Janey's hands were clenched in her lap, waiting for the plane to begin it's taxi down the runway. She was in a daze, her only thoughts on Zack and the phone call she had received just a few hours ago. Wounded...he had been wounded but that's all they...whoever they are...would tell her. They reassured her that he was alive and expected to recover but maddeningly, would not give her any further details over the phone.
She had been a woman possessed, intent only on getting to him. Her eyes were haunted as she tried to pack a bag, scattering bits of clothing helter skelter around the bedroom. She sank to her knees, tears coursing down her cheeks, her sobs uncontrollable, her meltdown inevitable. Tammy had taken over, packing her bag, making flight reservations and driving her to the airport. She hugged her just before she passed through security.
"He's going to be OK, you know. It's Zack – he's tough and smart and loves you too much to not come back. You'll see."
Janey could only nod and return her hug, knowing that if she tried to say anything at all, the tears would begin to flow.
Zack, the love of her life, the man who came out of nowhere to capture her heart – how would she find him. Her imagination was working overtime and all she could see was him lying on the ground, broken and bloody – her face pale, his breath labored. Never mind that she knew he was being cared for in a hospital, never mind that she had been assured of his recovery – all she knew was that he'd been hurt and she wasn't there.
She glanced at her watch yet again, noting that she was still 30 minutes from arrival. She willed the plane to go faster knowing that was totally unrealistic. She willed her mind to calm down but that wasn't happening either. Instead she continued to clench her hands together, staring out the small window, unaware that tears began to course down her cheeks.
"Wounded? How? When?" Charlie gripped Ryan's arms, her eyes wide with shock.
"I don't know – Jimmy didn't know. All he said was that Zack got wounded and Janey was on her way to Fort Carson in Colorado. There's an excellent military hospital there."
He folded her in his arms brushing his lips against her forehead. "Come on, let's get back home and wait for news. Tammy should be back from taking Janey to the airport. She and Jimmy could use the morale support."
"You're right." Charlie agreed as the walked out the door. "I just wish there was something we could do for Janey. She must be beside herself with worry."
Ryan hurried her to his truck, handing her in with care. In seconds he had the vehicle in motion, carefully navigating through the village. "All we can do is be there for her, darlin'." He reached for her hand, twining their fingers together, his touch a warm reassurance.
"I know but I wish it could be more. Janey's been so good to me and Jimmy too. Zack coming into her life after she's had so much sadness..." she sighed trying in vain to keep her tears at bay... "He made her light up again. I've never seen her so happy."
"Zack's a good guy. Truth be told I've never seen him like this over a woman so I'd say their feelings go both ways. Try not to worry – he's strong and a stubborn bastard. If he told Janey he'd come back to her, you can bet he will barring any unforeseen consequences."
Ryan lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her knuckles before releasing his grip to clutch both hands on the steering wheel. Now that they were out of town, the highway stretched before them, the distance to home farther than either of them wanted. His foot pressed down harder on the gas pedal, his mouth thinned to a grim line, his thoughts ever with his best friend.
Janey was the first one out of her seat when the plane's wheels touched down and taxied to the terminal. She was already half way down the aisle when the seat belt sign flashed off, waiting impatiently for the door to the jet bridge to open.
As she rushed past the attendant who was thanking her for flying with "Southwest Airlines", she smiled distractedly and rushed through the tunnel into the main terminal. Immediately a military officer approached her. "Ms McCall, I'm Lt. Davis. If you'll please come with me, I'll take you to the hospital."
Janey looked into his eyes gratefully and matched him step for step as he set a brisk pace through the crowd. "Do you have luggage, Ma'am?"
"No, just this." She indicated her small carry-on bag. A bittersweet smile quirked the corners of her mouth at his polite way of addressing her. She couldn't help but remember how she had blasted Zack for using that same term the first day they met.
A car was waiting for them at the entrance, for which she was grateful. At least they could be on their way immediately, without a trek through the crowded parking lot. She needed to see Zack, needed to see him now, to see for herself that he would be OK. She began to fidget in her seat as the car moved at an interminably slow pace, the exiting traffic forestalling any attempt at speed.
"Can you tell me anything about Zack's condition?"
"Sorry Ma'am, we're not at liberty to say."
Janey huffed in frustration, her hands clenched into fists, her nails creating grooves in her flesh. Finally, they reached the entrance to the highway and the car shot forward, bypassing the slower line of traffic. She watched the predictable interstate landscape whiz past her, not focusing on anything – not other cars, not on the billboards. Vaguely she heard one of the officers give her an ETA but his words were all but meaningless to her.
"Please be OK...please, please, please." The words had been branded in her mind, after so many hours of wishing, praying, bargaining with God to make it be. So lost in her thoughts, she didn't realize they had arrived at their destination until she felt the car slow and come to a halt.
"Ma'am, he's in Room 3304. I can get your bags..."
Janey was already out of the car, purse and bag in hand. Now that she knew where Zack was, her single minded determination carried her forward, barely hearing the last words spoken by the kind officer. As a tinge of guilt washed over her, she tossed a hurried "thank you" over her shoulder and allowed the door carousel to carry her into the lobby. Her eyes darted from side to side, searching for stairs or an elevator.
"Can I help you, hon?" The voice belonged to a matronly woman, wearing a volunteer smock, her demeanor calm and caring as her hand touched Janey's arm lightly.
"I need to find Room 3304." Now that she was finally here, emotions barely suppressed, threatened to overcome her. Tears pricked the back of her eyes and she blinked quickly to forestall them falling down her cheeks.
"Easy as pie, hon. Go down this hall until you reach the gift shop, turn right and take elevator "B". When you reach the floor, turn right again and 3304 will be the second door, once again on your right."
Janey returned the woman's warm smile, grateful for the simple directions. "Thank you."
"My pleasure. Now, don't you worry none. This is one of the best hospitals around and I'm sure your man will be just fine." She winked at the look of surprise on her face. "Go on now. He's most likely waitin' on you."
Janey flew down the hall, hopeful that things could turn out okay. "Maybe we'll still have a chance to be what we promised each other."
Ryan was pacing, his mind running every scenario imaginable, unable to reach any kind of conclusion. He cursed the military and their unmovable stance of not revealing any details. Zack had to be OK. They had gone through too much together for it to end at this juncture. He forced himself to stop at the front window, his eyes looking out but seeing nothing because while his body had ceased to move, his thoughts could only conjure up visions of Zack, pale, still, barely breathing.
He felt Charley's soft hands at his shoulders, her fingers working his tense muscles. "Hey...her breath was warm against his neck...it's gonna' be all right. Janey won't let it turn out any other way."
"I know, baby, I know but it's hard and I can't stand not knowing. Zack is like a brother to me and if anything..."
"Shh...Charley pressed her body closer, willing her presence to calm him... "don't...don't what if. Try to put it in your mind that Zack is fine and will be back with us soon."
"I love you." Ryan murmured as he turned her to face him, his arms pulling her close.
"Love you too."
How long they stood like that, wrapped around each other, neither knew nor cared. They took comfort in their embrace, breathing in their combined scents as if it was a drug. When Charley felt his chest rumble with what seemed to be laughter, she stepped back to face him with a smile.
"Look." He gestured toward the sofa. Tammy was pressed against Jimmy's side, his arms encircling her. Her face was tear stained and her expression bereft. "I think this is the longest I've seen Tammy not be talking. I wish it was for any other reason but this."
"She's worried about Zack too but that's not it. When she found out what Ray almost did, she went quiet like that. Somehow she blames herself. Why I don't know. You can't help who your family is and it's not as if she didn't try to warn me off. I can be a little stubborn."
"I hadn't noticed." Ryan remarked dryly.
Charley arched an eyebrow at his comment. "Are you always gonna' be like that?"
"Probably." His grin crinkled the corners of his eyes as he brushed her lower lip with his thumb. "Why, is that a deal breaker?"
Her answer was a contented hum from deep within her chest as she reached up to press a kiss to his lips. The kiss was as soft as a promise but soon became filled with want as she felt him pull her closer, his hunger for her apparent. A heat began to thrum outward from her core as she began to lose control of her senses and then...Tammy's voice startled them apart.
"Hey! Get a room you guys!" Surprisingly she was grinning, a complete one eighty from her previous demeanor. "Or...you could control your inner beasts and listen to the news."
"What?" Charley demanded. "Don't sit there grinning like an idiot. What do you know?"
"Well...she drawled slowly...that wasn't a very nice way to ask." She jumped as Jimmy squeezed her sides, her fingers purposely waking up her ticklish spots. "Out with it baby or I'll wear my John Deere cap at the wedding."
"You wouldn't dare!" She countered. Trying to gauge the seriousness of his words.
"You want to risk it?"
"OK, OK, no need for threats. I was gonna' tell them next. Janey just texted me and Zack's gonna' be fine. His injury isn't all that serious, as if a bullet wound is ever trivial, but he's getting discharged all the same. They'll be home in a few days."
Ryan breathed a sigh of relief as he buried his face in Charley's hair. "Best news ever." He whispered.
Janey hesitated at the door leading to Room 3304, steeling herself for however she found Zack on the other side. She took a deep breath and pushed her way in. To her surprise and relief, he was sitting up in bed, his arm in a sling, cuts and bruises marring his face but other than that, he was there. He was breathing and smiling and right there, in front of her.
Her sigh of relief ended with a sob as she dropped her bags and rushed to his side. Having imagined the worst possible outcomes, seeing him whole and alive was almost more than she could handle. Her breath hitched painfully in her chest while she pressed her face against his good shoulder, his scent reassuring her that he is actually there and not a figment of her imagination. She pressed her lips against his, their kiss a balm to her senses.
"I thought you were going to die. No one would tell me anything."
Zack traced her tear tracks with his thumb, his touch a reassurance that he was definitely alive. "Come on...you can't get rid of me that easy."
"I don't want to get rid of you at all...ever." Janey's lips curved into her first real smile since she received the dreaded phone call. She toed off her shoes and carefully slid onto the bed, pressing against his side, her hand resting against his chest to feel the beat of his heart.
Janey and Zack stood together watching the newly married couple drive off to begin their honeymoon. Tammy & Jimmy's wedding had taken place as planned, the details coming together seamlessly as usually happens. The couple was subdued during the touching ceremony, their eyes filled with love and promise, their gaze only on each other. Unlike the service, the reception following was fun and raucous and a totally unbridled celebration – a perfect reflection of their personalities.
There would soon be another wedding. Zack had proposed while still in the hospital and even surprised Janey with a ring that he had purchased before he'd been deployed. They still had not decided if this would be a major event or a quiet and simple exchanging of vows. That they already belonged to each other in every way was a given and the ceremony would only be a confirmation of that fact. Besides, Janey had just given Zack the news that they would be parents in a few months. Both were excited beyond words.
Charley and Ryan were falling deeper in love by the day. Inseparable since the near disaster with Ray Baxter, they stood apart from the throng of happy revelers. No one could hear what words were being whispered to Charley but everyone could see the soft smile curving her lips as she looked into Ryan's eyes just before she reached up to press her lips against his. Later they would reveal that he had decided to stay in Nebraska, to set up a virtual office and manage his teams as expertly as before. While nothing was said about marriage, it was only a matter of time before they shared that news as well.
Three couples, three stories of love and happiness, three stories of fate, conflict and heroism. Each story unique in it's own way but each couple would never forget the events of "That Summer." Events that brought them closer, brought them love and trust and gave each one of them their very own happy ending.
A/N Sorry this last chapter took so long but I confess to life's craziness combined with a bit of writer's block. A big thank you to everyone who has read, commented and encouraged me along the way – especially Savannah Singleton and Dill Wilson. Hope you don't think the ending is too sappy but I truly espouse my pen name.