"A REASON TO LIVE"
* * * * * * * *
"Hey, Cap! Got a minute?"
He smiled at the sound of the voice, and looked up to see Johnny standing in the doorway to his office with a big grin on his face. Roy hadn't seen Johnny in weeks, and was pleased to see him looking so well. They shook hands and Roy gestured to a chair.
"Have a seat, Johnny. Give me just a minute to finish up this report, and I'll give you a tour of the station."
He sat down and looked around the office. Johnny hadn't set foot inside any station in a long time, and felt strangely out of place. Roy finished the report; putting it aside, he turned his attention to his friend.
"So, what brings you to this neck of the woods, Johnny?" he asked curiously. Roy didn’t think he would’ve driven all the way to Lancaster just to say hello to him.
"I drove out yesterday morning to pay a visit to someone, then spent the night at my aunt and uncle's in Palmdale."
"I'd forgotten you said they lived out here. I didn't know you knew anyone else out this way."
"I grew up not too far from here, Roy. Went to high school in Lancaster. Remember, that’s where I met Gil."
Roy looked at him in surprise. "You never mentioned that. I didn't even know there was a reservation out here."
"Well, there's not anymore. Not exactly anyway. The federal government decided to withdraw their official status back in '76, and took back all the land so they could sell it. Quite a bit was bought by land speculators. They figure this area will grow a lot in the next twenty years. With the government's money gone, most everyone left to find work or to move to another place, but a few stayed behind and worked out deals with the new land owners. My aunt said a group representing the tribe just petitioned earlier this year to get their federal recognition back, but no one really believes that's gonna happen any time soon."
"So, some of your friends still live out there?" Roy inquired.
"I thought maybe...," Johnny shook his head sadly. "No, not any more. I guess I just had to close a chapter in the book once and for all, you know?"
They sat in silence for a minute.
"I... uh... never said thanks."
"Well, you're welcome. Mind tellin’ me for what?"
"Just for things. For puttin' up with me all these months. For standing by me and being my friend when I didn't want one. For savin' my life.” Johnny gave Roy a half-hearted smile. “You know, little things like that."
"I seem to recall you’ve done the same for me once or twice. I thought that's what friends were for.” Roy sensed things hadn’t gone well, and added, “You’re a good friend, Johnny.”
"Some would say the opposite."
Roy shook his head in disagreement. "Then, some people really don't know you very well."
"Yeah. Maybe." Johnny’s smile grew a little. "Or maybe I just never knew who my real friends were. Thanks, Roy.”
“Don’t mention it.” Roy sat back in his chair and twiddled with his pen, getting up the nerve to ask one more time. “Johnny..., what are you gonna do about work?"
If for no other reason than to stop the questions, Johnny figured he’d better come up with an answer soon. But, he really didn’t know.
"I still haven't made up my mind. Got any advice?" It was the first time he hadn’t told Roy it was none of his business. He was hoping Roy would say something that would help him figure it out.
"Johnny..., you know I'll respect whatever choice you make. It won't make a difference to me. I want you to do whatever you think is best for you. I wish there was something I could say or do to help you decide...."
The tones sounded, and Roy jumped up and disappeared through the doorway, leaving Johnny sitting in the chair beside his desk. He reappeared a few seconds later.
"Hey..., you waiting for an engraved invitation?" Roy smiled and tossed a helmet at him. "You can ride along in the squad."
The response was to a small structure fire and 135s was first on the scene. Johnny stayed by the squad and watched Roy in action. Calm. Confident. In command.
Leaning back against the fender, he closed his eyes and let his senses take over. The smell of smoke mixed with the exhaust from the diesel engines. The shouts of the men, and the squawks of the handi talkies filled the air. The sound of water under pressure surging from the nozzles and the hiss of cold water consuming the heat of the fire brought back memories.
Suddenly the smells and sounds faded in the distance, and in his mind he was standing in the warehouse, again. Alone. Johnny's heart raced faster as the frightening memories came back in vivid detail. Standing face-to-face with death. The blinding explosion. The searing pain. The cold, empty blackness. But somewhere in that moment just before those things happened, there was something else that he'd forgotten all this time.
He had been able to do it then..., while standing there, waiting for the inevitable, he had found the courage to look in the face of fear and let it go.
Johnny opened his eyes. The fire was out. The danger had passed. The fear was gone.
The nightmare was over.
* * * * * * * *
Shannon could not believe she was hesitating.
She had left Sean in the loving care of Mrs. Henderson while she worked, but she had never left him for a single night, let alone an entire weekend. But, Johnny was proposing a long weekend away. Just the two of them.
"What about Sean?” she argued half-heartedly, “We can't leave him with just anybody."
"It's all taken care of,” Johnny assured her. “I asked Joanne, but she said they'd already made plans for the weekend, so she suggested I call Dixie. She said yes right away. As a matter-of-fact, she said it was about time she got to spend some time with her godson. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to explain it to her if you say no."
"But...." Her protests were getting weaker.
"She even offered to come stay here with him so we don't have to pack up a bunch of things and drag them to her place. And, Jennifer's going to come with her and stay too. Shannon, we can't say no. Neither one of them would ever speak to us again."
"It's so tempting, Johnny. But..., I've never left him." She was surprised at the pull of her maternal instincts, especially when faced with a choice like this.
Johnny put his hands around her waist and pulled her close and began nibbling her neck. "So, you... don't wanna... go away with me...? I can make it worth your while... unless of course... you're not interested...."
Hesitation? Out the window.
"Okay, okay.” She laughingly agreed. “You've convinced me. We'll go."
He did it, again. "Great. I've gotta go to work now. I'll call you later." And then, he left.
Shannon blew out her breath like a pressure cooker letting off steam. Damn him. He was torturing her. On the other hand, Johnny had promised to make it worth her while.
She had every intention of collecting that promise... or he'd learn the real meaning of the word torture.
* * * * * * * *
Dixie and Jennifer practically shoved Shannon out the door.
They agreed if she gave them one more instruction or said good-bye to Sean one more time, they would hog-tie her and throw her in the car. Shannon's frustration had been building all week with Johnny's refusal to tell her where they were going. He assured her he'd taken care of everything and all she needed to do was sit back and enjoy the trip. Not even asking what she should pack gave her the slightest clue. He had suggested casual clothes, a sweatshirt and comfortable walking shoes. Miffed that she seemed to be the only one who didn't know their destination, Shannon finally climbed in the car and slammed the door. Johnny just laughed at her, waved good-bye and backed the car out of the driveway.
Once they got underway though, she began to relax and let her curiosity fall by the wayside. It had been a long time since they'd done anything remotely spontaneous, and even though he'd obviously planned the weekend, it still seemed a bit spur of the moment as far as she was concerned. The more she thought about it, the more romantic his mysterious plans sounded. Before she got too carried away with that idea, Shannon recalled the way he'd been acting lately, and wasn't sure if she should count on the romance part too much. Not sure what to expect, she made up her mind that plain old sex would be fine. Planned or spur of the moment. Either way. Both ways. A wicked little smile danced on her lips. Oh, the ways....
Getting her lustful thoughts under control, she drew a deep breath and reminded herself for the hundredth time since he told her about the weekend not to push it. Three days alone with Johnny -- even if they were spent just talking -- was a huge step forward. They didn't need any more steps backward.
Traffic on the northbound 101 was lighter than normal for nine AM.
Johnny turned the radio on low and Shannon dozed peacefully until they reached Santa Barbara. Johnny decided to take a little "side trip" from there, ending up in the quaint Danish village of Solvang, where they stopped for a leisurely breakfast. They walked along the streets hand-in-hand and window shopped for a bit, then got in the car and headed back to the highway and continued north.
Civilization thinned out after that, and they rolled down the windows and began to really relax and enjoy the scenery along the highway. Hawks floated on the breeze that drifted over the meadows and gentle rolling hills on their right; hungry seagulls circled idly over the waters of the Pacific Ocean on their left. The translucent blue tint of the ocean matched the delicate blue hue of the flawless California sky. Cattle grazed contentedly in the pastures at the foot of the hills; white-foamed surf surged and swirled around the rocks on the shoreline and retreated back into the ocean. Time seemed to slow down with each passing mile. Shannon had spent so much time living and working in the mountains, she had forgotten about the breathtaking beauty of the Central California coastline. She was already hoping that they would have a chance to go as far north as Big Sur and Monterey, and was anxious again to know their destination. She asked, but he still wouldn't tell her.
Johnny did, however, say why he'd gone to the desert the previous week. He revealed more about his family and his childhood than she ever dreamed he would tell her. She was fascinated, amused, and heartbroken by his stories. Deeply touched that he finally chose to share that part of his life with her, Shannon felt closer to him than she had in a long time.
After checking out the sand dunes in Pismo Beach, they had a late lunch in downtown San Luis Obispo before heading north once again, this time taking the more scenic Highway 1. When they stopped for gas in a small town, Shannon snuck off to find a pay phone. She couldn't resist checking in and was thankful Dixie was patient with her. After all, they'd been gone for almost seven whole hours. Johnny just shook his head when she got back in the car. Like most men, he just didn't understand.
For some reason, Johnny slipped into a melancholy mood again. He grew quiet and remote, often glancing out the window toward the sun as it began to make its afternoon descent to the west. Shannon thought maybe some of what he'd shared with her had stirred up old memories he would rather have forgotten, and she didn't press him to talk any more.
It was early evening -- although the midsummer sunset was still a few hours away -- when they drove through the small town of Cambria. Johnny turned onto Moonstone Beach Drive, and drove back along the narrow road, finally pulling into the parking lot of a small inn that sat on the top of a bluff overlooking the ocean. Just one look immediately brought the picture of a romantic weekend getaway to Shannon's mind again, although one glance at Johnny as they got out of the car quickly tempered her growing fantasy.
The flagstone-faced inn sat nestled in the shade of a multitude of tall Monterey Pines. The surf was almost at high tide, crashing on the rocks at the base of the bluff. The Santa Lucia Mountains that rose behind the town lent a peaceful backdrop to the secluded setting of the inn. Shannon leaned against the car and waited while Johnny went to check in. He was gone for a while, but she hardly noticed as she breathed in the mixture of calming aromas surrounding her -- the heady scent of pine and the salty freshness of the cool misty air.
She was so entranced by it all, she barely paid attention to the moody expression Johnny wore when he came back to the car. Their room was at the very end of the hallway of the single story building, and Shannon fell in love with it the minute she stepped inside. It was done in English country decor with plaid wallpaper, and flowered draperies and bedding in mauves and blues and grays. A high, four-poster king-sized bed dominated the room; there were two large windows on the wall opposite the bed that revealed a spectacular view of the ocean. Sliding glass doors on the other wall led to a private patio overlooking the beach below the bluffs. A wood burning fireplace sat angled in the corner between the two windowed-walls. Even the bathroom made her happy.... There was a huge Jacuzzi tub with room for two that started her imagination working overtime.
It was the perfect setting for the mood she was in.
"Johnny, it's beautiful," she sighed happily when she rejoined him in the room.
He tore his gaze away from the window and looked around. "Yeah, it's okay. Um..., a little much, if you know what I mean, but it's got a nice view of the ocean."
Okay, so he wasn't going to be romantic.
"What do you want to do now?" he asked in a distracted tone, looking back out the window.
She took the fact that he asked a question like that to mean he wasn't interested in what she had in mind at that moment, so she offered her distant second choice.
"A walk on the beach might be nice," she said, trying hard to remain positive. They still had two days left. "Maybe we could stay and watch the sunset. We haven't done that in a long time."
Johnny frowned and shook his head. "I've kind of got a headache from the long drive. I think maybe I'll take some aspirin and lay down for a little while." He walked over to the bed and began to rummage around in his bag for the bottle of aspirin.
Unable to hide her displeasure at his ever-changing moods, Shannon scowled at him, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Tell you what," he suggested. "Why don't you go take your walk, and I'll rest for a while until my headache goes away. Then, I'll come down to the beach and we can watch the sunset if you still feel like it."
She grabbed her sweatshirt off the bed, and mindful of the other guests, didn't quite slam the door on the way out.
The trail down the bluff to the rocky shore was a little steep, but she managed without any problem. Still flushed with anger, Shannon took her shoes off and began to walk along the almost deserted beach, fighting back the tears that were stinging her eyes. In spite of all her private discussions with herself about it, she had high hopes for this weekend. Hope that they could finally get back everything that they once shared together. She thought Johnny had brought her here to do just that, but he now didn't seem interested. She didn't understand how he could pick such a beautiful, romantic place and be so... so... standoffish. That wasn’t really the word she wanted, but it worked.
Shannon picked up a small moonstone and sat down just out the reach of the creeping tide, using the smooth rock to draw circles in the wet sand. Finally looking up, she realized it was getting late and had no idea how long she'd sat there. The chilly wind began to work its way through her sweatshirt; calmer now, she shivered slightly, then pulled on her tennis shoes and got up to leave.
Slowly heading back toward the path that led up the cliff to the inn, she spotted Johnny sitting on the flattened top of a large boulder. He was staring off into the horizon, oblivious she thought, to the fact she was even there.
When she reached the boulder and looked up at him, he gave her a small smile and without a word, reached out his hand to help her up. She climbed up and settled down in front of him. Johnny put his arms loosely around her waist and she laid back, resting against his chest. The hazy sun looked as though it was perched on the edge of the ocean, and the sky all around it was turning pale shades of pink and orange. Neither one spoke, each lost in thought, as they watched the sun slowly sink into the sea and finally disappear, allowing the shades of nightfall to claim the darkening summer sky.
Shannon felt his arms begin to tighten their grasp, then heard his rapid breath as he buried his face in her hair. She closed her eyes and melted in his arms. Johnny turned her slightly and kissed her throat and jaw as his hands began to roam her upper body. Her response was instant, and she impatiently pulled him into a hungry kiss that soon had them both gasping for air. She was about ready to yank him off the rock and make love to him right there on the public beach -- From Here to Eternity-style -- when she felt him tense up and pull his head away.
"Not now. Not yet, Shannon."
She wanted to scream.
Shannon knew she had pushed too hard, too soon. No, it wasn't too soon damn it, she thought in counterpoint. It was almost too late. She quivered with a combination of unfulfilled desire and anger ready to explode.
Johnny slid off the rock and held out his hand to help her down. "We should go back now before it gets too dark. Wouldn't want to slip going up the cliff." Taking her firmly by the hand he led the way back to the top. Johnny could feel the resistance in her grip, but Shannon followed him without protest.
It was completely dark outside by the time they reached their room. He hadn't said another word, and Shannon was so miserable she wanted to go home. Johnny unlocked the door, but before opening it for her, gathered her in his arms and kissed her again. She didn't begin to understand what he was doing... only that he was doing a good job of driving her crazy.
Johnny opened the door and let Shannon go in first. Her hand slipped to her mouth and tears sprang up in her eyes. With the aid of the staff, he had carefully recreated that night in Denver in loving detail. The bed was turned down, and a single long-stemmed red rose lay across the pillows. The flame from the candles on the table by the window flickered off the crystal vase that held a bouquet of perfect pink roses. A bottle of champagne sat chilling in a silver ice bucket, and two crystal flutes sat next to it. The room at the Brown Palace hadn't had a fireplace, but here in this room, the logs burned low and lit the room with a soft amber glow.
Shannon was so stunned she almost forgot Johnny was there with her until he quietly moved across the room to stand by the fireplace.
It quickly dawned on her that he had been recreating his hot-and-cold persona of that other night to purposely confuse her, and Shannon felt a little gullible not to have figured it out.
Silently, she swore revenge.
Her attention once again captivated by the room, she went to the table and picked up the small envelope that rested against the vase. It looked old. Familiar. She pulled out the small card and recognized it as the same one he'd given her before -- the one she'd picked up from the floor to keep as they left the Denver hotel that morning. The one that read "wait for me." Puzzled, she looked at him, and he mutely gestured to her to turn it over.
It simply said "the wait is over."
She nervously bit her lower lip and looked at him again. He was watching her, his eyes burning bright in desire. She went to him and he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.
"Johnny... I... " A long, slow kiss silenced her as she went weak in the knees.
For a while they stood there holding each other, kissing in the fading firelight until he gently pulled away from her. She could see he wanted to say something, but was wrestling with the words.
"Shannon..., I need... I need to know." His words were halting... uncertain. "Are you... are you ready to be... a firefighter's wife?"
She took a step back from him. "Does that mean you've decided to go back to work?" she asked quietly.
"I passed my physical with flying colors. My first shift starts next Wednesday." Johnny had made his decision without talking to her first, and knew he was taking a big chance.
Shannon cast her eyes to the floor and took her time answering. "Johnny, I'm ready to be your wife." When she saw the anguish that flashed in his eyes, she moved forward and put her arms around his neck. "I love you... and I'm ready to be your wife, Captain Gage."
"Please, marry me," he whispered.
Next to "I love you" those were the three words he always thought would be the hardest to say.... They came easily tonight.
She looked at him with tears shining in her eyes. "Johnny, I thought you'd never ask."
He tilted her head and put his lips to hers. His kisses were soft and tender, but she could feel the heat rising in his trembling touch as he pulled her closer to him, and told her he loved her.
"Make love to me, Johnny," she whispered in his ear as his kisses traveled down her neck.
"I will.... I want to do it like the first time," he whispered back between kisses. "Let me... love you like that again. Do you... remember that night?"
Shannon extricated herself from his arms, and smiled at him. Of course, she remembered. Who could forget a night like that?
"Well, you know, I'm not exactly a 19-year old virgin anymore," she said coyly, "and I've got the stretch marks to prove it."
"And I'm not exactly a never-been-injured 20-year old firefighter either," he teased right back, "and I've got the scars to prove it."
"Of course," she mused, "it has been an awfully long time... and I'm probably so out of practice that it might seem like you have to show me how to do everything again."
The playful bantering stopped, and Shannon began to feel as nervous and excited as she had way back then. If Johnny wanted to recreate the magic nights of their lives, she wasn't going to turn him down.
He put his hands on her hips and kissed her again, then slipped his hands under her shirt. He caressed her bare breasts and played with her nipples, igniting the flame inside her that would burn all night long. In one fluid motion, he pulled the sweatshirt off over her head, then reached down and unzipped her shorts. He slowly pulled them down off her hips, then all the way off, and ran his hands up along the inside of her thighs before backing away from her. She stood in front of him, suddenly feeling as shy as she had been the first time he'd seen her naked.
Johnny couldn't believe he hadn't looked at Shannon this way in such a long time. She had a beautiful body. Still trim and shapely, motherhood had only enhanced her figure; her hips were more rounded, her waist softer, her breasts fuller.
His eyes were glazed with a look of heated passion and intense desire she thought she would never see again. Shannon blushed under his intimate scrutiny. Without touching her, Johnny made love to her with his eyes as they hungrily roamed over her, lingering in places that made her temperature rise and her pulse race. Her excitement grew as she watched him take off his clothes. The first time she ever saw him without clothes, she had glanced away, not embarrassed, just not sure what to do. He had gently persuaded her to look at him and touch him and become familiar with his body. Since then, the sight of him naked never failed to heighten her arousal, and she felt the warmth of her response spread throughout her.
Johnny reached for her, and the difficulties of the last eleven months melted away. He pulled her tightly to him and sought her mouth with his and kissed her until she couldn't breathe. He took her to bed and began loving her.
He was gentle and considerate, knowing it had been a long time for her. He took his own sweet time getting reacquainted with all the places that made her writhe in ecstasy at his touch, making sure he didn’t overlook any of them. He used his mouth and his tongue and his hands and his fingers to explore every inch of her body. He talked to her the whole time, telling her what he was going to do, asking if it felt good, asking if she wanted more, asking her to tell him what she wanted. He drove her wild, until she didn't think she could stand it any more without him inside her.
He rolled over onto his back and pulled her on top of him, and kissing her still, whispered it was her turn. Johnny had taught her that first time how to make love to him. She was timid at first, but his patient encouragement had led her to discover the satisfaction of bringing him pleasure. An eager student and a fast learner, she quickly discovered ways to make him moan in delight and beg for more. Shannon loved how he responded to her touch. That night, she had learned that there was a world of difference between two people who had sex, and two people who were lovers.
Tonight they were lovers again. The tempo of their lovemaking shifted back and forth from one of slow, smoldering passion to one of intense, primal urgency.
In the midst of it all, Shannon sensed Johnny was still holding something back. She had been waiting for him to take her, but even as his want for her began to overwhelm him, he hesitated. His body hovered over hers -- wanting her desperately, he fought his emotions. She cupped his face in her hands, then stroked his sweat-soaked hair from his forehead, and asked him to look at her. She knew he had to hear her say it.
She was breathing so hard with her need to have him she could barely talk.
"I promise you... we will be together... forever. Please. Trust me, Johnny."
Just as Shannon had given herself to him that night in Denver, this night Johnny finally committed himself completely to her.
They were one with each other once again.
* * * * * * * *
He reached for her and she was gone.
Johnny rolled onto his back and rubbed his temples with his fingertips, trying to massage away the dull ache that had taken up residence there. Groggy still from a combination of too little sleep and too much champagne, he called out Shannon's name, but there was no reply. Propping himself up on his elbows, he looked out the window opposite the bed. He didn't remember leaving the drapes open last night. The cloudless sky was a beautiful shade of topaz blue and the ocean shimmered under the early morning sun. It hurt his eyes. Johnny fell back onto his pillow, trying to remember what she had said earlier.
A walk. A beautiful morning for a walk on the beach. Trying to drag him out of bed to go with her. Him mumbling something about having had more than enough exercise last night. Her laughter and the sound of the door closing behind her.
He rolled on his stomach again, and pulled a pillow over his head to block out the light streaming through the windows. Ready to doze off again, a knock on the door made him open his eyes, but the rest of his body wasn't motivated to move. A second knock sounded, a little more insistent this time, and he grudgingly dragged himself out of bed. Johnny pulled on a T-shirt and some running shorts, smoothed his hair a little, and went to look through the peephole.
Cursing softly under his breath for not realizing what time it was, he opened the door for the man delivering the special room service he'd ordered the previous day. Not a full service type of hotel, the inn staff had agreed to provide breakfast from a local restaurant just for this special weekend he'd arranged. They seemed to be relishing their role as coconspirators in his plans.
Johnny asked him to wheel the cart onto the patio, and helped himself to some coffee as soon as everything was set up. Now all he had to do was sit and wait for Shannon to come back. He had just polished off one of the Danish rolls and poured a second cup of coffee when he heard the door open.
"On the patio," he answered back, glancing around to make sure there was nothing that would tip her off to his surprise.
Shannon stepped onto the patio and kissed him good morning, surprised to see breakfast waiting. She poured a glass of orange juice and sat down in the chair next to him.
"You should've come with me, Johnny," she said happily, "there were two sea otters just offshore, and they were so cute. I sat on a rock and they entertained me for the longest time. I've only ever seen otters in zoos and it was really exciting to see them just swimming around free like that."
"I'm sorry I missed that.... Maybe I'll get up early tomorrow and we can go together," he grumbled playfully, "that is, if you don't keep me up again all night."
She smiled sweetly in his direction. "You loved it, and you know it."
Shannon felt her stomach grumble and surveyed the food on the table. They hadn't eaten dinner last night, and she realized now how hungry she was. There was a bowl full of huge bright red strawberries, accompanied by a smaller bowl of whipped cream, a plate of Danish rolls and croissants, and two plates covered by round steel lids.
"What do we have here?" she asked, as she lifted the cover off the plate nearest to her.
Expecting to see something like bacon and eggs or pancakes, she gasped when instead she found a small jewelry box -- unmistakably a ring box. Johnny was grinning broadly at having pulled off yet another surprise. So far, he was two for two.
Shannon was smiling in eager anticipation when she opened it, but never imagined it would be something so stunning. Set in platinum with a sparkling oval diamond in the middle, flanked on either side by two small princess cut deep-blue sapphires, the ring was breathtaking in its simplicity. She gaped at it until Johnny tugged the box out of her shaking hand, and slid the ring on her finger. It was a perfect fit.
She finally got the words to come out, though in a whisper. "Johnny... it's... it's beautiful... but how...? It must have cost a fortune." She held out her hand and admired the sparkling gems. She was in awe.
Johnny grew serious for a minute and held her hand in his, looking at the ring as he spoke. "The diamond is from my mother's ring. I had it put in a different setting with your birthstone, because I wanted this ring to be yours. You know, my mom gave up a life of 'comfort' -- as her sisters used to say -- when she married my dad, but she never complained. They didn't have money for a ring when they got married, but my dad always wanted to give her one. It took him a long time to save the money, and he finally gave her a diamond ring on their tenth anniversary. I don't think she ever took it off. She loved that diamond and always said if she had a daughter she would've left it to her. I know she would've liked you to have it."
Shannon kissed away the sadness on his face. "I'll never take it off either. I love it, Johnny, and I love you." A long, sweet kiss did wonders to restore his good mood.
She sat back in her chair, holding her hand out, still admiring the beautiful engagement ring. "By the way, what are we doing today?" she asked casually.
He caught himself before he stammered, unprepared for the sudden change in subject. "How about we eat breakfast first, then we'll talk about it?"
"You know, I'm not as hungry as I thought I was. I think I'll take a quick shower and when I'm done, we'll see what there is to do. I've never been to Hearst Castle, and it's just up the highway.... Maybe we can go there." Shannon got up and stepped back through the open doors, but hesitated and turned around with a beguiling smile in her eyes. "You're probably starving. Why don't you go ahead and eat. Just be sure to save some of the strawberries for me, okay?"
Johnny did just that, and when he was done, moved over to the lounge chair and stretched out, rather pleased with himself with the way things were turning out. He gave some thought to the rest of the weekend, and smiled. Just one more surprise, and his plans would be complete.
The sound of the waves and the warmth of the sun almost lulled him back to sleep. Shannon came out again and stood next to the lounge chair, drying her hair with a towel while she took in the lovely view from the patio. Johnny opened his eyes and took in the lovely view in front of him. Legs. Long, gorgeous legs. Smooth, bare legs that disappeared under the very short silk robe she wore. Missing nothing in the look that crossed his face, she tossed the towel aside and sat down on his lap, straddling the chair. Her hair was still damp and hung down around her shoulders, and as she leaned in to kiss him, he could smell the fresh scent of soap that still clung to her skin like a soft perfume. She gently held his face in her hands and kissed him deeply, quickly eliciting the desired reponse from him.
Then, she suddenly got up and went and made herself comfortable in one of the patio chairs by the table a few feet away, facing him so they could talk.
"Johnny, I think we should discuss the wedding, don't you?" She picked up a strawberry and dipped it in the whipped cream. She loved strawberries.
Still a little disoriented by the steamy kiss and her sudden departure, Johnny swallowed hard, trying to appear under control. "O... o..kay," he slowly agreed.
Shannon leisurely licked the whipped cream off the strawberry with her tongue, savoring it like she would her favorite flavor ice cream cone.
"The first thing we need to do is pick a date," she said as she dipped the strawberry back into the bowl of white fluffy cream. "Since you've obviously put some thought into this already, did you happen to have one in mind?" This time, she ran her finger over the strawberry and slowly licked the whipped cream off her finger.
Johnny was having some trouble focusing on the conversation. "Um..., well. I...I don't... know. How about.... Today?"
"Don't be silly," she laughed. "I need time to plan and make arrangements. I've always wanted a big church wedding with lots of bridesmaids and a big reception afterwards. And my dress... well, it could take a while for me to find just the right dress."
She nibbled on the strawberry, licking the juice off her lips before it ran down her chin.
Johnny was unable to keep from stammering now, totally mesmerized by the strawberry ritual she was conducting in front of him. "Um... uh... a big wedding? I thought... I thought you said... You said you wanted... uh... a private ceremony... nothing fancy." .
She gave him a look of innocent curiosity. "Funny, I don't remember that you and I ever really talked about having a wedding. We always talked about the reasons why we couldn't get married. Now... where on earth would you have gotten an idea like that?"
She slowly ate the rest of the berry, relishing its juiciness, then reached for another. He was gaping at her, his eyes following the movement of the strawberry as she brought it to her mouth.
Smiling inwardly, she put on a false look of embarrassement. "Oh, I'm sorry, Johnny. Where are my manners? Would you like a strawberry?" She put that one back and picked out a really large, red, ripe one and with a flourish, sank it deep into the bowl of whipped cream and swirled it around before getting up to take it to him. Straddling his lap once again, she held it up so he could take a bite, but then pulled it back. "You know it's better if you have some whipped cream first. Makes the tartness of the strawberry more palatable, if you know what I mean."
She scooped some off with her finger and put it in his mouth; letting her finger linger there for a minute while he sucked the whipped cream off, she slowly pulled it back out and trailed it around his lips. "Oh, look, I got some on your mouth. Let me wipe it off for you." She kissed his lips ever so tenderly, making sure she removed all traces of the cream. "Now the strawberry. No.. no.. not the whole thing, just take a bite." He dutifully did as instructed.
"Good, isn't it?" She nibbled his lips again, then offered the rest of the strawberry, and watched as he struggled to swallow it. "I love strawberries, don't you?" With that she kissed him passionately, her tongue probing deep inside his mouth. "Mmmm.... sweet."
Not quite through with him yet, she pushed away and got up again and sat back down in the chair. Payback was sweeter than the strawberries and whipped cream put together.
He almost lost it completely when she cradled the bowl of whipped cream on her lap between her exposed thighs, and picked up another piece of the fruit.
"Oh, by the way, Johnny, did I tell you who I ran into on my walk this morning?"
He was reduced to mere mumbling and shook his head as he watched her repeat her maddening ritual.
"I ran into Joanne DeSoto. Can you believe that? What are the odds that she and Roy would end up on their weekend out of town at exactly the same place we did? Isn't that the most amazing coincidence?"
Johnny laid his head back and groaned loudly. He managed to open one eye and look at her when she didn't say anything else. She was still sucking on a damn strawberry, acting as though she didn't know a thing. He'd forgotten how much she enjoyed a game of revenge. And how very, very good she was at it.
So, she knew.
"Shannon... Joanne said... I mean... she's the one that told me you said you wanted a small, private wedding. If I'd known... I...." He didn't know what to say. "We don't have to... not today... I just...."
She stood up and put the bowl of whipped cream back on the table, and wiped her fingers on a napkin this time. She sat back down on his lap again, and ran her hands up under his T-shirt, smiling at his sharp intake of breath as she pressed into him. Knowing she definitely had his rapt attention, she kissed him until he couldn't breathe this time. His hands circled firmly around her waist, determined not to let her get up and sit in the chair again.
Shannon pulled away but didn't attempt to get off his lap. A fingertip played over his lips and she knew he was completely under her control.
Just before their lips met again, she said uttered softly, "I think today is a perfect day for a wedding."
When they came up for air, Johnny somehow managed to ask a question. As eager as he was now for another round in bed, he had no intention of jinxing the day.
"I heard it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding. What do you think?" he asked nervously.
"I think they say it's bad luck for the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before the wedding." When that didn’t sink in, Shannon whispered in his ear, "Johnny... I'm not wearing my dress under this robe."
Johnny pulled it open slightly and grinned. She wasn't wearing anything under the robe.
Shannon stood up, and pulled him by the hand in the direction of the doorway. Just as they were about to go into the room, Shannon slipped her hand out of his and went back to the table and picked up the bowl.
He gave her a funny look.
"I don't see any sense in wasting perfectly good whipped cream, do you?" she explained with a truly devilish smile on her face as she led him to the bed.
As Johnny willingly let her have her way with him, he could only think one thing clearly.
Shannon could take revenge on him any time she wanted.
* * * * * * * *
Fairy tales can come true.... They can happen to you....
Shannon twirled slowly in front of the full-length mirror, laughing softly as the song came to mind. She’d never believed in fairy tales, but she felt like she was adrift in one. The long-suffering beauty was finally going to marry her Prince Charming and they would live happily ever after. Sighing as she looked in the mirror, she thought she just might have to wish upon a star tonight to make sure she had all her bases covered.
Joanne thought Shannon could have graced the cover of Bride's Magazine, and was amazed at how stunning she looked with so little effort.
"Joanne," Shannon said softly as she looked at herself in the mirror one more time, "I don't know how to thank you. I can't believe you bought this dress for me that day. It's so beautiful."
"You make it beautiful, Shannon. I had to buy it. I couldn't see anyone else besides you wearing it," she said, admiring the bride-to-be. "I’m glad Johnny finally came to his senses because I wouldn’t have been able to take it back. I always knew he would, Shannon. It just took longer than any of us expected.”
“I had my doubts...,” Shannon admitted, her eyes twinkling “... but last night made it worth the wait.” Shannon had shared the story of his duplicitous game and the surprise of the room and the way he proposed. The rest she only hinted at and left to Joanne’s imagination.
They'd spent part of the afternoon shopping in town for shoes for her, and a wedding ring for Johnny. After much deliberation, Shannon chose a simple white gold band that she wanted to have engraved later with their wedding date. The inn staff had taken care of ordering her bouquet, and had made reservations for dinner that evening at an oceanfront restaurant just up the coast. There wasn't much to do except get ready.
Joanne fixed her hair in a simple updo with curls trailing down her neck, and with just a touch of make-up, Shannon looked like a dream. Except for the elegant ring on her finger, a simple pearl necklace and matching earrings lent by Joanne were the only jewelry she wore.
The ladies shared a hug before Joanne left the room to give Shannon a few minutes. "I'm so happy for both of you, Shannon. It means everything to me and Roy to be here with you." Joanne was on the verge of tears. She always cried at weddings.
Remembering her own wedding day, Joanne recalled how nervous she and Roy both had been, amazed they managed to get through the ceremony -- and they'd known each other longer than Johnny and Shannon had. The woman standing before her seemed so composed, so serene.
Joanne wondered if Johnny was as calm as his bride.
* * * * * * * *
"No, Roy, I keep tellin' you I'm not nervous," Johnny replied in disgust as he looked in the mirror and brushed his fingers through his hair and straightened his tie for the hundredth time.
"Well, could you sit down for minute? You're makin' me nervous." Roy pointed to a chair and Johnny reluctantly complied.
Roy looked at the piece of paper in his hand. "You remember what you're supposed to say?"
"I remember. I remember. What do you think, I'm gonna forget what to say? I know what to say."
Roy smiled and handed over the paper. Johnny snatched it from him and studied it again.
"How hard can it be to stand there and say, 'I, John Gage'.... I mean, really Roy, give me some credit here." The paper shook slightly in his grip.
Roy wondered if Shannon was as nervous as the groom. "You know, Joanne felt really bad about giving things away this morning. She tried to get away unseen, but it was too late. How'd Shannon react when you explained?" Roy watched Johnny get up out of the chair and start pacing again.
"Uh..., she took it just... fine." Johnny stopped and a wide grin crossed his face. "I tell ya, there are times when I don't mind makin' that woman mad at me."
Roy decided he didn't want to know. Well..., maybe later.
There was a tap on the door, and Roy and Johnny called out in unison, "It's open."
Looking quite distinguished in his dress uniform, Rick Wilson greeted them again. "All right, men. I think it's time. I've just come from talking with Shannon, and she says she’s ready if you are.”
Rick smiled at Roy while cocking his head toward Johnny. "He always this nervous?"
"I am not.... I am not nervous!" Johnny denied vehemently.
Both men nodded to each other as Johnny unconsciously rolled and unrolled the piece of paper with the wedding vows he and Shannon had discussed earlier.
Roy grabbed it away from him and smoothed it out, then folded it and put it in his shirt pocket. "Just in case he forgets...," Roy murmured to Rick, patting his pocket.
Johnny decided not to dignify that comment, and instead checked his hair in the mirror again.
"I'll leave you to finish getting ready." Rick headed for the door, adding "Roy, make sure he doesn't get lost on the way.... I don't think he should keep the lady waiting any longer than he already has."
"Everyone's a comedian," Johnny grumbled, while Roy straightened his tie for him one last time, and handed him his coat.
Johnny pulled it on and buttoned it, then stood back holding his hands out at his side. “What do you think, Roy? You don’t think Shannon will mind? It’s not too much?”
“I think it’s good to see you in uniform again, Johnny. Joanne assured me there’s no one more handsome than a man wearing his dress uniform on his wedding day...,” Roy looked in the mirror and straightened his own tie before before reaching for his coat. “...Except the best man wearing his, of course.”
"Yeah..., in your dreams, maybe." Johnny said with good-humored sarcasm, feeling some of his tension ease. Roy had been by his side through a lot of milestones in his life -- both good and bad -- and he was glad to have him by his side today for this important one. They’d walked through fires and jumped out of helicopters and rappelled down cliffs together. They had worked and argued and laughed and shared some of the best... and worst... moments of their lives with each other. So many things had changed, and so much still awaited them. No matter what happened in the years ahead, they both knew their friendship would last a lifetime.
But first, they had a wedding to attend.
* * * * * * * *
Not only was the setting right out of a fairy tale, it looked as though Mother Nature was going to paint the sky around them with a spectacular violet sunset as her gift to them. A small white gazebo sat in the middle of a rose garden near the edge of the bluff, and except for the surf splashing against the rocks below, no other sound disturbed the tranquility of the early evening.
Any nervousness Johnny still felt was replaced by simple awe when Shannon stood beside him. Suddenly everything felt right with his world, and he knew what a lucky man he was.
Rick Wilson smiled at the foursome that stood before him and began quietly.
"George Eliot once wrote, 'What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life... to strengthen each other... and to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.'"
"We're not here today to celebrate the union, but rather the reunion of two human souls who discovered each other many years ago.... Souls that have journeyed on different paths since that time -- paths which have finally brought them full circle, back to where they began. We're here today to celebrate the love that has always guided them and watched over them and kept them strong. Love, that even in times of adversity and doubt, has kept them united. We're here today to celebrate the marriage of Shannon Lynne Miller and John Roderick Gage."
Johnny and Shannon shared a glance as he reached for her hand and clasped it in his.
"It's with deep affection for both John and Shannon that I come here today to share this special moment, and I thank John for inviting me. I promised him l'd do my best to keep this brief and simple."
The chaplain slipped a folded sheet of paper from his inside coat pocket and held it steady in the gentle ocean breeze that drifted through the gazebo.
"I'll begin with a gift from your friends Roy and Joanne, who share your joy as you begin your life as husband and wife. This was read at their wedding, and its message became the foundation upon which they have built their relationship and their marriage. It is with their love that they share it with you in the hope that you, too, will discover the secret to a long and joyful life together. It's the chapter 'On Marriage' from "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran."
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping,
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Joanne wiped at the tiny teardrops that clung to her eyelashes. She and Roy shared a look that spoke of a love that had grown stronger with each passing year.
Rick Wilson reached for the bible that he had laid on the railing behind him.
"The bible tells us that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It tells us that love never fails. I believe the fact that the two of you are standing here today ready to take your vows is true testament to those words."
Rick trailed his fingertips over the well-worn leather cover of the book and nodded at Johnny before continuing.
"The beautiful old bible I hold in my hands once belonged to John's mother Elizabeth, a wedding gift passed on from her own grandmother. His family history is recorded here. He recently came across it, and found tucked between the pages an Indian prayer that his aunt said was read at his parent's wedding. John has asked me to read it today. And, Shannon, when we're done here, John would like for you to have this bible as his wedding gift to you. He hopes you'll treasure it as his mother did, and pass it on to your children when the time comes."
Her composure broken, tears filled her eyes as Shannon squeezed Johnny's hand.
Rick Wilson began to read from the paper Johnny had discovered between the pages of his mother's bible:
Now you will feel no rain,
For each of you will be shelter to the other.
Now you will feel no cold,
For each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there will be no more loneliness,
For each of you will be a companion to the other.
Now you are two persons,
But there is only one life before you.
May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead,
and through all the years.
May happiness be your companion,
and your days together be good and long upon the earth.
Treat yourselves and each other with respect and remind yourselves often of what brought you together. Give the highest priority to the tenderness, gentleness and kindness that your connection deserves. When frustration, difficulty and fear assail your relationship -- as they threaten all relationships at times -- remember to focus on what is right between you, not only the part that seems wrong. In this way, you can ride out the storms when clouds hide the face of the sun in your lives -- remembering that even if you have lost sight of it for a moment, the sun is still there. If each of you take responsibility for the quality of your life together, it will be marked by abundance and delight.
"John and Shannon, I understand you wish to recite your wedding vows together. You can begin when you're ready."
Their arms encircled each other's waists as they looked into each other's eyes.
"Take you to be my wife,"
"Take you to be my husband,"
"Secure in the knowledge that you will be my constant friend,"
"My faithful partner in life,"
"And my one true love."
"I promise to stay by your side"
"In sickness and in health,"
"In joy and in sorrow"
"In good times and bad."
"I promise to love you without reservation,"
"To honor you and respect you,"
"To laugh with you and cry with you,"
"To always be open and honest with you,"
"And to cherish you"
"For as long as we both shall live."
Johnny and Shannon exchanged rings in silence. They’d made their pledge to each other with their hearts and needed to say no more.
Rick Wilson then invited them all to witness the grandeur of the evening sky, then after a long moment, added his own personal wish for them.
"May every sunset in your lives find you as happy as you are tonight."
“Now, by the power vested in me by the State of California and in the presence of God and these witnesses, I pronounce you husband and wife."
Johnny stood gazing at Shannon, while everyone waited, watching. Roy rolled his eyes.... Johnny seemed to have forgotten what came next. Rick Wilson finally tapped him on the shoulder.
"Captain Gage, I do believe it's time for you to kiss your wife."
* * * * * * * *
Oh, what a Saturday night.
* * * * * * * *
He fumbled for the switch on the lamp with one hand, while reaching for the phone with his other.
"Los Angeles County Fire Station 135, Captain DeSoto speaking." He wasn't sure if the words sounded as garbled to the caller as they did to him.
"Hey, Roy. How's it goin'?"
Roy rubbed his hand over his eyes. "Johnny?"
"Yeah, who'd you think it was?"
"You're right. Who else would be calling me at midnight to say hi. Umm..., let me put you hold and I'll take this in my office. Wouldn't want to disturb anyone who might be sleeping, would we?"
"No. I'll wait."
Roy slipped his feet into his boots and pulled up his bunker pants, and shuffled across the bay to the office.
He picked up the phone and pushed the button. "Is anything wrong, Johnny?"
"No, nothin's wrong. Today was my first day at the station and I just wanted to call and tell someone about it. Shannon would kill me if I called her this time of night, so I called you."
"I guess it doesn't matter if I wanna kill you too, does it?"
"Roy, sometimes you sure sound like an old man when you don't get enough sleep."
Roy sighed and settled back in his chair. "So, how was it?"
"How was what?"
"Your first day at the station. Isn't that what you called to talk about?"
"Oh. Yeah. Well..., we were no sooner done with introductions and roll call this morning, when the two paramedics here -- they're really good, by the way -- Sawyer and Kingston -- start arguing over something stupid. It went on all day and drove me up the wall. I finally had to tell them to knock it off before they made me crazy."
Roy chuckled to himself. "Sounds like someone else I know. Must be something about the station that inspires it."
Johnny didn't even hear him. "These guys act like they're the ones who invented cramming, too. I couldn't believe they thought a little water bomb in a closet was an original concept. They have no clue who they're dealin' with here."
"The Phantom's pigeon...?" Roy smiled as he remembered the day Johnny got doused with water every time he opened a door.
"Roy.... Kelly was good, I admit that. But he wasn't the only one that knew how to pull a prank. I seem to remember he fell for the dummy in the trunk more than once. You and I had our moments too."
They'd had their moments indeed.
"And then, we got called out to a fire tonight. It was a big one, Roy. Three-alarm. We just got back about twenty minutes ago. Everyone else is asleep already. I'm so tired I can hardly think straight, but I don't think I'm gonna sleep all night. Man, I'm really outta shape. I've got more aches and pains than I can count."
Roy sat forward in his chair, picturing Johnny at the moment. "So, you're feeling pretty good, huh?"
A big grin spread across his face. "Never better, Roy. Never better."
Johnny sat back looked around his office. It sounded funny. His office. He pictured all the times he'd walked in there and seen Hank Stanley look up from his paperwork and invite him in.
"Remember I told you a few weeks ago when I stopped by your station... about how I found out it was true that you could never go home again?"
"I was wrong, you know."
"How so, Johnny?"
"I should've known, Roy." he said quietly, "You just gotta know where home is."
Roy closed his eyes and for a moment went back in time to those early days. Johnny was back where he’d always belonged.
"Welcome home, Johnny...,” Roy said softly.
< < < <> > > >
"It's about time you woke up."
"Go away, Roy."
Johnny wasn't sure what hurt more. His head or his ankle. Or every muscle in between the two. He tried to get up and almost rolled off the couch before Roy caught him. Slowly maneuvering into a sitting position, Johnny cradled his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Even his eyelashes hurt when he blinked.
Roy was sitting on the coffee table in front of him. "What are you doin' here?" Johnny asked, although he wasn't quite sure where 'here' was just yet.
"Joanne called and told me where I could find you. I got off-shift a little early and came by to make sure everything was okay."
Realization suddenly sunk in, and Johnny bolted upright, panic lacing his voice.
Roy gently pushed him back on the couch. "She's doing fine, Johnny. I just saw her for a minute, and I think she's more worried about you than anything. The nurses told her you'd been here all night, so she sent me to find you and make sure you're all right."
"She's okay? You're sure? Why didn't they wake me up and tell me?"
"Don't think they didn't try," Roy said with a laugh. "They finally gave up and put a pillow on the couch and covered you with a blanket and decided to let you wake up on your own."
Johnny tried to stand up one more time, this time successfully, but his ankle almost gave out under the pressure. Roy grabbed his arm and steadied him.
"I need to go see her."
"Johnny, just relax. She's fine, really. You know... women have babies every day." Roy let Johnny lean on his arm as he hobbled to the hallway.
"But, they said there were complications. She was in surgery when I got here." Johnny's head was starting pound harder with each step he took.
"There were, but everything turned out okay. To tell you the truth, I think she looks better than you do. What happened to you anyway?" Roy helped Johnny sit down in a chair before he fell down, and sat down beside
Johnny caught his breath as he leaned his head back against the wall and let the dizziness pass. "You know those slow reflexes you're always teasing me about?"
"Who's teasing?" Roy feigned a look of surprise.
Johnny would've shook his head, but decided against adding to his throbbing headache. "Do you wanna know, or not?"
"Sorry. What happened?"
"We'd just finished putting out a little warehouse fire, and they had these offices up on a mezzanine, so a couple of us decided to go up there and get a look around to make sure everything looked okay. Just as I got to the top of the stairs, someone yelled for me to duck. I made the mistake of looking up first, and then it was too late to duck. A sprinkler pipe broke loose and caught me right across my forehead, and the next thing I knew I was at the bottom of the stairs again."
"And your helmet was...?"
"It was where it belonged." he retorted with great annoyance. "The fire was out and I'd already taken off my air mask so I could see better. It was just... just... I'd loosened the strap and pushed my helmet back on my head a little. You tell me.... How was I supposed to know a pipe would come loose?"
Fourteen years a fire fighter, and he still hadn't learned why they put chin straps on their helmets. Roy would have laughed, but Johnny looked pretty pitiful at the moment.
"I guess there's not much chance of those reflexes working right now, huh?" Roy was grinning like he knew something Johnny didn't.
Johnny snapped his eyes open. "The baby!" He held Roy's arm in a vice-grip. "The baby. Is...?"
Roy pried Johnny's fingers from his arm. "The baby's fine, too. I got a peek at her in the nursery." He shook his head a little, and Johnny gripped his arm again.
"Roy, what's wrong... is there something wrong?" Johnny was looking around, trying to remember which hall lead to the nursery.
"Just calm down. There's nothin' wrong," Roy assured him, "I was just feelin' kind of sorry for her, though. Poor kid. She looks just like you. Can't imagine a little girl having to go through life lookin' like...."
Johnny's look cut him off. "I'm gonna go see for myself," he growled, and stood up slowly.
"Uh-uh." Roy held him still. "You're not going to see anyone looking the way you do. One look at you and Shannon'll probably have heart failure, and the baby'll scream for sure. I think you need to pay a little visit to the men's room and get cleaned up a bit first." Roy pulled a small bag out of his pocket. "The nurses gave me a little kit here for you to use. When you're done, there's some antiseptic in there to clean up around those stitches and a fresh Band-Aid for your forehead."
It seemed to Johnny the only way he was going to see his family again was to do what he was told. He grabbed the bag from Roy and reluctantly hobbled toward the rest room. He pulled his car keys from his pocket and tossed them back to Roy.
"Do me a favor, will ya Roy? There's a card in my car. I bought it a couple of weeks ago for Shannon, but never got around to giving it to her. I don't wanna walk in her room empty-handed. Would you mind getting it for me?"
Roy was happy to help. "I'll meet you outside her room in a few minutes. Then I gotta get home. Joanne said for you to call later to let her know if you want her to bring Sean home, or if you want him to stay with us for a few more days."
"I appreciate that, Roy. I'll call just as soon as I can." Johnny disappeared into the men's room, then emerged ten minutes later, feeling and looking much more presentable.
Laying in the hallway just outside the doorway to Shannon's room was a bouquet of pink roses and the card from his car. Roy had left them and was gone. Johnny groaned a bit as he bent over to pick them up. He took a deep breath and went in.
Shannon was asleep. She looked a little pale and tired, but peaceful. He relaxed a little just seeing her. Not wanting to disturb her, he left the flowers and card on the stand beside the bed and started to leave to go to the nursery. He almost ran into the nurse as she wheeled in the bassinet holding newborn Erin Elizabeth Gage. A slow smile spread across his face. Roy was right. She looked just like he did in the baby pictures he'd discovered in that carton at his aunt's house.
Seeing that Shannon was sleeping, the nurse asked Johnny in a whisper if he'd like to hold his daughter. He nodded happily, wanting to make up for not having been here when she made her entrance into the world.
She gestured for him to sit, and waited until he was comfortable before she placed the quiet little bundle in his arms. He didn't even notice when the nurse left the room.
Shannon opened her eyes to see Johnny sitting there holding a tiny hand in his fingers, talking softly to their sleeping daughter. The smile on his face almost disguised the pain he was in, but Shannon had known him long enough to know that it was there. When they'd told her Johnny couldn't be reached because he'd been taken to the emergency room, she'd almost panicked at the thought of losing him on the night their daughter was about to be born. It was the first time he'd been hurt since going back to work over two years ago. The stress of not knowing how badly he'd been injured had added to her rising blood pressure, and the doctors decided the cesarean couldn't wait.
Because of the spinal, she had to remain flat on her back for the rest of the day, so she lay still and watched father and daughter bond. Completely engrossed with the baby, Johnny didn't see Shannon reach for the envelope and open it.
The front of the card had a picture of two people walking down a road hand-in-hand at sunset and written across the top was the question, 'Will You Love Me When I'm Old?'
Shannon opened the card and read the poem -- although written by someone else -- the words were meant for her.
I would ask of you, my darling,
A question soft and low,
That gives me many a heartache
As the moments come and go.
Your love I know is truthful,
But the truest love grows cold;
It is this I would ask you:
Will you love me when I'm old?
Life's morn will soon be waning
And its evening bells be tolled,
But my heart shall know no sadness,
If you'll love me when I'm old.
Down the stream of life together
We are sailing side by side,
Hoping some bright day to anchor
Safe beyond the surging tide.
Today our sky is cloudless,
But the night may clouds unfold;
But, though storms may gather round us,
Will you love me when I'm old?
When my hair shall shade the snowdrift,
And mine eyes shall dimmer grow,
I would lean upon some loved one,
Through the valley as I go.
I would claim of you a promise,
Worth to me a world of gold;
It is only this, my darling,
That you'll love me when I'm old.
At the bottom of the card he had written:
If you promise to love me when I'm old, I promise to live to be a hundred.
All my love, Johnny
Shannon smiled at her husband and the daughter he held so gently in his arms and wiped her tears away, making her silent promise to love him always, knowing he would make good on his part of the bargain.
... Johnny always kept his promises.