I'm sorry this took me so long.

Chapter Twenty Two

The smell of brewing coffee woke Rhys just past six-thirty in the morning.

He ambled out into the kitchen, still half-asleep, and as he stopped in the doorway to take in the unfamiliar reality of a woman making breakfast in his kitchen, something niggled at his heart. There Chevy was, as opposite Rose as she could be in her owl-printed pajama bottoms and plain tee, hair a short wavy halo of red, competently flipping pancakes over as she hummed lightly to herself. She was everything that Rose had never been- reliable, emotionally stable, caring, sometimes insecure, always trying to take care of everyone else.

The desire that Rhys felt to keep her here brought with it feelings of guilt. To him, it was a betrayal of Rose to want another woman in his home. She had been dead for three years, and their wedding vows were null and void, but he still felt as though to love again would be to take Rose out of his heart and forget her. And it was more than the question of loving again; he could not help but compare Chevy's qualities to Rose's constant need for care. He felt as though he were silently saying that Chevy was the better woman.

And as much as he wanted to equalize Rose and Chevy, he could not deny that Chevy was a better woman. Better for Alice's upbringing, better for the dynamic of a family… even better for him. Rose had drained him of everything. Every day, he had returned from a hard day of work to take care of a woman who could not function on her own. There had been no rest.

He could relax around Chevy. He didn't have to worry that she might suddenly break down if he was gone. He had no doubts that she could handle Alice. He trusted her to care for his child and his home, and he had found- when she'd left to attend her father's funeral- that his peace of mind had gone with her, and returned with her.

When Chevy turned and saw him standing there, a faint blush appeared in her cheeks. "I didn't hear you come in." She grabbed a coffee cup from the cupboard beside her and held it out to him. "The coffee is done."

He walked over to take the cup. "You're so different," he said suddenly.

Chevy smirked a little. "Thank you…?"

Chuckling, Rhys filled his cup and shook his head. "I mean… different from Rose."

She nodded. "Oh. So you're not just saying I'm weird. That's good to know." There was a sparkle in her eyes that he liked.

"No, you're just… different." He leaned against the counter.

"Is that a good thing?" she asked, grabbing herself a cup and filling it with coffee. He noticed that she took hers with cream, versus his own straight black brew.

"It's a very good thing," Rhys answered. As soon as he said it, he felt that he'd answered too quickly. That he was already forgetting Rose's merits in favor of Chevy. Why was it so difficult to reconcile his past with the present? "It's just, you know… she was very much in her own world; she couldn't take care of anything on her own. She didn't know the first thing about cooking, for example."

Chevy shifted the first batch of pancakes onto a ready plate. "I see. So it's all about food." She poured more batter onto the skillet and looked at him. "My mom did always say that the best way to a man's heart is through his stomach."

As soon as she said it, her cheeks reddened and she averted her eyes.

Rhys took advantage of the insinuation. "Is that what the pancakes are for?" He smiled, amused by her flustered silence. "If you really want to get to my heart with food, you make a good hearty steak and crème brûlée for dessert."

She met his gaze. "What, and set the kitchen on fire trying melt the sugar on the dessert?" Her face was still pink, but she had regained her footing.

He shrugged. "Well, we might not get that far." He gestured to the skillet. "Your pancakes are burning."

"Oh!" She whirled and shoved the spatula beneath the swiftly blackening pancakes. "Crap," she muttered. Transferring the ruined food to a separate plate, she offered it to him with a snicker. "Breakfast?"

"Ah," he said. "No thank you. I think I'll starve. Thanks." He took the plate anyway and dumped its contents into the trash.

"Darn," she said, voice low. "There goes that plan."

He turned just in time to see her smile as she poured more batter onto the skillet. "Is there anything I can do?"

Without looking up, Chevy nodded. "If you'd get the bacon out and start it… and… um…" she glanced over. "I'll get some apples sliced up."

They worked around each other easily, the silence broken by the sizzle of the bacon and the crisp sound of the apples being cored. Rhys liked this, working with her as a team, passing banter back and forth, having a comfortable silence between them. It was something he had not experienced with Rose, and he wanted it to become a routine. He was just about to comment that the bacon was ready when Chevy gasped.

"What's wrong?" he turned to see her running her hand under cold water.

"I swear, I'm not usually this accident prone." She removed her hand and grabbed a paper towel to press over the slit in her palm below her thumb. "Maybe I should let you handle the knives."

Rhys raised an eyebrow. "I'm not going to let you free in the world; you might destroy it all." He removed the bacon to a paper towel to soak up the grease, turned off the skillet under the now-done pancakes, and went to her. "How deep is it?"

She'd sat on one of the kitchen chairs, and as he squatted before her she held out her hand. "Not too terribly. Nothing a band-aid won't fix."

"It's a good thing you didn't cut off your thumb." The bleeding was slowing already. "Maybe I should take over the kitchen from now on. Every time you cook, something happens." He was teasing her.

"Only when--"she started, then stopped.

Rhys met her eyes curiously. "Only when…?"

She bit her lip. "Only when you're helping."

He couldn't decipher whether she'd changed her answer or whether she hadn't wanted him to feel implicated. "Oh, so you're saying it's my fault?" he prodded.

Chevy seemed disconcerted by his nearness, but he did not move. "Maybe," she said. There was a mix of humor and embarrassment in her voice. He would have given anything to know what she was thinking just then.

Rising, he grabbed a box from the top of the refrigerator, opened it up, and removed two band-aids. "I learned to be prepared with Rose in the house." He knelt and spread the bandages over her palm.

"Did she get into a lot of trouble?" Chevy asked, eyes flitting from his face to his fingers, which were still resting around her hand.

"Not as much as you," he said. "We'll just make sure you don't have access to sharp knives or hot grease."

She sighed, but it ended in a self-deprecating laugh. "Good plan."

"Is Alice awake?" he changed the subject, the first pangs of hunger crawling into his stomach.

"I don't know." Chevy shrugged. "I peeked in when I got up, and she was fast asleep. Maybe I should--"

He started to stand, and at the same time Chevy popped up from the chair. Her quick movement set him off balance, and in before he could regain his equilibrium, he found himself plopping backwards onto the kitchen floor. A surprised grunt escaped him.

Chevy giggled and offered him a hand up. "Sorry," she said, but she did not sound apologetic.

"Yeah." He grabbed her hand and hoisted himself up. "I don't believe you." His final effort to remain upright had brought him closer to Chevy than he had intended. With just inches between them, he could smell the faint perfume of her hair, and it was as if he could feel the heat of her blush as she looked up at him.

Their hands were still joined. She didn't say anything; her wide hazel eyes were fluttering in surprise from his gaze to his lips. Rhys bent toward her unconsciously, caught himself, and stopped. The desire to kiss her had come suddenly and without warning, but that was not what surprised him. It was the second time he'd wanted to kiss her fully sober. The other times he remembered, he'd been half-inebriated and tired beyond belief. He had credited his impulses to being drunk. Apparently, he was wrong.

"Chevy--" he started, but a little voice interrupted his train of thought.

"Are we having pancakes?"

Chevy did not jerk away from him to answer Alice as he half-expected her to. Instead, with only the slightest hitch in her voice, she turned calmly to Alice and nodded. "You got up just in time."

xxx

Rhys left for work without finishing the sentence he'd started before Alice had come down, but all through breakfast he'd seemed increasingly upbeat. More so than she'd ever seen. As she washed up the breakfast dishes and listened to Alice singing in the living room, Chevy tried to stop her brain from speculating. It would not help to imagine what might have happened had Alice stayed away for five minutes longer.

But it was nice to imagine. She had enjoyed the banter earlier, the working as a unit to get breakfast ready, the feeling of being a couple. More than ever, she felt like she belonged here, and she never wanted to leave. Especially now that Rhys was opening up more, and showing more interest in her than just as a mother for Alice.

Her cheeks warmed again thinking about the sudden close moment before Alice had walked in. It was a memory she would have basked in all morning, but a wave of cold air hit her and she realized she was standing with the refrigerator door open and she couldn't remember whether she'd been about to put the milk away or take it out.

Shaking her head, she muttered, "Get a grip, Chevy," and put the milk in the door of the fridge. She really needed to go grocery shopping; the shelves were pathetically bare, and she wondered what Rhys and Alice had survived on while she was gone. Most likely they had eaten out all the time.

Making a quick list of the basics, she walked into the living room where Alice was still in her pajamas, and she held out her hand. "Come on, let's get dressed. We have shopping to do."

Alice came willingly, skipping along up the stairs and to her room as Chevy went to dress as well. All of her clothes were still packed in her suitcase, and most of what she pulled out was wrinkled. Thankfully, one dress wasn't as rumpled as the rest. Throwing on a light jacket in case of rain, Chevy grabbed her purse and ran her fingers through her hair.

Makeup-less and slightly rumpled would have to do for now. She didn't feel like making an effort to look good today. Not for a quick trip to the grocery store and then a few hours spent cleaning the house.

Alice was ready to go, still humming a little song, and the link of hands between them made Chevy smile. It was as if she had always lived here, and always been Alice's mother-figure. As they made their way out of the house and down the road towards the grocery store, Chevy realized it was more than just Alice that she did not want to leave. She didn't want to leave the rolling landscape around her, nor the friendly waves of everyone they passed, nor the smell of the sea and the call of the gulls.

A little voice within irritatingly nudged that there was one other thing she didn't want to leave- something tall, dark, blue-eyed, and fraught with internal conflict. Someone, rather, who made her heart beat a little fast and who made any other future look just a little bit darker. Someone who had very nearly kissed her that morning without the untrustworthy prompting of too much alcohol.

Thankfully, she had grocery shopping to distract her from agonizing over it for too long.

Alice, in "helping" her pick out groceries, somehow managed to slip a candy bar into the basket without Chevy's noticing. When they closed in on the register, the little girl's eyes were huge and her innocent expression perfected by a sweet smile. Shaking her head, Chevy let the chocolate be rung up. It would not become a regular habit, picking up candy at the store, but she couldn't resist spoiling the child just this once.

"You're the new nanny at the Gallagher place, then?" the cashier asked nonchalantly, her eyes flicking between the groceries and Chevy.

"Yes." Chevy answered as she bagged her groceries, and wondered if the woman was going to attempt to gather bits of gossip to pass on.

"How long are y' stayin?" The woman surveyed the lot of vegetables and fruits, the flour and sugar, the baking supplies, and seemingly decided it meant Chevy was around for good. "I hear--" she started, but then she bit her tongue.

Alice tugged on Chevy's dress just then. "Can I ride on the horse?" She pointed at a ride at the front of the store, well in view but just far enough to be out of earshot.

Nodding, Chevy handed the little girl a few coins and turned her gaze back to the cashier. "What have you heard?" She could see the questions mulling around behind the woman's eyes, and she felt dread rise up at the eager-for-gossip expression in the cashier's face.

"I don't mean to pry, but…" She looked up slyly. "Are you really living with him?"

Chevy tensed. The clerk was obviously digging for juicy tidbits. "I live at the house, yes," she answered, knowing that her words would probably be twisted into "I'm having a secret love affair with Rhys."

"Well, I thought it might be true." The woman did not seem to notice Chevy's reluctance to converse. "Are you stayin'?"

"I'm not sure," Chevy said, trying to cover her rumor worries with a smile.

"Well," the woman leaned in a little. "Pardon me being so bold, but if I were you I wouldn't ever want to leave if I had a man like Mr. Gallagher around."

Chevy felt her cheeks go pink. "My job and primary concern is to look after Alice while Rh-- while Mr. Gallagher is working."

"I see." The cashier was unperturbed by Chevy's sharp answer. "Well, she's a sweet child." She finished checking out Chevy's groceries and took payment. "Have a good day, now," she said as Chevy gathered the bags of food and walked towards the door.

Midway between Alice and the register, Chevy overheard the customer behind her mutter words that weren't meant for her to hear.

"I'll bet they've slept together," the voice said, and was answered with a very convinced "mm, I think so."

Chevy was glad her back was to them for the blush that turned her red, and was glad of the crisp outside air to cool off her sudden rush of irritation. She should have expected it- a single woman living in the house of a widower was sure to attract gossip and speculation of all kind- but up until now she'd somehow had faith that people wouldn't assume.

It was a small town, though, and any unusual happenings could not go unnoticed. Chevy had no doubts now that in the eyes of the town, she and Rhys were lovers. If she was going to stay, it would be better for all of them that she and Rhys married. There was no way she could live in that house indefinitely as a single woman. For Alice's sake, if nothing else, the rumors had to be put to a stop by a final action.

The question was… could she marry Rhys knowing he didn't love her, just for the sake of Alice?

And if the answer to that was "no," could she then leave Alice with a clear conscience and peaceful heart?

"God," she muttered, glancing at the little girl who skipped along beside her, "I need some clarity, here."

xxx

Rhys had been in a good mood all day, and he had no doubt that he owed Chevy for the high spirits. A good breakfast, friendly banter, and… something else he was not quite ready to define had set him up to have the best day he'd had in too long. Arriving home to the smell of sizzling steak and the sound of his daughter giggling added to the mood.

With a smile, he stopped just short of being noticed in the kitchen door and took in the scene.

The table was scattered with half-frosted sugar cookies. Alice sat on a kitchen chair, frosting on her cheek as she snuck a broken piece of cookie from the cooling rack. Chevy was just opening up the oven to remove the steaks that had been cooked to perfection. A pot of mashed potatoes sat on the counter along with mixed vegetables, orange juice, and supper dishes.

It was a nice scene to come home to.

He was just about to make himself known when Alice noticed him and squealed, "Daddy! We made cookies!"

Stepping into the kitchen fully, Rhys nodded. "I can see that." He met Chevy's eyes, not quite sure if her flushed face was from the heat of the oven or something else. "Steak?" he asked, remembering their joking conversation from that morning.

She sputtered a little. "It was… um, on sale."

"I see." He took a napkin and wiped the frosting from Alice's face. Not so innocently, he added, "And for dessert?"

Her blush was definitely not from the heat of cooking. "Sugar cookies," she answered promptly.

Rhys couldn't help the chuckle as he started clearing the table of its sweet contents. "Better than crème brûlée." He touched Alice's nose and nudged her out of the chair. "Go wash your hands for supper."

While Alice ran off, Rhys set the table and noticed a fresh lot of bananas and apples in a bowl by the refrigerator. "Did you have a good day?"

"Well…" She slid the steaks onto a serving plate and set them on the table. "Aside from feeding the rumor mill, yes."

He raised an eyebrow and took the bowl of potatoes from her hands. "Rumor mill?"

"I'm a single woman living in the house of a widower." She handed him a spoon for the vegetables. "It gets around." Her voice was slightly irritated.

"We could always change your status," he suggested, hoping he wasn't being too pushy. Yesterday, he'd convinced himself to be patient. After this morning, though, he felt a bigger urgency to keep her around.

She bit her lip, set the glasses on the table, and opened her mouth to reply. But Alice returned from her hand-washing expedition-- somewhat drenched down the front- and whatever Chevy had been about to say was cut short. It was the second time Alice had interrupted them on the verge of something important. Not that he resented his daughter, but Rhys was getting tired of the suspense.

But Alice hopped up to the dinner table, and her grin was so endearing that he couldn't be annoyed. She chattered the whole way through, as was her usual, giving Chevy and Rhys barely any leeway to cut in. The little girl seemed completely oblivious to the difference in Rhys's mood; she carried on as if the three of them were a normal family and not a currently uncertain splicing together of lives.

Could they be a normal family? Rhys watched Chevy as she listened to Alice, and hoped more than ever that she would stay. He knew he couldn't offer her a marriage of love, but he also knew that he was no longer only offering her marriage for the sake of Alice's well being. There was something more, something that was closer to the feeling a man should have when he proposed… though it was not yet strong enough to define. Was it enough for her to accept?

When supper was over, Alice skipped off to play in the living room, and Rhys stayed to help Chevy with the dishes. He wanted to talk to her about her future here. He wanted to know whether she was going to stay, or whether she was going to leave. He had to know. What he didn't know was how to bring it up.

Chevy saved him the trouble. "I've been praying about… your offer." She had yet to call it a proposal.

Rhys didn't say anything as he dried the plate in his hands. He could tell that she had more on her mind, and that it was hard for her to say it.

"I just…" She stopped scrubbing and turned to him. "I need to know something."

He nodded. "Okay."

"Why do you want me to stay?" she asked in a rush. Despite her general bravery and facetious remarks, she looked almost as though she wanted to take back the question.

"Because Alice--" he started, but she cut him off.

"I know Alice needs a mother. I know she wants me to stay, because she loves me. And I love her." She took a sharp, uncertain breath. "But why do you want me to stay?"

He'd planned to start with the less intimidating answer-- Alice-- and then move on to what he felt. But he knew then that her entire decision hinged on whether he could give her an answer that was good enough. Rubbing the back of his neck, he glanced out the window and tried to think of an answer that would encompass everything he felt at that moment.

Nothing came to mind but a simple phrase. It might not convince her, but he said it anyway. "Because... I like you." Before she could say anything, he continued, "I like this. It feels like… it…" he tried to put his feeling into words. "It feels right. Coming home to you and Alice, working with you in the kitchen… and not having to worry that at some moment you might suddenly have a moment of complete insanity." He hadn't mean to compare her with Rose, and to show her it wasn't a touchy subject, he smiled.

"Oh, you never can tell." Her laugh was a little shaky. "If you knew my family, you might expect me to suddenly crack."

He shook his head. "But I know you, and that's all I need."

"To suspect me of going crazy?" Her smirk was softened by the look in her eyes.

"Obviously." He chuckled, thankful for her sense of humor even as he was impatient for her answer.

Her gaze returned to the dishes before her, and she took a deep breath. "Well, so long as you know I might have my moments…" the sentence trailed off, and she bit her lips.

"I'm fully convinced that my moments of insanity have been far worse than yours, to date," he said.

She laughed softly and handed him a clean dish. "That… is very true."

Rhys slowly dried the dish, finding that the longer the conversation went on, the shorter his patience became. Clearing his throat, he set the plate on the counter, stopped Chevy as she reached for more dishes, and looked her in the eye. "Chevy, I have to know. I have to know for Alice's sake, for my sanity, for the future. I don't want Alice to raise her hopes that you're going to be here forever if--"

With a slightly soapy touch of her fingers to his lips, she stopped him. "I know what I need to know," she said, voice low and gentle. "And I'm not going anywhere."

He felt unsure relief flood through him. "So you'll…?"

"I'll stay," she clarified, nodding. "I'll marry you, I'll be a mother to Alice, and I'll be a friend to you and... whatever else you want me to be." Her cheeks reddened a little.

Unexpectedly overwhelmed, Rhys grabbed her and hugged her. "Thank you," he said, half to her and half to the God he was starting to believe in again. "Thank you."

She laughed quietly, and when he pulled back, her eyes were soft. "How could I say no?"

He cocked his head a little, and didn't quite let go of her. He liked the fact that she blushed so easily at his contact. "I can actually think of quite a few reasons… but let's not dwell on that."

She bit her lip, smiled, and rested her hand on his arm. It was clear from her body language that she wasn't sure how to take the fact that he still had her in a partial embrace. "Should we… uh… tell Alice?"

Finally, he dropped his arms. But he captured her still-damp hand in his before he answered, "Prepare yourself to be knocked over by her excitement."

As they moved toward the living room, he glanced upward. God, he thought, I'm pretty sure I don't have the grounds to ask You for anything. But if I might… for my daughter… please don't let this go bad.

___

lkjflsd iaifujk: It was missing a word. I'm glad you pointed that out.

lovebylove: I'm glad you like her. :) And hopefully this satisfies your need for them to confess their love... for now.

Paper Kisses and Red Boats: First of all, I really want to write a story based on/titled with your username. I love it. Second of all, thank you! I think that's probably the best review I've gotten in a long time. It made me laugh. ;)