Behavior Modification (Part 9 of 11)

Behavior Modification (Part 9 of 11)

Joined: May 12th, 2005, 1:08 am

December 2nd, 2007, 1:19 pm #1

Thanks to all of you that posted such delicious feedback on the last part - it was much appreciated.

And just 'cause I'm that way, I wanted to post a PG-13 or gentle R-rating warning for the next two parts as things begin heating up. Nothing graphic, but if you're sensitive to 'that other thing' (miss you, Bama), please skip these chapters. For all others, please let me know what you think about part 9.


*********************

“Daddy, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Maxwell lifted his head from his paperwork to see his youngest daughter standing just inside the door, fidgeting and wringing her fingers together nervously. The thought struck him that she looked just like Miss Fine when she had something to say to him that she thought he wouldn't like. Hmm—Miss Fine. She had virtually disappeared lately, secluding herself in her room or taking off at the drop of a hat. He scowled at her disappearances, wishing they’d been able to spend more time together. He knew now why she was so busy, but he still found it frustrating that he hadn't been able to take her out at all over the past weeks. He shook his head at the thought; he'd been doing really well today keeping his mind on his work and not letting himself wonder about Fran.

Grace's voice broke through his melancholic thoughts. “I'll come back later. Sorry for bothering you.”

Maxwell could almost hear the quiver in her voice and he was startled to see his daughter's disappointed face disappearing around the door. He realized that she had misinterpreted his silent grimace as annoyance at her request. He pulled his glasses off and stood up quickly from his desk. “Grace, wait!” he called urgently, wanting to reassure her that he wasn't angry with her. “Of course you're not a bother. I just had something else on my mind.”

He rounded his desk and caught up with her in the hallway. Shepherding her back into his office, he sat her down on the sofa. Her uncertain eyes followed him around as he sat to her right, her teeth capturing her bottom lip with worry. Another of Fran's traits, he thought in passing. He smiled at her affectionately and placed his arm around her shoulders, giving her a loving squeeze. “Now, what's on your mind?”

She leaned into his hug, wrapping her arms around his waist and snuggling into his chest. She held him for a moment just breathing in his smell and soaking up his warmth. She loved her dad and was so happy he was spending more time with them and with Fran. However, he’d been very busy at the theater lately and she wanted to have some fun with him. She looked up at his face from the comfortable spot on his chest and smiled at his adoring grin.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Grace.”

“I love spending time with you.”

He smiled indulgently. “I love spending time with you, too, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to the theater today?” she queried.

“Well, I had planned on stopping by for a bit. Why?”

“You've been very busy lately, and I've missed you.”

His eyebrow quirked up at both her words of affection and her leading question. He wondered what she wanted to convince him to do. “I’ve missed you, too. Is there something you needed?”

“My friend Carol called and wanted to know if I could sleep over tonight,” Gracie explained.

“On a school night?” he asked, his head tilted in surprise.

She lifted an eyebrow at him, his bewildered expression mirrored back to him. “Daddy, we're on Christmas break!” she told him. “Today was the last day of school for two whole weeks.”

Was it time for the winter holiday already? That meant that Christmas was just days away and he hadn't made any preparations yet. Where had the time gone? He realized with chagrin that he had let Christmas sneak up on him, similar to the years following Sara's death, but it hadn't happened since Miss Fine had come to live with them. He sighed. Between his long working hours and Miss Fine’s busy schedule, he’d completely forgotten about the holidays. He squeezed Grace to him, glad that his children weren't allowing him to disappear from their lives altogether.

“Of course you can go, sweetheart. Why did you want to know if I'd be out tonight?”

“Well, I wanted to celebrate with you first.”

“That sounds lovely. What do you want to do?”

Her look morphed into a concentrated expression, her finger tapping her chin. “Something especially wintry to celebrate Christmas and the beautiful, cold weather. Maybe we could go someplace outdoors with lots of Christmas lights...”

Maxwell smiled at her, trying hard not to laugh; even without knowing how much she loved ice-skating, it was obvious where she wanted to go. He wondered why she felt it necessary to put on this performance. “Grace, would you like to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center tonight?” he asked graciously.

A victorious smile creased her face as he arrived at her predestined location. She hugged him tightly again and then popped excitedly up from her seat. “Daddy, that's a great idea! I'd love to go.”

Standing up, he laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. Then turning her by the shoulders, he nudged her toward the door. “I’ll tell you what. Go tell your brother and sister and we'll make it a family outing tonight for pizza and ice-skating. And tomorrow, you and I can go to Rumplemeyer’s for some ice cream. What do you think, eh?”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Gracie beamed as she turned and scurried out of her dad’s office.

Maxwell stood looking after her and smiled to himself. Looking forward to the evening, once again he felt grateful that his three wonderful children wouldn’t allow him to drift too far away. Not like the last time, anyway, and he knew just who he should thank for the loving and close relationship between him and his kids—Miss Fine. Fran. How quickly he found his thoughts settling back on her.

And speaking about drifting away... Had it already been three weeks since her birthday dinner? He felt gratified at how she seemed to relish his attention and how touched she’d been with the beautiful pendant he’d given her. But these past three weeks, he’d hardly seen her. He sighed deeply in frustration. Well, he’d have to make sure he invited her tonight. After all, he had proclaimed it a family outing, and of course that meant Fran. And it was the holiday season – a time for families to be together. At this point, he certainly wasn’t above using whatever ruse he could come up with to try to convince her to come.

********************

Fran dropped onto the living room sofa with an exhausted sigh. She had really enjoyed her first semester of school, but final exams she could do without! Grateful that her tests were over, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around trying to loosen up her tightened and sore neck muscles. Taking a deep breath, the aroma of pine and cinnamon filled her with an excitement for Christmas that she hadn't taken the time to appreciate before now. She couldn't help the delighted smile that appeared on her face as she turned to look at the Christmas tree, the colorful decorations and twinkling lights soothing her frayed nerves. Niles must have put it up today while they were all out at school. She stared at it for a long moment before her eyes drifted closed.

Maxwell and Grace entered the living room to find Fran apparently asleep on the sofa, a slight grin still on her face. Grace glanced up at her father, but his eyes were fixed on her nanny. She grinned knowingly and skipped past him and up the stairs to find her siblings and her skates.

Maxwell's steps slowed and then finally stopped as reached the couch. He stared at her, a myriad of emotions passing through him. He could be upset about the way she’d disappeared over the past few weeks, but he knew she was spending her time studying for finals with Chris. But at that moment, as he pondered her beautiful, peaceful face, there was no anger in him. There was longing, desire, gratitude and mostly a deep and overwhelming love. He sent another silent thank you skyward that she’d given him another chance and vowed again not to let her down.

As if she sensed the feelings pouring out of his heart and flowing over her, she opened her eyes and looked up to see him standing there. Blinking a few times and gathering herself a bit, she sat up quickly. “Oh, Max. I’m sorry. I don’t usually sleep during the day, but I guess I’ve been overdoing it a little lately.” Looking herself over and straightening her blouse, she said, “I’m fine now. What did you need?” She looked up at him expectantly.

Maxwell was at a momentary loss for words. God, that was a loaded question. He knew exactly what he needed from her—wanted from her. Taking a breath, he turned and sat next to her. He cleared his throat in an attempt to get his thoughts back on track. “Grace and I have come up with an idea for a family night, and we were both hoping you’d be able to join us.”

Fran thought for a minute and realized that now that her finals were out of the way, her schedule was quite open. Having the long winter break ahead of her felt so good in contrast to how busy she’d been lately. Of course, there were things to be done at the women’s shelter, but without so much schoolwork pulling at her, there would be plenty of time to relax and have some fun. “Sounds good. What’d you have in mind?”

“Pizza and ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. What do you say?”

“I say count me in!” Fran exclaimed.

“You don’t have plans this evening?”

“Nope. Free as a bird.”

Maxwell felt a flood of relief wash over him. “Fantastic!” he nearly shouted, jumping to his feet. “How much time do you need to get ready?”

Fran watched him skirt the couch and stride energetically through the foyer. “Uh, about half an hour,” she replied, glancing at her watch.

Maxwell barely heard her as he took the stairs two at a time barking, “Children! We’re leaving in half an hour! Dress warmly!”

Amused, Fran stood up from the couch wondering if she’d ever seen anyone so damned excited about going ice-skating.

*****************

Maxwell placed their skates on the shelf just inside the rental office window and started to return to their shared bench, but Fran was no longer there. Scanning the surrounding area, he found her standing near the railing, waving energetically to Grace as she skated past with her friend. He had missed this, being with her and his children on a family outing. In fact, he could think of nothing that felt more right.
He felt a swelling in his heart as she leaned against the railing, calling to Maggie as she skated by with Sean, the two of them clinging to each other so tightly that Maggie caught her skate on his, causing them both to tumble down in a giggling mass of teenage flesh. Fran laughed out loud at their antics, her infectious bray causing multiple heads to turn and several strangers to laugh as well, joining in with her. God, he loved to hear her laugh. Just as in life, she did it with gusto, regardless of whether anyone else laughed with her. Since the first time he’d heard it while looking over her résumé, he knew there was something magical about her.

He loved her laugh. He loved her smile. He loved her joyous spirit. He loved her, plain and simple, and it was time to tell her so without reservation. Maxwell walked softly toward her, his footsteps crunching in the fresh snow behind her. He could tell that she heard him coming because of the way she stood up straight and fell back against him as he wrapped his arms about her waist. He gave her a squeeze and their heads came together, and automatic sigh and a puff of white mist escaping both of their mouths at the comfortable and loving embrace.

Maxwell turned his head slightly to place his lips at Fran’s ear. Although he was determined to tell her now, he paused, suddenly nervous about voicing his feelings to her. Would she accept him or would she reject him, telling him that she was no longer interested? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, the white vapor spreading out past her face. He chastised himself for shying away from this again, but his voice caught and he couldn’t get the words out.

Come on, man. You can do this, he told himself. He took another slow breath and while releasing it, managed to whisper, “I love you, Fran.”

When she didn’t respond immediately, he wondered if he had said it too softly. He rolled his eyes and steadied himself to say it again, louder this time when he felt her arms grip his tightly.

“Really?” she whispered, her voice trembling with emotion.

He smiled and hugged her more tightly to him, nodding his head to answer her question. “Yes, really,” he declared, his voice strong and sincere.

She leaned her body to the side slightly and turned her head to look at him, the mischievous sparkle and her disbelieving smirk causing him to raise an eyebrow before she even could ask her next question. “Are you sure this time?”

Maxwell chuckled and nodded again. “All right, I deserved that, but yes, I mean it. I love you so much, Fran, and I’m never going to deny it again.”

She smiled at him, a beautiful, warm smile full of love that made his heart sing. “I love you, too.”

Releasing her waist with one arm, he raised his gloved hand to rest on her jaw, pulling her toward him. Tilting his head down, he brushed his mouth across hers lightly, his dry lips barely touching hers. Both of their eyes closed, unable to resist the pull of another kiss. After a few minutes, Maxwell pulled slowly away from Fran, his breathing short and cheeks flushed with warmth, and gazed adoringly into her eyes. They were lost to each other when a twin set of giggles pulled them back to reality. Maxwell glanced up and saw Brighton, Grace, and Carol standing by the railing snickering at their public display of affection. Well, at least the girls were laughing. Brighton looked morbidly fascinated and not a little embarrassed.

Fran caught the look as well and felt unaccustomedly shy at getting caught making out with their father in a public place. She tried to slip out of Maxwell’s embrace and put some distance between them, but Maxwell caught her around the waist and pulled her back to him, his arms locking tightly around her. He obviously didn’t mind the children – or anyone else in New York for that matter – knowing about them. Surprised by his bold movement, she relaxed again in his embrace and flashed him a grateful smile. The brilliant smile he returned made her knees feel weak. He started to lean in for another kiss when she heard Grace call impatiently.

“Daddy!”

Maxwell looked up and cleared his throat. “Yes, Grace?”

“Carol’s dad is here to pick us up for our sleep over. Can you take my skates home for me, please?”

“Certainly, Sweetheart. Do we have Carol’s contact information?”

“I’ve stayed over at Carol’s before. Fran has their number if you need it.”

“Have a great time, Grace.”

Grace and Carol squealed in excitement and skated off, leaving an awkward Brighton behind. He smiled weakly at them as Maggie and Sean approached from behind.

“Hey, Dad! Sean and I are going to catch an action flick over at the Cineplex before we come home. Niles already said he’d pick us up and bring us home by about eleven.”

Brighton perked up at this information. “The new mob story staring Bruce Willis? I’ve been dying to see that one. Can I come with you?”

“Ugh! No way, who wants a Nuchshlep hanging around?”

Brighton flashed an appalled glance toward his father, who was now nuzzling Fran’s neck. He turned back to his sister. “Please, Maggie. You can’t make me ride home with them while that’s going on. I’ll be sick.”

“I see your point. Okay, twerp, but you have to sit in another row.”

“Thanks!”

Maggie giggled at Brighton’s obvious relief and turned back to her father. “Dad? Daaaad. Daddy!”

Maxwell finally looked up at his daughter and waved them away. “Call if you’re not going to be home on time.”

Now in their snow boots, Grace and Carol walked up to deposit Grace’s skates and give Fran and Max a hug goodnight before heading towards the waiting car. “See you tomorrow, Fran. G’Night, Daddy.”

It occurred to Fran that Grace would need a few things at home first. “Oh, Gracie. You’ll need to swing by the house and pick up an overnight bag first.”

“It’s in the trunk. Niles has already gone to get it for me.”

Fran cocked her head to the side in thought as the two still-giggling girls skipped away toward Carol’s father. She turned back to Maxwell and lifted her eyebrows in innocence. “You know, it’s not very often that all the kids have plans on the same night.”

She saw the gleam in Maxwell’s eye before he took her by the hand and pulled her towards the limo.

*****************

As the car glided smoothly through the city streets, Fran stole a sideways look at Max. Appearing to be lost in his thoughts, he wore a warm smile on his lips. The whole evening had gone so well. The light-hearted banter at the restaurant, the silly antics at the ice skating rink, the warm feelings of family togetherness. And it had all culminated in the three words he had whispered in her ear. On the surface, a simple statement, but none she had ever heard before in her life had carried such meaning. He loved her. He was sure of it, and so was she. And knowing that wrapped her in the most glorious feeling she had experienced in her entire life. She loved him too. More than she had ever felt herself capable of loving a man.

He reached over and took her hand. Pulling it gently to his lips, he placed a soft, lingering kiss on the back of it.

“Thank you, Miss Fine, for allowing me the wonderful pleasure of your company.” His emerald eyes crinkled slightly as he smiled at her.

She returned his smile and turned her body to face him. Reaching to grasp both of his hands between her own, she leaned in and placed a whisper of a kiss on his lips. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Sheffield. I had a great time tonight.” They both smiled sheepishly at their continued use of formal address. It was clear that they had moved way beyond that, and both were focusing their thoughts on taking it even further.

His heart rate picked up when she didn’t lean away from him, but continued to smile, her face only a couple of inches from his. He couldn’t look away. Her eyes sparkled in the faint evening light, and he watched her look at him, her eyes roaming over his face. A happiness and peace exuded from them, making him catch his breath. She beckoned him, pulling him in. At that moment, he wondered how he could have ever denied the feelings he had for her. And since he had begun to realize how close he had come to losing her, he wanted to show her how he felt.

She continued to look at him as the limo made its way through the evening traffic. Patting his hands affectionately, she started to slide back into her seat, but he wasn’t ready for her to go. He grasped at her wrists and pulled her closer, their knees bumping together as she slid across the leather seat toward him. Her eyes widened slightly at his move, then narrowed again in amusement.

“Did you want something, Mr. Sheffield?” she posed coyly.

The suggestion in her voiced almost scared him away, his mind automatically throwing up a barrier at her flirtatious comment. He shook his head at his own habitual fears and shoved them away. He didn’t have any reason for fear anymore. Now was the time for bold action, to let her know that she was worth any risk to his heart.

He reached over with one hand and pressed a button to raise the privacy glass and watched her eyes widen as it lifted.

“Yes,” he managed, his voice shaking slightly at the confession. He watched her eyes for any signs of doubt, but saw only hope and desire as they drew across his face.

Oh, she did love to see that look in his eye! He hadn’t allowed himself to show his desire for her many times since Paris, but when he did, the power of that look rendered her breathless. She decided to see how far he would let it go between them.

“Oh? And what would that be, Mr. Sheffield?”

As she answered, she slid her legs away slightly turning her body to close the distance between them. Placing her hands on the seat next to his leg, she leaned in, pressing her chest against him and bringing her face right next to his. She felt his hands slide up around her shoulders, pausing as they reached her neck to cradle her head while his thumbs stroked gently across her cheeks.

He felt her breath on his lips now, his own breathing deepening as the anticipation of their kiss grew between them. He licked his lips in nervousness and heard her breath catch slightly, her eyes fixed on his mouth. He swallowed once before he could answer.

“You, Fran. I want you.”

His words were music to her ears and her heart skipped a beat. She wished she could smile at him, to show him the happiness she felt inside, but her feelings of desire overwhelmed her. She could only close her eyes and savor the words.

The idea that he trusted her – heart and body – left her speechless. She closed the distance to kiss him, tilting her head into his hands and opening her mouth at the gentle pressure of his lips. She swallowed his moan when the tip of her tongue snuck out to caress his bottom lip. Oh, he tasted so good!

Something broke loose inside him when he felt her tongue slip into his mouth. Unable to maintain a gentlemanly restraint, he released her head and let his left hand unzip her jacket while his right reached inside to wrap it around her back. He pulled her tightly against him as he repositioned his mouth and kissed her again delving deeper. His other hand slid lightly over her stomach and side and after a brief hesitation, slid up to gently stroke the side of her sweater-covered breast. He felt her body arch into his questing hand, letting him know she wanted him to touch her, so he brought his other hand up to join the first and captured the resulting moan with a deep kiss that set off another wave of desire.

God, he loved that sound she made. Relieved at her enthusiastic response to his advances, he threaded his fingers through her long tresses and pressed her head tightly to him as he explored her mouth before dropping his hands back down to wrap around her waist, skimming over her soft curves.

Fran was on fire. She’d never felt this level of intense desire for anyone before. Unable to move slowly anymore, she ran her hands up his chest and slid them into his jacket. As the pace of their kisses increased, she ran her fingernails up through his hair with one hand while the other unwrapped the scarf at his throat.

Before he could protest, she’d pushed his coat from his shoulders, removed his scarf and had his sweater pushed half way up his chest. She dipped her head down to kiss his exposed skin when she felt his hands pulling her head away from his body, but she wasn’t having it.

“Fran, we’re almost home...” he whispered.

Before he could utter another word, she shocked him by slipping her leg over his, sliding onto his lap and straddling him. She kissed him softly and placed a finger over his lips, stilling his protests and questions. Leaning toward the door, she cleared her throat and pressed the intercom button.

“Yes, Sir?” came Niles’ voice through the speaker.

“Um, Niles?” she said in the most casual tone she could muster.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

“Could you drive us down around Battery Park? We’d like to try to catch the last ferry to the statue tonight.”

She could almost hear the knowing smile in his answer. They both knew that the last ferry had left long ago. “Certainly, Miss Fine,” came his perceptive response.

She released the button with a flick of her wrist and wiggled her body over Maxwell’s lap, smiling satisfactorily. Her movements practically jerked him to his feet.

“Miss Fine!” he shot out, causing her to grin slightly at the contrast between the position they were in and the way he addressed her.

She grasped his head between her hands and leaned over him, gripping his legs between her knees, her hips sliding involuntarily into him. She closed her eyes and released a sigh at the delicious feel of his body beneath her.

“Shh,” she whispered, “I’m not ready to stop yet.”

He brought his hands up to grasp her head, stilling her movements, his eyebrows crinkling in distress. “Fran, I don’t want to do this here.”

She couldn’t help but tease him a little. “Do what, Mr. Sheffield?” Again, with the formality.

He kissed her tenderly, the mere notion of voicing his thoughts driving him crazy with desire. “I don’t want to make love to you in the backseat of a car.”

“Have you ever tried it?”

“Of course not,” he answered affronted. “It’s not proper.”

“I don’t want proper, Max. I want you. Now,” she declared, the look on her face heavy with intent.

His eyes darkened at her words. She fought against closing her eyes in response to the intensity of the feelings rioting through her body. Her breath lay heavy on his face as she leaned in for a series of light kisses while she stroked his naked chest with her fingernails. His hands came up to grasp her wrists and still her actions when her hips drove into his body again.

“Miss Fiiiinnnne,” he gasped as she repeated her torturous actions.

In answer, she tightened her legs against his and grabbed his head kissing him almost violently, thrusting her tongue deep inside his mouth. He resisted for a second, and then found himself reciprocating, wrapping his arms around her bottom and pulling her into his body.

Without any more protest, he took control, whipping her around and laying her down on the seat before settling his weight on top of her. Unable to stop herself, her body reacted on impulse and her hips thrust up into his. They both moaned at the feeling before Max brushed her hair back and attacked her neck with hot, open-mouthed kisses.

Instinctively, her legs wrapped around his hips. Their breathing came short and rapid as she turned her head so he could continue his kisses on the other side of her neck. She felt his fingers find their way under her sweater, and her mind pleaded for their touch her. She didn’t have to wait long and literally gasped as she felt him brush across her sensitive skin.

At the same moment, they both realized the awkwardness of the setting and sensed the need for the freedom and luxury of Max’s bed. Max pulled his mouth from her first. Taking a few seconds to get his breathing under control, he whispered, “You know, the kids are out for the next couple of hours. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly empty house.”

Pushing away the fleeting worry that he might use the interval between car and bedroom to have second thoughts, Fran swallowed before mouthing, “Take me home.”

Max reached over and pressed the intercom again.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

A few seconds passed while Max finished a deep and loving kiss. “Niles, we’ve changed our minds. Take us home.”

Niles’ response was cut off as Max released the button. He stared into Fran’s beautiful, glistening eyes and was profoundly touched by the deep love and desire he saw emanating from them. Although it took everything they had in them, they both understood the need to slow things down for now. One more moment, they both knew, and that would have been impossible. Slowly, he bent his head lower and met her lips in a sweet and tender kiss. Then he sat up, pulling her up with him. They took a few deep breaths while they adjusted their clothing. They settled back into the seat, his arm around her and her head nestled on his shoulder.

Fran snuggled up against Max and relished the feeling of holding him so close. She closed her eyes and drew in a supremely satisfied sigh. She couldn’t believe that finally, after all the flirting, all the games, he had uttered those three precious words she had dreamed of hearing for so long. And at last the two of them were only moments away from consummating the deep feelings they held for each other.

Suddenly, her eyebrows drew together as a slightly panicked thought crossed her mind. What they were about to do was a very serious step and it could change everything. Was she ready for that? She had just barely begun to get comfortable in her new life, her new way of thinking. Would succumbing to Max’s love destroy all that? Just as quickly, she pushed her questions aside as she felt Maxwell put his other arm around her and squeeze her to him. God, being held by him that way was pure euphoria.

The limo glided to a smooth stop in front of the Sheffield mansion. Just before Max opened the door, he lowered the privacy glass and cleared his throat. “Uh, Niles, why don’t you take the rest of the evening off? I’m sure we won’t be needing you for anything else.”

Having anticipated his boss’ request, Niles remained behind the wheel, nodding and smiling knowingly as he watched them via the rearview mirror. He chuckled softly. They were so lost in each other, his two best friends had already forgotten about him, not to mention the children. Maybe he would join CC at the theater. Rehearsals were scheduled to run until ten o’clock tonight. Checking in and offering his assistance while he waited for Maggie and Brighton’s movie to end was a great excuse to see her. Excited by the prospect, he was ready to push on the accelerator and vacate the premises as soon as he heard the door close.

*****************

CC Babcock had never been so mercurial as she was tonight – the last night before dress rehearsals began. Many of the crew had worked for Maxwell Sheffield Productions in the past and were used to her sharp tongue and demanding nature, but this went way beyond their experience. It was strange; she was still the Bitch of Broadway, but her passion about this story went beyond her habitual modus operandi of craving acclaim or money. This was personal and it scared the hell out of all of them. The stage manager had a bet going with the costumer that she’d hurt one of the actors before the night was over. Not in an emotional sense – no, he firmly believed she would inflict actual physical pain to the point of death if the actors didn’t get the scene right soon.

Niles entered the darkened theater to hear CC abusing the stage crew. He grinned. He couldn’t help it. He’d never met anyone else with more fire than she had. Since he’d rewritten the script for her play, they’d been working more and more together and their interactions had changed from verbal warfare to a playful, teasing banter. He loved it and wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were for anything in the world.

He slipped into a seat behind her as CC grumbled a string of expletives under her breath that would make a sailor blush. She was so steamed that she was practically smoking, but still retained enough control not to swear at the children. The actors began the interrupted scene again. Niles kept one eye on the actors and one on CC as they moved through their parts. It was the finale and he could tell by the set of her shoulders that their portrayal wasn’t meeting her expectations. She was as tense as a bowstring, ready to snap from the tension in her shoulders. He concentrated on the actors and realized that if they reworded a few of the key lines, it would probably work better.

He leaned forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, rubbing lightly to soothe away her agitation. He was taking a chance, touching her. Normally, an action this intimate would be an invitation for dismemberment, but he’d found over the past three weeks that her emotions were very susceptible to a soothing massage. Who would have thought that he could have breeched the ever-present class issue between them with a simple neck rub?

In his own mind, he believed he was the only one that could melt the Ice Queen’s heart, that it was the real person under his butler façade that touched her. His next thought almost made him chuckle out loud – that he might be her Achilles Heel. His muffled laugh went unnoticed as she slumped back in her seat and threw her arm over her eyes, grumbling again under her breath. He intensified the pressure of his fingertips and felt her start to relax against the back of the seat. Yes, he hoped that it had more to do with him than with the physical act, but he wasn’t ready to test that theory yet. For now, he’d do what he could to save their poor, harassed actors from CC’s wrath.

“CC, you’re tighter than Zsa Zsa Gabor after a facelift. What’s wrong?”

“IT is all wrong.”

“Well, that explanation cleared everything. Thanks so much.”

She lifted her arm just high enough to glare at him. “IT! IT is the monster, you puerile oaf. Meg’s fight against IT is the hardest thing she has ever done. IT is supposed to be an insurmountable enemy, not this … gah! I can’t even describe it.”

Niles turned his attention back to the stage for a minute after CC dropped her arm over her eyes again. He knew that this story was extremely personal for CC and that the play needed to portray her struggles against personal demons. He nodded his head. “I think I can help. May I call a break?”

She gestured towards the stage with her free arm in a haphazard way and grumbled from beneath her sleeve. “Have at it. I give up.”

Niles stood and called, “Let’s take a break.”

The stage manager looked toward CC for confirmation and shrugged when she didn’t move to counteract Niles’ request. “Writer in the house,” he called. “Okay, people, you heard him. Take five before we try again.”

“Margo and Brian, can I talk to you privately?” Niles called.

CC finally lifted her arm from over her eyes and watched Niles jog up the aisle to speak to the actors. She hadn’t looked at him when he’d settled down behind her, but she’d known he was there. She wasn’t sure if it was a sixth sense or if she’d caught a whiff of his cologne, but she’d immediately relaxed when he arrived – and that was before he touched her! Once he’d done that, she’d had to throw her arm over her eyes to conceal her delight at his deft touch. She’d actually almost purred like a damned cat! The man was going to destroy her reputation if she wasn’t careful.

Now that she had some physical distance between them, she felt safe looking. He’d shed his jacket and tie and had rolled up his shirtsleeves, however, his scarf still hung loosely around his neck. God, had he always looked that sexy or was he doing something different now? She let her eyes walk down his body as he skipped up the stairs and crossed the stage, lingering on his backside when he knelt down to talk with ‘Charles Wallace’ and ‘Meg’. His gesturing hands captivated her gaze, but when a stray thought about his talented hands took her mind in a direction she wasn’t prepared to go, she stood quickly and fled backstage. A thunderous Babcock scowl kept the crew at bay until she closed the door to her tiny office. Once inside, she promptly leaned her forehead against the door and released a tight breath of relief. She was losing it.

That she was attracted to Niles wasn’t anything new, nor was it difficult to conceptualize becoming physically intimate with him. Playing around with the help was something she’d seen those of her class doing her whole life. Her problem is that she didn’t want to play. She wanted it to be real – a real, honest-to-God, loving relationship that would last the rest of her life – and that scared the crap out of her. Over the past few weeks, she’d realized that although Niles wasn’t everything she’d ever wanted in a man, he was everything she needed. Clever, strong, sensitive, handsome, creative; she knew now that Niles didn’t have to be a butler, but for some unknown reason, had chosen that life for himself. She wasn’t sure why, but that made all the difference in her mind.

Working on this production with him had been a wonderful surprise. He seemed to know what she needed before she asked and was always willing to help in any way possible. He had a knack with people and his insights had sparked off ideas for her on more than one occasion. They’d worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other rather than hurling insults and she knew now that they made a great team. For the first time, she realized that together they could do anything, solve any problem – a new and scary concept for someone used to going through life alone. Instinctively, she’d known how well they got along, but tonight was the first time she could admit it consciously. It was difficult to think about – that a butler and a Babcock would fit so perfectly together. However, since the night she’d allowed herself to see beyond his station, she’d discovered what an amazing man Niles really was. Now, she was so fascinated with him that she could hardly think of anything else.

Part of her tension tonight was the realization that as soon as the benefit was over, things might go back to the way they were before and she didn’t want that. Now that she had him in her life, she didn’t want to let him go.

She admitted that she was scared to take the next step and get involved with him, afraid that he might revert back to his customary attitude and use her weaknesses against her, but she realized with a jolt that it was a risk she was willing to take. If the past few weeks had proven anything, it was that Niles could overcome the conditioning of twenty years of insults and she could too. If he felt even a tenth for her what she’d been feeling for him, they’d be dynamite together.

A soft knock startled her from her thoughts and his concerned voice through the door started her heart racing.

“CC?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready”

CC pictured pouncing on him like a cat and kissing him senseless. Oh yeah, she was ready. She swallowed the image with a gulp. “Yeah.”

He paused. “Will that be sometime this century? The rest of us would like to sleep in a bed tonight.”

She covered her flushed face with her hands at the thought of sleeping with Niles. She had to get a hold of herself. Or get a hold of him. God, why did every thought seem to slide into the gutter tonight? It was like Niles was in her head, tweaking every comment with sexual overtones. She shook her head again; the solution to her every problem was not to lose her inhibitions and throw herself at him. The risks were too great, weren’t they? She paused. Maybe they weren’t. What would he do if she launched herself at him? Would he catch her and reciprocate? The questions were driving her crazy and after so many innuendoes, she wanted to turn the tables on him and see if it led anywhere.

It was time to find out.

Before she could over-think things and reconsider, she released the top two buttons on her shirt and flipped her head down and up, fluffing her hair. Pasting a sultry expression on, she threw open the door and had to stifle a giggle as Niles almost tumbled to the floor. Before he could do anything more than steady himself against the doorframe, CC stepped close, effectively pinning him to the wall. She ran her hands up his chest and locked them behind his neck as she sent him a smoky look. She heard his breath hitch as her lips brushed against his.

“Is that all you want, Niles, to sleep in a bed tonight?”

She kissed him, a long draw against his startled lips. He recovered just long enough to start kissing her back when she released him and stepped away. She eyed him from top to bottom and licked her lips before turning and walking away, tossing a parting comment over her shoulder as she went. “Pity. I expected something more imaginative from you than a bed.”

Niles watched her hips sway as she walked away with his still-tingling mouth gaped open. Who and what was that?! She looked like CC Babcock, but no incarnation he’d ever seen outside of his dreams. He foolishly pinched himself just to be sure he was awake before he watched her disappear around the corner. Absently, his fingers lifted and touched his lips, amazed at how she’d kissed him. Was she serious or simply toying with him? A few weeks ago, he would have dismissed it as a ploy to mess with his head, but now he wasn’t so sure. Her actions were so out of character that he didn’t know what to do. He knew what he wanted to do – to trust their new friendship and see where it could take them. ‘What the hell,’ he thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’

He smiled as her final words came back to him. So she wanted to play that game, did she? Right, then. Game on. He pushed away from the wall and went after her.

By the time he caught up with her, she was perched against an armrest, one long leg crossed over the other, the long expanse of flesh exposed through a slit in her skirt. His steps slowed as he neared her as he took in the image. His eyes flicked to her face, only to drop down her neckline past the undone buttons to see a black lace something peeking out from behind her blouse. Added to the memory of her kiss and words, he felt the temperature rise a few degrees and his knees wobble just a bit before he could steady himself. He heard her clear her throat and recognized with a start that he’d stopped walking to stand in the aisle, gaping at her. She chuckled and then moved toward the center of her row, propping herself up on the back of a chair before shouting for the crew to begin the final scene from the top.

He sidled up the row behind her and stood facing the stage, feigning indifference to her charms as the actors began. He placed his hands on her waist and stroked her sides with his thumbs until she squirmed. Her only other reaction was to lift her chin, her forehead pinched in concentration at the actors’ performance. His mouth quirked as he leaned in to watch the scene over her shoulder and distracted her when his chest rubbed up against her back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch. She didn’t look at him, but she reached down and trapped his hands against her stomach. They both released a soft sigh as she intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

He was about to respond when CC leaned forward, caught by the actions on stage. The actors had come to the section that hadn’t been working before and they were making their way through the dialogue he’d modified. He watched in gratification and amazement at CC’s intense look, as though trying to give them her vision through sheer determination. He tuned into the words again and nodded his head. Yes, that was better. He thought that particular phrasing captured the feelings CC wanted to convey. He turned to look at her and was amazed to see tears in her eyes as her mouth opened to whisper an emphatic “Yes!” as both she and Meg finally beat IT with love.

Niles was caught up in the scene before him, seeing not the actors’ portrayal, but CC’s lifelong struggle against her personal demons, when for the first time in her life, her love had been strong enough to conquer greed, vanity and the indifference that had stolen her dreams as a child. His mouth parted in wonder as his heart filled to bursting with love for the woman with him.

Feeling his gaze or his emotions – he wasn’t sure which – CC turned her head to look at him with a new admiration in her eyes, a starry-eyed wonder bordering on worship for the gift he’d given her. She shocked him when she stood up abruptly and turned to throw her arms around his neck, kissing him gently on the cheek.

“Thank you.”

Overcome, Niles simply nodded his response. He’d never felt this way before, but would give everything he had to hold this moment for the rest of his life. He was sure that it only lasted seconds, although it felt much longer to him, before CC pulled away and smiled at him before turning back to the stage clapping her hands. “Perfect,” she yelled to the nervous figures awaiting her response. After a round of applause and hugs from the entire crew, CC gave a pep talk for the following night’s dress rehearsals before dismissing everyone for the night.

Behind the stage curtain, the stage manager and costumer watched as Niles helped CC on with her coat before gathering his. They watched them smile shyly at each other before Niles took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. CC raised their joined hands and kissed the back of Niles’ before he dragged her, giggling, from the theater. The stage manager shook his head and grudgingly slapped a twenty-dollar bill into the costumer’s open palm. She’d bet him a week ago that Niles would slip through the Ice Queen’s frosty exterior and into her heart, but until tonight, he had thought there was no way.

Well, ‘twas the season, and if anything ever qualified as a miracle, this did.

*****************

to be continued...
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Joined: October 1st, 2005, 2:18 pm

December 2nd, 2007, 1:49 pm #2

Brit!!! I know I'm repeating myself......wonderful, wonderful N/CC interaction....
Made me all warm inside!!!!
What a wonderful distraction from my paper grin

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Joined: August 24th, 2004, 9:25 pm

December 2nd, 2007, 3:46 pm #3

Thanks to all of you that posted such delicious feedback on the last part - it was much appreciated.

And just 'cause I'm that way, I wanted to post a PG-13 or gentle R-rating warning for the next two parts as things begin heating up. Nothing graphic, but if you're sensitive to 'that other thing' (miss you, Bama), please skip these chapters. For all others, please let me know what you think about part 9.


*********************

“Daddy, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Maxwell lifted his head from his paperwork to see his youngest daughter standing just inside the door, fidgeting and wringing her fingers together nervously. The thought struck him that she looked just like Miss Fine when she had something to say to him that she thought he wouldn't like. Hmm—Miss Fine. She had virtually disappeared lately, secluding herself in her room or taking off at the drop of a hat. He scowled at her disappearances, wishing they’d been able to spend more time together. He knew now why she was so busy, but he still found it frustrating that he hadn't been able to take her out at all over the past weeks. He shook his head at the thought; he'd been doing really well today keeping his mind on his work and not letting himself wonder about Fran.

Grace's voice broke through his melancholic thoughts. “I'll come back later. Sorry for bothering you.”

Maxwell could almost hear the quiver in her voice and he was startled to see his daughter's disappointed face disappearing around the door. He realized that she had misinterpreted his silent grimace as annoyance at her request. He pulled his glasses off and stood up quickly from his desk. “Grace, wait!” he called urgently, wanting to reassure her that he wasn't angry with her. “Of course you're not a bother. I just had something else on my mind.”

He rounded his desk and caught up with her in the hallway. Shepherding her back into his office, he sat her down on the sofa. Her uncertain eyes followed him around as he sat to her right, her teeth capturing her bottom lip with worry. Another of Fran's traits, he thought in passing. He smiled at her affectionately and placed his arm around her shoulders, giving her a loving squeeze. “Now, what's on your mind?”

She leaned into his hug, wrapping her arms around his waist and snuggling into his chest. She held him for a moment just breathing in his smell and soaking up his warmth. She loved her dad and was so happy he was spending more time with them and with Fran. However, he’d been very busy at the theater lately and she wanted to have some fun with him. She looked up at his face from the comfortable spot on his chest and smiled at his adoring grin.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Grace.”

“I love spending time with you.”

He smiled indulgently. “I love spending time with you, too, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to the theater today?” she queried.

“Well, I had planned on stopping by for a bit. Why?”

“You've been very busy lately, and I've missed you.”

His eyebrow quirked up at both her words of affection and her leading question. He wondered what she wanted to convince him to do. “I’ve missed you, too. Is there something you needed?”

“My friend Carol called and wanted to know if I could sleep over tonight,” Gracie explained.

“On a school night?” he asked, his head tilted in surprise.

She lifted an eyebrow at him, his bewildered expression mirrored back to him. “Daddy, we're on Christmas break!” she told him. “Today was the last day of school for two whole weeks.”

Was it time for the winter holiday already? That meant that Christmas was just days away and he hadn't made any preparations yet. Where had the time gone? He realized with chagrin that he had let Christmas sneak up on him, similar to the years following Sara's death, but it hadn't happened since Miss Fine had come to live with them. He sighed. Between his long working hours and Miss Fine’s busy schedule, he’d completely forgotten about the holidays. He squeezed Grace to him, glad that his children weren't allowing him to disappear from their lives altogether.

“Of course you can go, sweetheart. Why did you want to know if I'd be out tonight?”

“Well, I wanted to celebrate with you first.”

“That sounds lovely. What do you want to do?”

Her look morphed into a concentrated expression, her finger tapping her chin. “Something especially wintry to celebrate Christmas and the beautiful, cold weather. Maybe we could go someplace outdoors with lots of Christmas lights...”

Maxwell smiled at her, trying hard not to laugh; even without knowing how much she loved ice-skating, it was obvious where she wanted to go. He wondered why she felt it necessary to put on this performance. “Grace, would you like to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center tonight?” he asked graciously.

A victorious smile creased her face as he arrived at her predestined location. She hugged him tightly again and then popped excitedly up from her seat. “Daddy, that's a great idea! I'd love to go.”

Standing up, he laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. Then turning her by the shoulders, he nudged her toward the door. “I’ll tell you what. Go tell your brother and sister and we'll make it a family outing tonight for pizza and ice-skating. And tomorrow, you and I can go to Rumplemeyer’s for some ice cream. What do you think, eh?”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Gracie beamed as she turned and scurried out of her dad’s office.

Maxwell stood looking after her and smiled to himself. Looking forward to the evening, once again he felt grateful that his three wonderful children wouldn’t allow him to drift too far away. Not like the last time, anyway, and he knew just who he should thank for the loving and close relationship between him and his kids—Miss Fine. Fran. How quickly he found his thoughts settling back on her.

And speaking about drifting away... Had it already been three weeks since her birthday dinner? He felt gratified at how she seemed to relish his attention and how touched she’d been with the beautiful pendant he’d given her. But these past three weeks, he’d hardly seen her. He sighed deeply in frustration. Well, he’d have to make sure he invited her tonight. After all, he had proclaimed it a family outing, and of course that meant Fran. And it was the holiday season – a time for families to be together. At this point, he certainly wasn’t above using whatever ruse he could come up with to try to convince her to come.

********************

Fran dropped onto the living room sofa with an exhausted sigh. She had really enjoyed her first semester of school, but final exams she could do without! Grateful that her tests were over, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around trying to loosen up her tightened and sore neck muscles. Taking a deep breath, the aroma of pine and cinnamon filled her with an excitement for Christmas that she hadn't taken the time to appreciate before now. She couldn't help the delighted smile that appeared on her face as she turned to look at the Christmas tree, the colorful decorations and twinkling lights soothing her frayed nerves. Niles must have put it up today while they were all out at school. She stared at it for a long moment before her eyes drifted closed.

Maxwell and Grace entered the living room to find Fran apparently asleep on the sofa, a slight grin still on her face. Grace glanced up at her father, but his eyes were fixed on her nanny. She grinned knowingly and skipped past him and up the stairs to find her siblings and her skates.

Maxwell's steps slowed and then finally stopped as reached the couch. He stared at her, a myriad of emotions passing through him. He could be upset about the way she’d disappeared over the past few weeks, but he knew she was spending her time studying for finals with Chris. But at that moment, as he pondered her beautiful, peaceful face, there was no anger in him. There was longing, desire, gratitude and mostly a deep and overwhelming love. He sent another silent thank you skyward that she’d given him another chance and vowed again not to let her down.

As if she sensed the feelings pouring out of his heart and flowing over her, she opened her eyes and looked up to see him standing there. Blinking a few times and gathering herself a bit, she sat up quickly. “Oh, Max. I’m sorry. I don’t usually sleep during the day, but I guess I’ve been overdoing it a little lately.” Looking herself over and straightening her blouse, she said, “I’m fine now. What did you need?” She looked up at him expectantly.

Maxwell was at a momentary loss for words. God, that was a loaded question. He knew exactly what he needed from her—wanted from her. Taking a breath, he turned and sat next to her. He cleared his throat in an attempt to get his thoughts back on track. “Grace and I have come up with an idea for a family night, and we were both hoping you’d be able to join us.”

Fran thought for a minute and realized that now that her finals were out of the way, her schedule was quite open. Having the long winter break ahead of her felt so good in contrast to how busy she’d been lately. Of course, there were things to be done at the women’s shelter, but without so much schoolwork pulling at her, there would be plenty of time to relax and have some fun. “Sounds good. What’d you have in mind?”

“Pizza and ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. What do you say?”

“I say count me in!” Fran exclaimed.

“You don’t have plans this evening?”

“Nope. Free as a bird.”

Maxwell felt a flood of relief wash over him. “Fantastic!” he nearly shouted, jumping to his feet. “How much time do you need to get ready?”

Fran watched him skirt the couch and stride energetically through the foyer. “Uh, about half an hour,” she replied, glancing at her watch.

Maxwell barely heard her as he took the stairs two at a time barking, “Children! We’re leaving in half an hour! Dress warmly!”

Amused, Fran stood up from the couch wondering if she’d ever seen anyone so damned excited about going ice-skating.

*****************

Maxwell placed their skates on the shelf just inside the rental office window and started to return to their shared bench, but Fran was no longer there. Scanning the surrounding area, he found her standing near the railing, waving energetically to Grace as she skated past with her friend. He had missed this, being with her and his children on a family outing. In fact, he could think of nothing that felt more right.
He felt a swelling in his heart as she leaned against the railing, calling to Maggie as she skated by with Sean, the two of them clinging to each other so tightly that Maggie caught her skate on his, causing them both to tumble down in a giggling mass of teenage flesh. Fran laughed out loud at their antics, her infectious bray causing multiple heads to turn and several strangers to laugh as well, joining in with her. God, he loved to hear her laugh. Just as in life, she did it with gusto, regardless of whether anyone else laughed with her. Since the first time he’d heard it while looking over her résumé, he knew there was something magical about her.

He loved her laugh. He loved her smile. He loved her joyous spirit. He loved her, plain and simple, and it was time to tell her so without reservation. Maxwell walked softly toward her, his footsteps crunching in the fresh snow behind her. He could tell that she heard him coming because of the way she stood up straight and fell back against him as he wrapped his arms about her waist. He gave her a squeeze and their heads came together, and automatic sigh and a puff of white mist escaping both of their mouths at the comfortable and loving embrace.

Maxwell turned his head slightly to place his lips at Fran’s ear. Although he was determined to tell her now, he paused, suddenly nervous about voicing his feelings to her. Would she accept him or would she reject him, telling him that she was no longer interested? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, the white vapor spreading out past her face. He chastised himself for shying away from this again, but his voice caught and he couldn’t get the words out.

Come on, man. You can do this, he told himself. He took another slow breath and while releasing it, managed to whisper, “I love you, Fran.”

When she didn’t respond immediately, he wondered if he had said it too softly. He rolled his eyes and steadied himself to say it again, louder this time when he felt her arms grip his tightly.

“Really?” she whispered, her voice trembling with emotion.

He smiled and hugged her more tightly to him, nodding his head to answer her question. “Yes, really,” he declared, his voice strong and sincere.

She leaned her body to the side slightly and turned her head to look at him, the mischievous sparkle and her disbelieving smirk causing him to raise an eyebrow before she even could ask her next question. “Are you sure this time?”

Maxwell chuckled and nodded again. “All right, I deserved that, but yes, I mean it. I love you so much, Fran, and I’m never going to deny it again.”

She smiled at him, a beautiful, warm smile full of love that made his heart sing. “I love you, too.”

Releasing her waist with one arm, he raised his gloved hand to rest on her jaw, pulling her toward him. Tilting his head down, he brushed his mouth across hers lightly, his dry lips barely touching hers. Both of their eyes closed, unable to resist the pull of another kiss. After a few minutes, Maxwell pulled slowly away from Fran, his breathing short and cheeks flushed with warmth, and gazed adoringly into her eyes. They were lost to each other when a twin set of giggles pulled them back to reality. Maxwell glanced up and saw Brighton, Grace, and Carol standing by the railing snickering at their public display of affection. Well, at least the girls were laughing. Brighton looked morbidly fascinated and not a little embarrassed.

Fran caught the look as well and felt unaccustomedly shy at getting caught making out with their father in a public place. She tried to slip out of Maxwell’s embrace and put some distance between them, but Maxwell caught her around the waist and pulled her back to him, his arms locking tightly around her. He obviously didn’t mind the children – or anyone else in New York for that matter – knowing about them. Surprised by his bold movement, she relaxed again in his embrace and flashed him a grateful smile. The brilliant smile he returned made her knees feel weak. He started to lean in for another kiss when she heard Grace call impatiently.

“Daddy!”

Maxwell looked up and cleared his throat. “Yes, Grace?”

“Carol’s dad is here to pick us up for our sleep over. Can you take my skates home for me, please?”

“Certainly, Sweetheart. Do we have Carol’s contact information?”

“I’ve stayed over at Carol’s before. Fran has their number if you need it.”

“Have a great time, Grace.”

Grace and Carol squealed in excitement and skated off, leaving an awkward Brighton behind. He smiled weakly at them as Maggie and Sean approached from behind.

“Hey, Dad! Sean and I are going to catch an action flick over at the Cineplex before we come home. Niles already said he’d pick us up and bring us home by about eleven.”

Brighton perked up at this information. “The new mob story staring Bruce Willis? I’ve been dying to see that one. Can I come with you?”

“Ugh! No way, who wants a Nuchshlep hanging around?”

Brighton flashed an appalled glance toward his father, who was now nuzzling Fran’s neck. He turned back to his sister. “Please, Maggie. You can’t make me ride home with them while that’s going on. I’ll be sick.”

“I see your point. Okay, twerp, but you have to sit in another row.”

“Thanks!”

Maggie giggled at Brighton’s obvious relief and turned back to her father. “Dad? Daaaad. Daddy!”

Maxwell finally looked up at his daughter and waved them away. “Call if you’re not going to be home on time.”

Now in their snow boots, Grace and Carol walked up to deposit Grace’s skates and give Fran and Max a hug goodnight before heading towards the waiting car. “See you tomorrow, Fran. G’Night, Daddy.”

It occurred to Fran that Grace would need a few things at home first. “Oh, Gracie. You’ll need to swing by the house and pick up an overnight bag first.”

“It’s in the trunk. Niles has already gone to get it for me.”

Fran cocked her head to the side in thought as the two still-giggling girls skipped away toward Carol’s father. She turned back to Maxwell and lifted her eyebrows in innocence. “You know, it’s not very often that all the kids have plans on the same night.”

She saw the gleam in Maxwell’s eye before he took her by the hand and pulled her towards the limo.

*****************

As the car glided smoothly through the city streets, Fran stole a sideways look at Max. Appearing to be lost in his thoughts, he wore a warm smile on his lips. The whole evening had gone so well. The light-hearted banter at the restaurant, the silly antics at the ice skating rink, the warm feelings of family togetherness. And it had all culminated in the three words he had whispered in her ear. On the surface, a simple statement, but none she had ever heard before in her life had carried such meaning. He loved her. He was sure of it, and so was she. And knowing that wrapped her in the most glorious feeling she had experienced in her entire life. She loved him too. More than she had ever felt herself capable of loving a man.

He reached over and took her hand. Pulling it gently to his lips, he placed a soft, lingering kiss on the back of it.

“Thank you, Miss Fine, for allowing me the wonderful pleasure of your company.” His emerald eyes crinkled slightly as he smiled at her.

She returned his smile and turned her body to face him. Reaching to grasp both of his hands between her own, she leaned in and placed a whisper of a kiss on his lips. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Sheffield. I had a great time tonight.” They both smiled sheepishly at their continued use of formal address. It was clear that they had moved way beyond that, and both were focusing their thoughts on taking it even further.

His heart rate picked up when she didn’t lean away from him, but continued to smile, her face only a couple of inches from his. He couldn’t look away. Her eyes sparkled in the faint evening light, and he watched her look at him, her eyes roaming over his face. A happiness and peace exuded from them, making him catch his breath. She beckoned him, pulling him in. At that moment, he wondered how he could have ever denied the feelings he had for her. And since he had begun to realize how close he had come to losing her, he wanted to show her how he felt.

She continued to look at him as the limo made its way through the evening traffic. Patting his hands affectionately, she started to slide back into her seat, but he wasn’t ready for her to go. He grasped at her wrists and pulled her closer, their knees bumping together as she slid across the leather seat toward him. Her eyes widened slightly at his move, then narrowed again in amusement.

“Did you want something, Mr. Sheffield?” she posed coyly.

The suggestion in her voiced almost scared him away, his mind automatically throwing up a barrier at her flirtatious comment. He shook his head at his own habitual fears and shoved them away. He didn’t have any reason for fear anymore. Now was the time for bold action, to let her know that she was worth any risk to his heart.

He reached over with one hand and pressed a button to raise the privacy glass and watched her eyes widen as it lifted.

“Yes,” he managed, his voice shaking slightly at the confession. He watched her eyes for any signs of doubt, but saw only hope and desire as they drew across his face.

Oh, she did love to see that look in his eye! He hadn’t allowed himself to show his desire for her many times since Paris, but when he did, the power of that look rendered her breathless. She decided to see how far he would let it go between them.

“Oh? And what would that be, Mr. Sheffield?”

As she answered, she slid her legs away slightly turning her body to close the distance between them. Placing her hands on the seat next to his leg, she leaned in, pressing her chest against him and bringing her face right next to his. She felt his hands slide up around her shoulders, pausing as they reached her neck to cradle her head while his thumbs stroked gently across her cheeks.

He felt her breath on his lips now, his own breathing deepening as the anticipation of their kiss grew between them. He licked his lips in nervousness and heard her breath catch slightly, her eyes fixed on his mouth. He swallowed once before he could answer.

“You, Fran. I want you.”

His words were music to her ears and her heart skipped a beat. She wished she could smile at him, to show him the happiness she felt inside, but her feelings of desire overwhelmed her. She could only close her eyes and savor the words.

The idea that he trusted her – heart and body – left her speechless. She closed the distance to kiss him, tilting her head into his hands and opening her mouth at the gentle pressure of his lips. She swallowed his moan when the tip of her tongue snuck out to caress his bottom lip. Oh, he tasted so good!

Something broke loose inside him when he felt her tongue slip into his mouth. Unable to maintain a gentlemanly restraint, he released her head and let his left hand unzip her jacket while his right reached inside to wrap it around her back. He pulled her tightly against him as he repositioned his mouth and kissed her again delving deeper. His other hand slid lightly over her stomach and side and after a brief hesitation, slid up to gently stroke the side of her sweater-covered breast. He felt her body arch into his questing hand, letting him know she wanted him to touch her, so he brought his other hand up to join the first and captured the resulting moan with a deep kiss that set off another wave of desire.

God, he loved that sound she made. Relieved at her enthusiastic response to his advances, he threaded his fingers through her long tresses and pressed her head tightly to him as he explored her mouth before dropping his hands back down to wrap around her waist, skimming over her soft curves.

Fran was on fire. She’d never felt this level of intense desire for anyone before. Unable to move slowly anymore, she ran her hands up his chest and slid them into his jacket. As the pace of their kisses increased, she ran her fingernails up through his hair with one hand while the other unwrapped the scarf at his throat.

Before he could protest, she’d pushed his coat from his shoulders, removed his scarf and had his sweater pushed half way up his chest. She dipped her head down to kiss his exposed skin when she felt his hands pulling her head away from his body, but she wasn’t having it.

“Fran, we’re almost home...” he whispered.

Before he could utter another word, she shocked him by slipping her leg over his, sliding onto his lap and straddling him. She kissed him softly and placed a finger over his lips, stilling his protests and questions. Leaning toward the door, she cleared her throat and pressed the intercom button.

“Yes, Sir?” came Niles’ voice through the speaker.

“Um, Niles?” she said in the most casual tone she could muster.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

“Could you drive us down around Battery Park? We’d like to try to catch the last ferry to the statue tonight.”

She could almost hear the knowing smile in his answer. They both knew that the last ferry had left long ago. “Certainly, Miss Fine,” came his perceptive response.

She released the button with a flick of her wrist and wiggled her body over Maxwell’s lap, smiling satisfactorily. Her movements practically jerked him to his feet.

“Miss Fine!” he shot out, causing her to grin slightly at the contrast between the position they were in and the way he addressed her.

She grasped his head between her hands and leaned over him, gripping his legs between her knees, her hips sliding involuntarily into him. She closed her eyes and released a sigh at the delicious feel of his body beneath her.

“Shh,” she whispered, “I’m not ready to stop yet.”

He brought his hands up to grasp her head, stilling her movements, his eyebrows crinkling in distress. “Fran, I don’t want to do this here.”

She couldn’t help but tease him a little. “Do what, Mr. Sheffield?” Again, with the formality.

He kissed her tenderly, the mere notion of voicing his thoughts driving him crazy with desire. “I don’t want to make love to you in the backseat of a car.”

“Have you ever tried it?”

“Of course not,” he answered affronted. “It’s not proper.”

“I don’t want proper, Max. I want you. Now,” she declared, the look on her face heavy with intent.

His eyes darkened at her words. She fought against closing her eyes in response to the intensity of the feelings rioting through her body. Her breath lay heavy on his face as she leaned in for a series of light kisses while she stroked his naked chest with her fingernails. His hands came up to grasp her wrists and still her actions when her hips drove into his body again.

“Miss Fiiiinnnne,” he gasped as she repeated her torturous actions.

In answer, she tightened her legs against his and grabbed his head kissing him almost violently, thrusting her tongue deep inside his mouth. He resisted for a second, and then found himself reciprocating, wrapping his arms around her bottom and pulling her into his body.

Without any more protest, he took control, whipping her around and laying her down on the seat before settling his weight on top of her. Unable to stop herself, her body reacted on impulse and her hips thrust up into his. They both moaned at the feeling before Max brushed her hair back and attacked her neck with hot, open-mouthed kisses.

Instinctively, her legs wrapped around his hips. Their breathing came short and rapid as she turned her head so he could continue his kisses on the other side of her neck. She felt his fingers find their way under her sweater, and her mind pleaded for their touch her. She didn’t have to wait long and literally gasped as she felt him brush across her sensitive skin.

At the same moment, they both realized the awkwardness of the setting and sensed the need for the freedom and luxury of Max’s bed. Max pulled his mouth from her first. Taking a few seconds to get his breathing under control, he whispered, “You know, the kids are out for the next couple of hours. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly empty house.”

Pushing away the fleeting worry that he might use the interval between car and bedroom to have second thoughts, Fran swallowed before mouthing, “Take me home.”

Max reached over and pressed the intercom again.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

A few seconds passed while Max finished a deep and loving kiss. “Niles, we’ve changed our minds. Take us home.”

Niles’ response was cut off as Max released the button. He stared into Fran’s beautiful, glistening eyes and was profoundly touched by the deep love and desire he saw emanating from them. Although it took everything they had in them, they both understood the need to slow things down for now. One more moment, they both knew, and that would have been impossible. Slowly, he bent his head lower and met her lips in a sweet and tender kiss. Then he sat up, pulling her up with him. They took a few deep breaths while they adjusted their clothing. They settled back into the seat, his arm around her and her head nestled on his shoulder.

Fran snuggled up against Max and relished the feeling of holding him so close. She closed her eyes and drew in a supremely satisfied sigh. She couldn’t believe that finally, after all the flirting, all the games, he had uttered those three precious words she had dreamed of hearing for so long. And at last the two of them were only moments away from consummating the deep feelings they held for each other.

Suddenly, her eyebrows drew together as a slightly panicked thought crossed her mind. What they were about to do was a very serious step and it could change everything. Was she ready for that? She had just barely begun to get comfortable in her new life, her new way of thinking. Would succumbing to Max’s love destroy all that? Just as quickly, she pushed her questions aside as she felt Maxwell put his other arm around her and squeeze her to him. God, being held by him that way was pure euphoria.

The limo glided to a smooth stop in front of the Sheffield mansion. Just before Max opened the door, he lowered the privacy glass and cleared his throat. “Uh, Niles, why don’t you take the rest of the evening off? I’m sure we won’t be needing you for anything else.”

Having anticipated his boss’ request, Niles remained behind the wheel, nodding and smiling knowingly as he watched them via the rearview mirror. He chuckled softly. They were so lost in each other, his two best friends had already forgotten about him, not to mention the children. Maybe he would join CC at the theater. Rehearsals were scheduled to run until ten o’clock tonight. Checking in and offering his assistance while he waited for Maggie and Brighton’s movie to end was a great excuse to see her. Excited by the prospect, he was ready to push on the accelerator and vacate the premises as soon as he heard the door close.

*****************

CC Babcock had never been so mercurial as she was tonight – the last night before dress rehearsals began. Many of the crew had worked for Maxwell Sheffield Productions in the past and were used to her sharp tongue and demanding nature, but this went way beyond their experience. It was strange; she was still the Bitch of Broadway, but her passion about this story went beyond her habitual modus operandi of craving acclaim or money. This was personal and it scared the hell out of all of them. The stage manager had a bet going with the costumer that she’d hurt one of the actors before the night was over. Not in an emotional sense – no, he firmly believed she would inflict actual physical pain to the point of death if the actors didn’t get the scene right soon.

Niles entered the darkened theater to hear CC abusing the stage crew. He grinned. He couldn’t help it. He’d never met anyone else with more fire than she had. Since he’d rewritten the script for her play, they’d been working more and more together and their interactions had changed from verbal warfare to a playful, teasing banter. He loved it and wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were for anything in the world.

He slipped into a seat behind her as CC grumbled a string of expletives under her breath that would make a sailor blush. She was so steamed that she was practically smoking, but still retained enough control not to swear at the children. The actors began the interrupted scene again. Niles kept one eye on the actors and one on CC as they moved through their parts. It was the finale and he could tell by the set of her shoulders that their portrayal wasn’t meeting her expectations. She was as tense as a bowstring, ready to snap from the tension in her shoulders. He concentrated on the actors and realized that if they reworded a few of the key lines, it would probably work better.

He leaned forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, rubbing lightly to soothe away her agitation. He was taking a chance, touching her. Normally, an action this intimate would be an invitation for dismemberment, but he’d found over the past three weeks that her emotions were very susceptible to a soothing massage. Who would have thought that he could have breeched the ever-present class issue between them with a simple neck rub?

In his own mind, he believed he was the only one that could melt the Ice Queen’s heart, that it was the real person under his butler façade that touched her. His next thought almost made him chuckle out loud – that he might be her Achilles Heel. His muffled laugh went unnoticed as she slumped back in her seat and threw her arm over her eyes, grumbling again under her breath. He intensified the pressure of his fingertips and felt her start to relax against the back of the seat. Yes, he hoped that it had more to do with him than with the physical act, but he wasn’t ready to test that theory yet. For now, he’d do what he could to save their poor, harassed actors from CC’s wrath.

“CC, you’re tighter than Zsa Zsa Gabor after a facelift. What’s wrong?”

“IT is all wrong.”

“Well, that explanation cleared everything. Thanks so much.”

She lifted her arm just high enough to glare at him. “IT! IT is the monster, you puerile oaf. Meg’s fight against IT is the hardest thing she has ever done. IT is supposed to be an insurmountable enemy, not this … gah! I can’t even describe it.”

Niles turned his attention back to the stage for a minute after CC dropped her arm over her eyes again. He knew that this story was extremely personal for CC and that the play needed to portray her struggles against personal demons. He nodded his head. “I think I can help. May I call a break?”

She gestured towards the stage with her free arm in a haphazard way and grumbled from beneath her sleeve. “Have at it. I give up.”

Niles stood and called, “Let’s take a break.”

The stage manager looked toward CC for confirmation and shrugged when she didn’t move to counteract Niles’ request. “Writer in the house,” he called. “Okay, people, you heard him. Take five before we try again.”

“Margo and Brian, can I talk to you privately?” Niles called.

CC finally lifted her arm from over her eyes and watched Niles jog up the aisle to speak to the actors. She hadn’t looked at him when he’d settled down behind her, but she’d known he was there. She wasn’t sure if it was a sixth sense or if she’d caught a whiff of his cologne, but she’d immediately relaxed when he arrived – and that was before he touched her! Once he’d done that, she’d had to throw her arm over her eyes to conceal her delight at his deft touch. She’d actually almost purred like a damned cat! The man was going to destroy her reputation if she wasn’t careful.

Now that she had some physical distance between them, she felt safe looking. He’d shed his jacket and tie and had rolled up his shirtsleeves, however, his scarf still hung loosely around his neck. God, had he always looked that sexy or was he doing something different now? She let her eyes walk down his body as he skipped up the stairs and crossed the stage, lingering on his backside when he knelt down to talk with ‘Charles Wallace’ and ‘Meg’. His gesturing hands captivated her gaze, but when a stray thought about his talented hands took her mind in a direction she wasn’t prepared to go, she stood quickly and fled backstage. A thunderous Babcock scowl kept the crew at bay until she closed the door to her tiny office. Once inside, she promptly leaned her forehead against the door and released a tight breath of relief. She was losing it.

That she was attracted to Niles wasn’t anything new, nor was it difficult to conceptualize becoming physically intimate with him. Playing around with the help was something she’d seen those of her class doing her whole life. Her problem is that she didn’t want to play. She wanted it to be real – a real, honest-to-God, loving relationship that would last the rest of her life – and that scared the crap out of her. Over the past few weeks, she’d realized that although Niles wasn’t everything she’d ever wanted in a man, he was everything she needed. Clever, strong, sensitive, handsome, creative; she knew now that Niles didn’t have to be a butler, but for some unknown reason, had chosen that life for himself. She wasn’t sure why, but that made all the difference in her mind.

Working on this production with him had been a wonderful surprise. He seemed to know what she needed before she asked and was always willing to help in any way possible. He had a knack with people and his insights had sparked off ideas for her on more than one occasion. They’d worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other rather than hurling insults and she knew now that they made a great team. For the first time, she realized that together they could do anything, solve any problem – a new and scary concept for someone used to going through life alone. Instinctively, she’d known how well they got along, but tonight was the first time she could admit it consciously. It was difficult to think about – that a butler and a Babcock would fit so perfectly together. However, since the night she’d allowed herself to see beyond his station, she’d discovered what an amazing man Niles really was. Now, she was so fascinated with him that she could hardly think of anything else.

Part of her tension tonight was the realization that as soon as the benefit was over, things might go back to the way they were before and she didn’t want that. Now that she had him in her life, she didn’t want to let him go.

She admitted that she was scared to take the next step and get involved with him, afraid that he might revert back to his customary attitude and use her weaknesses against her, but she realized with a jolt that it was a risk she was willing to take. If the past few weeks had proven anything, it was that Niles could overcome the conditioning of twenty years of insults and she could too. If he felt even a tenth for her what she’d been feeling for him, they’d be dynamite together.

A soft knock startled her from her thoughts and his concerned voice through the door started her heart racing.

“CC?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready”

CC pictured pouncing on him like a cat and kissing him senseless. Oh yeah, she was ready. She swallowed the image with a gulp. “Yeah.”

He paused. “Will that be sometime this century? The rest of us would like to sleep in a bed tonight.”

She covered her flushed face with her hands at the thought of sleeping with Niles. She had to get a hold of herself. Or get a hold of him. God, why did every thought seem to slide into the gutter tonight? It was like Niles was in her head, tweaking every comment with sexual overtones. She shook her head again; the solution to her every problem was not to lose her inhibitions and throw herself at him. The risks were too great, weren’t they? She paused. Maybe they weren’t. What would he do if she launched herself at him? Would he catch her and reciprocate? The questions were driving her crazy and after so many innuendoes, she wanted to turn the tables on him and see if it led anywhere.

It was time to find out.

Before she could over-think things and reconsider, she released the top two buttons on her shirt and flipped her head down and up, fluffing her hair. Pasting a sultry expression on, she threw open the door and had to stifle a giggle as Niles almost tumbled to the floor. Before he could do anything more than steady himself against the doorframe, CC stepped close, effectively pinning him to the wall. She ran her hands up his chest and locked them behind his neck as she sent him a smoky look. She heard his breath hitch as her lips brushed against his.

“Is that all you want, Niles, to sleep in a bed tonight?”

She kissed him, a long draw against his startled lips. He recovered just long enough to start kissing her back when she released him and stepped away. She eyed him from top to bottom and licked her lips before turning and walking away, tossing a parting comment over her shoulder as she went. “Pity. I expected something more imaginative from you than a bed.”

Niles watched her hips sway as she walked away with his still-tingling mouth gaped open. Who and what was that?! She looked like CC Babcock, but no incarnation he’d ever seen outside of his dreams. He foolishly pinched himself just to be sure he was awake before he watched her disappear around the corner. Absently, his fingers lifted and touched his lips, amazed at how she’d kissed him. Was she serious or simply toying with him? A few weeks ago, he would have dismissed it as a ploy to mess with his head, but now he wasn’t so sure. Her actions were so out of character that he didn’t know what to do. He knew what he wanted to do – to trust their new friendship and see where it could take them. ‘What the hell,’ he thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’

He smiled as her final words came back to him. So she wanted to play that game, did she? Right, then. Game on. He pushed away from the wall and went after her.

By the time he caught up with her, she was perched against an armrest, one long leg crossed over the other, the long expanse of flesh exposed through a slit in her skirt. His steps slowed as he neared her as he took in the image. His eyes flicked to her face, only to drop down her neckline past the undone buttons to see a black lace something peeking out from behind her blouse. Added to the memory of her kiss and words, he felt the temperature rise a few degrees and his knees wobble just a bit before he could steady himself. He heard her clear her throat and recognized with a start that he’d stopped walking to stand in the aisle, gaping at her. She chuckled and then moved toward the center of her row, propping herself up on the back of a chair before shouting for the crew to begin the final scene from the top.

He sidled up the row behind her and stood facing the stage, feigning indifference to her charms as the actors began. He placed his hands on her waist and stroked her sides with his thumbs until she squirmed. Her only other reaction was to lift her chin, her forehead pinched in concentration at the actors’ performance. His mouth quirked as he leaned in to watch the scene over her shoulder and distracted her when his chest rubbed up against her back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch. She didn’t look at him, but she reached down and trapped his hands against her stomach. They both released a soft sigh as she intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

He was about to respond when CC leaned forward, caught by the actions on stage. The actors had come to the section that hadn’t been working before and they were making their way through the dialogue he’d modified. He watched in gratification and amazement at CC’s intense look, as though trying to give them her vision through sheer determination. He tuned into the words again and nodded his head. Yes, that was better. He thought that particular phrasing captured the feelings CC wanted to convey. He turned to look at her and was amazed to see tears in her eyes as her mouth opened to whisper an emphatic “Yes!” as both she and Meg finally beat IT with love.

Niles was caught up in the scene before him, seeing not the actors’ portrayal, but CC’s lifelong struggle against her personal demons, when for the first time in her life, her love had been strong enough to conquer greed, vanity and the indifference that had stolen her dreams as a child. His mouth parted in wonder as his heart filled to bursting with love for the woman with him.

Feeling his gaze or his emotions – he wasn’t sure which – CC turned her head to look at him with a new admiration in her eyes, a starry-eyed wonder bordering on worship for the gift he’d given her. She shocked him when she stood up abruptly and turned to throw her arms around his neck, kissing him gently on the cheek.

“Thank you.”

Overcome, Niles simply nodded his response. He’d never felt this way before, but would give everything he had to hold this moment for the rest of his life. He was sure that it only lasted seconds, although it felt much longer to him, before CC pulled away and smiled at him before turning back to the stage clapping her hands. “Perfect,” she yelled to the nervous figures awaiting her response. After a round of applause and hugs from the entire crew, CC gave a pep talk for the following night’s dress rehearsals before dismissing everyone for the night.

Behind the stage curtain, the stage manager and costumer watched as Niles helped CC on with her coat before gathering his. They watched them smile shyly at each other before Niles took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. CC raised their joined hands and kissed the back of Niles’ before he dragged her, giggling, from the theater. The stage manager shook his head and grudgingly slapped a twenty-dollar bill into the costumer’s open palm. She’d bet him a week ago that Niles would slip through the Ice Queen’s frosty exterior and into her heart, but until tonight, he had thought there was no way.

Well, ‘twas the season, and if anything ever qualified as a miracle, this did.

*****************

to be continued...
Another great installment! I loved Fran in the limo, that was so her, taking charge.




<font size=1>Fran: I tell you it is just so adorable how you can't really express the way you feel. Like all the times that you yell and scream at me, when in reality, you wanna hug me.
Max: Well...
Fran: And all those times that you fired me, when in reality you wanna kiss me.
Max: All right...
Fran: When you told me you loved me and you took it back, when in reality...
Max: No, actually, that I meant.
Fran: I hate you.
Max: No you don't. You really want to hug me.
Fran: Okay I'm busted!</font>
Last edited by Celcool on December 2nd, 2007, 6:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Joined: November 11th, 2006, 6:06 am

December 2nd, 2007, 4:20 pm #4

I'm really loving this story. At first I was shying away because I'm not much fro fran and Max any more, but you've got my attention. I'm loving the way Fran has decided to take control of her life and not rely on a man for anything. And when i first came across those Niles and CC scences, I was hocked, lined, and sank for sure. I can't wait for the next chapter. And hopefully you send it in all at once, so I can read to the whole way through. Keep em comin brit..
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Joined: December 11th, 2005, 6:15 pm

December 2nd, 2007, 7:30 pm #5

WooHoo!!! ! Excellent!!!

I loved Fran and Max in the limo and the fact that Max gave Niles the rest of the
night off. Things are definitely looking up for them.

...And of course, I am absolutely blown away by that scene of CC and Niles in the theater.
Love is definitely in the air!!

I am eagerly anticipating part 10.

Thanks again for a wonderful story.

Teri
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Joined: June 24th, 2004, 2:47 pm

December 3rd, 2007, 12:16 am #6

Great installment, I loved it! There's only one thing I have to say to you.. more, more, more! LOL

-HB-
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Joined: April 24th, 2007, 8:26 pm

December 3rd, 2007, 2:05 am #7

Thanks to all of you that posted such delicious feedback on the last part - it was much appreciated.

And just 'cause I'm that way, I wanted to post a PG-13 or gentle R-rating warning for the next two parts as things begin heating up. Nothing graphic, but if you're sensitive to 'that other thing' (miss you, Bama), please skip these chapters. For all others, please let me know what you think about part 9.


*********************

“Daddy, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Maxwell lifted his head from his paperwork to see his youngest daughter standing just inside the door, fidgeting and wringing her fingers together nervously. The thought struck him that she looked just like Miss Fine when she had something to say to him that she thought he wouldn't like. Hmm—Miss Fine. She had virtually disappeared lately, secluding herself in her room or taking off at the drop of a hat. He scowled at her disappearances, wishing they’d been able to spend more time together. He knew now why she was so busy, but he still found it frustrating that he hadn't been able to take her out at all over the past weeks. He shook his head at the thought; he'd been doing really well today keeping his mind on his work and not letting himself wonder about Fran.

Grace's voice broke through his melancholic thoughts. “I'll come back later. Sorry for bothering you.”

Maxwell could almost hear the quiver in her voice and he was startled to see his daughter's disappointed face disappearing around the door. He realized that she had misinterpreted his silent grimace as annoyance at her request. He pulled his glasses off and stood up quickly from his desk. “Grace, wait!” he called urgently, wanting to reassure her that he wasn't angry with her. “Of course you're not a bother. I just had something else on my mind.”

He rounded his desk and caught up with her in the hallway. Shepherding her back into his office, he sat her down on the sofa. Her uncertain eyes followed him around as he sat to her right, her teeth capturing her bottom lip with worry. Another of Fran's traits, he thought in passing. He smiled at her affectionately and placed his arm around her shoulders, giving her a loving squeeze. “Now, what's on your mind?”

She leaned into his hug, wrapping her arms around his waist and snuggling into his chest. She held him for a moment just breathing in his smell and soaking up his warmth. She loved her dad and was so happy he was spending more time with them and with Fran. However, he’d been very busy at the theater lately and she wanted to have some fun with him. She looked up at his face from the comfortable spot on his chest and smiled at his adoring grin.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Grace.”

“I love spending time with you.”

He smiled indulgently. “I love spending time with you, too, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to the theater today?” she queried.

“Well, I had planned on stopping by for a bit. Why?”

“You've been very busy lately, and I've missed you.”

His eyebrow quirked up at both her words of affection and her leading question. He wondered what she wanted to convince him to do. “I’ve missed you, too. Is there something you needed?”

“My friend Carol called and wanted to know if I could sleep over tonight,” Gracie explained.

“On a school night?” he asked, his head tilted in surprise.

She lifted an eyebrow at him, his bewildered expression mirrored back to him. “Daddy, we're on Christmas break!” she told him. “Today was the last day of school for two whole weeks.”

Was it time for the winter holiday already? That meant that Christmas was just days away and he hadn't made any preparations yet. Where had the time gone? He realized with chagrin that he had let Christmas sneak up on him, similar to the years following Sara's death, but it hadn't happened since Miss Fine had come to live with them. He sighed. Between his long working hours and Miss Fine’s busy schedule, he’d completely forgotten about the holidays. He squeezed Grace to him, glad that his children weren't allowing him to disappear from their lives altogether.

“Of course you can go, sweetheart. Why did you want to know if I'd be out tonight?”

“Well, I wanted to celebrate with you first.”

“That sounds lovely. What do you want to do?”

Her look morphed into a concentrated expression, her finger tapping her chin. “Something especially wintry to celebrate Christmas and the beautiful, cold weather. Maybe we could go someplace outdoors with lots of Christmas lights...”

Maxwell smiled at her, trying hard not to laugh; even without knowing how much she loved ice-skating, it was obvious where she wanted to go. He wondered why she felt it necessary to put on this performance. “Grace, would you like to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center tonight?” he asked graciously.

A victorious smile creased her face as he arrived at her predestined location. She hugged him tightly again and then popped excitedly up from her seat. “Daddy, that's a great idea! I'd love to go.”

Standing up, he laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. Then turning her by the shoulders, he nudged her toward the door. “I’ll tell you what. Go tell your brother and sister and we'll make it a family outing tonight for pizza and ice-skating. And tomorrow, you and I can go to Rumplemeyer’s for some ice cream. What do you think, eh?”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Gracie beamed as she turned and scurried out of her dad’s office.

Maxwell stood looking after her and smiled to himself. Looking forward to the evening, once again he felt grateful that his three wonderful children wouldn’t allow him to drift too far away. Not like the last time, anyway, and he knew just who he should thank for the loving and close relationship between him and his kids—Miss Fine. Fran. How quickly he found his thoughts settling back on her.

And speaking about drifting away... Had it already been three weeks since her birthday dinner? He felt gratified at how she seemed to relish his attention and how touched she’d been with the beautiful pendant he’d given her. But these past three weeks, he’d hardly seen her. He sighed deeply in frustration. Well, he’d have to make sure he invited her tonight. After all, he had proclaimed it a family outing, and of course that meant Fran. And it was the holiday season – a time for families to be together. At this point, he certainly wasn’t above using whatever ruse he could come up with to try to convince her to come.

********************

Fran dropped onto the living room sofa with an exhausted sigh. She had really enjoyed her first semester of school, but final exams she could do without! Grateful that her tests were over, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around trying to loosen up her tightened and sore neck muscles. Taking a deep breath, the aroma of pine and cinnamon filled her with an excitement for Christmas that she hadn't taken the time to appreciate before now. She couldn't help the delighted smile that appeared on her face as she turned to look at the Christmas tree, the colorful decorations and twinkling lights soothing her frayed nerves. Niles must have put it up today while they were all out at school. She stared at it for a long moment before her eyes drifted closed.

Maxwell and Grace entered the living room to find Fran apparently asleep on the sofa, a slight grin still on her face. Grace glanced up at her father, but his eyes were fixed on her nanny. She grinned knowingly and skipped past him and up the stairs to find her siblings and her skates.

Maxwell's steps slowed and then finally stopped as reached the couch. He stared at her, a myriad of emotions passing through him. He could be upset about the way she’d disappeared over the past few weeks, but he knew she was spending her time studying for finals with Chris. But at that moment, as he pondered her beautiful, peaceful face, there was no anger in him. There was longing, desire, gratitude and mostly a deep and overwhelming love. He sent another silent thank you skyward that she’d given him another chance and vowed again not to let her down.

As if she sensed the feelings pouring out of his heart and flowing over her, she opened her eyes and looked up to see him standing there. Blinking a few times and gathering herself a bit, she sat up quickly. “Oh, Max. I’m sorry. I don’t usually sleep during the day, but I guess I’ve been overdoing it a little lately.” Looking herself over and straightening her blouse, she said, “I’m fine now. What did you need?” She looked up at him expectantly.

Maxwell was at a momentary loss for words. God, that was a loaded question. He knew exactly what he needed from her—wanted from her. Taking a breath, he turned and sat next to her. He cleared his throat in an attempt to get his thoughts back on track. “Grace and I have come up with an idea for a family night, and we were both hoping you’d be able to join us.”

Fran thought for a minute and realized that now that her finals were out of the way, her schedule was quite open. Having the long winter break ahead of her felt so good in contrast to how busy she’d been lately. Of course, there were things to be done at the women’s shelter, but without so much schoolwork pulling at her, there would be plenty of time to relax and have some fun. “Sounds good. What’d you have in mind?”

“Pizza and ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. What do you say?”

“I say count me in!” Fran exclaimed.

“You don’t have plans this evening?”

“Nope. Free as a bird.”

Maxwell felt a flood of relief wash over him. “Fantastic!” he nearly shouted, jumping to his feet. “How much time do you need to get ready?”

Fran watched him skirt the couch and stride energetically through the foyer. “Uh, about half an hour,” she replied, glancing at her watch.

Maxwell barely heard her as he took the stairs two at a time barking, “Children! We’re leaving in half an hour! Dress warmly!”

Amused, Fran stood up from the couch wondering if she’d ever seen anyone so damned excited about going ice-skating.

*****************

Maxwell placed their skates on the shelf just inside the rental office window and started to return to their shared bench, but Fran was no longer there. Scanning the surrounding area, he found her standing near the railing, waving energetically to Grace as she skated past with her friend. He had missed this, being with her and his children on a family outing. In fact, he could think of nothing that felt more right.
He felt a swelling in his heart as she leaned against the railing, calling to Maggie as she skated by with Sean, the two of them clinging to each other so tightly that Maggie caught her skate on his, causing them both to tumble down in a giggling mass of teenage flesh. Fran laughed out loud at their antics, her infectious bray causing multiple heads to turn and several strangers to laugh as well, joining in with her. God, he loved to hear her laugh. Just as in life, she did it with gusto, regardless of whether anyone else laughed with her. Since the first time he’d heard it while looking over her résumé, he knew there was something magical about her.

He loved her laugh. He loved her smile. He loved her joyous spirit. He loved her, plain and simple, and it was time to tell her so without reservation. Maxwell walked softly toward her, his footsteps crunching in the fresh snow behind her. He could tell that she heard him coming because of the way she stood up straight and fell back against him as he wrapped his arms about her waist. He gave her a squeeze and their heads came together, and automatic sigh and a puff of white mist escaping both of their mouths at the comfortable and loving embrace.

Maxwell turned his head slightly to place his lips at Fran’s ear. Although he was determined to tell her now, he paused, suddenly nervous about voicing his feelings to her. Would she accept him or would she reject him, telling him that she was no longer interested? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, the white vapor spreading out past her face. He chastised himself for shying away from this again, but his voice caught and he couldn’t get the words out.

Come on, man. You can do this, he told himself. He took another slow breath and while releasing it, managed to whisper, “I love you, Fran.”

When she didn’t respond immediately, he wondered if he had said it too softly. He rolled his eyes and steadied himself to say it again, louder this time when he felt her arms grip his tightly.

“Really?” she whispered, her voice trembling with emotion.

He smiled and hugged her more tightly to him, nodding his head to answer her question. “Yes, really,” he declared, his voice strong and sincere.

She leaned her body to the side slightly and turned her head to look at him, the mischievous sparkle and her disbelieving smirk causing him to raise an eyebrow before she even could ask her next question. “Are you sure this time?”

Maxwell chuckled and nodded again. “All right, I deserved that, but yes, I mean it. I love you so much, Fran, and I’m never going to deny it again.”

She smiled at him, a beautiful, warm smile full of love that made his heart sing. “I love you, too.”

Releasing her waist with one arm, he raised his gloved hand to rest on her jaw, pulling her toward him. Tilting his head down, he brushed his mouth across hers lightly, his dry lips barely touching hers. Both of their eyes closed, unable to resist the pull of another kiss. After a few minutes, Maxwell pulled slowly away from Fran, his breathing short and cheeks flushed with warmth, and gazed adoringly into her eyes. They were lost to each other when a twin set of giggles pulled them back to reality. Maxwell glanced up and saw Brighton, Grace, and Carol standing by the railing snickering at their public display of affection. Well, at least the girls were laughing. Brighton looked morbidly fascinated and not a little embarrassed.

Fran caught the look as well and felt unaccustomedly shy at getting caught making out with their father in a public place. She tried to slip out of Maxwell’s embrace and put some distance between them, but Maxwell caught her around the waist and pulled her back to him, his arms locking tightly around her. He obviously didn’t mind the children – or anyone else in New York for that matter – knowing about them. Surprised by his bold movement, she relaxed again in his embrace and flashed him a grateful smile. The brilliant smile he returned made her knees feel weak. He started to lean in for another kiss when she heard Grace call impatiently.

“Daddy!”

Maxwell looked up and cleared his throat. “Yes, Grace?”

“Carol’s dad is here to pick us up for our sleep over. Can you take my skates home for me, please?”

“Certainly, Sweetheart. Do we have Carol’s contact information?”

“I’ve stayed over at Carol’s before. Fran has their number if you need it.”

“Have a great time, Grace.”

Grace and Carol squealed in excitement and skated off, leaving an awkward Brighton behind. He smiled weakly at them as Maggie and Sean approached from behind.

“Hey, Dad! Sean and I are going to catch an action flick over at the Cineplex before we come home. Niles already said he’d pick us up and bring us home by about eleven.”

Brighton perked up at this information. “The new mob story staring Bruce Willis? I’ve been dying to see that one. Can I come with you?”

“Ugh! No way, who wants a Nuchshlep hanging around?”

Brighton flashed an appalled glance toward his father, who was now nuzzling Fran’s neck. He turned back to his sister. “Please, Maggie. You can’t make me ride home with them while that’s going on. I’ll be sick.”

“I see your point. Okay, twerp, but you have to sit in another row.”

“Thanks!”

Maggie giggled at Brighton’s obvious relief and turned back to her father. “Dad? Daaaad. Daddy!”

Maxwell finally looked up at his daughter and waved them away. “Call if you’re not going to be home on time.”

Now in their snow boots, Grace and Carol walked up to deposit Grace’s skates and give Fran and Max a hug goodnight before heading towards the waiting car. “See you tomorrow, Fran. G’Night, Daddy.”

It occurred to Fran that Grace would need a few things at home first. “Oh, Gracie. You’ll need to swing by the house and pick up an overnight bag first.”

“It’s in the trunk. Niles has already gone to get it for me.”

Fran cocked her head to the side in thought as the two still-giggling girls skipped away toward Carol’s father. She turned back to Maxwell and lifted her eyebrows in innocence. “You know, it’s not very often that all the kids have plans on the same night.”

She saw the gleam in Maxwell’s eye before he took her by the hand and pulled her towards the limo.

*****************

As the car glided smoothly through the city streets, Fran stole a sideways look at Max. Appearing to be lost in his thoughts, he wore a warm smile on his lips. The whole evening had gone so well. The light-hearted banter at the restaurant, the silly antics at the ice skating rink, the warm feelings of family togetherness. And it had all culminated in the three words he had whispered in her ear. On the surface, a simple statement, but none she had ever heard before in her life had carried such meaning. He loved her. He was sure of it, and so was she. And knowing that wrapped her in the most glorious feeling she had experienced in her entire life. She loved him too. More than she had ever felt herself capable of loving a man.

He reached over and took her hand. Pulling it gently to his lips, he placed a soft, lingering kiss on the back of it.

“Thank you, Miss Fine, for allowing me the wonderful pleasure of your company.” His emerald eyes crinkled slightly as he smiled at her.

She returned his smile and turned her body to face him. Reaching to grasp both of his hands between her own, she leaned in and placed a whisper of a kiss on his lips. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Sheffield. I had a great time tonight.” They both smiled sheepishly at their continued use of formal address. It was clear that they had moved way beyond that, and both were focusing their thoughts on taking it even further.

His heart rate picked up when she didn’t lean away from him, but continued to smile, her face only a couple of inches from his. He couldn’t look away. Her eyes sparkled in the faint evening light, and he watched her look at him, her eyes roaming over his face. A happiness and peace exuded from them, making him catch his breath. She beckoned him, pulling him in. At that moment, he wondered how he could have ever denied the feelings he had for her. And since he had begun to realize how close he had come to losing her, he wanted to show her how he felt.

She continued to look at him as the limo made its way through the evening traffic. Patting his hands affectionately, she started to slide back into her seat, but he wasn’t ready for her to go. He grasped at her wrists and pulled her closer, their knees bumping together as she slid across the leather seat toward him. Her eyes widened slightly at his move, then narrowed again in amusement.

“Did you want something, Mr. Sheffield?” she posed coyly.

The suggestion in her voiced almost scared him away, his mind automatically throwing up a barrier at her flirtatious comment. He shook his head at his own habitual fears and shoved them away. He didn’t have any reason for fear anymore. Now was the time for bold action, to let her know that she was worth any risk to his heart.

He reached over with one hand and pressed a button to raise the privacy glass and watched her eyes widen as it lifted.

“Yes,” he managed, his voice shaking slightly at the confession. He watched her eyes for any signs of doubt, but saw only hope and desire as they drew across his face.

Oh, she did love to see that look in his eye! He hadn’t allowed himself to show his desire for her many times since Paris, but when he did, the power of that look rendered her breathless. She decided to see how far he would let it go between them.

“Oh? And what would that be, Mr. Sheffield?”

As she answered, she slid her legs away slightly turning her body to close the distance between them. Placing her hands on the seat next to his leg, she leaned in, pressing her chest against him and bringing her face right next to his. She felt his hands slide up around her shoulders, pausing as they reached her neck to cradle her head while his thumbs stroked gently across her cheeks.

He felt her breath on his lips now, his own breathing deepening as the anticipation of their kiss grew between them. He licked his lips in nervousness and heard her breath catch slightly, her eyes fixed on his mouth. He swallowed once before he could answer.

“You, Fran. I want you.”

His words were music to her ears and her heart skipped a beat. She wished she could smile at him, to show him the happiness she felt inside, but her feelings of desire overwhelmed her. She could only close her eyes and savor the words.

The idea that he trusted her – heart and body – left her speechless. She closed the distance to kiss him, tilting her head into his hands and opening her mouth at the gentle pressure of his lips. She swallowed his moan when the tip of her tongue snuck out to caress his bottom lip. Oh, he tasted so good!

Something broke loose inside him when he felt her tongue slip into his mouth. Unable to maintain a gentlemanly restraint, he released her head and let his left hand unzip her jacket while his right reached inside to wrap it around her back. He pulled her tightly against him as he repositioned his mouth and kissed her again delving deeper. His other hand slid lightly over her stomach and side and after a brief hesitation, slid up to gently stroke the side of her sweater-covered breast. He felt her body arch into his questing hand, letting him know she wanted him to touch her, so he brought his other hand up to join the first and captured the resulting moan with a deep kiss that set off another wave of desire.

God, he loved that sound she made. Relieved at her enthusiastic response to his advances, he threaded his fingers through her long tresses and pressed her head tightly to him as he explored her mouth before dropping his hands back down to wrap around her waist, skimming over her soft curves.

Fran was on fire. She’d never felt this level of intense desire for anyone before. Unable to move slowly anymore, she ran her hands up his chest and slid them into his jacket. As the pace of their kisses increased, she ran her fingernails up through his hair with one hand while the other unwrapped the scarf at his throat.

Before he could protest, she’d pushed his coat from his shoulders, removed his scarf and had his sweater pushed half way up his chest. She dipped her head down to kiss his exposed skin when she felt his hands pulling her head away from his body, but she wasn’t having it.

“Fran, we’re almost home...” he whispered.

Before he could utter another word, she shocked him by slipping her leg over his, sliding onto his lap and straddling him. She kissed him softly and placed a finger over his lips, stilling his protests and questions. Leaning toward the door, she cleared her throat and pressed the intercom button.

“Yes, Sir?” came Niles’ voice through the speaker.

“Um, Niles?” she said in the most casual tone she could muster.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

“Could you drive us down around Battery Park? We’d like to try to catch the last ferry to the statue tonight.”

She could almost hear the knowing smile in his answer. They both knew that the last ferry had left long ago. “Certainly, Miss Fine,” came his perceptive response.

She released the button with a flick of her wrist and wiggled her body over Maxwell’s lap, smiling satisfactorily. Her movements practically jerked him to his feet.

“Miss Fine!” he shot out, causing her to grin slightly at the contrast between the position they were in and the way he addressed her.

She grasped his head between her hands and leaned over him, gripping his legs between her knees, her hips sliding involuntarily into him. She closed her eyes and released a sigh at the delicious feel of his body beneath her.

“Shh,” she whispered, “I’m not ready to stop yet.”

He brought his hands up to grasp her head, stilling her movements, his eyebrows crinkling in distress. “Fran, I don’t want to do this here.”

She couldn’t help but tease him a little. “Do what, Mr. Sheffield?” Again, with the formality.

He kissed her tenderly, the mere notion of voicing his thoughts driving him crazy with desire. “I don’t want to make love to you in the backseat of a car.”

“Have you ever tried it?”

“Of course not,” he answered affronted. “It’s not proper.”

“I don’t want proper, Max. I want you. Now,” she declared, the look on her face heavy with intent.

His eyes darkened at her words. She fought against closing her eyes in response to the intensity of the feelings rioting through her body. Her breath lay heavy on his face as she leaned in for a series of light kisses while she stroked his naked chest with her fingernails. His hands came up to grasp her wrists and still her actions when her hips drove into his body again.

“Miss Fiiiinnnne,” he gasped as she repeated her torturous actions.

In answer, she tightened her legs against his and grabbed his head kissing him almost violently, thrusting her tongue deep inside his mouth. He resisted for a second, and then found himself reciprocating, wrapping his arms around her bottom and pulling her into his body.

Without any more protest, he took control, whipping her around and laying her down on the seat before settling his weight on top of her. Unable to stop herself, her body reacted on impulse and her hips thrust up into his. They both moaned at the feeling before Max brushed her hair back and attacked her neck with hot, open-mouthed kisses.

Instinctively, her legs wrapped around his hips. Their breathing came short and rapid as she turned her head so he could continue his kisses on the other side of her neck. She felt his fingers find their way under her sweater, and her mind pleaded for their touch her. She didn’t have to wait long and literally gasped as she felt him brush across her sensitive skin.

At the same moment, they both realized the awkwardness of the setting and sensed the need for the freedom and luxury of Max’s bed. Max pulled his mouth from her first. Taking a few seconds to get his breathing under control, he whispered, “You know, the kids are out for the next couple of hours. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly empty house.”

Pushing away the fleeting worry that he might use the interval between car and bedroom to have second thoughts, Fran swallowed before mouthing, “Take me home.”

Max reached over and pressed the intercom again.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

A few seconds passed while Max finished a deep and loving kiss. “Niles, we’ve changed our minds. Take us home.”

Niles’ response was cut off as Max released the button. He stared into Fran’s beautiful, glistening eyes and was profoundly touched by the deep love and desire he saw emanating from them. Although it took everything they had in them, they both understood the need to slow things down for now. One more moment, they both knew, and that would have been impossible. Slowly, he bent his head lower and met her lips in a sweet and tender kiss. Then he sat up, pulling her up with him. They took a few deep breaths while they adjusted their clothing. They settled back into the seat, his arm around her and her head nestled on his shoulder.

Fran snuggled up against Max and relished the feeling of holding him so close. She closed her eyes and drew in a supremely satisfied sigh. She couldn’t believe that finally, after all the flirting, all the games, he had uttered those three precious words she had dreamed of hearing for so long. And at last the two of them were only moments away from consummating the deep feelings they held for each other.

Suddenly, her eyebrows drew together as a slightly panicked thought crossed her mind. What they were about to do was a very serious step and it could change everything. Was she ready for that? She had just barely begun to get comfortable in her new life, her new way of thinking. Would succumbing to Max’s love destroy all that? Just as quickly, she pushed her questions aside as she felt Maxwell put his other arm around her and squeeze her to him. God, being held by him that way was pure euphoria.

The limo glided to a smooth stop in front of the Sheffield mansion. Just before Max opened the door, he lowered the privacy glass and cleared his throat. “Uh, Niles, why don’t you take the rest of the evening off? I’m sure we won’t be needing you for anything else.”

Having anticipated his boss’ request, Niles remained behind the wheel, nodding and smiling knowingly as he watched them via the rearview mirror. He chuckled softly. They were so lost in each other, his two best friends had already forgotten about him, not to mention the children. Maybe he would join CC at the theater. Rehearsals were scheduled to run until ten o’clock tonight. Checking in and offering his assistance while he waited for Maggie and Brighton’s movie to end was a great excuse to see her. Excited by the prospect, he was ready to push on the accelerator and vacate the premises as soon as he heard the door close.

*****************

CC Babcock had never been so mercurial as she was tonight – the last night before dress rehearsals began. Many of the crew had worked for Maxwell Sheffield Productions in the past and were used to her sharp tongue and demanding nature, but this went way beyond their experience. It was strange; she was still the Bitch of Broadway, but her passion about this story went beyond her habitual modus operandi of craving acclaim or money. This was personal and it scared the hell out of all of them. The stage manager had a bet going with the costumer that she’d hurt one of the actors before the night was over. Not in an emotional sense – no, he firmly believed she would inflict actual physical pain to the point of death if the actors didn’t get the scene right soon.

Niles entered the darkened theater to hear CC abusing the stage crew. He grinned. He couldn’t help it. He’d never met anyone else with more fire than she had. Since he’d rewritten the script for her play, they’d been working more and more together and their interactions had changed from verbal warfare to a playful, teasing banter. He loved it and wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were for anything in the world.

He slipped into a seat behind her as CC grumbled a string of expletives under her breath that would make a sailor blush. She was so steamed that she was practically smoking, but still retained enough control not to swear at the children. The actors began the interrupted scene again. Niles kept one eye on the actors and one on CC as they moved through their parts. It was the finale and he could tell by the set of her shoulders that their portrayal wasn’t meeting her expectations. She was as tense as a bowstring, ready to snap from the tension in her shoulders. He concentrated on the actors and realized that if they reworded a few of the key lines, it would probably work better.

He leaned forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, rubbing lightly to soothe away her agitation. He was taking a chance, touching her. Normally, an action this intimate would be an invitation for dismemberment, but he’d found over the past three weeks that her emotions were very susceptible to a soothing massage. Who would have thought that he could have breeched the ever-present class issue between them with a simple neck rub?

In his own mind, he believed he was the only one that could melt the Ice Queen’s heart, that it was the real person under his butler façade that touched her. His next thought almost made him chuckle out loud – that he might be her Achilles Heel. His muffled laugh went unnoticed as she slumped back in her seat and threw her arm over her eyes, grumbling again under her breath. He intensified the pressure of his fingertips and felt her start to relax against the back of the seat. Yes, he hoped that it had more to do with him than with the physical act, but he wasn’t ready to test that theory yet. For now, he’d do what he could to save their poor, harassed actors from CC’s wrath.

“CC, you’re tighter than Zsa Zsa Gabor after a facelift. What’s wrong?”

“IT is all wrong.”

“Well, that explanation cleared everything. Thanks so much.”

She lifted her arm just high enough to glare at him. “IT! IT is the monster, you puerile oaf. Meg’s fight against IT is the hardest thing she has ever done. IT is supposed to be an insurmountable enemy, not this … gah! I can’t even describe it.”

Niles turned his attention back to the stage for a minute after CC dropped her arm over her eyes again. He knew that this story was extremely personal for CC and that the play needed to portray her struggles against personal demons. He nodded his head. “I think I can help. May I call a break?”

She gestured towards the stage with her free arm in a haphazard way and grumbled from beneath her sleeve. “Have at it. I give up.”

Niles stood and called, “Let’s take a break.”

The stage manager looked toward CC for confirmation and shrugged when she didn’t move to counteract Niles’ request. “Writer in the house,” he called. “Okay, people, you heard him. Take five before we try again.”

“Margo and Brian, can I talk to you privately?” Niles called.

CC finally lifted her arm from over her eyes and watched Niles jog up the aisle to speak to the actors. She hadn’t looked at him when he’d settled down behind her, but she’d known he was there. She wasn’t sure if it was a sixth sense or if she’d caught a whiff of his cologne, but she’d immediately relaxed when he arrived – and that was before he touched her! Once he’d done that, she’d had to throw her arm over her eyes to conceal her delight at his deft touch. She’d actually almost purred like a damned cat! The man was going to destroy her reputation if she wasn’t careful.

Now that she had some physical distance between them, she felt safe looking. He’d shed his jacket and tie and had rolled up his shirtsleeves, however, his scarf still hung loosely around his neck. God, had he always looked that sexy or was he doing something different now? She let her eyes walk down his body as he skipped up the stairs and crossed the stage, lingering on his backside when he knelt down to talk with ‘Charles Wallace’ and ‘Meg’. His gesturing hands captivated her gaze, but when a stray thought about his talented hands took her mind in a direction she wasn’t prepared to go, she stood quickly and fled backstage. A thunderous Babcock scowl kept the crew at bay until she closed the door to her tiny office. Once inside, she promptly leaned her forehead against the door and released a tight breath of relief. She was losing it.

That she was attracted to Niles wasn’t anything new, nor was it difficult to conceptualize becoming physically intimate with him. Playing around with the help was something she’d seen those of her class doing her whole life. Her problem is that she didn’t want to play. She wanted it to be real – a real, honest-to-God, loving relationship that would last the rest of her life – and that scared the crap out of her. Over the past few weeks, she’d realized that although Niles wasn’t everything she’d ever wanted in a man, he was everything she needed. Clever, strong, sensitive, handsome, creative; she knew now that Niles didn’t have to be a butler, but for some unknown reason, had chosen that life for himself. She wasn’t sure why, but that made all the difference in her mind.

Working on this production with him had been a wonderful surprise. He seemed to know what she needed before she asked and was always willing to help in any way possible. He had a knack with people and his insights had sparked off ideas for her on more than one occasion. They’d worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other rather than hurling insults and she knew now that they made a great team. For the first time, she realized that together they could do anything, solve any problem – a new and scary concept for someone used to going through life alone. Instinctively, she’d known how well they got along, but tonight was the first time she could admit it consciously. It was difficult to think about – that a butler and a Babcock would fit so perfectly together. However, since the night she’d allowed herself to see beyond his station, she’d discovered what an amazing man Niles really was. Now, she was so fascinated with him that she could hardly think of anything else.

Part of her tension tonight was the realization that as soon as the benefit was over, things might go back to the way they were before and she didn’t want that. Now that she had him in her life, she didn’t want to let him go.

She admitted that she was scared to take the next step and get involved with him, afraid that he might revert back to his customary attitude and use her weaknesses against her, but she realized with a jolt that it was a risk she was willing to take. If the past few weeks had proven anything, it was that Niles could overcome the conditioning of twenty years of insults and she could too. If he felt even a tenth for her what she’d been feeling for him, they’d be dynamite together.

A soft knock startled her from her thoughts and his concerned voice through the door started her heart racing.

“CC?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready”

CC pictured pouncing on him like a cat and kissing him senseless. Oh yeah, she was ready. She swallowed the image with a gulp. “Yeah.”

He paused. “Will that be sometime this century? The rest of us would like to sleep in a bed tonight.”

She covered her flushed face with her hands at the thought of sleeping with Niles. She had to get a hold of herself. Or get a hold of him. God, why did every thought seem to slide into the gutter tonight? It was like Niles was in her head, tweaking every comment with sexual overtones. She shook her head again; the solution to her every problem was not to lose her inhibitions and throw herself at him. The risks were too great, weren’t they? She paused. Maybe they weren’t. What would he do if she launched herself at him? Would he catch her and reciprocate? The questions were driving her crazy and after so many innuendoes, she wanted to turn the tables on him and see if it led anywhere.

It was time to find out.

Before she could over-think things and reconsider, she released the top two buttons on her shirt and flipped her head down and up, fluffing her hair. Pasting a sultry expression on, she threw open the door and had to stifle a giggle as Niles almost tumbled to the floor. Before he could do anything more than steady himself against the doorframe, CC stepped close, effectively pinning him to the wall. She ran her hands up his chest and locked them behind his neck as she sent him a smoky look. She heard his breath hitch as her lips brushed against his.

“Is that all you want, Niles, to sleep in a bed tonight?”

She kissed him, a long draw against his startled lips. He recovered just long enough to start kissing her back when she released him and stepped away. She eyed him from top to bottom and licked her lips before turning and walking away, tossing a parting comment over her shoulder as she went. “Pity. I expected something more imaginative from you than a bed.”

Niles watched her hips sway as she walked away with his still-tingling mouth gaped open. Who and what was that?! She looked like CC Babcock, but no incarnation he’d ever seen outside of his dreams. He foolishly pinched himself just to be sure he was awake before he watched her disappear around the corner. Absently, his fingers lifted and touched his lips, amazed at how she’d kissed him. Was she serious or simply toying with him? A few weeks ago, he would have dismissed it as a ploy to mess with his head, but now he wasn’t so sure. Her actions were so out of character that he didn’t know what to do. He knew what he wanted to do – to trust their new friendship and see where it could take them. ‘What the hell,’ he thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’

He smiled as her final words came back to him. So she wanted to play that game, did she? Right, then. Game on. He pushed away from the wall and went after her.

By the time he caught up with her, she was perched against an armrest, one long leg crossed over the other, the long expanse of flesh exposed through a slit in her skirt. His steps slowed as he neared her as he took in the image. His eyes flicked to her face, only to drop down her neckline past the undone buttons to see a black lace something peeking out from behind her blouse. Added to the memory of her kiss and words, he felt the temperature rise a few degrees and his knees wobble just a bit before he could steady himself. He heard her clear her throat and recognized with a start that he’d stopped walking to stand in the aisle, gaping at her. She chuckled and then moved toward the center of her row, propping herself up on the back of a chair before shouting for the crew to begin the final scene from the top.

He sidled up the row behind her and stood facing the stage, feigning indifference to her charms as the actors began. He placed his hands on her waist and stroked her sides with his thumbs until she squirmed. Her only other reaction was to lift her chin, her forehead pinched in concentration at the actors’ performance. His mouth quirked as he leaned in to watch the scene over her shoulder and distracted her when his chest rubbed up against her back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch. She didn’t look at him, but she reached down and trapped his hands against her stomach. They both released a soft sigh as she intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

He was about to respond when CC leaned forward, caught by the actions on stage. The actors had come to the section that hadn’t been working before and they were making their way through the dialogue he’d modified. He watched in gratification and amazement at CC’s intense look, as though trying to give them her vision through sheer determination. He tuned into the words again and nodded his head. Yes, that was better. He thought that particular phrasing captured the feelings CC wanted to convey. He turned to look at her and was amazed to see tears in her eyes as her mouth opened to whisper an emphatic “Yes!” as both she and Meg finally beat IT with love.

Niles was caught up in the scene before him, seeing not the actors’ portrayal, but CC’s lifelong struggle against her personal demons, when for the first time in her life, her love had been strong enough to conquer greed, vanity and the indifference that had stolen her dreams as a child. His mouth parted in wonder as his heart filled to bursting with love for the woman with him.

Feeling his gaze or his emotions – he wasn’t sure which – CC turned her head to look at him with a new admiration in her eyes, a starry-eyed wonder bordering on worship for the gift he’d given her. She shocked him when she stood up abruptly and turned to throw her arms around his neck, kissing him gently on the cheek.

“Thank you.”

Overcome, Niles simply nodded his response. He’d never felt this way before, but would give everything he had to hold this moment for the rest of his life. He was sure that it only lasted seconds, although it felt much longer to him, before CC pulled away and smiled at him before turning back to the stage clapping her hands. “Perfect,” she yelled to the nervous figures awaiting her response. After a round of applause and hugs from the entire crew, CC gave a pep talk for the following night’s dress rehearsals before dismissing everyone for the night.

Behind the stage curtain, the stage manager and costumer watched as Niles helped CC on with her coat before gathering his. They watched them smile shyly at each other before Niles took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. CC raised their joined hands and kissed the back of Niles’ before he dragged her, giggling, from the theater. The stage manager shook his head and grudgingly slapped a twenty-dollar bill into the costumer’s open palm. She’d bet him a week ago that Niles would slip through the Ice Queen’s frosty exterior and into her heart, but until tonight, he had thought there was no way.

Well, ‘twas the season, and if anything ever qualified as a miracle, this did.

*****************

to be continued...
WOW is all I can say!!!!! I loved the interaction between Gracie and Max in the beginning. So sweet and adorable. I got my Max and Fran fix....although I need more more more. Yummy. What a fabulous job!! Melissa
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Joined: April 2nd, 2005, 2:30 pm

December 3rd, 2007, 11:12 am #8

Thanks to all of you that posted such delicious feedback on the last part - it was much appreciated.

And just 'cause I'm that way, I wanted to post a PG-13 or gentle R-rating warning for the next two parts as things begin heating up. Nothing graphic, but if you're sensitive to 'that other thing' (miss you, Bama), please skip these chapters. For all others, please let me know what you think about part 9.


*********************

“Daddy, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Maxwell lifted his head from his paperwork to see his youngest daughter standing just inside the door, fidgeting and wringing her fingers together nervously. The thought struck him that she looked just like Miss Fine when she had something to say to him that she thought he wouldn't like. Hmm—Miss Fine. She had virtually disappeared lately, secluding herself in her room or taking off at the drop of a hat. He scowled at her disappearances, wishing they’d been able to spend more time together. He knew now why she was so busy, but he still found it frustrating that he hadn't been able to take her out at all over the past weeks. He shook his head at the thought; he'd been doing really well today keeping his mind on his work and not letting himself wonder about Fran.

Grace's voice broke through his melancholic thoughts. “I'll come back later. Sorry for bothering you.”

Maxwell could almost hear the quiver in her voice and he was startled to see his daughter's disappointed face disappearing around the door. He realized that she had misinterpreted his silent grimace as annoyance at her request. He pulled his glasses off and stood up quickly from his desk. “Grace, wait!” he called urgently, wanting to reassure her that he wasn't angry with her. “Of course you're not a bother. I just had something else on my mind.”

He rounded his desk and caught up with her in the hallway. Shepherding her back into his office, he sat her down on the sofa. Her uncertain eyes followed him around as he sat to her right, her teeth capturing her bottom lip with worry. Another of Fran's traits, he thought in passing. He smiled at her affectionately and placed his arm around her shoulders, giving her a loving squeeze. “Now, what's on your mind?”

She leaned into his hug, wrapping her arms around his waist and snuggling into his chest. She held him for a moment just breathing in his smell and soaking up his warmth. She loved her dad and was so happy he was spending more time with them and with Fran. However, he’d been very busy at the theater lately and she wanted to have some fun with him. She looked up at his face from the comfortable spot on his chest and smiled at his adoring grin.

“I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too, Grace.”

“I love spending time with you.”

He smiled indulgently. “I love spending time with you, too, sweetheart.”

“Are you going to the theater today?” she queried.

“Well, I had planned on stopping by for a bit. Why?”

“You've been very busy lately, and I've missed you.”

His eyebrow quirked up at both her words of affection and her leading question. He wondered what she wanted to convince him to do. “I’ve missed you, too. Is there something you needed?”

“My friend Carol called and wanted to know if I could sleep over tonight,” Gracie explained.

“On a school night?” he asked, his head tilted in surprise.

She lifted an eyebrow at him, his bewildered expression mirrored back to him. “Daddy, we're on Christmas break!” she told him. “Today was the last day of school for two whole weeks.”

Was it time for the winter holiday already? That meant that Christmas was just days away and he hadn't made any preparations yet. Where had the time gone? He realized with chagrin that he had let Christmas sneak up on him, similar to the years following Sara's death, but it hadn't happened since Miss Fine had come to live with them. He sighed. Between his long working hours and Miss Fine’s busy schedule, he’d completely forgotten about the holidays. He squeezed Grace to him, glad that his children weren't allowing him to disappear from their lives altogether.

“Of course you can go, sweetheart. Why did you want to know if I'd be out tonight?”

“Well, I wanted to celebrate with you first.”

“That sounds lovely. What do you want to do?”

Her look morphed into a concentrated expression, her finger tapping her chin. “Something especially wintry to celebrate Christmas and the beautiful, cold weather. Maybe we could go someplace outdoors with lots of Christmas lights...”

Maxwell smiled at her, trying hard not to laugh; even without knowing how much she loved ice-skating, it was obvious where she wanted to go. He wondered why she felt it necessary to put on this performance. “Grace, would you like to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center tonight?” he asked graciously.

A victorious smile creased her face as he arrived at her predestined location. She hugged him tightly again and then popped excitedly up from her seat. “Daddy, that's a great idea! I'd love to go.”

Standing up, he laughed out loud at her enthusiasm. Then turning her by the shoulders, he nudged her toward the door. “I’ll tell you what. Go tell your brother and sister and we'll make it a family outing tonight for pizza and ice-skating. And tomorrow, you and I can go to Rumplemeyer’s for some ice cream. What do you think, eh?”

“Thank you, Daddy!” Gracie beamed as she turned and scurried out of her dad’s office.

Maxwell stood looking after her and smiled to himself. Looking forward to the evening, once again he felt grateful that his three wonderful children wouldn’t allow him to drift too far away. Not like the last time, anyway, and he knew just who he should thank for the loving and close relationship between him and his kids—Miss Fine. Fran. How quickly he found his thoughts settling back on her.

And speaking about drifting away... Had it already been three weeks since her birthday dinner? He felt gratified at how she seemed to relish his attention and how touched she’d been with the beautiful pendant he’d given her. But these past three weeks, he’d hardly seen her. He sighed deeply in frustration. Well, he’d have to make sure he invited her tonight. After all, he had proclaimed it a family outing, and of course that meant Fran. And it was the holiday season – a time for families to be together. At this point, he certainly wasn’t above using whatever ruse he could come up with to try to convince her to come.

********************

Fran dropped onto the living room sofa with an exhausted sigh. She had really enjoyed her first semester of school, but final exams she could do without! Grateful that her tests were over, she closed her eyes and rolled her head around trying to loosen up her tightened and sore neck muscles. Taking a deep breath, the aroma of pine and cinnamon filled her with an excitement for Christmas that she hadn't taken the time to appreciate before now. She couldn't help the delighted smile that appeared on her face as she turned to look at the Christmas tree, the colorful decorations and twinkling lights soothing her frayed nerves. Niles must have put it up today while they were all out at school. She stared at it for a long moment before her eyes drifted closed.

Maxwell and Grace entered the living room to find Fran apparently asleep on the sofa, a slight grin still on her face. Grace glanced up at her father, but his eyes were fixed on her nanny. She grinned knowingly and skipped past him and up the stairs to find her siblings and her skates.

Maxwell's steps slowed and then finally stopped as reached the couch. He stared at her, a myriad of emotions passing through him. He could be upset about the way she’d disappeared over the past few weeks, but he knew she was spending her time studying for finals with Chris. But at that moment, as he pondered her beautiful, peaceful face, there was no anger in him. There was longing, desire, gratitude and mostly a deep and overwhelming love. He sent another silent thank you skyward that she’d given him another chance and vowed again not to let her down.

As if she sensed the feelings pouring out of his heart and flowing over her, she opened her eyes and looked up to see him standing there. Blinking a few times and gathering herself a bit, she sat up quickly. “Oh, Max. I’m sorry. I don’t usually sleep during the day, but I guess I’ve been overdoing it a little lately.” Looking herself over and straightening her blouse, she said, “I’m fine now. What did you need?” She looked up at him expectantly.

Maxwell was at a momentary loss for words. God, that was a loaded question. He knew exactly what he needed from her—wanted from her. Taking a breath, he turned and sat next to her. He cleared his throat in an attempt to get his thoughts back on track. “Grace and I have come up with an idea for a family night, and we were both hoping you’d be able to join us.”

Fran thought for a minute and realized that now that her finals were out of the way, her schedule was quite open. Having the long winter break ahead of her felt so good in contrast to how busy she’d been lately. Of course, there were things to be done at the women’s shelter, but without so much schoolwork pulling at her, there would be plenty of time to relax and have some fun. “Sounds good. What’d you have in mind?”

“Pizza and ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. What do you say?”

“I say count me in!” Fran exclaimed.

“You don’t have plans this evening?”

“Nope. Free as a bird.”

Maxwell felt a flood of relief wash over him. “Fantastic!” he nearly shouted, jumping to his feet. “How much time do you need to get ready?”

Fran watched him skirt the couch and stride energetically through the foyer. “Uh, about half an hour,” she replied, glancing at her watch.

Maxwell barely heard her as he took the stairs two at a time barking, “Children! We’re leaving in half an hour! Dress warmly!”

Amused, Fran stood up from the couch wondering if she’d ever seen anyone so damned excited about going ice-skating.

*****************

Maxwell placed their skates on the shelf just inside the rental office window and started to return to their shared bench, but Fran was no longer there. Scanning the surrounding area, he found her standing near the railing, waving energetically to Grace as she skated past with her friend. He had missed this, being with her and his children on a family outing. In fact, he could think of nothing that felt more right.
He felt a swelling in his heart as she leaned against the railing, calling to Maggie as she skated by with Sean, the two of them clinging to each other so tightly that Maggie caught her skate on his, causing them both to tumble down in a giggling mass of teenage flesh. Fran laughed out loud at their antics, her infectious bray causing multiple heads to turn and several strangers to laugh as well, joining in with her. God, he loved to hear her laugh. Just as in life, she did it with gusto, regardless of whether anyone else laughed with her. Since the first time he’d heard it while looking over her résumé, he knew there was something magical about her.

He loved her laugh. He loved her smile. He loved her joyous spirit. He loved her, plain and simple, and it was time to tell her so without reservation. Maxwell walked softly toward her, his footsteps crunching in the fresh snow behind her. He could tell that she heard him coming because of the way she stood up straight and fell back against him as he wrapped his arms about her waist. He gave her a squeeze and their heads came together, and automatic sigh and a puff of white mist escaping both of their mouths at the comfortable and loving embrace.

Maxwell turned his head slightly to place his lips at Fran’s ear. Although he was determined to tell her now, he paused, suddenly nervous about voicing his feelings to her. Would she accept him or would she reject him, telling him that she was no longer interested? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, the white vapor spreading out past her face. He chastised himself for shying away from this again, but his voice caught and he couldn’t get the words out.

Come on, man. You can do this, he told himself. He took another slow breath and while releasing it, managed to whisper, “I love you, Fran.”

When she didn’t respond immediately, he wondered if he had said it too softly. He rolled his eyes and steadied himself to say it again, louder this time when he felt her arms grip his tightly.

“Really?” she whispered, her voice trembling with emotion.

He smiled and hugged her more tightly to him, nodding his head to answer her question. “Yes, really,” he declared, his voice strong and sincere.

She leaned her body to the side slightly and turned her head to look at him, the mischievous sparkle and her disbelieving smirk causing him to raise an eyebrow before she even could ask her next question. “Are you sure this time?”

Maxwell chuckled and nodded again. “All right, I deserved that, but yes, I mean it. I love you so much, Fran, and I’m never going to deny it again.”

She smiled at him, a beautiful, warm smile full of love that made his heart sing. “I love you, too.”

Releasing her waist with one arm, he raised his gloved hand to rest on her jaw, pulling her toward him. Tilting his head down, he brushed his mouth across hers lightly, his dry lips barely touching hers. Both of their eyes closed, unable to resist the pull of another kiss. After a few minutes, Maxwell pulled slowly away from Fran, his breathing short and cheeks flushed with warmth, and gazed adoringly into her eyes. They were lost to each other when a twin set of giggles pulled them back to reality. Maxwell glanced up and saw Brighton, Grace, and Carol standing by the railing snickering at their public display of affection. Well, at least the girls were laughing. Brighton looked morbidly fascinated and not a little embarrassed.

Fran caught the look as well and felt unaccustomedly shy at getting caught making out with their father in a public place. She tried to slip out of Maxwell’s embrace and put some distance between them, but Maxwell caught her around the waist and pulled her back to him, his arms locking tightly around her. He obviously didn’t mind the children – or anyone else in New York for that matter – knowing about them. Surprised by his bold movement, she relaxed again in his embrace and flashed him a grateful smile. The brilliant smile he returned made her knees feel weak. He started to lean in for another kiss when she heard Grace call impatiently.

“Daddy!”

Maxwell looked up and cleared his throat. “Yes, Grace?”

“Carol’s dad is here to pick us up for our sleep over. Can you take my skates home for me, please?”

“Certainly, Sweetheart. Do we have Carol’s contact information?”

“I’ve stayed over at Carol’s before. Fran has their number if you need it.”

“Have a great time, Grace.”

Grace and Carol squealed in excitement and skated off, leaving an awkward Brighton behind. He smiled weakly at them as Maggie and Sean approached from behind.

“Hey, Dad! Sean and I are going to catch an action flick over at the Cineplex before we come home. Niles already said he’d pick us up and bring us home by about eleven.”

Brighton perked up at this information. “The new mob story staring Bruce Willis? I’ve been dying to see that one. Can I come with you?”

“Ugh! No way, who wants a Nuchshlep hanging around?”

Brighton flashed an appalled glance toward his father, who was now nuzzling Fran’s neck. He turned back to his sister. “Please, Maggie. You can’t make me ride home with them while that’s going on. I’ll be sick.”

“I see your point. Okay, twerp, but you have to sit in another row.”

“Thanks!”

Maggie giggled at Brighton’s obvious relief and turned back to her father. “Dad? Daaaad. Daddy!”

Maxwell finally looked up at his daughter and waved them away. “Call if you’re not going to be home on time.”

Now in their snow boots, Grace and Carol walked up to deposit Grace’s skates and give Fran and Max a hug goodnight before heading towards the waiting car. “See you tomorrow, Fran. G’Night, Daddy.”

It occurred to Fran that Grace would need a few things at home first. “Oh, Gracie. You’ll need to swing by the house and pick up an overnight bag first.”

“It’s in the trunk. Niles has already gone to get it for me.”

Fran cocked her head to the side in thought as the two still-giggling girls skipped away toward Carol’s father. She turned back to Maxwell and lifted her eyebrows in innocence. “You know, it’s not very often that all the kids have plans on the same night.”

She saw the gleam in Maxwell’s eye before he took her by the hand and pulled her towards the limo.

*****************

As the car glided smoothly through the city streets, Fran stole a sideways look at Max. Appearing to be lost in his thoughts, he wore a warm smile on his lips. The whole evening had gone so well. The light-hearted banter at the restaurant, the silly antics at the ice skating rink, the warm feelings of family togetherness. And it had all culminated in the three words he had whispered in her ear. On the surface, a simple statement, but none she had ever heard before in her life had carried such meaning. He loved her. He was sure of it, and so was she. And knowing that wrapped her in the most glorious feeling she had experienced in her entire life. She loved him too. More than she had ever felt herself capable of loving a man.

He reached over and took her hand. Pulling it gently to his lips, he placed a soft, lingering kiss on the back of it.

“Thank you, Miss Fine, for allowing me the wonderful pleasure of your company.” His emerald eyes crinkled slightly as he smiled at her.

She returned his smile and turned her body to face him. Reaching to grasp both of his hands between her own, she leaned in and placed a whisper of a kiss on his lips. “You’re most welcome, Mr. Sheffield. I had a great time tonight.” They both smiled sheepishly at their continued use of formal address. It was clear that they had moved way beyond that, and both were focusing their thoughts on taking it even further.

His heart rate picked up when she didn’t lean away from him, but continued to smile, her face only a couple of inches from his. He couldn’t look away. Her eyes sparkled in the faint evening light, and he watched her look at him, her eyes roaming over his face. A happiness and peace exuded from them, making him catch his breath. She beckoned him, pulling him in. At that moment, he wondered how he could have ever denied the feelings he had for her. And since he had begun to realize how close he had come to losing her, he wanted to show her how he felt.

She continued to look at him as the limo made its way through the evening traffic. Patting his hands affectionately, she started to slide back into her seat, but he wasn’t ready for her to go. He grasped at her wrists and pulled her closer, their knees bumping together as she slid across the leather seat toward him. Her eyes widened slightly at his move, then narrowed again in amusement.

“Did you want something, Mr. Sheffield?” she posed coyly.

The suggestion in her voiced almost scared him away, his mind automatically throwing up a barrier at her flirtatious comment. He shook his head at his own habitual fears and shoved them away. He didn’t have any reason for fear anymore. Now was the time for bold action, to let her know that she was worth any risk to his heart.

He reached over with one hand and pressed a button to raise the privacy glass and watched her eyes widen as it lifted.

“Yes,” he managed, his voice shaking slightly at the confession. He watched her eyes for any signs of doubt, but saw only hope and desire as they drew across his face.

Oh, she did love to see that look in his eye! He hadn’t allowed himself to show his desire for her many times since Paris, but when he did, the power of that look rendered her breathless. She decided to see how far he would let it go between them.

“Oh? And what would that be, Mr. Sheffield?”

As she answered, she slid her legs away slightly turning her body to close the distance between them. Placing her hands on the seat next to his leg, she leaned in, pressing her chest against him and bringing her face right next to his. She felt his hands slide up around her shoulders, pausing as they reached her neck to cradle her head while his thumbs stroked gently across her cheeks.

He felt her breath on his lips now, his own breathing deepening as the anticipation of their kiss grew between them. He licked his lips in nervousness and heard her breath catch slightly, her eyes fixed on his mouth. He swallowed once before he could answer.

“You, Fran. I want you.”

His words were music to her ears and her heart skipped a beat. She wished she could smile at him, to show him the happiness she felt inside, but her feelings of desire overwhelmed her. She could only close her eyes and savor the words.

The idea that he trusted her – heart and body – left her speechless. She closed the distance to kiss him, tilting her head into his hands and opening her mouth at the gentle pressure of his lips. She swallowed his moan when the tip of her tongue snuck out to caress his bottom lip. Oh, he tasted so good!

Something broke loose inside him when he felt her tongue slip into his mouth. Unable to maintain a gentlemanly restraint, he released her head and let his left hand unzip her jacket while his right reached inside to wrap it around her back. He pulled her tightly against him as he repositioned his mouth and kissed her again delving deeper. His other hand slid lightly over her stomach and side and after a brief hesitation, slid up to gently stroke the side of her sweater-covered breast. He felt her body arch into his questing hand, letting him know she wanted him to touch her, so he brought his other hand up to join the first and captured the resulting moan with a deep kiss that set off another wave of desire.

God, he loved that sound she made. Relieved at her enthusiastic response to his advances, he threaded his fingers through her long tresses and pressed her head tightly to him as he explored her mouth before dropping his hands back down to wrap around her waist, skimming over her soft curves.

Fran was on fire. She’d never felt this level of intense desire for anyone before. Unable to move slowly anymore, she ran her hands up his chest and slid them into his jacket. As the pace of their kisses increased, she ran her fingernails up through his hair with one hand while the other unwrapped the scarf at his throat.

Before he could protest, she’d pushed his coat from his shoulders, removed his scarf and had his sweater pushed half way up his chest. She dipped her head down to kiss his exposed skin when she felt his hands pulling her head away from his body, but she wasn’t having it.

“Fran, we’re almost home...” he whispered.

Before he could utter another word, she shocked him by slipping her leg over his, sliding onto his lap and straddling him. She kissed him softly and placed a finger over his lips, stilling his protests and questions. Leaning toward the door, she cleared her throat and pressed the intercom button.

“Yes, Sir?” came Niles’ voice through the speaker.

“Um, Niles?” she said in the most casual tone she could muster.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

“Could you drive us down around Battery Park? We’d like to try to catch the last ferry to the statue tonight.”

She could almost hear the knowing smile in his answer. They both knew that the last ferry had left long ago. “Certainly, Miss Fine,” came his perceptive response.

She released the button with a flick of her wrist and wiggled her body over Maxwell’s lap, smiling satisfactorily. Her movements practically jerked him to his feet.

“Miss Fine!” he shot out, causing her to grin slightly at the contrast between the position they were in and the way he addressed her.

She grasped his head between her hands and leaned over him, gripping his legs between her knees, her hips sliding involuntarily into him. She closed her eyes and released a sigh at the delicious feel of his body beneath her.

“Shh,” she whispered, “I’m not ready to stop yet.”

He brought his hands up to grasp her head, stilling her movements, his eyebrows crinkling in distress. “Fran, I don’t want to do this here.”

She couldn’t help but tease him a little. “Do what, Mr. Sheffield?” Again, with the formality.

He kissed her tenderly, the mere notion of voicing his thoughts driving him crazy with desire. “I don’t want to make love to you in the backseat of a car.”

“Have you ever tried it?”

“Of course not,” he answered affronted. “It’s not proper.”

“I don’t want proper, Max. I want you. Now,” she declared, the look on her face heavy with intent.

His eyes darkened at her words. She fought against closing her eyes in response to the intensity of the feelings rioting through her body. Her breath lay heavy on his face as she leaned in for a series of light kisses while she stroked his naked chest with her fingernails. His hands came up to grasp her wrists and still her actions when her hips drove into his body again.

“Miss Fiiiinnnne,” he gasped as she repeated her torturous actions.

In answer, she tightened her legs against his and grabbed his head kissing him almost violently, thrusting her tongue deep inside his mouth. He resisted for a second, and then found himself reciprocating, wrapping his arms around her bottom and pulling her into his body.

Without any more protest, he took control, whipping her around and laying her down on the seat before settling his weight on top of her. Unable to stop herself, her body reacted on impulse and her hips thrust up into his. They both moaned at the feeling before Max brushed her hair back and attacked her neck with hot, open-mouthed kisses.

Instinctively, her legs wrapped around his hips. Their breathing came short and rapid as she turned her head so he could continue his kisses on the other side of her neck. She felt his fingers find their way under her sweater, and her mind pleaded for their touch her. She didn’t have to wait long and literally gasped as she felt him brush across her sensitive skin.

At the same moment, they both realized the awkwardness of the setting and sensed the need for the freedom and luxury of Max’s bed. Max pulled his mouth from her first. Taking a few seconds to get his breathing under control, he whispered, “You know, the kids are out for the next couple of hours. It would be a shame to waste a perfectly empty house.”

Pushing away the fleeting worry that he might use the interval between car and bedroom to have second thoughts, Fran swallowed before mouthing, “Take me home.”

Max reached over and pressed the intercom again.

“Yes, Miss Fine?”

A few seconds passed while Max finished a deep and loving kiss. “Niles, we’ve changed our minds. Take us home.”

Niles’ response was cut off as Max released the button. He stared into Fran’s beautiful, glistening eyes and was profoundly touched by the deep love and desire he saw emanating from them. Although it took everything they had in them, they both understood the need to slow things down for now. One more moment, they both knew, and that would have been impossible. Slowly, he bent his head lower and met her lips in a sweet and tender kiss. Then he sat up, pulling her up with him. They took a few deep breaths while they adjusted their clothing. They settled back into the seat, his arm around her and her head nestled on his shoulder.

Fran snuggled up against Max and relished the feeling of holding him so close. She closed her eyes and drew in a supremely satisfied sigh. She couldn’t believe that finally, after all the flirting, all the games, he had uttered those three precious words she had dreamed of hearing for so long. And at last the two of them were only moments away from consummating the deep feelings they held for each other.

Suddenly, her eyebrows drew together as a slightly panicked thought crossed her mind. What they were about to do was a very serious step and it could change everything. Was she ready for that? She had just barely begun to get comfortable in her new life, her new way of thinking. Would succumbing to Max’s love destroy all that? Just as quickly, she pushed her questions aside as she felt Maxwell put his other arm around her and squeeze her to him. God, being held by him that way was pure euphoria.

The limo glided to a smooth stop in front of the Sheffield mansion. Just before Max opened the door, he lowered the privacy glass and cleared his throat. “Uh, Niles, why don’t you take the rest of the evening off? I’m sure we won’t be needing you for anything else.”

Having anticipated his boss’ request, Niles remained behind the wheel, nodding and smiling knowingly as he watched them via the rearview mirror. He chuckled softly. They were so lost in each other, his two best friends had already forgotten about him, not to mention the children. Maybe he would join CC at the theater. Rehearsals were scheduled to run until ten o’clock tonight. Checking in and offering his assistance while he waited for Maggie and Brighton’s movie to end was a great excuse to see her. Excited by the prospect, he was ready to push on the accelerator and vacate the premises as soon as he heard the door close.

*****************

CC Babcock had never been so mercurial as she was tonight – the last night before dress rehearsals began. Many of the crew had worked for Maxwell Sheffield Productions in the past and were used to her sharp tongue and demanding nature, but this went way beyond their experience. It was strange; she was still the Bitch of Broadway, but her passion about this story went beyond her habitual modus operandi of craving acclaim or money. This was personal and it scared the hell out of all of them. The stage manager had a bet going with the costumer that she’d hurt one of the actors before the night was over. Not in an emotional sense – no, he firmly believed she would inflict actual physical pain to the point of death if the actors didn’t get the scene right soon.

Niles entered the darkened theater to hear CC abusing the stage crew. He grinned. He couldn’t help it. He’d never met anyone else with more fire than she had. Since he’d rewritten the script for her play, they’d been working more and more together and their interactions had changed from verbal warfare to a playful, teasing banter. He loved it and wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were for anything in the world.

He slipped into a seat behind her as CC grumbled a string of expletives under her breath that would make a sailor blush. She was so steamed that she was practically smoking, but still retained enough control not to swear at the children. The actors began the interrupted scene again. Niles kept one eye on the actors and one on CC as they moved through their parts. It was the finale and he could tell by the set of her shoulders that their portrayal wasn’t meeting her expectations. She was as tense as a bowstring, ready to snap from the tension in her shoulders. He concentrated on the actors and realized that if they reworded a few of the key lines, it would probably work better.

He leaned forward and placed his hands on her shoulders, rubbing lightly to soothe away her agitation. He was taking a chance, touching her. Normally, an action this intimate would be an invitation for dismemberment, but he’d found over the past three weeks that her emotions were very susceptible to a soothing massage. Who would have thought that he could have breeched the ever-present class issue between them with a simple neck rub?

In his own mind, he believed he was the only one that could melt the Ice Queen’s heart, that it was the real person under his butler façade that touched her. His next thought almost made him chuckle out loud – that he might be her Achilles Heel. His muffled laugh went unnoticed as she slumped back in her seat and threw her arm over her eyes, grumbling again under her breath. He intensified the pressure of his fingertips and felt her start to relax against the back of the seat. Yes, he hoped that it had more to do with him than with the physical act, but he wasn’t ready to test that theory yet. For now, he’d do what he could to save their poor, harassed actors from CC’s wrath.

“CC, you’re tighter than Zsa Zsa Gabor after a facelift. What’s wrong?”

“IT is all wrong.”

“Well, that explanation cleared everything. Thanks so much.”

She lifted her arm just high enough to glare at him. “IT! IT is the monster, you puerile oaf. Meg’s fight against IT is the hardest thing she has ever done. IT is supposed to be an insurmountable enemy, not this … gah! I can’t even describe it.”

Niles turned his attention back to the stage for a minute after CC dropped her arm over her eyes again. He knew that this story was extremely personal for CC and that the play needed to portray her struggles against personal demons. He nodded his head. “I think I can help. May I call a break?”

She gestured towards the stage with her free arm in a haphazard way and grumbled from beneath her sleeve. “Have at it. I give up.”

Niles stood and called, “Let’s take a break.”

The stage manager looked toward CC for confirmation and shrugged when she didn’t move to counteract Niles’ request. “Writer in the house,” he called. “Okay, people, you heard him. Take five before we try again.”

“Margo and Brian, can I talk to you privately?” Niles called.

CC finally lifted her arm from over her eyes and watched Niles jog up the aisle to speak to the actors. She hadn’t looked at him when he’d settled down behind her, but she’d known he was there. She wasn’t sure if it was a sixth sense or if she’d caught a whiff of his cologne, but she’d immediately relaxed when he arrived – and that was before he touched her! Once he’d done that, she’d had to throw her arm over her eyes to conceal her delight at his deft touch. She’d actually almost purred like a damned cat! The man was going to destroy her reputation if she wasn’t careful.

Now that she had some physical distance between them, she felt safe looking. He’d shed his jacket and tie and had rolled up his shirtsleeves, however, his scarf still hung loosely around his neck. God, had he always looked that sexy or was he doing something different now? She let her eyes walk down his body as he skipped up the stairs and crossed the stage, lingering on his backside when he knelt down to talk with ‘Charles Wallace’ and ‘Meg’. His gesturing hands captivated her gaze, but when a stray thought about his talented hands took her mind in a direction she wasn’t prepared to go, she stood quickly and fled backstage. A thunderous Babcock scowl kept the crew at bay until she closed the door to her tiny office. Once inside, she promptly leaned her forehead against the door and released a tight breath of relief. She was losing it.

That she was attracted to Niles wasn’t anything new, nor was it difficult to conceptualize becoming physically intimate with him. Playing around with the help was something she’d seen those of her class doing her whole life. Her problem is that she didn’t want to play. She wanted it to be real – a real, honest-to-God, loving relationship that would last the rest of her life – and that scared the crap out of her. Over the past few weeks, she’d realized that although Niles wasn’t everything she’d ever wanted in a man, he was everything she needed. Clever, strong, sensitive, handsome, creative; she knew now that Niles didn’t have to be a butler, but for some unknown reason, had chosen that life for himself. She wasn’t sure why, but that made all the difference in her mind.

Working on this production with him had been a wonderful surprise. He seemed to know what she needed before she asked and was always willing to help in any way possible. He had a knack with people and his insights had sparked off ideas for her on more than one occasion. They’d worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other rather than hurling insults and she knew now that they made a great team. For the first time, she realized that together they could do anything, solve any problem – a new and scary concept for someone used to going through life alone. Instinctively, she’d known how well they got along, but tonight was the first time she could admit it consciously. It was difficult to think about – that a butler and a Babcock would fit so perfectly together. However, since the night she’d allowed herself to see beyond his station, she’d discovered what an amazing man Niles really was. Now, she was so fascinated with him that she could hardly think of anything else.

Part of her tension tonight was the realization that as soon as the benefit was over, things might go back to the way they were before and she didn’t want that. Now that she had him in her life, she didn’t want to let him go.

She admitted that she was scared to take the next step and get involved with him, afraid that he might revert back to his customary attitude and use her weaknesses against her, but she realized with a jolt that it was a risk she was willing to take. If the past few weeks had proven anything, it was that Niles could overcome the conditioning of twenty years of insults and she could too. If he felt even a tenth for her what she’d been feeling for him, they’d be dynamite together.

A soft knock startled her from her thoughts and his concerned voice through the door started her heart racing.

“CC?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready”

CC pictured pouncing on him like a cat and kissing him senseless. Oh yeah, she was ready. She swallowed the image with a gulp. “Yeah.”

He paused. “Will that be sometime this century? The rest of us would like to sleep in a bed tonight.”

She covered her flushed face with her hands at the thought of sleeping with Niles. She had to get a hold of herself. Or get a hold of him. God, why did every thought seem to slide into the gutter tonight? It was like Niles was in her head, tweaking every comment with sexual overtones. She shook her head again; the solution to her every problem was not to lose her inhibitions and throw herself at him. The risks were too great, weren’t they? She paused. Maybe they weren’t. What would he do if she launched herself at him? Would he catch her and reciprocate? The questions were driving her crazy and after so many innuendoes, she wanted to turn the tables on him and see if it led anywhere.

It was time to find out.

Before she could over-think things and reconsider, she released the top two buttons on her shirt and flipped her head down and up, fluffing her hair. Pasting a sultry expression on, she threw open the door and had to stifle a giggle as Niles almost tumbled to the floor. Before he could do anything more than steady himself against the doorframe, CC stepped close, effectively pinning him to the wall. She ran her hands up his chest and locked them behind his neck as she sent him a smoky look. She heard his breath hitch as her lips brushed against his.

“Is that all you want, Niles, to sleep in a bed tonight?”

She kissed him, a long draw against his startled lips. He recovered just long enough to start kissing her back when she released him and stepped away. She eyed him from top to bottom and licked her lips before turning and walking away, tossing a parting comment over her shoulder as she went. “Pity. I expected something more imaginative from you than a bed.”

Niles watched her hips sway as she walked away with his still-tingling mouth gaped open. Who and what was that?! She looked like CC Babcock, but no incarnation he’d ever seen outside of his dreams. He foolishly pinched himself just to be sure he was awake before he watched her disappear around the corner. Absently, his fingers lifted and touched his lips, amazed at how she’d kissed him. Was she serious or simply toying with him? A few weeks ago, he would have dismissed it as a ploy to mess with his head, but now he wasn’t so sure. Her actions were so out of character that he didn’t know what to do. He knew what he wanted to do – to trust their new friendship and see where it could take them. ‘What the hell,’ he thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’

He smiled as her final words came back to him. So she wanted to play that game, did she? Right, then. Game on. He pushed away from the wall and went after her.

By the time he caught up with her, she was perched against an armrest, one long leg crossed over the other, the long expanse of flesh exposed through a slit in her skirt. His steps slowed as he neared her as he took in the image. His eyes flicked to her face, only to drop down her neckline past the undone buttons to see a black lace something peeking out from behind her blouse. Added to the memory of her kiss and words, he felt the temperature rise a few degrees and his knees wobble just a bit before he could steady himself. He heard her clear her throat and recognized with a start that he’d stopped walking to stand in the aisle, gaping at her. She chuckled and then moved toward the center of her row, propping herself up on the back of a chair before shouting for the crew to begin the final scene from the top.

He sidled up the row behind her and stood facing the stage, feigning indifference to her charms as the actors began. He placed his hands on her waist and stroked her sides with his thumbs until she squirmed. Her only other reaction was to lift her chin, her forehead pinched in concentration at the actors’ performance. His mouth quirked as he leaned in to watch the scene over her shoulder and distracted her when his chest rubbed up against her back. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch. She didn’t look at him, but she reached down and trapped his hands against her stomach. They both released a soft sigh as she intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

He was about to respond when CC leaned forward, caught by the actions on stage. The actors had come to the section that hadn’t been working before and they were making their way through the dialogue he’d modified. He watched in gratification and amazement at CC’s intense look, as though trying to give them her vision through sheer determination. He tuned into the words again and nodded his head. Yes, that was better. He thought that particular phrasing captured the feelings CC wanted to convey. He turned to look at her and was amazed to see tears in her eyes as her mouth opened to whisper an emphatic “Yes!” as both she and Meg finally beat IT with love.

Niles was caught up in the scene before him, seeing not the actors’ portrayal, but CC’s lifelong struggle against her personal demons, when for the first time in her life, her love had been strong enough to conquer greed, vanity and the indifference that had stolen her dreams as a child. His mouth parted in wonder as his heart filled to bursting with love for the woman with him.

Feeling his gaze or his emotions – he wasn’t sure which – CC turned her head to look at him with a new admiration in her eyes, a starry-eyed wonder bordering on worship for the gift he’d given her. She shocked him when she stood up abruptly and turned to throw her arms around his neck, kissing him gently on the cheek.

“Thank you.”

Overcome, Niles simply nodded his response. He’d never felt this way before, but would give everything he had to hold this moment for the rest of his life. He was sure that it only lasted seconds, although it felt much longer to him, before CC pulled away and smiled at him before turning back to the stage clapping her hands. “Perfect,” she yelled to the nervous figures awaiting her response. After a round of applause and hugs from the entire crew, CC gave a pep talk for the following night’s dress rehearsals before dismissing everyone for the night.

Behind the stage curtain, the stage manager and costumer watched as Niles helped CC on with her coat before gathering his. They watched them smile shyly at each other before Niles took her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. CC raised their joined hands and kissed the back of Niles’ before he dragged her, giggling, from the theater. The stage manager shook his head and grudgingly slapped a twenty-dollar bill into the costumer’s open palm. She’d bet him a week ago that Niles would slip through the Ice Queen’s frosty exterior and into her heart, but until tonight, he had thought there was no way.

Well, ‘twas the season, and if anything ever qualified as a miracle, this did.

*****************

to be continued...
Oh Brit(Jan and Kathy)...this series is just DELICIOUS!! We were snowed in yesterday, and I was so thrilled to see another installment to go with my "tea and pj's" day! I'll admit that I'm not a Niles/CC(I adore them separately, just not together), but you are doing a great job of getting those "zingers" in there to make me LOL.
Now,missy....get back to that computer ...Get Max and Fran into that house before Niles brings the kids back!!

Jo<><

Max: Miss Fine, what would you think about a 5 mile hike up a mountain in Maui, then a helicopter ride over an active volcano?
Fran: Throw in a barium enema, and I'm there!!
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Joined: January 2nd, 2005, 3:37 pm

December 3rd, 2007, 11:41 am #9

Oh yes, romance!!!! How I loved it!

I caught up with your installments and still loving it. This one was wonderful because... yeah well, that's quite obvious with the lovescene and all

I must admit, I even enjoyed the Niles/CC parts: very well written! Of course the F/M parts light my day! Only two parts to go... damn!

It's very refreshing to read this fic and since I've been almost dying of starvation: thank you!

Love,
ShiShi



Fran: Do you like what you see?
Max: Lovely, maybe I should do you in the dining room ..... Have you do the dining room next.

5.1 The Morning After
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Joined: May 12th, 2005, 7:39 pm

December 3rd, 2007, 8:50 pm #10

Thanks Brit
You really know the magic touch to reach all the Fran/Max fans. I am so into this fic I find myself getting restless waiting for the next installation. I really don't want this fic to end. Congratulations on a terrific job. Well done!!!!!!!!!!
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