My sincere thanks to Beth H. for her swift and invaluable beta services. For Laura Kaye, Yuletide 2003
It Was a Very Good Year
THE LADY IS A TRAMP
When she was seventeen, Francesca Immaculata Rita Marie Vecchio spelled her name "Franni," dotting the i with a heart. Her favorite classes at Saint Teresa di Bergonza, a middle-sized girl's school in the same blue collar Chicago neighborhood where she'd spent her entire life, were Art and Home Economics. She wore her skirt with the waistband rolled up, so that the hem brushed her legs a good four inches above the knee. Even into her senior year in high school her mother insisted she wear knee socks below the green-and-grey plaid skirt, white blouse and gray blazer, so she'd skip breakfast and run over to her friend Donna's before school to change into stockings and a white scoop-necked sweater that scooped a little lower than the nuns allowed.
About once every month she'd be summoned to the principal's office, where Sister Gerald would tsk at her and lecture her about her outfits, threaten to call Mrs. Vecchio and shake her head sadly once again that "such a promising student, such a potentially excellent Catholic mother" would have this one tragic flaw in her deportment. But Franni would cry, and beg Sister not to call home, and would go directly to confession where she'd catalogue for thirty minutes or longer an amazing list of imaginary sins that would cause whichever priest was in residence at the moment to doze off somewhere in the middle and send her off with one "Our Father" or more likely, no penance at all.
It was also the year she lost her virginity to Dominic Russo, and never confessed a word of it.
That didn't stop Dominic from telling all his friends.
Franni got a Reputation.
When he was seventeen, John Renfield Turnbull III announced in no uncertain terms he had no intention of entering the family business, because he hated the diplomatic corps, hated the political party of which his father was a ranking member, and in fact hated the entire Canadian government.
It was his first act of rebellion in seventeen years and it took him by surprise.
When Father looked up from the Ottawa Citizen, blinked at him owlishly and asked him in that case what in heaven's name he intended to do with his life after University, Renfield -- for so he was called, to differentiate him from Father and Grandfather -- answered that he had no intention of going to University either, but instead had set his heart on joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Father nodded and said, "You're an idiot," and went back to frowning at the editorial page.
Renfield tried unsuccessfully to think of a comeback. When none was forthcoming, he went up to the roof to chart constellations.
When she was twenty, Franni wanted a change. From now on, she said, she was to be called Fran, because it was the kind of name a career woman would have. Everyone complied except her brother Ray, who was five years older. He mocked her high heels and expensive perfume, saying no matter how sophisticated she pretended to be, she was still only a salesgirl at a cosmetic counter at Sears, which wasn't even Marshall Fields, for Christ's sake. To say she was anything other than a Frannie, with an i-e, was pretentious.
She got mad and protested that the job was temporary until she decided what she really wanted to do, and maybe she'd study art at Junior College, and meanwhile his opinion didn't count, because he was only a lousy cop making lousy money, and Angie was too good for him, and the marriage probably wouldn't last, anyway, and it would serve him right, and besides, he was losing his hair. Then Maria told them both to shut up because they were making too much noise and Little Tony might wake up, and Big Tony told them to pipe down because he was trying to read the sports section, and Ma told them to hush because she was watching her stories on TV and couldn't hear herself think. Fran ran upstairs crying and hit her pillow, pretending it was Ray, wishing he would just get married and move out of the house already, though she had a bad feeling he and Ma expected Angie to move into the menagerie that was the Vecchio house, which would make four adult women using the same bathroom, plus Tony, who took ages flossing his teeth, and Ray, who stood in front of the mirror rearranging his thinning hair for hours at a time.
After a while she got tired of punching the pillow and called Johnny McNab, the cute Irish guy who sold shirts at Sears, who'd been trying to get her to go out with him. She slipped out the back stairs to join him for a drink, and then was sweet-talked into going to his apartment to give him a blow job. Afterwards she found out he had a wife who was visiting her sister for three weeks. Fran felt rotten and used and never saw him again.
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
When he was twenty-one, Renfield Turnbull earned the highest marks in every class, second only in Depot history to those set several years earlier by one Benton Fraser, by all accounts the best student the R.C.M.P. had ever seen. Renfield's high scores in written subjects were, alas, nearly cancelled out by his performance in the field. He was quite allergic to horses and tended to lose his gun at inopportune moments, though when he had it, he could hit targets. Large targets, anyway.
The week before graduation, as a birthday present, he lost his virginity to his roommate Scott's girlfriend Beverly. Renfield was a bit shocked by the arrangement, but it was his roommate's idea and Beverly didn't seem to mind. Scott provided the condom, and shouted "Maintain the Erection!" as he shoved Ren into the bedroom. Ren blushed furiously, but despite his fears that he'd have trouble with that exact issue, his body obeyed Beverly's rather talented fingers and mouth, and, he was forced to admit, he had an excellent time throughout.
Afterwards he put on the red leather jacket he'd bought himself, the jacket that reminded him simultaneously of his beloved serge and of Michael Jackson in "Thriller," and he and Scott and Beverly went out into the streets of Regina, found a bar and drank themselves silly. The "birthday present" was never mentioned again, but somehow from that moment on he and Scott were never as close as they had been, and Ren was happy when graduation came and they were sent off in different directions.
His own posting was to a detachment in Yellowknife. It was the first time he'd been that far north and he discovered that, as he'd suspected, it was a lot colder in the Northwest Territories than in southern Ontario. At least he wasn't expected to ride a horse. Unfortunately, there wasn't much occasion to wear the red dress uniform, which was a shame. But despite his acute sensitivity to cold and near-lethal awkwardness with snowmobiles, Ren gritted his teeth and held on tenaciously. He'd come this far; by God he'd be a credit to the Mounties.
Of course, it didn't help that the previous constable in his position had been some sort of superman. The others still talked about him and his extraordinary talents. Turnbull grew weary of hearing the name "Benton Fraser."
WHAT ARE YOU DOING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
When she was twenty-five, Francesca didn't care what her husband Gino called her, as long as he stopped hitting her. Although, she had to admit, she was not fond of "you stupid cunt," Gino's very favorite term of endearment. When Ray, who'd just been divorced, showed up one night at Francesca's house and told her to go to Ma, not to ask questions and never to speak about Gino again, for once she didn't argue, but did as she was told. Ray came home later with bruised knuckles, a tear in the expensive suit he'd bought for his new job as a plain-clothes detective and a grim look in his eye. Francesca didn't ask questions. The only time she spoke of Gino again was when she talked to the priest about the annulment. Most of that year she never got dressed at all, but lay on her bed listening to Connie Francis records, trying to decide if she could hack it as a nun.
The year he turned twenty-six, Constable Renfield Turnbull was relocated to Quebec, where he was ridiculed for his terrible French accent, and thus was relieved of interaction with the locals and accordingly assigned to more than his fair share of guard duty. He was very good at it, especially the locking-one's-knees-to-keep-from-falling-over part.
From there he went to coastal Nova Scotia, where, in an attempt to retrieve a kitten, he became trapped on the roof of a lighthouse and had to be rescued by American tourists from Chicago. Though the incident did nothing to assuage his fear of heights, he did discover a fondness for Americans, Chicagoans in particular. He found them noisy, but nice. They found him quaint.
The kitten debacle led to him being hustled off a post in Red Deer, Alberta, fairly far from the nearest lighthouse. At the detachment he discovered hitherto-undetected talents for alphabetizing, taking phone messages and reorganizing files. Finally he found himself among other Mounties who seemed to welcome him. And if that was in no small measure because the others detested office work, they accepted him nonetheless, and he was happier than he'd been in years.
Part of the happiness was due to one Janine Markovitz, the young civilian secretary at the post. She had dark hair that danced in ringlets, green eyes that sparkled merrily, and a voice like a thousand bells all jingling at once, or so he wrote home to Mother.
He accompanied Janine to the movies, to a local exhibit by native artisans, and to a country music show featuring his very favorite singer, Tracy Jenkins. Janine held his hand in the movies, put her hand in his back pocket as they strolled through the art show and hung on to his arm at the concert. But when he jumped up to sing along with Ms. Jenkins, Janine stayed in her seat.
Two weeks later Janine invited him to her family's Seder. He'd never attended a Jewish Passover service, and so he spent hours doing research so that he might contribute meaningfully to the conversation. During the listing of the ten plagues he launched into a detailed analysis of what the Old Testament may have been referring to by "a plague of boils." He included visual aids, printouts in full color from various internet sites, of possible ailments that might have been the boils in question. Mr. Markovitz left the room hurriedly and Janine's Aunt Florence went face down into the kugel.
When Janine told him she did not wish to see him again, it would have been little consolation to Turnbull to discover that Benton Fraser's heart also had been shattered by a woman with dark curly hair.
When Ray Vecchio turned thirty-four, he gained a new, unofficial partner, and brought him home to dinner.
Frannie Vecchio gained a purpose in life.
She would marry Benton Fraser.
MY KIND OF TOWN
When he was twenty-nine, Renfield Turnbull, for a number of reasons that do not bear repeating at this juncture, was assigned to the Canadian Consulate in Chicago, Illinois, USA. His father was thrilled that his son was becoming a species of diplomat after all.
For his part, Ren took one look at the duty roster and felt his heart sink. Benton Fraser? Dear Lord, was he fated to follow this paragon of Mountie virtue throughout his entire career?
His only consolation was that he could wear the serge all the time.
PICK YOURSELF UP (DUST YOURSELF OFF, START ALL OVER AGAIN)
Two weeks after Frannie Vecchio's twenty-ninth birthday her beloved Benton Fraser was beaten to a bloody pulp by a criminal who just happened to be Ray Vecchio's childhood nemesis. Ray took care of the villain, but Frannie vowed to nurse her intended back to health by whatever means necessary. To this end, she purchased a leather bustier, a black satin garter belt and a pair of fishnet hose. Thus armed she entered Fraser's place of residence, dropped her coat in front of the stunned Canadian and proceeded to kiss him senseless.
Or at least that was her intention.
The reality was somewhat less romantic. Bloody, battered and bruised, Benton nevertheless managed to fend off her advances, cover her with his blanket, and proceed to make tea for both of them. Somewhat later, pride as bruised as Benton's perfect face, Frannie hailed a cab and went home.
"He'll come around," she told herself.
CHANGE PARTNERS (AND DANCE)
The next year began as a Very Bad Year in the Vecchio household.
One day, Frannie's brother Ray called the family together and said he was going undercover, not to worry about him, and not to expect him back any time soon. They begged for details, but Ray set his jaw and shook his head. "It's for your own good," he said quietly. Ma sighed and nodded, kissed her first-born and blessed him in Italian. Maria cried and Big Tony tried to console her. Little Tony and Baby Giacinta wailed and clutched at Ray's perfectly-creased trousers. Ray removed the sticky fingers from his Armani suit, smiled and said, "Trust me, it's a piece of cake."
But Frannie looked in her brother's face, and behind the determination she also saw nerves and fear and sadness. "Have you told Benton?" she asked, and was shocked when the sad look in his eyes got sadder still.
"I will," Ray promised.
But he never did.
The next day Ray got into a squad car and was driven away. Fifteen minutes later another car pulled up, and Frannie was surprised to see Ray's lieutenant walk up to the front door, accompanied by a slender blond man who seemed to have a terminal case of the fidgets. Ma wasn't home, as she'd gone to church to pray to Our Lord to watch over Ray. It was just Frannie and her brother-in-law at home just then, but she let the two men in and invited them to sit, just like Ma would have done. Lieutenant Welsh assured her they'd just be staying a minute.
The blond man kept fidgeting with his sunglasses, his hair, his silver bracelet and his watch. His toe tapped out a rhythm only he could hear. From the way his eyes darted around the room, absorbing everything, Frannie wondered if he'd come to redecorate the front parlor, though he didn't seem to dress like he had any sense of style. Still, he was somewhat cute, and she was briefly annoyed with herself for answering the door in jeans and an old sweatshirt and no makeup. And then Lieutenant Welsh introduced the man, and told Frannie what he was there for, at which point she realized it would be impossibly awkward to even consider dating him.
Besides, there was Benton to consider.
She watched the Lieutenant drive away in the police car and the blond imposter drive off in her brother's beloved Riv, and she wondered if he'd take good care of Ray's most prized possession. Which made her think of other things the imposter would be taking over. Which made her think about Benton. Which made her heart flip. No telling what this other Ray, this fake Ray, might get up to with him. Might get Benton hurt, or worse. Maybe she'd better keep an eye on Benton while Ray -- her real brother Ray -- was out of town.
Maybe she'd better think about getting a job at the police station.
FOOLS RUSH IN
That same year started out promisingly for Constable Renfield Turnbull.
By a strange quirk of fate, or possibly an unusual alignment of planets, or maybe just a lucky break after years of so many unlucky ones, Turnbull discovered his life's purpose in exactly the same place Frannie Vecchio routinely encountered hers: the bullpen of the 27th Precinct, Detective Division.
Funny how these things happen. If Inspector Thatcher hadn't needed Constable Fraser right this minute, if Constable Fraser hadn't left for the station earlier than usual to liaise with the new, blonder Detective Vecchio, if the Consulate's phones weren't temporarily out of order, rendering Turnbull unable to reach the Constable any way except in person, then he never would have walked into the bullpen and seen the dark-haired vision seated at the Civilian Aide desk behind the name plate Francesca Vecchio.
Say it loud and there's music playing. . .
La musica bellissima.
La musica Italiana.
If none of those quirky circumstances or lucky chances or aligning planets had happened, Renfield never would have seen the fluorescent lights sparkle in her shiny-as-silk hair, or watched her large hazel eyes light up at the sight of his serge (even if they did dim as they came to rest on his face).
He never would have heard her say, "May I help you?" in that delightful accent he'd come to associate with the kindness of strangers.
He never would have felt his heart lurch in his broad chest, or his breath catch, or his hands tingle, as he made a misstep and put one large booted foot into her waste basket and toppled at her feet.
He never would have had the chance to lie there nearly senseless and pant out, "Pardon me, Miss Francesca Vecchio, do you believe in love at first sight?"
And she never would have knelt by his side and stroked his cheek and murmured, "Of course. Of course I do, Renfield."
At least that's what Renfield wished had happened.
In reality he stepped into her waste basket and knocked her files to the floor as he attempted to steady himself, and she screeched at him and they ended up bumping foreheads as he tried to help her clean up the mess he'd made. He was always making a mess.
But that was hardly the worst part. After Miss Francesca Vecchio glared at him and summarily dismissed him from her presence, Constable Fraser suddenly came around the corner and Francesca's entire demeanor changed. Her face softened. Her eyes half-closed. Her voice dropped to a sultry whisper. Her hands moved up from her hips to play with her hair.
"Hello, Benton," she cooed.
Turnbull cleared his throat. "Constable Fraser? Inspector Thatcher sent me to tell you you're wanted."
"Wanted," Francesca purred. "Benton, you're wanted."
Thus ended Turnbull's Very Good Year.
(THEY'RE WRITING SONGS OF LOVE) BUT NOT FOR ME
It's not that the Mountie wasn't tall -- good heavens, he was a foot taller than she -- or good looking, because he was rather good looking in an earnest sort of way, or even that he was kind of a klutz, because let's face it, Benton Fraser had a tendency to drop things in her presence, too. It was just that this Mountie wasn't her Mountie. He wasn't her Benton.
For nearly a year she'd notice him out of the corner of her eye and turn with hopeful expectation at the bright red of his uniform, only to be disappointed that he wasn't Fraser. When she talked to him, it was while she juggled phone and notepad, keyboard and files. After a while she got used to having him around. It was as if he were a piece of furniture. A large piece of furniture -- bigger than a sectional couch and as in the way as a badly-placed footstool.
Often he surprised her by being useful. Sometimes he called with information that was helpful in a case. Once he helped locate Benton and her fake brother when they'd disappeared off the face of Lake Superior. Once or twice he acted as a buffer between the cops and that horrible witch of an Inspector who had designs on Her Benton. Yes, Turnbull had his uses. Like a footstool.
And so of course she never noticed the footstool staring at her with wistful, hopeless, sad-sack adoration.
DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES
"Look at him," Officer Sharon Silverman sighed.
"So romantic," Assistant State's Attorney Melinda Ching chimed in.
"It must be the uniform," Sergeant Brenda Mulcahey murmured.
Renfield looked up from the elaborate gourmet meal he'd prepared for Francesca Vecchio, and saw the three women standing in the doorway of the lunchroom. The petite Asian smiled. The young redhead waved. The older brunette winked. He sighed. It wasn't as if Chicago wasn't full of women. Heavens, in the Police Department alone there were girls of all shapes and sizes, all with a variation of the flat nasal accent he found so attractive. Some of them actually seemed to notice him. It didn't matter. He only wanted the beautiful, exotic, elusive Miss Vecchio.
And here she was, sharing an intimate luncheon with him, wooed there by the promise of information. For once he seemed to have her complete attention. And so he pulled out all the stops, spoke of poetry, of music, of the country songs that reflected his innermost emotions. And as the music drew to a close and Willie Nelson crooned, "You were always on my mind," Renfield looked deeply into Francesca's eyes and echoed Mr. Nelson's words.
She seemed stunned. Her long black lashes fluttered at him. When she spoke, her voice was breathy. The voice she uses with Constable Fraser, Renfield exulted.
"I. . .was always on your mind?"
Renfield lowered his voice and leaned towards her. It was time to declare himself. "I know of a mule," he whispered.
And Francesca's mouth opened.
For a moment his heart leaped. Kiss, kiss, we're going to--
"I'm so gonna win that fifty bucks from Huey and Dewey, those morons!" Francesca chirped, dabbing at her mouth. "Thanks, Turnbull. Oh, thanks for the lunch. Wait till I tell them!" And she was gone.
His heart plummeted.
"What a shame," murmured Sergeant Mulcahey. "She can't even see what's under her nose."
COME BACK TO ME
It all happened so fast. Ray, her real brother Ray, was back. And then he was shot. And then he was in the hospital. And then he was out. And then he was dating this person, then moving to Florida with her, with this Stella Kowalski person, who was her fake brother's real ex-wife, which was way too confusing to contemplate and way too fast and much too painful to consider when your own heart was breaking.
Because Benton was gone.
Francesca leaned against the peeling green wall of the lunchroom. How had this happened? It seemed one minute Benton was telling her -- well trying to tell her he liked her, and who knew what declaration was going to follow? And then he and that imposter brother of hers were up in Canada on a dogsled, or something.
Something big came up next to her, something that blocked the light but radiated warmth.
She didn't have to open her eyes, didn't have to see the red to know who it was. She sighed wearily. "What do you need, Turnbull?"
"Nothing, I don't need. . ." His voice was soft, tentative. "I was just, I just wondered if you, if you were, well, if you were all right, Miss Vecchio. You seemed a bit, um, unhappy."
For some reason his kind voice undid her. "Oh, Turnbull!" she wailed, throwing herself against his big chest, where she proceeded to dampen his serge with tears and snot until he handed her his clean, ironed handkerchief so she might blow her nose in something less scratchy. "Thag you," she sniffed, before burying her head in his tunic once more. "Turdbull? I biss hib so buch! Whad ab I goig to do withoud hib?"
Renfield didn't have an answer for her, because he was relishing the feel of her slim body in his arms. When Constable Fraser came back, there'd be no occasion to hold her again, of course. But even if her heart belonged to another, as was painfully obvious, even if all he could have was this one moment of closeness and the illusion that she cared, well, he'd make do.
I GUESS I'LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLANS
Francesca turned thirty-one on August 1st.
And then came August 2nd.
Francesca heard the commotion before she saw him. And when she realized what all the fuss was about she dropped the mug of coffee she'd been pouring and raced into the bullpen.
As she shoved her way through the crowd she noticed red in the corner of her eye and turned by habit towards it. Of course it was Renfield. He caught her eye and smiled at her. She smiled back absently, still moving. Then she looked back. There was something about Renfield's smile, almost as if he looked sad, but of course that made no sense because everyone had to be happy at the news.
She shoved the last well-wisher aside and there he was: Benton Fraser, back from the north, back from that ridiculous five-month adventure he and her fake brother -- oh, might as well call him Ray Kowalski -- had gone on. Despite all the wild rumors she'd heard, that he was staying there, that he and Ray were staying there, that there was something between Benton and Kowalski that led them to set up housekeeping together -- as if! -- that they'd disappeared in the Arctic Circle, never to be seen again, in the end it had turned out none of those were true. He'd come back. At last.
Her breath caught. Burnished by artic winds, hair shaggy, face bronzed and beautiful, wearing not his red serge but a lumberjack shirt and jeans tucked into untied boots, he was the most awe-inspiring thing she'd ever seen. He was like a god from some long-ago legend, a prince from her favorite fairy tale.
And there was his wolf, at his side, as usual, and Kowalski at his other side, ditto, and Ray was running off at the mouth as usual, pounding Welsh on the back, asking after Huey and Dewey, gasping with laughter as he heard about their comedy club. Kowalski looked a mess, like he hadn't shaved in weeks, but she was surprised to find she'd missed him, too.
"Francesca," the well-remembered baritone voice said, and she turned and was enveloped in a bear hug. By Benton. Benton Fraser was hugging her, without her hugging him first.
"I missed you so much, Benton!" she said, hanging on for dear life.
"And I missed you too, Francesca. Oh, here, I brought you a little something from the Territories."
She was released abruptly and something was thrust in her hands. It was wrapped in brown paper, tied up with strings, like the song said, and her heart danced as she unwrapped it eagerly. What would it be? Jewelry? Fur? A book of Eskimo love poems?
"Oh," she said, "it's a--"
"--Picture frame. Carved from caribou antlers. Shed ones, of course," he hastened to add.
"Did you, did you carve it yourself?"
Benton seemed surprised. And then a little embarrassed. "Well, no. It comes from an Inuit crafts market in Tuktoyuktuk. Actually Ray picked it out." A tan finger reached out to run along the surface. "It's a perfect example of their animal imagery. If you look. . ."
Francesca blinked at the frame. A picture frame? From, like an Eskimo Hallmark store? "It doesn't have your picture in it. It should have your picture in it."
Benton peered at her quizzically. "I don't--why would it. . . Wait, I know what, I have a nice shot of the MacKenzie Glacier at sunrise. It's taken from the valley below, looking westward. I'd be happy to give it to you. It would look splendid in that frame. Oh, Lieutenant Welsh! It's so good to--excuse me, Francesca--"
And Benton drifted away. Francesca heard isolated words, words like "visit" and "cabin" and "three weeks" and "new posting" but mostly she just heard a steady rushing in her ears. Benton was back, but he wasn't staying. Not for good. He'd come back, but he hadn't come back for her.
"Well," she thought resolutely, "I'll go with him. Wherever he goes. He'll come around sooner or later."
All right then. She had a plan. Good. There was still hope. She pasted on a smile and turned back to the man she would marry.
Something unexpected happened.
Benton Fraser, Mountie, hero, god, prince, stood before her. She looked at him, and for once she really saw him. Saw the faraway look in his eye. Saw the glow when he talked of the North. His home. His real home. Saw how he was when he hugged her, how it was the hug of a good friend, a close friend, but nothing more.
Francesca looked at the man she adored, and suddenly realized she was tired of doing all the adoring.
It couldn't be.
Maybe she didn't want a hero, a god or a prince.
Maybe what she needed was a regular flesh and blood mortal -- well, good looking, of course! -- but a guy who'd be good to her, who'd want to be there, with her, not off somewhere in search of adventure, or blubber, or whatever.
In search of something she didn't have to offer.
Franni/Fran/Frannie/Francesca Vecchio had one of those epiphany things the nuns used to talk about.
Maybe it was time someone adored her.
There was a flash of red at her elbow, and by habit, she turned.
And opened her eyes.
IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR
At the beginning of another year, on New Year's Day, a man in dress reds gazed with unabashed adoration as Francesca Vecchio, in cream lace dress and cathedral-length veil, marched down the aisle on the arm of her brother to meet him. When he repeated his vows he was pleased to find his voice didn't quaver a bit. And if he stumbled a little on the runner and nearly took a header into Aunt Vera's lap, it didn't really matter, because for once he came down the aisle ahead of Benton Fraser, who was really quite an excellent Best Man.
And 365 days later, on New Year's Eve, when she gave birth to triplets Giovanni Renfield, Raimundo Benton, and Harding Stanley, Frannie Vecchio Turnbull wore a faded hospital gown and no makeup and didn't care a bit. She lay back, exhausted, against her husband's strong chest and felt his heart beat in sync with hers, and was happy to be exactly where she was.
And just like Mr. Frank Sinatra said,
THE BEST IS YET TO COME.