Wiseguy: The Proposal

Redemption

Redemption

Dec. 19th 1997

It was something about the set of the shoulders she recognized. That, and the dark hair worn just a shade longer than fashionable, brushing the collar of his greatcoat. The aquiline nose and jaw were essentially unchanged, despite the lost softness of youth that had once blurred the chiseled jaw, and time had worn lines into the still handsome face, lines that spoke to her of pain rather than laughter.

The question was, what was her late Uncle's favorite wiseguy doing hailing a cab outside the Federal Department of Justice building on a chill December afternoon? Only one way to find out, she told herself, and approached him.

The touch on his arm startled him, and he turned sharply to meet her eyes.

"Vince? Vincent Terranova?" She inquired tentatively.

She saw his forehead furrow, the heavy brows drawing together as he fumbled for a name. "I know you probably don't recognize me. It's been ten years -"

Abruptly, he placed her and the furrowed brow relaxed. "Tracy? Tracy Steelgrave?" he queried, a grin breaking over his face.

"I'm impressed," she said. "I didn't think a brief flirtation with the boss's niece would have made a lasting impression," her tone deliberately ironic.

"It depends on the niece," he smiled, interest clear in his expression.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, curious.

Only the merest flicker of his eyes betrayed him as he gave an exasperated shrug, flinging an arm at the building behind them. "Yet another subpoena," he said with just the right hint of irritation.

Seven years as a prosecuting attorney told her when she was hearing the truth: this was not it.

She saw him realize she’d caught the lie. He back-peddled a bit. "You have time for a cup of coffee?" he asked, apparently trying for a distraction, but not yet ready to walk away into the chilly afternoon.

She hesitated, torn between the suddenly rekindled spark of a ten-year-old attraction and the disinclination to dredge up the past with its bitter memories.

"My treat," he offered, the smile as electric as she remembered.

He had, she thought, been the one thing she had missed when she had walked away from the Steelgrave empire. Missed for the might-have-beens rather than what had been. Theirs had been a careful flirtation, her father and uncle having warned him off in no uncertain terms. David Steelgrave's only child did not fraternize with garden-variety hoods. The attraction, coupled with the desire to know what he was really doing at the Justice Department, decided her. "It'll have to be fast," she told him, letting him take her by the elbow and hustle her across the four lanes of busy midday D.C. traffic. "I have an interview in less than an hour."

"At the Justice Department?" Terranova could not quite keep the surprise out of his voice.

"I'm job hunting," she informed him.

"That's right You were studying law at UCLA," he recalled.

"Good memory," was her dry response, dodging the pedestrians who streamed around them.

Vince took her arm again, fording the human flood with the same casual disregard he had shown for the motor traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue. He opened the door to the Starbucks for her, then followed her through.

They waited their turn and ordered, taking their paper-jacketed cups to a quieter corner. Fortune smiled, providing them with an empty table.

"So where have you been practicing?" he asked, sipping his scalding double espresso cautiously as he eyed her curiously across the plastic lid.

"I've spent the last five years at the State Attorney General's office in Washington, she said, catching the sardonic lift of an eyebrow. "Washington state. You know, that rainy place out in the Pacific Northwest," she added sarcastically.

"Yeah, I'd kinda worked that out on my own," he said, straight-faced. "I'd probably have bumped into you if you'd been working in D.C."

"Been spending quality time in Federal courtrooms, have we?" she sniped, unable to help herself. The utter waste of it left a bitterness in her mouth that had nothing to do with the coffee. Terranova had been completely unlike the other wiseguys who had ebbed and flowed around her father and Uncle. His intelligence had set him apart from the order-takers. "I'd figured you for greatness," she finished.

He did not miss the edge in her voice. His reply was as sharp as her comment had been. "Oh, yeah, that's me alright, pretty much the only Steelgrave soldier left standing. There's greatness for you." He swallowed a scorching mouthful of coffee. "There isn't an outfit in the Northeast that's gonna hire a soldier who gets his boss killed. You happen to need a bodyguard, by any chance?"

"There are no more Steelgraves." Her voice was flat.

"Coulda fooled me," he commented, inflection odd as he took another sip without breaking eye contact.

She flushed, thrown off balance by the observation. "So what have you been doing with yourself?" she changed the subject.

He shrugged. "A little'a this, a little'a that To quote a friend of mine, providing peace and tranquility to a deserving clientele.'"

She stared at him for a long moment, unable to squelch the anger his flippant allusion to violence triggered. "You are not now — nor have you ever been — a fool. So you picked a pretty sorry career for an otherwise intelligent man. What happened to you, Vince? You were different. There was nothing you couldn't have done. Why pick the mob? Why stay after Sonny died?"

Terranova put down his cup carefully, trying to mask his astonishment. "I didn't pick the mob, Tracy, it picked me."

"Oh, bullshit," she snapped vehemently. "I once asked Sonny where he'd found you. He told me about the fight on the docks, Vince. When I asked who'd won, he laughed when he told me you'd had him — until he sucker-punched you. His words, if I recall, were something like ‘the kid has the biggest set of brass balls I've ever seen'. You went to that fight knowing who he was, and what he was likely to do to you. And you still fought him. And you fought him to win. You played him like a pro, Vince. I loved my Uncle, but he was the most egocentric son of a bitch I've ever known! Every move you made was calculated to seduce your way into his action." Her eyes never left Terranova's, her expression fierce.

Vince stared back at her, dumbstruck. His entrance into Sonny's organization had just been laid open and neatly dissected on a coffeehouse table. Clearly, there was nothing more to be said. She’d scored a direct hit with her synopsis.

"I've spent my professional career putting people like you behind bars, Vinnie." She rose and shouldered her bag. "You and people like my father." She met his gaze unblinkingly. "Thanks for the coffee."

~*~

Terranova watched her make her way to the door, every line of her stiff with anger. He could not have said what perverse impulse got him to his feet and moving after her. He knew only that, for his part, the conversation could not rest here.

"Tracy —" he caught her arm and she turned to face him. He dropped the cocky machismo was gone, voice serious. "I think we need to talk."

He saw her hesitation. "It's important," he said, knowing that for him, at least, it was. "Meet me out front, after your interview." He asked without asking, making it clear that it was hope rather than certainty that would keep him lingering in front of the Justice building, waiting for her.

She looked at him evenly, then lifted her arm free of his grasp. "I'll think about it."

He watched her go this time, knowing that the odds were at best even that she'd return to meet him. There were a half dozen exits from the building, so there would be no finding her if she elected to avoid him. He settled himself to wait.

~*~

He looked cold, she thought, pulling on her gloves as she stepped out through the main doors of the building.

Terranova stood, leaning against a lamppost, greatcoat collar turned up against the chill, hunched deep inside the charcoal wool. The day had grown overcast and the raw, wet slap of the air on her face felt like imminent snow.

He caught sight of her and pushed away from his post, moving to intercept her.

"All right, I'm here," she said reluctantly. "Against my better judgement, but I'm here. What was so important?"

"Can we go somewhere less crowded?" he asked tentatively.

She paused for a moment before answering. "This is probably one of the more stupid things I've done, but okay, where did you have in mind?"

~*~

They walked through the Mall along the reflecting pool, now largely deserted by all but those on their way elsewhere as the snow became a reality. The city faded to a dim haze around them, all sound muffled by the peculiar silence of falling snow.

"I'm cold, Vince. What was so important that I'm risking pneumonia to hear it?" she broke the quiet. "What do you want from me?"

An excellent question, Vince thought, wondering what he had to say to this woman whose family he had helped destroy. The truth, he told himself. He reached inside his greatcoat and into the breast pocket of his suit, fishing out the leather bi-fold that held his OCB identification. He hesitated, then handed it to her without a word.

Tracy took it, mystified, mistaking it for his wallet. Until she opened it. He sw the recognition as she saw the badge and the government I.D. that partnered it. She stared back at him, face pale and grim, clenching the leather in her fist, then turned to stare out across the reflecting pool at the Jefferson Memorial. Her laugh was devoid of humor. "Daddy was right about you," she whispered softly, more to herself than to him, then turned, impaling him with her gaze. "Did you kill my father, Vince?"

"No," he answered, looking away. "My job was to bust him, not kill him."

"Funny way you have of doing your job," she said. He could hear the devastation in her voice. "My father and Sonny are dead. And they died in your company."

"I had nothing to do with your father's death, Tracy," he denied emphatically. "If you want someone to pin it on, try Tony Greco. If he hadn't gotten greedy and started skimming from Sonny's dock operations, your father would never have died in that ambush."

"And you would never have gotten anywhere close to Sonny. My father wouldn't have let you."

He didn't respond for a long moment. "No," he agreed finally. "He didn't trust me as far as he could throw me. If he hadn't been killed, I'd probably be fertilizing some swamp, somewhere." He felt her eyes on him as he stared down the Mall toward the nearly invisible Washington Monument.

"And what about Sonny?" came the question he'd dreaded. "What was it like to look him in the face and tell him you were a cop?"

Her eyes never left his face, searching for the truth. He couldn’t help the pain that tightened the lines around eyes and mouth, knowing she would see it, and not caring.

"I think he was relieved, in some weird kinda way. He thought, till that moment, that I'd given him up to Paul Patrice. That I was in on the plan to hit him at his wedding That I'd just stand there and let it happen." The pause was long. Agonized. "I tried to protect him, Tracy. The OCB and local law enforcement were waiting two miles down the road to bust the place before Patrice could get his boys in position. Only Sonny decided to indulge in his blood lust He garroted Patrice. On closed circuit television. On video tape. It was a fucking unbeatable rap. He was going down." The grief was old but still deep. "If he'd trusted me just a little longer, he could have walked away from the whole thing looking like the victim of Patrice and Mahoney's power play. Instead, he wound up on a slab."

Terranova inhaled deeply, feeling the icy air burn his lungs. He was cold to his soul. "I never figured on liking him On respecting enough about who and what he was to try and protect him."

"Life is never as simple as you'd like it to be," Tracy said at last, not looking at him. "People are never completely predictable."

"Yeah, you could say that," Vince agreed bitterly.

"Why are you telling me this? Why now?" Tracy asked, turning to face him.

"I don't know, exactly. Call it a hunch."

"A hunch? A hunch about what? A hunch that I wouldn't run screaming to the nearest Don and demand your head on a plate?" Anger warmed her voice. "God damn you, Vinnie!"

"I'd say that was a pretty good bet," he replied acidly. "Do me a favor, Tracy, for old times' sake, give me an hour's notice before you go looking for a Don. The only one who's still worth anything is my stepfather. I'd like to warn him you're coming for my head."

She blinked, her astonishment nearly overcoming her outrage. "Your stepfather is a Mafia Don." She repeated. It was not a question. "I guess nothing about your life is simple, is it?"

"Not much," he agreed.

"I've been away for ten years. I don't know the players anymore. There's no one who'd give a damn what I told them, anyway. I’ve been working for the other side, remember?" Tracy shivered. "And I'm not so blind that I couldn't see what my father was. What Sonny was. They chose that life, and it killed them. That was why I left in the first place. I seem to recall having this conversation with you at the time." She huddled deeper into her coat. "I guess that's what you meant by a hunch," she added after a long silence.

"I'll bet you're a hellova lawyer," Vince observed quietly.

The non sequitur caught her by surprise. She was starting to shiver in earnest now and rubbed her gloved hands briskly up and down her arms. "I'm freezing. Can we take this somewhere else?"

He was nonplussed by the suggestion. "Like where, exactly? I figured on this conversation ending about two minutes from now with you either belting me or promising to have some husband or lover do it for you."

Her brow furrowed in confusion. "Why? Were you planning on kissing me?"

He stared at her in bemusement. "Not that I don't like the idea, but I was pretty sure you were about to tell me that you'd heard everything from me that you cared to. Something about never wanting to see the asshole who destroyed your family again, maybe."

She looked at him, and in spite of herself, began to chuckle. "It's a miracle the human species can communicate at all," she remarked at the complete divergence in their trains of thought. "Besides, there are no husbands."

Vince cocked an eyebrow at this, disbelievingly.

"No lovers, either," she added with a wry grin, "so you're safe from attack, Mr. Terranova."

"At least until I try and kiss you," he retorted.

"Maybe even then," she answered so softly he barely heard it. "I could use something stronger than coffee," she added more audible, when he turned to ask what she'd said. "There's an Irish pub about three blocks from my apartment. I'll buy."

She bought him a drink. He bought her dinner. By the time they'd finished, the snow had stopped, though the sky was still heavily overcast. It was bitterly cold as they left the restaurant and their breath smoked in the air.

"Can I walk you home? Call you a cab?" Terranova asked in the awkward silence between them.

"Only if it's not out of your way," Tracy replied firmly. "Where are you staying?"

"I'm not. I was supposed to catch the shuttle to New York almost four hours ago."

"Well I'd say you missed your flight," she said acerbically.

He shrugged. "There's always another shuttle."

"Since you don't seem to be on a schedule, I'd appreciate it if you'd walk me home, Mr. Terranova, super agent. It's not the greatest neighborhood after dark."

Unsure what to make of her teasing, he offered her his arm, and was pleasantly surprised when she took him up on it.

"You never told me who your stepfather is," she said a moment later into a silence grown companionable.

"Rudolpho Aiuppo," he admitted.

"Rudy? God, I remember him — he was always sneaking me this awful Italian hard candy that wrecked about a half dozen of my fillings. He and I were the only ones who liked the stuff. He would come to Sunday dinner sometimes, after... After one of Daddy and Sonny's ‘business' meetings. I always liked him best. Mack Mahoney gave me the creeps. Watching the man eat was a better diet aid than an ad campaign for weight watchers." She mused on this for a long moment. "So how did Rudy and your mom wind up together? That must have been ... strange, seeing your mother marry a man you might have to arrest."

"Strange doesn't even begin to cover it," Vinnie said with deliberate irony. "And it just keeps on getting stranger. Turns out they knew each other from when they were kids. Rudy had a thing for her, but she wouldn't have anything to do with him when he started running with the bad boys. Later, he kept track of her and my dad when they got married. He never got over her. They got married eight years ago."

"So what made her change her mind about him after all that time?" Tracy asked, fascinated.

"She talked him into going straight." Vinnie answered

"You're kidding me! So he just walked away from it all? That simple?"

"Not hardly," Vince laughed. "It took a fake deportation to get the government heat off him and mom. They were pretty happy, though."

Tracy didn't miss the past tense. "Were?"

"Mom died about three weeks ago," was the carefully emotionless response. There was a long silence before he continued. "He's known what I was since they got married."

"Hoooh, boy." The implications of this were not lost on her. "You mean to tell me your mother blew your cover? Now I think I see why you decided to tell me... It seems like it's common knowledge."

"I'd say that was an overstatement," he equivocated. "The people who know I can count on one hand."

"And if it doesn't stay that way, you are a dead man." She finished, voice suddenly frightened.

"Yeah, something like that," he agreed, glancing at her. "So what are you going to do with my life, now that it's in your hands?" he asked softly.

Tracy remained silent as they walked, then laughed, softly.

"What?" Vince queried, confused.

"Sorry, it's not you — it's me. I just don't seem to be able to break the habit."

"What habit?" The confusion in his voice had only grown.

"My habit of falling for dangerous men," she said matter-of-factly "Your life isn't the thing I wanted in my hands." She voiced her thought, his stride broke, startled. She glanced at him with a half-smile. He knew he looked like an embarrassed schoolboy as the double entendre registerd.

She fished in her soft-sided leather briefcase for her keys. "We're here," she said, gesturing at a crumbling brownstone.

She walked up the stairs, away from him. And suddenly, he knew he wasn’t ready to say good bye to this woman again. "Tracy -" he followed her up the steps.

"Thanks for walking me home, Vince." She said without looking back, fitting her key into the lock. She wrestled with the stiff and creaky old mechanism for a moment before it opened.

"Tracy." He was right behind her, now.

She turned, startled at the proximity of his voice, and nearly knocked him off the step below her own. She made a grab for him and slipped on the icy edge.

Vinnie caught her, crashing sideways into the wrought iron railing and halting what might easily have been a nasty fall. "Ouch," he said ironically. "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." He did not let go of her, holding her lightly by the upper arms. She looked up into his face, lips slightly parted, unconscious of the way his body had suddenly hardened in response to her nearness. "Trace... My life is incredibly complicated right now." He bent his head and kissed her carefully, gently, and felt her body answer his. "I want to see you again."

She swallowed, tongue tracing her lips, tasting him on her mouth. "I don't think that's such a good idea," she replied.

"It's a spectacularly bad idea. I still want to see you."

She closed her eyes for a long moment, and he knew that if she said yes, it would be to considerably more than a casual flirtation this time around. There was no longer anyone to prevent what would happen between them. It had been a very long time since he had wanted someone this way.

"Yes," she breathed, and he kissed her again, this time demandingly, teasing, tongue brushing the inside of her mouth with delicate fire. She met it with her own, and he tasted the last of the Bordeaux they had shared over dinner mingled with her own distinct flavor. He cupped her chin and she threaded her fingers threaded through his hair unconsciously.

"Tracy," he murmured against her lips, "go inside." He broke the kiss, knowing that to pursue it was to step into something he needed to be very sure of.

She stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Good night, Vince." She looked as dazed as he felt. It was unbelievably hard let her go, resisting the primal urge press the advantage he’d gained. But there were far too many balls in the air in his life at the moment to risk the emotional vulnerability he craved. And not of that kept him from waiting outside the building to see which apartment’s lights came on a few moments later. However, it wasn’t until a soft incandescent glow filtered through drawn curtains on the third floor that he realized he had forgotten to get her number.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Vince was rattled and in dire need of a drink when he got to the airport and collected a boarding pass for the two a.m. shuttle to New York. It had taken direct intervention on the part of his Lifeguard to get track down Tracy’s unlisted number. It had not been a pleasant conversation:

"Tracy who?!" came the disbeliving demand.

"Steelgrave."

"Tell me you didn't just say Steelgrave. Vince, I think McPike was right. You are certifiable!" The Lifeguard's tone left no doubt of his opinion of Vinnie's sanity.

"I don't have to explain my personal life to you or Frank, Uncle Mike," Vince said more sharply than he had intended.

"Don't be so sure of that, son. This is not going to be one of those conversations I can pull the plug on. Tracy Steelgrave is not on your list of eligible women."

"Eligible according to who?" Terranova said through gritted teeth.

"According to the OCB, for one," Lifeguard said grimly. "Vinnie, you were single-handedly responsible for destroying her uncle. It doesn't make it to the top of my list of things to build a viable relationship on!"

"She knows." Vince's voice was barely audible.

"Christ."

Vinnie could hear the wealth of feeling in the single word. "I ran into her outside the Justice Department after my meeting with McPike today."

"Holy shit." Lifeguard's voice was taut with worry. "As if your life wasn't complicated enough," he said.

"Uncle Mike, do you ever get the feeling that something, the universe maybe, is pushing you down a path you don't have any control over?"

"Regularly," he replied with a certain amount of humor. "Where is it pushing you?"

"Into deep cover as Rudy's white knight. He volunteered to put me into Brod and Castellano's action. At the top." Vince recounted the expurgated version of the past week.

The stunned silence on the other end of the line when he'd finished was eloquent. "So what are you going to do?" Lifeguard asked finally.

"That's pretty much outta my hands. McPike is dead set on meeting with Rudy before he goes any further with it. I'm on my way back to try and set it up. Quietly." Terranova explained.

"Where does the girl fit into it?" Lifeguard asked after a long pause.

"Strictly personal," Vinnie's reply was unequivocal.

"I wouldn't bet on it staying that way," Lifeguard said. "Getting personal with the daughter of Dave Steelgrave is gonna get you noticed. I don't care how long ago she walked away from the mob. Once a princess, always a princess. There are gonna be Dons all the way to Chicago keeping their eye on you, especially if McPike lets Aiuppo bring you in at the top of the food chain. It's way too high profile, Vince. You'll never walk away from it alive. And you may be risking her life in the crossfire."

"Don't you think I know that?" Vince's distress was unmistakable. "I'm tired of the game, Mike. I was set to quit when Rudy made this cockamamie offer."

"Well you'd damned well better refuse it, Vince! Because I won't be taking any bets on the length of your life otherwise."

"I need to see her, Mike," Vince said into the silence after a moment. "I need this."

The Lifeguard sighed. "I'm gonna burn in hell for this," he said grimly.

Vince could hear the clatter of a computer keyboard over the cell phone as the Lifeguard worked his magic with the phone company's database.

"Have you told McPike?" Lifeguard asked.

"When would I have had time?" Vince snapped angrily.

"You're going to have to tell him your cover is blown. It's not optional."

"That's why I need to see her, Mike. I need to know what, exactly, to tell him."

"Geezus, Vince, you only met her twelve hours ago! What are you going to do, announce your engagement!?"

The silence spoke volumes. "Maybe, yeah." Vinnie's reply was soft.

"My god, you have got it bad," Lifeguard said, stunned.

He had gotten the phone number without any further comment from the Lifeguard. Uncle Mike's disapproval needed no words. The phone had fairly vibrated with it. He sat in the passenger waiting area, another two hours before his flight would leave, wondering what the hell he was going to do. Twice, he began to dial her number, and both times hesitated. The lateness of the hour had nothing to do with his disconnect. Rather, it was the thought that she would have changed her mind. That she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him. The realization that he should never have walked away from her settled in the pit of his stomach like lead. He knew, abruptly, that he could not leave Washington without talking to her.


Tracy lay on her sofa in the dark, huddled under an afghan, staring at the snow falling outside her livingroom window. It was nearly three a.m. and she had finally acknowledged that her night would likely be sleepless. When the phone rang, she nearly jumped out of her skin, her heart hammering in her ears so loudly she could barely hear the voice on the other end of the line.

"Tracy?"

"Vince?" she asked, her body suddenly flooded with hope, need and adrenaline. "I was wondering how long it would take you to get my number." She pulled the afghan back up to her chin against the chill. "Aren't you supposed to be on a plane?"

"Yeah, well, there didn't seem to be much reason to be on it." His pause was long, and she could hear the tension in his voice when he continued. "Trace, I need to see you."

"It's three in the morning, Vince," she said dryly. "Where are you?"

"At your front door."

"What?" Astonished, she got to her feet and peered out of her window down at the building's landing. He stood there, snow-covered, at the top of the stairs looking back at her, his cell phone held to one ear.

"Can I come in?"

A feeling of profound unreality swamped her, leaving her wondering at the certainty that her life was about to change completely. "Yes," she said and buzzed him in through the security lock. It would take him less than two minutes to make his way up the stairs, and she resigned herself to the fact that he was going to be treated to her at her most slovenly. The faded and baggy sweats she wore were warm, but far indeed from seductive. She wished she owned something suited to late night visits from handsome men.

The soft knock at her door came before she had made her way across the room. He must have taken the steps three at the time, she thought, opening it. He stood in the hall, dripping melt water and shivering slightly.

She simply stared at him, then moved clear of the doorway to let him in. He stepped through the door, shutting it behind him, his eyes never leaving her face.

Unable to stop herself, she stepped into his arms, feeling the welcome there. His kiss was every bit as heated as his skin was chilled. "God, you're soaked," she said against the wet wool of his greatcoat and moved free of his embrace. "Take this thing off," she commanded, helping wrestle off the heavy coat.

She hung the coat on an antique hall tree, shoving her loose hair out of her eyes before turning around and leading him into the livingroom without turning on the lights. She cleared the afghan from the sofa to make room for him.

"Why are you here?" she asked, pulling the throw over her shoulders.

Vince considered his reply for a long moment, then met her eyes earnestly. "I need you to know who I am, what I do. What I'm about to do."

She looked at him in the dim light from the street lamps outside her window. "I'm not your priest, Vince. You don't have to confess to me."

"You're wrong. I do. Tracy, I want you to marry me."

Tracy blinked, convinced she had misheard. "Excuse me?"

"Marry me, Tracy."

"That's what I thought you said." The calm in her voice surprised her. "Vince, I hardly know you."

"That's what I want to change," he said simply.

"You hardly know me!" The faintly hysterical note in her voice more clearly mirrored her emotional turmoil.

"I want to change that, too."

"You must be completely out of your mind," Tracy said with total conviction.

"Maybe," he conceded. "And maybe I have finally got a shot at doing the most sane thing I can think of. I am tired, Trace. Tired of living my life alone. I never figured on being a player this long. I've given this ten years of my life, and everyone in my family is dead. I can walk away from it now, with no regrets, and straight into witness protection."

The enormity of what he was telling her was beginning to seep into her boggled brain. "Witness protection?" she repeated.

"As long as I'm Vince Terranova, I'm a player." He rolled knotted shoulders. "Too many people in too many places know that name and the connections associated with it. I've made a lot of enemies in the last ten years. I handed in my resignation a week ago. If you say yes, the OCB will have us across the country with names no one will ever have heard of inside twenty-four hours. You know what it's like to live with a name that's got a history, Tracy. One you can't live down. Say yes."

"Vinnie, I can't! You are moving way too fast, here. Why does this need to happen now? Why not in a week? Or a month? Or six months?" Tracy pleaded, stricken.

Vinnie was quiet for so long she thought he wasn't going to answer at all. "Because a month from now, I may be in so deep I'll never get out." The reply was everything she had dreaded. Fear coiled in the pit of her stomach like slow poison.

"You're telling me that you are about to be placed on another assignment? But if your resignation is on file -" she began.

"I may not be in a position to resign. Rudy offered to put me into his old territory. At the top. My regional director may decide to take him up on it." Vince closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall behind the sofa.

"Vince, you can't tell me they can force you into a deep cover assignment against your will!" Tracy exclaimed, very much fearing that that was what he was telling her.

Slowly, Vince began to tell her the details. The moral conflicts inherent in accepting the job, as well as those posed by refusing it, were enough to give a philosopher nightmares. She heard him out, unable to begin to know how to help.

"And if I wind up on the inside, I can't risk having you within a thousand miles of me," he said finally, exhaustion slurring his voice.

"So my choices are either to marry you on the spot or never see you again," she said bitterly. "I don't think much of the options, Vince." She shifted position slightly, tucking her feet under herself, cold to her bones, and feeling grief tear at her heart.

"Do you know why I came back? Even though I promised myself I never would?" she asked him. "I took a year's leave and left Seattle to come back here to be with my mother. She's in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, Vinnie. She isn't likely to live another six months. I can't abandon her to face that alone, I can't."

Terranova heard the tears in her voice, and straightened, reaching for her. She came into his arms, burying her face against his shoulder. "Life's a bitch," he murmured into her hair.

"That may just possibly be the understatement of the century," she replied, wiping a hand across her wet cheeks.

He lifted her chin, meeting her eyes, his mirroring her pain and knowing she could do nothing to ease it. He kissed her gently on the forehead and moved to stand.

"Don't go," she said, catching his sleeve and rising with him.

"Tracy -" he began, "I have to go. Now. If I don't, I don't think I'll be able to."

"Please don't leave," she repeated, knowing that she was opening them both up to the full knowledge of what they could not have.

~*~

Terranova knew he was not strong enough to walk away from her again. And knew what it would cost him emotionally to stay with her. And chose to pay that price.

There was nothing gentle in the need that drove them, their first coupling a frenzy of desire that burned all the more deeply in the face of its impossibility. They touched, committing each other to memory, hoarding the knowledge of each other's bodies against the bleakness of the future.

Tracy reveled in his hands and the heat of his mouth on her skin in contrast to the chill of the winter darkness, her nipples hard as he bared her body to the night and his gaze. She unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it free of his pants, then began worrying at his belt and zipper, desperate for the sight of him, the feel of him. When at last they were free of their clothing, she begged him mutely for the release they both needed, simultaneously aroused and frustrated by his refusal to be rushed as he picked her up easily and laid her on her bed. She felt his eyes travel over her, drinking her in as might a man stumbling out of a trackless waste into an unimagined oasis, saw her own astonishment mirrored in the deepness of his eyes, astonishment that they should find themselves here, now, together, having once lost each other to circumstance.

She had always suspected it would be like this with him, his knowing touch breaching any defense that remained in the small moment before he came to her, filling the voids in her heart, in her soul, leaving her blinded by the truth of what she felt for this man as he filled her body with his own.

Vince felt the living heat of her like a bonfire against his skin, despairing of his ability to leave her. He did not recall ever having wanted a woman as he wanted this one. He wanted everything she was, everything she would ever be, wanted a future he could no longer envision. He felt as if that wanting might tear him open from throat to groin, leaving him broken beyond mending. She fitted him as though the Gods themselves had molded her for him. He held her, their bodies merged, long after their passion had spent itself, knowing a need that could not be assuaged.

He slept at last, the gray light of dawn beginning to lighten the clouds. When he woke several hours later, it was to the smell of coffee. He forced open eyes gummy with exhaustion and lay for a moment, listening to the small sounds of Tracy's movements through the apartment. He rose when he heard the shower, finding his way through the scattered clothing to the bathroom and joined her under the scalding spray.

She felt his hands on her wet skin, slick with soap, and leaned back against him, feeling his response in the hardening of his loins at the small of her back. They made love again under the pounding water, letting it rain over their heads like the tears she couldn't shed. To lose this was beyond her ability to imagine, and her resolve to let him go was shredding in her grasp like sun-rotted silk.

Somehow, they made it through a semblance of a morning routine. Vince had dressed in the now hopelessly wrinkled suit he'd arrived in, still damp with the night's snow. The rumpled suit and a night's growth of beard lent him a vaguely scruffy air that fit him every bit as well as the expensive suits he had favored in Sonny's employ.

Neither could bring themselves to break the silence. There was nothing that could be said that hadn't already been said with more eloquence by the touch of each other's hands.

When he left, it was without a backward glance, unable to face the sight of her watching his departure from the window of her fourth floor apartment. He felt numb inside, anesthetized with a grief he had never known before. Something beyond price had been sacrificed on the altar of duty. His duty. Hers. He knew he would accept the assignment if they gave it to him. And they would give it to him. And it would very probably be the last thing he ever did.

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