let go of her hands, reached into a jacket pocket, and withdrew a velvet box. Vanessa gasped.

Was he …?

Joe got down on one knee. "I've tried to come up with the perfect words for this moment. I've laid awake at night trying to figure out the best, most perfect thing to say." He sighed, much aggrieved. "As you can see, I haven't come up with anything special and wonderful."

She saw the regret on his face. "Joe …"

He held up a hand to silence her. "Let me get this out before I mess it up any worse." He grinned and she stifled a laugh.

He was doing it right. The way she'd hoped.

Aww, screw it, he thought. "Vanessa Bender, will you marry me?"

She tugged him to his feet and kissed him lightly on the lips. "I think you know the answer to that question, Joseph Hardy?"

"I need an official answer if you want to see what's in the box." He held up the box and smiled.

"Oh." Of course, she wanted to see inside the box. Her eyes twinkled with desire and mirth. "Yes, Joseph Hardy, I'll marry you."

Thank God, he thought and opened the box. He saw her confused and curious expression.

"It's my great-grandmother's ring," he explained. "Mom's held onto it all these years. I know it's not the traditional engagement ring …"

"It's lovely." Vanessa took the box from Joe and examined the ring. A small diamond sparkled in the center. Eight tiny stones, possibly diamonds, surrounded it.

"It's from the late 1800s," Joe said. "Mom says it looks like a cocktail ring more than an engagement ring. But that was the style then. I've always liked the ring. It's part of my family, but if you don't –"

"I love it," she quickly assured him. "It's unique and special." She smiled at him. "Just like us. And the fact that it belonged to your great-grandmother leaves me speechless. I'm honored that you want me to have it .. to wear it." A worried frown creased her brow. "Is your mother okay with this? With me having the ring?"

"Absolutely. When I asked her about giving it to you she almost broke down in tears. I was a little worried. I thought I'd upset her or something, but she said, no, she'd always hoped that one day Frank or I would want the ring for one of our wives. So, here we are. And I can say, without a doubt, that mom would be happy to see you wearing that ring."

"But Frank's the oldest, what if he wants it?"

"I called him last night and he said it's fine. He wished me good luck on the proposal and everything and well, you can see how that went." Joe smirked at himself. Wait until Frank heard how he'd flubbed the proposal.

"You were great," Vanessa insisted. "You picked a magical setting and you were wonderfully romantic. Thank you." She stepped closer to him and her voice softened to a low whisper, "I'll never forget this morning, Joe. I consider it the start of our lives together."

"That's exactly how I feel." He pulled her to him and kissed her deeply.

When the kiss ended, she drew back and said, "Now, please put the ring on my finger. I'm dying to see how it looks."

His stomach tightened. He hadn't thought to have it sized. What if the ring was too big? Or too small?

He took it out of the box and slipped the box in his pocket. Vanessa held out her left hand. He pushed the ring onto her finger, worrying and fretting.

His eyes widened. "Wow," he said. "It fits."

Vanessa tilted her hand so that the stones glinted in the sunlight. "It fits perfectly. Almost as if it was made for me."

"I think it was." Joe was awestruck. He took it as a sign, a good omen. The ring was meant for him and Vanessa. He could never have found a better ring. This one had been in his family for more than a hundred years. Most of those years it had lain idle in a jewelry box, hidden from the world. Now, it proudly adorned the hand of the woman he loved. God willing, it would grace her hand for many years to come.

With luck and grace, he and Vanessa would be granted many happy years together.

What more could a man ask for in this world?

They walked back to the house, arms linked. Vanessa felt certain her heart would burst with joy. Joe had proposed and he'd given her a cherished heirloom as the engagement ring. She couldn't have asked for anything more sincere. His gift proved his love, not that it needed proving. But the knowledge brought her contentment and left no doubts in her mind, or heart, as to how he felt. He loved her deeply, just as she loved him.

And in that moment, Vanessa knew she had arrived. She was truly home for Christmas.

A/N: A final 'thank you' to those who've taken the time to leave a review or a few kind words. It's always nice to receive those. Take care everyone and have a Happy New Year! - Jilsen