Notes: Thank you very much to all those who read and reviewed :) Please continue!
Thanks also to Ballettmaus and suallenparker for their help with this chapter, and to cmaddict for giving me her view on Don's 'voice'.
The car sweeping up to the front of the house, silver where the sun hit its gleaming, sleek black exterior, could only belong to Mac Taylor. How he managed to keep his car so clean was something Don, whose own vehicle was more mud than paintwork, could never understand. On more than one occasion he had teased Mac; querying whether he employed someone especially to wash his car for him every day, with Mac's answer being simply an icy stare.
Through the car window, Stella waved as Mac brought the car to a careful halt. Moments later, despite Stella's best efforts to thwart him, he leaped out and opened the door for her; her advanced pregnancy making it more difficult for her to move as mercurially as she was used to. Giving Mac a feigned glower, she accepted the hand he offered and swung her legs out of the car; accomplishing that with her usual elegance.
"Mac, you fuss too much." As she stood up, she tweaked the brim of his hat, narrowing her eyes at him.
"I know. So you tell me," Mac replied placidly, straightening his hat with his free hand. With a mock-serious frown she muttered, 'fusspot' and Don, enjoying the exchange between his two closest friends, smirked; well aware that had he not been present, Stella would have made no complaint.
"Don, can you believe it..." Stella broke from her husband to pull their friend into a hug. "He almost made us late!" She stepped back, clasping his forearms to regard him with a look of exaggerated incredulity.
In turn, Don expressed his shocked disbelief as Stella turned triumphant eyes to her husband.
"Mac, tell me it ain't the truth," he joked as he and the older man shook hands with vigour.
"It's true," he said dryly while Stella nodded at Don with obvious mirth. But the smile of affection at her husband shone through that.
"He checked and re-checked the car so many times it made me dizzy," she elaborated her claim. "Making sure everything was packed; that I had everything I needed; everything I might need, and even a few things I didn't need at all. In the end, I had to remind him of the time."
Mac shrugged. "Just making sure, after past experiences, that we wouldn't get halfway and have you shriek that you'd left something absolutely vital behind..." His mouth twitched at the corners and Stella gave him a nudge.
"I was going to say I appreciated your thoughtfulness."
Seizing a moment to interrupt, Don spoke up, "Seems like impending fatherhood's mellowed you, Mac."
A rare, wide smile appeared on the former soldier's face. "I guess it has. I wouldn't change it for the world."
Stella squeezed his arm, her eyes bright, all of them aware of the trials the couple had been through to get to where they were now; the hurt and loss they had suffered.
Quick to renew the light-heartedness, Don turned to Stella. "So, how are you doing yourself? You look well. Guess this is the only time I'm allowed to say you've gained a little weight without getting a knee somewhere painful for being rude."
There were no other women to whom he would dare make that comment, but modern in her thinking, Stella could hold her own dealing with anyone, male or female, without ever losing her poise or dignity.
In answer to his question she beamed, her hand moving unconsciously to the baby she carried, her rounded stomach visible in the dress she wore. "I'm good. Better than ever in fact."
The glow in her face was enough to tell him so, but he still looked critically at her, remembering several months back when a debilitating bout of morning sickness had taken its toll. Now though, those troubles had become a receding shadow and he nodded. "You look it."
She tipped her head a little to the side. "And what about you? You sure look like you've got more colour after resembling a washed out rag last time we saw you, don't you think, Mac?"
Her husband gave a crooked smile as Don snorted and attempted to brush off their concern. "Thanks for the flowers, Stell. Okay, I admit, I probably didn't look so great a few weeks back, but I feel fine."
"We're glad to hear it," Mac said.
Don grinned. "Guess you've missed all my thoughtful and intelligent insights into your cases, huh? You'll be glad to see me back at work in a few weeks' time."
"That I will," Mac replied and his sincerity made Don bite back the flippant comment he had been about to give.
"And it's only few more weeks' to go until the baby's here," Stella remarked. After glancing at Don, she leaned into her husband, rubbing his arm, her gaze meeting his before she turned back to their friend. "It's gone so fast. It seems hardly any time since we were telling you the news."
Don smiled, recalling the moment; remembering the half-afraid excitement in their voices after so many previous disappointments when they had told him.
Noting Stella's hand returning to her stomach, Don grinned, gesturing at the still petite curve. "Whoever's in there still ain't so big."
A wry look crossed Stella's face. "Big enough to kick plenty."
Mac's hand slid to his wife's lower back, massaging it as he took a step forward, shading his eyes as he glanced upwards into the brilliance of the sky. "Are you going to show us inside, Don, or are we going to admire the outside of the house for the rest of the day?" His tone was light, but the tiniest glint in his eye reminded Don of that fiercely protective nature, one that would be roused in a moment at any challenge to his wife's comfort. With a conciliating movement, Don apologised easily for his laxity in being a host, clapped a hand on Mac's shoulder and ushered them indoors.
As they crossed the threshold, a feeling awoke in him; the feeling that for the first time in longer than he cared to remember, he was welcoming friends into a home. The cramped little apartment he rented back in the city was not home; never had been and never would be. It was a place to live, nothing more. Here, in contrast, temporary though his stay was, the house gave him a sense of pride.
A proprietary pride that increased as he showed the Taylors round and they admired with sincerity the rooms and the furnishings. When he took them upstairs, their enthusiasm grew as he led them into their bedroom.
With a view over the garden that he knew Stella would love and a proximity to the staircase for Mac's convenience, so he could make his early morning starts without fear of rousing the rest of the household, it seemed designed for them.
"What a wonderful room," Stella murmured as she lowered herself onto the window seat and ran her hands over the cushions Martha had arranged there, gazing round with rapturous eyes.
Don plastered a questioning look on his face, smothering his smile with difficulty. "You sure you like it? If not, I can find another for you..."
She swung her head round and narrowed her eyes at him. "Don Flack, you're incorrigible."
Leaning against the solid oak bed post with his hands in his pockets, Mac chuckled. "I think it's safe to say she likes it. As do I."
"It's perfect," Stella said solemnly as Mac sauntered over to join her at the window, shading his eyes to look out once he had taken up position next to her, while she took his hand.
Don watched them; lost in each other's presence without even being aware of it. Feeling a twist in his stomach, torn again between happiness for them and the sense of lacking, he turned away and crossed to the other window, his footsteps soft in the deep pile of the carpet. Below him, through the glass, the garden drowsed in the mid-afternoon heat. Far from begrudging his friends' hard-won happiness, he was glad for them. What they had, however, had begun to reveal to him what he didn't have. Though he was ashamed of feeling envious, he could not completely suppress it.
"How about I bring your luggage in?" he offered, abruptly, and the heads of both husband and wife turned to him. "I guess you'll want to get unpacked and settled in?"
"I'll bring it in, if you don't mind lending a hand." Mac straightened up, amusement twitching the corners of his lips as he gave Stella a sideways glance. "Some of those suitcases might be a little weighty. Going by what Stella packed, we could be here for a year..."
"That's not fair, Mac." She tugged his fingers. "You were the one who insisted on me bringing everything." Mac grinned. "Anyhow," Stella continued with a teasing smile, using her husband's hand to help pull herself up, "if it's my luggage that's going to make things too heavy for you to carry out of the car, I'd better come and help..."
Smirking, Don decided it was his turn to add to the conversation. "Mac and I between us have got just enough muscles to manage."
"He's right," Mac added, tucking a curl behind his wife's ear. "And you have to allow me a chance to be the dutiful husband once in a while."
"You're always that." She looked at him, adjusting the collar of his shirt as she spoke. "But you could at least let me feel a bit useful and bring in something." Tilting her head a fraction, she regarded him with a blink of her eyelashes. "There are a couple of hat boxes..." Her voice rose meaningfully.
"...Which I'll take particular care not to drop or squash," Mac finished, his fingertips brushing the top of her arm. "I promise."
A sigh breaking from her, Stella lifted her hands and let them fall. "Okay, okay, I'll be a good girl. I'll watch you guys do the heavy work from the window."
"Feel free to take a look around, do some exploring," Don offered as he, walking backwards, and Mac headed out of the room. "It's a pretty big place, plenty to see."
Stella's smile returned. "I'll let you have the pleasure of showing us round the rest of the house later."
"You got it." He nodded, waving as he and her husband left the room.
They trooped down the wide staircase, Mac glancing up at the pictures on the walls, remarking on the few pieces of sculpture that adorned various niches. Don on the other hand, though he had been in the house almost a week, could still not resist sliding his hand along the polished walnut wood banister. It was buffed and polished to a lustrous gleam and the bronze statuettes dotted around that had caught Mac's eye glowed thanks to the diligence of Martha's dusting.
Outside did not escape the housekeeper's eye or hand either; the paint and glass shone, dazzled even, free of streaks and proud to catch the sun's light. Don squinted in the near-blinding glare from the paintwork as he and Mac walked over to his car and began to unload it.
While Mac handed out the luggage from the trunk, he piled things up on the drive. It took them longer than expected to dislodge and unload the assortment of cases, small valises and the aforementioned hat boxes. By the time they were finished, he was wiping his forehead with a large handkerchief, feeling trickles of sweat from his scalp creep down his neck and face.
When both of them had all the various items balanced in their arms, Mac tipped his head towards the house, remarking in a dry voice, "Stella will be wondering what's happened to us if we're out here much longer."
Don gave a snort of amusement as they strode inside. "I can almost hear what she's going to have to say about our ability, or otherwise, to manage without her help."
Indoors, after the blazing heat of the drive, felt even more cool and refreshing. For a moment, they paused at the bottom of the stairs, breathing in the calm of the atmosphere and the mingling scents of beeswax polish and flowers.
Don led the way up the stairs, but allowed Mac in front of him through the door of his and his wife's room. At the sight of Stella asleep on top of the comforter on the bed, he and Mac exchanged a grin. Her shoes were kicked off by the window seat and she lay on her side – one hand resting on her stomach, the other pillowing her cheek.
"Guess she isn't going to say anything about our luggage-lifting abilities after all," Don whispered, smirking.
Smiling in agreement, Mac placed his burden of luggage down quietly, before retrieving a crocheted shawl from one of the cases which he laid with care over his wife. Soft-footed as possible, they crept out of the room and downstairs. Refreshing themselves with glasses of iced drinks, they rambled round the garden, discussing arrangements for the coming weeks.
Their plans were few, on purpose. It was Don's intention to make the time as relaxing and carefree as possible; time to spend away from the worries of the world. All of them had suffered during the war, and even now, two years after peace had been declared, the echoes of that almighty conflict still resounded.
Here, though, in the gardens of the quiet villa, those echoes had begun to dim into the distance; muted by the glories of the plants and flowers, the scents that infused them, the hum of bees in the mellow air. As the two men strolled across the lawns, the sound of their lowered voices was all the noise they made.
They had just rounded the corner of the house after a circular tour of the formal garden, bordering the wilderness beyond, when they heard the sound of a sash window sliding upwards and a clarion voice calling to them from above.
"Why didn't you wake me?" Stella called as she gazed down at them. "Stay where you are, I'll be down in a few minutes." Having issued her instructions, she disappeared back into the room.
Hand rubbing the back of his neck, a rueful look appeared on Mac's face. "I kind of hoped she might sleep for longer..."
"Is she taking on your insomniac habits now?" Don smirked and folded his arms across his chest. "Have you two been married that long?"
Mac responded with an impassive stare. "She's had barely any sleep at night the last few weeks because of the baby's activity, even less than I usually get."
"Is everything okay?" Don asked, smirk fading as he studied Mac. "I mean, there's nothing unusual about that, right? Stell's okay otherwise?"
"I guess it isn't unusual at this stage," Mac answered, swirling the dregs in his glass absently. "And yes, she's okay otherwise, she really has gained some weight at last and at the last appointment with her doctor, he told her as far as he can tell, the baby's growing fine. The only other thing bothering her, though she'll say nothing about it of course, is back ache. But apart from that, she's good."
"Great to hear," Don nodded, relieved, before a wicked grin crossed his face as he remembered something. "So what's she been occupying herself with when she can't sleep? She's not taken up knitting again, surely?"
Mac chuckled. "Not since she realised the pair of gloves she'd made for me had six too many fingers. After that, she decided knitting wasn't for her."
After their laughter died away, still with smiles in their faces, both men paused for a minute, both gazing at the house whose windows had turned to gold, glistening in the light of approaching evening.
"This is a nice place," Mac turned to Don with a light in his eyes that conveyed his contentment. "It'll do Stella good to take it easy here before the baby arrives.
Don raised his eyebrows. "Stella and the words 'taking it easy' are not usually heard together in the same sentence. You think she will?"
"Miracles happen sometimes," Mac said, a hint of irony in his voice. "In all seriousness though, I think she will. As much as she doesn't like the fact, she knows she has to ease up on her usual activities at the moment. If she can relax in a place like this, it really will do her good, and likely it'll do me good, too." Another rueful smile slid onto his face. "It does get kind of claustrophobic spending all that time in the office..."
"You know, as well as your office, large and spacious as it is of course, as fits a senior officer of the NYPD, you do have a very nice apartment you can spend time in," Don reminded his friend with a deadpan face
"So Stella tells me plenty." The older man looked sheepish. "But... well, after the baby's born, I'm going to spend a little less time there and more time with her." He paused, looking away for a moment, before revealing some of his inner fears in the look that he gave his friend. "I guess you realise times like this, that life's just too short. We've waited so long for this - I want to spend as much time as I can with her and the baby."
Don only nodded, giving Mac a quick smile and a murmured 'sure'. He understood.
Clearing his throat, Mac seemed about to say more, but was stopped by Stella herself appearing around the corner of the house. She trod barefoot across the grass, shoes swinging from one hand, and greeted them both brightly.
"Any sign of the Messers arriving yet?"
"Nope. It's unlikely we're going to see them for at least another hour," Don told her, smiling at the sight of Mac's arm slipping round his wife's waist to caress her stomach, before adding in hopeful tones, "There's plenty of time to get a little something to eat if you want."
It earned him a few teasing comments from his friends which he took good-naturedly as they made their way to the front of the house. On a bench by the door, Stella sat down and slipped her feet back into her shoes, rising again with a hand from her husband, who had reached for hers with the instinct Don had already perceived.
As she stood up and brushed a few curls out of her eyes, Don caught the sound of a distant car. And there was only one car the sound could belong to. Made audibly unique by its imaginative repairs, he could recognise the old convertible's engine anywhere.
Turning to Mac and Stella, the grin on his face grew wide. "Seems I underestimated their sense of timing... Prepare yourselves for the oncoming chaos of the Messer family."
Thanks for reading :) As ever, your opinions are very welcome! Lily x