When Ryan had been seventeen years old, he'd been a rather carefree and slightly rebellious teenage boy. He hadn't cared much about his family's wealth and the financial freedoms it had bought him. All he'd known was that he was bored with his life. He was tired of playing the perfect son, the star soccer player, the straight-As student. Whatever he'd wanted, he'd been able to command at the snap of his fingers. He'd needed a challenge and hadn't been able to find it.
Then, he'd met Alex Baretta, a forty-something import-exporter with dubious connections, who had offered him the opportunity to run a variety of illegal and prescription drugs, along with contraband weapons, back and forth between the Canadian border and Green Bay, which was only a half hour's drive from Lowesville. Ryan had known it would be dangerous, but he'd needed some sort of stimulation at that point, so he'd taken it.
Much to his parents' dismay, he'd decided against going to college and had joined Baretta full-time, with Emma at his side. Though she hadn't been on Baretta's payroll, she'd helped Ryan out in situations where she'd known he would be in danger. He'd lost track of the number of times her incredible aim with a pistol had saved his life.
He never had gotten around to asking her where she'd learned to shoot so well.
When they'd been twenty-two, Alex Baretta had moved his business out of Lowesville, leaving Ryan with dozens of contacts but no job. Deciding to use the contacts and his name both as the eldest son of the Jones family and as the infamous Ryan Jones of the Baretta organization, he'd begun running a variety of contraband items to the border and turning an incredible profit for it. Of course, he also ran a legitimate import-export business with specialized cheeses, among other items—they did live in Wisconsin, after all, and he'd decided to take advantage of those who craved collectible cheeses.
It still cracked him up when he thought about it, but he didn't mind the money that poured in each year.
What he did mind, he thought now as he sat by Emma's bedside, was the fact that his business had caused Emma such harm. If he could, he knew he'd take back everything he'd done to ensure that she wouldn't be in the terrible condition she was in now.
A considerable amount of her face and scalp had been burned and were now covered in bandages. Only the right side of her face, from her eyebrow to her chin hadn't been burned. Her beautiful hair had been completely shorn away, and her head was wrapped in bandages that were changed every few hours.
The doctor had already informed him that the facial burns weren't quite as bad as they could have been and that Emma would recover with barely any scars on her face. Her left shoulder, though, had been badly burned and had required considerable skin grafts. In fact, her entire body was currently encased in a variety of bandages and casts, and she was hooked up to so many machines that were beeping away, recording her vitals.
He hated seeing her this way. She was such a vital and passionate person, so full of life, and he despised himself for having any part in putting her in the Intensive Care Unit.
She could have died.
The thought ran through his head as though it was a warped CD, and he couldn't shake it. Jillian had told him that he wasn't to blame, as had Jack, but he knew the truth. When Emma woke, he knew that he'd have quite some answering to do.
In the meantime, he had, in fact, pulled some strings and been able to spend the night with her. As far as he could tell, her vitals were holding steady, and he was able to relax a bit with that knowledge. Still, nothing could diminish the guilt, and love, he felt as he cradled her bandaged hand in his, willing her to wake. Though it had been hours since the surgery, she had yet to open her eyes, and, though the doctors weren't worried, Ryan was bone-deep scared that she might never open those lovely eyes and look at him again.
He wasn't even sure that, if she did open her eyes, she'd even want to see him. Maybe he'd truly destroyed whatever love she'd once had for him, and, as with everything else, he knew he had only himself to blame.
Pressing his lips to her bandaged palm, he tried to steady himself at the idea of losing her even if she came through this ordeal and didn't return his feelings. Not that he'd blame her, but it would still hurt.
Ryan wasn't the kind of man to take hurt well, but he understood now that he was the kind of man who'd hurt plenty of people with careless words. He knew he'd never forgotten the look on Emma's face when she'd left Lowesville nor had he forgotten the stricken look in her eyes just a few days earlier at the Fourth of July picnic.
"How can I ever make this right?" he whispered to her now. How could he ever right the many wrongs he'd caused her? "Just wake up, Emma. Just wake up, and I swear I'll do whatever it takes to put things back the way they were and the way they were meant to be. No more arguing, no more hateful words. I swear to you. Just wake up," he repeated again.
With nothing more to do but wait, he lapsed into silence, his eyes glued to her face.
She was swimming through darkened, freezing waters, and her body felt weighed down by stones. Her arms were so heavy, and her legs barely kicked. Her chest hurt, and she so badly wanted to stop but knew she couldn't or she'd drown. It seemed as though she'd been traveling for years. Emma wondered how much further she'd have to go.
Years seemed to pass before she felt the weight on her body grow lighter. The water grew warmer, and she heard a voice whispering to her. There was sand beneath her feet, and she stood in the sea, now only knee-deep.
"Hello?" she called out, but her voice was paper-thin.
"Emma, please. Emma, come back to me," the voice murmured again, and she felt her jaw drop.
In the next instant, a burning pain invaded her every sense as the water sucked her back into its fathomless depths, and she woke gasping for air.
Ryan leapt out of his seat when her eyes opened, and she tried to suck air into her lungs rather violently. "Emma! Emma, hey, hey." He grabbed her flailing arms, afraid she'd injure herself worse. "Emma, please. Calm down." The monitors were beeping madly, and he was deathly afraid something would go wrong.
"Bomb! My car!" Her cries pained him, but he continued to hold onto her wrists. Her eyes locked on his, and he could see that they were glazed with pain, confusion, and panic. "DiMatto…Ryan…he's after you! He's…going to…kill you!"
"Emma! Emma, it's okay," he tried to soothe her. "It's okay, I'm here. I'm right here. I'm fine." Nothing he said, though, seemed to work, and every cry tore at his heart. "Emma, please."
Within moments, two nurses rushed into the room, nudged him aside, and worked to calm her down. Their soothing voices did more than Ryan had, and Emma lay quietly after a few minutes as the nurses examined her, taking notes on her chart.
"Are you in pain?" one asked her.
Emma's eyes were shut, but she managed to moan. "Please, it hurts. Stop it, please."
Her pained voice ripped through Ryan, and he had to fight the urge to grab her off the bed and cradle her in his arms. Instead, he watched helplessly as the nurses adjusted the morphine drip.
"We'll be by in another hour to change your bandages," they told Emma. "Try to stay calm and rest until then. You'll worsen the damage if you move too much."
She didn't reply and simply lay in the bed, docile and silent. When the two nurses left, her eyes drifted shut though from her heart rate, Ryan knew that she wasn't sleeping. He wondered how safe it would be for him to talk to her, so, instead, he chose to sit silently.
"How bad do I look?"
Ryan blinked, sure he'd imagined it. "Emma?"
Her voice was stronger now, and she opened her eyes, shifting her gaze to where he sat. "How bad do I look?" she repeated. She lifted a heavily bandaged hand towards her face. "What's the damage, Jones?"
He scooted himself closer to the bed and managed a smile. "You're alive," he said softly. "Emma, you're alive. It's a miracle."
"Please, Ryan. Please, don't be nice to me." Her eyes began to tear as her fingers fluttered around the bandages on her face. "Give it to me straight," she asked in a steady voice.
Taking a chance, he cupped the unburned side of her face, wiping gently at the tears that slipped down her cheek. "You're beautiful," he whispered. "The most beautiful woman I know."
She squeezed her eyes shut, and more tears cascaded down her face. "I should've died," she told him quietly. "I wish I had."
"No." He was horrified. "Emma, don't say that. Don't."
Her eyes opened and met his. "I can't do anything right," she whispered. "I tried to make you love me, and I lost you. I tried to make a life for myself in Atlanta, and I couldn't even do that. I don't even know why I came back here. Why didn't I die, Ryan?"
"Don't talk like that," he told her firmly. "You're alive, and I'm going to make sure you stay that way."
She closed her eyes on a weary sigh and turned her head away from him. "Why are you even here? You hate me. Just go."
"I'm not going anywhere, Emma. I did that too often in the past, but not anymore." Unsure whether she'd pull away from him, he clasped her hand between both of his hands. "Just try to rest for now."
When she didn't pull her hand away or respond, he rested his forehead on their joined hands.
A long while later, Ryan woke to the sound of Emma weeping and was instantly alarmed. From the way her eyes were squeezed shut and one hand covered her mouth, he knew she'd been trying to be as silent as possible, and it pained him to see her this way.
"Emma," he said softly, lacing his fingers with hers. "What's wrong? Are you in pain?"
Her eyes opened and shifted to meet his as her hand fluttered to her bandaged head. "It's gone, Ryan. My hair. It's gone," she repeated and sobbed helplessly. She felt so ridiculous crying over her hair, but it was just an added weight to the misery she was feeling.
Carefully, knowing that she was on the edge of hysteria, he cupped her face gently, brushing the tears aside. "It's okay," he murmured, pressing his lips to her forehead. "It's okay, Emma."
"No," she wept. "No, it's not! I didn't ask for this, Ryan. I came back to Lowesville to make things right and to make something of myself. I came back because I wanted another chance to make you love me, but I can't. Oh, God, I can't. I'm such a mess, and you'll never love me," she whispered in a broken voice.
"You're not a mess. You're not," he insisted as tears pricked the backs of his eyes. Even if he told her he loved her, would she believe him? "Emma, please. Please don't get upset over this. Your hair will grow back. The bandages will come off, and you'll be even more beautiful than before."
His words seemed to have no effect on her as she continued to weep, so Ryan held her until her sobs subsided. When he glanced down, he saw that she was asleep. Pulling the blanket over her, he sat back and sighed heavily.
When Emma woke again, she was alone, and there was sunshine filtering in through a window. Shifting a bit, she looked around the room and realized she was no longer in the intensive care unit. It appeared as though she'd been moved to a regular room, and there weren't quite so many tubes and wires hooked up to her anymore.
Laying her aching head back on the pillow, she sighed. There were still bandages all over her, and her ribs were sore. She was pretty sure that she hadn't heard the entire rundown of what the damage was, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know. What she did know was that she'd never be the same again.
If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that his presence had been a dream. After all, why on earth would Ryan even care that she'd been hurt? It wasn't as though he cared about her at all. He was obviously happy playing house with Liza and her two pretty little girls. Why would he want anyone else when he had the perfect life?
It had probably been a duty/guilty visit, she realized after a few minutes. Tony DiMatto was Ryan's rival, and he'd attacked her because of her, however nonexistent, connection to Ryan. Therefore, Ryan had probably just felt guilty that she'd been injured on his account. If nothing else, Ryan's sense of responsibility and guilt was one of his most honorable—and frustrating—qualities.
"A pity call," she muttered aloud bitterly. "That's what I've been reduced to. A fucking pity call."
"Talking to yourself? Maybe you were knocked harder than we thought." Emma glanced up to find Jillian smiling at her in the doorway. Her smile was full of relief, and she stepped into the room. "God, Emma, we thought we'd lost you."
Emma smiled grimly. "I might as well have been lost. Look at me," she whispered. "What's the point in living if I look like this?"
Jillian's smile faded as she perched on the edge of the bed. "Don't say that. Emma, don't you dare say that. Do you know how many people were worried out of their minds over you?"
She shut her eyes, not wanting to feel guilty for her justified thoughts. "What, all one of you?" Emma looked up at Jillian. " 'We' is not the right pronoun, Jillian."
"There're a lot of people worried about you, so stop the poor me act," Jillian said, her expression deadly serious. "Don't you know what it would've done to Ryan if you'd died?"
Emma couldn't look at her and turned her head away to stare hard at the wall. "Please. Ryan's only worried because he'd have felt guilty that I'd died because of him. I'm not stupid enough to believe that he cares one bit for me."
"We'll see," was all Jillian said before changing the subject. "I hear you're recovering pretty fast."
"This is the first I'm hearing of it," Emma replied dryly, though her stomach fluttered at the thought that she might not be stuck in the hospital for much longer.
Jillian rolled her eyes. "Whatever, Emma. You know you're thrilled at the idea. I heard some of the nurses talking about how you are quite the little miracle case."
"Plus, they've been checking out the burns on your face and head, and everything's healing really well."
Emma looked back at her and frowned. "Wait, that can't be right. How long have I been in the hospital?"
"Five days," Jillian told her and lifted a brow. "Come on, Emma. Don't tell me you didn't know that."
Emma shook her head. "No, I didn't. This is the second time I've been awake. Five days?" she repeated, and Jillian nodded.
"Yeah, and some of your hair is already starting to grow back under there," she added, gesturing towards the bandages covering Emma's scalp. "The doctors aren't even expecting you to scar much, except on your shoulder."
Having trouble digesting the news considering the fact that she'd all but resigned herself to never looking the same, Emma grew quiet. Seeing the expression on her face, Jillian switched the subject again to lighter matters.
"My wedding's only three weeks away, Emma, and I took the liberty of finding you the perfect dress," she told her quiet friend. "It's going to look terrific on you, and you won't even be able to tell that you were ever hurt."
Emma's eyes widened. How could Jillian even think about dressing her up when she couldn't even get out of bed and had been asleep for the majority of the past week? "Jillian, there's no way I'll be able to make it to your wedding." She gestured to her leg. "Broken leg? Remember that?"
Jillian just waved aside her worries. "I talked to a doctor, and you'll definitely be able to come to the wedding. Don't be a spoilsport, Emma! Be more positive, and things will get better. You'll be out of here in no time, you'll see!"
"Was this how you were when you woke up in the hospital three years ago?" Emma asked quietly, reminding both of them of Jillian's assault.
Apparently unfazed by the question and the recalling of a difficult time in her past, Jillian shrugged. "I was bitter and angry, but I realized that I wouldn't get better that way. That's when I decided to forgive you, but you'd already skipped out of town." She leaned forward and grasped Emma's hand. "I was ready to forgive the man who'd put me in the hospital—which sounds a bit extreme, I know—but it was too late to do so."
Emma frowned, though she had a pretty good idea what Jillian was about to say. She figured Ryan had probably found those responsible for her own car bombing and had taken care of them as well. "Ryan?"
"Ryan," Jillian agreed with a tiny sigh before shaking it aside. "Anyway, my point is that I recovered quickly because I quit being so pessimistic about the whole thing. And, yeah, okay, I have this scar on my face now, but that hasn't stopped me from living pretty well. It didn't stop Jake from falling in love with me, and that's about the most important thing in my life." She smiled a little dreamily now, and Emma couldn't help but feel a little envy at how serene Jillian was. "Have a little faith, Emma. Everything works out the way it's meant to."
Faith, Emma thought later when she was alone again. She'd had faith in a lot of things in the past, including the love she'd shared with Ryan. After everything that had happened in the past few years, it was hard to keep up that faith.
But she'd promised Jillian that she would try, and she would. She'd just make sure to guard herself and her heart at the same time. She wasn't at all certain she'd be able to take heartbreak again.
Three weeks later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Emma was, indeed, easing herself out of her new car—courtesy of Ryan Jones—and into the wheelchair that awaited her by the passenger door, outside of the large church in Lowesville. Dina, the nurse Ryan had hired for her, grasped her arms and helped her settle into the chair before shutting the door and locking the car.
Emma sat still for a moment, trying not to think about how the skin beneath the cast on her leg itched horribly, and took a deep breath. The sun was shining brightly, the sky was a deep blue, the birds were singing, and she was going to do her best to have a wonderful time—for Jillian's sake.
When Dina started to push her down the sidewalk, Emma waved her away. "I can do this, Dina. Really."
Dina, whose cheerful, relaxed personality had made it easy for Emma to befriend her, merely stepped back. "Sure, no problem. If it does get to be too much-"
"I know, I know. I'll let you know," Emma muttered slightly crabbily. The last few weeks of being coddled had driven her up the walls of her apartment. She'd always been so fiercely independent that it was hard for her to hand over the power, however briefly, to anyone else.
Of course, it had become obvious before she'd even left the hospital that she would not be going home alone. Because it had come out—through certain, unidentified sources—that Allie Wilson had stolen Emma's wallet the day she'd run into her, thus giving the DiMatto organization plenty of information about her, Ryan had been adamant about Emma's safety.
"They got into your apartment, Marks. I want to make sure they don't again, and I want you to be safe, so you're just going to have to deal with it," he said decisively, the warning light in his green eyes obvious.
Lying in the hospital bed, Emma sniffed and tried turning up her nose, quashing the hope flickering in her heart that Ryan's feelings for her were softening. "You can't force me to accept what I don't want."
He leaned close, so close, and, for a half-second, his gaze dipped to her lips before meeting her eyes again. Her heart was racing, but she couldn't look away. "Don't bet on it."
That was it, Emma thought now. It had just taken that one look, one sentence and she'd been saddled with an in-house nurse—okay, so Dina was pretty great, but still—and constant visits from people she wasn't even sure she liked. In addition, Ryan had, despite her many attempts to dissuade him from doing so, paid off all of her hospital bills.
It had also come out that he had moved out of the house he'd shared with Liza, and that Tony DiMatto had hastily begun disassembling his Lowesville operation. While both pieces of news and Ryan's behavior had been more than welcome to Emma, she still wasn't sure how they'd play out. Not wanting to let herself hope for something that probably wouldn't happen, she'd focused on her recovery.
Wheeling herself up the handicap ramp, she rolled into the church with Dina by her side. It seemed as though all of Lowesville had shown up to witness the wedding, and every person already there turned to stare at her as she entered. Feeling like a specimen under a microscope, she met everyone's looks defiantly before swiveling her chair and heading towards a small chamber down a long hallway outside the sanctuary.
Hearing Jillian's excited voice, she knocked on a door before pushing it open and easing herself in. Jillian, who'd been standing in front of a mirror with her mother, turned and rushed across the room, beaming at Emma. "Oh, look at you! You look terrific!"
Emma had to admit that Jillian's words held the truth. Despite the fact that she was scheduled for a skin graft surgery in a few days and the giant cast on her leg, she did look really good for having been in a terrible accident a few weeks before. Whatever scars were on her face had faded away or were easily covered up by makeup. Her hair had grown in quickly, and a good hairstylist had shaped it so that she had a pixie cut that made her look unbelievably young. It would still be a long while before it grew back fully to the way it had once been, but Emma no longer minded how short it was.
Then, there was the dress. Jillian had, unsurprisingly, a brilliant eye for fashion and had found Emma a dress in shimmering green. The princess sleeves tapered down to her elbows, effectively covering up many bruises, and the short scoop neck had done the same. The full skirt hid her cast, and Emma had donned a pair of ivory flats, though she doubted she'd be walking on them that day.
"I don't know how to thank you, Jillian," she said now, already having noticed the disapproval on her mother's face. "You really didn't have to do all of this, especially since I've done nothing to deserve it."
"Oh, don't spoil my big day by pissing me off," Jillian replied, turning back to the mirror, to study herself one last time. "I wanted you here, and I think I effectively erased every excuse you could've used to get out of coming. Right?"
Emma had to concede to the more seasoned general in this battle. "Right."
"Well, there's only a few more minutes, so you'd better get out there and get a seat." Jillian took a deep breath to quell her nerves and glanced over her shoulder at Emma. "Make sure you have a good view, okay? Dina, help her, please?"
Dina, ever the good nurse, smiled. "Of course. You make a lovely bride, Ms. Jones." Then, with a no-nonsense look sent in Emma's direction, she directed Emma out of the room and into the sanctuary where nearly everyone had taken their seats.
Craning her neck, Emma tried to find a good spot where her wheelchair could be easily maneuvered to but was unable to find one. "See anything?" she asked Dina.
Instead of Dina, another voice answered smoothly. "There's a spot for you near the front."
Emma turned to find Ryan watching her, an indiscernible expression on his incredible face. The look in his eyes shot shivers up her spine, but she resisted the urge to squirm in her chair. "Thanks, Ryan. I'm sure Dina and I can find it."
Ryan wasn't so easily pushed aside, and he took hold of the handles, guiding her up to the second row where there was a clear spot perfect for her. Emma ignored the speculative looks and looked anywhere but at the guests seated in the pews. When he'd situated her in the space, Ryan leaned down, his breath fluttering over her ear and making her shudder, and whispered, "Let me know if you can't see."
Fighting the urge to jump him, she turned her head to meet his eyes. "Where are you sitting?"
He grinned at her, reminding her of how disarming his smile could be. "Right next to you, of course."
"Ryan, why-" But her question was interrupted by the opening chords of the wedding march, and she was left with her swirling thoughts.
The ceremony had gone beautifully, and the reception was in full swing. Jillian and Jake were clearly enjoying their newlywed bliss and beaming at everyone. A good amount of the guests were more than just a little tipsy, but everyone seemed to be having a good time. Ryan stood off to the side, smiling at how happy his sister was. Once upon a time, he'd imagined his wedding day would be just like this, and he'd been sure that he and Emma would have been just as ecstatic as his sister and her new husband were.
Of course, those plans had been shot down, but he was holding out hope that all was not lost. Turning his head, his eyes scanned the banquet hall and located Emma in her wheelchair, clapping along to the music. To everyone else, she seemed happy and recovering well, but Ryan knew that, if he looked closer, he'd see that she was uncomfortable with the sideways glances thrown her way and her incapacity to move out of her wheelchair.
She looked beautiful and was, in his opinion, the most beautiful woman in the room—aside from the bride, that is. Despite the cast, the faint bruises, and the tiny fringe of hair covering her head, she was still lovely, and he was madly, irrevocably, and unbelievably in love with her. He was surprised that he hadn't just burst into a ball of flames the way he was burning up with the need to just be with her again.
He'd have to go slowly, he knew, but he was willing to do whatever it took to have Emma in his life again. Permanently.
Casting a last glance at his sister as she danced joyfully with Jake, he skirted around tables and tipsy guests, making his way to where Emma was stationed. She didn't register his approach until he moved her wheelchair. Then, her head snapped up, color riding high on her cheeks.
"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded even as he maneuvered her out of the hall and outside into the balmy evening.
"We need to talk," he replied simply, continuing to move until they were far enough away that the music from the reception was faint. Locking in the brakes on the wheelchair, he came around and knelt until they were eye to eye. "I think there's a lot that needs to be said."
Despite the fact that the night was warm, Emma wrapped her arms around herself and shook her head. "I don't know what you mean. What needs to be discussed? The bomb was a plant by DiMatto, you obviously tracked him down, he peaced the hell out of town, and then you paid off all my hospital bills and got me a nurse." She lifted a brow. "Did I miss something?"
"Yeah." Ryan nodded, his eyes steady on hers. "This."
She hadn't seen it coming, Emma thought for a split second before all thoughts were drowned out by the feel of Ryan's lips fitted perfectly over hers. Unable to resist, her hands lifted and dove into the thick depths of his hair as his hands gently cupped her face, feathering lightly over her cheeks.
She could've sobbed with relief at being able to touch him again and didn't give a damn about his reasons for kissing her. All that mattered was that he was.
Ryan felt her lips open against his and seized the opportunity to deepen the kiss. After three and a half years, he was starved for her taste, her touch, and nearly forgot that she was in a wheelchair as he practically lifted her out of it and into his arms. "I love you," he murmured against her lips. "God, I'm so in love with you."
Emma froze. Then, with a jerk, she pulled away from him and pushed herself a foot, then two feet, then a yard away from him. Her eyes were wide, her face pale in the soft moonlight. "What did you say?"
Ryan cursed himself silently even as he met her eyes and repeated himself. "I love you, Emma. I never stopped. God, I couldn't," he muttered, and, in a rare show of frustration, shoved a hand through his hair as he shook his head. "You are the most difficult person I know to purge from my system. I tried, oh, believe me, I tried."
"Wow, thanks," she muttered, but he ignored it, needing to get it out of his system.
"I couldn't stop loving you, not even if my life depended on it. I spent the past three years trying to do just that, and I couldn't. Now, I'm sure I don't want to," he added, turning to face her again. Reaching out, he took her hands in his, lacing their fingers together. He held firm even when she tried to tug her hands away. "Emma, I will spend the rest of my life begging you for forgiveness and trying to make up for all the times I hurt you, but I don't think I'll ever be able to pay it all back. Three years ago, I felt us falling apart after we lost our son, but I wasn't able to let you in enough to see my pain." He sighed and brushed his lips over hands. "At the most important moment in our lives, I let you down because I was afraid to share the pain, so I let you suffer alone."
She could see the anguish and self-loathing filling his eyes and didn't like it. "Ryan, you don't have to do this."
"I do," he told her quietly. "I owe you for every instant of hurt I caused you. I need to explain, please." When Emma nodded, he took a deep breath and continued. "I know for a fact that there is nothing I can do that will ever make up for the way I threatened your life." His breath hitched, and Emma instantly leaned forward to wrap her arms around him to comfort. She may have been angry with him, but she couldn't stand to see him in pain. He held up a hand, stopping her. "No, wait. I'm okay. I just…I've spent three years regretting those words. How could I?" he wondered. "You are the most precious part of my life, and I threatened your very existence? I've been so disgusted by that part of me that was able to say it."
"Ryan, I understood why you felt the way you did," Emma interrupted him, finding it difficult to watch such a strong-willed man stumble. The emotions swirling through his eyes were nearly tangible, and it was painful for both of them, she knew. "Jillian's your sister, and I would've been furious with anyone who hadn't prevented my family from being in danger. You really don't have to explain."
Ryan stared at her. He'd been so sure that she would rail at him, berate him for everything he'd done, and, here she understood his horrible actions. Unable to stand it, he rested his forehead against hers, breathing her in. "How did I live without you, Emma? I don't deserve you," he whispered.
"Maybe not," she said calmly, "but I don't think either of us has much of a choice in the matter."
He leaned back just enough to see her eyes. "What do you mean?"
Emma ran her hands up his arms and linked them around his neck. "It means that we've been stuck with each other since high school, and, even though we've made a lot of mistakes, we're still here, aren't we? I might have spent three years trying, and failing, at hating you, but it's obvious that neither of us is capable of detesting the other. So, Mr. Jones, what do you suggest we do about this?"
He was speechless. Was she seriously giving him the one the one thing he needed from her without there being an argument and nasty words shouted at each other? "I don't know what to say to you," he admitted.
"Let's take it a day at a time," she suggested after a moment. Even as she spoke the words, Emma couldn't believe that she was in the one place she'd never thought to ever be again—Ryan's arms.
Ryan nodded slowly as his lips curved. "I won't let you go this time, Emma Marks. I promise."
"I know you won't," she assured him, but he could see the tiny flicker of doubt.
"Emma." He cupped her face in his hands, their eyes meeting. In his, she could see how serious he was, and how sorry. "I need you to know that I'll never intentionally set out to hurt you again, and I'm sorry that I ever did. I know you might not forgive me, and I completely understand if you don't."
She shook her head. "I've already forgiven you," she told him, realizing it was true, and watched surprise bloom on his face.
"Emma," he breathed, his face full of wonder. "You won't regret it. I love you, and I'm going to spend every day proving it to you."
Bursting with joy, she beamed at him and tugged his face down until their lips met. "I know you will," she whispered against his lips. "I trust you. I always have."
Overwhelmed by her and his feelings, Ryan was unable to control the urge to grab hold of her and not let go. Careful of her injuries, he scooped her out of the wheelchair and cradled her in his arms, pressing his face to her hair. "I thought you'd died," he whispered after a few moments. Unable to suppress the shudder that ran through him, he clutched her close. "When Jack told me it was you who'd been in the car, I went crazy. I can't lose you, Emma, not even for a day, an hour. A minute," he added in a tortured whisper. "I can't be Ryan Jones of Lowesville without you by my side."
"I'm here. I'm okay, I'm right here," she assured him, snuggling into his arms more securely. "You're stuck with me, Jones."
He lifted his head and chuckled a little. "Thank God." Then, his lips met hers again in a kiss full of apology, promise, and love.
As she felt herself float blissfully in the sensations that only Ryan had ever given her, Emma knew that she was finally, finally exactly where she belonged. Sure, it had been a long road since she'd found herself alone at the age of eight, after a car accident had killed her parents, but she'd finally made it. This moment, right here, was what she'd been headed towards her entire life.
"Say the words, Emma," Ryan murmured, brushing his lips over her cheeks and jaw. "I need to hear them. I need to know if…" He trailed off, his voice hesitant and nervous.
Knowing him, understanding him, and loving him, she linked their fingers together and smiled, tears gathering in her eyes. "I love you, Ryan Jones. I always have, and I know I always will."
"Whatever comes next, we're going to face it together," he promised her fiercely.
Beaming at him through the tears that slid down her cheeks, she brushed her lips over his again. "Together."
And they lived happily—and slightly criminally—ever after.
AN: Aaand there you have it! I'm not fully satisfied with how this chapter and the ending turned out, but maybe you will be :) Let me know what you thought of the story!
Also, I'm not sure how many of you watch General Hospital, but this story was inspired by my most favorite TV couple ever: Jason Morgan and Sam McCall, who are, sadly, broken up now. This story was just my little way of bringing them full circle again...except with different characters and different events, but still the same sentiment. sigh Oh, Jasam, how I miss thee...