C.J. was deep into her novel, sprawled out on her couch with her flashlight, when the knock at her door came. "Come in?" she called uncertainly. Who on earth would bother to knock at 1:30 am?

As soon as the door opened, she had her answer. "C.J., can I come in?" Sam asked. "We have to talk."

C.J.'s mind was slow to respond. "Yes," she finally said. "Come on in, Sam."

"Thanks." Slowly and like a stranger, she moved towards the door as he strode in. Closing it, she had a good look at the man. He moved as though he had wrestled with a demon for hours, and was only now getting it subdued. Still, Sam had a quiet mien of confidence about him. His eyes were not downcast, and instead of being pursed in a silent frown, his smooth lips exuded sensuality. She could tell even from those small clues that something big was about to happen.

It started off small, yet large at the same time. For instead of avoiding her gaze as he had been doing, Sam fumbled his way over to C.J.'s couch. "Come sit here."

"All right." Slowly, awkwardly, C.J. walked over and perched on the seat next to him, next to this man that she'd thought she known down to every facet of his quick mind and fascinating body. Now it felt like a stranger sat in her office.

He could tell. "C.J.," Sam began shakily, taking her hand and rhythmically rubbing it as a calming gesture, "there's something I need to tell you."

As he lost his nerve, the tension began to build. C.J. couldn't take it. For hours, ever since she had seen the desk, the reservoir of resentment and tension had begun to build in her. Finally she had to snap. "Sam, don't beat around the bush anymore," she said, compulsively wrenching her hand from his grasp. "I know."

The look on Sam's face was a composite - fear and anger flitted in tandem across his transparent face. "What... how could you know?" he said lamely.

C.J. took no notice as she felt the anger begin to develop. "As a friend," she said pointedly, "I can tell you that it really should have been kept a better secret, Sam." She gave a short bark of mirthless laughter. "I mean, look at your desk."

Sam's thoughts immediately leapt to that afternoon - the drawer - the cookies - the ring - "You saw it? I thought I had it hidden!"

C.J. was working herself into a fine oration now. She had gotten to her feet - she often did her best thinking pacing. "It's nothing to be *ashamed* of, Sam. Though God knows it will create press problems." She had to stave off a shudder as she envisioned the headlines. And what would the press do with her? How would they - especially Danny - react when the news came out? "I wish you could have told me," she finally burst out. "It'd have hurt me a lot less, God knows!"

The emotions in Sam, however, were not to be described. "How could it hurt you?" he asked, befuddled. "I just couldn't tell you yet. And it was supposed to be a surprise!"

"A *surprise?*" C.J.'s voice resonated with dormant fury. "And what do you *mean,* how could it hurt me?" She turned away from him, quivering with rage. How, how on earth could she have been guilty of such a mis-judgment of character? What the hell did he mean, 'how could it hurt her?' He would have to be stupid and thoughtless indeed not to think of her at a time like this.

And yet, that nagging voice in her head yelled at her. Reason fought with Anger, giving her contradictory signals. <Trust him,> Reason said. <He's never hurt you before. Why are you so quick to jump to conclusions about him, anyway?>

<Why do you think?> Anger answered. <Because he gives you a reason to jump!>

<But this is Sam!> Reason persisted. <You've been in his arms - you've spent nights kissing those lips! He loves you. He would never hurt you.>

<Unless there were something to gain by it,> Anger added cynically. <Tread with caution.>

Still, Reason won out to the extent that she paused. "Sam," C.J. said in what she hoped was a more even voice, "it's really nothing to get worried over."

"I know it's not." What the hell was she driving at? Sam wondered. First he'd been worried. Then he'd been scared. Now he was just confused.

C.J.'s next sentence, spoken pleasantly and halfway calmly, shattered any questions he might have. "I mean, Sam, some of my best friends in the world are gay."

"What?" The question echoed in the dark room like a shot. Sam found himself momentarily speechless, momentarily unable to move. All he could do was sit there in the dark and wonder why she had mistrusted him.

C.J.'s bewilderment was complete. "Sam .. I just don't understand why you lied to me." Her voice was quiet and soft, as she sat back down next to him. "I'm hurt and a little angry." Well, she was lying, but it would serve no good to lash out here and now. "I just want to talk with you."

Finally, though, Sam recovered the power of speech. Ending in an unpleasantly high-pitched noise, Sam put the rhetorical question. "You thought I was *gay*?"

What could C.J. say? "Well, Sam, I -"

"You do!" Sam leapt to his feet. "You think I'm gay!" Worriedly he began to run his hands through his mop of dark hair. "Is it the hair? Or the eyes?"

"Sam -"

"Or maybe it's my square jaw? Or - "

"Sam!" C.J. stopped him with one syllable. She said wryly, "First off, it's the fact that you're *worrying* about your hair. And secondly," she parried, her own voice rising, "What the hell else could I think? What about your desk?"

"What *about* my desk!"

"All the copies of The Advocate?"

"That was for Josh!" Sam found himself being cold, and that troubled him. But why in hell hadn't she just asked him what was wrong if she'd been so worried. "He's working on the gay rights bill," he said frigidly. "I was helping him."

C.J. faltered, damning that little voice of Anger that was now making tracks for the remote corner of her consciousness. Why in hell had she listened to it? Her relationship was falling apart right in front of her now. "Well, you didn't want to be with me earlier," she said quietly, hoping she wouldn't sound like she was being explanatory.

Oh, God, this was bad. Even in the darkness she could make out his shining eyes, radiating with offended dignity. Sam always looked the most attractive when he was annoyed. Because then, and only then, would his jaw jut slightly forward in that little half-pout; his full mouth would purse in an expression of either disappointment or anger, and his eyes, those vivid spheres, would fill with such emotion that it hurt her to pursue her argument.

Only after a moment did he speak. "I had a reason for that. But you thought it was this?"

C.J. had expected him to snap at her. She had braced herself for one of his infrequent explosions. But she hadn't expected that quiet jail term from his lips. So when it did come it had the force of a blast. It brought tears to her eyes. "Sam," she said, fighting desperately to keep her composure, at least for a few minutes, "you scared me. I couldn't see what other announcement would be so damn big and secret that you could only talk with Donna, or that I had to be out of the room for it. You scared me, and I didn't know what else to do."

Sam turned away from her. What was he going to do now? He had been serious when he spoke with Donna. It was to be now or never with C.J. But could it be now in light of what he had just heard?

As he stared out at the storm, listening to C.J. fight her frightened and angry tears, the answer came to him: Yes. This was not a reason to reconsider. If anything, it was an incentive to work harder. Sam finally saw where all of Donna's arguments had been leading. Marriage wasn't perfect. It needed to be a final bargain. But just because you bought the product didn't mean there would be no need for tech support. They could do the same thing they did now - work at it. There was no premium for doing things right the first time. But all Sam knew, as he fingered the ring box still in his pocket, was that he wanted to be there with C.J. as he made his mistakes.

And yet, some tiny part of his makeup still doubted his voice and his commitment. It was still really too wonderful; too marvelous for words. He could fathom it. But only just. It was still a dream. But dreams could come true, after all.

He turned back to her with a gentle tone. "C.J., I can tell you now what my big announcement is." Joking a bit, he added, "It will prove that I'm not gay."

C.J. wiped her eyes. "Do I want to know?" Her voice wobbled just a bit as she asked. "Do I have a right to know?"

"Yes." Sam was firm. "Come sit down here, and I'll tell you everything, I promise." She obeyed, and Sam followed her to the couch. But instead of sitting, he crouched in front of her. Soon, however, this position was uncomfortable. "Ow," he mumbled, shifting position until one of his knees was on the ground to give him more support. "Okay, let me tell you what my big announcement was."

"All right." C.J. still looked utterly mystified as Sam began to fumble in his pocket. She heard the clang of change and other things against a slightly larger, hollow object. What was he looking for?

Finally, Sam was able to extract it from his pocket and bring the box up against the small of his back, hidden from her view. His heart in his throat, he plunged ahead blindly. He knew, after all, that he'd never get another chance. And the thing that convinced him of his decision was C.J.'s face, penitent and patiently waiting, as she regarded him, waiting for his surprise. She'd never looked more beautiful.

Sam, firmly on one knee, opened the box and turned it over to her, avoiding her eyes as he heard her soft gasp. "C.J.," he began, "the big announcement I had was that I'm in love with you. I'm crazy about you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you." There was only a brief pause before he spoke the words he'd earlier thought were too marvelous to say: "Claudia Jean, will you marry me?"

C.J. was shocked beyond words and beyond all power of guilt. Sam had meant to erase it, and he had done so. She was touched. He had put himself aside for her feelings. The formula of his proposal had told her that he didn't hold her accountable. That he would still go out on this limb after what she had done to him; what she had accused him of... that spoke of great devotion. He still loved her. He would always love her, of that she was sure. God knew, C.J. told herself, that she loved Sam, loved him madly, single-mindedly and completely, perhaps stupidly - but she'd never stop loving him

There would be problems, she knew. Danny, and Leo, and questions of conflicts of interest, and hurt feelings, and interference, and secret service protection. But C.J. knew, as she stared into his smiling eyes, that every single inconvenience would be worth it if she could stay with this man forever.

Belatedly, it occurred to her to laugh through her tears. Very ceremoniously, she faced Sam. Slipping the elegant band on her finger, she spoke one word. "Yes."

And Sam, feeling an unparalleled thrill of joy and relief, flung her to him and kissed her with all the tension he'd been feeling. C.J. returned it, her hands stroking his hair with all the gentleness she never got a chance to express. But, she told herself happily, that would all be different now.

 

 

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