Elizabeth followed her nose a la "Toucan Sam" down to the cafeteria while her students were enjoying their music class. The smell of cinnamon and sugar was making her mouth water. She waved at Abigail as she passed through the doorway.
"Good morning, Miss Thatcher! How are you this fine Thursday morning?"
"Hungry! Do you have anything left over?"
"I certainly do! Would you like some French toast and perhaps some fruit?"
"That sounds wonderful! I was up early this morning trying to get packed for a weekend trip and I didn't have time to eat anything."
Abigail's eyes lit up. "A weekend trip? Where are you headed? Might you and that handsome fella be taking your adorable little boy somewhere fun for the break?"
"Yes and no. This trip is Jack and I's first trip away. My parents are going to watch Luke for the weekend. I'm using the only vacation time I've accrued to stay an extra day with him."
A warm, teasing smile spread across Abigail's face. "Hmmmm, that sounds romantic! Where are you and your husband headed?"
Elizabeth's smile faded a little as the word 'husband' rolled off of Abigail's lips. "We're heading to the Rockies actually. My parents gifted us a vacation to Telluride to congratulate me on completing my Master's and for Jack's birthday." She cleared her throat and knew it was time to clarify the situation with Abigail. "But Jack isn't my husband actually. I think he will be soon, though."
Elizabeth could tell by the look on Abigail's face that the woman was really surprised. She continued filling in the blanks, knowing that Abigail had questions she didn't want to voice. "Luke isn't actually my son, either. Jack's wife, Luke's Mother, unexpectedly passed away the morning after Luke was born from complications of the delivery. I've been one of his caregivers since he was six weeks old."
Abigail opened her mouth to speak, found no words, and closed her mouth again. Shock stunned her into stillness. A cement block to the chest wouldn't have left her more speechless. "I'm so sorry for them…" she paused for a few more moments before unveiling her own secret. "Cody isn't our biological son either. We adopted him when he was just a toddler like Luke. His parents were killed in a car accident and Cody survived without a scratch. His parents were very close friends of ours and we were actually his God-parents. Unbeknownst to Frank and I, they had left implicit instructions in their will that we would take him in the event of their deaths. We were dumbfounded at first, but quickly felt like he was our own."
"That's amazing of you all to do that. He fits in so well with Rebekah and Peter—I would never have guessed he wasn't your biological son. I didn't know Luke didn't have a mother for a long time. Actually, I didn't find out until this past fall. Turns out, I was really the only mother-figure he'd ever really known. Jack works with my Father and he started bringing Luke to the Early Childhood Center where I volunteered doing research for my Thesis."
"It sounds like you three have quite a history… quite a love story?"
Elizabeth's cheeks grew rosy as she pursed her lips quickly before taking another bite of her French toast. "Something like that."
"The way he looks at you says I'm right. I never would have guessed you weren't his wife and Luke's mother. He even has your curls and blue eyes."
"He has his Mother's curls and blue eyes. She was very beautiful." Elizabeth sighed.
"Sometimes things happen and completely change the trajectory of your life. Things that you never expected, yet things that fill your life in a way that you never could have dreamed. They light up pathways that you didn't even know existed and after you walk down them, you can't even remember what life was like before. You are a very beautiful woman, Elizabeth. Brilliant and kind, and the intensity of Jack's eyes when he looks at you tells me he is over-the-moon for you. I can also see that you are already a wonderful Mother to Luke. I can tell how much he loves you too. You are all blessed to have each other."
"I love them both very, very much." Elizabeth and Abigail sat quietly for a little while, each finishing their food.
"So are you two going to do some skiing, or will you just enjoy each other's company?"
Elizabeth looked up at Abigail's face just in time to catch her wink. Elizabeth felt the redness and tingles creep down her cheeks all the way to her neck. "We'll ski. The cabin is in Telluride and looks very beautiful in the pictures online. We fly out tonight as soon as we get everything together." She neglected to mention the hot tub and King-sized canopy bed she couldn't wait to sink into. With Jack.
"Are you flying out of O'Hare? That place is such a nightmare to drive around," Abigail grimaced.
Elizabeth shook her head, slightly embarrassed by the upcoming admission. "No, we'll be taking one of my family's private jets straight into Telluride."
"Oh my!" Abigail exclaimed, nodding her head as if a lightbulb had suddenly gone off. "That makes sense now that you said it, but the thought hadn't even crossed my mind. That sounds amazing!"
"Any time you guys would like to go somewhere, I'm sure we could probably work out something for you as well," Elizabeth winked. "I have an 'in' with William Thatcher."
Abigail and Elizabeth both chuckled. "Sounds like you have more than one! I knew your last name was Thatcher, but somehow I hadn't put 2 and 2 together."
You're not the first person to do that. Elizabeth smirked to herself. "Well, we try to stay out of the media as best we can. I don't really like the publicity that comes with my last name. I'm glad it will be changing soon."
Abigail stole a glance at Elizabeth's bare left hand as she sipped from her coffee. She raised her eyebrows. "You think he might ask you an important question on this trip?"
A big, cheesy grin spread across Elizabeth's lips. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hopeful. I'm pretty sure he has the ring. He's been teasing me about it."
"I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."
The bell rung suddenly, signifying the end of Elizabeth's students' music class. "Oh no! I've gotta get back to my room! I wasn't paying attention to the time."
Abigail shooed her off. "Go, go! I'll take care of your plate."
Elizabeth practically ran out of the cafeteria. "Thank you Abigail!" She slowed and turned in the doorway. "Thank you for the chat too."
Elizabeth plopped down on her bed. She had just finished rolling the last of her clothing and packing it into her suitcase. I should have done this last night instead of canoodling with Jack for so long. Now I'm worn out.
Her phone started vibrating on the nightstand. She looked over to see that it was 4:45 and Jack's name was on her screen.
"Hey Jack! Are you on your way?"
His voice sounded gruff. "No, actually I'm stuck in a meeting at work. Charles went home sick and Ben can't get here until 6:30 to take over. Your Dad's going to stay here with me until then so I don't have to drive him all the way home and then come back to catch the flight."
"I'm sorry. What can I do to help? I just finished packing and am ready to go."
"Do you mind running to the ECC and grabbing Luke and bringing him over here? That way he can just ride home with your Dad and Ben and that will save us a little bit of time. I brought all of our bags with us this morning."
"Sure! That's no problem at all. I'm going to throw on something comfy for the flight. I'm pretty worn out from the day. Do you want me to bring you anything?"
Jack's whole body smiled at the thought of Elizabeth in the yoga pants he knew she'd undoubtedly put on. "That sounds great. How about some sweats and my slippers? I really like those nice wool ones your Mom gave me for Christmas and I forgot to pack them."
"Will do. I'll see you in about an hour!"
Elizabeth grabbed a pair of gray sweats and a Cardinals t-shirt from Jack's drawers in the dresser. He hadn't asked for a shirt, but she knew he'd appreciate the bone she was throwing him by bringing a Cards shirt. She pulled a fitted Cubs shirt over her head and slipped into some black yoga pants with a red stripe down the leg. She grabbed his slippers and was on her way.
The clock in her car read 5:38 when she pulled into the Center. She thought it was strange that the parking lot was so empty since the ECC didn't usually close until 6. Maybe my clock is wrong? She pulled out her phone and confirmed that it was indeed 5:38. Maybe everyone just picked up a little early today?
She slipped her phone into her coat pocket and locked her doors with the key fob as she carefully walked up the steps to the Center. Her eyebrows furrowed as she reached for the doors. It looked dark inside too. What the?
She pulled on the handle and it opened, much to her surprise. It looked like everyone had gone home. She looked back at the dark, empty parking lot and suddenly felt very unnerved. Her eyes darted back and forth and a chill broke over her body. The breeze that blew through her hair just added to the bone-tingling sensation charging through her. The handle of the door slipped from her fingers and it closed in front of her before she found herself dashing back to her car as quickly as her legs could carry her.
Elizabeth locked herself inside and turned the car on with trembling fingers and a thundering pulse. She fumbled her phone and it fell down between the seats. She muttered a few curse words under her breath and looked around the empty parking lot again. The shadows seemed to be dancing outside and her imagination was running wild with possibility.
Everyone likes my Dad. He doesn't have enemies. The protective detail is just in case. It's a precaution. Jack would tell me if I was in danger. Right?
Trying to keep an eye on her mirrors left her feeling panicked about the prospect of actually seeing someone out there, or worse, seeing someone trying to get in the car with her.
Finally retrieving the phone after some maneuvering, she quickly pulled up Jack's number and called him.
"Hey babe! Where are you?" his warm voice answered.
Her voice was sharp. "I'm in the parking lot at the Center, Jack. Something doesn't feel right. Everything is dark and there are no cars in the parking lot. Not even Florence's."
He could hear the panic in her voice and his heart sank, guilt flooding his demeanor. "I'm sure everything is okay, honey. You know they would never leave him there alone. Maybe everyone just got off a little early tonight with it being a holiday weekend," he reassured.
Elizabeth tried to calm her breathing all while continuously checking her mirrors and tentatively watching her surroundings. "I thought of that too. You're totally right. I'm just a little jumpy. It's creepy out here alone in the dark. They wouldn't leave him here alone. I'm just being silly. Too many episodes of The Walking Dead," she chuckled. "They haven't called you to tell you that anything is going on right?"
"Nope. I'm sure everything is fine. Maybe they're playing a game or something. How about I call Florence and see if anything's going on?"
"Oh, I can call her. I'm right here." Elizabeth was starting to feel like a child hiding under her covers in bed waiting for the boogeyman.
"No! Don't call her. I'll call. Just give me a second. You... you just wait a second and stay in your car."
His answer was so abrupt that it startled her. Jack's hot and cold responses made her even more nervous. She wished she still had him on the phone. The waiting was making her a nervous wreck. When her phone rang again a minute later, she picked up immediately.
"Jack!" she spoke breathlessly.
"Everything is fine. Florence said they were probably just playing a game or something. She's already gone home, but she said someone is definitely in there with Luke." Jack couldn't contain the grin on his face.
"Okay. I'll put on my big girl panties and go inside and get him!" she chuckled.
"Alright. I love you, Elizabeth. Don't forget that."
Elizabeth tucked her phone into her pocket once again and walked back up the steps. She opened the door to the Center and stepped inside. The lights were off, but she could see a slight glow coming from inside the main area. The silence was eerie. The only other time the Center was this quiet was when she was alone studying at night. She waited until her eyes adjusted and stepped inside.
There were flickering lights seemingly suspended in mid-air all around the expansive main play area. She furrowed her brow, but suspected that it could be part of the game someone was playing. Or maybe they were playing a trick on her. Jack did love to scare her after all. She thought back to the time he scared her in the bedroom and she pinned him down on the bed. The memory elicited a spark of heat and a longing sigh. She walked to the first flickering light and realized that it was a candle in a small jar sitting on top of a child-sized chair.
There was a note with the date on the front of it.
She picked it up curiously and gasped when she read what was written inside.
One year ago tonight, I finally mustered the courage to wait around just for the chance to talk to you alone. I watched every kid leave, knowing that Luke was waiting for me anxiously, but I had to take the chance. I'm so glad I did.
Her eyes led her to the next dancing light and she pranced to it. When she read the words inside this one, the first tear slipped down her cheek. She looked around. Where? Where are you?
I've never been so relieved to hear that someone was dateless for Valentine's Day. If I'd been bolder, I would have told you that I was the secret admirer that sent you the wildflowers, but the smile on your face when you smelled them as you walked to your car made my day.
She rushed to the next chair and the next and picked up note after note.
You left for spring break today. I wanted to be happy for you that you were taking a much-needed vacation to see your nieces in beautiful Colorado, but to be completely honest, I knew I was going to miss you like crazy. And so was Luke. I realized that day that he wasn't the only one really attached to you.
I was out to dinner with your Dad and some business associates this evening. I saw the Tiramisu on the menu and immediately remembered how you said it was one of your favorites. I asked for an order to go with two spoons and we shared it when I arrived to get Luke. We talked for almost an hour and I didn't want the night to end.
I watched someone lose their life today. I've seen it more times in my life than I care to dwell on. But this time, I realized the biggest regret I'd have if I died today would be never telling you how much I care about you. You selflessly came to my house tonight to help me out. I watched as Luke fell even more in love with you. I loved watching you in my kitchen, feeling you take care of me. It was something I hadn't felt in a long time. It felt so good. You made me feel so good, Elizabeth.
Yes, I know this is from the very next day, but I thought it deserved a mention. You really know how to make a guy squirm. I've felt the chemistry crackling between us for a long time now, but that stunt you pulled by taking off your tank top today at the gym? I was the one left sweating. And I can guarantee you it wasn't rainbows. But you… You are my beautiful rainbow, Elizabeth.
I'm sure this is a day neither of us will ever forget. It was the day I realized just how tiny the difference between "Obvious" and "Oblivious" really is. I'd been in total denial, completely oblivious to who you were. But before the clock struck midnight, it became obvious to me just how much I loved you. How much I had to have you in my life. The next day wasn't easy, but it just confirmed how much I needed you. Because I was miserable without you.
The feeling of you in my arms and the taste of your mouth on my tongue was like a soothing balm to my soul. You really stepped up for me by taking care of Luke even when I knew I was the last person you wanted to see 4 days before your exams. I felt alive again when I saw you and I knew in that moment that I couldn't ever let you go again. I wanted you forever and always.
There were a handful more notes, but Elizabeth could barely read them from the tears obscuring her vision. Her sniffles echoed through the room. She came to the last note.
Today is the day I lay it on the line, Elizabeth.
I want you to be my wife.
I want you to be the Mother Luke needs and deserves.
I want to make babies with you.
I want to go to sleep each night feeling like the luckiest man alive because you're lying next to me.
And I want to wake up each day and feel your beautiful body lying on my chest.
You make me a better man, a better Father, a better everything.
Jack emerged from the shadows and stood beside her while she finished reading. The gaze shared between them when she lifted her tear-filled eyes revealed the depths of their love, the electricity that always sparked between them and the commitment that they already shared. He stepped into her, cupping her face in his hands and resting his forehead on hers. Jack's firm, steady voice pierced the stillness.
"I'm not even going to ask you, because I know you want these things too. I know you love me. I can feel it when you look at me. And I know you love Luke. I watch it as his laughter fills the air any time he's around you. He lights up for you. He may not have come from your body, but he lives..." Jack lifted a finger to Elizabeth's chest. "Right here. In your heart."
"I know that we are two very lucky guys. I'm reminded with every ding of the oven and rumble of my belly because I smell whatever delicious thing you've made for us. Your love is an action."
"I know you are going to be a wonderful Mother. Because you already are. One of the things I love most is when I can smell Luke on your skin when I come home from work and kiss you…"
"And speaking of your kisses," Jack lowered his mouth and closed his lips over Elizabeth's for a brief moment, as if he were teasing himself. "I want more and more each time. I can't get enough. Your love for me flows through them. I crave you."
He broke from her and dropped to his knee, leaving Elizabeth's body cold from his touch, missing him already.
"Elizabeth Thatcher, be my wife. Love me. Love Luke. Choose us."
It was then that Elizabeth noticed Luke standing as quietly as she'd ever seen him right behind his daddy. He held out something in his hand and when Jack reached for it, Luke closed his hand quickly took off running. His laughter echoed through the building.
Elizabeth laughed. "I know exactly where he learned that move! Remember when you did that to me with my earring?"
Jack reached for the lights. "Might not be as funny this time. That was your ring in his pudgy fingers!"
Both were scrambling quickly after the two-year-old trickster. Luke cackled with glee as he ran around the center.
"Don't worry. He hides in the same place every time. I know exactly where he's headed," Elizabeth grinned widely.
Jack held her hand and they followed the sound of Luke's giggles into her old office. She climbed under her desk with him and Luke climbed into her lap. He opened his hand flat in front of Elizabeth and revealed his treasure.
In that moment, it was as if he understood that he was the one getting the biggest treasure. "Mama's wing? Go on feender?"
Elizabeth held out her left hand and Luke did his best to put the ring on her pinky.
Her eyes were glassy with hope and joy as she lifted him to her chest. "Yes, Lukie. This is Mama's ring and it belongs on my finger. I love you baby boy. But if your father ever scares me like this again, he might find himself sleeping on the couch!"
She patted Luke's fluffy-diapered bottom and squeezed him tightly. Jack closed in on both of them after watching Luke steal his bride. He chuckled. "I'm sorry! I truly didn't mean to scare you. I hope you know that I'd never, ever put you in danger. I love you."
Elizabeth looked up at him. His rumpled hair was so sexy. The 5 o'clock shadow on his jawline was positively sinful. He was her undoing. He was a walking dream and he was hers. Every bit of this man was hers. "It's so hard to be mad at you when you look like you do and then you go and do something as sweet as all of this. Although, I'm surprised Florence approved all of the candles!"
He pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her body flush with his. "Florence loves me. She helped me plan this whole thing!"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Of course she does. Half the women in the city probably swoon all over themselves when you walk by."
"The only woman I care about swooning is the one in my arms. And I will always, always, be here to catch her… and kiss her."
Luke played at their feet as Jack's lips brushed over hers again. It was slow and sweet this time. He was gentle with her, slowly opening her mouth with his, tugging her lower lip between his teeth. Their tongues dancing and their bodies humming with pleasure. When she released a little moan, Jack pulled back to look at her, kissing her finger with the beautiful pear-shaped diamond engagement ring with the acknowledgement that she was the ending of all of his beginnings. "I love you."
In some way, they had found their way through the muck and turned a lump of coal into a sparkling, shiny diamond.
"I feel like you've given me the world, Elizabeth. I don't know what I did to deserve you, but I'm greedy enough that I don't care. You are mine to keep and I plan on keeping you forever."
A quick thank you for all of my kind readers and your patience. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. I promise to do my best to find spare time to write again soon.
A special thank you to my two unicorns, my spirit animals in every sense of the idea. Thank you for proofing for me and for your encouragement. To my third unicorn, thanks most for having my back. Hope you liked your shout-out. ;-)