Chapter 52

One Week Later

Joe stared down at the stack of paperwork on his desk. This was his job now, the office paperwork. Usually Nancy or Frank did this work – paying bills, checking bank statements, rereading case notes, etc. Nancy or Frank did it, mainly, because Joe abhorred paperwork. Up until now, Joe had managed to avoid the paperwork except for his own case, of course. That he readily completed. Readily, as in, as fast as possible.

A bum leg and being stuck in a wheelchair had placed him on permanent office duty for two full weeks. One week down, one to go.

Joe's phone rang and he checked the caller ID. His mom. He sighed. She'd been calling daily to check on him. He understood her concern, her worries her care and love. His daily mission was to put her mind at ease.

He picked up his cell phone. "Hi, mom. How you doing? How's the weather in Bayport?"

"Sunny, but not warm. I think the high today is 45. How are you? You behaving yourself?"

Joe let out a weary breath. "Yes, I'm behaving, mom. I'm sitting here in my wheelchair, at my desk, doing paperwork."

"Good, that's exactly what you should be doing. I know it's not your favorite thing in the world, son. Just remember, you only have one more week in the wheelchair and then you can start using the rollator."

"Yeah, one more week." Joe sighed long and heavy. Oh, joy. One more week. Sarcasm duly noted. The rollator didn't excite him anymore than the wheelchair had, but he would use it. Frank would make sure he did. Nancy would make sure he did. And if they somehow didn't, Vanessa surely would.

"I know it's hard," his mother was saying, "but you don't want to rush your recovery. If you push yourself too hard before your leg is ready .."

Joe tuned his mother out. He'd heard all of this before. Don't push yourself. Take it easy. And so on and so forth.

Finally, his mother said, "Well, I'm glad you're doing well, Joseph. You know your father and I have been very worried about you."

"I know, mom. I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, Joseph. We understand that it's part of your job. Just behave yourself, please." That please tugged at his heart. A mother's love rang through it saying, take care of yourself, son. "I'll call in a couple of days to see how you're doing."

He almost blurted out, A couple of days? But caught himself. He could do without the daily calls. Hell, he might even start to miss them.

"Yeah, okay. Great to talk to you, mom. I love you."

He ended the call and went back to the paperwork, his mood a little lighter. Crazy how his mom had that effect on him.

The weeks passed. He transitioned to the rollator with no problem. Spent two weeks rolling that thing around. At least, he could put some weight on the leg. That felt good. The damaged muscle and tissue were mending, the leg was getting stronger. The doctor in River Heights was pleased with Joe's progress and scheduled physical therapy. Physical activity would help the healing, limit the scar tissue, and improve the range of motion, the doctor said.

Joe did physical therapy two days a week. He enjoyed the sessions. They made him feel whole again. He could feel strength returning to his leg, to his whole body. At home, he faithfully performed all the exercises the therapist taught him.

When Joe wasn't at physical therapy, exercising, or doing paperwork, he was on the phone either texting or talking. Whiskey sent pictures of himself and his lady friend sightseeing in Yosemite Park in California. The couple looked happy and relaxed. Joe hoped the relationship lasted. Joe sent his 'best wishes' to Whiskey and told him how his recovery was going.

Joe also touched base with Detective Ziegler. Joe had asked how the police officer – the one Bradley had shot – was doing. Ziegler said the bullet had gone through the officer's jaw. The poor man had had to have his mouth wired shut and would be on a liquid diet for two to three months. Joe expressed his sympathies and said he was grateful the man had survived.

Ziegler kept Joe up to date on Boxberger, Nicholson, Mueller, and Colonel Charles. All were headed for prison. Colonel Charles and Boxberger had pled guilty to the charges against them. Colonel Charles was given a life sentence which seemed reasonable to Joe. Boxberger agreed to testify against Nicholson and received a ten year sentence with the possibility of parole. That also seemed reasonable.

Nicholson and Mueller had opted for jury trials.

"It's a waste of tax-payers money," Ziegler had griped. "But I have no doubt they'll both be found guilty."

Joe had no doubt either.

Mid-November came and Joe was using a cane. He and Vanessa took long walks on the weekends. They often drove to the city park. The weather was usually cold and windy. Joe didn't mind. It was good to be outside and among nature. He and Vanessa walked and talked, making plans for their honeymoon. Joe was making plans to walk without the cane by December.

During the week, he started going to the gym and working on his upper body. It was important to keep his arms and torso strong. Squats were soon added to his exercise routine. Slowly, he was regaining what he'd lost.

His parents came for Thanksgiving. It was a huge family affair at the Drew's house. Hannah, the Drew's longtime housekeeper, had the menu planned and the food bought. Vanessa, Nancy, and Joe's mom all pitched in to cook the meal. Joe, his dad, Frank, and Mr. Drew sat on the sofa and chairs in the living and watched the football game. They swapped stories and joked about things that had gone wrong on a case. Joe was happy his leg and snake-bitten arm were not the focus of every conversation.

The women's laughter rang out of the kitchen and all the men laughed. Joe wasn't sure why they all had laughed, but they had. All that mattered was that everyone was happy and everyone was safe.

The turkey was cooked to perfection. The potatoes were fluffy and light. The pumpkin pie was hot and delicious. Everyone ate more than they should. Wasn't that the way Thanksgiving dinner was supposed to be?

Joe had invited Wayne and Bulka for Thanksgiving and as expected, Wayne had declined, but then surprised Joe by saying he was going to Peggy MacDonald's for Thanksgiving. Wayne's sister, Connie, had extended the invitation and had pressed Wayne to accept. Finally, he'd consented. Joe was happy to hear that. He hadn't wanted Wayne sitting home alone on Thanksgiving. Yes, he had Bulka, but it wasn't the same. Wayne needed to be around people more and Joe could see Wayne was taking small steps in that direction.

Wayne also told Joe he was seeing a counselor. His lawyer, Monica LaMarca, had arranged the sessions and had insisted Wayne give the counselor a chance. To his credit, Wayne had.

"I'm learning about Moral Injury," Wayne told Joe. "It's like PTSD and it's not like PTSD."

Joe remembered what Monica LaMarca had told him and Frank months ago, that Moral injury was the sudden, terrible reality of war. A soldier's innocence was transformed into a heightened sense of morality. The symptoms were similar to PTSD – insomnia, nightmares, memory issues, and startle reflex, but the root cause was grief and guilt. A soldier with moral injury felt bitter about fighting a war no one cared about. He felt guilty about going home while his buddies stayed behind.

Over the ensuing weeks, Joe and Wayne spent hours on the phone discussing Moral Injury. It felt good to talk about it, to get their thoughts and feelings out in the open and to share those thoughts and feelings. Joe had never discussed his combat experiences with anyone. Certainly not his family, and not Vanessa. They wouldn't understand. If you hadn't been in a firefight or witnessed IEDs blowing up a buddy, how could you relate? Joe figured his phone conversations with Wayne were as beneficial for him as they were for Wayne.

And at last, Wayne finally agreed to come to Joe's wedding and, yes, he would bring Bulka. She was doing great by the way. Maybe a little clingy, Wayne said, but he hardly minded that.

"You've made my day," Joe told Wayne. "You and Bulka coming to my wedding is the best gift I could ever get. I know Vanessa and Frank and Nancy feel the same." Joe didn't stop smiling the rest of the day.

# # # #

December arrived and with it came cold weather and gray skies. This late afternoon was no exception. Joe sat at his desk, sipping hot chocolate, watching people pass on the sidewalk outside the office's big picture window. People were in a hurry to get home, dusk was falling. The world was rapidly growing dark. Most people carried packages and shopping bags. Joe saw a lot of that lately. Christmas was just around the corner. Everyone was out buying gifts.

Not Joe, though. He wasn't worried about buying Christmas gifts. He and Vanessa, and Frank and Nancy, would all be on their honeymoons by then. Instead of spending money on Christmas gifts, they were spending it on nice trips to warm places.

The weddings were only three days away. Joe's parents, Fenton and Laura Hardy, were flying in tomorrow. They would be staying at a hotel. Wayne and Bulka would arrive a day before the weddings and stay here, at the Endeavor office, with Joe and Frank. A few other family members and close friends were coming, but not many. Joe, Vanessa, Frank, and Nancy were all in agreement that they wanted a small, intimate wedding. Nothing big and fancy. Just something low-key and understated, something that said, I love you now and forever and that's all that matters.

Joe sipped his hot chocolate and contemplated his future. His and Vanessa's. He and Vanessa would move into her apartment and Frank and Nancy would live in the apartment above the Endeavor Detective Agency.

Joe stared at his computer screen. He'd just finished an insurance fraud case. It was the first case he'd worked since his injury. Yep, he was back on active status and could walk without the cane. He'd even given running a tentative try at the gym on the indoor track. So far, so good. Slow and steady was the name of the game. He'd gone a few rounds on the punching bag, too. He came home sore, but it was a healthy sore. A soreness that said you had used your muscles.

Life was looking up and the weddings couldn't get here soon enough. Vanessa hadn't spent a single night in Joe's bed since they'd come home from Healy in October and, sadly, he hadn't spent a single night in her bed. Only recently had he been able to climb the stairs to her apartment. He'd arrived at her door all smiles, thinking the miraculous feat of climbing the stairs might persuade her to change her mind about the sleeping arrangements. It hadn't. She'd informed him – with a sweet and sassy grin – that logically, they should continue to sleep in their own beds until after the wedding. That way, the honeymoon would be all the more exciting.

Logically? What planet was Vanessa living on? Joe hadn't dared ask the question out loud. He knew enough about women and their logic – questionable as it was in this case – that if he wanted a happy bride and wife, (and he did), he'd best go along quietly. He'd clamped his mouth shut and put on a happy face.

Well, at least Frank was in the same boat. Nancy had talked to Vanessa. A day later Nancy informed Frank there would be no more sleeping together until after the wedding. Her excuse, she had too much to do, so many things to accomplish or complete before the big day. She would sleep at her father's house until the weddings. Not that she had spent every night with Frank anyway, she had also reminded him.

So, the brothers were in this together, like it not. And just for the record, they didn't.

Joe swallowed the last of the hot chocolate and set the mug on his desk. He cast his mind back to October, to the time when Vanessa came by every night to check on him. She would bring him dinner and help him change the bandages on his arm and leg. The arm healed quickly and after a week didn't need bandaging. The leg took longer. Presently, it had a standard, over-the-counter, medicated Band-aid. Soon, it wouldn't need that.

Joe missed those days, the days of Vanessa leaning over him, taking off the old bandages and putting on new ones.

He was sprawled on his bed, wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt.

"Hold still," she gently scolded.

"I am." He smiled. She was still dressed in her work clothes. A nice dress that hugged her curves. "You look nice, babe."

She seemed pleased by the compliment and gave him a peck on the cheek. He inhaled. She smelled like a bouquet of flowers.

She finished with the bandages and smiled down at him. Joe knew that smile. He'd grown accustomed to it and, God help him, he looked forward to it every day. That smile was the most important thing in his world. He would miss it if he never saw it again. Her smile transformed his world from dark to light.

He returned the smile, showing her he was okay, that he was recovering and would walk again without the rollator, without a cane.

He remembered another day …

She had come over after work and caught him staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, looking at his scars. He was in gym shorts and bare chested. He was leaning heavily on the rollator when he saw her face in the mirror. He thought he could read her thoughts, the same thoughts he had; that he looked a bit thin and frail.

She moved closer and took his freshly shaved face in her hands. "I love you, Joe." Then she kissed him softly on the lips, the kiss light and delicate like a butterfly landing.

He tasted that kiss on his lips now. Imagined he could smell her flowery scent.

The back door of the office opened and banged shut. Frank walked into the office and tossed his keys on his desk. Joe's memories shattered and he glared at his brother.

Frank frowned. "Everything okay? You look upset."

Clueless, Joe thought and heaved out an exasperated sigh. "I'm fine. I was just thinking about our upcoming weddings. Not much longer now."

Frank ran a hand through his dark brown hair. He looked frazzled. "Yeah, can't come soon enough for me."

"Me, too." Joe decided to keep the conversation light. "You finish that case you were working on?"

Frank appeared momentarily confused, like his mind had been elsewhere. "Huh? Oh, the cheating spouse? Yeah, the wife wasn't cheating. She was meeting with her husband's brother because they were planning a big birthday party for her husband. Once I told the husband what was going on, he felt stupid."

Joe gave a small shrug. "Still nice to know his wife wasn't cheating on him, though. Right?"

"Yeah." Frank still seemed distracted. "Hey, I ordered a pizza. It'll be here soon. I'm going to change clothes. Yell if the pizza guy shows up."

Joe nodded and watched Frank trudge up the stairs to the loft apartment.

Thirty-five minutes later, Joe trudged up the stairs, gripping the handrail for support and following the aroma of freshly baked pizza. Meat, pepperoni, cheese, tomato sauce …

Joe got to the top of the stairs and stepped into the dining area. Frank had the pizza box open on the dining table along with plates and napkins. That was all perfectly normal. It was the shot glass and whiskey bottle that wasn't.

Joe cocked his head to one side, lifted an eyebrow a fraction, and eyed his brother. "There a problem?"

"Huh?" Confusion furrowed Frank's brow.

Joe pointed at the whiskey bottle and shot glass.

"Oh." Frank shrugged and ran a hand over the back of his neck. "Um, just felt like having a drink."

Joe eased onto a chair, stretched out his bad leg, and put his forearms on the table. "Are you celebrating or drowning your sorrows? Either way, I'm in."

A grin cracked the corners of Frank's mouth and Joe felt the tension in the room fade. "A little of both," Frank said. "Celebrating our weddings, but it's been a long, dry spell if you catch my drift."

Joe laughed out loud. "Oh, I catch it, bro. Get a shot glass for me. Misery loves company."

Around the time Frank poured the third shot of whiskey the muscles in Joe's neck had loosened and the weight that had pressed on his chest for two months began to ease. He downed a slug of whiskey and enjoyed the sensation, enjoyed the long, slow, burn trickling down his throat.

Night had fallen. The dining room-slash-kitchen was lit by an ugly, overhead, florescent bulb. It threw harsh white light on the dining table. The whiskey bottle was inching toward the half empty mark and two slices of pizza remained in the box.

Joe slid a slice onto his plate. "Might as well finish it off."

Frank scooped up the last slice. "Might as well."

Eventually, the brothers moved to the living room where Joe plopped on the couch, shot glass in hand. Frank turned on the lights on the side tables and a golden glow filled the room. He pulled the curtains shut at the sliding glass doors that led to a small balcony that overlooked the parking lot in the alley below. Then Frank picked up his shot glass and sat on a recliner that had seen better days.

Frank looked at Joe and held up his glass. "To us. To our weddings."

Joe held up his glass. "Here, here."

The brothers spend the evening reminiscing, recounting childhood escapades and laughing at themselves.

Remember when we did such and such? How could we have been so dumb? What were we thinking?

Well, we're older and wiser now.

Are we?

More laughter. Heads thrown back, holding their stomachs laughter.

It was after midnight when Joe eased himself off the couch and hugged his brother tightly. "Love you, bro."

"Love you, too."

The hug lasted a few seconds more and then they released their grips on each other and stepped back, a bit unsteadily.

"Need me to help you down the stairs," Frank asked. "Don't want you tumbling down the stairs three days before the weddings. Vanessa would never forgive me, let alone mom and dad."

Joe, eyes half-mast, grinned at his brother and waved away his concerns. "I'm fine. I'll go slow." Joe threw an arm around Frank's shoulders, hugged him again, and stepped back. "Thanks for tonight, Frank. I had fun. It was great reliving all the dumb things we've done."

Frank chuckled softly. "In thirty years we can do this again. Relive all the dumb things we'll have done since tonight."

"Sounds like a plan," Joe said. "Good-night, Frank."

Frank watched Joe totter down the stairs. When Joe reached the bottom, Frank called out, "We have to leave at eleven a.m. to pick mom and dad up at the airport."

Joe looked up at his brother. "Haven't forgotten. See you in the morning."

# # # #

The next three days passed in a pleasant blur. There was a nice dinner the first night at the Italian restaurant across the street from the Endeavor. Nancy came with her father, Carson Drew, and housekeeper slash surrogate mother, Hannah Gruen. Fenton and Laura Hardy came, driving Frank's SUV. They thanked their son again for letting them use his vehicle during their stay.

Vanessa and her mother, who had flown in from New York, arrived shortly after Fenton and Laura. Vanessa's aunt and uncle who owned the Farmers' Insurance Agency where Vanessa worked also came.

Wine and beer smoothed the way to playful banter and exuberant toasts. A festive night was enjoyed by all.

The next day, around mid-afternoon, Wayne and Bulka arrived. It was perfect timing. Joe, Frank, Nancy, and Vanessa had arranged a little get-together at the Endeavor office. Joe ushered Wayne and Bulka into the office and introduced them to his parents and Carson Drew who were already there.

Carson and Fenton shook Wayne's hand.

"I hear you and your dog worked with Joe in Afghanistan," Fenton said.

Wayne pushed up his glasses and nodded. "Yes sir." Small talk was difficult for Wayne. He avoided people and interactions with them as much as possible.

"Thank you for your service." Fenton bent at the waist and smiled down at the beautiful, sable colored, German Shepard sitting at Wayne's feet. "And you, too."

"I second that," Carson said and Bulka barked as if to say, You're welcome.

Vanessa and her mother, Andrea, entered the office next. Both women were tall and blonde.

"I thought I heard a dog bark," Vanessa exclaimed, smiling. Bulka immediately scampered to her. Vanessa crouched, reached out a hand and Bulka licked it. "Aw, I missed you, too, girl." Vanessa stroked and petted the dog's velvety soft head. She cooed into Bulka's ears, telling her what a good girl she was, and then looked up at her mother. "This is the dog I was telling you about, mother. See how sweet she is?"

Andrea, a slender woman of fifty, eyed the dog skeptically. "She does seem well behaved, sweetheart."

Nancy and her two best friends, Bess and George, swept into the office carrying trays of snacks they had prepared that morning. They placed the trays on desk tops that Frank and Joe had cleared and cleaned.

Nancy cheerfully introduced her friends to Wayne and Bulka. Bess was a fashion consultant for a firm in Chicago, Nancy said, and George was a Physical Education teacher at a high school in a small town south of River Heights. Nancy explained that the women were cousins. Although, to look at them, no one would ever guess. Bess was a petite blonde with short, stylish hair and her clothes were worthy of the design labels they possessed. George, by comparison, was tall and boyish in looks and mannerisms. Her name fit her well. She had dark brown, pixie cut hair and her clothes were clearly chosen for comfort.

Wayne shook hands with the women and didn't say much. He was incredibly shy, especially around women. Bulka, however, was not. She quickly captured everyone's heart and graciously accepted every pat on the head, every scratch under the chin, and every ruffle of her fur. Being the center of attention suited her just fine.

Frank loudly asked, "Anyone want a beer or glass of wine?"

That broke what little ice remained and people began to mingle, partaking of drinks and snacks. There was even a chew bone for Bulka. The office was soon abuzz with happy conversations.

An hour later, Vanessa and Joe were huddled in a corner of the office discussing the weddings when Vanessa surprised Joe with a request. "I'd love for Bulka be our ring-bearer at the wedding. Do you think she could do it?"

Joe rubbed his chin and thought it over. "I think so. We'd have to tie something around her neck to hold the rings."

"I have something in mind," Vanessa said with a gleam in her eye.

"Okay." Joe smiled, realizing Vanessa had been thinking about this for some time. "This means Bulka has to come to the wedding rehearsal this evening and practice walking down the aisle."

"I don't have a problem with that." Vanessa squeezed Joe's hand, delighted that he seemed happy with the idea of Bulka being their ring-bearer.

"I'll talk to Wayne about it," Joe said. "I'm sure he'll be fine with it."

"Thanks," Vanessa said.

Joe pulled her closer, held her hard against his chest, and kissed her deeply.

Vanessa broke the kiss and giggled. "Save some for the honeymoon, babe." She paused to smile at her soon-to-be husband. "I can't wait to marry you."

Joe pressed his forehead against Vanessa's and held her tight. "Same here. In less than twenty-four hours we'll be Mr. and Mrs. Hardy."

"Less than a day," Vanessa whispered, her breath warm on Joe's face.

"Less than a day," he whispered back.

Vanessa scanned the room out of the corner of her eye. "Uh oh, Nancy's signaling me. I have to go. Nancy, Bess, George, and I have to pick up the flowers for the church."

Joe reluctantly let Vanessa slip through his arms. "Okay. I'll miss you."

"Same here," Vanessa said and reminded him, "Talk to Wayne about Bulka."

"I will, as soon as you're gone." Joe pushed a strand of hair behind Vanessa's ear, leaned in, and kissed her. This time the kiss was quick and tender.

# # # #

Bulka wore a silky, blue ribbon around her neck. Two wedding bands were tucked in a small blue pouch attached to the ribbon. Bulka walked slowly down the aisle. She understood her mission, understood the importance of the building and the ceremony and the small pouch around her neck. She must deliver it safely to Joe and Vanessa waiting at the altar.

Frank and Nancy also stood at the altar and several steps behind Bulka came Fenton Hardy and Carson Drew. Each man carried a ring in a velvet box. Nancy had opted to forego an engagement ring and instead, her wedding band, which Fenton carried, was encrusted with three small diamonds. Nancy and Frank had picked out the ring together. They had also purchased a modest wedding band for Frank that day. Soon, those rings would adorn their hands.

Bulka stopped and stood between Joe and Vanessa. Joe bent, tugged the pouch free, and signaled Bulka to sit. She moved a few paces away and sat. She had the best seat in the church.

Fenton stepped up next. He handed Nancy's ring to Frank, hugged his son, and whispered, "I love you, son."

Carson handed Nancy the ring for Frank and kissed his daughter's cheek. "You're beautiful, honey." The words he wanted to add stuck in his throat, I wish your mother was here. I wish she could see you today.

Carson blinked back tears, turned, and he and Fenton solemnly made their way to their seats. Fenton sat next to his wife. She took his hand in hers and moved closer to him.

The minister began by giving a speech. He rambled on for a while about love and respect. Joe was impatient. We get it, he thought, get on with it. We're here to get married, not preached at.

Finally, it was time to exchange vows. Joe and Vanessa turned to each other and joined hands. Vanessa glanced down coyly, her eyelashes casting shadows on her cheeks. Then she looked up and gave Joe a nervous smile. The big moment had arrived. The long wait was over.

Joe said his vows first, his voice breaking a few times. Then Vanessa said hers. Joe's eyes never left her face. He took in every word, every gesture, every inflection. He saw the love in her eyes and felt it radiate from her heart to his. He couldn't wait to start their life together.

# # # #

Her hand slipped to the back of his neck and Joe closed his eyes. Vanessa's fingers lightly stroked his skin, sending little jolts up into his brain. They were alone in their hotel room, both weary from the long day and traveling. They had gotten to the room, stripped off their clothes, and taken a shower.

Joe pulled her onto the bed and kissed her softly on the lips. She pushed him back and looked at him, put a hand on his chest, right over his heart.

"I love you, Joe."

He smiled. "I love you, too, with all my heart." Then he kissed her with a searing passion.

# # # #

Wayne and Bulka got home late that night. Bulka checked the house, smelled the doors and floors. Sniffed the couch and coffee table. No strange smells anywhere. Wayne let her out into the backyard. She bounded along the fence, hunting new smells. Again, nothing new. Nothing unusual. Bulka found a stick, laid down on the grass, and started chewing it.

Wayne checked his phone for messages and missed calls. Not that he got a lot of messages or calls. Although, over the past two months his sister had called him several times. They were finally bonding, becoming more brother and sister than they had ever been when younger. Connie even had a job now. She worked at the hospital filing medical records or something. Peggy MacDonald had been instrumental in getting Connie the job. Wayne liked Peggy. Peggy had been good for Connie. Peggy was the mother Connie had never had.

Wayne stared out at the yard. Dark shadows hung in the corners and under the big tree. The center, where Bulka lay chewing her stick, was lit by the streetlamp. It was like Bulka was lying in a spotlight. Wayne watched Bulka and thought about his mother, about the life he had endured as a child. The abuse and neglect. The shame. If he and Connie had had a different mother – one that had cared about them – their lives would have been so different.

Water under the bridge, he told himself. Nothing he did now could change the past.

He glanced at his phone and saw he'd missed a message from Casey at the Veterinarian's office.

Hi Mr. Banyan,

Just a friendly reminder that Bulka has an appointment on Tuesday morning at 9. Please, let me know if you need to reschedule. Otherwise, hope to see you on Tuesday.


Wayne read the message again. Hope to see YOU on Tuesday. He wondered if he was reading too much into it. The 'you.'

Joe would have told him he wasn't. He and Joe had talked about Casey during one of their marathon phone calls. Wayne had confessed to liking Casey. He thought she was cute. Joe had encouraged Wayne to ask her out.

"What have you got to lose?" Joe had said. "If she says, no. Fine. Your life continues as is. But, if she says, yes .. well, who knows. She could be the one for you. You'll never know if you don't ask her out."

Wayne had never asked a woman out. He'd never been on a date. Was it too late to start?

According to Joe, it was never too late.

Wayne typed a message to Casey.


Me and Bulka will be at the office by 9. Thanks for the reminder. Looking forward to seeing you, too.


His finger hovered over the send button. Was the message too bold?

Bulka nudged his leg, startling him. He peered down at her. She stared back, caramel colored eyes questioning him.

"I can't decide," he told her. "Should I send the message to Casey or not?"

Bulka head bumped his leg again and gave a little bark. Wayne took that as a 'yes,' and pressed send.

Two months later, Wayne and Casey were a couple. Whenever anyone asked how they met, they said Bulka had brought them together. And Bulka? She was quite happy to have another human who loved her and cared for her.

In the end, Wayne realized his life had turned out okay. He had the best dog in the world and the cutest girlfriend. Life, this life, all came down to love and Wayne, at last, had plenty of it.


A/N: A big thank you to everyone who has stuck around to the end. So sorry it took me longer than I hoped to get this final chapter written and posted. As always I want to thank those who take the time to leave a review. Your kind words are always appreciated and make the hard work of writing worth the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it.

Take care everyone and happy reading! For me, it's on to the next story. :)