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On a rare Friday off they should have spent the morning lazing around in bed. But for Doug and Carol, it was a day to play "catch-up," time to tend to the day-to-day drudgery that they'd ordinarily have addressed bleary-eyed, late at night. He'd showered and dressed in some jeans and a T-shirt, and gone immediately to the basement. The day was beautiful, so lovely that she opened the front doors, letting the gentle breeze flow through the screen. Carol heard him cussing in the basement as she descended the steps, carrying a small basket of laundry.

Doug was poking through some boxes. "Aw, man!" He was obviously frustrated.

"What?"

"The rest of my shorts, my summer clothes, they're all still at my apartment." Doug shook his head. "I gotta go over there, swap some things."

"Just wear your old, ripped boxers around the house, out in the yard, no one will know the difference," Carol teased.

"Yeah. And you can wear your long T-shirts and underwear in the backyard and the neighbors will have us arrested," he said sarcastically. "I gotta go over to my apartment this morning anyway...take care of some business."

"Like what?" Carol started to sort the laundry.

"Oh, I have to talk to the landlord, grab the mail."

Carol turned around and unloaded the washer, putting a dark load from the night before in the dryer, then reached into the laundry basket for the light clothes. She ran the water and tossed them in. Carol thought again what a pleasure it was to have a washer and a dryer in her house. Doug had bought them for her the previous summer, when they had been seeing each other for a while, saying there was no reason why they should continually go to the Laundromat or his apartment to do laundry when they had all the space they needed in the basement. Carol had refused at first, saying that she couldn't let him spend his money like that, but Doug just laughed it off and said not to worry, that it was as much for him as it was for her. And so, since then, she had the luxury of doing laundry in her own home, something she could never afford when she was on her own.

"Huh. Not enough light clothes to fill the washer," she commented.

"Need more ?" Doug asked.

"Well, I can do a small load," she answered.

"Maybe I can help." Doug approached her with a wicked look on his face. She put her hands up to ward him off, but he was stronger and pushed her with his body until she was pressed against the dryer. "Let's see," he said as he started kissing her. "Do you want this T-shirt washed now?"

"Uh, no," she objected mildly, smiling yet squirming against him. "No, I don't think so."

But Doug had no intention of letting her stop him. He took her into his arms, his tongue slowly stroking her as he intermittently sucked her neck. He began tugging at her shirt, wrestling with it, taking it off, kissing her shoulder, working his way down her torso. "And these panties? Definitely." He slid them down despite her protests, kissing his way back up her thighs, tossing both garments aside. Carol tensed up, still trying to hold him at arm's length.

"Doug. No, not here."

"Why not here? Who's gonna see us?" He grinned and lifted her up onto the dryer.

"Yeow, cold!" Carol protested, even as she began laughing.

"That's okay, it'll warm up in a minute. I'll warm you up." He gazed at her, smiling, his eyes taking on that look that she couldn't resist.

"You're awfully pretty in the morning, you know that?" His finger drew a line from her chin, down her neck, between her breasts and she became quiet. He put his hands on either side of her and leaned in, slowly extending his tongue as she watched, anticipating, moving her body closer to him, wanting that first contact. He barely touched her nipple, then withdrew, making her groan in frustration. "Thought you were cold," he murmured thickly.

"I guess I'm warming up," she answered, pulling his head toward her again. "Let's go upstairs."

"Nah, I got everything I need right here." He studied the erect nipple and bent his head down, slowly sucking it into his mouth, causing her to moan softly. "Is that the dryer vibrating, Carol?"

"Uh huh." She closed her eyes, giving in to him.

He grinned and pulled his jeans and his boxers down and moved closer to her, scooting her to the edge and stroking her slit with his erection. "See, here you go, you're warm, wet right here," Doug said softly. "C'mere, Carol."

"On top of the dryer, Doug?" Carol giggled, finally catching his playful demeanor.

A voice from upstairs made them freeze. "CAROL? Carol, are you here?"

"Shit!" they both said together. Doug scrambled to pull his pants back up and Carol jumped down, looking hurriedly on the floor for her clothes.

"Answer her!" Doug hissed.

"MA? I'll be right up," she yelled, and then whispered to Doug, "My clothes? Where are they?"

Doug paused a minute, looking around, finally realizing. "They're...in the washer." He laughed softly as they looked at her clothes, sinking into the water.

"Doug, what the hell am I gonna do?" Carol asked frantically.

"Hang on, hang on, I'll toss some down." Doug calmly walked up the steps and then Carol heard him address her mother.

"Hi, Helen, how you doin?"

"Good, Doug, you?"

"Fine. I'm fine. I just gotta, I gotta go get something for Carol."

"What is she doing downstairs? Not another plumbing problem?"

"No, no, we were just...doing laundry. In fact, I was just about to...put it in when you, uh came...in."

Hearing him, Carol giggled despite herself, shaking her head. Poor Ma, she thought.

"There's some coffee in the kitchen, help yourself," he offered.

"Thank you, I will."

Carol followed the footsteps above her head. Helen striding into the kitchen, Doug bounding into the bedroom. A minute later, her clothes came floating down the stairs. Carol ran over to get them, only to see him at the top of the steps, winking and grinning like a little kid.

"Oh, here comes Carol now," he announced, stifling a laugh.

Carol glowered at him, feigning anger as she pulled panties and shorts over her naked body, and slithered into her bra and shirt.

"Hi, Ma," she yelled, running up the stairs. "I didn't expect you so soon."

"I decided to come out earlier, help you start planting."

'Yeah, I see. I'll be ready in a minute, okay? I just need to put my hair up."

Carol opened a kitchen drawer and took a scrunchie out, wrapping it around her hair while Doug poured their coffee.

Doug gestured with the coffeepot in Helen's direction. "Did you, uh, get some this morning, Helen?" he asked, while he ignored Carol's glare.

Helen, Carol realized thankfully, remained oblivious to Doug's joke. "Yes, I did."

"Well, good. Good. I didn't. Get any yet, I mean." He grinned at Carol.

"Is there enough?" Helen asked him.

"Yes, Ma, there's enough," Carol interrupted, taking her cup from Doug's outstretched hand. "I always make a full pot."

Helen looked back at Doug. "Are you helping us outside today, Doug?"

"I dunno. I'll try, but I have to go to my apartment, get some stuff. I don't have all my summer clothes here." Doug stirred sugar into his coffee.

Carol braced herself for what she felt was the inevitable sharp, biting comment that was sure to come out of her mother's mouth next.

"You're still holding onto that apartment?" Helen asked.

Doug looked over at Carol warily. "Well, I'm not holding onto it for any...I mean, I have it, you know, I'm here most of the time."

"Hmmph. Must be pretty expensive, paying rent for an apartment you're never in." Helen shrugged her shoulders for emphasis. "What, with the heat, the electricity. All that money when you never stay there. Seems to me you'd get rid of it."

Carol and Doug shared a brief, amazed look. Carol knew her mother was not happy they were living together "without the benefit of marriage," as she'd put it. What was she getting at?

"Ma, we really haven't thought about it...."

"Yeah," Doug chimed in, "Carol and I...we haven't talked about it. I mean, this is her house...." Doug turned his back to them as he sipped his coffee, looking out the window, feeling a bit awkward discussing it in front of Helen.

Helen nodded and drank her coffee. "You've both done a lot of work here. It looks great."

Doug smiled at Helen's compliment and nodded toward Carol. "Mostly her doing. She has an eye for what looks good, colors. She saw things in this house that most people couldn't."

Helen nodded. "She was always that way, although she never realized it."

"What does that mean?" Carol asked, walking toward the table.

"You know the way you are," Helen continued, waving her hand. "Never giving yourself credit, you never really knew that you had a gift for...seeing more than what first meets the eye."

"Ah," Carol commented as she flopped in the chair, resigned to the fact that she'd have to spend the morning with her mother talking about her faults, her insecurities, her short-comings. She sighed. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"See what I mean?" Helen retorted.

Doug smiled and downed the rest of his coffee, deciding to extricate himself from the kitchen and the conversation. "Uh, Carol? I'm gonna head over to my place, do a few things. I'll try to get back to help you, okay?"

"That's fine. Mom and I can do it." Carol smiled at him, reaching her arms up for a kiss. Doug readily complied, then gave Helen a peck on her cheek, provoking a slight smile from her as well.

Doug picked up his keys off the counter. "See you ladies later."

He hadn't been gone for more than a minute when Helen leaned over the table toward Carol. "What's going on, what's wrong? Why does he still have that apartment?"

Carol huffed impatiently. "What?"

Helen raised her eyebrows in disbelief. "Why is he still holding onto it?"

Carol averted her eyes and began fussing with her hair nervously. "Ma, I don't know. We never really talk about it."

"Well, it seems to me that he is wasting his money. He's here all the time. Why doesn't he give it up and really move in?"

Carol was shocked to hear these words coming from her mother. "He's never asked, Ma."

"Hmmph. Maybe he's waiting for you to ask him." Helen stood up and began walking to the door. "Aren't you coming to plant the flowers?"

Carol rolled her eyes. "I'll be out in a minute. Let me finish my coffee." But Helen was long gone out into the yard.

*****

Carol and her mother worked side-by-side, emptying the flats of flowers, a rare day of accomplishment. The flower beds came alive with purples, reds and yellows, and Carol knew she could not have done it without help.

"Ma," she began tentatively as she dug another small hole for the salvia, "I really appreciate you coming out here, planting these with me."

Helen smiled. "I miss having a home. Your father and I would work in the garden. We planted all our own vegetables. I'd go out in the summer and pick the lettuce for salad, the beans."

Carol watched out of the corner of her eye, waiting for the inevitable rant to begin, the anger that would seep out, the slurs to be hurled. But Helen just picked up her hand spade and moved on.

"Doug said he wanted tomato plants this year," offered Carol, wanting to draw his name into the conversation.

"Sounds good," Helen replied.

"So, how would you feel if he moved in here? Gave up his apartment?"

Helen never looked up, but began digging anew. "Carol, you're a grown woman, you don't need my approval anymore."

Exasperated, already regretting that she brought it up, Carol shot back, "I'm not asking for your approval, Ma, I'm asking for you to give your opinion."

"My opinion?" Helen shrugged. "Well, then. I don't understand why you're living with him and you're not getting married. I will never understand this, Carol. In my day, no self-respecting woman would live with a man unless they were married."

"Times change, Ma," Carol said, annoyed, stabbing at the clay with her shovel.

"Morals don't change. They stay the same." Helen sighed, sat back on the grass and put her hand on Carol's arm, stilling her motion. Carol turned to look at her mother. "Does he love you?"

Carol's eyes filled. "Yes. He does. More than I ever thought any man would love me."

"He treats you well, I can see. It's kind of like...more than what first meets the eye."

Carol smiled, agreeing, knowing this was the closest her mother had ever come to approving of her relationship with Doug.

"Does he want to move in?" Helen asked.

Carol pushed her hair back, smudging her face with some loose dirt. "I think so. We really don't discuss it."

"I think you're talking about this with the wrong person," Helen observed. That was it. They were finished and stood up to view their work.

"He'll like this," Carol said quietly.

"What's not to like?" Helen said, then picked up her tools and walked toward the house.

*****

Doug walked up the familiar steps and opened his apartment. The first thing he did was turn on the air conditioner to cool it off. He thumbed through his mail, tossing the junk aside and saving the bills. Gas, electric, phone, cable. Helen was right, he knew. He was spending money maintaining a place he hadn't slept in since winter.

He'd thought about asking Carol if he should move in, but because she owned the house, he didn't want to suggest it first. She'd probably get defensive, he thought, worry about what it would all mean, wonder if he was pressuring her all over again. So Doug walked downstairs to the superintendent's apartment and knocked on the door. He'd see if he had any flexibility at all before he was forced to sign another year-long lease. Then he'd broach the subject with Carol.

*****

By the time Doug got back to the house, Carol had showered and was relaxing in back, on one of their new lawn chairs. She heard him before she saw him: He was inside of the house, calling for her.

"Out here," she yelled.

He looked out the kitchen window. "Hey, want a beer?"

"Yeah," she smiled, "come on out."

She heard him rattling around in the kitchen and he emerged a few minutes later, a bag from Subway under his arm, a beer in each hand.

"Hey, Carol. The front garden looks great. Helen gone?"

"Yup."

"Wow, you guys did a lot of work back here," he observed.

"Yeah, my mother always worked me hard," Carol mused.

"It looks great," Doug repeated, warmly voicing his approval.

"Thanks. Get everything done?"

"Most of it. Damned place is stuffy, I don't run the air when I'm here, you know...." Doug opened his bag and tore his sandwich in half, offering part to her. She took it and smiled her thanks.

"What'd you talk to the landlord about?"

"Aw, you know, just some business...." He sat down while taking a bite of his sandwich, and she could tell he was reticent to discuss it.

"Is your lease up, Doug?"

"Uh, yeah. Yeah, it is, I was trying to see, you know, if I could sign a shorter one or...you know. He wanted another full year lease, and I wasn't really sure what to do." One swig of beer, and then he was quiet again.

Carol took a deep breath. "Doug...do you really want to keep your apartment?"

Doug looked up, interested.

"I mean," she reasoned, "you're here all the time. I would really like it if you moved your things here, if you just...got rid of your place. Stayed with me. Here. Permanently." Carol looked at him, waiting for his reaction.

A slow smile covered his face. "I'd like to, Carol."

She breathed a sigh of happiness. "When is your lease up?"

"End of the month."

Carol took a sip of beer. "Looks like we have some work to do, then, to get your things over here." Carol leaned over to him and gave him a warm, lingering kiss. "Well, that was easy," she said, pleased with herself for handling it so well.

"If it was so easy, why didn't we talk about this months ago?" he wondered out loud.

Carol kissed him again. "I dunno, Doug. But I'm glad we talked about it today."

"Me, too," he said, smiling. "I am, too."

*****

They spent that weekend and every night during the week at his place, going through things, boxing them up, deciding what should go with him and what he would give away. Carol wanted to put his bedroom set in the spare room, but they decided to sell most of the remaining furniture. It was particularly difficult for him to part with his leather couch. It was comfortable and it was the first thing he'd bought upon his arrival in Chicago. Carol rightfully reasoned that they just had no room in their little home. Doug silently mourned the loss of it until Malik mentioned that he was moving and was buying furniture. Doug offered to sell the extra bedroom set and the kitchen table and chairs to him and told him he'd throw in the couch, "free for the hauling." Malik agreed so he and his brother came by that Wednesday to take it away.

By Saturday, they were almost finished. Doug rummaged around in his closet, throwing out bent hangers, tossing shirts and slacks over to Carol, who folded them, filling bags for the Salvation Army.

Doug took a bag from the top shelf and opened it. "Oh, man," he said quietly.

"Find anything good, Doug?"

"No, it's...just some stuff, it's nothing important." Doug closed the bag up.

"C'mon!" she said, curious. "It must be something. You should see your face!"

Doug glanced up at her, not quite sure what to do about this. "It's from a long time ago."

"What is it?"

"It's a...bag of...stuff."

"Like what kind of stuff?" she asked impatiently.

"Sex toys," he said sheepishly.

Carol scoffed. "Yeah, right."

"I'm serious." He laughed nervously.

She stared at him. "You have a of bag sex toys?"

Doug looked through the bag. "I had no idea they were still here."

"We never used them...." she began.

"Well, they weren't mine...." he demurred.

"Uh, okay, I'll bite...whose were they?"

Doug paused. "I forget."

Carol didn't buy it. "Doug...?"

He chuckled, embarrassed. "Linda Farrell's."

Carol sat up. "Linda Farrell? Why are they still here?"

"I have no idea." Doug shook his head, peeking again. "Man, what a bunch of stuff...wanna uh, see?"

"No, I'll leave it to my imagination," she huffed, a bit put-off.

The phone rang, and Doug put the bag on the bed and walked over to answer it. "Hello? Yeah, hi. No, I'm just about to drop off some old clothes, we're almost done. Yeah, if you want, maybe 6 o'clock at the house? Hang on, let me ask her." Doug covered the mouthpiece. "Hey, Carol? Mark and Rachel want to know if they can come over later. He said he'd bring pizza."

"Sure. Tell him no anchovies."

"Mark? Great, no anchovies. Okay? See you guys later."

Doug hung up. "I'm gonna take these clothes over to the Salvation Army drop-off box. You wanna come?"

"No, I'll stay here, go through the rest of this stuff, get it ready."

"Okay. You're not pissed off, are you?"

"No, no, I'm fine," she insisted.

"I'll be back soon." Doug leaned down and kissed the top of her head and grabbed the bags of clothes and left.

She walked around the apartment, bare except for the furniture now. The kitchen was empty. Carol opened the refrigerator and smiled. There was a six-pack of Diet Pepsi there. Doug had thought of her, she realized. Reaching in, she took one and popped it open, taking a long drink to quench her thirst. She idly opened drawers; all empty, all boxed up. In the bathroom she saw an old razor on the shower ledge and tossed it in the trash. The second bedroom was empty as well. Back to Doug's room, she decided to finish up before he came back so they could head home early.

Carol went back to his closet to finish emptying it and took down a small box that was far back on the top shelf. It was marked "Doug's things." She put it on the bed and went back, taking down two baseball mitts that were left. Even though they were left-handed mitts, she put one on and smacked the middle with her fist, just as she had done with her father. He'd take her out after dinner and throw the ball around, tossing it high into the air and catching it, looking like a major league star in her eyes. They'd play for a while and then when the ice cream man came, Carol would smile and flash her dimples and he would buy ice cream for her, warning her not to tell her mother or her sisters. Carol sighed thinking of him.

She put the mitts on the box. Then, for some odd reason, maybe just because she wanted to know, Carol moved them aside and opened the box.

Immediately, she regretted it. There were pictures and letters in it, and she knew then and there she should close it, ignore it , leave it for Doug, but she couldn't. She couldn't.

Carol looked out the window and saw that Doug's car was gone. "Don't do it," she said out loud, shaking her head, her voice echoing off the bare walls. Despite her conscience screaming at her to walk away, she grabbed the box, opened the window to let some fresh air in, and sat underneath it.

The first few pictures were of Doug at graduation. His mother was beaming at him while Doug looked down at her, smiling. There were some of a group of guys in Florida, Disney it looked like, Doug in the middle. Spring break, she supposed. He was so young, his hair was
long and curly. She again regretted his decision to cut it short when they were on vacation in Michigan.

Stacked with the letters were more pictures. The one on top was of a woman who was maybe in her early twenties. She had short, brown hair, and blue eyes. Not his type at all, she thought. There were more pictures, too, underneath. Pictures and letters. Carol took a deep breath. They were bound with a rubber band that looked like it would crumble in a moment, and it did as soon as her hands touched it. Some were postmarked from Seattle, some just had Doug's name on the envelope with no address at all. All with the same handwriting.

There was a picture of the same woman with Doug, sitting on a bench, a river behind them. Another of her dressed up for some fancy occasion. Still another of her in a bathing suit. Small breasts, small waist. Long legs. Dazzling smile.

This is not right, Carol thought. I never snoop. I never do. Somehow she was not responsible for what her hands were doing as they took the first letter out of its envelope. She quickly scanned it, looking for a name. It was a two-page letter, signed by someone named Janelle.

What a beautiful name. Who was she?

Carol turned it over again and began reading the neat, feminine handwriting.

~~~~~
Hi Doug!

I started my summer job, but I hate it. The uniform is really lame and the owner keeps trying to play grab-ass, but it's the only thing I could find this summer here at school, with so many people staying, so I keep telling myself I have to keep my mouth shut if I want to remain employed.

I got your note on my door the day you left. I'm sorry I missed you, but you forgot I have an early class. It's lonely, being at school with you gone for the summer, but it'll help me graduate on time, which is what I want.

So, can you believe we're headed into our last year? You'll be done with med school, me with college. I know you're tired of it, but it'll go fast, once you get back here. I hope the job came through for you. I know you were counting on it. I guess there's no way we can see each other this summer, even though I want to. What do you think about us taking turns calling each other every other week? That would mean only two calls a month apiece, which would be more manageable for me financially. Then at least I could hear your voice.

Doug, I really don't know how to say this, but I wanted to talk to you about the night before you left, about what happened. I know you said you understood and you didn't want to pressure me but I still feel so conflicted because I know it was something you really wanted to do. It made me feel even more uncomfortable because of course you're experienced and here I am, unwilling. You know how I feel about you, but I don't think we're ready. I had a hard time explaining it to you, but it boils down to my wanting to save that moment for marriage, or at least until I'm in a committed relationship.

You told me that was okay, that it was just something you wanted to experience with me before you left, and I could tell you were disappointed that I wouldn't. But, you know, I just can't. Not yet. I'm afraid, though, that you'll find someone else over the summer. Maybe someone who's more willing than I am.

Please write back and let me know what you're thinking.

Love, Janelle
~~~~~

Carol put it down. She realized that this was no ordinary stack of letters, and she struggled with herself, knowing she would be furious if Doug had looked through her personal things. But somehow she needed to know more about this woman, and about Doug. Why did he save these letters? He must have gotten letters from dozens of girls through college and med school and beyond. What was it about these that compelled him to save them? She put the letter back in the envelope and flipped to the next one, a card.

~~~~~
Dear Doug,

Your letter made me so happy. I was so worried, but you really put me at ease. Thanks for understanding. Thank you for waiting for me.

Janelle
~~~~~

Well, Carol thought, nice to see he was a gentleman about such things, even when he was young. That was one thing about Doug, she knew; as awful as he was before, as dishonest and scheming, he never forced himself on anyone, never pressured women to have sex with him. Carol read through a few letters where Janelle mostly described her days, talked about mutual friends. She opened another card.

~~~~~
Dear Doug:

The memory of last night will be the most wonderful memory I'll ever have. I never knew it would feel that way. I was afraid at first, but you were, as usual, sweet and tender. Even though you said all those things, I was afraid you would be disappointed with me. I had never felt beautiful until I was naked in your arms, feeling your hands and your mouth, and then your body, all over me. When you kissed me and told me to relax, I was anything but relaxed, but when you made love to me so gently and you told me that I felt wonderful, it meant more to me than you'll ever know.

I love you, Doug.

Janelle
~~~~~

Carol shivered. It was difficult for her to read about his intimacy with another woman, even if it was so long ago. Imagine, she thought, having such a pleasant first experience. She looked at the letter again. "...so gently...." Carol's was nothing of the sort. She was a senior in high school, and had secretly pined after the guy for months. A group of them went on a picnic and he took her hand, much to her delight, and they went on a long walk together. He'd kissed her and touched her so expertly that Carol succumbed quickly, but their coupling was over and done with just as quickly. It had been awful for her, cold and impersonal, and she certainly hadn't derived any pleasure from it. The next school day, he avoided her and that was the end of it. She'd worried for weeks afterward until she got her period, vowing never again to have unprotected sex, vowing that the next time it would be on her terms, with someone she was in love with.

There were about five more letters, in chronological order, and in each Carol read of the love this young woman had for Doug, the unabashed expressions of happiness and joy. Carol made her way to the last one. It had no address on it, just "Doug" on the envelope. This one was hand-delivered, she surmised.

~~~~~
Dear Doug,

I guess this is it. I never thought this would happen to us, that we'd ever be apart. How did things go so wrong so fast? I guess it boils down to me being ready for something, for a commitment you weren't ready to give me.

I love you, Doug, I've never loved anyone like I love you, and to realize now that you don't feel that same depth of love for me is so painful. I know that you care about me, I understand what you said, but I know, too, that you're not 'in love' with me. A big difference.

I wish you luck in your residency. I know you'll be a success. I know, too, that wherever you end up, children will have you to care for them and look out for their interests. You'll be a great pediatrician, Doug, I hope you get to realize that dream.

I'll be home tonight. Please come to see me, please give me just one last night? I know you really don't want to, but I'm not ready to let you go until you really pack up and leave. I'll be waiting up for you.

Janelle
~~~~~

"Hey, whatcha got there?"

Carol was lost in her thoughts and she jumped, surprised to hear him, to see him in the doorway. "Oh, God! I didn't hear you come in." Her face took on a guilty cast and she avoided his eyes, staring at the pile in her lap.

Doug looked at her blankly. "What's all that?"

"It's old pictures, some old letters," she answered quietly.

Doug tilted his head, confused. "You're looking through my stuff?"

"No, I wasn't, it...." Carol shook her head and stopped herself. "Yes. Doug, I'm sorry. I am. I looked through these and I shouldn't have. I'm...I'm sorry, Doug." Carol pushed the hair away from her face, and he could see she was blushing.

"Carol...I don't care." He waved her off. "It's okay, it's okay. Letters? From who?"

"Someone named Janelle."

Doug's face took on a distant, amazed look. "From Janelle? I didn't even know I had them, I...my mother must have sent that box over when they moved, I don't even remember saving them." Doug frowned as he walked over and sat on the floor next to her, leafing through the pictures. "Oh, man, this takes me back."

Carol pulled her knees to her chest, waiting. Doug fingered the pile of letters.

"Do you remember them? The letters?" she asked.

He answered quietly. "Yeah, I think I do."

Carol's face fell. "Was she...someone important?"

Doug turned and smiled at her. "Then. She was, way back then. Probably the only other significant relationship with a woman in my life."

"And...?" Carol encouraged him.

"And...it was a long time ago." Doug shrugged and put the letters and pictures back in the box.

Carol recognized that he was closing the door on the topic, but something was bothering her nonetheless. She started to talk, then stopped.

Doug spoke softly. "What is it?"

Carol stood up and began pacing. "Being here in your apartment, it's...I don't know, so many things come back to me. I wanted you to belong to me so much when we first started dating. Now, reading these letters, I know she did, too."

He followed her with his eyes. "Janelle?"

"Yeah. She wanted something, too, from you, but she never got it."

Doug pondered this carefully. "It was...complicated with her."

Complicated. With that one word, Carol became keenly aware of his discomfort, and wondered about the significance of this woman. She had an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach and when she spoke, she did so with slow, measured words. "Doug, is she...is this the woman?"

He bowed his head. "Well, she....there are things, you know...I...you know, I don't really like to talk about it," he finally admitted.

"Does that mean yes?"

He hesitated, then nodded.

This hit Carol hard, having a face and a personality to add to her mental picture.

Doug realized this and tried to placate her. "I didn't mean to...Carol, it was a long time ago."

"Yeah. It's just...it's uh, kinda sobering. And in a way it's sad, you know? It got me thinking. I never thought I'd have you and she realized that, too. It comes through in her letters." Carol leaned against the door frame.

Doug looked at her, eyes full of warmth. "But you do, you know. Have me."

Carol smiled wistfully. "I know. There are just so many memories -- good and bad. I'm glad you're getting rid of this place. I know that might sound childish, but I am." Looking out the window, she took a deep breath.

He nodded. "I know. This apartment, for me, the only good memories it holds for me are the ones of you."

She turned her attention to him, surprised.

Doug shifted his body and laid back on the floor, his knees flexed, arms under his head. "It's true. It was always empty here, except for you. You brought such...I don't know, life, I guess, into this place. You made me happy when I thought no one ever could. That's why I like your house so much, Carol. It's a good place for me to be. I'm never alone there, even when you're at work or out somewhere. I'm glad I'll be living there all the time." He looked over at her. "I hope I can think of it as...as my home, too."

Moving toward him, she sat back down. "That's exactly how I think of it. Our home."

"Good. Good," he said, smiling, rolling over to pull her close to him. A contented sigh eased from his throat. "Let's finish up here. Shall we dispose of the sex toys?" he asked, grinning mischievously.

"Uh, I think so," she laughed.

"Me, too." Doug got up and tossed the bag into the trash, then picked up the box of letters and pictures. He sorted the pictures, throwing most of them away, then took all the letters and followed suit. Carol watched quietly.

"You didn't have to do that, Doug. You could have saved them."

Doug nodded his understanding. "I did save some pictures. I saved the ones from graduation, Disney, my buddies. I don't need the other stuff. That's from a different lifetime, Carol, a different person. It's in the past. I don't need it anymore." He fell silent.

Carol walked over to the trash can and took one of the pictures out, handing it to him. "Doug? Keep this one. It might be the only one of...the two of you." She smiled warmly.

Doug took the picture from her and stared at it. She could see he was emotionally overwhelmed by her gesture.

Carol moved behind him, putting her arms around him and laying her head on his back. "Looks like everything's just about cleared out."

"Yeah, it does. Ready to go home?" He turned into her embrace.

Carol held him tightly. "Yeah. Let's go home."

*****

When they pulled up in front of Carol's house, Mark and Rachel were sitting on the front porch.

Carol waved to them as she got out of the car. "Hey, hope we didn't keep you waiting."

"No, not at all. Of course, we ate all the pizza," Mark joked.

"Dad!" Rachel protested. "We just got here, Carol."

"Well, good."

Doug leaned over and gave Rachel a quick kiss on the cheek as they all walked into the house. "You just comin' from soccer practice?"

"Yeah."

"Why aren't you playing a real American sport like baseball or basketball?" he challenged her.

"Soccer is a real sport. In baseball, you just stand around. See, with soccer you get to run a lot and get all sweaty."

"I can tell," he kidded her and she gave him a light smack on the arm.

"You can not, I use deodorant."

Doug enjoyed needling her. "Hmm, if you say so."

"Glad to see you two are picking up right where you left off last time," Mark commented.

Doug grinned. "We're old friends, we don't have to be nice to each other, right Rach?"

"Right!" she happily agreed.

They ate the pizza outside on the old picnic table, with Doug encouraging Rachel to burp loudly and often, much to Mark's and Carol's disgust.

"Doug, way to set a good example," Mark complained.

"C'mon, Mark, it's not like we're having dinner at the White House," Doug retorted.

"Yeah, Dad," Rachel chimed in, always glad to have Doug in her corner.

Carol went inside to make coffee and heard Doug go out to the car to get something. When she walked out with the cups on a tray, she saw Doug fitting a mitt onto Rachel's hand.

"Now, you're going to learn to do this like a pro," she heard Doug say to Rachel.

"Baseball's a dumb sport," Rachel whined. "You just stand around."

"Not if you play it right." Doug backed up and tossed the ball gently to Rachel, who caught it. "There you go, good, now throw it back."

Rachel tried, but the ball didn't go far.

Doug ran and scooped the ball up into his mitt. "C'mon, Rach, you throw like a girl."

Rachel became immediately indignant. "I do not. Anyway, that's how girls throw, right Carol?"

Mark leaned over to Carol and whispered, "She's Jennifer incarnate, isn't she? Lawyer number two, always arguing."

Carol laughed and turned her attention to Rachel. "Actually, Rachel, I can throw very well." She stood up and Doug tossed the ball to her gently. Carol threw a perfect pitch into Doug's mitt.

"There you go, that's my girl," approved Doug.

Doug threw the ball back to Rachel who caught it, although she was pouting.

"Here, Rachel, I'll show you." Carol placed Rachel's fingers around the ball and demonstrated the proper throwing motion. Rachel's next attempt was much better, and she beamed when Doug shouted his approval.

"Great job!" Carol said. They made another attempt and Rachel again hit the mark.

Rachel asked, "Carol, who taught you to throw a baseball?"

"My father did," Carol smiled, smoothing Rachel's hair.

"My dad doesn't like to play sports with me," Rachel whispered confidentially.

"That's why you have Doug here, to play with you," Carol assured her. "And, your dad does lots of things with you. He gets to bring you here, which we like, and he watches you play soccer, right?"

"Yeah," Rachel agreed. "He cheers really loud, too."

"Then I'd say you have the best of both worlds."

"Uh, when you girls are done yapping, can we get back to playing ball?" Doug yelled.

"I'm ready, Doug!" Rachel answered.

"Here we go, Rach, a pop fly." Doug threw the ball high in the air and Rachel lost sight of it, but he took a couple of steps and caught it, grinning at her. "Cubbies, here I come," he yelled.

"White Sox," Rachel insisted.

"Okay, you get to pick." Rachel and Doug played for some time, until she complained that it was getting too dark to see the ball. "I think you're right," Doug agreed. "Should we see if Carol has ice cream in the freezer?"

"Yes, we should." Rachel gave her mitt back to Doug and the two of them went into the house.

"He's always been good with her," Mark noted.

Carol nodded, agreeing. "He likes her. He likes being with kids. Want some ice cream before they eat it all?"

"Good idea." They gathered up the empty pizza box, paper plates, glasses and cups and walked toward the house, hearing the laughter within.

*****

By that Friday, Doug had moved everything of his and gave the keys over to the landlord. Carol relocated things in their house, carefully meshing his belongings with hers until they were finished. He was happy to be there and suggested they invite some people over so they could entertain together. Carol agreed and they decided to ask a few coworkers to come to a Sunday afternoon barbecue, followed by a mass viewing of the Bulls playoff game. Mark, Rachel, Haleh and her husband, Lydia and Al, and John Carter all said they would come.

"Tell me again why Elizabeth isn't coming," Doug asked, munching on the crudités she had painstakingly cut up.

"Knock it off, Doug, there won't be any left for company," Carol complained, taking the tray away from him. He stopped, not wanting to provoke her, knowing she always got nervous when she had guests over. He, on the other hand, was quite relaxed: If you had enough beer and a bag of chips, he figured, everyone would be happy.

"Elizabeth, Carol?" he reminded her.

"Some kind of problem with Romano and her fellowship here or something."

"Gotcha."

People started arriving by 2 o'clock, and by 3, their backyard was filled with animated chatter. Carol brought the food out, while Doug made sure everyone had plenty to drink. Carter and Haleh sat in the shade, talking about work, specifically about the most recent news that Doug was enduring his 30-day suspension.

"Well, he has to have everything co-signed by that woman. I don't know that I could stand it," Haleh said, shaking her head.

"Must be pretty emasculating, you know, having Weaver watch your every move," Carter mused.

"Emasculating how?" Doug asked loudly, walking up behind him, carrying a keg.

John was immediately embarrassed. "Oh. Dr. Ross. I...I didn't know you were...what I meant was...."

"Forget it, Carter," Doug assured him. "Help me over here, will ya?"

With Carter's help, Doug put the keg down, groaning. Doug sat on the grass near the keg, catching his breath.

"Dr. Ross?"

Doug grimaced. "You know, Carter, you don't have to call me 'Doctor.'" I feel old enough when you're around."

"Oh, yeah, you know, old habits die hard."

Doug chuckled.

"Are you still going for that pediatric attending job?"

"Yup. Waiting to hear."

"So, are you all moved in here?" Carter asked.

"Yeah, we just finished up."

"Must be great, having this place, working on it together."

Doug smiled. "It is. I still think of it as her house. She's worked hard on it. I mean, I've done some stuff, but she really gets the credit." He glanced up at Carter. "Here, help me with this keg." The two men tapped the new keg and Doug took the first foam off and tossed it aside. Carter sat back down in his chair while Doug remained standing, filling their cups. "Anna gone?" Doug asked gently.

Carter looked up at him, surprised to her Anna's name. "Yeah, yeah. She left yesterday."

"Um hm." Doug nodded but stayed quiet.

"I guess maybe..." Carter continued, "...she was homesick, you know, her whole family was there. I don't think things worked out for her like she wanted them to here." Carter sighed almost imperceptibly.

"Yeah," Doug agreed. "Didn't work out for you, either, huh?"

Carter shook his head and took the glass of beer Doug offered, all the while watching Doug watch Carol.

"Doctor...uh, Doug? How long have you and Carol been dating?"

Doug turned his attention back to Carter. "You mean this time, or all together?"

"This time."

"A little over a year."

John gestured with his beer. "Last time?"

"A little over two, uh...sort of, more or less." Doug looked down at him.

Carter cleared his throat. "Did you always know? I mean, that she was the one?" he asked quietly.

Carter seemed so young at that point, so very young, that Doug smiled inwardly. "Always? Yeah I did. But knowing it and acting on it, well, it's a different kind of thing."

Carter nodded, agreeing. "You know, I think I took too long to tell her. Anna, I mean. I thought we had this...thing, this...bond. And by the time I talk to her, she's telling me about this guy from Philly, and then he comes outta nowhere and bam, she's gone."

"Did she leave to go back with him?" Doug asked.

He looked up at Doug, shaking his head, losing the ability to mask his feelings. "Oh, she said she didn't, she wasn't, but I think she did. She changed the minute he came, she was confused and she started-started pulling away." John took another swig of beer.

"Well, I can't say anything to make it any better. Things will work out one day, Carter. They just have a tendency to do that."

John followed Doug's gaze again, seeing that it had settled contentedly on Carol. "I guess."

They ate and drank and laughed in the backyard with Doug manning the grill, never without a beer in his hand. He gazed at Carol as she relaxed with her friends. She had put her hair up in some kind of twist and her tank top clung to her body. Her shorts gave him a lovely view of her rounded ass. The thing he loved best, though, was hearing her hearty laugh ring through the noise of all the other voices. That was what he enjoyed most of all.

They moved inside as game time approached; some sat on the chairs while others laid on the floor, alternately groaning and cheering, happy to see the Bulls blowing Utah away.

Doug sat on the floor, leaning against the sofa, his legs apart to accommodate Carol, who sat between them, her head on his chest. "I love watching Pippen's transition game," Doug said to Mark.

"Transition game? What do you mean?" Carol asked, trying hard to understand.

"His transition game. You know, switching gears from offense to defense. Watch him, here, watch." She paid close attention. "Carol, see there? How he covers the floor? He anticipates his teammates' movements, the flow of the game."

"Uhhh, I guess," Carol said, studying the television intently.

Doug smiled, happy that she was interested enough to ask questions, to watch with him. "I'll videotape the next game, I'll show you."

"Okay." Carol leaned back and he squeezed her arm gently.

When it became apparent that the Bulls would win easily, their guests began to disperse, expressing their thanks. By the time everyone left, it was close to 9 o'clock. They did an admirable job of cleaning up and it was Carol who suggested they leave the rest for the next day. "I'm beat, Doug, let's go to bed."

They walked in together and washed up, taking turns brushing their teeth. Doug got in bed first, turning on the fan next to her side.

"I'm kinda cold, can I turn it off?" Carol asked.

"Yup."

Carol switched the fan off and they laid down, both exhausted. His hand crept to her side of the bed and she smiled when she felt his finger making little circles on her arm.

"Is that you, Doug?"

He chuckled softly. "It's me."

Carol turned toward him, moving to share his pillow. "I think I'm going to love knowing you'll be here every night, living here all the time."

"You think so?" He leaned in to kiss her softly.

"Yeah. Especially if you do that again."

"Do what? This?" His lips were soft upon her mouth and his tongue tentatively reached for hers, meeting it, making her moan. Arms enfolded her, pulling her hips into him. His hand caressed her hair. "I hope you're not too tired," he whispered. "I want to give you pleasure with my hands and my mouth and my body tonight."

Carol stiffened in his arms and became teary.

He was confused. "What is it, Carol?"

"Those are the same words Janelle used in her letter, Doug. 'Your hands, your mouth, your body.'" She sighed and moved slightly away from him.

Doug held her, unwilling to let her distance herself, although he did not really know what she needed.

"Doug?"

"Hmm?"

"Can you...make love to me gently tonight?"

He regarded her, somewhat bewildered. "Aren't I always gentle?"

She shook her head and looked down. "Yeah. Yeah. I don't know what I'm thinking of."

"Hey." Doug put his thumb under her chin and gently lifted her face to his. "What are you thinking of?"

Carol sighed. "Oh, you know...sex toys. Young, virginal girls...."

He wanted to understand her. "Carol, what's this about?"

Carol snuggled into him. "It's not about anything. I was just thinking about you. How hard it is for me to share you with all the other women in your past."

Doug frowned slightly. "Share me? Carol, we both have lovers in our pasts. You're not sharing me with anyone."

"I know. It's just...I think about them...you pleasing them."

"Carol, is this about the stuff in my apartment? About Janelle's letters?"

"Partly."

"Janelle was young, she was inexperienced...I cared about her. But not the way she wanted me to."

"Well, it's not just her. It's Linda, too. She was so self-assured, so confident."

"Yes, she was, but there were a lot of things she wasn't."

"Like what?"

Doug sighed. "She was never satisfied with anything, always looking for more, different."

"What do you mean?"

Doug shifted his body to lay his head on her arm. "I mean sex with her was all about the sex, about her need to do things for the sake of doing them. For as long as we dated, there was nothing warm or tender about it. It certainly couldn't be called 'making love.' That's why she had all the gadgets. It was all impersonal, a means to justify the end."

She studied him, waiting for him to continue.

"Carol, I know it bothered you that I still had those things. But I never used anything like that with you because we don't need to. You, your body, is all I need to have pleasure like that. And I like to think that I can give you pleasure with mine. The other way, it's like you're doing something *to* the person instead of with the person. Does that make any sense?" He looked up at her.

Kissing the top of his head, she said, "It does. It's not just that. It's...it's one thing to know about an old lover. I mean, you had every right to date Linda. We weren't together then. But it still hurt, seeing her things in your closet. And Janelle...I'm so sorry I read those old letters. It wasn't right. And I'm sorry I read someone else describe how you made love to her. It's not something I should know about - or think about." Carol swallowed hard.

Doug chose his words very carefully. "With Janelle...the whole relationship ended so badly, and then, well, it got even worse. She was a nice girl, I cared about her. I'm sorry in a way that I even had those letters anymore. It's...Carol, sometimes it's too hard to think about that whole thing. I didn't love her. She wanted me to, but I didn't. I don't think I was capable of loving anyone then." He looked up at her. "I'm in love with *you*, Carol. With you. No one else. I chose you. I love you."

Her eyes right then were full of love mixed with only a bit of sadness. "Doug, I wish you had been my first."

"Me, too." He smiled and kissed her sweetly. "Can I be your last?"

She closed her eyes, then, drawing him closer. "Please be my last."

"I will." He rolled on top of her, holding his body just above hers. "And now I'm gonna make love to you...gently."

He watched her with through sensual eyes, listened to her breath as it quickened, and delighted in the way she kept inching toward him, seeking his touch. He dawdled, then, fingers skimming along the smooth warmth of her. She watched, too, fascinated as he followed the contour of one breast, then the other. "I like what my finger does to you," Doug murmured. Her nipples hardened, grew into two rigid peaks, and he circled each one, barely touching the tip, making her throb, awaiting his mouth.

Her heart was pounding. Feeling something tickle her nipple, she looked down at him as his long lashes fluttered over her. Then he pressed his lips into the softness of her breasts, enjoying their smoothness, their roundness. He took them both into his hands and kneaded them gently. "You have such pretty breasts, Carol." As he kissed them again, she moved her body back and forth, needing to feel his mouth on both her nipples, imploring him to suck on them. He did, nipping gently, flicking his tongue over them, pulling on each one.

She moved to climb on top of him, wanting him inside of her, but he laid a hand softly on her shoulder and held her back. "Be patient, sweetheart." The kisses started at her neck, visited her breasts, and then covered her belly. Spreading her legs, she waited forever for him to brush against the dark pubic hair, and it seemed an eternity until his fingers grazed it, his hands finally parting it.

Doug breathed onto her, making her lift her hips up to him as she anticipated the inevitably delicious sensation. He kissed her clitoris softly. "It's all hard already, Carol. How did that happen?" Kissing it again he whispered, "Just a taste...right here." He extended his tongue as she watched.

"Oh, please...please, Doug."

Finally, finally, her body got what it longed for as his tongue slowly sought her, as the warmth and the wetness of his mouth joined her warmth and her wetness until she was writhing underneath him, her desire surging forward. His tongue darted in and out of her briefly, making her tense her muscles as she tried to keep him within her. He grinned at her loss of self-control, but she didn't care, so great was her hunger. Carol tugged at him impatiently, seeking his body, needing relief.

"Are you ready for me, Carol? Do you want me?"

"C'mere, Doug."

Taking his hardness into his own hand, he lightly swept the tip over her inner thigh to her opening, just brushing her wetness, leaving his own moisture behind. "I'm hard for you, look what you did to me." Gazing at him, she saw his arousal as he poised, waiting, the flared head so very close.

Carol moaned as she felt the swollen head, his shaft enter her. Just as quickly he moved back, leaving her empty and waiting again. "I want you," she whispered, "I need you...." Again, he entered her, this time slicker and wetter, but pulled out slowly despite her hands clutching at him.

"No, no, don't tease me," she begged him.

"You want me to make love to you now?" he asked softly and upon hearing her whispered plea, he thrust deeply, causing an outcry of passion from her. He ceded to her then with his body, holding himself slightly above, watching as her hips rocked into him, varying the tempo and the depth until her arms demanded closeness. Doug let his weight fall upon her and began grinding into her, pressing himself against her clitoris, making her inner thighs wet with her own arousal.

Doug's hands were entangled in her hair, he could feel her tense against him and then he whispered tender demands into her ear, telling her to keep moving underneath him, telling her to hold him tightly so he could feel her breasts against his chest. She was beautiful, he said, she belonged to him, no one else would ever have her. He was hers forever.

His voice. The roughness of his face combined with the softness of his lips against her neck, the incessant pounding of his body into hers, all this converged onto the hard, wet, swollen knot, and the explosion within her was more than she could manage alone. He held her, supporting her as her body arched into his. He melted into the sound of her cries against his chest, hoarse with pleasure and fulfillment. She in turn held him as his arms tightened around her, as his strokes became more deliberate, her muscles provoking him. She felt him climax within her, adding to her own wetness and she held onto him, inundating his neck with her mouth and tongue, enjoying the sweet, salty taste of him.

She ran a hand down his back, feeling the body heat emanating from him, stroking him as he caught his breath. He kissed her again, a soft, tender kiss full of love. "Hey, Carol," he whispered.

"Hmm?"

He leaned back just to look at her, seeing the smile that covered her face. "Do you know how much I love you?"

"Yes, I do."

"I want you to know it, Carol, to really know it." Doug settled onto his back, taking her with him, lightly caressing her skin. "Did I make love to you gently...the way you wanted tonight?"

She smiled. "You did. And Doug? I love you. I'm so happy you're here, living with me. I've wanted to ask you to move in, to give up your apartment for a while. I guess I was just afraid." She laid her head in the crook of his arm.

"Were you afraid I'd say no?"

"No. I was afraid that it would be too wonderful... and that I'd never be able to live without you once I had you here."

"Don't be afraid. That's not gonna happen. Remember? I'm your last."

Her hand stroked his chest. "I know."

"So, how wonderful is it?" he asked quietly, pulling the covers up.

"As wonderful as I thought it would be." He smiled as Carol closed her eyes, content to be near him, and he watched as she fell asleep in his arms.

The end