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A Peaceable Sart

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As around the sun the Earth knows she's revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love's the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I'll be loving you always
As now can't reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all that's born is new
Do you know what I say is true
That I'll be loving you always

- Stevie Wonder

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Amongst her friends, there was a realization that the atmosphere in the emergency room had seemingly worsened within the past 24 hours. Somehow, there was the prevailing sense of disorder, a feeling that things would never be quite the same. While no one begrudged her for leaving, they acknowledged to themselves that a kind of hollow sadness hovered, unbidden.

Luka was growling at the nurses, he realized too late. He was short-tempered and snapped at nearly everyone except Kerry. He hadn't meant for their gossip to reach his ears, didn't really want to pay attention to it, but she was the hot topic of conversation and it made him feel miserable.

"Did you hear about Carol flying out to Doug?" Chuny asked Conni while they were setting up for a trauma.

"I sure did. About time, don't you think?"

"Hell, yes. She should have left with him in the first place."

"The patient is coming in any minute, can we please get ready?" Luka snarled angrily.

The women exchanged wary glances. "Yes, doctor," Conni replied, raising her eyebrows behind his back.

He spent the entire morning enduring the buzz in the background. Everyone knew this Doug, he realized, and everyone seemed happy for Carol. It was as if they were part of some clique that he wasn't even aware of or that he'd been playing a game without knowing all the rules. He was left adrift, with no anchor.

When Kerry finally pulled him aside with Mark to inquire about Carol in the lounge, he couldn't help but notice that Mark avoided his eyes.

"Mark, Luka, have you heard from her since she's left? She hasn't called me this morning and I expected her to."

Mark cleared his throat, glancing up uncomfortably. "She called me from the airplane yesterday. Said she didn't know when she'd be back. When or if."

Luka, on the verge of losing his composure, glared at Mark. "How can she just leave like this? Leave everything up in the air, leave the nurses short-staffed?" he asked, feeling unable to ask the questions he truly wanted to. Things like who Doug was and why everyone was smiling when they relayed the story of Carol's trip to Seattle. Like why Carol's face had been bathed in happiness and satisfaction at the thought of returning to this man who had obviously caused her so much pain.

Kerry glanced at Mark, wondering what, if any, explanation he would give.

"I think Carol "left" here a long time ago," Mark answered honestly. "She hasn't been herself since he left."

Luka saw that when Mark looked at Kerry, a type of understanding was exchanged between the two of them.

"Do you know how to reach her?" Kerry asked.

Mark shrugged and pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Well, I could call, but I don't think that's the smart thing to do right now. Give them time."

Kerry nodded as she left the lounge. "Okay. If you hear from her...or him...page me, I need to talk to her, see what her plans are."

"From him?" Luka asked. "Why would you hear from him?"

"He's my best friend," Mark explained as he followed Kerry out the door.

*****

It was over a familiar breakfast meal of coffee, orange juice and bagels in an unfamiliar, yet beautiful setting, that Carol got more insight into Doug's life in Seattle. After they made the bed and she packed up her clothes, she walked in to the kitchen where he was already toasting bagels, spreading hers with cream cheese.

"You must be hungry," he remarked as he worked, growling his approval at her embrace from behind. She wore a black tank top over her jeans and her face was glowing, although she wore no makeup. Her hair was loose, the way he liked it.

"I am, thanks," she responded, smiling as she sat down facing the picture window. "It's so pretty here in the morning."

"Ah, yeah, it is." Doug poured a small glass of orange juice for each of them, then got out two coffee cups and filled them. Searching down below through kitchen cabinets, he came upon an old cookie sheet and, using it as a makeshift tray, loaded it up with their breakfast. "Coming?" he asked as he walked toward the door.

"Where?"

Doug smiled at her over his shoulder. "To the dock. C'mon."

Flashing her dimples in return, she followed him and held the door for him so he could get outside. The air was sweet, filled with the smell of damp earth and greenery. The morning sun made the lake shimmer. He walked the length of the dock and placed the tray between the two chairs. "Here you go. We'll dine al fresco."

Carol sat, and then leaned down for her coffee cup, taking a sip to test the temperature. Doug handed a plate up to her and sat back, surveying the scene. The lake was quiet and still, the only sound being the water as it lapped hungrily underneath them and the faint quacking of a small family of ducks heading their way, feeling lucky.

Carol pulled her bagel apart and took a bite. "Oh, this is good, Doug. Thanks."

"My pleasure."

"What a beautiful place this is to sit and relax."

"It is when the weather is nice," he answered.

"The dock is wet from last night. Does it rain a lot here?"

Doug shook his head, laughing. "It rains some here, but it's not like you think. One of the good things is it's not as cold as Chicago. You'll have to be careful; you might burn to a crisp if you're out on the boat. I'll have to buy lots of sunscreen for you and the girls."

Taking another bite, she said, "I don't know if I like the idea of Tess and Kate on a boat."

"Are you kidding? They'll love it. You will too, it's great. So," he said, ready to change the subject, "you wanna go back today to see them?"

Carol smiled warmly and looked at him, nodding. "Yeah. I do. I've never been away from them for a whole day, or overnight. It was hard enough to go to work every morning and leave them, but this...this is worse."

"Mmm hmm," he added, "I know. Every time I left your house, when I left them, I was depressed." His gaze was fixed firmly on the horizon so he could avoid her eyes.

That word. She latched onto it and frowned. "Were you? Depressed, I mean?"

"I think so, yeah," he exhaled. "I didn't see anyone, you know, a shrink like when I saw Mary, but I was. It was...I love them and I love you. I hated leaving." He looked at her for emphasis.

Once again, she felt at fault. "I don't know how to...."

Interrupting her, he placed his hand over hers, giving it a little squeeze, reassuring her. "No, Carol, no. It's done. It's behind us," he replied. "It has to be. Otherwise, we'll never move past it."

She nodded, returning the squeeze and they turned their attention to the water. The ducks, having paddled dockside, stared expectantly. Doug broke off a few small pieces of bagel and tossed them in the water, toward the ducklings. He counted mentally and glowered. "Five. One is missing."

"What?"

"One of the babies. There were six."

"Aw, that's too bad. I wonder if they realize it. I mean, I know they do. But do you think animals get sad?"

"I dunno. There were six yesterday," he repeated softly, "or maybe that was before I left for Vail."

Carol, too, began tossing tiny bits of her bagel toward the hungry mouths. "What do you think happened?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. They've been here for a long time. I don't know where their nest is, but the mom and dad, they've been taking good care of these guys the whole time." Doug faced her. "They were better parents than some of the ones I met in Chicago. Whatever happened, it wasn't good." Resting back into his chair, he sighed. "Carol, after you told me about Carter and Lucy, after that...that violence was so close to you and to the girls, that was the first time I was really afraid."

"Afraid?"

"Yeah. I was afraid something might happen to you before I got a chance to tell you...or something might happen to Kate or to Tess and I wouldn't be there to protect them."

"God, Doug, it was awful, but I don't think about it. You'd go crazy if you thought about it."

"I never did, either, before. Then you have kids and everything in the world seems menacing."

She leaned over to kiss him. "I love you, Doug. You're a wonderful father."

His eyes revealed his appreciation. "Well, I want to be. I haven't really been much of one yet."

Carol looked on as the ducks floated away, their morning feast cut short as the conversation continued. "Every minute you were there, I...I loved watching you with them. I can't think of a better man to take care of them. You're coming home with me today, right? To see them?"

"Sure, to see them and...and I guess to help you get the house ready. We haven't even talked about all this, have we?" he asked, squinting against the sun.

"No, we haven't," she answered pensively.

They were quiet, each waiting for the other to begin. Doug stirred his coffee, watching it swirl in his cup, wanting to voice his thoughts without hemming her in, without making any decisions for her. Finally, he spoke "What I think we talked about last night, what I hope you want is that you'll come out here with me. That we would all live here. That means, I guess, officially resigning, selling your house, packing everything up. Right?" he asked, looking at her for confirmation.

"Yes," she answered resolutely. "That's what I want. It's what you want, right?"

"Um hmm," he assured her, smiling warmly.

"It's gonna take a while, though. I mean, I can't just leave while the house is being sold."

"No, you can't, you're right," he realized, feeling somewhat disappointed.

"That means being apart."

"Well...." He thought for a moment. "We will be, a little, but I can just come to Chicago, fly in on the weekends. I can work out of your house one day a week, too, whenever I can. I have the laptop and we can buy a printer." Doug stroked her hand between his. "I don't want to be away from you guys any more than I have to."

Still thinking, Carol nodded absentmindedly. "Maybe I shouldn't quit right away. I mean, if I'm going to be there for a month or two until everything is settled...."

"Hey, do you really want to work, though? Carol, you can do anything you want. Work, or quit. Enjoy some time home with the girls and your mom before you move. I make...my salary, being out of the E.R. and being in management, I make almost twice what I did at County."

Carol beamed up at him, happy to hear of his success. "Doug, that's great, but can we afford to manage two houses for a couple of months without my salary? Your mortgage here must be staggering."

He laughed. "Staggering is about right, but we can manage."

"How long can you stay in Chicago once we go back?"

"I have a meeting on Tuesday in Oakland, California. Before that, I'm yours. I'll fly out Monday night."

Carol took a long sip of her coffee. "Can we call the airline and make a reservation for today? To get back to Tess and Kate today?"

"Sure we can. I'll call the office, my secretary will do it."

She looked up swiftly. "You have your own secretary?"

"Not my own, she works for me and another guy, the public relations guy. Her name is Patti. You'll like her."

Carol was taken aback. There was so much about his life that she didn't know. "Doug...how much does everyone at your office know? I mean, do they know you're a father, or about the twins?"

He shook his head. "Uh, no one but Beth...you know, that woman I told you about last night. She knows, but no one else does."

"Your secretary doesn't know?"

"No. I didn't know how...I was embarrassed. No, that's not the right word. I didn't know how to tell anyone about it," he explained.

"But you could tell Beth?"

"Yeah. She's...I can tell her almost anything." His eyes became soft and he chuckled at some memory or feeling that he didn't clarify for her.

"So," Carol probed, feeling curious, "tell me about this woman who painted our daughters' bedroom."

Doug grinned. "She's terrific. She's a lawyer, mid-thirties. Great sense of humor."

Having finished off her bagel, she returned her plate to the tray and picked up her orange juice, studying it in the sun. "How did you meet her?"

"Well, my first business trip, she came with me, and she's been on one or two others. You know, depending on where we're at in the process."

"Your job, you open pedes emergency rooms?"

"Um hmm, I do. The company has me go in, we evaluate the pedes population, decide if the census figures are enough to justify shaking things up that much, and we find space, settle contracts, that kind of thing."

Feeling only a tad sour for no good reason, she continued, "Why would you need a lawyer along? Seems to me that could be done in Seattle."

"Mostly it is, but sometimes, especially in the beginning, I'd need a little bit of her muscle."

"Is she married?"

"Uh, no, she's divorced, but she's engaged now to the head of human resources, a guy named Alan."

"So, what does her Alan think about your being able to tell her everything?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you must be close friends," Carol surmised. "What does he think about your friendship with his fiancée"

Considering this, Doug became subdued. "I dunno. We never talk about it. I mean, we were friends before Alan. She had dated another guy, then broke up with him and we would...then Alan asked her out and they've been together since."

Carol pursed her lips. "How much does Beth know?"

Doug put his things down, stood up, and, putting a hand on either side of her chair, bent down over her, smiling. "She knows that I am in love with you and that I want you guys with me. She knows that I'm committed to you. She'll be happy to know you're coming here." His kiss made her melt and she sighed into his mouth.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I know you do," he answered contentedly. "Let's make those reservations."

*****

Carol snooped around the rest of the house while he cleaned up after breakfast. The upstairs had two more bedrooms that were in terrible shape, but they had a bathroom in between, and the lowest level, a half-exposed basement, was the biggest surprise. It was finished with white paneling on the walls and old wall-to-wall carpet, a large bow window and had a door leading to the outside. In her mind's eye, she envisioned it as one giant playroom for Tess and Kate. It was bright, but cool. She giggled softly as her happiness intensified. She could so easily see herself living here, taking care of their daughters. Taking care of Doug.

His voice was audible as she climbed the stairs to the first floor again.

"Don't give me a hard time, just do it," he needled. "Two to Chicago, put one on my credit card, then one from Chicago to Oakland." He listened. "Yeah. Uh, you know? I don't know. Maybe to Chicago again. Can we leave it open-ended?"

"Making reservations?" she whispered, sitting across from him in the kitchen.

"Yeah," he replied, catching her eye and smiling. "Patti, make it to Chicago, then, and if I have to change it, I will. Can you? Yeah, I know, I'll buy you coffee next week," he promised. Holding his hand over the receiver, he told Carol, "I have to change some stuff around, and then I don't know if I can come back to your place or if I have to be back here. We'll figure that out when the time comes."

Carol nodded.

He turned his attention back to the voice on the phone. "I'll be in this morning, I'll pick up that stuff and the proposal, too. Did you get it back from Beth? Um hmm. Okay, is she in? Yeah, would you? Thanks, I'll see you later." While he waited, he asked Carol, "Wanna take a trip in to the office with me, see the hospital?"

She shook her head. "I'll pass today, if that's okay. It's all so much, right now."

"Okay. That's okay. Hey, Beth!" he said into the phone, then grinned in reply to the voice on the other end. "Yes, it was. The place was a mess, so I'm glad I went. No, Howard was workin' just as hard. Things good with you? Good, good. Listen, I'm stopping in today to pick some stuff up and I need to see you before I leave again. What? Yeah, I know it's still my vacation. I had a change in plans. No, I'll tell you when I see you. You gonna be in? I dunno, about an hour or so. Great. Great, I'll find you. Okay, bye."

Doug hung up and extended his arms to Carol. "C'mere, you." She got up and approached him, straddling his legs, putting her arms around his neck. Leaning in for a kiss, she felt a most wonderful sense of happiness and delight. "I am so happy to have you here," he told her. "That you and the girls will be here."

"Me, too," she agreed. "The downstairs, it's like one big rec room."

"It's good that you like it. This whole place, when I saw it, it felt so right. Now, to have you here with me...that's the best part of all." He held her close to him and pressed his face into her neck. "Thanks for coming here."

"Thanks for waiting," she responded.

*****

After receiving a final peck on the cheek from Carol and agreeing with her request that he come back quickly, Doug drove to the office. The sky was as blue as he could remember it and his grin easily reached his ears. In the space of less than a day, his life had turned around. His mind wandered, reliving the intimate moments they'd spent together just a few hours earlier. He'd been so unsure the night before, so afraid to make love to her only to find out that she'd given herself to that doctor, Luka. In fact, that was the reason he had hesitated joining her in his bed. To his joy, in the morning light she had promised that she had not, and he was admittedly thankful. Her body was still as enticing and wonderful as he'd remembered; her eyes were as ardent and passionate as they had been before those cold February days when their love had been tested. The sound of her voice, quiet and affectionate in his ear, the way she'd given herself to him so sweetly...it had all made his heart pound with love and desire. Still, if he allowed it, the thought of that man's role in her life could pervade his pleasure, threatening it.

They were entering a new chapter with each other, one where they would need to talk about hurts and disappointments, about fears and insecurities. He was ready to be the man she needed him to be, and hoped Carol would find a way to know in her heart how much she and their girls meant to him.

Doug looked up upon hearing an impatient car horn behind him, and seeing the light had turned green , quickly accelerated. He tried to focus on the next few days. He wasn't nearly ready for the Oakland meeting and would have to stay up late at night to prepare for it. Perhaps his Kate, always the night owl, would keep him company he thought, smiling to himself. The probability of getting much work done was unlikely, he realized. Feeling an obligation to help her get the house ready, he anticipated getting very little sleep over the next few days.

As he pulled into the large, treed parking lot outside the hospital, his eye reflexively looked for Beth's car. She'd just been able to resume driving after her broken leg had healed, but there were times he knew that she came in with Alan. There it was, parked crookedly, backed in. Doug smiled. In a little over a year, they'd come to know each other so well and her willingness to help him with the babies' room was one of the things he appreciated about her. She'd finished her work only weeks before.

*****

He was dirty and sweaty from banging around the house. There'd be so much to do to make it even livable. The old woman who had owned it surely meant well, but it was obvious her age and her inability to get around had made it impossible for her to even clean the house, let alone make repairs. Doug had taken his shirt off to cool down and was stomping around in some cutoffs and an old pair of boots when he heard a knock and her cheerful greeting through the open front screen window.

"You home, Doug?"

"Hey, hang on," he yelled. He jogged to the front door, opened it, and found her there. "How you doin', hop-a-long?" he teased her.

Her eyes met his in a smile, but covertly traveled down his lean torso as she took him in. He had a smattering of hair on his chest, she noted briefly, and his arms were well-muscled. "Doug," she said, caught quite off-guard at the sight of him this way. "What are you doing? You're a mess."

"Why thank you," he answered back smartly. "I was actually cleaning the kitchen. There's about five years of grease there. I think she was into fried food in a big way."

"Can we grab my stuff out of the car? I'm ready to paint the unicorns."

Doug nodded and followed her. She limped a little, but otherwise looked like she was on the mend. "How are you doin'? Are you up to tackling this?" he asked, concerned as she winced when she leaned over to open the trunk and began piling things into his arms.

"Oh, I think so. I can sit on top of the ladder and it'll go fast." Beth had already outlined the figures a week earlier. During that afternoon in a moment of awkward tenderness between them, he had gently embraced her after he'd walked in and quietly smiled upon viewing the sight of the emerging creatures. Being in his company was natural and easy for her, and with Alan's blessing, she visited Doug whenever she could manage it. "Have you, uh, had any luck with her?" Beth had asked. In this case, they both knew that any reference to "her" meant Carol.

"No, not yet. I've asked again." He nodded as if to end the subject between them and opened the door for her. They walked through the entranceway, past the living room and made a left into the hall where the bedrooms were located. As she passed his room, Beth noted his bed was made and the blinds were open, illuminating the room in the bright sunshine.

"Here we go," he announced, opening the door to the nursery he was steadfastly creating.

"When will the carpeting be installed?" she asked as she opened the ladder, positioning it.

"Next week. I think it'll be nice. You know, Beth, I can't thank you enough for...." he began, looking down at the scuffed toes of his shoes.

"Knock it off," she warned him in mock anger. "I love doing this." And she did. She and Alan were most likely some time away from decorating a nursery of her own, and she'd done nothing more than taken Doug's vision and applied it to the wall of his daughters' empty room.

"Okay," he answered quietly. "Need help up this ladder?"

"Just spot me," she asked, and he stood by while she slowly climbed to the top, turning around and reaching for her palette. He handed it up to her carefully.

"Yell if you need me. Be careful, okay?" he admonished her.

"Yes, sir, doc," she smiled. She turned her attention to the first outline and mixed colors quickly, already absorbed in her painting.

He walked out, looking back only once at her determined face, grinning at the sight of her concentration.

*****

Doug parked carefully and headed inside the hospital. He looked forward to the time he could take Carol and the girls here, to times when maybe they could drive out to meet him for lunch or stop in so he could show them off. He climbed the stairs, as was his usual habit, reaching the corporate offices adjacent to the hospital proper.

He purposely turned right instead of left, seeking Beth. He heard her before he saw her. She was having an animated, and rather combative, telephone conversation. He waited in the doorway for a full twenty seconds before she looked up and waved him in.

"I think, Dr. Martin, you're in for a bit of trouble. Send it up to me and I'll take a look. Other than that, there's nothing I can do. No. No. Okay? Thanks, bye." She hung the phone up and looked at him, and saw the slow smile crossing his face, the light in his eyes. His face told her everything. "You had a change in plans...she's here?" Beth asked tentatively.

Doug nodded. "She's here."

Her face shone. "She's staying?"

"Eventually," he grinned.

Beth flew out of her chair and into his outstretched arms, burying her head in his shoulder. He was laughing, but she was crying. He didn't realize it at first, not until he felt her body quivering. "Hey, hey, what's this?" he asked, pulling her away. "What's this about?"

"I'm so happy for you," she whispered. "God, I'm happy for you." She took his hands in hers and kissed his cheek before letting go to wipe her eyes. "Dammit, you ruined my make-up for the day." Beth turned to her desk to grab some tissues and sat on the edge of her desk. "Tell me what happened."

"She just showed up. Yesterday afternoon. I came home from my mom's, took the boat out, and was putting it away and...and there she was."

"Are the babies here, too? And you didn't bring them here?" Beth frowned, feigning anger as she dabbed at her eyes.

"No," he clarified, "they're with her mother. She came alone so we could talk."

"Did you?"

"Yeah. Yeah," he repeated, smiling. "I'm going to Chicago for a few days to help her out, to see the girls. Get her house ready to sell."

Beth smiled. "When do I get to meet her?"

"When we get back," he promised. "I have to run, I promised her I'd get back fast. We're flying to Chicago this afternoon."

"Go, then, and thanks so much for coming to tell me."

"Sure," he said, heading toward the door. "You might want to do something about that mascara," he needled her. "Oh, and Beth?" he added as he walked away.

"Yeah?" she asked, bracing herself for more of his wicked humor.

Turning to face her, he smiled warmly. "She loves the room. Thank you." His eyes revealed his affection for her.

"You're welcome." She was still beaming well after he left.

Doug moved swiftly, wanting only to get his files and hurry back to Carol. "Morning Patti," he said quietly as he walked past her desk.

Patti shook her head at him. "I'm disappointed to see you. This is your vacation week, which means I'm supposed to have a break from you," she complained good-naturedly.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Got a minute?" he asked, pausing at his door.

"Sure. You want coffee?"

"No, not today. Come on in."

"Something wrong?" she asked as she moved toward him, quietly expressing her concern.

"No. In fact, everything is great." He held the door of his office open and followed her in.

"You're getting me nervous. You're not quitting, are you?"

Doug laughed, putting her at ease. "No. Don't make this any harder than it already is."

Patti sat down and waited patiently.

"There are some things I haven't told you," he began. And over the next few minutes as he paced, Doug plainly explained what had transpired over the past fifteen months, took the pictures of his children out of hiding, and waited for the inevitable questions.

But he'd underestimated Patti, who was less interested in the torrid details than in his happiness. "You've told me the most wonderful thing today, Doug," she said softly. "The most wonderful thing. Go home and take care of your family. All this," she said pointedly, pointing to the stack of work on his desk, "all this doesn't matter at all."

"Thanks, Patti. I didn't really know how to tell you before...and I know I don't say it enough.... In fact, I probably don't say it at all, but you're one in a million."

Patti smiled and got up to hug him, then walked toward the door. "I got all your stuff together. Stop by before you leave."

He watched her go, feeling amazed at his good fortune in working with such wonderful women.

*****

Carol puttered around Doug's house, mentally putting her furniture in place, imagining what her life would be like living there. She was simply awed by the home, its location on the lake, and the love and care Doug had exhibited in buying it. Glancing up at the clock, she realized her girls would already be down for their morning naps and grew anxious to see them. While she had total faith in her mother's ability to take care of them, and knew the girls would be content being there, she fretted nonetheless. The sooner she could be with them, the better.

Another check of the time told her that the first shift at the hospital was more than halfway done. Her conversation with Mark the previous night was brief and she truly didn't want to hash it out over the phone with him. Better to do it in person. But it was only right, she reasoned, that she should call and tell Kerry of her plans. Carol sat in the kitchen and dialed the hospital.

"E.R.," Randi answered.

"Hi, Randi, it's Carol Hathaway. Is Kerry in?"

"Where are you?" Randi squealed. "Is it true you're with Dr. Ross in Seattle?"

Rolling her eyes, Carol huffed her impatience. "Kerry, Randi?"

"Yeah, hang on," the clerk answered, dejected that she wasn't able to be the source for some more juicy details.

She waited and realized with some surprise that her heart was pounding.

"Carol," said the familiar voice, "it's Kerry. Everything okay?"

"Hi, yeah, Kerry, everything's fine. I'm so sorry for leaving like I did yesterday, and I'm sorry for...."

"It's okay," Kerry interrupted. "No need to apologize. How is Doug?"

Carol closed her eyes and smiled. "Doug is wonderful, thanks. He's doing well at work, he's bought a beautiful home for us. For all of us. We've decided...Kerry, I've decided to leave. To leave work and to leave Chicago. I know it'll put you in a bind and I'm sorry, but I just can't...I couldn't do it anymore, I couldn't stand being away from him anymore. I couldn't keep the girls away from him anymore."

Kerry smiled into the phone. "I think you've done a wonderful job rearing your girls. And I think you're making a wise decision to continue doing it with their father."

Flabbergasted, Carol was struck silent.

Continuing, Kerry spoke softly. "Doug and I have had our differences over the years, and I can't say that I'm sorry he doesn't work here anymore. What I will say is that I'm sorry the incident drove such a wedge between you two. I never doubted his dedication to children, nor did I doubt that he would love and care for his own children. I can imagine this time has been difficult for him as well. Don't worry about this place. Of course I'll miss you. I'll miss your professionalism and dedication, your skills and knowledge, and most of all I'll miss the person you are. But you, your happiness, and the well being of your children are what's most important. Okay?"

"Okay," Carol whispered, silently swiping at the tears that rolled down her cheeks. "Kerry, I can't thank you enough. You've been so wonderful and supportive. Thank you."

On the other end of the phone, tears threatened Kerry as well. "Make sure you see me when you come get your things. I'll want to say goodbye."

"Okay," Carol agreed. "Thanks, Kerry. I'll see you next week." After she hung up, she was drawn to the back deck, where it was bright and airy. Lifting her face to the sky, she closed her eyes and laughed aloud at nothing in particular at all.

*****

Doug sped home, hoping he'd brought everything he needed from his office. Pulling up into the driveway, he waited for the garage door to fully open, parked his car, and went into the house.

He followed the breeze to the open sliding door, and he found her sitting outside, writing in her day planner.

"Hey," he greeted her, kissing her hair already warm from the sunshine. "Miss me?"

Carol turned, smiling at him. His boyish expression warmed her heart. "I did. Get everything squared away?"

"Yeah, I think so. I'll be ready to go as soon as I toss some clothes together. Whatcha working on?" he asked, pulling up a chair.

"I'm writing down all of the things I have to do. You know, find a realtor, cancel the cable, get some quotes from movers."

Doug nodded. "Does the house need a lot of work? If you make a list, I can get right on it."

"Not too much. There are some loose shingles up top. I think that storm, the one on the last night you were there, did some damage. Just a few odds and ends."

"Fine. You make a list, and I'll get to work." Doug got up and went inside to pack, leaving her alone. Once again, her eyes took in the view before her and she sighed wondrously at all that had happened within the span of a day.

*****

They boarded the plane with plenty of time to spare and as they took off, he took her hand, speaking confidentially to her.

"You know, we've never flown anywhere together. When the girls are older, we should get away somewhere."

"You're right," she concurred, "we haven't. I'm lucky I was able to fly out here. If I hadn't weaned them, I'd never have been able to get away by myself."

"How are they doing on formula?"

"Good now. Tess had a fit at first." Carol looked at him sideways. "Does it bother you that I weaned them? Do you disapprove?"

"Disapprove? No," he insisted.

"But...?"

"No buts."

"But as a pediatrician, what do you think?" she pressed him, fully knowing his stance on the matter.

"Well, as a pediatrician, I think breastfeeding is the best thing for their first year. As a father, I trust that you thought about it and did what was best for all of you. I don't mind, Carol," he reassured her. "I can't imagine how exhausting it must have been."

Carol exhaled loudly. "I guess I just worry."

"That's your job, Carol. You're their mother, you have to worry," he chuckled, squeezing her hand.

"Yeah. I was just thinking...thinking about us both being on the same plane."

Doug looked confused.

"I mean," she explained, "the thought just occurred to me. About the girls, what would happen if-if something happened to us? Who would take care of them, Doug?"

He thought about it for a moment. "I dunno. One of your sisters, maybe. Your mom, my mom...they're too old for any long-term commitment like that."

"I never worried about it before. I mean, I knew you were there. I knew that if something happened to me, you'd be able to take care of them. Here we are, together, and for the first time, I'm thinking of it." Carol shook her head, trying to rid herself of the negativity. "Oh, I'm just being overprotective," she decided.

"You think *you're* being overprotective? Wait until they're old enough to date," Doug chuckled, settling back into his seat.

Carol smiled, laying her head near his, looking up with a sassy expression. "And when will that be?"

He knit his brow, trying to look stern. "There's an old Ross tradition: They can date when they're thirty."

Carol raised her eyebrows. "An old Ross tradition, huh? And did you receive special dispensation to start dating at a younger age?"

"No, no, no. It's a tradition for Ross *women*," he clarified mischievously.

Carol giggled. "You must be glad, then, that my last name isn't Ross," she volleyed back.

Doug searched her eyes and the smile slowly evaporated from her face. "Yeah," he said softly. "I guess so." And with that, further conversation was momentarily hushed.

As soon as he was able, he reached under the seat in front of him and grabbed a file from his briefcase, becoming engrossed in the lists Patti had provided and the legal information included by Beth. Carol tried to sleep, but couldn't and finally looked over at the pile on his lap.

"What's this?"

His eyes never left his work. "It's something I've wanted to do for a while. Home hospice care for children."

Carol placed her hand on his arm and stroked it softly. "Tell me about it," she prompted him.

Putting the file down, he looked past her out the window and spoke hesitantly. "Ever since...since that morning in February last year, I've wanted to do something to make things right. You know I wanted things to be right with you, but I needed to fix things as a doctor, too. I don't get to see kids in my current job. I mean, I do, but I don't get a chance to practice medicine much. So I've been thinking about how to do something to sort of make amends. To give to other kids what they tried to deny Ricky." He looked at her to gauge her reaction and saw her blinking back tears.

She leaned in and kissed him. "I think that sounds wonderful, Doug."

Smiling slightly, he shrugged. "I don't know if I can even get it going."

Encouraging him to continue, she asked, "What's your plan?"

Moving closer to her, feeling heartened by her response, he became animated. "I'm trying to figure out a few things. I want to have the pediatricians and pediatric specialists in the area volunteer for one eight-hour shift a month where they're on-call for emergencies. My idea is to pay P.A.'s, nurse practitioners and nurses, just like home health care, and ask the docs to volunteer their time. Each doctor would be assigned to a section of the city and surrounding area and patient information would be available by computer, so nobody would be walking into something blind. They'd have everything they needed to prescribe or change meds." Pausing to collect his thoughts, he glanced at her to gauge her reaction again, noting rapt attention.

"Beth Lasko is handling the legal portion," he continued, "to minimize the exposure to litigation. Patti is compiling lists of area pediatricians and specialists and she's getting a mailing together. What I have to do is get some corporate backing. Drug companies, maybe, area businesses, sports teams. If we get the financial backing, then we can provide services to kids even when the family has insurance problems, or the insurance company wants the kid be hospitalized. Kids should be able to die at home, in their own rooms with their own stuff and their family and their dogs and everything familiar around them. Mothers and fathers shouldn't have to spend their last days with their children away from the rest of the family, away from the support of friends. Having to find childcare for the younger kids. It just isn't right." He stopped, then, and looked down.

"God, you've...really thought this through. It sounds like a terrific start, Doug," praised Carol.

"Well, I dunno. There's so much that can go wrong."

"I think it's a great idea," she stated, "and I think you can make it happen. Look at the pedes emergency room at County. It's working great, everyone supports it."

Faint interest flickered in his face. "Really?"

Her love for him was plainly evident and she caressed his hair. "Yeah. You did a good thing, Doug, and I think you're about to do it again."

Nodding slightly, he looked down into her adoring gaze. "I love you."

"Me, too," she answered as she snuggled into him.

The remainder of the flight was smooth. Carol finally did nod off to sleep after getting cozy underneath his jacket. As they approached O'Hare, Doug became introspective and he took Carol's hand, lifting it to his lips so he could place a gentle kiss on her fingers. He'd made this flight a half-dozen times in the past few months, but the visits were always overshadowed by sadness. This time, he realized reverently, he was going to gather his family to him.

Once they landed, he guided her through the initial crowd at the gate into the larger, more spacious hallway.

"Anxious to see them?" Doug asked, noting Carol's quickening pace.

Slowing down, she laughed. "Is it that obvious?"

"Just a little," he stated.

"Where are you going, are we taking a cab?"

"No, we'll rent a car. We'll need it to get the girls home. I don't want to take the El with them," he added.

Carol tilted her head, curious. "Why? I do it all the time?"

"Not for long," he reminded her. "I dunno. I guess I just want to do it right."

By this time they were outside and he raised his hand for the Hertz bus to take them to their car.

"Does this have anything to do with my mother?" Carol queried aloud as they climbed into the bus and put their bags down.

Wincing only slightly, he denied it. "With Helen? No, why?"

Inwardly, she wondered if he was nervous about seeing her. "I don't know," she ventured, "just thinking out loud, I guess."

"I just want to see my girls," he insisted.

But by the time they got settled into their car, she noticed a definite change in him. He became quieter and was uncommunicative. She slid her hand over his thigh and rubbed it gently, waiting for his hand to cover hers, but it never happened. As he approached Helen's apartment complex, she saw his frown deepen as his jaw tightened.

"I'll bet the girls will be happy to see us," she tossed out, hoping to start some conversation.

"You, probably. I don't think they know me well enough yet. I mean, they do, but...." He shook his head.

"No, they do," Carol insisted. "They do. They know you're their father. I can tell."

"How can you tell?"

"They don't wriggle and grin for anyone else the way they do for you," she told him sincerely.

Doug looked over to her, touched. "Really?"

"Yes, Doug, of course." She reached out once again and rubbed his knee.

He smiled for the first time since he was on the plane. "It makes me happy to hear that," he confessed. "I worried about that with...you know, with that guy."

"Luka?"

"Yeah."

Carol vigorously denied this, shaking her head. "No, Doug. I mean, he saw them, but...no. To them he was just...just another face, I guess, just another man."

Doug parked the car and stared straight ahead. "And to you? What was he to you?"

Taking a deep breath, Carol paused, choosing her words thoughtfully. "He was a friend who helped me when I needed it. Encouraged me. He was kind and considerate. But as nice and sweet and helpful as he was, there were things that he wasn't. He wasn't the man I'd fallen in love with, he wasn't Tess and Kate's father. He wasn't the love of my life." Leaning over, she kissed him softly, and he turned to her and began kissing her passionately, holding her to him. They stopped long enough to look into each other's eyes and she smiled. "I am so in love with you. I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I want to love you and take care of you and have fun with you. I want to have more children with you one day, to do it right, to share everything from the very beginning."

He trailed his thumb over her cheek gently. "Then I guess I shouldn't worry about him anymore."

"I guess you shouldn't," she agreed.

"Well, then, let's go get our girls and see if I can come out of Helen's house in one piece," he chuckled.

They got out of the car and she took his hand and nearly pulled him to the front door. Her excitement grew and she smiled widely, thinking about seeing her children. Foregoing the elevator, and leaving him behind, she ran up the three flights and breathlessly knocked on the door. Doug followed, holding back a bit, nervous.

The door opened and Helen smiled at seeing her youngest. "How was your trip?" she asked quickly.

"It was fast, thanks."

Doug moved closer to the door and smiled awkwardly. "Hi, Helen. It's good to see you." He leaned in and gave her a tentative kiss on the cheek.

"Doug, it's good to see you, too," Helen replied. "Your children are wonderful." And with that, she graciously put him at ease. Helen ushered them in and Carol looked around anxiously.

"Where are they?" she asked.

"They're taking their afternoon naps," Helen stated, proud that she could handle the girls' care so adeptly.

Carol nodded and gestured toward Doug. "Come on, let's go in," she whispered, walking down the dim hallway as Helen followed behind. Carol opened the door to the spare bedroom and Doug saw two portacribs set up. Delight set fire to her eyes as she smiled down upon her daughters. "Look at them," she cooed. "They're beautiful, Doug. I love them so much. God, I missed them."

After peeking in to see each brown head in slumber, he faced her, guiding her toward him. "Thank you for them," he whispered. "They are the greatest gift of my life."

Carol took him into her arms and held him fast while Helen, an unintentional witness to this simple tenderness, smiled to herself before she retreated.

*****

They had an early dinner so they could eat before the girls awoke. It didn't take Helen long to press them for details. "So," she asked, trying to sound casual, "what plans have you made?"

Knowing her mother as she did, her heart broke. "Well, we talked about it and I'm going to sell my house and move to Seattle."

Helen looked down at her plate and pushed her food around. "I see. I'm glad that you are...that you will be together. The children need a proper family." Blinking her eyes quickly, she tried to hide her sadness. Tess and Kate were the light of her life.

Unable to look at Helen directly, Doug concentrated his attention on his dinner plate. Helen had made a simple cold chicken salad, yet it was so flavorful that he devoured it eagerly as he attempted to change the subject. "You always know how to satisfy my appetite, Helen," he praised her. "This is great."

"I like to cook and I thought you would be hungry," she admitted. "After all, they don't feed you on those expensive flights anymore, do they?"

"Not really," Carol agreed.

"They should feed you something proper. For all that money, you would think they could feed you. And it's so expensive to fly anywhere," Helen persisted. "It must be a lot of money, going to Seattle. "

Carol laughed. "It is when you do it at the last minute like I did."

Helen sniffed. "That's all right for a working family. It's a shame for the senior citizens. People are on a fixed income. They can't afford those prices. Not like the big companies can," she added for emphasis.

Doug and Carol exchanged a knowing look. "You know, Helen," Doug began, "it's not all that bad when you make plans ahead of time. I'd really like you to come to Seattle...whenever you want. I'd be happy to pay for your flights. To thank you for all you've done for Carol and your granddaughters."

Helen made no attempt to stop him and Carol smiled into her napkin.

Grinning, he continued. "You know, we're going to need some help, even out there." Taking a swig of beer, he looked to Carol to corroborate.

"It's true," she concurred. "The house is great, it has a lot of room, but it needs work. I don't know how I could do everything with Doug out working, taking care of the twins. Once I get settled, I'd love for you to come visit."

Without being asked, Helen gave Doug another helping of chicken salad. "Of course I would come. If you needed help."

"That'd be great," Doug assured her.

"Yes, a grandmother needs to help," Helen concluded.

*****

Tess woke up first, followed quickly by her younger sister. Doug watched as Carol kissed and hugged them, happy to be with them once again. Then it was his turn and he kissed each of them gently, dodging their inquisitive fingers. By the time they returned to the living room, Helen had warmed two bottles and handed one to each of them. She watched, satisfied, as Doug fed Tess and Carol fed Kate. Each parent spoke quietly, telling the girls all about their new home and how much fun they'd have when they were older. After each had been fed and burped and wiped up and changed, Carol packed up the last of their things while Doug went outside to secure their car seats. Helen held Tess while Carol held Kate and slung their bag over her shoulder.

"Ma, thank you so much. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this," Carol said sincerely.

With a serious look, Helen approached her. "Are you happy?"

Carol's eyes brimmed over with tears. "I think I'm as happy as I've ever been in my life. This is what I need to do, what I want to do. It's what he wants, too."

"It must be right, then, if it makes you happy." Afraid she would cry in front of her daughter, Helen turned swiftly and bounced Tess as she walked. "Come say goodbye to Grandma," she said with a kiss and a hug. Carol watched with a tinge of sadness, knowing how much her leaving would hurt her mother.

Doug reentered the apartment and came face-to-face with Helen. He reached out and took Tess from her and felt the need to say something. He cleared his throat and stalled by adjusting the strap on Tess' overalls. "Helen...I don't know what you think about all of this," he said, "and I know that you must have been disappointed in me. In my not being here...."

"I was," she agreed, cutting him off. "In the beginning I was. But Carol told me that it was her decision. That she asked you not to come back. I did not say anything to her, I did not tell her what to do. I hoped that she would change her mind. I hoped you would be here from the beginning."

Doug looked down at his baby and sighed, agreeing.

"Now is the real beginning," Helen continued. "Now is the time for you to be a father to them. Carol loves you. I waited for her to realize it, but I always knew. Seeing her face when she was with your children, I knew. She knows it now. Do you?"

"I do," he replied softly. "Thank you, Helen."

Neither Helen nor Doug saw Carol standing in the hallway. For her part, Carol was happy that Kate was quiet for once and never let on that she'd seen it all.

*****

The final leg of their trip home was noisy, but Doug didn't seem to mind. He sang a silly song in an attempt to distract their intermittent cries as Carol tried unsuccessfully to bribe them into submission with their pacifiers. When they finally pulled up in front of Carol's house, their stereo screams could be heard from outside the car.

Carol released Kate from the car seat as Doug reached in for Tess. "You know what I think they need?" she yelled to him over the din.

"A shot of bourbon?" Doug suggested jokingly.

"No," she laughed, "a nice long walk after we feed them."

"You're the boss," he said, acquiescing to her experience.

Dinnertime for the twins was a messy affair. Doug bravely took on Kate, who was a moving target, telling her that rice cereal and peaches was his favorite meal when he was a baby. Carol giggled at his running conversation, and didn't even mind that he was distracting Tess so. Once the girls were finished and cleaned up, they became happy as they sat in the living room amongst their favorite toys. Carol was able to toss her clothes and theirs into the washer and make up bottles of formula for the next day. Doug stayed in the living room, watching his daughters mouth and pound their toys, enjoying their squeals and attempts at babbling. When Carol was finished, she sat down and leaned back into him.

"I really didn't have time, before, to watch them play. I mean, after work, I was so tired...but I'd sneak up to daycare and watch them through the window. I hated leaving them like that."

"You don't have to again. Not unless you want to," Doug told her, rubbing the back of her neck.

"No. I don't want to. Not now."

"Then you won't. How about that walk?"

He got the stroller out while she wiped their wet chins. Once they were securely strapped in, Doug edged Carol out so he could push the stroller. She smiled to herself as she stayed behind a moment, savoring the sight of this man, once a playboy, now a father, proudly ushering his daughters into the evening.

They walked for a long time, talking about who'd moved out of the neighborhood, who had babies, and which neighbors had divorced since Doug left. The conversation was quiet and comfortable and in no time they reached the local Dairy Queen. Carol waited outside until he returned, carrying two chocolate cones dipped in chocolate syrup. The return trip was quieter as the darkness overtook the sky and Doug and Carol commandeered the stroller together, one hand each on the handle while they ate their cones.

After baths and one last bottle, they were finally dressed and ready for bed. Doug rocked Tess and sang a simple lullaby while Carol placed Kate, asleep early for once, into the crib. A serene silence enveloped the nursery.

Carol ran a bath for herself, a luxury she could hardly afford to spend time on when she was alone, while Doug sat out on the front porch for a while, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood at rest, punctuated by the sporadic roar of an overhead train.

Upon his return, he found her comfortably relaxing in bed, her book open, but her eyes heavy with sleep. "I'll be right back, " he told her. "I'm gonna go check on the girls." She didn't reply, though she tried valiantly to focus on him. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he stroked her arm and placed one soft kiss on her cheek . "You gonna stay awake for me?" he asked, tilting his head to catch her eye.

"Um hmm," came her weak reply.

Chuckling, he doubted her ability to do so. He went through the living room and climbed the stairs one last time, walking silently into his daughters' room. The nightlight cast his shadow upon Kate's crib and he pulled her blanket up to her chin, smiling down at the sight of her mouth making an arrhythmic sucking motion. "Sweet dreams, Katie girl." Moving over toward Tess, he momentarily toyed with the moist ringlets of hair that had sprung up on her head. "Sleep well, Tess my love," he hushed and she drowsily put her thumb in her mouth.

Doug walked downstairs, checked to be certain the front door was locked, and went into the bedroom. The only sound he could hear was the quiet whirr of the fan Carol had set up at the foot of the bed. As it swept over her, it lifted stray strands of curls in its breeze. Peeling off his clothes and claiming his side of the bed, he collapsed beneath the covers and turned off his light. As he reached out to smooth the hair away from her face, she stirred in her sleep, curling to his side to rest against him comfortably. Satisfied that his family was safe and protected, drawing her body even closer, he peacefully allowed sleep to overtake him.

The end