Nellie's Cottage

Russell avoided the Hillsboro Community Theater building these days which was ironic considering he spent half his life in the place before deciding that community theater was no longer his thing.

But he was still friends with his long time secret crush Nellie who remained one of the top performers with the Hillsboro Players Troupe and that's why he was parked in front of the theater waiting for her at the end of her rehearsal with the engine idling and heater blowing. Nellie was playing Grace Farrell in the upcoming Christmas production of Annie.

Russell didn't say anything when Nellie slipped into the passenger's seat of his idling car but she could feel his eyes on her.

"What?" She asked defensively.

"Nothing," Russell muttered.

Nellie secretly liked it that Russell still looked at her like that because it meant that he still cared.

"You in a bad mood?" She wondered.

"No," he lied as he backed the car out of the parking space.

Russell was always in a bad mood when he thought about not having Nellie in his life the way he wanted her. Nellie glanced out the window. It was a cold November night but the stars were bright in the sky.

"Straight home?" Russell asked.

"We could take a ride if you want," Nellie suggested.

God yes, he wanted! "Where to?" He asked, perking up some.

"Anywhere," she answered.

So Russell drove along Blue River Road until they reached the abandoned cottage they both liked that sat on the river bank by the old railroad trestle.

"Do you want to get out?" Nellie asked once Russell parked the car underneath a large old tree.

"It's kind of cold," Russell told her.

"So what?" She shrugged. "It's a beautiful night."

"Okay," Russell agreed as he opened the door to his side of the car.

"Great!" Nellie smiled as she left the car too.

They walked to the river bank, pulling their coats tight against the stiff wind coming off the river bank.

"How was rehearsal?" Russell asked after a few moments of silence.

Nellie cleared her throat. "Okay."

"Good," Russell replied with a smile.

Nellie was thankful that Russell didn't give her a hard time about her continued theatre participation. He may have burned out on - and quit doing - theatre but he didn't try to guilt her into stopping even though she knew he wasn't happy with her (over) involvement.

"You must be freezing," Russell worried, noticing that all she was wearing was a black dress and a light fall jacket.

"It's not that bad," Nellie replied, although her arms were wrapped around her torso.

Russell stepped closer to her to shield her from the wind. Nellie's curly reddish blonde hair looked soft and her lips were covered with Grace Farrell's red lipstick. Her beautiful eyes were dancing as she watched the flowing river in front of them.

Russell was amazed at how beautiful she looked. As far as he was concerned, Nellie Garvin was the sexist woman he'd ever met. Of course, he had become an expert at controlling his urges, temptations and feelings about her a long time ago in order to remain her trusted friend instead of unwanted would be lover.

"It's just so beautiful here," Nellie observed happily.

"That it is," Russell agreed, although he wasn't necessarily talking about the river bank scenery.

Nellie smiled. "I wish we could buy that cottage, fix it up, and live there happily ever after forever," she said for the umpteenth time.

"That would be nice," Russell replied as usual but he had no illusions about her fantasy.

"Oh, I know what you're thinking, "Nellie pouted.

"What?" He asked innocently.

"That it will never happen," she sighed.

Russell couldn't help but think to himself 'Of course it will never happen!'

Why would it? Nellie saw him as a brotherly friend not a potential lover only he didn't want to be her cottage roommate. He wanted to be her cottage bedmate.

But he didn't say anything in rebuttal to her last remark Nellie's problem was that she lived in her make believe acting world more than her own real one that she didn't like so much. As an actress, she got to play many roles and portray different people to escape from the pain, disappointment and sadness of the life she didn't always like living off stage. Nellie liked to hear the cheers and applause of the audience rather than the yells of her father and the drunken ramblings of her mother. Russell knew what Nellie longed for the most was appreciation and love. She got the appreciation from the theater audience but she was still looking for the elusive love which is why she had more boyfriends than Russell could count over the years. He hated every one of them because he wanted to be them.

"I doubt they'll ever sell that cottage," Russell said. "The owners know its worth a lot of money."

"The owner is an eighty-seven year old geezer in Buffalo," Nellie protested.

Russell shrugged. "Maybe the estate will sell it when he finally croaks."

Of course, even though the cottage was worn down, beat up, and in terrible shape, empty for twenty years and in need of a complete extreme makeover, it was still going to go for a million bucks given its pristine location with its perfect view so even if the home did go up for sale Russell and Nellie could never afford it. Nellie hadn't held the same job for more than a year since Russell knew her and although he had his job as a local bakery driver for nearly a decade it hardly paid enough to purchase anything beyond his rent, car payment and occasional special treat.

A few moments of silence passed and Russell realized that Nellie was shivering.

"Let's get back in the car," he suggested. "I'll turn the heat on high."

Nellie reluctantly agreed and they strolled to the car, climbing in as Russell fired the engine to life and blasted the heater on full force. Nellie reached to turn it down, her hand covering his in the process.

"Not to hot," she requested.

Russell glanced at her hand on his and he felt the warmth of her touch. His heart beat increased and he had to resist the urge to grab her hand and bring it to his face. Nellie smiled before pulling her hand away.

"You can still see the river from here," Russell remarked, glancing out the windshield.

"I'm glad," she replied.

"Tapper used to come here to watch the submarine races," Russell recalled.

Nellie laughed. "Oh, I bet he did," she said. "With Lisa…and Annie…..and…."

"Okay, okay," Russell groaned, remembering his old friend's playboy antics.

"We should probably get going," Nellie sighed. "Matt will be waiting up for me."

Ah, the bastard Matt MacDonald, Russell thought to himself. Nellie's latest lover, another actor she fell hard for even though Russell thought he was the most obnoxious jerk he had met in a long time. MacJerk was playing Rooster in this production of Annie but he didn't have rehearsal tonight which allowed Russell to give Nellie a ride home.

"Just a few more minutes," Russell pleaded.

He didn't get to see Nellie as much now that he was boycotting community theatre. Theatre is where they became friends. They been classmates previously but they hit it off when they were both in the chorus for Bye Bye Birdie in tenth grade and that's when they became forever friends and dedicated fellow theatre scribes.

Russell and Nellie were in a community theatre show (Babes in Arms) that summer with the Hillsboro Players, Grease at Hillsboro High their Junior year, Annie Get Your Gun that summer with the Players, Antigone at Blue County Community College in the fall (even though they were still high school students), and 42nd Street as Seniors at Hillsboro High, with Nellie landing her first lead as Peggy Sawyer (Russell had a supporting role as Mac the Stage Manager.

It was during 42nd Street when Russell began to understand how crazy he was for Nellie. She already had several boyfriends by then but watching her kiss Jason Berg (as the character Julian Marsh) over and over again in rehearsal and on stage during the performances was hard for him to endure.

Russell and Nellie both attended Blue County Community College where they participated in theatre and they continued their involvement with the Hillsboro Players as well, usually auditioning for shows together and occasionally doing shows separately on their own, but always supporting each other in each endeavor.

Theater became their drug and their distraction. It was Russell's social life and it's where Nellie could be everything she didn't want to be in real life. Nellie was popular, talented, well liked and adored as a Hillsboro Player. She was idolized, revered and embraced. Everybody wanted to be around her because they thought she was so wonderful.

Russell was one of the few who knew Nellie's real story. How she battled an eating disorder. How her father smacked her around when she was younger. How her mother was missing in action in the family. How insecure and lonely Nellie really was, jumping from relationship to relationship and job to job, never able to settle down with one guy or one occupation. She could drink too much when she was feeling vulnerable and she could get defensive if she felt people were criticizing her or questioning her life choices.

That's why Russell eventually quit doing theater. It began feeling fake to him as Nellie continued to lose herself in roles and productions, getting her satisfaction and rewards for playing other characters instead of living her own life as herself. By now, Nellie was playing the lead or a major role in every production she auditioned for while Russell was a supporting player at best. He couldn't keep up with the pace of continuous shows, especially with his job that required early morning deliveries.

Russell also didn't like the change he saw in Nellie as she assumed the position as the featured actor in the Hillsboro Players troupe. Nellie became even more removed from reality by being protected and revered in her theater existence. It didn't matter how many jobs she lost or boyfriends she dumped because there was always the next show, some new guy, and another job.

Russell learned a long time ago not to question or challenge Nellie. It was better for him to simply accept her flaws and faults and be her friend. He didn't kiss her ass like some of the others who wanted to be part of the in crowd but he didn't confront her about her failures either. He supported her (probably enabled her too) and he was there to console and comfort her whenever a relationship failed or a job ended.

Matt MacJerk was just the latest stooge in the endless list of leading men Nellie fell for and slept with. This was their third show together and Russell figured it wouldn't last much longer. Nellie tended to grow tired of being with one guy (especially when she discovered they were nothing like the character they played on stage). Most of them were even more screwed up than Nellie was anyway!

Nellie rarely admitted to her mistakes and foolish choices. She just moved on to the next conquest as if nothing had happened. She never got fired or quit – she "accepted another career opportunity". She never got dumped or dumped some jerk – she simply "met somebody new".

It was on the occasions when Nellie hit bottom or realized just how messed up she really was that she would turn to Russell for comfort, shelter and support. Russell didn't know why he fell for it every time except that he loved her so he let her use him until the next guy came along.

Russell wanted to tell Nellie the truth during those moments when she needed him the most but he was afraid to confess his true feelings to her because he didn't want to scare her away. Russell knew that he was the only guy who could treat her right and love her well, happy knowing the real her instead of the fake her but he couldn't take the chance of telling her all this because if she left him he would be crushed.

Russell's family tolerated Nellie but they really didn't approve of her. They had grown tired of her drama and her inability to settle down with a steady existence. They wished Russell would be done with her and move on knowing he didn't date much because he was waiting for Nellie, a fool's errand in their mind. They didn't like the way Nellie used Russell when she was having problems but ignored him when things were going well in her life. They didn't like to see him sacrifice so much just to help her out.

"You need to take care of yourself," Russell's sister Monica would tell him time and time again in her role as Nellie's sharpest critic. "When will enough be enough? When will you finally get sick of this loneliness and dysfunction?"

"Earth to Russell." It was Nellie's voice bringing him out of his thoughts as Russell drove her home from the river. "What are you thinking about?"

Russell snapped out of it. "Nothing," he sighed, feeling sad that he was about to drop her off at MacJerk's place.

Nellie smiled. "Thanks for everything, Russ," she said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

Russell nodded. "I'd be lost without you too."

And that was the jest of it. Without her, he was nowhere, nobody, nothing. And so he was the willing doormat, the standby nice guy who let her walk all over him while he waited for the scraps.

He clutched the steering wheel as he drove. "Everything's okay?" He asked, checking in on her current status, never knowing what might change from day to day. Presently, Nellie was unemployed but because MacJerk had a good job at the plastics factory and she was living with him there was no hurry for her to find something.

Nellie smiled "Everything's fine, Russ."

Russell glanced at her beautiful face. "That's great."

She reached her hand across the shift console and placed it on his thigh sending sparks through his system. "And you?" Nellie asked with interest.

"I'm fine."

Nellie studied him as he drove. "You sure?"

Another chance to tell her the truth but he knew he never would. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"You seem kind of sad," she observed.

"Not me." He faked a grin to get her off the subject.

Nellie tilted her head and kept looking at him. "You probably miss theater," she teased.

Sometimes he did. There was a high that came with a good performance and an appreciative audience and there was the camaraderie of the cast and crew that worked together with the common goal of putting on a terrific show. But he didn't miss watching Nellie being the fake Nellie. As fun as it was to perform with her and watch her work, he always felt like a second banana sharing her with whatever leading man she was with that show, watching her being fake so nobody would know the real her.

"I miss you," he confessed in a moment of rare honesty.

Nellie smiled warmly, examining his brown eyes as he shot her a look. She lifted up her hand and brushed his brown hair from his forehead. He had let it grown out in recent years and it was now down to his shoulders. His nose was bent from a stage accident several years ago and while he wasn't leading actor drop dead gorgeous he was supporting player good looking, aided by the beard he had grown recently.

"I'm right here," she told him.

"I know."

MacJerk lived in a rented house in the flats and that's where they were now and Russell pulled the car to the curb in front of the house. Nellie leaned across the seat and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for being my friend."

"Of course," Russell replied, giving her a long look.

"Good night," she smiled as she climbed out of the car.

"See you," he called after her as she closed the door and headed for the house.

Russell sighed heavily and sat back in the seat to collect himself for a moment before driving off.

"I'll dream of you," he said aloud as he drove away.

Russell saw Nellie again a few nights later. MacJerk had to work late so Nellie met Russell at the Hillsboro Pizza House before rehearsal for a bite. Any opportunity to spend time with Nellie was a treat for Russell and he was all smiles as they sat across from each other in the booth, the windows steamed from the heat of the pizza ovens.

"What a terrific friend you are," Nellie grinned. "You've bought me more dinners than my own father over the years."

She meant it as a compliment but it was also an indictment against her Dad.

"Our friendship is all that matters," Russell replied.

She leaned across the table and stared into his eyes. "You're my only real friend," Nellie whispered. "You're the only one I can trust."

It was a rare moment of an honest Nellie being real. If only he could confess his true feelings to her but it was just too much to risk.

A couple of other Annie cast members strolled in and sat in the booth behind Russell and Nellie so most of the conversation went between the tables. Russell knew most of the people so he conversed too but he didn't have much to add about the Annie rehearsals since he wasn't involved with them.

Russell mostly listened and watched as Nellie held court as usual, being personable, friendly, funny and sociable as she chatted with her fellow actors. Strange how none of them realized how lost she was and Russell wished he could help her find her way. Sometimes he wondered if it was too late. Had Nellie spent so much time being the fake Nellie that she no longer knew who the real Nellie was?

MacJerk came strolling into the pizza place and slid into the seat beside Nellie, barely acknowledging Russell's presence as usual. There really wasn't any point of Russell hanging around now but he stuck with it as the third wheel (twice removed) listening to MacJerk tell a couple of Rooster Hannigan stories and how great he was doing in rehearsals.

When the pizza was finished, Nellie slid out of the bench with MacJerk and she waved goodbye to Russell almost as if he wasn't even there. He was usually invisible to her when Nellie was with whatever guy she was with anyway. Why did he put up with this bullshit? Why didn't he just move on and accept that there was somebody else for him out there if he'd just take the time to look.

"Everybody left you?" Maria asked as Russell stepped to the counter to pay the bill.

"They had rehearsal," he lamely explained as she rang him up.

Maria had worked at the pizza house for years which is where Russell first met her. She also acted in a show with Russell and Nellie but she didn't like the anxiety she experienced performing so she gave it up. Maria and Russell had a couple of scenes together and he enjoyed her company both on and off stage. She was dark haired and dark skinned and 'Italian hefty' from her often diet of spaghetti, pizza and grinders but she was an attractive and interesting person.

Russell liked Maria's smile the most and her eyes always danced whenever she grinned. Her red pizza house tee shirt and skin tight jeans looked like they were painted onto her body. He had been great for her confidence during the play's rehearsal run and performances and they ended up having a tryst for a while but it eventually fizzled out when Maria figured out Russell was "obsessed" (as she put it) with Nellie. They remained friends even after they stopped sleeping together though.

"I'm off shift now," Maria informed him. "Want to do something?"

"What about Tony?" Russell asked, knowing Maria was dating Tony Raggerio.

"I'm not asking you to bed, Russ-Russ," Maria laughed. "You just look kind of lonely and I thought you could use some company."

Russell never understood why his parents gave him that name when their last name was Russell too. Apparently, they thought Russell Russell was catchy but more often than not it was just confusing, although 'Russ Russ' was one of the nicknames that came out of it. He also went by Russ because Russ Russell didn't sound quite as bad as Russell Russell.

"You want to walk over to Maurice's for an ice cream?" Russell asked Maria.

She nodded affirmatively and Russell waited while she grabbed her coat. They walked across Main Street to Maurice's Specialty Ice Cream, made their own yogurt cup and took a seat at one of the small round tables in the store.

Maria tilted her head and looked at him with interest. "What a shame you stopped doing theater," she remarked. "Such a waste of good talent."

"Maybe I'll go back when the time is right," Russ said as he ate his yellow cake flavored yogurt.

She gave him a funny look. "And when will that be?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted.

"When Nellie stops acting?"

Russell raised his eyebrow. "She has nothing to do with it," he lied.

"Right," Maria replied knowingly.

"I just needed a break," he explained. "I was burnt out."

"But are you happy?" Maria wanted to know.

Russell smirked self-mockingly. "Right now, probably not."

"And I wonder why," Maria said sarcastically.

Why couldn't he just forget about Nellie and move on? He looked into Maria's dancing blue eyes that were beautiful. Russell knew he blew it with her because of Nellie but there wasn't anything he could do about that now. Oh, Maria. She had been a great girlfriend and lover but he couldn't let Nellie go and he lost Maria as a result.

"Why aren't you talking?" It was Maria's voice bringing him out of his thoughts.

Russell shrugged. "Guess I have nothing to say."

Maria laughed. "Maybe you have too much to say."

"I'm not telling," he joked.

"You know Russ Russ, before we met I was with another guy but I never really told him how I felt. He was my first 'maybe' but I just didn't want to take a chance on being vulnerable or honest in case he rejected me."

"You should have told him," Russell advised.

"And you should too," she replied

Russell sucked in his breath and continuing eating his yogurt without commenting. He may have told Maria too much when he was feeling particularly vulnerable and lonely and Maria had seen Russell and Nellie together enough to pick up on the whatever it was that was (and wasn't) going on between them anyway. It's why she broke up with Russell in the first place, knowing he was in love with another woman.

Russell felt her eyes on him as he ate his yogurt. "Don't worry about me," he mumbled.

"Who else will?" Maria countered.

"Who are you, the pizza psychologist?" Russell groaned.

"You'll have to deal with this sort of stuff sooner or later," Maria advised. "And if it doesn't work out you'll find someone better."

"All the good ones are taken," Russell sighed.

"Oh, I doubt that," Maria replied. "But you should be honest about your feelings and you should tell her the truth no matter what happens as a result."

"I'd rather not," he confessed.

"You know she cares about you," Maria countered.

"She's got plenty of guys waiting their chance."

"But you're her friend," Maria reminded him.

"That's the problem," Russell moaned. "I don't want to be her friend."

"Trust me, once you tell her a huge burden will be lifted off your back," Maria said.

"Or she'll never talk to me again," Russell worried.

"Life is full of risks," Maria told him bluntly.

"Well, there's one risk I'm not willing to take," Russell said plainly.

"She must be something special," Maria sighed.

A knowing look crossed Russell's face. "She is."

"I wish I had been," Maria complained.

"You were," Russell assured her, feeling guilty for hurting her.

"Not enough," She reasoned.

Their yogurt finished, Russell walked Maria to her car behind the pizza house. She gave him a chaste kiss on the lips.

"Thanks for the yogurt, Russ Russ," she said with a sad smile. "I still miss you sometimes."

"I miss you too sometimes," he said, giving her a hug.

He watched her climb into the car and drive off and he sighed, wondering if he had given up too much when he let Maria go.

His cell phone went off waking him from a deep sleep.

"Hello?" Russell muttered into the cell.

"Can you come get me?" It was Nellie (who else at 1:30 a.m.)

"Where are you?" Russell frowned, sitting up in the bed and glancing at the clock on the bedside table.

"The Bullpen Tavern," she said.

"Something wrong?"

"Well, I'm drunk," she replied.

"Where's MacJe…..Matt?" He asked with confusion

"We had a fight," she admitted. "Can you come get me or what?"

Russell bit his lower lip. Did he really have a choice? "Of course," he said as he jumped out of bed. "Give me a few minutes."

"Hurry," she pleaded."

Russell threw on some clothes, rushed to his car and sped down the dark and empty side streets to The Bullpen Tavern at Beano Field. He saw her as soon as he came around the corner, looking totally wasted as she leaned against the wall in front of the entrance with her arms folded across her chest, her make up askew, her hair tangled, and her face expressionless. MacJerk must have really upset her, the bastard.

Russell skidded the car to a stop at the curb and hopped out of the car. It was a cold November night and Nellie looked half-frozen. He took her by the arm when he reached her to steady her as she pealed herself off the wall.
"Come on," he muttered, upset with himself for rescuing her once again knowing there was no reward pending for his heroics.

"You're angry!" She growled, picking up on his mood. "You can just leave me here if you want. I'm sure some deviant will be happy to help me out." Her eyes were bloodshot and half-closed.

"No need to be a martyr," Russell replied as he tried leading her to the car.

Nellie snorted disapprovingly as she refused to budge. "No need for you to be an asshole," she said.

"What are you getting mad at me for?" Russell frowned.

She looked at him with disgust. "I don't need you judging me."

"Let's just get in the car before you freeze to death," Russell suggested, trying to maintain his composure.

"I'm drunk," she said. "I don't feel the cold."

"You can still get hypothermia," he said sarcastically.

She made a face at him and tried to start walking but she stumbled and Russell had to catch her to prevent her from falling flat on her face on the cement sidewalk.

"Oppsie," Nellie drunkenly giggled.

"Come on," Russell groaned.

"See, you are angry," Nellie pouted as he opened the passenger side door of the car to put her in the seat.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It's two in the morning and I have to get up at five. You woke me out of a sound sleep."

"How was I supposed to know you'd be a jerk about it?" Nellie grumbled as she fell into the seat.

Russell closed the door while biting his lip not to go off on her. He walked around the car and slid into the seat behind the steering wheel, turning up the heat to make sure she was warm enough.

"I forgot I'm supposed to be there whenever you need me," he said sarcastically.

Nellie shrugged. "Isn't that what you always do?" She asked, sounding confused.

Russell sighed. "Yes," he admitted. "Yes, it is."

"So what's the problem?" She asked obliviously.

"No problem," he replied through clinched teeth as he started driving.

"My point exactly," Nellie replied.

"So, what happened?" Russell asked, defeated by the situation once again.

Nellie shrugged. "Turns out you're right about Matt," she revealed. "He is a pompous jerk."

"So, I guess I'm not driving you there," Russell remarked.

"No way," Nellie confirmed.

"Your parents then?"

"No way!" She said with even more emotion.

"Fine," Russell sighed. "You can stay at my place."

"Fine," she agreed.

"Does this mean you're going to have to find a job?" Russell wondered as he drove.

"Russ?" She was using her little girl's voice now.

"Yeah?" He asked gently, sensing her vulnerability and sorrow.

"What's wrong with me?"

Russell saw her panicked face. "Nothing," he told her.

"Why did I pick another loser?" She sighed. "Why do I have to go out and find yet another job I'll hate and leave anyway? Why can't I ever get my shit together?"

"You will," he predicted confidently.

"He says for the 4,923rd time," She groaned.

"It will be okay," he assured her.

"No it won't," she sighed heavily. "It never is."

"You're drunk," Russell said. "You'll feel better in the morning."

"I doubt it," she replied.

Russell pulled the car into the parking space behind his apartment house and he helped her from the vehicle. Nellie was still weaving and stumbling as he half carried-half dragged her up the stairs to his second floor apartment, a three room dive in the old Victorian.

Like previous incidents, he'd let her crash in his bed while he slept on the living room couch.

"I'm sorry, Russ," Nellie said tearfully as he plopped her on his bed. "I'm so messed up in the head."

Russell cleared his throat. "Don't worry about it," he said, forgiving her already. He hated that he could never stay angry at her long enough to go off on her.

She looked up at him with sad eyes. "I don't deserve you in my life."

"Well, I'm here anyway," he replied, pulling off her leather boots.

"I don't know what to say."

He let her fall back on the bed, still dressed although she had pulled her coat off.

"Don't say anything," he replied, getting the covers over her with some difficulty. "You must be sick and tired of dealing with me," She sobbed.

"Go to sleep," he said, turning down the light to the dimmest of dim.

Nellie shook her head. "I don't know what I'd do without you." She stared at him with pleading eyes, looking like a little kid waiting for her father to tuck her in. It was hard not having sympathy for her at moments like this.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

"Promise?"

He nodded affirmatively.

"I'm so stupid," she sighed.

"Just mixed up," Russell told her, taking a seat on the edge of the bed and brushing the hair out of her eyes.

Nellie stared at him as tears rolled down her cheeks. "I just want to be loved," she whispered.

"You are," Russell told her through the lump in his throat.

"It's my fault," she whimpered. "I keep screwing it up." Nellie stared at him as tears rolled down her cheeks. "I just want to be loved," she whispered.

"You are," Russell told her through the lump in his throat.

"It's my fault," she whimpered. "I keep screwing it up. I'm so stupid."

"No you're not, Nellie," he said soothingly.

"You should stop defending me," she sniffled. "You should kick my ass out of here and be done with me."

"Shhh," he said quietly. "You don't mean that."

Nellie took a deep breath, "I'm bad for you, Russ."

"No you're not," he said, even though his sister Monica was convinced it was true and was always telling him so.

"I'm never going to be happy," she said. "I'm always going to screw it up."

Russell wanted to lift her off the mattress in a loving embrace and tell her that he would always love her and take care of her. He hated seeing her like this but even though she was drunk and vulnerable he had to control himself and not do or say something stupid.

"I'm never happy unless I'm on stage pretending I'm somebody else," she confessed, affirming what Russell had thought for years. "I'm never happy as me no matter how hard I try." Her eyes were glassy as she stared at the ceiling.

"Are you… happy with…..me?" Russell dared to ask.

Nellie gave him a look of disbelief. "You're the only one I'm happy with,." she confessed.

"Nellie," Russell whispered. "Maybe you should drop out of theater for a while."

"Quit acting?" She asked with shock.

"Just for a while," he said. "Like me. Regroup. Recharge. Focus on yourself for a while."

"I don't want to be myself," she freely admitted.

"I know," he sighed. "But until you find yourself you'll never be happy."

"And what will I do?" She asked, sounding frightened.

"Volunteer doing something else for a while," Russell suggested. "Get a job. Be yourself."

"I don't even know who I am," Nellie confessed chillingly. "That's my problem."

""You need to believe in yourself," Russell advised.

"And how in the hell do I do that?" She snapped angrily, giving him a hateful look.

Russell caught his breath to stop himself from snapping back and saying something mean. "I could help you," he said softly.
Nellie stared at him blankly, unable to comprehend what he was saying.

"Do you trust me, Nellie?"

"You know I do," she whispered.

"So then," Russell smiled.

"I'll just let you down," she cried. "I always do."

"You just need to learn how not to do that," he told her.

"What am I supposed to say to that?" Nellie groaned. "Don't you think I know that!? Don't you think I want to be able to do that? I told you – I'm screwed up."

"All you can do is try," Russell told her.

Nellie wiped her tears away. "I don't know if I'm strong enough," she confessed.

"Sure you are."

Nellie sighed with defeat. "This is who I am."

"You're giving up way too fast," Russell protested.

"Because I'm screwed up!" She reasoned.

He took her hand in his and squeezed it. "You can get better."

"No, I can't," she mumbled.

"Nellie-"

"Just shut up!" She closed her eyes angrily and Russell watched her fall asleep with a pained grimace on her face.

Russell wanted to make her pain go away but what could he do if she was unwilling to try? She'd keep repeating the same patterns and in a week or a month he would be baling her out of some doomed relationship once again and watching her act in her next play and driving her to her next job interview. He sat on the bed watching her sleep even though he should go collapse on the couch and grab a few needed hours of sleep before work. He listened to her light breaths as she slept and he had to resist the urge to kiss her.

They kissed before, of course – but they were chaste, platonic kisses of affection and friendship and not of passion and feeling. He also kissed her onstage a couple of times in character, his favorite theater moments of all time. Russell watched her chest rise and fall with each breath and he felt his fingers tingle at the thought of reaching out and touching her breast but then he snapped himself out of his desperate fantasy.

"You're killing me, you know that?" Russell asked the sleeping Nellie.

She looked peaceful in her sleep but also vulnerable and broken.

"I'm sorry," Nellie whispered, startling Russell who had assumed she was asleep. Good thing he hadn't kissed her or copped a feel like he was thinking.

"For what?" He asked nervously.

"For killing you over and over again," she said, opening her eyes and staring at him. "That's not how I should treat my only real friend."

Russell smiled and he brushed his hand through her hair that was flopped on the pillow. "Nobody's perfect," he said.

"Do I really drive you crazy?" She worried.

"Of course not," he laughed, "I don't know what I'd do without you in my life."

"I'm glad," she said.

"Go to sleep," he urged.

"I'm keeping you awake," she realized. "Sorry. I should have passed out a long time ago!"

"It's okay," he said, starting to get off the bed but Nellie reached out and grabbed his hand. "Wait!"

"What?" Russell asked expectedly.

"Russ?" She asked, studying him. "Is there anything you want to tell me?"

"About what?" He asked nervously.

"You tell me."

"No, there's nothing," he said with a sigh and he could hear Maria groaning in his head. "Coward!" She would say.

There was a pause and then Russell heard Nellie's voice again

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

He snapped out of his thoughts again and realized he was staring at her with longing want. "I'm not," he lied.

"Oh really?" She lifted an eyebrow. "I'm drunk, not blind."

"It's late," he said.

"So what?"

"I really need to get some sleep," he said.

"To avoid whatever you're not dealing with right now?" Nellie asked.

"Yes," Russell replied.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"Not when you're drunk," Russell decided. "You might not even remember tomorrow."

"Whatever," she sighed.

"Get some sleep," Russell advised as he stood from the bed.

"Where are you going?"

"The couch," he replied.

Nellie reached out and grabbed Russell's arm. "You can stay here," she said.

"I'd better not," Russell replied nervously.

"The couch isn't comfortable," she said, pulling him down and Russell allowed himself to slide onto the bed next to her. "Go to sleep," she said as she laid back against the mattress and pillow while keeping her eyes on him.

"Okay."

Nellie smiled contently and closed her eyes. Russell was glad she was drunk and he was exhausted. That would keep him in control and both of them safe. He closed his eyes and fell asleep to the sounds of Nellie's breathing and the sense of her body close to his.

It felt like only a moment or two passed before Russell's alarm was going off. It was still dark and Nellie didn't stir sleeping next to him, her rear spooned into his groin. He hated to leave her and the warm bed but work called and Russell quietly slipped out of bed as to not disturb his sleeping guest. He used the bathroom, quietly got dressed and left the apartment.

There were many questions and concerns as Russell drove to work. Would Nellie remember any of their conversation? Would she want to know what he didn't want to tell her last night? Would she even be there when he returned at the end of his shift or would she have gone back to MacJerk, whatever it was they fought about forgiven? MacJerk and Nellie were in the same play together so maybe Nellie wouldn't want to be at odds with a co-star even though they really didn't interact together on stage in character in this show. Nellie ended up at Russell's apartment in distress and crisis several times in the past but she never stayed long.

Russell thought a lot about Nellie during his shift and when it was over he drove home trying not to anticipate the relief he'd feel if Nellie was still there or the disappointment if she wasn't. He tried to act indifferent when he opened the door and found Nellie sitting on the couch reading a book she had taken off one of his shelves.

Hello," Russell said neutrally. "How you feeling?"

"I'm fine," She replied, giving him a smile.

"What's up?" He needed to know.

"I don't know," Nellie admitted with a sigh. "I don't know what to do, really."

"Let's go for a ride," Russell suggested.

She smiled with relief, glad to know he wasn't mad at or resentful of her. Last night was kind of cloudy but it felt nice to wake up in the safety and comfort of Russ's bed although she felt guilty for using him as her protector and rescuer once again.

Nellie closed the book and put it on the coffee table before standing and going into the bathroom to freshen up. Russell wondered if he was being a good friend as usual or a sap like always. Why did he keep doing this? He deserved to be alone for being a moron. Maria was good to him and good for him but he couldn't give her the commitment she deserved. Now here he was lapping on Nellie's feet once again.

Nellie returned wearing jeans, boots and a sweatshirt from a previous show (Oklahoma). She wasn't wearing any make-up and her hair was pulled up in a pony tail.

"The cottage?" She asked hopefully.

"Sure," Russell agreed.

The cottage seemed to be their go-to place. They were trespassing on private property but nobody was around and it became their secret location with Nellie's unreachable fantasy of someday buying it. Nellie contently smiled as if everything in her life was okay when really nothing was okay except maybe her acting talent - as if community theater was something that was going to make a real difference in her life.

Russell parked under the same tree he usually did not far from the cottage. He and Nellie stood on the bank for a few minutes watching the river flow by, Nellie trying to pretend everything was fine while Russell wondered if he should say anything of relevance or just let it all go and play out like it usually did. A long period of silence went by with one waiting for the other to say something.

"Thanks for bailing me out yet again." It was Nellie who finally broke the ice.

"No prob," Russell replied, trying to sound noble.

Nellie glanced at him with an amused grin. "It never is for you, is it?"

Russell shrugged but didn't respond.

"You want to go visit?" Nellie asked, gesturing toward the abandoned cottage nearby.

There was one time when it began to pour during one of their riverside visits. Russell jimmied open a side door to the old cottage to escape the weather and they sneaked into the place on occasion since then. Although the cottage had been empty for years with the windows boarded up, the interior was in surprisingly good shape and Nellie loved the doll house feel to the place. There was an open living room space, a small open kitchenette and two small bedrooms. It remained furnished as if the previous occupants had walked out one day and never returned. There was no electricity but over time Nellie and Russell brought a couple of brooms and kerosene lanterns and cleaned the place up.

Russell had jury-rigged the door for it to open easily and once again he found himself standing inside storybook cottage with the beaming Nellie. They were risking certain arrest if their "visits" were ever discovered but Russell knew how much Nellie enjoyed being inside her dream cottage.

"God I love it here," Nellie said as Russell lit the lanterns and then closed the door.

Nellie took her usual seat on the old Victorian couch that was in the covered bay window overlook the river that they couldn't see.

"I know," Russell said with a wry smile.

He liked the fantasy too. There was something special about the quaint cottage even if they were in it illegally. Sometimes Russell thought Nellie was just a little bit crazy to think they could ever have this place as their own but he understood that it was her dream and her escape from her unhappy life just like community theater allowed her to escape too.

Russell sat on the couch next to Nellie with a smile but then he frowned when he saw a couple of tears rolling down her beautiful face.

"What's wrong?" He asked with concern.

"Nothing," she said with embarrassment, wiping the tears away from her cheeks.

"Why are you crying?"

"Don't mind me," she said bravely.

Russell nodded and gave her a few moments to collect herself.

"I was thinking about rehearsal tonight and having to face Matt," Nellie said.

"Just let Hugh know what's going on," Russell advised.

Hugh was the long time resident director of the troupe, a teacher at Blue County Community College.

"Yeah, again," she groaned. "God, how many times am I going to repeat the same pattern over and over again?"

Russell didn't know the answer to that ongoing question.

"Am I ever going to be happy?" Nellie pondered.

"Yes," Russell predicted with confidence although the longer she repeated the cycle the less likely it would be that she would change her behavior and try something different (like him, for example).

"God, I hope so," Nellie sighed shaking her head. "I can't remember the last time I was truly happy."

"You're happy on stage," Russell pointed out.

"Too bad I can't act 24/7," she said.

"You should really take a break from acting," Russell told her with authority. "Start looking for happiness in other areas of your life."

"There are no other areas of my life," Nellie remarked. "I got another asshole boyfriend. I'm unemployed. I'm estranged from my family. I don't even know where I'm sleeping tonight."

"You know you can stay with me," Russell said.

Nellie shook her head sadly. "Where would I be without you? You're always there for me."

"Well, you're there for me too," he said, though it wasn't really true.

Nellie was usually there for him by default, when she had nothing better to do, when her dance card was empty, when she was between boyfriends, or going through a hard time, or needed a place to stay. She rarely called him when she was involved in a relationship unless something was going wrong.

Nellie rested her head on Russell's shoulder. How many times had she cried in his arms over the years? Russell wanted to lean in and kiss her but he didn't move.

"I wish we could stay here like this forever," Nellie sighed. "Nobody else in the world but us. Just you and me in this magical cottage all by ourselves."

"That would be nice," Russell agreed.

They sat on the couch for a long time, semi-cuddling but they knew they couldn't stay forever. With the car outside somebody could stop and check on the cottage and find the intruders.

"We should go," Russell said after a while. "I'll buy you dinner before rehearsal."

"Okay," she agreed though she was sad to leave her cocoon.

They both abandoned the couch. Nellie opened the door while Russell darkened the lanterns and then rigged the side door closed. They didn't talk much as he drove them to Johnny C's Diner not far from the Hillsboro Community Center.

"I want to quit," Nellie announced once they were in their booth and had ordered their meals.

"Huh?" Russell asked with confusion.

"The play," Nellie sighed. "I don't want to be in it with Matt doing it too. It's going to be too painful and awkward and emotional."

"You can't quit," Russell told her.

"I know," she sighed with defeat. "I owe it to Hugh and the rest of the cast to stick it out but it still sucks."

"The show must go on," Russell agreed.

"There's no business like show business," Nellie sang sarcastically.

"You'll be okay," Russell assured her.

"I wish you were in the play too."

"You mad at me?"

"I felt betrayed and abandoned when you first quit theater," Nellie admitted. "I thought you were violating a sacred oath. That you were stabbing the rest of us in the back. That you were walking away from salvation."

"I know I let a lot of people down," Russell said.

"But now I sort of envy you," Nellie said. "You look relaxed and rested. You have a life outside of community theater."

"It was consuming my life," Russell revealed.

He would have quit much earlier if Nellie wasn't doing all the shows too. He kept doing theater to be around her, afraid that their friendship was defined and warranted by theater only and if didn't have that he wouldn't have her. But he had become addicted to the routine and to the need, as if theater was his only identity, his only purpose. He was burned out and fried and he just couldn't do it anymore, convinced that he would never convince Nellie that he was the one for her and he walked away from the stage to save his sanity and his soul.

Hugh told him that he would be back but even now Russell wasn't so sure. What was the point? He felt guilty for disappointing Hugh and he missed the troupe but he had no regrets. He really did feel better since he stopped doing theater non-stop. But he also hated seeing Nellie looking so miserable and lost and he wished there was something he could say or do for her.

"Listen, when this show closes, you really should take some down time," Russell advised. "Regroup. Think about what you want to do with your life."

"Now you sound like my parents," Nellie complained.

Russell couldn't help but smirk. "Oh No!" He joked.

"I'll think about it," Nellie said though Russell really didn't take her seriously.

They finished the meal and Nellie agreed to let Russell pick her up after rehearsal. He watched her walk down the street toward the theater and he sighed wondering if anything would ever change between them. How long could he keep doing the same thing over and over too when it came to their relationship - bailing her out, saving her, and protecting her while being used by her and eventually ignored by her when she got on the up cycle again with some new guy.

Russell was dozing on the couch, tired from the previous night, when his cell went off.

"Hey." It was Nellie, of course (who else called him at 10:30 at night?).

"Hey," Russell said, starting to get off the couch. "Ready?"

"I'm going to stay with Jen Cole," Nellie informed him.

Jen Cole was a nice woman, the perpetual troupe stage manager who was friendly with everybody.

"Oh?" Russell said with a mixture of surprise and rejection, hurt that Nellie didn't want to stay with him.

"Just seems easier," Nellie explained.

"Okay," Russell replied, faking sincerity and understanding. "That's great."

"Thanks, Russ," Nellie said. "I'll see you."

That was the end of the call.

"And when will I see you again?" Russell asked the dead phone. "When will I get to have you by my side? When will you next need me to rescue you?"

He bitterly tossed the phone onto the couch next to him knowing that Nellie was never going to get her act together. She'd finish the play and either get back with MacJerk or find some new loser. She'd audition for the spring show or some other production going up around Blue County and Russell wouldn't hear from her until she needed his help again.

For some reason this latest rejection hurt more than usual. Maybe it was having her in his bed last night that made Russell feel like he lost out on something different this time. He was looking forward to having Nellie there again tonight but now she wasn't coming and Russell was pretty sure she wouldn't be coming back anytime soon and that hurt. How many times was he going to let her squash his heart? The fact that she wasn't coming back said it all and Russell knew it was finally time to free himself from her grip.

Russell saw Annie twice and congratulated Nellie for another outstanding performance both times. As much as it pained Russell to admit it, MacJerk nearly stole the show as Rooster Hannigan but he avoided talking to the creep during the post-show congratulatory reception line.

Russell shot the shit with the various actors and crew he knew and hung out with Hugh for a while but he declined invitations to the cast party after the final show knowing that he wasn't really a part of the production and shouldn't be crashing cast parties. He went home feeling more lonely than ever.

Russell's cell rang late one night and Russell knew it was Nellie before he even answered, glancing at the bedside table and seeing that it was nearly one in the morning according to the clock.

"Hello," he mumbled

"Hi, Russ." Nellie sounded unusually chipper.

"Nellie." Even though he had just been yanked out of a sound sleep he was still glad to hear her voice. "What's up?"

Even with the cheerful tone, Russell was expecting to hear some emotional soap opera. MacJerk or some other (new) guy had done something or her mother was out of control drunk or her father said something really mean and hurtful. Russell always expected the worse when Nellie called.

"I'm going to Florida," she giggled.

"What?" Russell wasn't sure if he had heard her right. "Florida?"

"For the holidays," Nellie bragged. "With Jen Cole!"

"What's in Florida?" Russell asked with confusion.

"Most of Jen's family," Nellie laughed with delight. "I'm gonna help her drive down."

It made perfect sense, really. Nellie hated the holidays and she always tortured herself about spending it with her family. Sometimes (If Nellie wasn't with some guy) Russell would invite her to spend the day with him and his family so she could have a nice day and when she called tonight he half-assumed that was what she wanted to talk about.

"Florida!" Russell said with approval. "Sounds great."

"Just wanted to let you know, Russ," Nellie explained.

"Drive carefully," Russell told her. "Be safe."

"Merry Christmas, Russ," Nellie said happily.

"Merry Christmas, Nellie."

The phone went dead and Russell fell back on the bed, not sure if he was happy for Nellie or sad for himself. He enjoyed Christmas the best when she was with him even though his family wasn't always thrilled to see her.

Russell didn't hear from Nellie through the holidays but that wasn't all that unusual. He got through the season on his own reasonably well and then it was the cold dark days of January in New England to endure. He kept waiting for Nellie to check in with him, letting him know she was back from The Sunshine State and telling him how her Christmas getaway went but the phone never rang.

One afternoon, Russell was in Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and he saw Jen Cole in the produce section.

"Hi Jen," Russell said politely. "How was Florida?"

"Great, really great!" Jen said enthusiastically.

She was an attractive woman a few years older than Russell and Nellie. She was a terrific stage manager and a better person.

"Nellie have fun?" Russell asked hopefully.

"She must have," Jen laughed. "She's still there."

"She's still there!?" Russell reacted with surprise.

Jen nodded affirmatively. "She met some friend of my brother and that was that," Jen explained. "You know how it is with Nellie sometimes."

"How long is she staying?" Russell worried.

"I have no idea," Jen admitted. "But she seemed pretty happy with the situation. I think Florida is good for her, actually."

Russell was caught off guard by the bombshell news. On the one hand, maybe a change of scenery would be good for Nellie. Get away from her crazy family, take a break from non-stop theater, and maybe find a worthy job down there might last a little while - those weren't bad things. On the other hand, Florida was a long way away and Russell missed her terribly already.

Russell decided not to call Nellie - he didn't want to make her feel guilty and he knew hearing her voice would only make him miss her all the more. He waited to hear from her instead.

Russell got a post card from Nellie once every blue moon but Nellie didn't call and Russell didn't either. Winter gave away to Spring. Russell went to work but he didn't accomplish much else although he helped out at the last minute with the spring production of Oliver, pinch hitting as a stage hand and it felt good to be back in the theater again even if only for a few days. Still, it didn't quite feel the same without Nellie there too.

Jen stage managed Oliver too and Russell subtly asked her a few times about Nellie in Florida but Jen really didn't have any updates because she hadn't heard from Nellie either. Russell could only assume that things were going well for Nellie and he guessed he should be happy for her even if he missed her terribly.

Summer came without fanfare and Russell really wasn't paying much attention to time anyway. Everyday was the same for him - work, home, maybe a beer at the Bullpen Tavern after taking in a game at Beano Field and then home early to get in bed for the early morning shift at the bakery.

One afternoon when he was missing Nellie more than usual Russell took a ride along Blue River Road, planning on stopping at Nellie and his secret little place but he almost drove into a tree when he saw that the magical small cottage had a for sale sign in front of it. The old guy in Buffalo must have passed away!

Russell pulled the car into the driveway of the cottage and stared at the for sale sign with disbelief. Was this an omen? A sign from God telling him to finally get off the bench and do something new and different with his life?

Russell was sure he couldn't afford whatever the asking price had to be. It was location, location, location that mattered and the run down tiny cottage that sat on the bank of the Blue River had to go for a ungodly amount no matter how beat up the structure happened to be.

Russell called the real estate company for the fun of it and he was shocked to learn that the place was actually in his price range (even if that price range happened to be for a modern ranch in one of the better neighborhoods of Hillsboro!). Russell went as far as having the real estate agent show him the property (not letting on that he had been inside the cottage illegally countless times before). The boarded up windows were unblocked now and the interior had been thoroughly cleaned but it was clear that the place would need a major upgrade to be inhabitable again.

One of the advantages of being involved in community theater for several years was that Russell had made connections with all sorts of people from all walks of life. He was able to consult with contractors, construction guys, plumbers and other experts to get a feel at what it would take (and how much it would cost) to get the cottage up to standards.

After thinking about it for a few weeks, Russell applied for a mortgage (with added equity for an additional home improvement amount). When the mortgage was approved, Russell took the plunge and purchased the property.

Although Russell's parents were happy that Russell was now a home owner, they weren't exactly thrilled with his choice but they were supportive during the extreme makeover that some of his theater friends helped him with and the cottage actually looked rather impressive when the remodeling was completed. There was yellow clapboard siding on the outside, a new roof, a deck built off the back that literally hung over the river bank with new windows and doors. Inside, the cottage was repainted with new bathroom fixtures, pipes, a new floor and kitchen appliances.

Russell kept most of the furniture that had been inside the place and he added a few new antique pieces that added to the motif. It was a quaint little home and Russell's parents actually fell in love with the place.

Russell also got a promotion at work, finally getting out of the truck and taking over as transportation supervisor which was mostly a desk job with more reasonable hours.

The only reason Russell bought the cottage was because of Nellie, of course. But he hadn't heard from her and he stopped worrying about it. Russell knew that it was only a matter of time before the absent Nellie would be back in Hillsboro again. Something would go wrong in Florida to bring her north and eventually Nellie would turn to her standby Russ for help or a place to stay. He could wait for that moment even if it meant he really didn't have a social life.

Russell didn't want to bring other women to the cottage knowing that this was Nellie's special place and that decision seriously cramped his relationship chances even though in reality he was - as always - waiting for Nellie to realize that Russell was the right guy for her.

Nellie had been gone for nearly eighteen months. The five post cards Russell received were tacked to the kitchen wall. The scribbling on the back of the cards was irrelevant, uninformative and rather cryptic but Russell didn't care - at least she had taken the time to drop him a line which meant she still thought about him.

And then it happened. Russell was at work when his cell went off and he recognized the number right away.

"Hi, Nellie," he said when he answered.

"Hi Russ."

"Where are you?"

"The bus station in Greenville," she sighed. "Can you come get me?"

"I'll be there in ten minutes," Russell replied, surprisingly calm and mellow hearing her voice.

"Thanks," she said.

It was easy to spot Nellie when Russell walked into the bus station that June afternoon. She was tanned and about ten pounds lighter than the last time he saw her (which made her look almost anorexic). Her hair was bleached yellow, shorter than it had been when she left.

Russell wondered why he had left work and headed for the bus station without even thinking about it. Why was he so easily able to react the way he always did instead of asking Nellie questions, challenging her intentions, or calling her out for using him once again?

But there she was smiling as she walked toward him and Russell felt himself melting. Nellie collapsed into his arms and he held her for a long moment, neither saying a word. Finally, Nellie broke the embrace and stepped back, giving him an appreciative stare.

"Long time no see," he deadpanned.

"Way to long," Nellie confessed.

"You have any plans?" Russell asked, taking her one bag from her grip and walking her toward the exit.

"Not really," she revealed which really didn't surprise him.

"A place to stay?" Russell tested.

Nellie shook her head no.

He nodded in understanding and led her to his car, the same one he owned when she left.

"You can stay with me," Russell announced as they climbed into the car.

"Thanks, Russ," Nellie smiled.

He could have asked her about what she had been doing for the past eighteen months but whatever she said wouldn't matter much. Russell was pretty sure Nellie was doing the same stuff down there she had been doing up here - bouncing from relationship to relationship and job to job, only in nicer weather.

And now here they were together, eighteen months later but nothing had really changed (except where he lived). Nellie was confused when Russell drove the car past his old apartment building and headed for Blue River Road.

"Oh, a visit first thing?" Nellie grinned with approval. "God, I missed our cottage."

Russell nodded but he didn't say anything and he heard Nellie's audible gasp when she saw the re-modeled cottage for the first time as Russell slowed down in front of the place.

"Oh, no!" She wailed horrified. "What happened?"

"The old guy in Buffalo died," Russell reported as he pulled the car into the short driveway. "The cottage sold."

He watched as Nellie stared with disbelief at the new look cottage, her eyes tearing up. "Who lives here now?" She asked weakly.

"Come on," Russell suggested, climbing out of the parked car.

"Russ, we can't sneak into the place anymore," Nellie whispered as she got out of the car. "This is somebody's house now."

Russell took Nellie's bag from the back seat. "I know," he replied effortlessly as he walked toward the new door.

"You know who lives here?" She asked with surprise.

"We do," Russell answered as he stuck the key in the lock and opened the door.

Nellie's mouth dropped and she stared at Russell with complete shock. "You bought this place?" She asked, her voice breaking.

Russell nodded as he walked into the cottage and Nellie drifted in after him, taking in the surroundings with wide eyes and tears rolling down her face.

"Why would you do this?" Nellie asked, dumbfounded.

"Seemed like the right thing to do," he answered.

Nellie stepped toward him. "You bought this for me?"

"For us," he clarified. "Whether you're here or not."

"But why?" She asked, stunned.

Russell shrugged but didn't reply.

"Russ?"

He was reluctant to look her in the eyes.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"Isn't it obvious?" He sighed.

Nellie stepped toward him as if she was in a daze. She wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him into an embrace. "You're crazy," She whispered.

"I know," he replied.

Nellie rested her head against his chest. "Nobody has ever been this wonderful to me," she sighed. "Nobody."

Russell rested his chin on the top of her head. "Welcome home, Nellie," He told her.

"You should have given up on me a long time ago," She said.

"I'll never give up on you," he vowed.

Nellie bit her lower lip. "I want to be happy for once," she whispered.

"Be happy here," he told her.

"It must have been so hard for you," Nellie sighed. "I'm sorry for everything I've ever put you though"

"Shhh," he urged. There was no point reviewing all her faults, shortcomings, mistakes, pains and traumas.

"You're the only person who ever really loved me."

"I'm the only one who really knows you," Russell replied.

"That's true," Nellie remarked, finally breaking the embrace while wiping a tear away from her eye.

Russell watched as Nellie slowly walked through the cottage taking in every inch of its existence.

"It's so wonderful," she said with a smile when she finally took a seat on the couch.

"It's the best thing I've ever done," Russell told her proudly.

He took a seat next to her, happy to have her back. Nellie's head was spinning, bewildered by these unexpected turn of events. Never in her wildest imagination did she think her fantasy could come true. The only question left for her was did she have the guts to act upon it? No matter what she did in her life, it always came back to Russell, just like now and that realization sent goose bumps down her arms. She stared at his gaze for the longest time wondering what she was supposed to do next. Then she did what she had no idea why she hadn't done a long time ago.

Nellie leaned in and rested her lips against his and that was the invitation Russell had been waiting for. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close while completing the kiss. Her lips were soft and sweet and Russell sucked on them and then their tongues came together and gone were the friendly, polite, chase, platonic kisses of the past.

Russell had waited for this moment for a very long time and he was glad the waiting was over. He wanted her now more than ever and he knew that she was finally his as he pulled her closer while tonguing her mouth and caressing her body. It seemed that they were both experiencing an out of body moment as their kisses and caressing became more passionate. A low groan rolled from Nellie's mouth as she pressed her breasts against his chest bone which only aroused Russell all the more which is why his hands began to tug on her Florida Sun tee shirt. He looked into Nellie's eyes to make sure she was okay with all of this and she kissed him to let him know she was.

It was dusk when Russell opened his eyes. He was lying in his bed and when he focused his eyes he saw the naked Nellie sitting on the window bench staring out at the river which could be heard running through the opened window.

"Are you going to stay?" Russell asked.

She turned and looked at him, almost in a daze. "Do you think I did what we just did just for the sex?"

"Of course not," Russell said, slipping out of the bed and joining her nude on the window seat, pulling her close to him as she nestled into his body with her back to him so they could both look at the river. "I want you in my life," he told her.

She rested the back of her head against his chest while he wrapped his arms around her waist. "I don't feel lonely anymore," she said.

"I love you, Nellie," Russell said for the first time.

"I know," she replied happily.

Russell knew there were no guarantees. He could wake up tomorrow or next week or next month and she might be gone again. But for today – for right now – she was with him and she was all his and that was all he cared about. That was all he ever cared about. That's all he ever wanted. For now, the fantasy dream had come true as they sat together naked in the window seat of Nellie's Cottage.