Surprise Confession, Chap. 1

Disclaimer—Don't own the show or the characters, just taking another playdate.

A/N—This story thread (which will be written from multiple POV's) is based on the S3 episode Crossover, and what I thought might have happened if events had gone differently. Taking a small liberty with the timeline, as I mention the episode Kingdom Come, which actually immediately follows Crossover, as if Kingdom Come has already occurred. Enjoy, and as always, please read and review—robertwnielsen

Summary—In a moment of anger and frustration, Caitlin blurts out the last thing anyone expects to hear. What happens to her friendship with Hawke as a result?

I couldn't believe what I was seeing—There was Stringfellow Hawke, the man I love more than anything in this world, embracing Inge Janek, that Czech defector he had helped rescue from the KGB. She was being taken into asylum by Michael and the FIRM, and was getting her last chance to say goodbye to String.

Dom told me what happened—how Inge was captured by the KGB and was headed for a Russian submarine, to be taken back to either Russia or Czechoslovakia, until Airwolf blew the sub out of the water and rescued her, and according to Dom, somehow during the time they spent together, they fell in love. I don't begrudge String for what he did, it's Inge I'm havin' problems dealing with right now. I mean, she managed to do in a few short days what I've been tryin' to do for the past year and a half—she managed to penetrate that wall that String's built around his heart, and convinced him to fall in love with her. And, I had to admit, I hate her for that. I mean, I know I shouldn't, but I hate the fact that String's in love with her, and not with me. The fact that he's holding her in his arms, and not me. The fact that; ugh. If I keep this up much longer, I'm gonna be sick, I finally told myself. 'Course, in one respect, I already was sick—sick with jealousy. I mean, I know I shouldn't be jealous—but, I am. It just makes me sick to my stomach, sometimes—watchin' Hawke with all these other women, and wishin' like crazy that I was the one he loved. But the longer I watch String with Inge, the more worried I get that I'm gonna do somethin' that'll destroy my friendship with String, forever.

So now, I'm standin' here at the hangar, watchin' String hold her in his arms, and wishin' like heck that he'd put his arms around me like that, just once. I know I shouldn't, but right this minute, I'm fightin' a very unladylike urge to walk over there, gouge Inge's eyes right out of her head, and tell String off. Either that, or tell him exactly how I feel about him—that I love him. But somethin' keeps me from doing either one—my common sense, I guess. I dunno.

Don't take it the wrong way—I know Hawke saved Inge's life, and all that, and that should at least be worth a hug, I thought, remembering a few weeks ago after I was rescued from Ken Sawyer, and kissed both Hawke and Dom; but still, somethin' just seems all wrong about this.

I look over at Dom, and I can tell he's thinkin' something similar to what I am—Why can't you see what you've got right in front of you, String? Namely, me. Of course, Dom's not thinkin' the "namely, me" part—unless he's thinkin' "namely, Caitlin," or somethin' like that—but, I'm sure Dom is wonderin' why String can't see the fact that I love him. And I wish I knew the answer to that. It'd make my life a whole lot easier, let me tell you. I can't help but think back to what happened in Michael's limo just a few short months ago, after Hawke was kidnapped by John Bradford Horn.

"We gotta get the Lady!" I said emphatically.

"Not 'we,' ME! The instructions say, 'ME!'" Dom argued. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard—was Dom really gonna leave me out of a rescue attempt? Over my dead body he was!

"Dom, don't do that to me," I said, knowing I could break into tears at any moment. "I care about him too, you know—probably MORE THAN YOU KNOW." I can still picture Dom's expression when I said that. I got the distinct impression that he wasn't sure how to respond to what I'd just said, but he was thinkin' about it. Actually, now that I think about it, I hadn't really meant to say that I cared about Hawke. It just sort of came out, 'cause I felt like Dom was tryin' to leave me out of the rescue mission, and there was no way in HELL I was gonna let that happen. And, I've wondered ever since then what Dom thought about what I said that day—considering he's never asked me about it.

And now, seeing String with Inge, watching them say goodbye to each other, it was almost more than I could bear. Wait a sec, Caity, a voice in my head seemed to say. Does String even know how you feel about him? I had to admit, he probably didn't. I mean, yeah, I'd told Dom how I felt about String that day in the limo, even though I still wonder if he really got what I meant when I said "probably more than you know"—of course, I meant that I love String, and I've tried to get String to understand how I feel about him, but it hasn't worked. And that's probably because I've tried to be subtle about it—and if I know anything about Stringfellow Hawke, it's that subtlety is a rarely-used word in his vocabulary. But, I'll give you a perfect example of what I'm talkin' about—When I kissed String after I came off that ship where Sawyer held me prisoner—I held the kiss with String a little longer than I did with Dom—tryin' to show String that I was okay, and that I was glad he'd rescued me, and all that—but also, and more importantly than all that, I was tryin' to show him that I loved him, and that it would be okay if he decided he could love me. But, nothin' changed between us, and that's the reason I was standin' against the hangar wall, my arms crossed and my right hand tappin' against my left arm the way it was—I was tryin' to keep myself from either crying or completely losing my temper—the problem was, it wasn't working either, and I knew I'd have to do something quick, or I was gonna go absolutely bonkers.

Suddenly, the thing I'd been fightin', and scared to death was gonna happen ever since String and Inge walked out of the hangar happened—I saw String and Inge kiss each other, and even though I knew it was a goodbye kiss, I lost all control, like, somethin' snapped in my brain. Without stopping to think about what I was doing, I screamed, "TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF HIM, YOU BITCH! I LOVE STRING! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?"

Just that quick, I felt like the world had stopped; and three pairs of eyes, plus Michael's good eye, had turned on me. Except when I opened my eyes and looked up, three pairs of eyes, and Michael's good eye, were staring at me—and, every single one of them looked absolutely shocked at what I'd just said. Oh, my GOD! I thought, wishing like hell that I'd kept my big mouth shut. I knew my face was bright red...redder than it had ever been, and I didn't know what to do, or say. Finally, I stammered, "I—I'm sorry, everyone. I—I don't know what came over me." Which was an out-and-out lie if I've ever told one, or heard one. I know exactly what came over me—a raging wave of jealousy. Because whether Hawke believed it or not—whether he'd accept what I'd said, or not—what I'd just said was the absolute truth—I do love Stringfellow Hawke. Well, now he knows, I thought as I stood there wishin' a hole would open up and swallow me. And, I thought about how I'd yelled, 'Don't you understand that?' to Inge—of course she doesn't understand that, you ninny, I thought. She didn't even know you loved String—until about thirty seconds ago, that is.

I think I've loved String ever since the day just about a year ago when I saw him in that jail cell back in Pope County, Texas. If that wasn't the case, then it either started after Hawke was kidnapped by Horn, and I thought he'd died in my arms after I injected him with Michael's antidote, or after I was kidnapped by that jerk Ken Sawyer, who I happened to be dating at the time. I remember, I fell for him when he came to the hangar one day askin' about flying lessons, and tellin' me everything I wished String would say to me—tellin' me how beautiful I was, and how attracted Sawyer was to me, and I guess that's why I fell so danged hard for him—because I was finally hearin' everything I wanted to hear—even though it wasn't coming from Stringfellow Hawke, the way I wanted it to be. 'Course, Sawyer only got close to me because he found out that I knew Hawke, and he wanted to use Airwolf to smuggle some nuclear detonators he'd stolen down to Mexico. I still remember when I said to him, "Ken—I have to know. Last night...?"

He looked right in my face and said, "Didn't mean a thing." As frightened as I was at that point, tied up and helpless aboard that ship, I was also mad as hell—mad because of what we did—I let him con me into takin' him back to my apartment after dinner, and we slept together—and the fact that what I felt—or what I thought I felt—was nothin' but a lie. Just another example of me fallin' for the wrong type of guy, I thought. But the right type—hell, the right guy—Stringfellow Hawke—who I love like crazy, won't accept how I feel about him. If—if he only knew how badly I want him to kiss me, the way I saw him kiss Inge just now, but that'll never happen now. Not after what I've done, I thought angrily. But I've laid my cards on the table now, there's no way I can take it back, especially since Hawke, Dom, Michael, and Inge all heard what I said. And I couldn't be more direct than that, I thought, so maybe that'll get through String's thick head, once and for all, even though it'll be too late. For the us I wish we could have been.

As I stood there, seein' everybody staring at me, I was feelin' more embarrassment than I've felt in a long time, maybe ever. Without another word, I ran back into the hangar, not wanting to see Hawke, Dom, or anybody else again. That's it, I thought through a wave of tears, I'm leavin'. First thing after we close up, I'm gonna pack up my stuff and get the next plane back to Texas—or maybe I'll just keep on goin' till the money runs out—then walk, like I said I was gonna do after the Anderson affair. I leaned against a wall inside the hangar and cried, harder than I'd cried in a long time, until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Please, don't let this be Hawke, I thought, afraid that what I'd just done had destroyed my friendship with Hawke, just like I'd been worried I'd do. I mean, I knew I'd have to face Hawke at some point, and talk to him about what I'd done, but I just couldn't. Not yet, anyway.

"Cait?" I heard Dom's voice behind me. "You okay, kid?"

"No, Dom," I said, wiping my eyes furiously with the back of my hand. "No, I'm not okay. I'm—I'm embarrassed, humiliated—everything butokay." But at the same time, I'm glad it's you, and not String, I thought.

"Why on Earth did you do that?" Dom asked me.

"I dunno, Dom," I said, trying to get control of my voice. Then, I realized I needed to be honest with Dom, now more than ever. "Wait a second. Never mind. I do know. I said that 'cause it's the truth. I do love String. I told you as much when I was tryin' to convince you to bring me with you, to rescue him."

"Cait, you said that you cared about String. You never said you loved him," Dom argued, and I knew he was right. "Or was that what you meant by 'probably more than you know?'" He finally asked, I thought, knowing what I had to say.

"Dom, that's exactly what I meant," I said, feeling my emotions somewhat relaxing. "I meant that I love String, just like I yelled out there. But now, after what I just did, I bet he never wants to speak to me again." And that hurts most of all, I thought, knowing my life just—just wouldn't be the same if String wasn't a part of it, even the small part that he is now. Better to have String in my life as my friend, than not to have him in my life at all, I thought.

"Cait," Dom said, laying his hand on my shoulder again, "I don't know what String's gonna do. But let me talk to him, willya? Maybe...maybe I can get him to see reason."

"Thanks, Dom," I said, glancing out to where Hawke stood. "Can—can you tell Michael to come in here for a sec, before they leave?" I have to admit, I was wonderin' what Michael was gonna tell me. I guess I half expected him to tell me that I no longer had a place on the Airwolf crew, or somethin' like that, but I also knew I had to talk to him and try to explain myself to him, the way I'd done with Dom. And sooner or later, I'll have to do the same with Hawke, I thought, and I dreaded that conversation most of all. I mean, I've got a sinking feeling that Hawke hates me right now—and, I don't blame him. 'Cause I hate myself, I thought sadly. I hate myself for sayin' that, even though it's the truth.

"Sure," Dom said, and walked away. A few minutes later, Michael came into the hangar.

"Michael, I—I'm sorry for what happened out there," I said. "I know I made a complete fool of myself, and," Michael suddenly interrupted me. "Caitlin, I have to say, I'm not completely surprised about what just happened—and, I don't hold it against you. I'm not in here to kick you off the Airwolf crew, or anything like that—if that's what you're worried about." How the heck did he know what I was thinkin' just now? I asked myself. Then again, I shouldn't be surprised—next to Hawke, Michael's probably as good as anybody at readin' people's thoughts. And, to be honest, it was probably written all over my face. But, I was definitely relieved to hear Michael say that I still had a place on the crew. Now, whether Hawke feels that way, or not, somethin' tells me I don't wanna know, I thought.

"Thank you, Michael," I said, relieved. "But what do you mean you're not surprised?" I gotta admit, his reaction, or lack thereof, surprised the heck out of me.

Michael smiled and said, "Well, I've had my suspicions about your feelings about Hawke. Ever since you helped he and Dom rescue me from East Germany. I remember when we were all sitting at that cafe having lunch. Every time Dom or I mentioned Hawke's name, your eyes absolutely lit up." I felt myself blushing at that, even though I knew it was the truth.

"And, I've seen it in other ways, too," Michael said. "Especially after we walked off the ship where Sawyer held you captive—I saw how you kissed Hawke—and it looked a lot less—platonic than the kiss you gave Dominic." I felt myself blushing even more at that statement, even though I knew Michael was right—I had been a little—okay, like Michael said—a lot less platonic with the kiss I gave String. I guess I just didn't think about what it might look like to anybody who happened to see it.

"Yeah," I said, even as I remembered that day. "I guess I was tryin' to show String that I was okay. That I didn't die, and that it'd be okay if he—" I couldn't finish my sentence, but Michael knew what I was tryin' to say.

"That it would be okay if he loved you, too, right?" Michael asked, and I nodded. "Well. I have to tell you, Cait—Inge said something to Hawke just after you ran in here. She said that it was obvious to her how much you loved him, even before you said what you did—I think she saw your expression out of the corner of her eye, or something like that—and she told Hawke that he shouldn't let you get away from him. And, she also told him not to be too upset over what you did. Oh, and she said that she thought you two would be good together." I had to admit, that last part surprised me. Geez, even a total stranger can see that String and I'd be good together, I thought, now even angrier that String couldn't see it. Michael continued, "Now, I don't know if Hawke would actually listen to her, but I thought you should know that."

"Thanks, Michael...and again, I'm sorry for blowin' up like I did," I said, surprised that Inge would say somethin' like that, especially after what I'd said. Now I feel even worse about saying...that, I thought, resolving that if I ever got the chance, I'd apologize personally to Inge for calling her that name. That was totally wrong of me, I thought, and I owe her an apology. An engraved apology. Heck, I thought about going out there right then and apologizing, but I didn't. Guess I was just too embarrassed, or somethin' like that. Instead, hesitantly, I glanced out to where Dom and String were, and it looked like Dom was having a rather animated conversation with String. What are they sayin' to each other? I asked myself. For about the millionth time, I wished I had that super-hearing that Hawke seems to have, especially when I saw Dom point toward the hangar door a couple of times, and I wondered if they were talkin' about me. If I had that super-hearing of String's, he'd never be able to keep a secret from me, I thought. And for some oddball reason, somethin' Sawyer said to me, back when he was just flirtin' with me and I thought he really loved me, rang in my head—he said, "The more you're willing to risk, the greater the reward." I hadn't thought about it since he said that, but right now, I was sure hoping it was true. I mean, sayin' what I did was probably the biggest risk I've ever taken in my life, and there was definitely a potential for a huge reward—but there was also the potential for a huge embarrassment, if String didn't feel the same way about me that I do about him.

Michael smiled and said, "Apology accepted. And anyway," Michael said, "There's nothing in the FIRM regs that says employees can't date each other—and even if there were, I could get it overturned easily. But, Inge and I need to get going. Just—try not to worry, Cait. Things will work out, one way or the other." He gave my shoulder a friendly squeeze just before he turned to leave.

I walked out of the hangar behind Michael and saw that whatever Dom and String had been talkin' about, it seemed to be over with. "Dom," I said hesitantly, "I—I've gotta get outta here. Do you...?"

"Go ahead, sweetheart," Dom said, "if you think you can drive okay. I've gotta talk to String anyway. We'll see you tomorrow?"

"I—I dunno, Dom," I said, and he nodded at me. I didn't—I couldn't—even look at String before I got into my car and headed home. But somehow, I knew Dom was worried sick, just by the look on his face—worried that he and String would never see me again—and at that point and time, I was seriously thinkin' they wouldn't. I was ready to pack up and go. Exactly where, I had no idea, but I just felt like I had to get the hell out of California as fast—and as far away from Stringfellow Hawke—as I possibly could.

By the time I'd arrived back at my house, I was an emotional wreck again. I let myself in and went straight to my bedroom, throwing myself down on the bed and crying.

How could I say somethin' like that? I asked myself for about the thousandth time since I'd left the hangar. I mean, it was the truth and all, but still, I shoulda kept my big mouth shut. I—I'll be lucky if Hawke ever speaks to me again, and I deserve it, too. And that thought—the thought of Hawke hating me and never speaking to me again—scared me more than anything. I mean, I've faced some scary situations in my life, both as a cop in Texas, and on the Airwolf crew—I've been kidnapped, tied up, beaten up, knocked out, held at gunpoint, shot, nearly shot down in an airplane, hijacked, almost raped, and generally looked death straight in the face more than once—heck, I remember telling String about how I did die on the operating table after I was shot once during a routine traffic stop, but the doctors were able to bring me back—but nothing frightened me more than the realization that I may have just destroyed the best friendship I ever had—not to mention any chances that Hawke might pull his head out of his behind and realize that I meant what I said—that I love him.

All the same, I couldn't help but feel relieved that my secret had come out. The way it came out was the last thing I ever wanted, but I was glad that my feelings were out in the open, and I could only imagine what Dom had said to String—and what he might say when he flew String back to his cabin later on tonight.

Finally, after several bouts of crying, I felt like I'd calmed down, at least for the moment. I knew that sleep would not be easy tonight, but I had to try. First, though, I fixed myself a small dinner, and while I cleaned up after myself, I had time to think about what I'd done that afternoon.

Well, it may not have been the best way to do it, I thought, but like I thought a little while ago, I'm glad my secret's out. All the same, I couldn't help wonderin' what String was thinkin' right now, and I couldn't help wishin' that I was with him, to try to help him sort his feelings out.

Later that night, as I lay in bed, I found myself reliving the events of the afternoon and seeing the expression on String's face when I blurted out my confession. That guarded look in his eyes reminded me of the expression he had immediately after he woke up in his room back at Horn's compound. I never want to see that expression again, I remembered saying to myself after we'd rescued Dom. And now, maybe I won't have to. I dunno where I'm gonna go, but I'm gonna leave first thing in the morning. Finally, my mind made up, I drifted off into an uneasy sleep. But I know I lost count of how many times Hawke's face kept pushing itself to the front of my thoughts and dreams, as I tried to sleep. And, I have to admit—I was scared. More scared than I think I've ever been—and with all the times I've thought I was gonna die, both as a cop in Texas and since I've gotten involved with String and Airwolf, that's sayin' something. But—with what I did—what I'd said—I was scared to death about what String was gonna say to me—and that was a conversation I was determined to put off for as long as I possibly could.

The next morning, I knew I hadn't slept well enough to go to work, so I called Dom and told him I wouldn't be coming in.

"Hey, Dom. You remember yesterday I said I wasn't sure if I was comin' in today? Well, I'm not. I—I just don't wanna face anybody right now, after what happened yesterday." Besides which, since I didn't sleep worth a darn, I'm not really in the mood to be around people, I thought sadly, especially Hawke.

"Sorry to hear that, Cait," Dom said. "but, I understand. And it's okay—we haven't got anything scheduled, so I'm probably gonna close the hangar down early anyway. And I haven't talked to String about yesterday yet. He—he didn't want to talk about anything when we were on the way back to the cabin last night. I'll try to talk to him tonight, okay?"

"Okay, Dom," I said, sighing with relief. "And—thanks."

"Anytime. You take care of yourself, sweetheart," Dom said just before he hung up.

After drinking way more cups of coffee in a couple of hours than I normally do in a day, I spent the day doing mundane chores around the house that I'd been putting off—laundry, cleaning, etc., and when I ran out of those things to do, I took a long walk, tryin' to get my head straight about what I was gonna do the next morning when—or make that if—I went back to the hangar. I figured if I went back to work, the best tactic to use with Hawke would be avoidance—if I didn't talk to him, or kept things work-related as much as possible, I wouldn't have to deal with the consequences of what I said yesterday. But no matter how busy I kept myself, something—make that someone—was missing. I suddenly felt myself missing Hawke in a way I hadn't ever felt before...but it was a good way, if that makes any sense. As I walked home, I actually thought about callin' Mom, and askin' her what she thought I should do—but I quickly dismissed that idea. I don't want to hear what Mom might think about what happened yesterday, I thought, not to mention the fact that I don't want to try to explain Inge, or Michael, to her. I'll just have to figure this one out myself. Besides, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what Mom would have said if I had called her—something along the lines of "Why don't you forget that danged fool Hawke, and come on home?" like she's asked me a thousand times before. And as badly as I want to leave, I don't think I want to give Mom the satisfaction of being right about Hawke, because if I do, she'll never let me hear the end of it. I will agree with Mom about one thing, though—Hawke is a danged fool for not seein' that I'm perfectly capable of takin' care of myself, and that it'd be okay if he loved me, the same way that I love him. Okay, it sounds incredibly conceited—but, it's also true.

I felt a lot better around dinnertime when I finally got home and ate, then watched TV until it was late enough to go to bed. And even though I thought I'd made up my mind that I was gonna leave, I was seriously reconsidering my decision. The fact that Dom hadn't talked to String yet also weighed on my mind—I changed my mind, and decided that I wasn't gonna do anything until I heard what String thought, one way or the other. It wouldn't be fair, I thought that night when I went to bed, to run away like I was thinkin' of doin,' without knowing one way or the other how String feels. That'd make me look like a coward, or worse. So I'll stay—for a little while. But if—if String doesn't start returning my feelings pretty soon, or if he tells me that he doesn't feel the same way about me that I do about him, then, I'm leavin.' Having made up my mind—for good this time—I was finally able to fall asleep. And, just like it had been the last couple of nights, String's face was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

I actually slept better that night than I had the night before, and felt like I could face Hawke and anything that might be said, so I fixed myself a small breakfast and then went to the hangar. A big part of me was relieved when I arrived and found, as usual, that Dom and Hawke hadn't arrived yet, and I quickly set about doing my morning routine, getting the hangar open for business. I wondered if Dom had gotten to talk to Hawke about everything, and what his reaction would be. I mentally prepared myself for the very real possibility that Hawke would be completely walled off from me, like he was when we first met, about a year ago. And I gotta admit something—I was also wondering if String had missed me yesterday, as much as I missed him. Just then, I heard a helicopter approaching the hangar, and I gotta admit—a part of me was hopin' it wasn't Dom and Hawke.

No such luck, I thought when I recognized the patriotic Santini Air paint job. Easy, stomach, I thought as my anxiety from earlier came back full force. Don't turn over now. Easy does it. Forget that old saying about "butterflies" in my stomach—my stomach felt like there were bats in there...and they were doin' aerobatics that would have made the Thunderbirds proud. Then I had a thought—maybe Hawke won't be here today. Maybe Dom's alone. But that hope was quickly dashed when I saw both Dom and Hawke in the chopper. Swell, I thought, knowing I'd have to put the best face on that I could.

When Hawke and Dom finally got out of the helicopter, I hesitantly glanced over at Hawke, and was surprised when he said, "Good morning, Cait." Just like that, without any prompting from Dom, like has happened more times than I care to think about. I didn't know how to respond at first, but finally stammered, "H—Hello, Hawke." I figured keeping things as business like as possible was the best strategy. Then I noticed something—he was smiling. Something he rarely does. But, somethin' in the way I responded to him must've tipped him off, 'cause he got serious real quick.

"Cait? You okay?" I heard Hawke's voice again, and when I looked up, I found myself staring straight into those icy, steel-blue eyes of his—without those confounded aviator shades that he always wears. And, I could have sworn that there was a serious look of concern in them—like he was worried about me. Careful, Caity girl, I thought, knowing that I could easily get lost in those eyes, like I have a number of times before. "Somethin' wrong?" Hawke asked, and I decided I better answer him.

"It's—it's nothing, Hawke," I thought, feeling even lower than I had the day before yesterday. Geez. Not only did I make a complete ass out of myself in front of Hawke and everybody else the other day. Now, I just lied to him, I thought. But at least he's still talkin' to me, thank goodness. And I have to admit—I was surprised as heck that Hawke seemed to be concerned about how I was feeling. That's never happened before—at least not without Dom sayin' something, I thought, and I had to admit to myself that I liked the attention I was getting—I just didn't know how long it would last. 'Cause I know Stringfellow Hawke. He can flip out and go back to the silent treatment at the drop of a hat—but, I'll take this for as long as I can get it, I thought.

"You sure, Caitlin? It doesn't look like nothing to me," Hawke said, and I saw his eyes fill with concern. "This have anything to do with what happened the other day?" Crap, I thought. Now what am I gonna do?

"I said it's nothing, Hawke," I reiterated, "and, I meant it. Okay?" I figured I might as well stick to the lie, even though I hated to do it, but I hoped String could understand that I didn't want to talk about what happened the other day. Not yet, anyway. And, somethin' wasn't ringing right with me—Who the heck is this guy? I thought. He looks like String, and he talks like String, but he sure as heck ain't actin' like String! At least, not the String I know and love, I thought. All the same, I was hoping this new String would stick around—because I liked the fact that he was actually paying attention to me, without any extra prodding from Dom. If I've got anything to say about it, I'm gonna keep this new String around, I thought, 'cause I think I love this new String even more than the original.

"Okay," Hawke said, but the tone of his voice told me he was anything but convinced. We walked back into the hangar, and Dom began outlining what he wanted to get done today, since we didn't have any jobs scheduled.

Around noon, I was thinkin' about asking Dom if I could bug out early again, 'cause I was getting a little tired of Hawke constantly badgering me about what was bothering me. Plus, our "to-do" list was getting short, and I was worryin' that String would start badgering me even harder about what happened the other day once we ran out of stuff to do. Finally, String asked again what was bothering me, and I snapped at him, "Hawke, you want to know what's bothering me? You're bothering me." Then I turned my back to Hawke and walked away from him, even as I thought, Way to go, Caity girl. Snapping at String like that ain't gonna help things between you two. Dumb move, kid. Dumb, dumb, DUMB!

"Cait, can I talk to you for a minute?" Dom asked hesitantly, forcing me back into the moment. I immediately knew why he was so hesitant—he probably heard me snap at String, and was worried that I'd bite his head off, figuratively speaking, next—but I tried to show Dom that it wasn't him I was upset at.

"Sure, Dom," I said, brightening almost immediately. "What's on your mind?"

"Well, let's go in the office," he said. I nodded and followed him inside the hangar and into the small office, as Dom locked the door behind us so Hawke wouldn't follow us in. At least String can't hear what's going on in here—I hope, I thought.

"Okay, Dom, what's on your mind?" I asked as I sat down.

"Well, String and I had a long talk—more like a discussion/argument—last night on the way back to the cabin," Dom said. "I—I tried to get him to understand why you did what you did the other day—and I think he gets it, just..."

"I know, Dom," I said. "Don't read too much into anything. Not like I haven't gone through that song and dance before," I said, sighing. Like, a thousand times before, I thought, thinking about all the times I've felt like I was makin' progress with String, and then he flipped out and went right back into full-fledged silent treatment mode.

"I know, Cait," Dom answered me. "But I'll keep after String. I've gotta be able to get through his thick skull sometime."

"Well, good luck, Dom," I said, smiling at him. "'Cause I think you're gonna need it." No, actually, I know you're gonna need it, Dominic Santini, I thought as we walked out of the office and got back to work. I mean, if you push him too hard, String might just start givin' you the silent treatment, Dom. And wouldn't you know it, first thing String said to me when he saw me later was, "What were you and Dom talkin' about, Cait?"

"It's personal, String," I said, which was the truth, mostly. He nodded and said, "Okay, Cait," but somethin' in his voice told me he wasn't convinced, and that worried me. I decided I needed to apologize for snapping at him. "Um, String," I said hesitantly, "I'm—I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier. I'm just"—String interrupted me before I could finish.

"I know, Cait—you're just upset about what happened before," String said, smiling at me. "And I told you before, don't worry about it, but, thanks for the apology," he added, smiling again. I felt a lot better since I'd apologized to String, and was relieved that he'd accepted my apology. Then String said, "I'm sorry, too." I have to admit, that surprised me. Why is he apologizing to me? I asked myself, suddenly worried again.

"Sorry for what, Hawke?" I asked, concerned.

"Sorry I've been badgering you so much," Hawke said, and I relaxed considerably. "And, I know you wouldn't have snapped at me like that if I wasn't bugging you about what happened before. So, we're even, okay?"

"Okay, Hawke," I said, relieved, "and, thanks. Apology accepted," I said, flashing one of my "million-dollar smiles," as he calls them, at Hawke, who smiled in return. Besides, I thought, he's right. I wouldn't have snapped at Hawke the way I did, if he wasn't constantly badgerin' me about what happened, I thought. So it is kinda his fault that I snapped at him like that. But, I've gotta admit, it makes me feel real good that he cared enough about my feelings to apologize. And again, I found myself wonderin' what the heck was goin' on with Hawke—and hopin' like heck that whatever it was, it didn't stop—'cause with his attitude recently, I realized that not only did I love String, but I was falling even further head over heels in love with String.

By the end of the day, I was feelin' a little better about the situation—Hawke had actually been talkin' to me a lot more than I thought he would, even though it was mainly about work stuff, and he actually seemed to care that I was upset about what happened the other day. And I was relieved that he seemed to be backing off bugging me about my confession, which made me happy. I know I don't wanna read too much into this, I thought towards the end of the day, but, things are lookin' better. And I remembered how I thought String was going to hate me, after what I'd said. Guess I was wrong about that, I thought, relieved. At least; at least we can still be friends, I thought, even though I wish to heck we could be more than friends.Just before Dom and Hawke climbed into the chopper to take Hawke back to the cabin, he said to me, "Cait? You sure you're okay?" And, he seemed genuinely concerned again.

"I—I told you before, Hawke, it's not a big deal," I said to him, but something in his expression just then told me he wasn't convinced. "Just—just forget I said anything, okay?"

"No," Hawke said, surprising both Dom and me. "No, Caitlin, I can't forget what you said. And, I won't forget it." I looked up at him just then, and noticed that he'd taken his shades off again and I saw—something—I couldn't be sure what it was that I saw, but something looked different to me. Or at least, I thought it did.

"Well, anyway. 'Night, Hawke," I said.

"G'night, Cait," Hawke replied just before he and Dom climbed into the helicopter to take Hawke back to the cabin. I watched them lift off and turn towards the cabin, and when they'd passed out of sight, I got into my car and drove home.

What is goin' on in that head of yours, Hawke? I asked myself as I made dinner again. One minute I think you're bein'—charming—and then the next, you're your normal stand-offish self. But so much for Hawke never talkin' to me again, thank goodness. I decided I better not try reading too much into Hawke's attitude—that kinda thing can make a person airsick, as many times as his attitude had been changing just today—but somethin' felt—different to me, even though I couldn't put my finger on it. But, one way or the other, I knew I had to try to figure String out. I mean, if I'm wrong, my heart's gonna wind up shattered into a million pieces—at least—but I—I've gotta know one way or the other what's goin' on in String's head. I had to admit, what had happened that day was encouraging, but like I said before, I know Hawke—this could stop at any moment—so I reminded myself again not to get too excited. Still, I couldn't keep visions of Hawke and me together—romantically—out of my head when I went to sleep that night—and, those visions actually helped me sleep better than I had the night before. And when I woke up the next morning, I decided, I think I love this new String even more—and I'm gonna do everything I can to keep him around.

The next morning, I was prepared for anything—even though I had no idea what sort of attitude Hawke would have when he and Dom got to the hangar, I decided before I came that whatever happened, however Hawke's mood was, I was gonna be nice to him—even nicer than I always have been. Can't hurt, I thought. Maybe—maybe it'll even help him understand that I meant what I said the other day. That I love him.

When I saw Hawke get out of the chopper, the first thing I noticed was that he was smiling again. The kind of smile that Bobby Phelps once said he looked good with. You're danged right he does, Bobby! I thought, and made a mental note to myself to tell Bobby just that the next time I saw him. And seein' him smilin' like that took my breath away, like usually happens when I see String smilin'. Then it dawned on me—He's smiling—smiling at me. Once again, I found myself struggling to hold back my feelings—because if I'm wrong, I thought, I don't think I could take that, and if that happens, I'm outta here, I thought.But seein' String smilin' like that—and, knowin' that I was the one he was smilin' at—absolutely made my heart jump—and I hoped like heck that String hadn't noticed.

Then, Hawke's voice jolted me out of my reverie. "Morning, Cait," I heard him say. When I didn't respond for a few minutes, he added, "Hey, Cait. You with us this morning?" Again with that smile, which, in my not so humble opinion, makes him even more danged attractive than he already is, I thought, even as I forced myself to smile back, and tried to catch my breath, since seein' String smilin' at me had taken my breath away again. Dang it. He noticed, I thought when I heard String's question—I know String. He wouldn't have asked me that if he didn't notice how much him smilin' at me affected me.

"Yeah, I'm with you, Hawke," I said, still not sure how to take his sudden change in attitude. He can flip out and go back to full-fledged silent mode any second, I thought again, but like I said before, I'll take this for as long as I can get it.

That day, I knew somethin' was going on—Hawke was bein' nicer to me than he had in a long time, and his mood seemed to be sticking—which made me happier than I'd felt since a few days ago, when I blurted out my sudden confession. All the same, over the course of the next few days, I made a conscious effort to rein in my excitement. If I'm wrong, it's gonna absolutely destroy me, I thought, But on the other hand, if I'm right, then this could be the start of a lot more than just a beautiful friendship. Maybe—maybe he finally understands how I feel about him. And maybe—just maybe—he realizes it'd be okay if he felt the same way about me. I knew the last part of that thought would sound incredibly conceited, which is why I kept it to myself—but deep down, for some reason, I felt like it was the truth.

Things continued going well with Hawke—as well as I could expect, anyway. He was smiling almost constantly now, especially at me—and if I didn't love him so danged much, it woulda made me nervous as all get out—but it was making me happy to see him smile like that—especially since so many of his smiles seemed to be directed towards me. All the same, I couldn't help but wonder what Dom had said to him after I made my feelings known to him.

One week to the day after I'd blurted out my feelings for Hawke, the day began like any other—until String and Dom arrived. String was smiling, as usual, but this morning, he came up and hugged me, for no reason whatsoever. "What on Earth was that for, String?" I asked him when he released me. I sure hope he doesn't think I minded that, I thought worriedly.

"Just somethin' I felt like doing," he replied, smiling at me. "You don't mind, do you?" I was afraid of that, I thought, knowing how I had to respond to him.

"Of course I don't mind, silly," I said, smiling back at him. In fact, I wish you'd do that—and more—a lot more often, I thought. And, almost as if he'd read my mind, Hawke started doing it a lot more often, which made me even happier. Heck, Mom would even be happy, I thought. And I noticed something while String was holding me against him—our bodies fit together perfectly, like we were made for each other. Careful, Caity, I thought as I felt a wave of something rush through my body, don't get too comfortable in Hawke's arms like that. All the same, I did enjoy it. And I made up my mind—as much as I loved String before, I love him even more now. I'm gonna do whatever I have to do to keep this new String around, I thought.

Later that day, Dom and I were having lunch while String was running an errand, and I was shocked when a delivery man came into the hangar, carrying the biggest bouquet of roses that I had ever seen in my life. "Delivery for Miss Caitlin O'Shannessy?" I heard from behind the mountain of roses.

"That's me," I said, as the delivery man handed me the huge bouquet of roses. "Oh, my," I said. "They're beautiful." I glanced over at Dom, and he simply shrugged. Suddenly, somethin' dawned on me—String's been gone for quite a while now—could he have? Nah, I thought, squashing the thought that had just run through my head—that String had been the one who sent me those beautiful flowers—I know that's who I wish they were from. But that's just dreamin', I thought sadly.

"Sign here, please?" The delivery man said. I handed my flowers to Dom for a moment, then signed where the delivery man had shown me, and gave him a very nice tip.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, and just like that, he was gone.

"You must have a secret admirer," Dom said, smiling, as I looked for something to put my flowers in water. Dom found a vase, surprising me, and we quickly took care of my flowers. Just then, Dom said, "Hey, Cait, is there a card? Might be nice to know who they're from, y'know."

I searched, and finally found a small white envelope. "Yep. Found it," I said, barely able to contain my curiosity—or my excitement—as I opened it. The small card said nothing more than, "Dinner tonight?" And I have to admit, the fact that there was no name depressed me a little. But why should it, Caity? You know there's nothin' between you and String, right? a voice in my head asked me. I had to admit, as much as I want there to be somethin' between me and String, there isn't.

"Well? Who sent you the flowers?" Dom demanded. I showed him the card, and said, "Your guess is as good as mine." But, I know who I wish they were from, I thought again as I saw Hawke walk back into the hangar. And I have the strangest feelin' that Dom wishes they were from String, too. I gotta admit somethin', though—the fact that I had no idea who had sent me those flowers had the cop in me real suspicious. It's like that old saying goes—You can take the cop off of the force, but you can't take the force out of the cop. Okay, maybe I just made that up, but it works—for me, anyway.

"Hey, Dom. Hey, Cait," Hawke said, then noticed the expression on my face. "You look awful happy about somethin', Cait. What's going on?"

"Oh, nothin', String," I said as I walked over to him. "Just got a beautiful bouquet of roses from a secret admirer. And whoever he is, he wants to take me out to dinner tonight after work." I glanced up at him to see if my "secret admirer" comment had provoked a response, but got nothing.

"Secret admirer, huh?" Hawke teased, then turned deadly serious. "Don't be so sure about that, Cait. Maybe—maybe he's not so secret, after all."

WHAT? I thought, shocked. "String? Is—is there somethin' you're not tellin' me?" I said, barely able to contain my curiosity. I glanced over at Dom again, and found him staring at String with equal confusion. All the same, now somethin' was really buggin' me—the fact that I evidently had a secret admirer who wanted to take me out for dinner tonight—and, as usual when it comes to guys who want to date me, String didn't seem to care. Which really surprises the heck outta me, considering String's attitude these last few days, I thought sadly. I sure hate to have to disappoint the guy, whoever he is, I thought, stifling a depressed sigh. I mean, sure, I could've gone out with whoever the guy was who sent me those flowers, but it wouldn't have been fair to him—especially since my mind would've been on String the whole time, and I would've been wishin' like heck that it was him that I was with, and that String had been the one to send me those beautiful roses. Just like when that guy asked me out during the hijacking—I told him I'd go out with him, but when the time came to actually go out on the date, I backed out—'cause my mind woulda been on String all night, I remembered sayin' to myself, tryin' to justify my reasons for backing out on the date that time in my mind, and that wouldn't have been fair. And I knew that I'd have to back out on whoever had sent me these roses for the same reason—I'd be wishin' it was String who sent me the flowers, and who I was with, I thought sadly. Of course, if by some miracle String did send me those roses—and if he was tryin' to say he wanted to take me out—I sure as heck wouldn't say no, I thought, knowing that I was probably setting myself up for another huge disappointment. But, a gal can always dream, I thought.

But, String refused to answer my question, which, I have to admit, deflated my hopes a little. But it shouldn't surprise me, I thought just before I got ready to leave that evening after we closed down the hangar. But now, as I got ready to leave and go home, the thoughts that had been buggin' me most of the day came back—mainly, String's reaction, or lack thereof, to the fact that somebody had sent me a huge bouquet of roses. Doesn't it bother him in the least that I've got a secret admirer? I thought angrily. Just as quickly, though, I squashed that thought. Why would it bother him, Caity? It's not like there's anything between you and String—you know that, right? Reluctantly, I had to admit to myself that yeah, I did know there was nothin' between String and me, even though I wanted there to be something between us, more than I've ever wanted anything in my life. Then, somethin' else started buggin' me—Where was the guy? I figured whoever had sent me those flowers would be at the hangar to pick me up when we closed up, and I'd have to back out on him, whoever he was, in front of Dom and String, which really would have been awkward. But just before I got in my car, I heard Hawke's voice behind me. "Cait? Dinner tonight?" I froze, and felt my anxiety level skyrocket, and my heart jump right into my throat. Wait just a minute! I thought excitedly. Did he say what I think—no—what I hope he just said? I glanced over at Dom and saw him with a very curious look on his face. Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin', Dominic Santini? I asked myself, remembering the two words on the card that came with my flowers. God—please tell me String's tryin' to ask me out! I thought anxiously.

Slowly, I turned around to see Hawke standing in front of me, smiling. "String? Are—are you asking me out on a date?"

"Yeah, Cait. I am," String said, and I felt my heart leap right back into my throat. "So, would you like to go out to dinner tonight—with me?" I couldn't help thinkin' that if I took too long to try and find my voice, String would just forget the whole thing—and there was no way in hell I was gonna let that happen. Not now, I thought. I swallowed hard to try to force the lump out of my throat so I could answer him.

Finally, I felt like I'd found my voice. "String, I'd love to," I said, and I noticed Dom's reaction behind String. When String walked over to me and slipped his arm around my waist, I felt like I was in heaven, and I couldn't help myself. I slipped my arm around his waist as we walked outside. God, if I'm dreamin', could you do me a favor? Don't let me wake up, I thought. It'd be just my luck if I woke up, and found that everything that had happened the past few days had all been one gigantic dream—and I knew I couldn't handle that. Then I suddenly remembered the roses in the hangar—if I'm goin' out with String, then who the heck sent those flowers? I thought, suddenly worried that I'd have to break String's heart and tell him I changed my mind about going out with him.

"By the way, Cait," String asked as we walked over to one of Dom's jeeps, "I was wondering...did you like the flowers?" I stopped dead in my tracks, even as I felt my heart flip. Okay. Why in the heck would String ask me a question like that? Unless—I tried not to get my hopes up too high—and I knew I'd failed miserably. God in Heaven! I thought. Could String have—I mean—did he send me those roses? If he did, God, I swear—I'll never ask you for anything else again, as long as I live, I thought excitedly, trying to rein my emotions in, in case I was wrong—and knowing that once again, I was failing—miserably—because suddenly, at least in my mind, everything made sense. Of course String didn't react when I told him I'd gotten a bouquet of roses from a secret admirer, 'cause unless I'm completely off-base, String is my secret admirer! That must've been what he meant when he said, 'maybe he's not so—secret—after all.'

"String? Are you tryin' to tell me that you—that you sent me those flowers?" I asked nervously as I turned toward him.

"Yeah, Cait," he answered, and I felt my eyes fill with tears, even as my heart took flight. "I did. There's a lot I want to talk to you about tonight, Cait." Then he turned to Dom, who I noticed had followed us out of the hangar. "Dom? You okay for a couple of hours?"

"Yeah, yeah," Dom said, then added, "Heck, if I get bored, I can always go home and you can take a chopper up to the cabin by yourself, y'know. Either way, you kids have a good time, y'hear me?" Just from the look on Dom's face, I could tell he was almost as excited about everything that had happened as I was.

"Yeah, Dom," String said as he opened the passenger-side door of the jeep for me, "we hear you." He smiled at Dom as I climbed in the jeep, then he shut the door and walked over to the driver's side, climbed in and started the engine. I can't believe it, I thought excitedly. String did send me those flowers, and now he's takin' me out to dinner tonight! Maybe—maybe tonight is the start of somethin'—somethin'—wonderful. I tried to rein my excitement in, knowing that if I was wrong, my heart would be absolutely shattered, but things were beginning to add up, and I have to admit that I was liking—no, more like loving—what they appeared to be adding up to. If this is a dream, I thought, it's just getting better all the time. Finally, I had to say somethin' to String.

"Well, String," I said, barely able to contain my curiosity, or my excitement, I thought, "I've got a few things I want to tell you, too." And even though I didn't go into any details, I got the feelin' that String knew exactly what I was talking about—that I had been seriously considering goin' home to Texas, especially after what happened the day Inge went into asylum. But if he's going to tell me what I think—no, wait. If String's gonna tell me what I hope he's gonna tell me—then a lot of what I have to tell him ain't gonna matter one way or the other.

By the time we got seated at the restaurant, a small place near the hangar that Ev had told me about, my curiosity—along with my nerves—was beginning to get the best of me. "Okay, String," I said after we'd ordered our dinners, trying not to betray how excited—and nervous—I was, "so what did you want to tell me?"

"Well, first of all, I have to ask you a question," String said, and I got a sinking feeling I knew what that question would be. "What did you mean by that outburst last week?" I was afraid of that, I thought, even as I felt my heart drop straight into the soles of my shoes, even though I knew what my answer was going to be. The only answer I can give String—the truth, I thought.

"String," I said, knowing my voice was shaking, "I meant exactly what I said." I took a few deep breaths to try to calm my racing nerves, then looked up into those icy blue eyes, and said, "String...I love you. And not just the way that two good friends love each other, either. I have been in love with you practically since the day I saw you in Bogan's jail cell, back in Pope County." I stopped at that point and grabbed a quick drink of water, to try to calm the nerves that were building again. When String didn't respond for a good thirty seconds, I began feelin' like I'd just made a huge fool out of myself again. Well, my heart's already down around my feet, so at least it can't fall any further, I thought, even as I girded myself for disappointment.

Finally, I felt String take one of my hands in his, and when I looked across the table at him, I saw that smile—the same one Bobby Phelps said makes String look good, and the one that I had fallen in love with all those months ago. Um, okay. I like the fact that he's holdin' my hand, but why is he doin' that? I asked myself, even as I felt my heart leap back into my throat, just like it had earlier, when String asked me out. I could tell Hawke was nervous, and I smiled back at him, one of my friendliest smiles, to let him know that I was there for him, even though I was at least as nervous as he was, maybe more so. And just like happened a few days ago, Ken's words—The more you're willing to risk, the greater the reward—rang in my head again. Well, this has been the biggest risk I've ever taken, I thought, anxious to find out whether I was gonna get the reward I was hopin' for—findin' out that String loves me the same way I love him—or will this turn out to be the biggest embarrassment I've ever suffered—even bigger than when I blurted out my feelings last week? I thought as I waited for String to say something to me.

"Well, Cait," Hawke finally said, "I—I love you, too." Just like that, I felt my eyes flood with tears again. Did he just say—did he just tell me that he LOVES me? I asked myself. Almost as if he'd read my mind, String squeezed my hand gently and said, "Yeah, Cait. I said it. I love you, too. And, I'm in love with you. And, I'm sorry that I've been denying it for so long." By this time, I was wishin' to heck we were somewhere else, 'cause I felt an overwhelming urge to scream. Scream with happiness, you understand. Not to mention, I wanted to kiss the absolute daylights out of String, but I realized there'd be time for that later. I—I can't believe it, I thought. String just told me he loves me! And that he's in love with me! Guess Ken knew what he was talkin' about after all, I thought excitedly. And, I knew that everything I'd thought earlier was right—that String's lack of reaction was because he was my secret admirer—which made me feel like the happiest gal in the whole wide world. Just then, I heard String's voice, and he sounded real concerned about something.

"Cait?" String asked me. "You okay?"

"I'm—I'm fine, String," I said, smiling at him, even as I made a decision. From now on, I'm only gonna call him 'Hawke' if I'm severely ticked off at him, I thought excitedly. "I just—I can't believe we're finally on the same page."

"Well, we are, Cait," String said to me, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief—coupled with the most exhilarating feeling of happiness I think I've ever felt in my life. "By the way," String said, "you said you had some things to tell me, too. Well, go ahead, Cait. I'm listening."

"Oh, String. A lot of what I was gonna say just doesn't matter anymore," I said, still wiping tears—happy tears—out of my eyes with my free hand. "But if you absolutely have to know, I was gonna tell you that—I was seriously thinkin' about leaving and goin' home to Texas, like Mom's always tellin' me to do, after my little outburst last week. I was just so embarrassed that I did that. And once again, I'm sorry, String."

"Don't be, Cait," String said. "It was a shock to hear it, to say the least...but, I'm glad you said it."

"Me, too, String," I said happily. "Me, too." It took every ounce of self-control I had not to lean across the table and kiss him, but I didn't want to embarrass him too much. Just then, the waiter came with our dinners, and I reluctantly let go of String's hand so we could eat. And by the look on his face, I could tell String didn't want to let go of my hand, any more than I wanted to let go of his. Later, Caity girl, I thought.

"So, what made you decide not to leave, Cait?" String asked me a few minutes later.

"Well," I said, "First of all, I decided I wasn't gonna go anywhere without knowing what happened with you and Dom. I was hopin' Dom would be able to talk to you about everything, and secondly, I was hoping—and praying—that you'd come to your senses about me. By the way, how did you come to your senses about me?"

"It was because of a long discussion/argument that Dom and I had the day you didn't come to the hangar," String said.I was wonderin' what you guys talked about that day, I thought excitedly. Then String continued, "Dom was flying me back to the cabin, and the whole time, he kept talking about what you'd said the day before, and he told me about what happened in Michael's limo when you were planning to rescue me from Horn. And, we talked about the curse," String said, then smiled again. "And, something else happened that day you were gone—Saint John came back—and he's alive."

"WHAT?" I said. "You're kidding, String! He's alive? And, he's home? Where has he been all these years?"

String proceeded to tell me about how Saint John and a bunch of his friends from 1st Air Cav had been rescued from the POW camp where they were being held, and then how they were approached during their debriefings about forming a covert strike unit—capable of strike missions, recon, a lot of the same things String, Dom, and I do with Airwolf. They'd been doing deep undercover work for the past fifteen years, but about two weeks ago, agents of the FIRM tracked them down and informed them that their services were no longer required, so Saint John came home.

"And, we had quite the argument when we got back to the hangar," String finished.

"I just bet you did," I said, knowing the kind of temper String has—I've been on the wrong side of it a couple of times, and that is not a place I like being, so I could imagine how Saint John felt. "Well, I must say that I'm certainly looking forward to meeting this brother of yours. Is he gonna be around the hangar much?"

"Yeah," String said, "in fact, I think he's coming later on this week, so you'll get a chance to meet him then. And, you'll have something good to tell your mom about me, for a change, the next time you talk." I smiled, imagining what my mother's reaction would be to hearing that String had finally come around to my way of thinking. No matter what time it is when I get home, I'm callin' Mom, I thought, knowing I had to tell her about this change in my life. She's never gonna believe this, I thought as I tried to imagine Mom's reaction to my news.

"By the way, String," I said, "Michael told me what Inge said to you. I guess you decided to listen to her, huh?" I couldn't help thinking that the woman whose eyes I wanted to claw out that day had done me a huge favor—and I suddenly felt extremely guilty about what I had said—especially the name I called her.

"Yeah," String said, smiling at me. "She said she saw the way you were standing against the hangar door, and that she thought you looked jealous, or something like that. I guess we both owe her a big thank you, huh?"

"Yeah, String," I said, squeezing his hand. "I guess we do." If I ever see her again, I definitely owe Inge a big thank you, not to mention an engraved apology, I thought. I mean, I'd said 'I'm sorry' to everyone the day I blew up, but I felt like I owed Inge a personal, engravedapology. I hope I get the chance—someday, I thought.

Then String proceeded to tell me he was sorry about all those other women, like Rosalind, Angelica, and even Inge, which shocked me again. I thought about tellin' him exactly how I felt about him flaunting those other women in front of me like that, but I just couldn't. I mean, I know I would've had every right to, but after String told me he loved me, nothin' else seemed to matter. And besides, I thought, those two dozen roses back at the hangar did a pretty good job of makin' up—for starters, I thought. And somethin' else crossed my mind—if I hadn't seen String with those other women, especially Inge, I might not have made that confession the other day—and then, String and I wouldn't be here, now, knowing that we love each other. But I knew I had to tell String something, and I remembered how Mom and Daddy always told me never to dwell on the past—so I sure as heck wasn't gonna start now—not when the present, and the future, looked so exciting, with String and me together, the way I'd dreamed we'd be practically since the day I came back here lookin' for him. "String," I said, "it's okay. What happened before, it doesn't matter now. All that matters is that you've figured out how you feel about me, and that we love each other, okay?" He smiled at me, and I got the feeling that he was relieved that I'd accepted his apology.

"Besides," I said, suddenly nervous again, "I—I have to tell you this, String. I was so worried that day—the day I blurted out my confession. I was worried that you'd hate me for what I said. That's—that's the main reason I didn't come to work the other day. I was just—so afraid that I'd destroyed our friendship, and I knew I couldn't handle that," I said anxiously.

"Cait," String said, "I understand why you felt that way—but just for the record, I could never—ever hate you. Okay?" I finally, hesitantly, looked into String's eyes—and was relieved to see an expression of pure love in them.

Smiling as we stood up, I said, "Okay, String," and slid my arm around his waist, as I felt his around mine. Just the way it should be, I thought, sighing with relief and happiness. Now I know what they meant by that phrase, 'on top of the world,' I thought excitedly, 'cause that's how I feel right now. I feel like I'm on top of the world!

As we walked back to the Jeep after we finished dinner, String said something else that surprised the heck outta me—he said that he'd missed me, the day when I hadn't felt like coming into work. I had to tell him how I felt. When we stopped walking, I turned to him, looked up into those gorgeous icy blue eyes of his, and said, "String, I—I missed you, too." Then, not knowing what else to do, I reached out and wrapped him in my arms, and kissed him with everything I had; all the love I felt for him. And, I felt him returning my feelings with his own. Finally, I reluctantly separated us and we got back into the Jeep to head back to the hangar. I'd never tell String this, but the only reason I pulled away from him just now was because I knew I had to breathe. Otherwise, I coulda stayed just like that, forever, I thought.

I've gotta admit, I was wishin' like crazy that the night would never end, but at the same time, I knew it had to. String drove us back to the hangar, and, just like I figured, Dom was still there, workin' on one of the helicopters as we pulled in. And as we drove back, String asked me why I was callin' him 'String' all of a sudden, and I got worried for a second. I told him, "I just figure 'Hawke' sounds—sounds like I'm ticked off at you or somethin'. I—I hope you don't mind." I gotta admit, I was relieved when he said, "No, Cait. I don't mind." I guess I shoulda said somethin' to String before, but in my defense, my mind wasn't exactly hitting on all cylinders.

After we got out of the Jeep, we walked over to my car, and just before String opened my door...he kissed me. And not a friendly peck on the cheek, either—this one felt like that kiss on the movie set last year, or the one I gave him after getting off the ship Sawyer held me hostage on, or the one I gave String just a few minutes ago—and I knew that certain—desires were making themselves known to me. I'm not even gonna worry about getting too comfortable in String's arms, I thought, 'cause now I know that's where I belong. In his arms, just like this. I couldn't believe that String was finally kissing me, the way I always wanted him to kiss me—and nobody had to twist his arm off to do it—and most important, that he felt the same way about me that I do about him. Then I remembered how I'd thought String would never kiss me like that, after what I did. Well, it ain't the first time I've been wrong, I thought, and I bet it won't be the last, either. And I know it sounds corny, and overly romantic, but it's the truth—after that kiss, I knew I belonged in String's arms—just like he belonged in mine. And I've gotta confess somethin' here. I was—I was ready, at that moment, to give myself to String. I know it goes against everything Mom and Daddy taught me, and the Catholic faith that I was raised with, and what not, but I had already decided that no matter what, I was gonna be spendin' the rest of my life with String—so why would I want to wait until we were married to be with him, in every sense?

"'Night, Cait," String finally said after he separated us and we'd both caught our breath.

"G'night, String," I said. "See you tomorrow." He closed the door after I got in my car, then turned and walked back to the hangar as I started my car and headed for home.

I was so wired when I got home, there was one thing I wanted to do, even though it was so late. I quickly picked up the phone, and a few seconds later, I heard my mother's voice. "Hello?"

"Mom, hi. It's Caitlin. Listen, I'm sorry I'm callin' so late, but something's happened. Something wonderful. And, I just couldn't wait to tell you about it."

"Well for Pete's sake, don't just stand there flapping your gums, Caity girl," Mom said, "just tell me already!"

"Sorry, Mom," I said. Well, here goes, I thought, taking a deep breath. "Mom—I hope you're sittin' down, 'cause you're not gonna believe this—but String finally came around to our way of thinking. Tonight he—he told me he loves me, Mom." Suddenly, an ear-piercing scream came over the phone, and I jerked the receiver away from my ear until Mom had calmed down. "Mom? You okay?" I asked, concerned. I'm surprised she didn't faint, I thought.

"Yeah, Caity, I'm fine. I just can't believe what you're tellin' me! Do you mean to say that this Hawke fella you've been so bent outta shape over finally pulled his head out of his hind end about you?"

"Yeah, Mom, he did. And that's why I'm callin' so late. He took me out on a date—a real date—tonight," I said, still surprised myself.

"Glory be, and the saints be praised!" Mom shouted, then added, more calmly, "I'll be danged. Maybe he's not as big of a fool as I thought he was," Mom said, causing me to smile. Then she added, "Oh, Cait! I'm so happy for you!" I dunno why, but there was something in the way Mom was talking, and the tone of her voice, that made me nervous all of a sudden. I thought, Whoa. I better slow this train down. Mom sounds like she's already thinkin' about a wedding. But then again, so am I, I thought. Still, I didn't want to get too far ahead of things, so I knew I had to slow Mom down.

"Look, Mom. Don't get too excited, okay? We're only getting started with our relationship. But I think things are gonna be different from now on. At least, I won't be complaining so much about String."

"That's good to hear, Caity," Mom said, "And don't worry about me—I just got excited there for a second—'cause I'm just so happy to hear that your Hawke fella—hope you don't mind me sayin' that—finally came to his senses, y'know? And, you be sure and tell him I said that, you hear me, Caity girl? Love you, Caity! G'night!"

"Yeah, Mom," I said, feeling happy tears in my eyes again, "But not as happy as I am. And I don't mind that you said that, Mom. Not at all. And, I know you're happy, Mom—but like I said, you're no happier than I am!" I said, a smile crossing my face. "Okay, yeah, I'll tell him, Mom. Love you, too. G'night." Well, that went a lot better than I expected. I think, I thought as I hung up. I mean, I hadn't been sure how Mom would react to hearing that String and I were finally together, but she certainly seemed happy, which helped me relax. Finally, the high I was feeling began to wear off, so, exhausted but deliriously happy, I went to bed and quickly fell asleep. And I have to admit, I had a very pleasant dream that night—of "my Hawke fella," as Mom called him—and of the day I finally become Mrs. Stringfellow Hawke. I hope it happens, soon, I thought.

The next morning when I got to the hangar, I was disappointed, but not surprised that String and Dom hadn't shown up yet. One of these days, I'm gonna come in late, just to tick String off, I thought, then immediately retracted the idea. 'Cause if I ticked String off, chances are I'd tick Dom off, too, and that's the last thing I wanna do. Still, it would serve String right if I did show up late one morning, but I'd never actually do it. Especially not now, I thought, knowing that if I did tick String off, it could damage the budding relationship between us—and I sure as heck wasn't going to do anything to screw that up. Now that String and I were together, as hard as I've worked to get to this point, I wasn't gonna let anything, or anyone, tear us apart. Ever.

A few minutes later, with the hangar open and ready for business, I heard the helicopter coming in. And true to form—at least, true to his new form, over the past few weeks—when String climbed out, he was smiling from ear to ear as he walked up to me. "Good morning, Cait," he said, just before he kissed me. I could get so used to bein' greeted like this every morning, I thought.

"M mm. Good morning yourself, String," I said when he separated us. As we walked back into the hangar arm-in-arm, I thought, I've gotta be dreaming. That's the only thing that makes any sense here. I'm dreaming.

"Cait, trust me. You're not dreaming. Everything I told you last night was the truth. Don't you believe me?" How the heck did he know what I was thinkin' just now? I wondered.

"Oh, String, of course I believe you." I smiled at him, hoping he understood that I meant what I said. "What I can't believe is how everything just kinda fell into place, y'know?"

"Yeah," String replied. "I do know."

Then, String introduced me to his older brother, Saint John. "Nice to meet you, Saint John," I said, smiling at him. "I've heard a lot about you from String."

"Nice to meet you, too, Caitlin," Saint John said, and I got the strangest feelin' that he was wonderin' if I was available. Which I'm not. Your brother's seen to that, I thought, knowing that if the subject came up, String would let Saint John know in no uncertain terms that he and I were together. And, he told me later that Saint John asked if I was available, and String told him in no uncertain terms that I was with him. I have to admit, even though Saint John is String's older brother, I was sure happy that String defended our relationship the way he did. I remember String tellin' me that Saint John thought I was good for him—I certainly can't argue with that,I thought. I mean, even though we've only been 'officially' together about a day or so, ever since I blurted out that confession last week, I've definitely noticed String's attitude has improved, and Saint John and Dom have noticed, too.

"By the way," I said later, "I forgot to tell you—I talked to Mom after I went home last night."

"Really?" String asked, and just from the tone of his voice, I could tell he was nervous. And I don't blame him for that, I thought, remembering some of the things Mom had said about him, before last night. "What did your mom have to say?"

"Nothin' much, really," I said, "just that she's real happy that you finally pulled your head out of your rear end about me, and she said that maybe you're not as big of a fool as she thought you were." I gotta admit, I was a little nervous about adding that last part, but, it was the truth—Mom had thought String was a fool for the longest time—before last night, that is.

"Well, Saint John always did say I was the stubborn one," String replied, just before he kissed me again. Guess what Mom said didn't bother him after all, I thought. When I asked him about it later, String just smiled and told me, "No, Cait. It didn't bother me, what your mother said. After all, your mom was absolutely right about one thing—I was bein' a fool about you for a long time...and when I meet your mother the first time, I'll make sure and tell her that myself." I gotta admit, hearin' that just reminded me again why I loved String so danged much, and why I'll always love him. And, I've gotta admit something else—with as many times as I've told String that Mom called him an 'idiot,' or a 'fool,' or something like that, I was surprised that String actually seemed to want to meet Mom, if for no other reason than to tell her what he'd told me, that her comments about him didn't bother him.

Finally, I had to tell String something. "String," I said hesitantly, knowing how shy I sounded, "I—um—I have to tell you something. When you kissed me last night—I'd been waiting for you to do that, without some director bugging you to—for so long, it felt like I'd been waiting my whole life." I looked hesitantly up into those steel-blue eyes of his, not knowing what to expect—and I was surprised to find a look of pure love in them—and I knew he was seeing the same thing in my eyes.

"Well, Cait," String replied, "I hope it was everything you'd hoped for."

"Oh, String," I said, feeling the tears in my eyes again, "it was better than I ever could have imagined." Then I reached up, pulled his head down to mine, and kissed him again, the way I'd always wanted to. And the way I'll kiss him for the rest of my—of our lives, I thought ecstatically.

That night, String surprised me again by taking me up to the cabin with him for dinner. Of course, I'd been up to his cabin before, after missions and stuff like that, but tonight felt different. I guess it was 'cause it was just String and me up there...alone, together—and because we now knew we were in love. I mean, I've been up there alone with String before, but I'd never realized just how romantic that cabin was, until it was just the two of us having dinner there, together—and I knew things between String and me would never be the same again. During dinner, I finally said, "Y'know, String, I have to tell you something. I was surprised the other day when you didn't react when I said I'd gotten a bouquet of roses from a secret admirer, and that got me thinkin'. And then, when you asked me out to dinner that night, I knew why you didn't react, because you were my secret admirer." I smiled at String, and was happy to see him smile back.

"Well, Cait," String said to me, "I guess I'm a little surprised that you didn't figure out what was going on right off the bat, but I'm kinda glad you didn't. And, I was kinda worried that you'd figure it out before I had a chance to ask you out, and that you might say no when I did."

"String," I said, feeling the tears come into my eyes again, "the only way I would've said 'no' would've been if it hadn't been you who sent me those roses, and was askin' me out." I smiled as String stood up and pulled me up with him, and I kissed him again. I can really get used to this, I thought as I relaxed in String's arms, knowing I was exactly where I wanted to be. But somethin' had been buggin' me for a couple of days, and I felt like I had to tell him.

"String?" I said hesitantly, "Do you remember when you asked me what was wrong the first day I came back after what happened? And that I said it was nothin'?" String's reaction told me that he did recall what I said, and I plunged ahead, worried. "Well, I lied. There was somethin' bothering me that day—I was so startled at the way you reacted, that I guess—I guess I just got scared. I'm—I'm sorry, String," I said nervously, hoping like heck he understood why I reacted the way I did, and that we could get past it.

After what I thought was way too long, String simply smiled at me, that wonderful smile of his, and said, "Cait, it's okay. I understand, and I even understand why you felt like you had to lie about it—you just didn't want to talk about what happened yet, right?"

"Right," I said, breathing a sigh of relief. "But, I promise you this, String—that'll be the last time I ever lie to you like that. Okay?"

String hesitated again, and made me nervous, before he finally said, "Okay, Cait. And, I promise you the same—I'll never lie to you about anything—ever." Then he kissed me again, more passionately than before, and I felt those desires I'd been fightin' start to come back again. By the time he released me, there wasn't any doubt in my mind how String felt, and I did my best to eliminate any doubts that might have been in his mind. Then, something funny—at least, it seemed funny to me—crossed my mind, and I had to share it with String.

"Hey, String," I said, "did you notice what happened the other day when you told me you love me?"

"Whataya mean, Cait?" String asked, his face scrunching up into that absolutely adorable "deer-in-the headlights" look he gets. "Nothing"—Just from the look on String's face—and the fact that he stopped himself in the middle of a sentence—I knew he had guessed what I was gonna say.

"Exactly, String," I said, smiling up at him. "Nothing happened. The Earth didn't open up and swallow me—even though I was sure wishin' it would there for a while—nobody charged us at the restaurant and grabbed me from behind, there wasn't a nut waitin' in my car with a gun or a knife to kidnap me last night, nobody kidnapped me when I left the house this morning, or when I got to the hangar. Do you get what I'm tellin' you, here?" I asked him.

"Yeah, Cait," he said, drawing me closer to him, "I—I think I really do get it."

"Good," I said, just before I kissed him again.

When he took me back to the hangar after dinner, I danged near told him I didn't want to go, but I realized I had to. Even though we were together, and we knew we loved each other; that was somethin' I wasn't sure either one of us was ready for. I mean, I knew I wanted String—like I said before, if the opportunity presented itself, I was ready to give myself to him—but I wasn't sure if the feelings were mutual, and I was danged sure not gonna mess up what we had started over something like that. I mean, I thought when I went to bed that night, if I pushed too hard about that, then String could flip out and go back to full-fledged silent mode, and ruin what we've got. And besides, we've got the rest of our lives for that, I thought as I fell asleep. 'Cause I know now that one way or another, String and I are gonna be together forever, I thought.

The next morning, I felt better than I have ever since I made my unexpected confession. String and I are still friends. Actually, we're more than friends. And maybe we're gonna be even more someday. Someday soon, I hope, I thought as I drove in to work. Finding the hangar deserted, as usual, I got to work getting things ready for String and Dom when they arrived.

Not long after I got there, I heard a helicopter coming in and looked up to see Dom's chopper setting down outside the hangar. I felt my pulse racing when String came out of the helicopter and kissed me. You better quit that, String, I thought, knowing what I'd thought about last night before String brought me back to the hangar, and feeling the region between my legs growing warm and wet. Oh, my God! I thought, knowing what those new feelings meant. But, I thought, trying to rein in the surge of hormones I'd suddenly felt, it's the truth—I do want String. And if he wants me the same way—then, he can take me. All of me, I thought.

The worst part of the day was the fact it was Friday—which meant that when String brought me back to the hangar after we went out Friday night, I wouldn't see him until Monday—which, I have to admit, depressed the heck outta me. I wonder what String would think if I told him I wanted to go to the cabin and spend a night—or more—there with him, I thought. But I had to put my questions aside for a while when we went to work.

That evening, String and I went out again after work, but he took me back to the hangar so I could go home, even though I didn't want to go home—I wanted to go back to the cabin with String, to be with him. I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with String, and even though I knew Mom would be upset with me, I was ready to give myself to String, if the opportunity presented itself.

The weekend was probably the longest of my life. I felt lonelier than I ever have, without seeing String for two whole days. It was probably the first time in my life that I actually looked forward to Monday, because it meant I'd be able to see String again. Mental note to self, I thought on Sunday night before I went to bed, Sometime soon—tell String you want to stay with him, at least for one night—and be prepared. So the next morning, I packed a couple days' worth of clothes in an overnight bag, and stashed it in the car before I left. Now, I'm ready, I thought as I left the house and headed to the hangar.

When I got to the hangar Monday morning, I was excited—I mean, like I said before, I hadn't seen String for two whole days, and I was going to let him know it as soon as I saw him. Finally, I heard the helicopter coming in, and felt my emotions surge.

I almost didn't wait for Dom and String to get out of the helicopter, but I did. I quickly walked up to him and kissed him, a deep, longing kiss that, I hoped, showed him how much I'd missed him over the weekend. I finally separated us and said, "M mm. I missed you, String."

"Yeah. I kinda noticed that, Cait, and I missed you too," String said, smiling at me. I was relishing the fact that I was in String's arms this way, the way I'd always wanted to be. Of course I knew we'd have to be discrete around the hangar, so as not to embarrass Dom too much, even though I don't think he really minded that we were finally together. But business is business, I thought. Later that afternoon, I decided I didn't want to wait to spend a night with String, so I slipped out to the helicopter I knew we'd be using to go to the cabin after work, and slipped my overnight bag into the storage compartment. There, I thought. Now, I'm ready.

That night, when String and I went to the cabin, I felt the desires I'd been fighting for the past couple of days returning, even stronger than before. Fortunately, while String was working on dinner, I'd slipped out to the dock and grabbed my bag, bringing it back inside and slipping up to the sleeping loft before String even knew I was gone. Over dinner, String said, "Y'know, Cait, I have a confession to make. I—I really thought you would have gone back to Texas after what happened at the hangar. And, I made a decision about what I'd do if you had gone," he said. Oh-kay. That was a pitch outta left field I definitely wasn't expecting, I thought. But I gotta admit, I kinda like it. And I have been wonderin' what String woulda done if I had left.

"What would you have done, String, if I had gone home?" I asked, even though I had a feeling I knew the answer. I suddenly had a vision of a certain 'black battleship with rotors' flying over Mom's ranch, which would've caused no end of trouble.

"Simple. I would've dragged Dom to the Lair, gotten the Lady, and flown down to Texas to find you and try to bring you back here," String said. I knew it, I thought, smiling as I nodded at String. "I would have told you before, but"—

"I know," I interrupted. "You weren't gonna bring up the Lady at the hangar. I understand, String," I said. I know how secret the Lady is, and how String doesn't like talkin' about her in public, so I understood completely. But it's nice to know he woulda come after me, if I had gone back to Texas, I thought, knowing that the desires I'd been fightin' for the past few days were coming back like a herd of stampeding cattle back on the ranch in Texas. Then, String told me he couldn't imagine his life without me—and I danged near told him to take me right then, but I decided I'd wait—but not for too long, Caity girl—I told myself. I simply smiled at him and said, "Well, String, now you won't have to." By the look on his face, I got the feelin' String was kicking himself again for ignoring me for as long as he did, and I hoped the look on my face told him that I didn't hold anything against him. Then, String took my hand and stood up, pulling me out of the chair I was in, and kissed me. As I melted in his embrace, I thought, I'm not leavin' here tonight, even as I felt the region between my legs growing warm and wet again. But just about the time I was really getting comfortable in String's arms, he started to pull away from me. I quickly wrapped my arms around his shoulders again and pulled him closer to me. "No, String. Please don't let me go." I hoped I didn't sound as corny as I thought I did, but I meant what I'd said—I never want String to let me go—ever.

I was relieved when I felt String's arms around my waist again, pulling me even closer. "Never, Cait," he whispered in my ear. "I promise—I'll never let you go." I couldn't help myself—I had to kiss him again, even more passionately than the one he'd just given me.

Later, String unfortunately did let me go—but it was only because he said he was ready to take me back to the hangar so I could go home—but I had already decided I had other plans. Boy, I'm glad I brought that bag with me, I thought, knowing that I had a couple days' worth of clothes there with me. And, here goes nothin', I thought. "String," I said, "I—I don't want to go." His face turned into that adorable deer-in-the-headlights look that he gets when he gets confused. I knew words would be inadequate at this point, so I walked over to him, wrapped my arms around him, and kissed him with everything I had, and was relieved when String returned my passion with his own. As we pulled each other closer, I felt the passion building between us with every second that we held each other—and then, I felt him against me, which said to me that String wanted me as much as I wanted him—but String finally separated us, and as soon as I felt my breath come back, I said, "String. I want to stay here tonight, with you."

"Cait, are you sure?" String asked me. I looked at him and hoped he could read the desire in my eyes, but he said, "Cait. If this isn't what you want, you tell me. You tell me—right now!" I had to admit, the forcefulness in his voice, along with the fact that he was hesitating, considering what I'd felt just a moment ago, startled me, but then I remembered that I'd told him about nearly bein' raped by some of Bogan's boys, and his hesitation made perfect sense. Knowing String loves me enough to hesitate like this just makes me love him—and want him—all the more, I thought.

"String," I said, impatient, "I'm sure. We love each other, and this is what I want. I want you," I added. String nodded, scooped me up in his arms, and went up to the sleeping loft. Once we were upstairs, he set me on my feet, but hesitated again. "Hawke," I said, switching to his last name to indicate that I was getting annoyed, "there's no red lights in sight here, okay? Make love to me, Stringfellow Hawke. Right now." Finally, String did exactly what I'd asked him to do.

When it was over, I felt happier than I'd been in a long time, because I knew I finally had everything I ever wanted—mainly, String. Finally, I thought as I felt String pull me tight against him, Finally, he's mine, and I'm his, forever. Oh, sure, it's not legal, but that's just details. If I hadn't known it before, I knew it now—one way or the other, I was going to spend the rest of my life with Stringfellow Hawke. I never, ever thought that I could be so happy, I thought, even as I felt a few tears escape my eyes. But they're happy tears, so I don't care, I thought as I snuggled closer to String, and felt sleep claiming me.

About a week after that night, I told String that I wanted to move into the cabin with him—permanently. I'd been spending more and more nights with him, and it only took one night of sleeping alone to show me just how ridiculous it was that we weren't spending every night together. String agreed, and we got me moved out of the house and up to the cabin in a day's time. 'Course, I'd been takin' stuff to the cabin with me a little at a time ever since we spent that first night together, and I was glad I'd done it—it made moving that much easier. And surprisingly enough, Mom wasn't as upset as I worried she'd be when I told her about movin' into String's cabin. "After all, Caity," Mom said when I called her from the hangar to tell her, "your dad and I lived together for a while before we got married. And I understand that folks your age do that sorta thing, so it's okay. It's not what I would've liked to hear, but since you're gonna be getting married, I guess it's okay."

I have to admit, even though it sounded like Mom wasn't totally happy that String and I were living together, her reaction made me feel a whole lot better about my decision. All the same, her comment about us getting married surprised the heck outta me—what makes her think we're getting married, for Pete's sake? I asked myself. I mean, I figured that was the direction our relationship was heading, but, like always, I wasn't about to jump to any conclusions. I sure hope it happens, though, I thought one night, soon. And, I finally asked String why he hesitated so much the first night I spent with him, and he confirmed what I'd suspected—he didn't want to bring back any bad memories from what Bogan's boys tried to do to me. "String," I told him, "those memories are long dead and buried. What I'm concentrating on now is the present, and the future—our future—together." But like I said before, it makes me love String all the more, knowing that he cared about my feelings like that.

I have to admit, I'd been thinkin' about something an awful lot since I blurted out that confession—that maybe there was a reason I came back here to California—a reason named Stringfellow Hawke. I think I'm supposed to be with him, I thought one night as we fell asleep. Like he's my soulmate, or somethin'. All I knew for sure was that one way or another, I'd be spendin' the rest of my life—however long I get on this Earth—with String.

Six months later

I cannot believe this is happening, I thought as Mom, Marella and Erin helped me get ready for my wedding to String. Just like after String told me he loved me, I've gotta be dreaming. I still remember the night he asked me to marry him, about three months ago.

We were all at the cabin—Dom, Saint John and his son Le, String, Mom, Erin, and me. String had invited Mom and Erin out to California, but didn't tell anyone why until after dinner that night. He didn't even tell me that they were here until we got back from the hangar, and I saw a second chopper a little ways away from the cabin—and found Mom and Erin there waiting for us with Dom, Sinj, and Le. I had to admit, I was getting more and more frustrated with String—I mean, I couldn't help wondering what he was up to—and I tried as many of my feminine wiles as I discreetly could to get him to spill the beans—but he didn't say a word until dinner was finished and we were all back in the living room.

I gotta admit, I was seriously thinkin' about makin' String sleep on the couch that night, I was so ticked off at him for everything that had happened, especially the way he'd denied having any sort of ulterior motive about inviting everybody to the cabin, especially Mom and Erin. But when Dom served up champagne for everybody—except Le, of course—I got really confused. What the heck is going on here? I asked myself for about the millionth time that night. Finally, without saying a word, String reached into the pocket of his blazer, and pulled out a worn-looking maroon velvet box. As he opened it, and got down on one knee, I felt my eyes flood with tears when I recognized the object in the box for what it was—an engagement ring. Then I felt my heart jump right into my throat when he said, "Caitlin O'Shannessy, will you marry me?"

When I think about it now, I'm sure the amount of time I waited to answer String made everybody nervous—String most of all—but, I was tryin' to overcome my shock at hearing those words—the words I'd been dreamin' I'd hear for months—not to mention, I was tryin' to find my voice, just like the night String first asked me out. Of course, there was only one answer I could ever give String, so when I felt like I could answer him, I said, "God, yes, String! Yes, I'll marry you!" He slipped the ring onto the third finger of my left hand, then stood up and pulled me up with him, kissing me as we heard the applause break out behind us, and Dom saying, "Goddammit, String, IT'S ABOUT TIME!" I couldn't agree with you more, Dom, I thought as String kissed me again.

When we separated, after I took a few seconds to catch my breath, I said, "String. I'm sorry it took so long to answer you, but I felt like my heart was tryin' to jump out of my throat!"

String said it was okay, but that I did make everybody nervous, including him. "But, I suppose I deserved it, teasing you like I did and making you wait all this time," String added, smiling.

"You're danged right you did!" I shot back, hoping that the grin on my face and the sparkle in my eyes showed String my true feelings—yeah, I was mad that he'd strung this out as long as he did, but I sure as heck wasn't gonna hold what happened against him. Besides, Mom and Daddy always taught me not to hold a grudge, I thought, so I'm sure as heck not gonna start now.

The thing that made me happiest of all—aside from String finally askin' me to marry him, that is—was when my mother apologized to String for all the bad things she'd said—and written—to me about him—and the way he responded to her. String basically told Mom that he had been an idiot until recently, so he didn't blame her for anything. Just like he told me he was gonna do, I thought, recalling what String had told me that day back at the hangar. I gotta admit—hearing String say that just made me love him all the more—if that's humanly possible. And I had to admit somethin' else, too—I'd been worried about how things were gonna go between Mom and String, after everything that Mom had said about him—but just like he promised me, String didn't hold anything Mom had ever said against him, and that made me even happier than I already was. And, I got the feelin' that Mom was a little more accepting of the fact that String and I were livin' together, now that we were engaged to be married. When I asked String about it, he told me that his parents and Dom had always taught him never to hold a grudge, so he wasn't about to start now. Just like Mom and Daddy did with me, I thought. I get the feelin' Daddy would've liked String once he pulled his head out of his rear end about me, I added to myself, especially seeing how Mom's attitude toward String had changed ever since she found out we were together.

I had to admit, I was a little surprised at how unhappy Erin looked when String proposed to me—but then, I remembered her writing and telling me about how her marriage had fallen apart, and it didn't surprise me at all when I heard her tell String that if he ever did anything to hurt me, she'd come back here and beat the crud out of him herself. If there was anything left for you after I got through with him, I thought. Somehow, though, I wasn't all that concerned—I don't think String would ever do anything to hurt me, just like I'd never do anything to hurt him. That's how much we love each other. Erin finally did welcome String to the family, and he told her he understood completely why she felt like she did, since I'd told him about what happened with Erin's marriage. I imagine he'd be the same way under similar circumstances, if Saint John was getting married, I thought, even though I didn't wish what Erin had gone through on Saint John, or anybody else.

And after everybody went home and it was just the two of us alone, upstairs in the sleeping loft, I got the feelin' String was worrying that I was gonna kick him downstairs and make him sleep on the couch—and I would've had every right to, after what he pulled on me about tonight—but I love him too danged much for that. And like I said, Mom and Daddy taught me not to hold grudges—so I'm sure as heck not gonna start now, I thought. Finally, I said, "String, thank you so much for tonight. This—this was perfect. And, I even forgive you for that 'shuck and jive,' as Daddy used to say, that you pulled on me today, sayin' you didn't have anything up your sleeve."

"Cait, I hated to do that, but I wanted tonight to be a surprise," String said, and I got the feelin' he was just hopin' I believed what he was telling me—which I did. It actually makes perfect sense, now that I think about it with a clear head, I thought. He couldn't very well have told me what he was plannin' to do.

"Well," I said as I moved closer to String, giving him my best "come-hither" look, "it sure was a surprise, String. I'll never forget tonight. Now," I said, my expression changing to the impish grin that I've learned drives String absolutely wild, "there's one other thing I want."

"What might that be?" String asked innocently as we wrapped our arms around each other, even though I think he knew perfectly well what I meant.

"You, String," I whispered, pulling him closer to me, inviting him to touch my body. "Just you." Then I felt his lips on mine and felt the passion he held for me unleash itself as he moved us onto the bed.

So finally, here we are, getting ready for my wedding. Saint John was standin' with String as his best man, and of course, Erin was my maid of honor. The ceremony was a simple one—we all stood on the dock of the cabin, and a justice of the peace administered the vows—and I have to admit, I was surprised as all get out when I looked into String's eyes and saw he had tears there, just like I did. I barely registered when the judge finally said, "By the power vested in me by the great state of California, I pronounce you husband and wife. Stringfellow Hawke, you may kiss your bride." But I sure do remember the kiss, and then hearing the judge say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, it's my pleasure to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Stringfellow Hawke!" Mrs. Hawke, I thought. Mrs. Stringfellow Hawke. Caitlin Hawke. It didn't matter how I imagined someone saying it, I loved the sound of my new last name, and I knew I'd never get tired of hearing it. I smiled through the tears of joy that had erupted in my eyes and kissed String again, even as the small group there on the dock with us broke into applause. Right then, I knew I was exactly where I belonged—and, with the man I was supposed to be with. And now, we're together—in every way—forever, I thought happily, feeling like everything that had happened since I met String had led me to this point—standing on the dock with my family and our closest friends, as String's wife.

Now I know I'm dreaming, I thought, feeling a sudden surge of anxiety that everything that had happened ever since that day in front of the hangar had been nothin' but a dream, and that I was gonna wake up and find myself without String. Just then, I felt String gently pinch my arm, and he said, "Cait, trust me. You're not dreaming."

"How the heck did you—oh, never mind," I said, wondering how String knew what I was thinking. At that point, though, I quite honestly didn't care. All I care about is that String and I belong to each other—for now, and for always—I thought happily. When we went to sleep that night, I couldn't help thinking about everything that happened since that day when I confessed my feelings. It might not have been the "traditional" way to do it, I thought as I snuggled into the arms of my husband—my husband—I thought excitedly, still feeling like there was a part of my brain that had to be convinced that we were actually married. But String and I are finally together, forever. And, I'm the happiest gal on the face of the Earth, I thought as I felt sleep claiming me, and pondered our future—together.