Part 3

 

Mickey glanced at his watch. "Last chance for backing out, man," he told Robert. They'd been shooed into the house by one of Anastasia's flunkies and Control and Scott ordered to go sit down. Jordan's band was playing appropriate music and restraining any creative urges. To the best of Mickey's recollection, it was the first time he'd ever heard Bach played by a blues band. But he had to admit a fugue sounded good on saxophone and electric bass.

Peace flowed in to replace the anxiety in Robert's soul. No more worries, no more doubts. In less than half an hour, Ann would be his wife, and the world could just go hang. This time tomorrow, they'd be on a plane to France where no one could get to them. In all the mad ness he'd forgotten that everything was subordinate to the two of them.

Father Nicholas approached them. "Are you ready, Robert?" he asked in the tone of voice he'd used in the pre-nuptial meeting with Ann and Robert that he'd insisted upon as a prerequisite to his performing the ceremony. Ann's family being mostly Episcopalian, they were using the wedding service from the Book of Common Prayer, and Father Nick had agreed to overlook certain points of propriety. The Episcopalian Bishop, cognizant of the Marshall influence, had raised nary a quibble to the unorthodoxy of it all and signed the permission to hold the religious ceremony outside of a chapel.

"Yes, I am, Father." Robert tried to remember why he'd been so edgy.

"The band informs me they can ad lib off of 'Ode to Joy' for half an hour, but I don't think we'll need that long. Ann's mother says she's ready, so if you'll follow me in a couple of minutes, I'll be going out now."

Mickey took the time to get serious. "You're a lucky man, Robert. I don't know what you ever did to earn a woman like Ann, but I hope I find one who loves me a tenth as much as she loves you."

"I know I'm lucky. And this time I know how to do it right."

"I'm proud you want me to stand by you."

Robert smiled at him fondly. "You've stood by me through hell and damnation. Who else in the world would I have with me now?"

They grinned at each other, then they saw Father Nicholas take his place under the lilac arbor as Anastasia and Sylvia were escorted to their seats.

Mickey tugged on his collar one more time. "I've felt more comfortable jumping out of helicopters."

"Not me, I hate jumping out of helicopters."

"That's because you do it with your eyes closed. You got both eyes open now?" he asked significantly.

"Oh, yes. They're waiting for us."

Mickey nodded and took a deep breath, then they started off across the lawn.

On the bandstand, Jordan watched the deployment of personnel and nodded at the rest of the band to be ready. Brass and Johnny wrapped up the variation on the middle portion of "Ode to Joy" as Jerry flipped a few switches on the synthesizer and the guitarists readjusted their controls.

Suzy took Ann's shoulders and looked her square in the eye. "Are you sure," she said in utter seriousness. She wasn't nursing Ann through another divorce.

Ann made herself think about it one more time. His laugh, the touch of his fingers, his respect for her work, his willingness to give up his own work for her. "Yes, I am. This isn't like last time. I will do my best to be a good wife to him."

"No."

"What?"

"What can you do to be a good wife that you aren't doing now? What is a wife but a woman who loves a man enough to let him in her life?"

Sudden tears came to Ann's eyes. "Why didn't you tell me you were this wise before now?"

"Oh, sister, you've only just become wise enough to listen." They embraced, then Suzy nodded. "We go. By the way, you didn't have this gleam in your eye last time."

Ann grinned knowingly and didn't go into the reason for that gleam. She nodded in return, and they headed for the door.

"Hit it," Jordan said, and the band swung into Mendelssohn via the blues.

"Oh, my god," Ann grinned. This was the first time she'd heard what Jordan had been planning.

"Shush," Suzy ordered. "Look radiant and shut up."

Father Nicholas winced slightly, and Mickey grinned at his brother, whose musical tastes ended with the fifteenth century.

Robert didn't hear a note. His eyes met Ann's, and the world went away. He watched her walk to him and felt an intense gratitude that there was such a woman for him in the world. She had a beatific smile on her face as she reached out to take his hand and join him in front of the priest. The touch of her fingers sent a thrill of anticipation through him.

Father Nick nodded at the band. They wrapped it up in professional speed and found perches from which to watch.

"Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.

"The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy and for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.

"Therefore, marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

"Into this holy union Robert Thomas McCall and Sylvia Anastasia Marshall now come to be joined. If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now, or else forever hold your peace."

Scott fidgeted and curbed the wild impulse he always felt at such moments to jump up and yell "Don't do it!" Over on the bandstand, Malcolm kept an eye on Jordan just in case.

Father Nick gave a silent sigh of relief. With these two, the Lord only knew who was out there who might want to cause trouble. He looked at the bride and groom and smiled at their enraptured faces.

"I require and charge you both, here in the presence of God, that if either of you know any reason why you should not be united in marriage lawfully, and in accordance with God's Word, you do now confess it." He saw Robert's mouth twitch and Ann fight back a grin, and wondered what they were thinking. He caught Robert's eye.

"Robert, will you have this woman to be your wife, to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?"

"I will," Robert said softly, lost in her eyes. The emotion in his voice sent a shiver through Ann as she made ready to give her vow.

"Ann, will you have this man to be your husband, to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?"

"I will," she said firmly and clearly. She was rewarded with the joy in Robert's face.

Father Nick looked at the guests. "Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?" Ann had insisted on this part, wanting a promise she could nail on her family to make them stop their bitching.

"We will," answered those who had had the sense to follow the progress of the ceremony in the programs. The rest mumbled along belatedly, not really thinking what they'd just agreed to.

"Hear the word of the Lord," Father Nick said, turning to the marked section of his prayer book. He had chosen this passage of Scripture during his meeting with the bride and groom. Robert had approved, and Ann had fought back tears. "Ecclesiastes 4:7-14. I saw emptiness under the sun, a lonely man without a friend, without son or brother, toiling endlessly yet never satisfied with his wealth. 'For whom,' he asks, 'am I toiling and denying myself the good things of life?' This too is emptiness, a sorry business. Two are better than one. They receive a good reward for their toil, because, if one falls, the other can help his companion up again. But alas for the man who falls alone with no partner to help him up. And, if two lie side by side, they keep each other warm. But how can one keep warm by himself?" He glared at Ann for giggling. "If a man is alone, an assailant may overpower him, but two can resist, and a cord of three strands is not quickly snapped."

Robert hoped there'd be no need for Ann to ever face any assailants, but he didn't doubt she'd be willing.

"Please join hands," Father Nicholas said. Ann handed her bouquet to Suzy and turned to face Robert squarely. Her smile was a marvel of confident joy.

"I, Ann," she said proudly, following Father Nick's prompting, "take thee, Robert, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth."

Robert smiled at her air of defiance. He was feeling simply thankful. "I, Robert, take thee, Ann, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" (he couldn't help a mental shudder as he remembered the Shanghai flu she'd nursed him through in March) "to love and to cherish, till death do

us part, and thereto I plight thee my troth."

"What's a troth?" Scott asked Control, who sat beside him.

"Oath of honor."

"The rings?" Father Nick asked, looking at his brother askance. Mickey was going to pretend to not have his, but Robert and Ann were oblivious, so he just handed it over. He grinned at Suzy's glare as she handed the priest the one she had custody of.

Father Nick held out the rings and closed his eyes. "Bless, oh Lord, these rings to be a sign of the vows by which this man and this woman have bound themselves to each other, through Jesus Christ our lord, amen." He surreptitiously checked the rings and gave the smaller one to Robert, who took Ann's left hand.

"Ann, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you." He slipped the gold band onto her ring finger. She closed her hand on his a moment before taking the second ring.

"Robert, I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have-"

"He's getting a good deal," a cousin whispered to her husband, who nodded.

"-I honor you." Ann locked her fingers around her husband's and debated bursting into tears here and now.

Father Nicholas raised his hands. "Let us pray. Eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all life, Author of salvation and Giver of all grace, look with favor upon the world you have made and especially upon this man and this woman whom You made one flesh in Holy Matrimony."

Ann didn't bow her head but gazed at Robert, wondering why he looked so different now that her name was the same as his.

"Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy."

Unreality seized Robert as he listened to the words that made Ann undeniably his own. Nothing had stopped the ceremony, no catastrophe had intervened. Perhaps the heavens were determined that he would at last know joy.

"Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other's forgiveness. Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others. Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed. Amen."

He smiled at Robert and Ann encouragingly and rested his hands on theirs. "Now that Robert and Ann have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder." He stepped back and nodded to the new couple.

With a delighted laugh, Ann threw her arms around Robert's neck for his kiss. But her tears of joy forced her to pull away for breath. She was vaguely aware of the band playing again and cheers from the guests. "My god, I love you," she managed through the tears.

Robert framed her face with his hands to kiss her again, then took her hand to lead her back down the aisle as his wife.

Mickey held his arm out for Suzy as they followed. "Well, that's over," he said.

"Thank god," she said devoutly. "Now he can look after her."

White had been waiting at the rear of the aisle to escort the newlyweds into another section of the garden, where tables and the reception buffet had been laid out. Robert broke away from the escort to pull Ann into the shade of a huge rose bush and into his arms.

"Mrs. McCall," he said softly.

"I have never been happier in my entire life," Ann told him, sniffling back tears. She contented herself with gazing at him. "Words fail me."

"Which is why God gave us other things." In the relative privacy, he gave her the first passionate kiss of their married life.

White cleared his throat. "My apologies, sir, madam, but a horde approaches."

"Oh, gosh," Ann said, looking at the people coming to give their congratulations. "Well, Grandma has some plan, I imagine. Let her deal with it."

"Free food, guys," Jordan announced as he racked his guitar. "Let's eat."

Brass finished blowing his nose. "I love weddings."

"Will they let me eat even if I'm not wearing a tux?" Johnny asked. He wore a wing collar shirt and black tie, but somewhere the sleeves had gone missing. Johnny said he couldn't drum in sleeves.

"They have to let Jordan in," Jerry said, "he's family. But we're just the band. They'll probably feed us in the kitchen."

"Are you kidding?" Malcolm protested. "I'm going to go see if Annie's got any cute cousins. Hang the food."

"Lobster crepes and caviar?" Jordan countered. "I'll have your share."

"Fish eggs, euw," Jerry said unhappily.

"You don't have to eat it."

Robert and Ann fielded greetings and congratulations. Over the last four months, Robert had met most of the relatives, but there were a few he'd missed. He didn't even try to keep track of all the names. The higher functions of his mind had gone off to Tahiti or somewhere, and he was just focused on getting through the next couple of hours until they could leave.

The ushers herded the guests toward the buffet and the tables. As the crowd around her thinned out, Ann felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and saw Scott. "Hi," she said uncertainly. Good lord, she had a stepson now.

"Hi, yourself." Don't call her mom, jerk, that's crass. "Congratulations. I never thought I'd live to see my dad giddy."

She turned to look at Robert. He was chatting with Pete O'Phelan, one of his few friends who had been willing to come out in public. It was remarkable how many people he knew who preferred to stay in seclusion. Now that she thought about it, though, he did look rather bubbly. Then again, so did she.

Scott couldn't help grinning. Dad had dropped another five years at least, and he had yet to let go of Ann's hand. And every time Ann looked at him, she giggled in delight. Scott wondered if she knew she was doing it.

"By the way," he said, catching Ann's attention, "for the record, I approve and I hope you're both very happy together." And the wonderful thing was that it was true.

"Thank you, Scott." She slipped free of Robert's fingers to hug him.

Robert looked over and smiled in delight to see them together. He started to speak to his son when he saw Control approaching, closely followed by a nondescript young woman.

"Congratulations, Robert, Ann, a beautiful wedding." But there was a faint light of disapproval in his eyes. "However, I'm afraid I must be going now."

"So soon?" Robert protested.

"Duty calls." Control didn't miss the shuttered relief on Ann's face. "By the way, where are you going in France?"

Robert found the question suspicious but answered anyway. "We're not certain yet. Paris for a week or so, then the countryside, I imagine. We have a month."

"When are you headed back?" Ann asked Scott.

"Two or three days, when Mom gets tired of me. But don't try to hook up with me or anything," he added, anticipating her next remark. "I've got school, and you guys will be busy." He gave his father a knowing grin in hopes of seeing him flustered. All he got was a steamy glance between the two newlyweds.

Control just nodded and kept his counsel. "Paris is lovely this time of year. Enjoy your selves, and let me know when you get back." He signaled the woman he was with, and she led the way off after a brief, intense scan of the crowd.

"Who was that woman?" Ann asked. She wasn't sorry to see him leave.

"I imagine that was his bodyguard," Robert answered. "He rarely goes anywhere without one."

"I'll say it once and get it out of my system: I do not like him." She quickly hugged Robert. "That's all I'll say."

"Annie!" someone called across the lawn. A young blonde woman in very fashionable dress and hair came running.

"Becky, you made it!" Ann threw her arms open for her younger sister to run into.

"Yeah, Andre let me leave early," Becky said. "The chorus doesn't do a lot in the last couple of scenes anyway, so they didn't miss me. I got here just before the ceremony started."

"Hello, Becky," Robert said. He liked Ann's younger sister, but her ever-bubbling spirits could be a bit wearing. It seemed she never ran down.

Becky hugged him. "Hi, brother-in-law! The two of you look so great together. I cried all over Nate."

"Where is our brother?" Ann asked.

Becky made a face. "Talking interest rates with Uncle Andrew. Abby had to go change Jennifer's diaper."

"I thought Grandma banned babies in arms."

"This is Abigail we're talking about. She probably gave Jenny Dramamine or something to keep her quiet."

"Apple brandy also works well," Robert added.

"Yes, well, everyone knows about the British," Ann said knowingly. "You once told me you lived for a week on nothing but Guinness and three pork chops."

"The pork chops were for the protein."

Scott cleared his throat pointedly as he stared at Becky.

"Oh, forgive me," Robert said. "Becky, may I present my son, Scott. Scott, this is Ann's sister, Becky."

Becky gave him a charming smile and her hand. "Scott, how nice to meet you. Robert said he had a son, but he didn't say you were so handsome."

"And I had no idea Ann had such a delightful sister," Scott replied, bowing over her hand.

Ann and Robert looked at each other.

"You mentioned scenes and a chorus," Scott added. "Are you in the theatre?"

"Yes, I am." She gave a graceful, nonchalant shrug. "Just chorus work for now, but in two weeks I start in an Andrew Lloyd Webber, understudy to a featured player."

"How lucky for you."

She took his arm and started to lead him away, throwing a naughty smile at Ann and Robert. "So what do you do, Scott?"

"I'm at a music school in France."

"In France? How delightful."

Ann restrained her giggles till they were out of earshot. "Has he had his shots?" she asked.

"I hope so. Has she?"

"She says so." For the moment they were alone, but intent looking people were headed in from three directions. "Come on," she said, leading him through a gap in the bushes. He followed deftly.

They came out onto a promenade overlooking Long Island Sound. Robert glanced around, spotted steps leading closer to the water, and led the way down, below the view of any one scanning the promenade for them. There was a landing below, with a small boat tied to it.

"I am very tempted to carry you off in that boat," he said, finally taking her into his arms.

"How wonderful that would be." Ann leaned against him and gazed up at his face. "But we can't stay here long."

"No. But I'm glad to have a moment with you." He stroked her braided-back hair, careful not to dislodge the small silk roses tucked in. "I still can't believe that someone as beautiful and marvelous as you would want to spend the rest of her life with me."

"So that is going to be my job, hm?"

"What?"

"Convincing you that you are altogether wonderful, and that far from the ordeal you seem to think marrying you is, I consider this the most marvelous day of my life. I hold it a privilege to be Mrs. Robert McCall." She leaned up to kiss him.

He held her close, and it finally began sinking in. "I never have to leave you again to go home," he whispered. "When I tell you good-night it will be with you beside me."

"I get to say to people, 'Yes, I'm his wife," she said proudly.

Her joy called coward his fears. What of the world in the face of that brilliant happiness in his new wife's eyes? "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments," he murmured.

"If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved," Ann finished. Shakespeare was such a useful guy to know. She wrapped her arms around her husband's neck, and they indulged in a slow, intense kiss.

A tug on the Sound tooted its whistle, and the crewmen on the deck waved when the newlyweds looked up. Ann waved back, laughing, and the whistle sounded again.

"May they find as sweet and warm a harbor as I," Robert said, tracing the lines of her face. "We should get back."

"Yes." Ann took his arm and walked slowly up the steps with him. "Soon enough to be alone."

"There you are!" Mickey said, outraged, from the promenade. "We were about to blame UFOs for teleporting you two out."

"Why on earth are you so upset?" Robert asked easily. It was far too late for him to be concerned over other people's demands.

"You can talk, you don't have Generalissimo Marshall chewing your butt for losing the bride and groom. She's about to call in Special Forces to track you two down." But he had to laugh at their serene indifference. "Hell, you two don't give a damn, do you."

"Not particularly," Ann said dreamily, resting her head on Robert's shoulder.

"But there are about a hundred people up there wanting to give you their best wishes, and they can't do it if you're hiding in the bushes."

"He's right, beloved," Robert said reluctantly.

"Yeah." She muffled a yawn. "Why am I so suddenly exhausted?"

"You've made a fatal error."

"What?"

"You've allowed yourself to relax."

"Indeed." She raised a hand to stroke his chin. "It's done, you're mine, and all the scolding in the world will not change it."

Mickey looked away as they kissed again. Yeah, they were newlyweds and entitled, but it didn't help that ache of envy and sorrow. The only woman who had ever looked at him like that was dead. Like most women in love, Ann had been generous with her feelings, always welcoming him into her home as an appreciated accessory to Robert. Her warm hugs in times of melancholy had made him wish for a woman like her, and a couple of other thoughts that were not appropriate to be having about your best friend's wife.

"Mickey, do you have my engagement ring?" she asked. "Robert put it with the band, and I want to wear it now."

"Yeah, here." He dug the box out of his pocket and handed it to her, glad that they were too happy in each other to notice he was down.

Sylvia came around the rose bush. "My dears, there you are. Everything's going well, but there are no newlyweds to congratulate. Really, you should mingle." She watched Robert and Ann's silent consultation with a feeling of dawning satisfaction. They might just be suited after all.

Before the feasting could begin, there was the small matter of toasts. Mickey found him self the center of attention and hating it, but the best man had certain duties. At least Control had left.

After the waiters had finished delivering champagne flutes to the guests, Mickey raised his glass. "To Robert, my best friend for a very long time, and Ann, who's brought a light to his eyes I never thought I'd see. Long life and happiness together." He drank to clear the tightness from his throat, and the crowd drank to the newlyweds.

Of course neither the bride nor groom had a chance to sample the buffet in their honor. Just when they thought they might get a chance, Sylvia, Anastasia, or some other hostess stand-in would direct them to a guest who had to be greeted. Most everyone was gracious, if not downright approving, but a couple of the cousins hadn't heard Sylvia's pronouncement on spousal acceptability and were less than subtle in their comments. Ann made a mental note to take them off the Christmas card list. Sylvia's sister-in-law Matilda didn't even bother to aim at subtle.

"Decided to try a different generation when yours didn't pan out, huh, Annie?" she laughed in what she thought was affability.

"Mattie, here, have some champagne," her husband, Jonathan, said, trying to hand her a glass.

"Oh, thank you, Johnny." But she didn't drink, to the disappointment of Ann and her uncle. Matilda was a very nice person when she was drunk. She grinned at Robert. "Can't really blame you for wanting something younger. Old bones are too cold at night."

Robert took a deep breath. "Then your husband is very lucky to have you to keep him warm."

Ann and Jonathan both stared at him as Matilda laughed and sipped her champagne. Flattery was a new approach.

Matilda poked Ann gently in the arm. "At least no one will say you married him for his money." Ann smiled briefly and glanced around for someone else to talk to. Grandma Jessie was inbound under a full head of steam.

Unlike Anastasia, who called her grey hairs "silver in the vault of time," Jessica Shriver Nolan preserved herself in as close to the condition preferred by her beloved Nicholas as possible. As she said, "When I get to the pearly gates, I don't want him saying, 'My god, Jessie, what happened to you?'"

"Matilda, dearest," she caroled in iron tones barely cloaked in honey. "How dare you monopolize the bride and groom."

Matilda blanched and drained her champagne glass. Jonathan got her another. Jessica snared Ann and Robert's arms and bore them off towards the buffet.

"My apologies," she said seriously. "Matilda is one of those people blessed without the knowledge of the need for tact. Nothing offends her, so she imagines nothing offends anyone else."

"Thank you, Jessica." Robert studied his maternal grandmother-in-law with interest. The only side of her he'd seen until now was the frothy flutterer.

"Yes, thank you, Grandma Jessie. Why didn't you bring Dominic?" Ann asked, referring to Jessica's apocryphal companion whom no one had yet to see.

"He had an appointment with his nephews in Greece. Something about the shipping lines."

Anastasia intercepted them. "My dears, the photographer is looking for you." She gave Jessica a look that hinted at accusations.

Jessica bristled. "Anastasia, dearest, I was rescuing them."

"Of course you were, darling."

Robert was tired of being ordered. He deftly disengaged his arm from Jessica's grip, then drew Ann away. Jessica was too busy being polite at Anastasia to notice. The newlyweds crept off to the head table and its two pointedly empty chairs.

"Are you supposed to be here?" Suzy asked when she spotted them.

"Yes," Ann said firmly, sighing in relief at finally being able to sit down.

"You look frazzled," Mickey commented to Robert.

"You're very observant." Robert glanced at his watch. "How much more do we have to go through before we can leave?"

Suzy thought a moment. "The cake cutting, the bouquet tossing. Are the pictures out of the way?"

"Let them take candids. I loath posed wedding photographs." He went to rub Ann's neck. True, it was just an excuse to get his hands on his brand new wife, but she was moving like a headache was coming on.

She tipped her head back and smiled up at him. "I love you."

"And I adore you." He leaned down to kiss her.

Jordan and the band wandered up and took possession of the other side of the table. "Hi, you two," Johnny said, nibbling on a crab leg. "Great wedding. Have you tried the honey glazed ham?"

Ann shivered. "Johnny, my stomach won't let me. I haven't eaten anything since an English muffin this morning."

"Microwaved?" Robert asked quietly. Ann giggled, and the others only looked baffled. "We'll overload room service later. I'm about ready for a steak, myself."

"Besides," Mickey said, finishing off his second round of smoked salmon, "you two are just decoration."

"Floor show," Malcolm commented. "They perform the rituals while we eat."

"I was under the impression there was going to be dancing," Ann said pointedly. "You guys are going to have to work for your cookies." She grinned up at her husband. "I'm not going to miss my first dance with my new spouse."

"When I'm done eating," Jordan said around lobster crepes. "Grandma did you up proud."

But Anastasia tracked them down a few minutes later and reminded them very genteelly that there were musical duties to perform. Robert met her eyes in polite determination when she mentioned a second cousin who was looking for a chat and said, "Anastasia, this is the first time I've sat down in two hours. Please make our apologies."

Surprisingly, Anastasia only smiled. "Of course, I keep forgetting there are people who have other priorities on the day." She sailed off.

"That was nicely done," Ann said. She smothered another yawn. "Oh, dammit, I can't be exhausted now, the hard part's over."

Robert slid over next to her, and she put her head on his shoulder. Behind the nearby arbor, the wedding photographer fiddled with his focus and took three quick shots. Robert didn't notice.

"That is why we're catching the late flight tomorrow. We can sleep in in the morning and spend the flight asleep. And then we can take our time in France."

"You haven't told me where we're staying yet. Did you find that pensione you remembered?"

"Ah. Unfortunately that part of town has suffered a downturn. The place is now the haunt of Turkish prostitutes and Corsican thugs."

"How sad. So where are we staying?"

Robert settled his arm around her more comfortably. "You may thank your Great-Uncle Isaac, he presented me with his wedding gift a few days ago."

Ann straightened. "Uncle Isaac? What did he do?"

"Were you aware that he had an apartment on the Champs d'Elysee?"

Her jaw sagged. "The Champs d'Elysee?"

"Well, not exactly on. You can see the Arc d'Triomphe from the dining room, he says, but most of the apartment looks onto a quiet side street."

"The Rue Schermann?"

"Yes, how did you know?"

"I bet I have relatives in that section. The Schaeffers stopped in France on their way emigrating out of Russia to America." Her smile shrank. "God, more relatives."

"Reb Isaac made sure I knew that we were to be left strictly alone. There will be day help if we want them to cook for us, or we can do as much for ourselves as we wish. And there will be a car for our use."

"Gosh. Let's go thank him."

They tracked down the old man, and accepted mazel tovs and hugs. Father Nick was sitting with Reb Isaac, apparently discussing ancient religious manuscripts.

While they were chatting, the band began tuning up. Robert smiled at his bride. "I believe they're about to be playing our song."

Ann bit her lip. "I probably trust Jordan, but I wish I knew what he was about to play."

Robert kissed her hand. "Well, trust me, because I arranged several things with him."

"Oh, good. You, I do trust." She sighed. "I hate being stared at."

"If that were true, you'd never have played with Jordan's band in public. And I intend to ignore everyone. From now on, the only person I intend to pay any attention to is you."

"That sounds like a good working plan."

Jordan took up MC duties. "Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the musical portion of the festivities." He grinned at the bride and groom, then nodded to the band.

Ann cocked her head at the surprisingly mellows piano and guitar opening. "I know this."

Robert led her to the dance floor that had been put down on the lawn. "Billy Joel. 'Shameless.' It seemed appropriate."

"Well, I'm shameless when it comes to loving you
I'd do anything you want me to,
I'd do anything at all.
And I'm standing here for all the world to see
There ain't that much left of me
That has very far to fall.

You know I'm not a man who's ever been
Insecure about the world I've been living in
I don't break easy, I have my pride
But if you need to be satisfied
I'm shameless, baby, I don't have a prayer
Anytime I see you standing there
I go down upon my knees

And I'm changing, I swore I'd never compromise
But you convinced me otherwise
I'll do anything you please
You see in all my life I've never found
What I couldn't resist, what I couldn't turn down
I could walk away from anyone I ever knew
But I can't walk away from you

I have never let anything have this much control over me
I worked too hard to call my life my own
Well, I made myself a world and it worked so perfectly
But it's your world now, I can't refuse
I never had so much to loose."

The song went into serious rhythm and blues tempo. Jordan dug into the electric guitar solo, and the older guests looked disapproving of this kind of music at a wedding. Ann took the opportunity to wipe her eyes. "Beloved ..." she started.

"Hush." Robert sang along softly as Jordan sang the last part of the song.

"You know it should be easy for a man whose strong
To say he's sorry or admit when he's wrong
I've never lost anything I ever missed
But I've never been in love like this
It's out of my hands
I'm shameless, I don't have the power now

But I don't want it anyhow
so I've got to let it go
I'm shameless, shameless as a man can be
You can make a total fool of me
I just wanted you to know."

An hour and a half later, they made their escape in the antique Rolls Royce limousine Robert had arranged. Ann barely noticed the car for dodging pelting rice and chanting impatiently to herself, "I want to get out of here, I want to get out of here!"

Robert tried not to shove her into the back of the car like a head of state avoiding assassins, but it was a near thing. He caught Mickey's eye through the crowd and shared a conspiratorial nod, then he jumped into the back. "Driver, get us the hell out of here!"

"Yes, sir," the chauffeur grinned. "Manhattan, right?"

"It's enough to go on for now." He settled back against the velvet covered seat. "Oh, ye gods, what a madhouse."

Ann had her arms wrapped around her head. "Tell me this was a good idea," she moaned.

He took her left hand, regarded the rings for a moment, then kissed the hand. "Mrs. Robert McCall, this was a good idea."

She grinned and relaxed. "Oh, yeah, that. Yes, that was a very good idea."

The chauffeur chuckled and focused on traffic for the next few miles.

"So where are we going?" Ann finally asked, much more relaxed and at peace with the world. "The Plaza?"

"No," Robert said.

She blinked. "But it's the best hotel in the city."

"True enough. And I thought of it, but no."

"The Four Seasons?"

"No. Darling, did you really want to go to a hotel and have more people make a fuss?"

"Um, no, you're right." She chuckled. "How strange. I've checked into hotels with you before, but now that we're married and it's socially approved, the idea gives me the creeps."

"Me too. And it occurred to me that the realtor is not going to turn the key to my old place over to the new tenants until Monday and I still have a key that works."

Ann stared at him a moment, then burst into laughter. "So now that we're married, we're going to sneak into other people's houses instead of checking into a hotel."

Robert considered a moment. "Yes, we are."

She leaned against his shoulder. "Life with you will never be boring."

He spared a moment to hope life would be much more boring than it had been the last few months, then he gave the driver his old address and concentrated on his new wife.

Ann was frankly dozing on his shoulder when the limo pulled up in front of Robert's old apartment building. "Sweetheart, we're here," Robert said, shaking her gently.

"Huh--what?" She blinked at the world for several moments, then looked down at her dress, then at her left hand. "Oh, my god," she giggled.

"What?"

"I thought I was dreaming."

"No, my beloved, you're awake. Thank you, driver." Robert handed up a large bill for the tip.

The chauffeur didn't glance at the bill as he tucked it in his jacket. "My pleasure, sir, ma'am, and congratulations on the day."

"Thank you," Ann grinned.

Robert helped her out, glancing around his old neighborhood discreetly. But he'd first chosen the area because the residents were exceptionally good at minding their own business. The couple slipped into the building without anyone noticing. He insisted on carrying her across the threshold.

"Does this count if no one lives here, especially not us?" she asked, leaning against him to regain her equilibrium after he put her down.

"Does it matter?"

"OK, guess not." She looked around the apartment. "How odd it looks without your stuff here."

The power had been turned off, and the empty rooms were growing dark. Robert went to light a pair of candles in sliver holders on the kitchen counter. Ann kicked off her shoes, then sank to the floor.

"Thank God that's all over," she sighed.

"Indeed."

She gazed around, wondering giddy things about the accommodations. "Not to complain, but I thought the plan was to order much food from room service."

"It's on its way."

"Excuse me?"

Robert checked his watch. "They were told there was a large tip in it for them if the food arrived at eight. They have ten minutes to go."

"You think of everything."

"I try." He sat down on the floor next to her. She had just untied his tie when the door bell rang. "Blast. Oh, well, they're on time."

The delivery boy with the several sacks looked past the tuxedoed man to the faintly-lit room beyond. "Um, delivery for McCall?"

"Yes, that's me. Come in."

Ann smiled and waved as the food was placed on the counter, trying not to laugh at the perplexed look on the boy's face as he took in the empty room and the formally dressed couple. Robert handed the boy two bills and directed him to the door. "Keep the change."

The boy looked at the money, did the math, and smiled brightly. "Thank you, sir." He left without a backwards glance.

"So what did you get?" Ann asked.

"I wasn't kidding about wanting a steak, so that's mine, and there's lasagna for you. Many side dishes as well."

She glanced down at the delicate lace she wore. "Lasagna and fancy clothes do not mix. I'd best remove some things."

"There are many napkins you can put on yourself." He chuckled at her hurt look. "Not that I would object if you removed some things, but it might be best if we ate dinner while it was warm." She thought a moment and agreed with a smile.

They drank the wine with the food, telling each other reception stories the other had missed. Ann scooped up the last of the cheese, then gazed at her husband of just a few hours. "I look forward to living with you."

"I hope it won't be too difficult an adjustment sharing your house with me."

"It won't. Last week, you were upstairs organizing your new den? I was sitting on the stair listening to you."

"Listening to me? I wasn't doing anything except organizing my books."

"I know. That was enough. I just listened to you moving around, talking to the cats occasionally, shuffling papers, and I felt the house change. Instead of just mine, it became ours, and when you left, some of 'home' went with you. It's not going to feel like home again until you're there for good."

He was tempted to blame the emotions on the empty wine bottle, but didn't. "Most of my life I've just had places where I lived. This apartment is the closest to somewhere I wanted to call 'home.' I don't think it will take long for my mind to make the adjustment to 'home' being with you."

She smiled at him, utterly content, then blinked very hard as her eyes threatened to close on her. "Oh, hell, I can't fall asleep on my wedding night."

He laughed. "We both had a long day, we were up very late last night, you're exhausted, I'm exhausted. Sleep right now sounds gloriously decadent."

Ann glanced at the bare rooms pointedly.

"I thought of that. There's still a bed here, with pillows and blankets and everything."

She chuckled and allowed herself to look sleepy. "And a husband to curl up with, forever and ever."

"Yes." The definition of how long forever might really be briefly troubled him, but he very wisely focused on the lovely, drowsy woman who now would share his bed by right. "Let's get off the floor before we both fall asleep right here." He got up, then took Ann's lazy hand to help her up. She looked up at him, started to say something, then shrugged and leaned against him, snuggling in close. He allowed himself to finally accept it, that she was now inextricably linked to his fate. He sent a silent prayer to heaven, then left it all in more competent, divine hands to look after things as he let himself enjoy simple happiness.

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