Well, I'm not entirely happy with this final chapter, but it was time to finish it once and for all. I hope you all enjoy it! Thanks for reading and for posting your reviews! It makes all the hard work worthwhile!
The Rescue, Part III
After twelve hours of glorious sleep, Cass awakened to find the woman he loved lying peacefully in his arms. They were spooned together tightly, her hair tickling his nose and his arm wrapped protectively around her. He remained still for a moment, reveling in the feel of her body so close to his own. He wished that he could see her face, that he could believe that this was not another dream.
As if she could hear his thoughts, she stirred slightly and turned to face him. He reached out to brush stray strands of hair from her face, memorizing each line and curve. He felt complete for the first time in months, as if his heart had finally been returned to him. His beautiful Mary Frances was not only safe, but she had also chosen to stay with him after all those months apart. He wasn't about to waste this second chance with her. "I love you, Frankie," he whispered, impatient for her to awaken so that he could tell her how much she meant to him.
He stayed there for a few moments more, gently caressing her back with his hand. Unwilling to wake her from her needed slumber, he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and carefully got out of bed.
Upon his return a few minutes later, he found Frankie in the throes of a brutal nightmare.
"No! Stop! Don't hurt him, please," she cried in terror.
Cass rushed to the bed, wrapping his arms around her and whispering to her, "It's all right, Frankie. Shhh."
"No! No!" she continued, shaking her head back and forth. "Cass!" she screamed in agony, jerking out of his arms and waking from her dream.
"Frankie, I'm right here," he said soothingly, sitting up to take her in his arms once more.
"Cass?" she asked, confused.
"It's over now, honey. You're all right."
"Cass! You're alive!" she yelled, hugging him to her tightly.
"I'm fine, Frankie. I'm just fine," he replied, returning the embrace.
Pulling back to look at him, her disorientation was evident. "But, he shot you. You were so still, so lifeless."
"No one shot me, Frankie," he said, taking her face in his hands.
"But he did!" she emphasized. "Griffen realized that you knew about Catherine, so he went after you too. He brought you to the prop room, and I tried to stop him, but he pulled the trigger."
"No, Frankie. It was just a dream. I'm fine, really." Needing to convince her, he drew her to him and kissed her tenderly. Resisting at first, she melted into the kiss, burying her hands in his hair and caressing his lips with her own.
After a few moments, Cass pulled back and stared into her eyes. "We're both safe, Frankie," he reassured her, touching her cheek lightly with the back of his hand.
She held his gaze for a long moment, astonished by the love and tenderness she saw there. Without warning, a wave of guilt washed over her. I almost got him killed, she thought painfully, sparking an overwhelming urge to run.
"Cass, I've got to go," she said as she wrenched herself away from him and backed off the bed.
"Frankie…," he began, holding his arms out to her.
"No, really. I promised to help Sharlene with some chores at the farm…."
"Sharlene will understand."
"No, she won't. I've got to go," she said again before running out of the room.
Cass jumped out of bed and followed her, catching her just before she reached the stairs. "Frankie, I'm not going to let you run away from me."
"Why not, Cass? I almost got you killed."
"Frankie, do you think my life would be worth anything if you had died in that theatre?" he asked forcefully, his question putting an immediate halt to her struggles against him. "The truth is that we never would have been in this situation if I hadn't run away from you all those months ago."
"But nothing, Frankie. You need to understand what happened, to know that it wasn't your fault. Come in here and sit down," he said gently, as he led her back into the bedroom.
Having arranged both of them in a seated position, he asked, "Frankie, how much do you know about Kathleen?"
Shocked by the question, Frankie took a moment before replying. "I know how much she meant to everyone and how much you loved her. The way you talked about her, Cass…she must have been an amazing woman."
He looked at Frankie with surprise for a moment, wondering when he'd talked to her about his wife. Suddenly realization dawned on him. "Ah, yes. It was you at the gazebo, wasn't it?"
After she nodded in response, he continued, "She was an amazing woman, Frankie. She was funny and smart and beautiful and, for some strange reason, she loved me."
"That's not so surprising, Cass," Frankie admitted quietly.
Touching her hand in response, he continued, "It would have been surprising if you had known me then. I was heavily in debt, arrogant, and selfish to the core. Trust me, if you think I annoy you now…."
"You don't annoy me."
"Yes, I do, and I annoyed her, too. But through all the fights and the frustrations, she saw something worthwhile in me. She taught me how to love…taught me that I deserved to be loved in return."
"You doubted that?"
"Sometimes I still do," he replied earnestly.
"Why?" she asked, surprised by his admission. It had never occurred to her that Cass could doubt himself, too.
Cass chose to ignore the question, answering instead with one of his own. "Do you know what happened to Kathleen?"
"She died in a plane crash," Frankie said softly, not sure why he was bringing up the subject but wanting to comfort him somehow.
"Did you know that I was in that crash with her, that I was thrown from the plane?"
"Yes, Felicia told me," she said gently, trying to soothe his pain by touching his arm lightly.
Unable to look at her further, Cass stood up abruptly and moved to the window. "When I came to, I could hear her screaming. I ran to the plane, and pounded on the doors and windows with my hands trying to get to her. I could feel my flesh burning, but I didn't care…I just wanted to save her."
"Oh, Cass," Frankie said in anguish, the pain in her voice mirroring his own. She moved to him then, placing her arms around his shoulders and resting her cheek against his back.
"The police pulled me away from the plane, but I kept struggling, trying to get back to her. Then the plane exploded right in front of me," he said, tears forming in his eyes. "She was gone, my whole life was gone, and I had to face it."
"Cass, I'm so sorry," she replied, wishing she could do more to comfort him.
Turning to her then, he said, "You know, I used to dream about that crash all the time. I'd be kissing her one minute, content about my life and about the future, then I'd hear her scream as I lost everything the next."
"Cass," she managed, reaching out to stroke his cheek with her hand.
"After awhile, I stopped dreaming about it, and I could think about Kathleen without pain crushing my heart."
"You found Nicole," she said knowingly.
He nodded, and continued, "I learned that I could care about someone, that I could feel love. It wasn't that same powerful feeling I had for Kathleen, but I never thought I could feel that way again. I didn't want to, really."
"Because I felt I would be betraying Kathleen somehow."
"You don't think Kathleen would want you to spend the rest of your life alone, do you?"
"No, but losing her hurt so much. I never wanted to love like that again."
Unable to find words to ease his pain, Frankie simply took Cass into her arms.
After a few moments, he pulled away from her embrace. "After I found out about Nicole, I shut down completely. I decided then and there that I would resurrect the old Cass and keep everyone at safe distance."
"I see," she said, wondering what exactly he meant by that comment.
"Of course, there was one problem with my brilliant plan."
"You," he repeated. "You just wouldn't let me remain numb to the world. You made me smile, you made me angry, you made me feel something even when I didn't want to. Before I knew it, I was finding any excuse to spend time with you."
"You were?" she asked, genuinely surprised.
"You didn't notice all of those times I stopped by the apartment to make sure you were all right?"
"I just thought you lacked faith in my skills as a PI."
"I never doubted your skills for a second, Frankie, but that didn't stop me from wanting to protect you."
"Because I was falling for you, and I needed to know that you were safe."
"You were falling for me?"
"Come on, Frankie. You're a smart girl. Did you think I would dress up as Bug Man for just anyone?"
"No. I mean, sometimes I thought you might be interested in me, but you kept on seeing Caroline…."
"I was fighting the attraction between us every step of the way, trying desperately to keep some distance between us."
"I was too, in a way. I'd fallen so hard for you by then, but I never really allowed myself to believe that you'd want to be with me until the night of your birthday. The way we danced, the way you kissed me, the way we talked all night…I thought it was the beginning of something special."
"It was, Frankie. I couldn't wait to see you again…to hold you in my arms, to kiss you, to dance with you…to make love to you. Learning about your past at that high school reunion only intensified those feelings. When I took you in my arms on that dance floor, I realized that you were the only woman I wanted to be with."
"Then why did you run away from me?" she asked, the pain in her eyes evident.
"Why did you think I ran away from you?" he asked gently.
"I thought…I thought you didn't want me."
"Oh, Frankie. I wanted you more than you could possibly imagine."
"Because a couple of days after your reunion, I dreamed of the plane crash again. That horrible nightmare had returned, only this time it was you that I was kissing, this time it was you that I lost. I woke up in a cold sweat, Frankie! I couldn't take it!"
"You were afraid you'd lose me, too."
"Terrified is more like it. Every woman I ever cared about, Frankie, every woman I ever loved suffered because of me," he said, anguish lacing his words.
"Cass…Cass, no," she said, taking his face in her hands.
"I didn't want that to happen to you, so I convinced myself that you were better off without me."
"Neither was I. I thought my feelings would just go away, but the truth is that I was miserable without you."
"That makes two of us."
"Frankie, why did you try to leave today?"
"I realized how close I came to losing you, and it frightened me. I'm the one who put you in danger, Cass…it would have been my fault."
"Oh, Frankie. We're so much alike. Both of us are weighed down by the past, both of us afraid we aren't good enough."
"But you are good enough, Cass. You're funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring…."
"Sexy," he added with a wicked smile, leaning in to kiss her neck.
Frankie closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation of his lips moving against her skin. "Exasperating," she breathed.
"In love," he said sincerely, willing her to believe as his lips descended upon hers.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she succumbed to the dizzying fervor of his kiss, even as her mind struggled to make sense of his words. Had he really said that he was in love with her? Pulling back for some needed confirmation, she asked breathlessly, "Cass, wait…what are you saying?"
"I'm saying what I should have said all those months ago. I'm in love with you, Mary Frances."
"You love me?" she asked, incredulous.
He nodded. "I love everything about you…your intelligence, your quirks, your strength of character, your vulnerability."
"My fashion sense?" she asked playfully, cocking her head to the side.
"Your fashion sense, your crystals, your stubbornness…everything."
"Oh, Cass, I…," she began, but was interrupted by the phone ringing.
He looked at her in frustration, silently asking her what he should do.
"Answer it, Cass. Someone probably just wants to make sure you're all right."
Nodding, Cass moved to the phone and said, "Hello."
"Hi Cass, it's Stacey. I just wanted to check on you and see how you're feeling."
"I'm fine, Stace."
"That's great! How's Frankie?"
Frankie came up behind him, then wrapping her arms around him. "She's fine, too," he said, turning his head to give her a smile.
"Great! Do you need anything?"
"No…uh…we're fine thanks," he managed, struggling to answer as he felt Frankie's lips touch a sensitive spot on his neck.
"Cass, you sound strange. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Believe me, Stace. I'm…um…terrific, really," he said, closing his eyes to concentrate on the exquisite feel of Frankie's kisses.
"Oh, my God! I'm interrupting something, aren't I?"
"You…might say that," he replied, shivering as he felt Frankie's tongue trace the shell of his ear.
"I'm so sorry, Cass. I'll talk to you later."
"You better! Bye."
"Bye," he said quickly as he hung up the phone
Turning to pull Frankie into his arms, he said, "You are incorrigible."
"No, Cass. I'm in love," she replied, smiling broadly.
"Anyone I know?" he asked, tightening his arms around her.
"Maybe," she said flirtatiously. "He is a lawyer."
"I see. And what does this lawyer look like?"
"Oh, well, let's see…he's devilishly handsome…."
"Really?" he asked with interest.
"Mmm hmm…dark curly hair and gorgeous brown eyes."
"Not perfect, no," she said. Noticing his flash of disappointment, she quickly added, "But perfect for me."
Smiling in acknowledgement, he asked, "Does he love you?"
"He says he does."
"Do you believe him? I mean, he…"
"Cass…," she said, interrupting.
"Would you shut up and kiss me already?"
"Anything for you, Frankie," he said, dipping his head and kissing her lovingly.
The kiss sealed a silent promise between them, their hands and lips dancing in a joyous expression of love and hope for the future. Cass had been the one to rescue Frankie from that crumbling theatre, but Frankie had freed Cass from the chains of guilt and pain that had tortured him for so long. The fears that had served to keep them apart dissipated in the warmth of the treasured embrace, for, in that moment, they had both found shelter from the storm, a home which could sustain them through all the trials ahead.
"I love you, Cass," she said, brushing her thumb across his lips.
"I love you, too, Frankie."
In the end, that was all they needed to know.