A Stitch in Time

Chapter 8

"Where--do--you want--this?" Bogg gasped.

"Right--through here," Bill grunted.

Sweating and straining, they maneuvered the sofa through the doorway and set it down on the living room rug before collapsing on top of it with identical sighs of relief.

"Thanks," Bill said, when he'd gotten his breath back. "You were right. Unpacking and unloading goes a lot faster with two people."

"The extra muscle comes in handy too," Bogg pointed out.

"Well, I sure wouldn't have wanted to tackle the couch all by myself," Bill agreed. "How about we do something easy next?"

"Sounds good to me. What did you have in mind?"

Bill reached down and pulled one of the boxes under the coffee table towards him. "We can unpack these photographs and knick-knacks and start finding places for 'em."

"That's about my speed right now." Sitting up straighter, Bogg helped Bill untie the string around the box and lift the lid away.

Framed photographs of varying sizes formed the top layer of the box's contents.

"Where should these go?" Bogg asked.

Bill considered them. "Some on the mantelpiece, some on the end tables. Let's see what we've got."

First came a faded, sepia-toned photograph of a young Italian couple, the man in uniform, the woman in a simple print dress.

"Kathy's parents," Bill explained, at Bogg's questioning look. "They met and married during World War II. Sadly, he was killed in the V-Day landing and never got to see his daughter. And her mom died of pneumonia about a dozen years ago. Kathy's been living with her paternal grandmother ever since."

Bogg made a sympathetic sound. "Should this go on the mantelpiece or the end table?"

"Mantelpiece, definitely. Along with this one." Bill lifted out what looked like a more recent photograph of a smiling middle-aged couple, a young girl of perhaps twelve, and a slightly younger version of Bill himself, in cap and gown. "Me, my parents, and my kid sister Elizabeth, at my college graduation."

Elizabeth. The aunt Jeffrey had been living with at the time Bogg met him. "A kid sister, huh? Any brothers?'

"Sadly, no. I was an only child until I was ten. It was great finally having a sibling, but I wish we weren't so far apart in age. It's like we didn't have much of a chance to become close, growing up. And now she's in high school, and living in her own little world of boys, clothes, and dates." Bill shook his head regretfully. "Well, maybe in time, the age gap won't seem so important. Besides, family is family."

"You and Kathy planning on starting a family yourselves?"

"We've talked about it. Maybe in a couple of years, after I'm through with my master's and she's gotten further with her singing. We can move to the suburbs, get a real place of our own, and start filling it with kids and dogs."

"Nice." Bogg tried to hide his lack of enthusiasm over that last part. Unbidden, a memory of Jeffrey's mutt, Ralph, all glaring eyes and gaping jaws, sprang to mind, and he pushed it firmly away.

Bill, however, was too astute for him. "Not a dog person, huh? Or is it the kids part you're objecting to?"

"Kids are okay," Bogg said. "But, I admit, I've never been that crazy about dogs."

To his credit, Bill only nodded. "We always had dogs when I was growing up, but one of my friends was pretty scared of them. Mainly because he got bitten by one when he was small. My parents made sure our dog was tied up whenever he came over to play. Do you prefer cats?"

Bogg shrugged. "Never owned one. To tell the truth, it doesn't make sense for me to keep a pet 'cause I move around so much." That was part of the cover story he and Susan had devised to account for their brief presence in New York; it also had the advantage of being more or less true.

He reached into the box again, picked up a framed document announcing that William Stephen Jones had graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University in June 1965. "Your diploma?" he inquired, holding it out to Jeffrey's father.

"Yep." Bill set it on the coffee table beside the photographs. "I'll have to find a different place for this. It's too big for the mantelpiece."

"You were a history major, right?"

"Right. Never really thought of being anything else--at least once I gave up my dream of pitching for the Yankees." Bill smiled reminiscently. "It was a teacher who inspired me, made history come alive for the whole class. I thought, I want to do that when I grow up. And then, once I started delving into the nature of history itself, I just got more and more fascinated." His eyes brightened as he warmed to his theme. "Just think about it: there are so many ways a situation can go, in the abstract. But ultimately, only one becomes history, the version of events most familiar to the world. All the possibilities coalesce into a single reality, but at the same time, there are different perspectives on that reality--" he broke off, with a self-deprecating laugh. "Sorry! Got carried away. You asked a simple question and I start giving a lecture."

"That's okay," Bogg assured him. "I'm afraid I wasn't much of a student, but history is one of the more interesting subjects out there." Not for the first time, he felt a twinge of guilt that he hadn't applied himself more diligently to his studies at the Academy. If he'd had even half of Bill's obvious passion for history when he was first chosen as a Voyager . . .

"I know," Bill said, with a wry grin. "Once I get started, I can talk for hours and that won't make the unpacking go any faster." He delved into the box again, emerged with several pictures. "These two on the mantelpiece," he directed. "And this one," he added, smiling fondly at the silver-framed photograph of his fiancée, "on our bedside table."

With two of them working, it wasn't long before the boxes were unpacked and their contents appropriately bestowed. Bill thought that there were some things Kathy might prefer to sort through herself, so he took those items into the bedroom.

Afterwards, they broke for lunch, helping themselves to cold cuts and bread from the generously stocked refrigerator.

"Might as well make room," Bill remarked, uncapping two bottles of root beer for himself and Bogg. "Kathy's folks will be sending her over with a ton of stuff for tonight."

Bogg took a healthy bite from his corned beef sandwich. "How many people are you expecting?" he inquired, when his mouth was no longer full.

"Besides Kathy and me? Maybe about a dozen. Friends of ours from college, one or two of the girls she met at the Amato, a couple of her cousins." Bill paused, frowning at his own sandwich. "I hope we've got enough chairs for everyone."

"Could you borrow some?"

"Maybe," Bill conceded. "But I don't want to impose on the neighbors this soon -- wait, I've got it, I think!" He looked up from his plate, with an air of discovery. "Professor Carson put most of his good furniture into storage, but he said he left some odds and ends in the basement if we wanted to use them. Maybe there'll be some extra chairs."

After lunch, they ventured into the basement. Bill went down first, with the flashlight. Bogg followed cautiously, eyes straining to see through the gloom, then almost jumped out of his skin when he saw something move in the shadows beyond.

Bill paused, glancing over his shoulder. "You okay, Phineas?"

Bogg swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. "Something--moved, down there," he reported in a hoarse whisper.

Bill turned his head sharply, shining his flashlight beam through the semi-darkness, then broke into a relieved laugh. "Here's the culprit! Boots, you idiot--how did you get down here?"

A disgruntled meow was the only response to his question. Bogg exhaled, feeling his heartbeat return to normal as a large cat--black with white paws--emerged from the shadows and promptly made for the stairs.

"He belongs to Mrs. Beatty, who lives next door," Bill explained. "But, according to Professor Carson, he likes to wander. He probably came in with the movers when they brought in the sofa, then decided he'd explore the basement and got shut in by accident. Now, a dog would start barking to be let out right away, but cats . . . " He shook his head in obvious bewilderment over feline ways, then shrugged and descended the remaining steps to the basement. "Eureka!" he exclaimed triumphantly, a few seconds later. "I think I've found what we're looking for!"

Two chairs stood in a corner of the basement. Bill shone the flashlight beam over them but detected nothing more serious than some scratches on their wooden frames. "They seem to be intact," he reported. "No tears in the upholstery either, as far as I can see. Think we can use them?"

"If they seem solid enough, sure," Bogg replied, almost absently. There was something about the basement that bothered him, but he couldn't yet identify what it was. He inhaled slowly, feeling his discomfort intensify. The room had a slightly musty, damp, closed-in smell, like a lot of basements, but there was another odor as well, faint but familiar. An involuntary shiver ran up his spine when he recognized it.

"Does Professor Carson smoke?" he asked, keeping his tone casual.

"Like a chimney," Bill replied. "It's a common vice among academics, I'm afraid." He considered the chairs they were holding and wrinkled his nose. "I can smell it too. Maybe if we put these on the front lawn for a few hours, the upholstery will have a chance to air out and they won't reek of stale tobacco anymore."

"Sounds like a plan." Bogg relaxed on hearing this completely logical explanation. Still, he couldn't entirely rid himself of a sense of unease, and he was glad to mount the stairs and close the basement door behind them again.

Kathy and Susan arrived in the late afternoon, already dressed for the party and laden with groceries. As Bill had predicted, Kathy's grandmother and uncle had contributed enough refreshments to feed a small army.

"They won't come themselves, though," Kathy reported regretfully, tying an apron over her pale green dress as she started to assemble the antipasto platter. "Uncle says he's needed at the restaurant, and Nonna doesn't like to go out in the evenings. Besides, she said young people should be allowed to mingle unchaperoned, now and then."

"We'll have a more family-oriented party after the wedding," Bill promised, leaning over her shoulder to steal a kiss and a black olive at the same time.

She swatted at his hand and missed, accidentally on purpose as far as Bogg could tell.

"Everything looks delicious, Kathy," Susan declared, lifting out a plastic-wrapped tray of miniature cannoli from one of the grocery bags. "I can't imagine anyone not enjoying the food."

"Well, we also have things like pretzels, chips, and dip, just in case," Kathy said. "So there should be something to please everyone."

"It'll be great," Bill assured her loyally. "Now, can I help you with anything?"

Kathy handed him one of the jars on the table. "You can open these marinated artichoke hearts, for a start. Nonna always seals the lids so tight."

"Anything I can do?" Bogg asked.

"Thanks, but I think we've got nearly everything under control," Bill replied, unscrewing the jar lid with a loud pop. "Why don't you go and take the first shower, Phineas? After all that heavy lifting we did today, you'll be glad of one."

"And I stopped by our place on the way over and picked you up a clean shirt for tonight," Susan said brightly. "Let me get it for you."

"Thanks." Recognizing a cue, Bogg followed her out of the kitchen and into the living room.

"Everything go okay with you and Bill?" Susan murmured, once they were safely out of earshot.

"Just fine," Bogg reported. "We might be a little stiff after moving the living-room sofa, but other than that, nothing to report. How about you?"

"Oh, the shopping trip went off just fine too. But," Susan's brow furrowed slightly, "we did run into somebody when we were at Mrs. Rossini's house afterwards. One of Kathy's old boyfriends--a guy named Tony Sorvino."

Bogg shook his head. "Doesn't ring any bells for me. Then again, Bill doesn't seem like the type to dwell on the guys his fiancée used to date."

"Well, Kathy told me a little about it on the way over here. Before she and Bill got together, she was seeing Tony, whom she'd known since they were kids. She said the Rossinis and Sorvinos are very distantly related, and for a while, both families thought they might hook up seriously. But then--" Susan shrugged.

"Then the kid's parents met, and that was that," Bogg finished. "What's this Sorvino guy like?"

"Tall, dark, and handsome--and I'd say, very aware of it," she added, with a wry smile.

"Think he's still hung up on Kathy?"

"She doesn't seem to think so, and he was friendly enough when we ran into him. But they do say you never forget your first. On the other hand, he's going to be an usher at the wedding and he is stopping by tonight for the housewarming."

"We should probably keep an eye on him too, just in case." Bogg sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "I wish I could ask the kid about this. I thought about bringing the HGT with me today, but thought it would be too hard to explain."

"It certainly would!" Susan retorted, sounding a little alarmed. "Not to mention what might have happened if it fell into the wrong hands. I'm glad you reconsidered, Phineas--this mission is complicated enough already."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Bogg assured her. "Well, even minus the HGT, we should be able to get through the evening without a hitch."

"I agree." Susan handed him a plastic bag that had been lying on the sofa. "Here's your shirt. Better hit the showers before the guests start showing up."

Bogg nodded and headed for the bathroom.

Bill and Kathy's friends were an eclectic bunch, ranging from young academic types like Bill himself to longhaired bohemians straight out of Greenwich Village. But everyone seemed disposed to get along, which said something about the couple's hosting skills. The food was a great icebreaker: appreciative cries greeted the antipasto platter, the bite-sized cannoli, and even the chips and dip.

Bill's college roommate--an aspiring artist with long sandy hair and a vague, dreamy smile--had appointed himself disc jockey for the evening and had lined up a number of singles on the record player. All were romantic or had something to do with love, he promised. Bill added that folks should feel free to dance, if they wanted.

As it turned out, quite a few people wanted, and soon the living room boasted several couples, including Bill and Kathy, twisting and twirling enthusiastically to some bouncy song about a brown-eyed girl and a transistor radio. Bogg, leaning against a wall, was aware that a couple of girls were giving him the eye but he deliberately refrained from encouraging them. Fortunately, Susan chose that moment to appear at his elbow.

"Everything okay?" she murmured, leaning close to him with the intimacy expected of couples.

"Fine, so far. Bogg lowered his own voice accordingly. "There are at least three Italian guys here--which one is Kathy's ex?"

"The one over there, dancing with the redhead," Susan replied, with a slight head-tilt in the specified direction.

"Mm." Bogg checked out the guy in question: tall, dark, handsome--and yes, noticeably impressed with himself. Susan's description was all too apt. Bogg knew he wasn't free of male vanity either--Jeffrey pointed that out, from time to time--but there was still something about Tony Sorvino that set his teeth on edge. Maybe it was the way he was smiling down at the girl in his arms, as if he was doing her a favor by dancing with her.

"Phineas," Susan nudged him gently. "You're staring."

"Sorry." He slid his gaze away, but still managed to watch from the corner of his eye. "Hey, if I ever get an expression like that on my face when I'm dancing with you--just hit me, okay?"

She laughed softly. "Well, you'd have to ask me to dance, first."

"Let me correct that oversight now. Shall we?"

"Delighted," she assured him. Together they ventured out of their quiet corner to dance to a song Susan identified as "I'm a Believer." Even with his mind mostly engaged by their mission, Bogg couldn't help noticing how gracefully Susan moved, her every step in time with the music, and how enticingly she fit within his embrace. Maybe afterwards, once Jeffrey's safety was assured, he could ask her out on a real date--even if it was just for a cup of coffee--before he and the kid headed back into the field. Something to look forward to, at any rate.

After their dance, they helped themselves to cold soft drinks from the fridge and retreated into their corner to maintain an image of togetherness. Bill's phonograph was now playing a soft ballad, all wistful guitar strings, with the plaintive refrain of "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme." Out of the corner of his eye, Bogg suddenly saw a flash of green: Kathy had descended upon the much-depleted antipasto tray and was carrying it back into the kitchen. A few seconds after she had vanished, Tony rose from his seat on the sofa, stretched, and strolled ever so casually in the same direction.

"Susan," Bogg murmured in her ear.

"I saw it too," she murmured back. "Bill sure picked the wrong time to visit the men's room"

"Give him a break. I'm betting Tony-Boy's been lying in wait for this all evening." Bogg pushed himself away from the wall. "You know, I think I could use another soda--how about you?"

"Oh, that would be lovely," Susan replied, reading between the lines with no difficulty whatsoever.

Despite his size, Bogg could move quietly when he chose, although the music and the hum of various conversations also helped to cover the sound of his footsteps. Just outside the kitchen, he paused and listened intently. Tony's voice reached his ears first, his words catching Bogg's attention instantly.

"--can still change your mind," he was saying, his tone almost caressing.

There was a brief pause, then Kathy said lightly, "Oh, Bill and I both think we should have eloped to Niagara Falls months ago, but his parents and Nonna would have killed us."

"Katerina, I'm serious--"

"So am I," Kathy interrupted, her voice firmer now. "Serious about Bill, and serious about getting married on Saturday. So, please, no more talk about me 'changing my mind,' because it's not going to happen." Another pause, then she resumed, almost gently. "You promised you'd dance at my wedding, remember?"

"Yeah." Tony's voice was so low Bogg had to strain to hear it. "Maybe, deep down, I still thought it might be our wedding someday."

"I'm sorry." No mistaking the softness in her voice now. "But, Tony, someday, you're going to meet a wonderful girl who'll give you everything you ever wanted--and you'll be glad that things turned out this way, for both of us."

Tony made a noncommittal sound, and Bogg decided it was high time he brought this awkward encounter to a close.

"Hey, Kathy," he greeted her as he strolled into the room. "Just came in to get a soda for my date. Need an extra hand in here?"

She looked up and he saw the flash of gratitude in her dark eyes. "Thanks, Phineas--that'd be great."

Tony, obviously not pleased by the interruption, gave Bogg a much cooler reception. "Evening. I don't think we've met."

"Phineas Bogg, this is Tony Sorvino. Tony, Phineas." Kathy introduced them to each other.

Tony continued to regard Bogg suspiciously. "So, how do you know each other?"

"A common interest in the arts," Bogg replied with an offhand shrug, not caring how glib he sounded to this guy.

"Phineas came to my rescue a few days ago on the way to Lincoln Center," Kathy supplied, her own voice rather cooler than usual. "I might not have made my audition without his help."

Bogg suppressed a smile at her words. So Kathy wasn't above stretching the truth a bit herself: he appreciated that.

"Sorry," Tony replied, not sounding sorry at all. "No offense intended."

"None taken," Bogg said, with equal insincerity.

Tony smiled blindingly and straightened up until he was looming over Bogg, who bared his own teeth in an equally blinding smile and did his damndest to loom right back. Nor was he surprised when, accepting the taller man's outstretched hand, he felt Tony's grip tighten painfully.

Bonecrusher handshake. Nice. Concealing his discomfort, Bogg squeezed back just as hard and had the satisfaction of seeing the other man's jaw clench at the pressure.

"Listen," Kathy interrupted, and probably not a moment too soon. "I really have to get this platter back out there before the natives get restless. The chips and dip bowls need refilling too--can you get the dip out of the fridge, Phineas?"

"Sure thing." Reclaiming his hand, Bogg ambled over to the refrigerator, fully aware of Tony's eyes attempting to burn holes in the back of his head.

"And Tony, you'd better get back to the party," Kathy continued. "I'm sure Sheila Preston is eager to dance with you again."

"Right." Even Tony couldn't ignore such a blatant hint, though Bogg was sure he'd have tried to if he could. "See you, Katerina. Nice meeting you, Phileas."

"Right back at you," Bogg drawled, not even bothering to correct him or watch him leave.

He located the carton of dip on the second shelf from the top. When he turned away from the refrigerator, it was to find Kathy regarding him with raised brows.

"Well, that was interesting," she remarked, an unmistakable edge to her voice.

"What?" Bogg did his best to sound innocent.

"That little macho thing between you and Tony. I'm surprised you two didn't go out in the yard and start marking trees or something."

Bogg was starting to realize just where Jeffrey had gotten his smart mouth. "That obvious, huh?"

She rolled her eyes. "Please. Any woman with half a brain can tell when two guys don't like each other. Tony isn't Bill's favorite person either, though he does a better job of hiding it."

"You know, if Bill doesn't like him, he's probably got a good reason for it," Bogg pointed out, opening the dip and spooning it into the appropriate bowl.

Kathy's eyes flashed. "That's not my doing!"

"Never said it was," Bogg hastened to assure her, as he reached for the chips bag on the counter. "Look, I may have just met you and Bill, but it's pretty clear to me that you belong together."

"Thanks." Kathy exhaled, looking suddenly harried. "I--just thought it was clear to Tony too. It's been a couple of years. I was sure he'd gotten used to Bill and me by now."

"Maybe he's having a hard time letting go, now that you're actually tying the knot? I mean, Susan told me that you two go way back."

Kathy sighed. "I guess you could call us childhood sweethearts. No one was surprised when we started dating in high school. It's just that, as time went on, he felt more like my brother, not less. And it's not as if he's been a monk since we broke up, either," she added, a little tartly. "Half the girls in our senior class were falling at his feet. Any of them would've been happy to take up where I left off--and several did!"

Bogg blinked. "All at the same time?"

Kathy stifled a laugh. "Oh, he wasn't that bad! Though he did play the field for a long time, and he hasn't been seeing anyone special lately. I really hope he meets the right woman soon--for lots of reasons." She shook her head with her usual air of trying to dispel unpleasant thoughts and picked up the platter of antipasto. "Phineas, would you mind bringing out the chips and dip? It would save me a second trip to the kitchen."

"No problem." Picking up the now-refilled bowls, Bogg followed her back out to the living room.

The music had changed again since they left the room: a man and woman were now belting out how there was no mountain high enough, no valley low enough, or river wide enough "to keep me from gettin' to you, babe." Several couples were still dancing, and when Bill spotted a returning Kathy, he smiled and held out his hand. Placing the appetizer tray back on the table, she went unhesitating into his arms and they joined the dancers.

Bogg, setting down the chip and dip bowls in their designated places, observed that Susan had drifted up to Tony and was smiling up at him in a way that would distract any red-blooded male. Tony preened visibly over her attention, while Susan presented the appearance of hanging on his every word

Bogg relaxed. Having a partner to run interference took a lot of pressure off him. Which was just as well since he'd completely forgotten the soda that had been his pretext for going in the kitchen.

Susan managed to engage Tony in conversation for a good fifteen minutes before the redhead who'd danced with him before descended on him afresh. Thereafter, she and Bogg took turns keeping an eye on Kathy's ex, even as they mingled with the other guests. Although Bogg made no attempt to approach Tony, he couldn't help noticing that the guy had a bottle of beer in his hand every time he saw him. More disturbingly, Bogg couldn't be sure it was the same bottle.

By contrast, Kathy seemed determined to put that troublesome conversation in the kitchen behind her, concentrating instead on being an attentive hostess as well as a devoted fiancée. She made no reference to it when she and Bogg ended up dancing together--to some light, catchy tune that assured him "you can't hurry love"--but instead asked him if he were enjoying the party. She smiled when he replied in the affirmative, then danced off with Bill when he reclaimed her at the end of the song.

It was maybe half an hour later when he saw Tony approach Kathy, who was talking to several of her girlfriends in a corner. Bill had left the room again, this time in company with a friend. Frowning, Bogg watched the two dark heads lean close together, strained to hear over the several murmured conversations already going on in the room. Providentially, there came a brief lull and Tony's last words reached his ears.

"--for old times' sake?"

He saw Kathy hesitate for a moment before nodding and taking Tony's hand. With a satisfied smile, he led her onto the dance floor; on the record player, a male singer began to warble about how he had sunshine on a cloudy day.

Even Bogg had to admit that the former couple danced well together, despite Tony's much greater height. They had probably danced like this lots of times when they were dating, maybe even before then, since their families were close. Kathy's steps were light, her posture as relaxed as if she really were dancing with her brother.

"Well, I guess you'll say

What can make me feel this way?

My girl. (My girl, my girl)

Talkin' 'bout my girl. (My girl) . . . "

The change, when it came, was so subtle that Bogg wondered if he were imagining things. But when he looked more closely, he again noticed that Tony had pulled his former girlfriend a little closer and was dancing with his cheek pressed against her hair. At first, Bogg could not gauge Kathy's reaction from across the room, but when the couple turned, he saw her eyes, as expressive as her son's, peering over Tony's shoulder with a mixture of doubt and unease. The latter became still more evident as Tony's hand molded itself against the small of her back. Bogg thought he could see Kathy's spine stiffen in response, her whole posture becoming rigid

The Voyager tensed. If Tony's hand moved a fraction further south, he was going to cut in and that was that. Kathy herself forestalled that move, however, by breaking free from Tony's clinging embrace and stepping away from him.

"That's enough." Her voice was low but clear.

Tony stared at her, his expression befuddled, whether from beer or lust Bogg couldn't tell. "Katerina . . ."

"My name is Kathy."

They were attracting an audience. Several people had broken off their conversations and were frankly staring. Susan, emerging from the kitchen with another drink in her hand, stopped in her tracks, looking towards Bogg who gave her an infinitesimal shake of the head. In a situation this potentially volatile, it was best not to make any sudden moves

The guests clustered around the living-room doorway abruptly parted like the Red Sea and Bill was there. Kathy's own gaze went to him in swift gratitude. A single look passed between them--Bogg would not have been surprised if Jeffrey's father had summed up the entire situation with that look -- and then Bill crossed the threshold and made his way into the room, not pausing until he was directly in front of Tony. And for the first time since Bogg had met him, Bill appeared less than friendly as he stared up at his fiancée's ex-boyfriend, while Tony himself looked simultaneously hostile and guilty.

For a moment everything seemed to tremble in the balance as the two men stood almost toe-to-toe. Then Bill held out his hand.

"Tony." His voice was perfectly calm, if lacking in warmth. "Thanks for coming tonight. It meant a lot to Kathy and me."

Amazingly, Tony's gaze dropped. After a lengthy pause, he accepted the other man's outstretched hand. "Thanks for asking me." His voice was scarcely above a mumble.

"We know you've got an early morning," Bill continued, "so we'll see you tomorrow evening--at the rehearsal."

Once more their eyes locked, but again Tony looked away first. "Yeah, I gotta run," he said, his tone deliberately casual. "My slave-driver boss always expects me to be the first one there. Goodnight, Bill." He glanced again at his ex. "Goodnight, Kathy."

"Goodnight." Her voice was as level and uninflected as Bill's.

Taking advantage of the dignified escape offered to him, Tony departed without further ado. The uncomfortable silence following his exit was broken by the sound of a dulcet female voice crooning from the record player.

"Bill . . .

I love you so, I always will. I look at you and see the passion eyes of May.

Oh, but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?"

A ripple of nervous laughter shivered through the room at the all too apposite lyrics. Suddenly, Kathy turned in Bill's arms and began to sing along with the record, her voice blending effortlessly with the singer's.

"Oh, I was on your side, Bill, when you were losing.

I'd never scheme or lie, Bill, there's been no fooling.

But kisses and love won't carry me till you marry me, Bill."

With the instinct of a true performer, she began to dance her fiancé about the room as she serenaded him. An instant later, several other women--including Susan, Bogg observed with surprise--had joined in the song, doing their part to help smooth over the lingering awkwardness of Tony's leave-taking.

"I love you so, I always will, and in your voice I hear a choir of carousels.

Oh, but am I ever gonna hear my wedding bells? (Wedding bells) . . . "

Kathy's voice soared over the rest, affirming her commitment to her husband-to-be:

"I was the one who came running when you were lonely.

I haven't lived one day not loving you only.

But kisses and love won't carry me till you marry me, Bill.

I love you so, I always will . . . "

Crisis averted--and it was safe to exhale. Relieved, Bogg went across the room to Susan and led her out onto the floor as well for what remained of the song.

"Getting sleepy?" Susan asked sympathetically as Bogg struggled to contain a yawn.

"A little," he admitted, leaning back against the wall. "It's been a long day--and night." Glancing around the living room, he judged the housewarming party a success, if only because most of the guests seemed reluctant to leave.

"True, but it's nearly over, and Bill and Kathy are one step closer to the altar."

"No thanks to Tony Sorvino."

"At least he left without starting something."

"Yeah, for a few seconds I thought there was gonna be a real ugly fight. Wondered if that was what we were here to prevent, in fact--but Bill handled it without bloodshed." Bogg eyed Jeffrey's father, still dancing with Kathy, with renewed respect. "Don't know if I could have kept a cool head in the same situation."

"He did a great job of taking the wind out of Tony's sails," she agreed. "And without even raising his voice."

"I just hope Tony-Boy stays deflated and doesn't try to pull anything before the wedding."

Susan leaned a little closer and lowered her voice. "What does the Omni say?"

Bogg grimaced. "Ducked into the bathroom ten minutes ago to check--it's still red."

Susan sighed. "I'm starting to remember why I decided against fieldwork in the first place. I don't think I could handle this kind of suspense on a regular basis!"

"You're doing fine," Bogg assured her. "In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were an old hand at all this."

Her eyes widened and she smiled at him. "Why, Phineas Bogg, that may be the nicest thing you've ever said to me!"

"Oh, c'mon, I must've paid you other compliments over the years!" he protested.

Her smile broadened. "Oh, yes, but this one was original!"

Bogg felt himself grinning sheepishly and decided to quit while he was ahead.

The record on the phonograph changed again, to a soulful ballad sung by a man with a dark, velvety baritone. Across the room, Bill drew Kathy closer as they slow-danced.

"When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we'll see

No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh now now stand by me

Stand by me, stand by me

If the sky that we look upon

Should tumble and fall

And the mountains should crumble to the sea

I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear--"

The phonograph stopped abruptly just as the lights overhead flickered and dimmed. Bogg straightened up, instantly alert, and felt Susan tense beside him.

Bill looked up in confusion, Kathy still clasped in his arms. "What the -- "

An instant later, the room was plunged into darkness.

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