Chapter Thirteen

Frank and Joe were in Joe's truck. The road lay ahead of them – long and straight. The clouds above were thick with the threat of more snow. It was still bitterly cold and the wind had increased. The brothers were happy to be on the road and headed home. Joe had the speedometer pushed to the right, holding at a speed that was slightly beyond cautious, but within the realm of safe and, for once, Frank wasn't complaining about the speed.

The brothers had left BamBam behind in Hebron over an hour ago. BamBam had decided to spend another night at the hotel with Lou. It looked like their relationship was off to a great start and Frank and Joe were happy for them.

Frank and Joe came to the last stretch of road. The last stretch seemed the longest. There was always a stoplight that turned red at the last moment impeding their progress, causing tensions to rise.

Joe pulled away from the stoplight and Frank said, "We're almost home."

Joe side-eyed his brother. He had nothing to say. Just miles to count and they were down to two. He had a pregnant wife he was anxious to see.

It was getting late, almost eight o'clock by the time Joe parked in his allotted spot in the alley behind their office building. The exterior lighting showed that the parking lot had been plowed. Probably that morning. Snow was shoved into dirty, gray piles up against the building.

Frank and Joe's apartments were on the second floor like all the other business owners on this block. Joe and Vanessa's apartment sat above the insurance agency that Vanessa managed along with her aunt and uncle. Frank and Nancy's apartment sat above the Endeavor Detective Agency.

Frank and Joe wasted no time in exiting Joe's truck and grabbing their gear from the narrow back seat.

"Home at last," Joe said as he slung his backpack over a shoulder and shut the door of the truck.

Frank grinned as he mirrored Joe's actions. With his backpack slung over a shoulder, Frank looked up at the small balcony of his apartment. The curtains were drawn at the sliding glass doors, but light glowed behind them. Up there waited the woman he loved.

"Talk to you tomorrow," Frank told his brother.

"Yep," Joe said as he walked to the stairs that led up to his apartment.

Frank was happy to see that the stairs had been salted and were clear of snow and ice. He would hate to see his brother slip and fall.

Frank was lucky, the stairs leading to his apartment were inside the building. He opened the back door of the office and entered. The interior warmth was a welcome change from the wintry conditions outside. He dropped his pack on the floor and hung his jacket on the coatrack beside the door. He was working on his boots when Nancy appeared at the top of the stairs – the stairs that led to their apartment. She wore the draw-string sweatpants he liked and a tight t-shirt. Braless. He could tell and, damn, did she ever look good.

She smiled down at him, love shining in her eyes. "You're home," she said.

He returned the loving smile. "It's feels like I've been gone a week."

It had only been one night, but she agreed. His absence had felt much longer. Much more profound. He hadn't changed since she'd last seen him. Of course not. He still had the sly smile that said I missed you. His dark hair was tousled and his eyes resembled muddy earth. But there were parts of him that had been altered by this latest case. It happened to all of them .. the altering. It came with being a detective.

Frank bounded up the stairs. No words were needed to show how much he'd missed her. How much he loved her. The heady kiss he gave her did the job quite nicely.

When he broke the kiss, she kept her arms wrapped around his neck. Her lips brushed the edge of his ear as she whispered, "I missed you, Frank." She tip-toed and kissed that spot, the one where the shoulder meets the neck, and he melted. She kissed him on the lips and his arms automatically slid tighter around her waist and drew her closer.

He didn't know that she felt this was the safest place to be, snug in his arms. And she didn't know that he felt that this was what his arms were meant for, to hold her near him.

They remained wrapped in each other's arms, foreheads pressed together, soaking up the closeness. Their love was earnest and unmistakable, a deep devotion mixed with the unconscious fear that they might one day lose the other. Their work was, at times, fraught with danger. The fear of losing a loved one was an ever-present worry.

A similar scene was playing out in another apartment. Joe placed a hand on the nape of Vanessa's neck and took her in his arms. She turned slightly sideways because of the roundness of her belly. He felt her against him, so soft and vibrant. He was home and she was in his arms. He wanted to hold her forever.

Neither brother knew how much their wives had missed them. Or how much their wives worried when they were away on a mission. However, the women were stoic and would never express these fears to their husbands. Frank and Joe did not need additional stress when on a mission. The women's reward was their husband's triumphant return home.

Midnight came and the snow started again. It was coming down in earnest, blanketing the city in white. Frank and Nancy were in bed. She lay next to him sleeping soundly. A faint glow from the building's exterior lights seeped past the curtains and into the bedroom. Frank propped himself on an elbow and gazed down upon Nancy. At his wife. Blonde, shoulder length hair was splayed across her pillow. She was beautiful. He brushed a strand of hair off her cheek with an index finger. In sleep she was unguarded and relaxed. At peace. Calm and serene. A beauty in repose.

Frank eyed the fullness of her lips and the light freckles across her nose. He loved her for so many reasons. She was smart and gentle and fiery. Yes, fiery. She never backed away from a case when her passion was aroused. The same could be said of him. Her passion was the fuel that propelled her in search of the truth. He liked that about her maybe because he shared that same passion and desire for the truth.

He lay down and gathered her in his arms, pressing his chest to her back. She moaned softly and he fell asleep. He too, was at peace.

# # # #

Frank and Joe were able to spend a few days with their mother before she flew home to Bayport. The skies finally cleared and the weather was much warmer during Laura's remaining days in River Heights. She had been happy to spend ten days in Illinois visiting her sons and daughters-in-law. She would be back, with Fenton, when Joe and Vanessa's baby arrived. That event was four months away and Laura could hardly wait. She was looking forward to greeting her first grandchild.

The trial of Chief Hayes, Officer Naylor, and Griffin Scruggs (as well as the other thugs) took place before the birth. The wheels of justice turned a bit more rapidly when police officials were involved.

Griffin Scruggs was found guilty of murdering Lauren Engel. Forensic testing of his clothing revealed gunshot residue and tiny blood droplets on the sleeve of his jacket. Ballistic testing proved that Harley Rangel's gun was the murder weapon. Harley Rangel testified that Griffin knew exactly where he, Harley, kept the gun and that he and Griffin had used it on several occasions at a local firing range. Harley also said he had given Griffin a key to his house. Essentially, Harley told the jury, Griffin had had the ability to sneak into Harley's house at any time and take the gun. Harley Rangel's testimony sealed Griffin's fate. He was sentenced to 25 years to life without the possibility of parole.

Harley and the other thugs were sentenced to 18 months in the county jail for their part in Chief Hayes' extortion racket. The thugs claimed they had just been following orders when they'd harassed and threatened local business owners. Following orders was not a magic 'get out of jail free' card, the presiding judge had told each defendant in an angry voice.

Officer Naylor's trial came next. He was given a stiffer sentence for following Hayes' orders and for overseeing the murder of Lauren Engel. He didn't fight the charges and offered no explanation for his actions. He received ten years in prison without the possibility of parole.

The trial of Chief Hayes came last. He was the big fish. The real prize and prosecutors were anxious to see him pay in full. To that end, prosecutors had taken months gathering evidence and subpoenaing witnesses. There had been no shortage of witnesses. Practically every business owner in Hebron was ready to testify, including Kathy Engel.

There was one small problem with Chief Hayes' trial. The defense demanded a change of venue, claiming Hayes could not – would not – receive a fair and impartial trial in Hebron. The citizens of Hebron were deemed (by the defense) to be a biased jury pool and rightly so. Hayes had extorted almost every business in town. The judge agreed that the citizens of Hebron would be hard pressed to give Hayes a fair trial and changed the venue to River Heights.

When the prosecution realized the trial would take place in River Heights they had sought out the assistance of Carson Drew. Carson was keen to observe the trial of Chief Hayes. Carson had known of Hayes for years and had hoped to one day see the man brought to justice. However, wisely and correctly, Carson recused himself from the trial, telling the prosecutors he was too biased against Hayes. He could not in good conscience took part in the trial.

It made little difference. The evidence against Hayes spoke volumes. The evidence discovered by Frank and Joe and Officer Hawker in Hayes' house and garage told of his greed and corruption.

Hayes never confessed to any of his crimes and never showed any remorse. He sat in court tight lipped and silent as a grave day after day. It didn't matter. The witnesses the prosecutors called said plenty. Every business owner Hayes had extorted testified against him. Even Kathy Engel. Her testimony, the most heart-wrenching of all, sealed Hayes' fate. Kathy told the jury how her daughter, Lauren, had stood up to Hayes. How Lauren had threatened to expose Hayes. She'd told him she was going to the state Attorney General and tell him everything she knew. Of course, Hayes couldn't allow that to happen and thus, Lauren had been killed.

Hayes was sentenced to 25 years to life without the possibility of parole just as Griffin had been.

It was mid-June when the trial of Chief Hayes ended. Frank and Joe were happy to see justice served. It was always nice when the justice system worked, when criminals were put behind bars.

During all of the trials, life had gone on for the Hardy families. They had kept abreast of the trials and their outcomes, but had continued to take new cases, big and small, at their detective agency. Life had been quiet, but as long as the money flowed in – which it did – the Hardy families were happy.

Vanessa's belly continued to grow and by mid-June she and Joe were ready to meet their child. Actually, everyone was ready. Hannah Gruen checked in daily and Nancy was always disappointed to report that there was no change in Vanessa's status. Vanessa was going through the same thing with Laura Hardy. Vanessa often giggled at the daily phone calls from her mother-in-law. Honestly, Vanessa was growing tired of saying, "Sorry, no baby yet. Maybe tomorrow."

Well, tomorrow finally came on a bright sunny afternoon in June. It was a Wednesday and by a stroke of luck, Joe was home.

With one hand on her belly, Vanessa used the other hand to push herself off the sofa. "Aughhh! This is it, Joe. The baby's coming."

Joe was in the kitchen. Their apartment had an open floorplan so he could see Vanessa in the living room. He turned in her direction. "Are you sure? I'm making a sandwich."

Vanessa glared at her husband for a second then realized he had every right to question her prediction. Yesterday morning she had awoken him with those exact same words, "This is it. The baby's coming." She'd also added, "I'm having contractions. Actually, I've been having contractions for a while now."

Joe had heeded the warning and had dashed through the apartment gathering up Vanessa's overnight bag, grabbing the truck keys, and then helping Vanessa get dressed. The drive to the hospital had been speedy. Joe's favorite way to drive, but then he'd felt he had a good excuse.

Sorry for speeding Officer, but I have a pregnant wife who's in labor!

One look at Vanessa groaning, clutching her huge belly, and the police officer would know Joe was telling the truth.

As it turned out, there had been no need to speed. Joe and Vanessa spent three hours at the hospital only to be sent home with the words, Braxton-Hicks contractions. As the nurse had explained to Joe and Vanessa, these contractions do not get closer together nor do they grow stronger or last longer.

"Well, they hurt," Vanessa had announced once she and Joe were back in his truck and she was wrestling with the seatbelt. Getting a seatbelt over a pregnant belly was no easy task!

Joe had patted Vanessa' knee affectionately. "I'm sure they hurt like hell, babe. Hey, this wasn't a wasted trip. We learned about Braxton-Hicks contractions. Even the nurse said it's hard to tell them apart from real contractions, especially when it's your first pregnancy."

Joe's words had soothed Vanessa's wounded ego. This was her first pregnancy and there were plenty of unknowns as well as fear. How painful would labor be? The Braxton-Hicks contractions had been quite painful. Vanessa wanted a natural birth – well, as natural as possible, but if the pain became unbearable she knew she would ask for pain meds. She wasn't that dead-set on a natural birth.

As the day had progressed, the contractions had come and gone. At dinner, she'd insisted again that, This was it! The contractions were stronger than they had been before, she'd said. Joe didn't fall for the bait so easily this time. He'd taken her to the sofa and together they had timed the contractions. False alarm. The contractions were very regular and eventually faded away.

So today, Joe could be forgiven if he seemed to not place much faith in Vanessa's announcement that, This was it. The baby was coming.

Joe carried his plate with his sandwich to the kitchen table and sat down. He watched Vanessa pace the living room, one hand on her rounded belly, the other brushing stray strands of hair from her face.

"Where's my overnight bag?" she asked, cheeks flushed.

Joe talked around a bite of sandwich. "In the bedroom." He swallowed and gulped down half a glass of milk. "We need to time your contractions."

Vanessa glowered at him, eyes frosty. "We don't need to time them. I'm sure this time." She drew in a breath. "They hurt, Joe! Really, really hurt!"

That got Joe's attention. He swallowed another chunk of sandwich and chewed as he hustled to the bedroom. He appeared seconds later with the overnight bag, dropped it on the floor, and reached for the last of his sandwich.

"How can you eat at a time like this?" Vanessa demanded, desperation seeping into her tone.

Joe turned innocent eyes on his wife as he held the last bite of sandwich. "I'm hungry. I don't know when I'll get a chance to eat again. You might be in labor for hours." When he saw Vanessa was ready to protest, he used a different tack. "Besides, you don't want me leaving part of a sandwich here. It'll be all dried up and smelly when we come home. You don't want to come home to that, do you?"

Vanessa rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Just .. where's my purse? I need my insurance card."

Like magic, Joe produced the purse. It had been sitting on one of the chairs at the kitchen table. Vanessa took the purse and started digging through it while Joe shoved the last of his sandwich in his mouth.

Twenty minutes later they were stumbling out of their apartment. Joe had insisted on brushing his teeth before they left. Couldn't go to the hospital and talk to doctors and nurses with bad breath, he'd said.

Vanessa proceeded down two steps and stopped. Her stomach muscles tightened like a fist as a contraction hit. It hit like a tidal wave, stopping her cold. This was the real deal. This baby was coming.

Seeing Vanessa's pained expression Joe took her by the arm. "Come on, babe. Just a few more steps." No two ways about it. They had to get to the hospital. Joe adjusted the overnight bag in his hand and helped Vanessa down the remaining steps.

The drive to the hospital was smooth yet fast. Vanessa didn't notice. She was timing contractions through deep breaths and sure enough, the contractions were getting stronger and closer together. How much stronger would they get? How much more pain could she endure? As she panted through contractions in the passengers' seat, she reminded herself that women had been having babies for eons. She could do this.

Baby Hardy was born at ten o'clock that night. He arrived weighing eight pound and measuring nineteen inches long. His hair was a golden pale shade of blond and his eyes were blue.

"All babies are born with blue eyes," the nurse told Vanessa and Joe. But given that both of them had blue eyes maybe the baby's eyes would stay blue.

The new parents were in awe. Simple, all-consuming awe. Transfixed by the little human they had created. They took turns holding their little bundle of joy swaddled in a soft white blanket.

"He looks like you," a weary Vanessa said from her hospital bed. She could really use a good night's sleep. Laura Hardy had warned her that sleep would be elusive for the next several months. Laura had tried to prepare Vanessa and Joe for their new roles as parents and Vanessa had taken all of her mother-in-law's advice to heart.

"Be prepared for a fussy newborn and sleep deprivation," Laura had said only a month ago. "But also be prepared to love like you've never loved before."

The love part was true. Vanessa already felt it, that overwhelming, undying love. A love that knew no bounds, no limits to its greatness. Vanessa would do anything for her child. No question about that. This baby would be cherished and loved and would want for nothing.

"I think he looks like you," Joe said softly. He'd been sitting in the hospital room's lone chair, holding his son for twenty minutes, soaking up the newness. The miracle of birth. He didn't want to let the baby go. He just wanted to gaze at him for hours, to take in all his miniature features. His tiny nose and ears. His soft, downy hair and wisps of eyebrows. He was a perfect little human.

Light rapping on the door, brought Joe's head up.

"Knock, knock." Frank smiled at his brother. "Mind if we come in? It's just Nancy and me."

Nancy poked a head around Frank's broad shoulder. "We can come back tomorrow if you prefer."

"No," Vanessa said and struggled to prop herself up in the bed. "Come in."

Nancy hurried over to Vanessa. "We won't stay long," she whispered into Vanessa's ear as the two women hugged, one exhausted and ready for sleep, the other excited to meet the newest member of the Hardy family. "I know you need your rest."

Joe rose from his chair and Frank stepped closer. Together, the brothers peered down at the sleeping baby.

"It doesn't get much better than this," Joe said in a low voice.

"He's perfect," Frank whispered.

Joe quirked an eyebrow at his brother. "Who do you think he looks like? Me or Vanessa?"

Frank's dark brow wrinkled thoughtfully. "Hmmm, hard to say at this stage."

Nancy stepped in for a closer view and sighed deeply. "He is perfect."

"Want to hold him?" Joe asked with a knowing grin.

Nancy nodded and Joe carefully transferred the baby from his arms to hers. She held the baby close to her chest with one arm and used her free hand to lightly stroke his downy hair. The scent of talcum powder, fresh linens, and baby filled her nose. Maternal instincts rushed to the surface. This baby was precious. A small, vulnerable human that she would give her life to protect. She had decided long ago that she did not want children of her own. The death of her mother had left a permanent scar upon her heart. The feeling of abandonment and emptiness was hard to shake, hard to outgrow, so she had stopped trying and had learned to simply accept it.

This baby was small and vulnerable and she silently vowed she would always be there to protect him. He was the child she and Frank would never have and she could live with that.

Frank put an arm around her shoulders and leaned over to gaze upon the newest Hardy. "Hi, little nephew."

Nancy gave Frank a warm smile then turned her dark blue eyes on Joe. "Have you picked out a name?" Vanessa and Joe had been tight-lipped about the baby's name, declaring they would not reveal it until he was born.

"Yes," Joe said.

From the bed, Vanessa said, "No."

Nancy and Frank traded glances and grins.

"Which is it?" Frank asked looking from Vanessa to Joe. "Either you have a name or you don't."

"We have a name .." Joe began.

"We haven't settled on the nickname," Vanessa finished.

Confusion showed in Frank's furrowed brow. "How hard can it be to pick a nickname?"

Joe laughed quietly, shook his head and ran a tired hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. "Hard. Really hard. We have nicknames picked out .."

"We can't agree on which one we want to use," Vanessa supplied.

Nancy spoke up. "Do an adoring aunt and uncle get a say in the nickname?"

"Yeah," Frank said with a nod, "tell us the name and we can help you pick the nickname. Maybe we could have a vote and see which one wins?"

Vanessa rolled her eyes. Voting on which nickname to choose for her baby was not an idea that appealed to her.

"What?" Joe asked his wife. "Don't like the idea of a vote?"

"Not really," Vanessa said, fatigue creeping into her voice.

"We haven't been able to decide on a nickname," Joe said with a shrug. "Maybe it's time we got a second opinion. Doesn't mean we have to use the second opinion. The final decision is ours and ours alone."

Vanessa reached out a hand and Joe took it. "You're right," she conceded, sneezing his hand. "We've been back and forth on this nickname for a month. I'm not sure which one I want anymore. I like them both. So yes, I'd like to hear what Nancy and Frank think."

"Great," Frank said as Nancy passed the baby into his waiting arms.

"First things first," Nancy said. "What's the baby's official name?"

Joe smiled at his sister-in-law. "That part is easy. Jonathan Finley Hardy."

Frank lifted his chin. "Finley? In honor of our great grandfather, Finley Hardy?"

"You got it," Joe confirmed with a nod.

"Jonathan was my great grandfather's name," Vanessa explained.

"I love the name," Nancy said. "It's perfect just like your son."

Frank looked up from admiring little Jonathan Finley Hardy. "So what's the problem? Jon is a perfectly acceptable nickname."

"Jon's not in the running," Joe said with a chagrined shake of his head.

"I prefer Jack," Vanessa said. "It's less common than Jon and I like the sound of Jack Hardy."

Nancy agreed. "Jack Hardy is a good strong name. I like it."

Joe wagged an index finger. "Not so fast, Nan. How about Finn Hardy? That's even less common than Jack Hardy."

Nancy stifled a laugh. "Well, you are certainly right about that. And I have to admit, I like the name Finn Hardy, too!"

"So do I." Frank beamed.

Nancy giggled. "I see why you two have been having a hard time deciding on a nickname. Both names are great."

# # # #

Carson Drew's backyard bustled with activity. Nancy and Hannah draped two picnic tables with checkered tablecloths. Laura Hardy came through the patio doors of the house carrying paper plates and silverware. Fenton Hardy followed his wife carrying a pitcher of lemonade in one hand and a pitcher of ice tea in the other. He set them down on the freshly draped tables.

"Put the plates and silverware here," Hannah said to Laura.

"I'll get the napkins and condiments," Nancy said. She passed her father on the steps leading up to the patio.

Carson Drew smiled at his daughter and headed for the hot grill. He had hamburgers and chicken-veggie kebabs on a platter which he promptly placed on the grill.

Nancy reappeared at the patio doorway with a basket loaded with napkins, condiments, and salt and pepper shakers. She wasn't alone. "Look who's here, everyone," she called out.

Beside her stood the guests of honor, the guests everyone was waiting for, Vanessa holding baby Hardy, and Joe holding a car-seat and a diaper bag.

Laura was drawn like a magnet to her grandson and rushed up the patio steps. "Here, let me take him, dear," she said to Vanessa.

Vanessa handed over a semi-sleeping baby. He had fallen asleep on the car drive from their apartment to the Drew house.

Nancy heard a noise and turned to see Frank coming through the front door. He held up two bottles of champagne and winked at her.

Let the party begin, Nancy thought with a gleam in her eye and a smile on her lips. "You're timing is perfect. Dad just put the hamburgers and kebabs on the grill."

"I'll get some wine glasses for the champagne and be right out," Frank said.

"I can help with the glasses," Vanessa said. Now that her hands were free she was ready to help.

"There's some sparkling apple cider in the fridge for you, Van," Nancy said. "Could you grab that, too?"

Vanessa smiled. "No problem."

Soon the backyard was filled with joyous parents, adoring grandparents, a doting aunt and uncle, and affectionate friends. An amused baby was passed among the grandparents and Hannah. Everyone wanted a chance to hold the precious little one. Smiles, laughter, and good cheer spread heartfelt warmth throughout the group.

Carson removed the hamburgers and kebabs from the grill. Hannah, Nancy, and Vanessa carried potato salad, baked beans, and hamburger fixing to the table. Frank and Joe filled wine glasses with champagne.

Joe filled one glass with sparkling apple cider for Van. She was nursing the baby and, therefore, was avoiding alcohol. Joe slipped the glass into Vanessa's hand. "Here you go, babe. Ready to celebrate?"

Vanessa took a sip of the sweet carbonated drink. "I'm ready. It's so nice of Carson to have us all here."

The sound of a spoon lightly tapping a wine glass drew everyone's attention. "Here, here," Fenton Hardy said and all eyes settled on him. "First I want to thank Carson for hosting this little get together. It's very generous of him and Hannah to allow us to gather at his home and partake of his hospitality."

"Here, here," Frank and Joe chorused with their glasses lifted. Others joined in.

Carson held up a hand. "Please, I consider you, Laura, your sons, and Vanessa as family. Hannah and I are happy to have you here and in our lives."

"Here, here," Nancy said and again wine glasses were lifted in solidarity and love.

Fenton continued, "Thank you, Carson and Hannah. I know I speak for Laura, my sons, and Vanessa when I say we consider you a part of our family. And now, to why we're gathered here today." Fenton took a moment to gaze upon the baby snuggled in Laura's arms as she sat at a picnic table then lifted his glass. "We're here to welcome the newest member of the Hardy family."

Frank called out, "Cheers to Jonathan Finley Hardy."

"Cheers," everyone echoed and took sips from their glasses.

"Only one question remains," Frank said. "What is Jonathan's nickname?" His dark squint landed squarely on his brother. "What are we calling the little tyke, bro?"

Joe glanced at Vanessa. She sighed and nodded, seeming satisfied. Joe scanned those gathered around him. He felt the love and support of every person present. He knew his son would have, did have, that same love and support.

Joe smiled, almost laughed. He and Vanessa had gone round and round in circles discussing the pros and cons of each name. Finally, it had come down to what fit the baby.

"After much deliberation," Joe said, "we have decided to call him Jack."

A huge smile broke across Frank's face. "Great choice. Everyone, a toast to Jack Hardy!"

# # # #

BamBam palmed the diamond ring and slid it into the front pocket of his trousers. New trousers, dark and casual. He had bought them for this very special day. Well, if all went according to plan it would be a very special day. Otherwise it was going to be a very disappointing day.

Lou came out of BamBam's bedroom and twirled into the room showing off a pretty summer dress. He liked the way the flowery dress floated on the air as she spun.

"What do you think?" she asked, coming to a halt beside him. "Will this do for dinner? You said tonight was a special occasion." She fluffed the dress and then let her eyes drift up to his.

BamBam had made reservations at a nice Italian restaurant. A place across the street from the Endeavor Detective Agency. Both Frank and Joe had highly recommended the place. Said the family that ran it were immigrants from Italy and that the food was authentic and delicious. Plus, it had a cozy atmosphere that lent itself to intimate moments and quiet conversations.

BamBam smiled down at Lou. "You look fabulous. Ready to go?"

"You bet. I can't wait to try this restaurant. You know how much I love Italian food."

Yes, he did and that was another reason he had picked the restaurant.

BamBam and Lou had been dating for five months. Most weekends he traveled to Hebron to see her. Her roommate seemed okay with BamBam spending the night, but he didn't like to push it. He didn't want to become the unwelcome guest, so fifty percent of the time he opted for a hotel room. That way, Megan, Lou's roommate had their house all to herself. Well, if things went according to plan, Megan could wind up with the house permanently to herself.

The restaurant lived up to Frank and Joe's claims. Candlelight glowed on every linen covered table. The hostess and waiter were beyond friendly. They had a wealth of knowledge, and didn't mind sharing it, on every dish. Many were family favorites from the 'old country,' the waiter explained. He was a son of the owner and obviously proud of his family's successful restaurant.

After dinner, BamBam and Lou sipped the last of their wine.

"This was wonderful," she told BamBam. "We'll have to come here again. Maybe the next time I come to town."

BamBam set his glass on the table. "Um, about that. I have some news I wanted to share. I..I've been waiting for the right time."

Lou set down her empty glass. "What? What is it? Please tell me it's good news."

BamBam grinned. "Yes, it's definitely good news. I .. well, I applied for a job with the Hebron police department."

Lou's big brown eyes widened in surprise. "Really? You never said a word to me about it."

BamBam shrugged. "I didn't want to get your hopes up. You know that Sergeant Timmons is now the police chief and, well, that left an opening for a police officer. I applied for the job and have an interview this week on Wednesday."

"That's terrific! You can stay at my house like you usually do. I'm sure Megan won't mind."

"Thanks, I may do that." BamBam swallowed and took a moment to settle the butterflies fluttering in his stomach. "Um, there was one other thing I wanted to .. to ask you."

Lou sensed the change, a sudden electric charge in the air. "Ohhh …"

BamBam pushed back his chair and stood. He withdrew the ring from his pocket and went down on one knee beside Lou. It was a good thing she was still seated. She didn't think her legs would hold her if she had tried standing.

Her hands went to her cheeks. "BamBam?"

A ring lay on the palm of his large hand. "Lou, will you marry me?"

All conversation in the restaurant had stopped. All eyes were on the couple in the back corner, the table's candlelight flickering and casting a soft glow upon their faces. Waiters and waitresses had paused their serve and kept vigil along with the customers, waiting for Lou's answer.

"Of course! Yes! Yes, I'll marry you."

The restaurant erupted in delighted applause. Lou didn't hear it. She had sprung out of her chair and wrapped her arms around BamBam. He felt her lean into him and he leaned right back, their arms around one another, and their lips finding each other.

Shouts of congratulations were added to the applause.

One month later Frank and Joe were saying good-bye to BamBam. He had gotten the job in Hebron and was a newly minted police officer.

Frank and Joe stood outside BamBam's apartment on a hot Saturday afternoon. The brothers had helped BamBam load his possessions into a rented U-Haul trailer. There wasn't a lot. A computer desk, some bookcases, a double bed, nightstand and dresser. A TV, recliner, and assorted kitchen stuff.

"Keep in touch," Frank said. "And let us know when the wedding is."

"Will do," BamBam promised. He gave Frank and Joe each a quick hug. "You guys .. man, you're true friends. If you ever need anything, let me know."

Joe nodded. "That goes both ways. We're always here for you, too."

"Thanks, I appreciate that. Hey, how's the baby?" BamBam asked Joe.

"Still keeping us up at night. My mom and mother-in-law keep saying it won't be long and he'll be sleeping through the night. Not sure if I believe that." Joe laughed and Frank and BamBam joined him.

"Yeah," BamBam said, "I may be in the same boat as you in a year or two. Lou says she wants at least two kids."

"Two's a good number," Joe said. "That way they don't outnumber you. God knows it's taking both Van and me to take care of Jack. Between feedings, diaper changes, baths, tummy aches, spit ups, well, you get the picture."

"Yeah, I think I do." BamBam looked like he was reconsidering the prospect of having children.

"What I'm saying," Joe clarified, "is, it's a lot of work."

Frank nudged Joe's arm. "But it's worth it, right?"

Joe exchanged looks with his brother. "Absolutely."

"That's all I need to hear," BamBam said. "Well, gotta hit the road. I'll keep in touch. Take care, guys."

Frank and Joe watched as BamBam pulled away from the curb, towing the UHaul trailer behind his car. The brothers would miss their friend. They gave him a silent salute and wished him well. BamBam was starting a new life with a wonderful woman. He also had a great job. What more could anyone ask for?

Joe laid an arm on Frank's shoulder. "Let's go home, bro. I miss my wife and son."

"Yeah, me too," Frank said.


A/N: Another story has come to an end. I wish I could have been better about posting, as in, posting quicker, but such is life. I thank each one of you who has left a review. I always appreciate your thoughts and input even if it's just to point out a mistake. I like fixing any mistakes that readers find.

I can't say when (or if) I'll be posting another story. Oh, I have several stories I would like to write, but I also have several hobbies I like to do; quilting, counted cross-stitch, building a dollhouse, traveling ... just to name a few.

I feel like I may be back, writing is in my blood, but I don't want to make any firm promises. So, I leave you all for now. I wish all of you the very best there is in life. Take care of yourselves!