The swelling in Shelly McCann’s face was finally receding, leaving her with two black eyes. The rat bites on her legs were healing faster than anything else and had already scabbed over. Her broken nose was in a splint, and the stitches in her lips were still very painful. The first time she saw herself in a mirror, she cried.
It took a while for Jack to calm her down, though he finally made it happen by reminding her how rare it was for people who’d been in situations like theirs to have been given a second chance.
“Bruises will fade, bones will heal and scars are just proof of being a survivor. When I found you in that warehouse still breathing, I thought you were the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen. You didn’t quit, Shelly. You just didn’t quit, and because you were so strong, I still have you to love.”
She put her arms around his neck.
“You always say the right thing.”
“The smartest thing I ever did was ask you to marry me. My blessing was that you said yes.”
* * *
That afternoon after she fell asleep, he took the opportunity to call Nolan Warren. He needed help getting his transportation traded so he could get Shelly home tomorrow.
“I know it’s the weekend, but I need a favor,” Jack said, when Nolan answered.
“Anything, buddy. Just ask.”
“Looks like Shelly is going to go home tomorrow and I got here on my motorcycle. I need her car to bring her home, which is at my house. I know you ride, and I wondered if—”
“Oh hell yes, I want to ride that Indian. I’ll have my wife, Linda, bring me over to the hospital right now. What room are you in? I’ll come up and get your helmet and keys.”
“Sixth floor. Room six twenty-six.”
“Hot dang...this is seriously more fun than mowing the yard.”
Jack grinned. “Linda won’t be too happy with me if I’m taking you from a job.”
“I have a teenage son. He can get off his butt and do it for me,” Nolan said. “See you in a few.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate this,” Jack said.
Shelly wanted to go home and sleep in her own bed, and Jack wanted to go home and shower and shave. It was time to lose the Shane Franklin look and put Jack McCann back in existence.
When Nolan arrived, he was grinning like a teenager who’d received the keys to his first car. He tried on the helmet and gave Jack a thumbs-up when it fit. He listened to instructions, then returned a couple of hours later, quietly knocking on the door.
Jack answered, then stepped outside into the hall so they could talk.
Nolan gave Jack’s keys back as well as the keys to Shelly’s car. “I left your helmet and the Indian in your garage. Man, that is one sweet ride. And I got a chance to talk with your neighbor Barb. She’s a hoot. She’s talking about organizing a neighborhood watch, and she gathered up a change of clothing for Shelly to wear home. It’s all in this sack, she said.”
“Oh man, I didn’t think of that. Good for Barb,” Jack said, as he gladly took the sack.
“That’s what I thought,” Nolan said. “Anyway, the car is in valet parking. Here’s your ticket.”
“I sure appreciate this,” Jack said.
“I was happy to help you, man. We’re all still in disbelief about Charlie. I mean...we know he did it, but it’s just hard to rationalize his actions with the man we knew.”
“I know what you mean,” Jack said.
Nolan gave him a sideways glance and then came out and said it.
“Wainwright said you’re resigning. Are you firm on that decision?”
“Very firm,” Jack said.
Nolan sighed. “What are you gonna do?”
“Like I told Wainwright, just something else. I don’t know what, but we’ll figure it out.”
He nodded. “I can’t fault you. It’s one thing when it’s us. We chose this life. But when a perp messes with our families, that’s a whole other issue.” He looked a little embarrassed and then grinned. “I’d better hustle. Son is otherwise occupied, I learned, so I’m still mowing, and Linda is waiting outside.”
Jack grinned. “Then don’t keep the boss lady waiting.”
Nolan nodded. “That’s for sure.” And then he was gone.
Jack went back into the room. One more night and they’d be home.
* * *
They passed the night the same as before, with Jack stretched out in the recliner beside Shelly’s bed. She fell asleep easily, but within an hour she had already begun to dream. Jack knew when he heard her crying that she was reliving something bad.
He woke her gently.
“Shelly, Shelly, this is Jack. Wake up, baby. You’re having a bad dream.”
She woke up in the room’s half-light with tears on her face, struggling to sit up.
“Wait, honey. I’ll raise the bed.”
She eased back against her pillow, trembling from head to foot, rubbing the wound down the middle of her body.
“I thought he was going to rape me when he cut my clothes. He cut me instead. He is in prison, right? They won’t let him out, will they?”
Jack couldn’t bear hearing the tremor in her voice and slid onto the bed beside her and pulled her close.
“No, he won’t get out. When you go to a federal prison, you serve your time. He committed murder. He sold stolen military weapons on the black market. And I’m sure there are a good dozen more charges they’ve tacked on. Besides, he has to get well enough to go before a judge, and I don’t think he’ll be walking anywhere ever again.”
“What do you mean?” Shelly asked.
“He didn’t feel inclined to tell me where you were, so I tied his naked ass to a chair and started shooting.”
He heard her swift intake of breath and worried that he might have upset her.
“I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t think how that might sound to you. I was desperate to find you and—”
The warmth of his body and the strength in his arms kept the bad dream at bay.
She was whispering now. “Um...Jack?”
“What did you shoot first?” she asked.
“His right foot. He yelped a little, then had the audacity to grin, so I shot his other foot. Changed his attitude pretty fast, but he still wasn’t motivated to tell me where you were. That’s when I shot his right knee. But it wasn’t until I stuck the gun barrel in his crotch that he remembered where you were.”
Shelly sighed. “Thank you.”
“For taking the monster out of my memories and leaving me with that image.”
Jack swallowed past the lump in his throat. “You’re welcome. Close your eyes now and try to get some rest. Monster killer at your service.”
* * *
The next morning a nurse was helping Shelly dress while Jack went down to the nurses’ station to sign release papers. He came back with an orderly pushing a wheelchair.
“We’re ready to go. Are you ready, honey?”
Shelly was sitting on the edge of the bed in a pair of blue Bermuda shorts and a button-up, blue plaid shirt. A pair of backless sandals were the final touch. Thanks to Barb’s thoughtful choices, it had all been easy to get on.
“I’m so ready,” she said, then winced. Her stitches pulled like heck when she talked.
“If you want, you can go ahead and drive the car up to the front entrance, then I’ll wheel her out,” the orderly said.
Jack eyed the anxious look on Shelly’s face and turned him down.
“Thanks, but the car is in valet parking and I’m going to walk down with her.”
The tension Shelly was feeling immediately eased, knowing she wouldn’t be going down in an elevator with a stranger, and she wondered if this fear of everything would ever pass.
They walked the hall in silence, then rode down the elevator without talking, but Jack was holding her hand. When they reached the lobby, Jack got the valet receipt from his pocket.
“Wow, it appears there is a breeze today,” Jack said. “Do you want to wait inside until they bring up the car?”
“I’ll wait with you,” she said.
“Then we’re all going out,” Jack said.
Within a few minutes Shelly was buckled into the front seat and Jack was rolling down the windows to blow the hot air out of the car.
“You okay? I didn’t think about the heat. Maybe I should have—”
“I’m fine,” Shelly said, and reached across the seat and clasped his arm. “The air conditioner is already blowing cold air in my face.”
Jack lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in a car with you.”
“It’s been a while,” Shelly said. “I’m going to enjoy having you home in the daytime, even if it’s only for a little while.”
Jack rolled all the windows back up and the journey home began.
Shelly took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Finally, they were together again, which at this point seemed like a miracle. She had fully expected to die tied to that cot.
Jack turned the radio on and then turned it down low. The constant swirl of traffic, the profile of her husband’s face, the bruises and skinned knuckles on his hands, the way his eyebrows always knitted when he encountered reckless drivers.
She didn’t know she was crying until she felt tears on the backs of her hands, then began scrambling for tissues.
Jack glanced over and saw she was crying.
“Most of the time I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m sorry.”
Those dark eyebrows knitted again, but this time at her.
“Don’t you ever apologize to me again. You damn well cry when you want to, when you need to, when you have to. It’s PTSD, sweetheart. You are entitled.”
“Women are taught at an early age to apologize, even when what’s wrong is someone else’s fault. It’s a kind of brainwashing, I think. Something left over from the old times to keep women under their thumbs.”
“You’re not under anyone’s thumb, but you have certainly wrapped yourself around my heart.”
Shelly sighed. Jack did have a way with words.
“How long do you get to stay home with me?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m not going back to work,” he said. “I gave Wainwright notice the night I found you. I’ll have to put it in writing, but I’m not setting foot back in that building again.”
Shelly was shocked and it showed.
“Is this because of me? Because of what happened? I don’t want to be the reason you quit a job that means so much to you.”
“You’re not, and that job doesn’t mean so much to me anymore. It nearly cost me my life, and it came close to killing you. I want to live my life with you, not for others.”
“I’m not going to pretend this isn’t good news. It’s hard loving someone who puts their life on the line day in and day out. But since this is your idea, it makes me happy...so happy.”
Right now, the weight of the world was off Jack’s shoulders. All he had to do was get her home.
By the time he finally drove into their neighborhood, Shelly was asleep. It was when he began moving at a slower speed that she woke, and then she saw where they were.
“Oh! We’re almost home! Look! One of those houses sold.”
Jack turned down their street. “The one by our house is still for sale,” he said, and then hit the remote to raise their garage door.
As it was going up, he saw Barb coming out of her house in the rearview mirror. She was carrying a covered dish, and then one by one, four more of their neighbors fell into step with her, carrying their dishes.
“Look!” Shelly said.
“I see them. Looks like Barb organized a little welcome home for you. I’ll make sure they don’t stay long.”
“It’s okay,” Shelly said. “It just shows me that they care.”
He killed the engine and then ran around to the other side to help her out as Barb stepped into the garage.
“We aren’t staying,” she said. “We just wanted to welcome you both home and deliver a warm meal, then we’ll be gone.”
Shelly was suddenly self-conscious of her appearance, but she needn’t have worried. The women followed her and Jack into the house, praising how brave she’d been, left their food on the kitchen counter and blew her kisses.
“We’re so glad you’re home,” they said, and then they were gone.
But Shelly stopped Barb’s exit. “I heard what you did,” Shelly said. “You went a long way in saving my life. I’m so... I’m forever grateful.”
Barb hugged her gently, then looked at Shelly’s face and dissolved into tears.
“I know you suffered terrible things and I’m so sorry. You are quite a warrior woman. Promise if you need anything that you’ll let me know.”
“Yes, I will, and thank you again, Barb. You’re pretty amazing yourself.”
Barb patted her arm and let herself out. The little swarm of neighbors had come and gone so fast Jack might have thought he’d imagined it but for the food on the counter.
Jack hugged her gently. “I love you, baby, and you need to be in bed. Do you want to lie down in the bedroom, or do you want me to make a bed for you in the living room?”
“The bedroom. There’s a TV in there if I want.”
“Then that’s where you’ll be,” he said, and picked her up in his arms and carried her all the way down the hall into their room.
She slid out of his arms and undressed, then put on one of his old T-shirts as he turned down the bed.
“In you go,” he said, and tucked her in.
“Will you lay down with me for a bit?” Shelly asked.
“I want to shower first, but I’ll leave the bathroom door open so you can hear me.”
“Is the house locked?” Shelly asked.
“Yes, and I’ll set the security alarm, too. Okay?”
“Yes, thank you,” she said, and pulled the covers up beneath her chin.
He stepped out in the hall to set the alarm there, then readjusted the thermostat so it would be cooler, before he ran to the kitchen to see if any of the food needed to be refrigerated.
He put a pasta salad into the fridge along with a casserole and left the bread and dessert on the counter and the pot of soup on the stove. By the time he got back she was already asleep, but he closed their door and locked it anyway, then stripped and headed for the shower.
When he came out later, the black beard was gone. Jack McCann was back. Then he looked at Shelly, asleep in their bed, and thought, Right where I belong.
* * *
Shelly woke abruptly, her heart pounding. The dream was already fading as she found herself in Jack’s arms. She stretched gingerly, then turned over to face him. She gasped, then cupped his cheek.
His eyes opened instantly, and then he saw her and relaxed.
“You’re back,” Shelly said, feeling his clean-shaven cheek.
“I’m sure I look better,” he said.
“You feel better, too,” she said, rubbing her hand against his skin.
Jack looked up, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Oh wow, it’s after one o’clock. We missed lunch. Do you feel like trying to eat something? Remember, the neighbors brought food. There’s a pot of vegetable soup, which should be easier for you to eat.”
“Yes, okay, but I want to sit in the kitchen, okay?”
He raised up on one elbow and kissed her forehead.
“Anything you want is okay with me,” he said, and threw back the covers. “Need help?”
“I can manage,” Shelly said. “I need some shorts, though. Something with elastic in the waist. Will you look for me?”
“Absolutely,” Jack said. He got up, then helped her scoot to the side of the bed.
She went into the bathroom, while he began going through the middle drawer in their dresser where she kept gym shorts and socks. He pulled out the pink ones from Victoria’s Secret, just because he loved the way they fit her backside when she walked.
She came out, pointed a finger at him as she shook her head.
“You just like the way my butt looks in these,” she said.
“Guilty,” Jack said, as he held them open for her.
She held on to his shoulders to brace herself, and when he bent over to pull them up, she saw the new pink scar from the bullet wound on his shoulder.
“Oh no!” Shelly said.
He straightened up with a jerk. “What’s wrong? Did I hurt you?”
“Your shoulder! I just now saw where you were shot. In all the awful things that happened to me before I saw you, I completely forgot this had happened.”
She threw her arms around his neck. “I am so sorry. I can’t imagine what you went through. I don’t know anything and you have to tell me. It’s what we do, remember? No secrets.”
He gave her a gentle hug. “I remember. But we’ll talk about it later, okay?”
“I hate not being able to kiss you,” she said.
“Then I’ll kiss you,” he said, starting at her chin and kissing all the way down to the hollow at the base of her throat.
Shelly sighed as she ran her fingers through the short black spikes in his hair.
“Love you,” she whispered.
“Love you more,” he said, then took her hand. “Kitchen. With me.”
She clasped his hand, grateful in so many ways. He sat her at their kitchen table, and as he began heating up soup and getting things on their plates, he opened up about what had happened the night of the bust, from being made by a snitch, to being pulled out of the water by two random fishermen. He told her about the army medic who’d dug the bullet out of his back, the giant mastiff named Dwayne. How he wouldn’t tell them his name or what had happened to him, and they still didn’t care.
He told her about a man named Paul, who named him Dude and took him home to heal, and how, when the time was right and without knowing the reason, Paul took him back into Pasadena, let him out at a gas station without a question.
Shelly was stunned by the story, and so grateful to those men.
“I need to meet them,” she said.
“I promised them we’d meet again under better circumstances. When you’re better, we’ll make it happen.”
“I can’t wait to thank each of them in person for saving you.”
He grinned. “They’ll probably all fall in love with you, which is fine. Just remember, I have known and loved you longest.”
Then he carried a bowl of soup and a plate of food to the table for her and went back to get his.
“Sweet tea?” he asked.
As soon as they were both seated, Jack reached across the table and clasped her hand.
“We’re blessed, baby. I feel the need to bless the food, too.”
Tears welled as Shelly bowed her head, listening to the deep rumble of Jack’s voice all the way to Amen.
He looked up, saw her tears and then winked.
Her heart lifted as she reached for her soup spoon.
“Soup’s hot, don’t burn your mouth, and it needs salt.”
Shelly grinned. Even if the stitches pulled, she didn’t care. Jack was home.