Hey… remember that time I started a story and then waited almost a year after posting the first 5 chapters to actually update? Yeah. Me too. Sucks, doesn't it?

Disclaimer: hahahahahahahahahahahahaha, no.

Chapter 6: Grateful

"Are you sure? No one's passed up a Longo Lasagna Special since 1996, and that's because Ma gave the family food poisoning with 'special eggnog' on Christmas Eve." Joe joked, arching his eyebrows animatedly in Mel's' direction. Grinning, she shook her head. "I'm sure. I don't think even red wine would go down smoothly at this point." She replied, putting her water glass in the sink.

"Ah well, it was worth a try. But hey, I've been marinating this steak for the past 48 hours, so you'd better get ready for some Longo culinary luxury tonight!" Joe warned, pulling her close. "And hey, I have no doubt that Mel Burke, City Counsel woman, is far too important and beautiful to resign or get fired today." Placing the car keys in her palm, he kissed her on the forehead and ushered her out the door.

Then, not a minute later, his two favorite teenagers came bounding downstairs. "She left!?" Lennox demanded, swearing softly once he nodded. "But don't worry Len, your aunt will be just fine. In that dress there's no way anyone would…" He advised before trailing off, a blush overtaking his features. Chuckling, Lennox sighed.

"I know, it's just… Is this lasagna?"

"You bet it is! Longo Lasagna Special – leftover style! I figured this day could use a, uh, preemptive pick-me-up." The nanny explained as he started loading the dishwasher. "And besides, when has this family ever been conventional enough to eat breakfast at breakfast?"

Ryder shrugged and dug in, while Lennox, on the other hand, looked up sharply in Joe's direction. "So we're a family, Joe?" Lennox started slyly. Suspicious, Joe turns to face the two. "What kind of a question is that? Of course we're a family." He responded, "What are you getting at Len?" He prompted, observing her as she stirred her coffee innocently. "Well I'm just asking seeing as Ryder, Mel and I are all related and you're not… Maybe you should do something about that…" She murmured suggestively.

"What are you talking ab–" Joe began before tapering off into an embarrassed silence as Lennox held out her phone. On the screen were the pictures she'd snapped of Mel and Joe canoodling on the couch two weeks before. "Now Lennox –"

"Whatever you say is irrelevant Joe. I know what I saw, and we both know how handy I am with a Twitter account…" She threatened, smiling wickedly. Joe merely shook his head and chortled. "Yeah Len, so handy…" Ryder quipped, earning another round of laughter.

"Don't get me wrong Lennox, you're totally right," Joe admitted, "But you know your aunt. I can't just drop a line at the dinner table like, 'Hey, I know we're already practically living together, raising our two fake kids, but would you like to make it official and date me?" Joe wisecracked, closing the dishwasher softly.

"Well, I mean you could…"

Rolling her eyes, Lennox scoffed. "Ryder, you have no sense of romance! Of course he can't do that! Aunt Mel is a lady – in loose terms – and deserves the right kind of proposal!" Wrinkling his eyebrows, Ryder turned to his sister. "But wouldn't that be sexist? You know, assuming that the guy has to ask and that the girl wants to be swept off her feet?"

Stunned for only a moment, Lennox tackled her brother in a hug. "Awww! I always knew I'd get through that thick skull of yours!" Joe smiled slightly, enjoying the rare display of sibling affection. "But no – Joe has to do something special for Aunt Mel!"

" How's about he –"

"And whatever you have to say, the answer's no."

"Melissa Judith Burke, you are called before the Toledo City Board of Trustees today, Monday June 14th, 2013, due to an anonymous nomination for review. Noted, as well, is the situation preceding this nomination: the release of a questionable image, in which you are featured, on "Good Morning Toledo", the morning of May 17th, 2013.

The aforementioned image has raised concerns, most importantly being the question of your role in, and subsequent representation of, the government of the City of Toledo. At this present time, you have the floor to present your case. Please remember that, in this court, use of any derogatory and/or offensive language, purposeful manipulation of fact, and use of violence are strictly prohibited. You have 10 minutes."

Mel paused for a moment, breathing through the tightening in her chest. She rose slowly, but smoothly, betraying not an ounce of her panic to the Counsel before her.

"Mayor Sachelli, Chief Executive Chadwell, esteemed members of the Board of Trustees," She stated evenly, "First and foremost, I would like to thank the Board personally for its continued dedication to, and support of, the City Counsel of Toledo. I've been a member of this particular governing body for 9 years now, and I believe I can attest to the high standards of excellence and acceptance to which the Board of Trustees adheres.

And, in this particular instance, acceptance applies to me."

She stopped to take another deep, tranquilizing breath.

"I began working for Lucas County at the age of 24.

And prior to that miracle, I was nothing short of a mess. In fact, I'm sure members of the Board may remember several…colorful headlines concerning my behavior as the youngest daughter of Senator Ronald Burke. And to be honest, most of them are probably true.

At the age of 15, I began smoking marijuana. At 17, I'd already tried heroin, ecstasy, a multitude of perception-distorting drugs. And by age 19, I attempted to commit suicide… I had no understanding, at that age, of how harmful my situation was for my parents, siblings, my friends, and most importantly – for myself.

It wasn't until Mayor Sachelli, through the kind intervention of my Aunt, Catherine Downy, former Attorney General of Toledo, took a chance on me that I realized I had the potential to be so much more.

Now I'll be clear – it wasn't until months after my induction as a County employee that I got help for my addictions and mental health issues. And after that it took almost a full 2 years, until the age of 26, to be officially clean. However, during that time, my position as a civil servant, with a duty to the citizens of Toledo, became my primary source of motivation to get better.

My job is one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences I've been blessed to have so far in my life. Yes, alcoholism runs in my family, but because of this, I am constantly aware of how often and how much I drink. I am at the point in my life where I refuse to relapse: I have a job that I love, kids that I have the privilege of raising into compassionate, honest, ambitious people, and I have a man who… who I think really loves me. I am in no position whatsoever, therefore, to throw away everything I have worked for and cherish because of one silly photo. Thank you."

The silence that followed weighed heavily on Mel's confidence, but she returned to her seat coolly, face devoid of trepidation. She'd said all that she could say. Now, it was time to wait.

Joe tapped his fingers anxiously against the fridge, unable to peel his eyes away from the driveway, anxious for Mel's return. Of course, in typical Burke fashion, she hadn't so much as texted him, and he wasn't sure he could hold out much longer. And that was saying something, seeing as even Ryder's attempts at a haiku and a limerick during English today couldn't ease Joe's worry. Then suddenly, Joe praised the lord as headlights cut through the evening twilight.

Bounding down the garden path, Joe came to a stop just in time to open Mel's car door. "Well someone's on top of things today!" She joked, not even blinking when he pressed her up against the car. Snorting, Joe's hands immediately found their way to her hips. "Mel…" He murmured. His eyes carefully searched hers for any sign of distress.

"I think maybe Lennox and Ryder should be here to –" She started, moving towards the house, but Joe growled, hands straddling her head as they latch onto either side of the car, his hips holding her in place. "Mel." He demanded, forcefully this time, and she unconsciously melted into his hold.

Looping her index fingers through the two belt loops on his jeans, she tugged him even closer and planted a soft kiss near the corner of his mouth. "Don't worry Joe, City Counsel woman Mel Burke here is too important and too beautiful to get fired, remember?" She jested, giggling as he swept her up into an enthusiastic embrace.

"That's great Mel! So, uh, what's the damage?"

But before she can respond, a voice calls out across the yard, "Well, definitely my eyes' virginity for one. Can you guys please get a room or something? Like, inside the house? Or better yet, NOT inside the house? On second thought, can we just eat dinner? I'm starving." At that, both adults laugh heartily. "Sure Ryder, let's eat. Your aunt deserves a good steak and some non-alcoholic cocktails after the tear-jerking performance she gave today. God, I could've won the Oscar with that speech!" Mel boasted, missing the affectionate eye-roll from Joe as he followed her into the house.

Once settled at the dinner table, however, the mystery became too much. "Seriously though, Aunt Mel, what's the damage? What did they say?" Lennox inquired nervously, turning the rings on her left hand in anxiety. "Well," Mel clarified, "There's a 1-year probation period during which I will be subjected to random drug tests; so no non-prescribed drugs or any alcohol starting now.

The Scanlon/Longo group gasped. "But Aunt Mel! No…no wine for a year!?" Ryder cried in horror. "Yep. It's true. No wine – sweet, bitter, nutty, sharp wine – for one year." Mel said wistfully, bringing her glass of water to her lips. "Is that even possible?" Lennox wondered aloud. Even Joe frowned in disbelief.

For a moment, Mel quieted, observing the three individuals before her. And suddenly, uncertainty she'd felt melted away. Flushing slightly, she finally replied, "Yes, I think so. Some things – some people – are more important."