Chapter 19 – Epilogue

Airports are traditionally the setting for emotional reunions and goodbyes. Any people watcher at Chicago International Airport, for example, would get their fill observing the full spectrum of the human experience played out at the departure and arrival gates. Yet as a young man with dark good looks and a great butt paced impatiently at the arrival gate for the 5.17 flight from Singapore, he felt sure no-one had ever experienced what he was feeling.

"Relax, Nick. It's only 5.20. You know it takes at least half an hour to get through customs," Jackie said reasonably.

"Not necessarily. She could have bulldozed over everyone on the plane, sprinted to the checkout and been first through customs. You know Sharon – she's capable of that," Nick argued.

"Man, I have got to meet this chick," Hyde chuckled. "The more I hear about her the more I'm convinced she's Jackie's twin sister separated at birth."

"It's just not fair," Nick muttered. "She's been free for 2 months now and she's only coming home now. She wouldn't even let me come and see her."

"Nick, we've been over this," Jackie said, rolling her eyes. "Sharon didn't want to make her grand entrance back into the States looking like a concentration camp survivor. As an actress, she's a minor celebrity – what if a reporter had taken a picture of her looking like a scarecrow?"

"She could have let me come to her. Like I care what she looks like!"

"Sharon just needed some time to get her strength back," Jackie explained. "She's been leaning on you pretty heavily since she got arrested. I think she was just tired of being a pathetic waif everyone felt sorry for. She needed to be by herself for a while to find her own inner strength."

"Is that more of your homespun wisdom drawn from real life experience?" Hyde asked Jackie as Nick devoted himself to another round of pacing. He took her hand and absently turned the 2 carat diamond ring on her finger.

"Maybe," Jackie replied with a coquettish smile. She raised her face for his kiss – it had been at least 10 minutes since their last kiss and she needed another fix.

"Poor bastard," Hyde remarked of the anxious Nick. "The way women reduce men to strung-out babbling idiots is a crime. It pains me to see a member of my sex so totally zenless."

"Of course, it's not like it's a condition you would have any knowledge of," Jackie baited.

"Hell no," Hyde replied, drawing Jackie closer to him. Ever since his injury he had felt a need – no, not a need, that was too wussy – a preference to have her within reach so he could assure himself with tactile investigation that she was in one piece. Although Jackie had frequently looked at him since the shooting with a touch of hero-worship in her eyes because he had taken a bullet for her, he never forgot how she had first almost taken the bullet meant for him. Nor could he stop imagining what kind of damage that deadly missile would have done to her delicate body when it had come so close to destroying his. Even so, the doctors had been amazed with the speed of his recovery – he was on his feet again in only three weeks. They failed to take into account the motivating power of having the hotness that is Jackie for a girlfriend/fiancee. She had refused to indulge in any carnal pleasures with him until she was convinced her passion would cause him no harm. In hindsight, she was probably right seeing as how it was hard for them both to "play nice" when they got excited. Thankfully his physician had given him the go-ahead last month. As his thoughts drifted to the memory of that night of passion, a fatuous smile graced his face, contradicting his recent tough guy words.

"What are you thinking of?" Jackie asked playfully, knowing full well.

"Huh? Oh, I was just thinking that I'll have to ride Eugene's ass about who he sells records to. A guy came into the store yesterday asking for KC and the friggin' Sunshine Band and then said if we didn't have it he would settle for Blue Oyster Cult. Settle! If I hadn't been there, Eugene probably would have sold it to him as well! Dumbass."

"I bet your Dad would be amazed by your unique sales technique," Jackie said with twinkling eyes. "Does he have any idea how you run the Chicago store?"

"As long as the sales figures keep going up, he's happy," Hyde replied. "You know, the hard core rocking-out standards I have set in that store has made it The Place for the dedicated metal head to hang out."

"So you like living in the big city now, right?" Jackie asked. She felt in need of some reassurance that Steven did not regret giving up their home town for her.

"Are you kidding? This city is dirty, noisy, crass and a hotbed of crime. It was made for me! I feel like the ugly duckling that finally found the cool happening swans he was meant to grow up with."

Jackie sighed happily. "You know what I like about Chicago? It's a place you can be anyone you want to be. In Point Place I'll always be the spoiled rich kid whose Dad stole the town's money. But here I am Jackie Burkhart, hard hitting news reporter. I think I've come a long way from the insecure little girl who was so caught up in her drop dead good looks."

"Excuse me," a thirty-something woman interrupted the pair. "But would you please tell me who does your hair?"

"Oh, you have to go to Joel Kessler's salon on 23rd Street – ask for the Jackie, he'll know what you want. Except don't set your hopes too high – my hair was born freakishly perfect and that can't be reproduced." As the lady walked away, Jackie explained "I try not to foster false hope – it will only hurt them in the end."

"Oh yeah, you've come a long way alright," Hyde teased. "Ow!" as Jackie smacked his arm. "Well, at least you got the hard-hitting part right." Just then a commotion of camera flash bulbs erupted from the gaggle of reporters in front of them.

"Oh Steven, it must be Sharon," Jackie said excitedly. She pushed her way aggressively to the front of the media pack and then imperiously held out her press badge. "Back off, boys. This one's exclusive to CRN."

"Ohh, no fair, Burkhart," a senior reporter from another network whined. Jackie ignored him and swooped down on a young woman so ravishing she could have stepped off the front cover of Vogue, enveloping her in a hug.

"Jackie," Sharon cried joyfully. "For God's sake, get me out of here!" Although the actress in her revelled in the publicity, right now she was hyped up on an emotional cocktail of relief, anticipation and fear. The confrontation she had been dreading and looking forward to for the last two months was finally here. She could see Nick over Jackie's shoulder and the way he was looking at her put her heart in her throat. But then her dear friend Jackie, who had risked her life to save Sharon's, was standing between them in more ways than just the physical. Suddenly the two months she had just spent at Singapore's top holiday resort didn't seem like enough time to pull herself together and psyche herself into continuing the role of Nick's carefree friend. Lord knows it was a performance she had perfected over the years, you would think she could pull it off now.

"Don't say anything to these hyenas, just smile and nod," Jackie warned as she put her arm around Sharon and briskly walked her to a private room they had reserved. "We can take a back exit to the carpark from here when you've caught your breath," Jackie explained. After the noisy scene they had escaped, the silence in the little room was deafening. Sharon was vaguely aware there was a curly-haired stranger in the room as well as her two best friends but her curiosity was deflected by the sight of Nick who had yet to say a word to her. His silence might be explained by the ring sparkling on Jackie's finger, Sharon thought with a sinking heart. Did he suspect how she felt about him and was sorry for her?

"Hello, Nick," she said, her voice slightly shaky.

"Um, yeah – hey Sharon," he replied, making a gesture as though he was about to hug her but which turned into clapping her upper arms in a good-buddy kind of way. "Welcome back," he added.

Jackie gave the both of them a hard look. She recognised this awkward emotional constipation, having studied it extensively at close hand. These two mixed up people had a bad case of the Hydes. It would take a master of subtlety to straighten this tangle out.

"Oh, for God's sake Nick, stop being such a geek and french her already," Jackie ordered.

"What?" Sharon said in amazement. "Jackie! What are you talking about? Nick and I don't – we wouldn't – "

"I know but don't you think it's about time that you did?" Jackie replied with an amused smile. "I mean, you could keep getting involved with social misfits and drug dealers to get his attention, and Nick could keep finding girlfriends who remind him of you, but I'm thinking it would be simpler if you just cut through all that crap and told each other how you really feel."

Sharon blushed beet red. "But I thought you and Nick are…" she waved towards Jackie's engagement ring.

"And on that note," Hyde came forward "I think it's about time Jackie remembered her manners and introduced me to you."

"Sharon," Jackie said, bursting with pride, "I'd like you to meet my fiancee, Steven Hyde."

"Oh? Oh! You're getting married? And not to Nick? That's wonderful!" Sharon and Jackie went into a happy hugging and jumping ritual that mystified the two men. All at once Nick was seized with impatience; he felt like he had been waiting all his life and couldn't wait any longer. He grabbed Sharon's hands and drew her close to him.

"Sharon, I know we said we'd never go down this road again but the thing is I don't think there's ever going to be anyone else for me but you. I don't know about you but these last few months have really opened my eyes to the fact that I…" Nick started to falter; come on, Nick, Jackie silently cheered. Give me an L, Give me an O…"..that I love you, Sharon. I really love you and if you'd just give me a chance I'd – " The end of that sentence would forever remain a mystery as Nick was cut off by Sharon grabbing the back of his head and pulling him into a rapturous kiss that left no doubt about her feelings.

Hyde pulled Jackie to the other side of the room to afford the blissful couple some privacy.

"Oh Steven," she sighed as she cuddled against his muscular body, "I do so love a happy ending."

"Yeah, I know," Hyde replied. He chuckled as he remembered something. "That was kind of funny how Sharon thought it was Nick you were engaged to. That's the problem with engagement rings – too open to misinterpretation. Now if you were wearing that Playboy outfit again, there would have been no confusion."

"Laugh it up, Dumbass," Jackie retorted, her hand gripping his left buttock. "If you want to go making things that clear, then you're welcome to show her your ass."

THE END

Finished at last! It's been a long strange journey but I am pleased where it ended up. Thanks again for all the feedback.