Author's Notes: A special thanks goes out to Skyrose, my esteemed beta reader.
Warnings: mild profanity
Disclaimer: Obviously I don't own the Jericho characters, but if I did, you can look at this story to see just what I would do with them. ;)
Part Three: A Tradition Evolves
October 31, 2008
twenty-five months after the bombs
"Say hi to Uncle Jake, Lindee." Stanley Richmond eyeballed his oldest friend, saw the cut along his cheekbone, and grinned. "Maybe you can tell him to stop opening doors with his face."
"Haha," Jake replied halfheartedly. Though looking at Lindee, he couldn't help but soften his sullen expression. The homemade pumpkin costume Lindee Richmond wore, combined with her plump features, had Jake Green convinced that she was the most adorable baby who had ever lived. Not that he'd been around many babies. Truthfully, he had avoided them in the past. Too needy. Too fragile. But as Stanley handed his daughter over to him, Jake held the baby close, shook his head, and chuckled gently. "Only you, Stanley."
"Only you would bring your baby into a bar."
"It's a tavern," Stanley corrected pointing his thumb to the large Bailey's Tavern sign which hung on the back wall.
"And you really think Mimi would be all right with this?" Jake asked, an image of Stanley's wife with her arms crossed in disapproval coming to mind.
Stanley shrugged. "Mimi would be fine. Especially since we aren't going to tell her."
"How's she feeling?"
"Still under the weather. Having a hard time shaking her stomach bug."
Jake smirked. "Maybe it's not a bug. Maybe she's—"
"Don't. Don't even say it, Jake," Stanley interrupted. "What are you trying to do? Jinx me?"
"It could happen."
"Not till we get this one out of diapers." Stanley's eyes fixed on his eight month old daughter, and in some ways, it was like stepping back in time. He remembered Bonnie as a baby—the same round cheeks, the bright eyes the color of aged pennies. Sometimes the similarities between Lindee and Bonnie were startling. Mimi joked all the time that if she hadn't been there for Lindee's birth, she would've thought there was no way Lindee could belong to her based on appearance alone. Yet Stanley could see Mimi in his daughter, too, mostly from the expressions she sometimes wore that mirrored her mother's, but there was no denying that Lindee also reminded him of his little sister.
Stanley reached out, played with Lindee's hand, and beamed when the baby grabbed onto his finger. "That's my girl. Strong as you can be." Stanley turned his focus to Jake. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"When are you going to settle down? Start a family?"
Jake nearly snorted. For the better part of his life, he had a difficult time wrapping his brain around the concept. Getting married and having children just didn't seem to part of the deal. When he left Jericho, he wanted to get as far away as he could from everyone's expectations of him. Now that Jake was finally settled and could offer some semblance of stability—as much as stability as could be had under their circumstances—there was no one he wanted to be with. No one except her, but she'd been gone for a long time. He thought at one point they might be able to make a go of it, but their timing was always off. "Looks like I'll just have to live vicariously through you." Lindee began to fuss, so Jake repositioned her so she could look over his shoulder.
"When did it happen, Jake?" Stanley asked watching kids run by outside on the sidewalk. "When did we get old?"
Jake scowled. "Speak for yourself. We're gonna live to be a hundred. Remember? This isn't old."
Stanley tilted his head toward the window and saw a group of teenagers hanging around outside. "That used to be us. You ever miss it?"
"Hell no. We had some good times, but no."
"Hey, remember that time we went out to Crazy Harold's Bridge on Halloween?" Like many other small towns, Jericho had its share of urban legends. This particular one dealt with an old railroad worker named Harold who, as the story goes, was decapitated while working on the railroad. Legend says that if a person stops his car on the bridge at midnight, the car won't start, but he will see the light from Harold's lantern coming down the tracks as Harold searches for his head.
"Harold's probably still looking for his head. Should be easier to find now that it's probably glow-in-the-dark." Jake rubbed the baby's back as her body relaxed against him, and her head rested on his shoulder. She was nearly asleep.
Stanley was lost in his reverie. "Mmmm. The McElvoy sisters. Six pack of beer. Perfection. That was probably the best Halloween ever. They were very friendly. Until you saw the light coming down the railroad tracks. You got so freaked out you spilled beer on yourself."
Jake groaned. "But it looked like I had pissed on myself. Yeah. I remember that now. Thanks, Stanley. Needed that."
As a teen, he had prided himself on not being scared of anything, always willing to thumb his nose at authority, but that incident had been the exception.
It took a few weeks before his dad admitted it was him with the lantern that night. Johnston Green had caught wind, thanks to Eric, that Jake and Stanley were at the bridge with girls, drinking. Teaching him a lesson by scaring the hell out of his son had evidently been too good to pass up.
Jake swallowed hard. His father never could stand to let him think he'd gotten away with something. In the last months of his father's life, they had worked to move beyond the conflicts of Jake's youth.
"C'mon. It doesn't get better than that. It was priceless!"
Jake glanced over at the dart board. That was where Stanley was wrong. It did get better than that. Briefly, he thought he could still see Heather playing darts—how easily she laughed, the bounce in her step, the twinkle in her eyes as she enjoyed her role as victor and teased him mercilessly over being beaten by a girl. He would never underestimate her as he once had.
And not just when a game of darts was at stake.
"Glad I could make it."
And now he was going crazy. Not only was he seeing her in his mind's eye, he was hearing her.
"Look! Heather's on the TV."
Jake turned upon hearing Stanley's words.
"Wow, she looks great. No sign of a grease monkey there."
"Yeah," Jake murmured as a close up of her face appeared on screen. "She does." The camera panned away from Heather to focus on the interviewer and the interviewee.
"It took some convincing to get you here."
Jake recognized the interviewer from before the bombs. He wore his trademark suspenders, glasses, and button-up shirt and sat across a table from Heather, who looked positively vibrant, her youth and beauty a contrast to his wrinkled countenance. Her glossy brown hair was pulled away from her face, making her delicate features more stunning.
"Yeah," she admitted with a smile. "It did."
"Why is that? I'm not scary. If you can take on Cheyenne, surely an old guy like me isn't that intimidating." His gravelly voice showed amusement. He was trying to make his guest feel comfortable before the real questions began. Jake had seen it before.
"You'd be surprised," Heather replied wryly. "I'm not used to being the center of attention."
"Come on. Everyone knows who you are."
The smallest of smiles formed on Jake's lips. Wasn't that the truth? Before she went to Columbus, she'd been the voice of the resistance. The code she had devised enabled communication right under Cheyenne's collective nose. In the year since she'd left Jericho, she had become quite well-known as the face of the resistance, telling stories of survival, stories of optimism, relaying information and hope. In fact, when he and Hawkins had been in Columbus for the Fourth of July remembrance ceremony, Jake had tried to look up Heather and was met with a wall of another type of resistance. Her staffers refused to let him near. His name may have been recognizable to them, but his face wasn't. Not the way Heather's face was recognizable. And with all the crazies out there who wanted to kidnap her for the information she held, Jake could not blame them for being protective.
And so the next day he attended a public forum at which she lectured on the Charles Administration's plans for reconstruction and the role of education. He still remembered how she spoke without the aid of notes with such confidence, how her eyes scanned the crowd, and the way she could connect with people. More than anything, Jake remembered the look on her face when their eyes locked. Joy had mingled with disbelief. For a moment, Jake thought that she might run off the stage and straight to him. Instead, she completed her speech, took questions for what felt like an eternity, and then disappeared. Jake had been disappointed until two security personnel approached him and invited him backstage to see her.
He remembered the way she held onto him so tightly when she saw him. How her eyes shined with happiness and her voice was imbued with pride as she introduced him to her staff. "This is Jake Green. I've told you about him."
"You've told them about me?"
"You're the hero of Kansas, Jake. You and Mr. Hawkins." Her lashes lowered as she smiled and added with a hint of self-consciousness, "And you're my hero, too."
"But it's not about me. It's never been about me. I bring attention to the issues, to what's going on with our troops, to how we can better our way of life, raise our standard of living, more effectively meet the needs of ourselves and our neighbors, particularly the young." Her voice softened and bespoke her compassion. "We've had the worst thing imaginable happen to our country, but this is an opportunity for us as individuals to make a difference, to band together and do what needs to be done."
"Some people would call that naïve."
"Well, I might agree with 'some people'—except that we have seen this administration back up ideas with action. Action that is getting results."
"She's annoyed," Stanley remarked.
Jake nodded in agreement. He could tell by the little crinkle between her eyes. He had seen that of hers look directed at him a time or he tried to keep her from going to Black Jack with them, he had seen it. And when he insisted that she have round-the-clock protection after a foiled kidnapping attempt during his visit to Columbus, he had seen the same look of exasperation. She kept her cool in the words she spoke as she methodically made her argument, but her expression gave away her thoughts and feelings on the matter.
She was the most stubborn woman! If he had not been there with her…but he was. And still she refused the secret service detail offered by President Charles. She didn't want the intrusion into her life. If the code talkers would slightly change their way of doing things, she argued, she would be of no use to Cheyenne anymore. She would be able to do her current job without the threat of someone trying to force her to turn traitor.
That didn't make Jake feel any better. If she was no longer useful from an intelligence standpoint, that didn't mean that she would be free and clear from threats. In fact, if anything, it would guarantee that those who did try to take her would do so, not for the purpose of gathering information but for a propaganda victory of their own. Heather was considered a modern version of an Ethel Rosenberg to Cheyenne, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that they would love nothing more than to use her to further their own causes.
Try telling that to her.
He had been to her house in Jericho a time or two, albeit briefly, and he recalled how homey it had been, from the abundance of cross stitched pillows on her sofa, to the photographs of family and friends, to the collection of books on her bookshelf. It even smelled like home, sweet and spicy, a combination of apples and cinnamon.
Her apartment in Columbus was far more utilitarian with few trinkets. When Jake saw it for the first time, he could tell how little time she actually spent there. She mumbled apologies to him for not having a more hospitable place for them to get caught up, but as Jake watched her flit around the apartment, picking up piles of clothes that needed to be washed, he couldn't think of a place he would rather be.
And he'd told her so.
He had never considered himself a particularly heartfelt speaker. He preferred action to words, but considering that what he really wanted to do would only net him a mountain of trouble, he had to let words suffice.
That night, Jake made the all important discovery that Heather was not territorial when it came to her kitchen. They cooked together, talked and laughed, reminisced and learned more about the other. He told her of Lindee, of Eric and Mary's plans to get married, of his mother's return to Jericho, of Emily's engagement, of some of her former students and their families. He detailed the efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of not just Jericho, but surrounding areas now that much of the fighting had moved northward. He spoke of Phil Constantino, killed at the hands of one of his own men.
Heather wanted to know about Jake's experiences, and he found himself telling her things that he had kept private: His doubts at times that they would make it to the next week, his striving to be the type of man his father would have respected, his struggle to be diplomatic in his job when a good portion of the time he wouldn't mind solving his problem with a quick meeting of the fists rather than a meeting of the minds.
As he prepared to leave for the night, he found himself lingering at the door, not wanting to walk through it. How long would it be before he saw her again? He considered laying everything on the line, telling her how he felt, asking her to return to Jericho with him. In his moment's hesitation, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his cheek. "Thanks for bringing me a piece of home, Jake."
He looked at her, so self-assured, so successful, so important to the resistance movement, and he could not bring himself to do it. He couldn't make her doubt her choices, not when so much was at stake. So he left and knew without a doubt that he was a glutton for punishment. She'd told him that he'd given her a piece of home, but what she didn't realize was that in seeing her, she'd given him a sense of home, as well.
"Home is—home is not here. Columbus has grown by leaps and bounds, no doubt about it, and there are many opportunities here, but it's not home. "
"You're originally from a small town in Kansas."
"Right. New Bern, Kansas. My father was a minister and my mother worked at an auto body shop." The image on screen shifted from the interviewer and Heather to a photo of her parents standing outside her father's church building with a very young Heather between them.
"Yet here you are in the nation's capital, an advisor to the President, a figure to millions. How did you get from Point A to Point B?"
"In a very roundabout way. I had inspiration. I was teaching in Jericho, Kansas. Third grade. On the day of the attacks, my class and I were traveling back from a field trip. We'd had bus problems, had some repairs done, and were running late when a deer ran out in front of the bus. Turns out it was spooked by the mushroom cloud on the horizon."
"Were you in danger of fallout?"
"No. Kansas is pretty flat. Something will seem close when it's miles away. Can be aggravating on road trips but on this day, that was definitely a good thing. A mushroom cloud rising miles into the atmosphere—well, that's visible from a hundred miles away."
"So what happened next?"
" I can still remember the jolt. We were thrown so hard. The kids were scared and crying. Our bus driver died in the crash, and I had a broken leg and couldn't drive. A couple of the kids went for help, and did they ever bring back help!"
"They brought back Jake Green," the interviewer said hurrying along Heather's story. "The hero of Kansas."
"Guess I know what you're going as for Halloween," Stanley smirked.
Jake sighed. He didn't feel like a hero.
"He brought with him a fierce determination, but it was about more than mere survival. He wanted our town to make it, too. Over and over, I saw him put himself on the line." Heather paused briefly, her voice becoming more reflective. "In some ways, I think he's the reason I'm here today. I could have stayed in my relatively safe life, but he encouraged me and others like me to use whatever skills we possessed to better our community. Through it all, he never forgot that life isn't just survival—living and breathing. It's also about being humane. Looking out for neighbors, offering a helping hand, caring about something bigger than oneself."
Stanley rolled his eyes. "Forget I said that. We should fit you for your halo."
"On a different note, some of your critics have argued that you're nothing but an extension of the Charles administration, a propagandist."
"Well, here's what I have to say to that. I am so grateful to live in a country where people have the right to disagree with my viewpoints, to criticize me without fear of retribution. Their criticisms are, of course, totally wrong, but they have the right to be wrong." A light laugh escaped her lips before her tone became far more serious. "There are still people out there who don't have that freedom—that freedom of speech. Look, I can't please everybody all of the time. What I can do is my very best to get information out, to tell the real stories of what is going on out there. I can offer hope because I do believe wholeheartedly that liberty will prevail. This fight has been taken to Cheyenne's back yard, and as information becomes more available, entire A.S.A. regiments are lowering their weapons and refocusing their efforts. They're rejoining the U.S. military. That cannot be ignored. That's not propaganda. That's not spin. That's fact. People have been lied to, kept in the dark, which means we have a responsibility to reach out and shine light on what has happened, to let them know that this Cheyenne-based government is an illegitimate government hell bent on overthrowing the United States and subjugating its citizens."
The interviewer took a deep breath, appearing taken aback by the ferocity of Heather's impromptu speech. "Any plans to run for office in the future?"
Heather shook her head. "I'm a third grade teacher, not a politician."
The interviewer looked directly into the camera. "We'll return with more of our exclusive interview with Heather Lisinski, face of the resistance, after a brief word from our sponsors."
"Wow," Stanley said eyeing Jake. "She completely talked you up. You've been holding out on me. What happened with the two of you this summer in Columbus?"
Jake reluctantly handed Lindee over to her father, though that reluctance was met with an eagerness to change the subject. "Better get her home before too many people see you here with her and tell Mimi."
"You really think I'm afraid of Mimi?"
"Well, she is scary, Stanley."
"Seriously, Jake. What happened?"
"Absolutely nothing," Jake replied.
And that was the problem.
"So a nun walks into a bar…"
That voice. The familiar, cheerful cadence he knew so well. Jake Green spun around taking in the sight of Heather Lisinski—dressed in a nun's habit. He blinked several times, not trusting his eyes. Had he had too much to drink? Was he hallucinating?
"I know. I know. I look like a bad joke, so I might as well make one. But it is Halloween, though, right?" Heather pulled the wimple from her head and set down the small duffle bag she carried.
Without speaking, Jake bridged the distance between them and puller her into his arms. He felt her ball her hands against his chest, clinging to the long-sleeved t-shirt he wore. "Heather!" her name came out as a sigh. He kissed the top of her head, pulled back slightly, and studied her. Even wearing the shapeless, long black dress, she looked beautiful, even more so than he remembered, from the sapphire blue of her eyes to the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose on her otherwise peaches and cream complexion. He smoothed her hair, feelings its glossiness. "You look good."
Heather studied him. Jake's hair was cut short, much like Heather remembered it from when they'd first met. She lifted her hand to his cheek. There was barely a trace of stubble, though an angry-looking scrape caught her attention across the top of his right cheekbone. Even so, he looked so incredibly handsome to her, and suddenly, she felt the butterflies forming in the pit of her stomach as they used to do every time she encountered him, just as they had when she had been giving her speech in Columbus and saw him in the audience. Trying to maintain her cool, she teased, "You just can't stay out of trouble, can you?"
"You should see the other guy," Jake joked.
Heather tilted her head, throwing him a look of reproach that soon evaporated into a gentle smile.
"Would you believe I did that walking into a door?" he asked with a grin.
"Okay, okay. I was trying to break down a door," he admitted with a chuckle.
"Ever hear of a doorknob?"
He shook his head ruefully. "When did you get back?"
"Mmmm. About five minutes ago."
"Didn't know you were coming," Jake commented finally letting go of her, though as soon as he did, he immediately missed the warmth of her body.
"Neither did I until yesterday," she confessed, "but I didn't want to miss our Halloween tradition." Clasping her hands together, she turned away from him briefly before facing him again. "I saw that they were having a big party on Main Street. Why aren't you out there?"
His dark eyes met her blue eyes. "I didn't want to miss our Halloween tradition," he echoed.
"So," she began taking a step closer to him, "what are our stakes?"
"Let's make them negotiable this year."
"I can't believe it. I've lost my touch!" Heather covered her face in mock horror.
"You're not bad. I'm just better."
Heather widened her fingers slightly, enabling her to peek at him. His eyes shined with mischief. "Beating me once doesn't make you an expert, Jake Green."
"No, but it does mean that I get something from you."
She crossed her arms. "So those negotiable stakes you mentioned…am I at your mercy?"
"You are." His voice was low, husky.
She nodded once, her voice resolute. "I'm okay with that."
"Why don't we…"
"Heather Lisinski, is that really you?" The next several minutes were spent with Mrs. McVeigh, the former principal of Jericho Elementary—and Heather's former boss—firing a series of questions at a dizzying speed. This attracted the attention of a few others who had not noticed Heather when she was in her habit costume. However, now she was more easily recognizable after removing the habit and revealing the jeans and casual sweater she wore underneath.
And then it all seemed to snowball. Other well wishers, friends, and fans surrounded Heather. Jake's eyes surveyed the crowd; he knew all these people who were now crowding him out, forcing more distance between Heather and himself. Still he kept an eye on them all, watching for any sign that someone might have less than friendly intentions toward her. He watched as she politely and warmly greeted them and answered their questions--about what President Charles was really like, how much longer she thought the war would last, what would happen to Tomarchio when he was captured, what news she had from other places.
She answered them all, but her eyes sought Jake. I'm sorry, she seemed to say to him with her expression, before turning her attention back to those who shared their stories of what she had missed in Jericho, milestones of her former students from their proud parents, and as they bespoke their admiration for her.
As soon as it was courteous to do so, Heather excused herself, found her way to Jake's side, and clutched his arm. "What do you say we get out of here?"
He could appreciate the fact that she took the time to visit with them all and the ease with which she handled herself, but he was ready to have her all to himself. "Just what I was going to suggest." Taking his jacket from a chair, he wrapped it around her shoulders.
"What's this for?" she asked, the warmth and strength of his hands making her voice pitch higher than she had intended.
"Has a hood. You'll be less conspicuous."
Heather laughed lightly. She had never considered herself to be a particularly noticeable person. She had always blended into the background. In high school and college, she was the girl that people thought looked familiar but that they couldn't quite place. She sometimes forgot that she had traded in her anonymity.
Together they walked out of Bailey's and down the street to where Jake had parked his car in the lot behind town hall earlier that day. They stopped at the passenger side as he unlocked the door for her. "I never did thank you for this."
"For what?" Heather asked pushing the hood from her head.
"The car. I figured it would be either burned out in New Bern or parked in Phil Constantino's driveway."
"I'm glad I could get it working for you, Jake." It had taken a few favors, but at the time, she had some pull with Major Edward Beck. Ted Lewis had told her where the car was, and Edward had been more than willing to assign his men to haul it back on one of their runs to New Bern. "Though I did have some help getting it here, and Stanley was nice enough to let me work on it in his barn."
Jake fell silent for a moment, realizing just who had likely helped her get it to Jericho, before finally speaking. "Stanley says you worked on it a long time. Why didn't you say anything about it?"
Heather shrugged slightly. "I-I don't know. I just wanted you to have it back. It wasn't important how."
"But it is to me. You amaze me, Heather. I never know from one moment to the next what I'm going to get with you."
"So is she working well?"
"Surely the car is a she. Don't tell me you gave it a masculine name."
Jake hedged. "Who says I named it at all?"
"Any guy who loves his car as much as I've heard you do surely has a name for her."
Jake reached out, resting his hand on her hip. Heather's question was forgotten as she sucked in a breath and found herself leaning closer to him. "She's perfect."
Heather's mouth felt dry. Jake's tone, the velvet smoothness of his voice, had her mind racing. She could almost believe…No. She pushed aside the thought and managed to string together a few coherent sentences, though she felt like she was in danger of jumping out of her skin from his touch. "I'm glad. I don't get to tinker under the hoods of much of anything these days. I miss it."
"You want to go for a ride?"
"I'd like that."
Jake opened the passenger door for Heather who entered the car, settling back in the seat. She watched as Jake walked around the front and opened the driver's side door. Sliding in next to Heather, he turned to her and asked. "Any particular place you want to go?"
"It's been a whole year since I've been here. I-I don't even know where to begin. I'd love to be everywhere at once, to be able to see it all." A small sigh escaped her lips, though she couldn't be sure that Jake noticed. "I think I'm going to have the same problem everywhere I go."
"Not everywhere," Jake replied cryptically.
A few minutes, a few miles, and a few rare hills later, Jake pulled off the side of the road just before reaching a narrow bridge and turned off the engine.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you brought me out here to park," Heather teased.
"Well, you did say you were at my mercy. Come on. I want to show you something." Jake opened his door, and Heather followed suit. Her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness when Jake took her hand and led her to the bridge.
"What is this place?" Heather asked.
"Crazy Harold's Bridge."
"So this is the infamous Crazy Harold's Bridge. I've heard of it, but never really had the chance to come out here." Her eyes scanned their surroundings, now becoming more visible as she grew accustomed to the night. It occurred to her that this was the first time in awhile that she had truly been in the dark—minus the sliver of moon shining overhead. Columbus was a bustling city, and even at night, the sky glowed alight. It was rare to see the stars. Here, though, the stars numbered in the thousands, and Heather felt the familiar pang that she thought she had long since forgotten, the wonder of a universe so vast and the question of her place in the grand scheme of things. "It's beautiful tonight." Her fingers ran along the jacket she wore, realization dawning that she still had it, that the night air was chilly, and all he had was a thin long-sleeved t-shirt. She slid the jacket from her shoulders and began to pass it back to him.
"What are you doing?"
"Giving you back your jacket. I'm getting too warm," she hedged.
"Heather, it's not even 40 degrees out here. No way you're getting too warm."
"Jake—" Heather protested holding out the jacket, which he was hesitant to take.
He watched as a chill ran through her. Still, she held out the jacket. Finally, he took it from her and slipped it on. Rather than zipping it, though, he held it open. "C'mere."
Her brows furrowed, unsure of what he was doing.
"At my mercy, remember?" he added. "Put your back to me."
And then she could feel his chest against her back. His body was warm, his breath against her cheek. As Jake wrapped his jacket and arms around her, Heather found herself nestling against him, comfortable, warm. "You said you wanted to see all of Jericho." He spoke softly into her ear, sending shivers of delight through her, which he mistook for cold. He responded by holding her more tightly.
"Mmmm. I did."
Jake turned their bodies to face the opposite direction. "There it is."
Sure enough, from this high point—the only higher point in the area was on the Richmond Farm—Heather could see the lights of the town in the distance. The colors seemed to dance across her eyes and then blur.
Home. And yet it wasn't home.
"It looks so small," she managed through the lump that formed in her throat.
"I used to think too small. Never thought I'd be back here, and now I can't imagine not being here."
"I miss it a lot, Jake."
"You can always come back."
He felt her sigh against him. "Maybe when the war is over. When things get back to normal. Whatever normal is."
Jake could not mistake the wistfulness in her voice. "You doing okay out there?"
Heather opened her mouth to assure him she was, but could not muster the false cheer needed. It seemed wrong somehow to spin tales to Jake—Jake who knew better than anyone else the suffering going on around them, who had seen the worst in human nature and lived to fight another day. Her hesitation was evident as she finally spoke. "When I was little, maybe about five or six, my dad got me a cat. I had begged and begged for one and made all the promises that kids make—though probably not for the reasons you'd think. See, I'd heard that cats always land on their feet, so I decided to test this hypothesis. I stood on the porch of our house and threw the cat off the porch over and over. Sure enough, the cat landed on her feet. Granted, the cat didn't like me very much after that, mostly because I'd chase her down and try it again with the same results. And don't even get me started on the trouble I got into when my dad found out what I was doing." She paused briefly, lost in thought. "I'm like that cat, Jake. I get tossed around a bit from time to time, but I always land on my feet."
"I don't want you to just be landing on your feet, Heather. I want you to be happy."
"I'm happy right now, Jake, being here with you on this beautiful night. Let's just enjoy it."
"So, anyone special in your life?"
Jake chuckled. "You really have to ask?"
"Of course I do!" Heather laughed. "I mean, it's been four months since last time I saw you. I figured that there'd be someone to snatch you up. Any man that can give a woman all of Jericho at once—that's pretty extraordinary."
Jake tightened his hold on Heather, enjoying the feel of her body against his. There had been offers. Silvia Mayes had been, perhaps, the most aggressive, leaving baked goods for him at work, finding excuses to drop by the ranch, all the time wearing low cut tops to accentuate her assets. In another time in his life, Jake probably would've been grateful for the distraction that Silvia undoubtedly was more than happy to provide, but now he deemed her to be a nuisance, one that he gently put off. Even Emily had made an overture once while in the midst of a prolonged argument with her fiancé, but that ship had sailed for Jake long ago. No one compared to the woman he now held in his arms. It was both a blessing and a curse. "Excluding goddaughters, no one else in Jericho." Heather relaxed slightly, relief washing over her that Jake was unattached. "What about you?"
She almost found his question laughable. Her life was a constant barrage of names and faces, meetings and traveling. Her only respite from all of that was in the school where she held a science lab with fifth graders once a week, schedule permitting. This fact wasn't something for public consumption, and few outside of President Charles's circle knew about it, but that hour and a half spent each week with the school kids was what kept her sane most of the time. "I meet a lot of special people, Jake, but not like you're thinking."
"And Beck?" As much as he strove to keep the strain from his voice when he asked, as much as he tried to sound casual, Jake couldn't help the contempt that seeped out.
Heather was taken aback. Truth be told, she had not thought of Edward Beck in the context of a romantic relationship in a very long time. When they first met, he had seemed so unattainable, so by-the-book. He brought order to the chaos that surrounded her—briefly. And then he brought chaos. It started with a chink in his armor, a few furtive glances, and then the armor was gone, and laid before her was the man. The man who diligently followed orders, the man haunted by his family, the man who opened his eyes to the truth too late for some and too soon for others. Heather could get over her imprisonment by him. She technically was a traitor, and he had to follow protocol. He had more than made up for that when he renounced his association with the A.S. Army. It was what Heather discovered later—that Edward had tortured Jake—that made her question his character. It was that conflict that arose repeatedly. "Let's just say that there were some things I couldn't get past."
"Would you think I'm a total bastard for being glad?"
"I don't believe I could ever think that about you." Her eyes fell onto the lights of the town before Heather closed them, picturing the merriment she saw on Main Street. Some might have found it silly for a Halloween celebration to continue when so many terrible things had happened, but Heather saw it more as an affirmation that they were among the living and were going to live life to the fullest. "Columbus has nothing on this place. I'm already dreading going back."
Jake stiffened. "Why'd you come back now, Heather?"
Her eyes sprang open. "We have a tradition, and I am a traditional girl."
"So you drove 900 miles to uphold a tradition?"
"Well, I didn't drive all of it. I did catch a supply transport to St. Louis. And then a supply flight to Tulsa before continuing here by vehicle. It helps to know people—and evidently it also helps to dress like a nun when traveling along dangerous routes." She groaned, realizing how frivolous her tone sounded as she evaded telling him her real reason for returning, albeit briefly. "Oh, who am I kidding? I taped an interview the other day—"
"I know. I saw it at Bailey's before you arrived."
"Then you know I found myself talking about you. A lot." She fell silent momentarily as she sorted through her thoughts. "That interview brought up so many memories. I know that I can't live in the past. Truthfully, I'm not really sure I'd want to. I just—I just had this sense that there are unfinished things between us."
"And you want to finish them?"
"No, that's just it. I don't want to finish them. Look, I will understand if you don't feel the same way, and I know this is coming about suddenly, and there are so many reasons I should just keep my mouth shut, but—" Heather's heart sank as she felt Jake let go of her and step back. She clenched her eyes for a few seconds, which, to her, felt like the equivalent of an eternity. She forced herself to turn and face him. "I'm sorry. This is awkward. I said too much. I do that sometimes. Talk too much, I mean. Just forget I said anything."
Amusement shone on Jake's features. He reached out, stroking her cheek. "You're right about one thing. You do talk too much." And then his lips were upon hers, cool, a contrast to his warm breath. His hands moved downward, spanning her waist, and pulling her close to him. This was different from their kiss on Main Street so long ago. That kiss had been sweet and comparatively chaste. This time, Heather could taste the hunger in Jake's kiss, as he held nothing of himself back.
A longing welled within her as she struggled to get closer to him—and yet she couldn't get close enough. She whimpered slightly feeling his lips leave hers and travel to her neck, feasting on her tender flesh. When he returned his attention to her swollen lips, she was eager to meet his kisses, reveling in the sensation of his tongue sparring with hers, the coarseness of the stubble on his chin and cheeks against her skin, and the evidence of his desire for her.
She could barely catch her breath when he broke the kiss, overwhelmed by how quickly it had gotten out of control. "Wh-what was that?"
Leaning his forehead against hers, a light chuckle escaped from him. "If you have to ask, I must be doing something wrong."
"Maybe we should try it again." Her eyes twinkled. "Just so I can study this for further analysis."
"Way better than getting thrown off the porch," he murmured, which elicited a giggle from her before he stifled it with another kiss.
Heather felt her back press against the railing of the bridge. Breathless for more of his kisses, desperate to be closer to him, she arched her body. Her hands worked at the hem of his shirt, running them up his back. He nearly jumped out of his skin and began laughing, breaking away from their kiss, amid her silent protest.
"Your hands are like ice! Temperature's dropping. I gotta get you out of this cold."
Heather dropped her hands, which he immediately clutched between his own. She fought the urge to bury her head against his chest. "I don't want to go back. Going back—that's going to make all of this feel like an impossibility."
"More than two years ago, I was on my way out of town. I was angry, never planning on coming back. I never should've met you. You were going your way, and I was going mine. Then I saw a mushroom cloud on the horizon. A car crashed into me, I began to walk, and those kids—they led me to you. So many things have led back to you, Heather, and I was too stubborn or too foolish to listen. But now—look, I know I'm not as good a man as you deserve, the things I've done…" his voice trailed off briefly. "But I'll be damned if I'm gonna let you go this time." He shook his head slightly. "I've been joking that you're at my mercy, but the truth is, I'm at yours."
"Oh wow. I don't know what to say."
"You can start by telling me that you'll stay for awhile in Jericho. You're due for some time off, right? Gotta be some advantage to being the face of the resistance."
"I've got a week."
"Where you staying?"
"Um…good question. My house, I think. Provided that I can bum some firewood."
Jake pulled his jacket around her again and held her close. "Stay with me. This week." His lips nibbled at her ear. "And next." And moved along her jaw line. "And all the ones after that." He caressed her lips with his own, bringing forth a deep sigh of contentment from her.
Heather's head was swimming in a sea of emotions and sensations. She broke away from him, her skin flushed, her breath ragged. "I have a week. After that…" her voice trailed off as he rubbed her fingers, trying to warm them. "This is a new tradition for us, Jake. We should've picked a warmer time of the year to make out at Crazy Harold's Bridge."
"It has to start somewhere." His right eyebrow shot up. "Besides, you owe me."
"I won at darts, fair and square, and I intend to collect. Now for those terms."
"Right. That we agreed were negotiable. Lucky for you your aim improved," she teased gently.
"You don't know the half of it," he replied brushing his lips against hers again. He moved his hands to her hair, smoothing its glossy coolness. "I've spent the better part of my life being aimless, drifting. Now I know what I want more than anything. I want to be with you, Heather. And not just for a week. Down the road, when you've done what you need to do in Columbus, I want you to come back here. To me."
Tears stung her eyes. She was home. Jake was her home. "I agree under one condition."
"Those terms are non-negotiable. Or else."
A broad grin spread over his features. "Or else what?"
"Or else I won't have anyone who I can park with at Crazy Harold's Bridge, who can kick my ass at darts, and…" Jake leaned down and captured her lips with a kiss, and in those moments, all rhyme and reason left her mind. When he pulled away, she groaned slightly in objection. "You made me forget what I was saying," she added, her eyes shining with mirth.
He toyed with her fingers as he spoke, "So we have a whole week. Anything you want to do?"
"I have a few ideas," she replied with a grin. She pulled Jake back to the Roadrunner and on to what would be the beginning of another tradition.