Til Death Do We Part
Since going MIA, Justin Blackwood spent his captivity fighting for the chance to return to the woman he left behind, his fiancée, Erica. Rescued twelve years later, he returns home to discover his best friend and fellow soldier, Clint Michaels, is now her husband.
Clint has loved his best friend’s girl for as long as he can remember. He finally has her love, but bears the burden of a secret that will tear them apart. Now with Justin’s miraculous return, he’s torn between the love he has for his wife and the honor of brotherhood.
“Teacup! Teacup, stop begging. You know the rules. If you don’t behave, Clint’s going to throw you outside when he gets home.”
Erica Michaels nudged the hundred-sixty-pound, black Fengjing pig with her thigh to move her out of the way. Erica’s husband had bought the pig to raise for food, but she’d fallen in love with the wrinkle-faced little piglet, and that was the end of any thought of eating her. Now the behemoth thought she was a lapdog, and also thought begging at the kitchen counter was acceptable.
Clint didn’t need to know that she sometimes gave in to the pig’s pitiful pleas.
Teacup snorted her disgust at Erica, went to the kitchen door, and plopped down with a groan. Erica grinned as she chopped fresh tomatoes for Clint’s nachos.
Tonight was their fifth anniversary, and she was making all his favorites. Nachos with fresh tomatoes, jalapenos and grilled chicken, followed by the main coarse of roasted rack of lamb and, for dessert, pecan pie with homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
Her stomach growled just thinking about dessert. With a giggle, she lifted another tomato and began chopping. Things had been going so well this last year. They’d struggled since before they got married to get the ranch off the ground, but now everything was falling into place. Clint’s bulls were producing award-winning calves and, as soon as the snow completely cleared, she had a list of students who wanted to start riding lessons.
Her watch beeped the hour. Six o’clock. Clint would be home soon, and she was behind schedule. She wanted the nachos done when he walked in. He’d gone into Helena for an appointment, but he’d called when he was done to tell her he was on his way. The roads were clear, so he should be home any minute.
After wiping her hands on the towel hanging over the handle of the oven, she went into the living room and flipped on the evening news. She grabbed the lighter off the mantel and lit the tapers on the dining room table, then headed back into the kitchen.
The news anchor’s voice came to her, and she idly listened to the updates on the war while she chopped jalapenos. She couldn’t believe America was back in that God-forsaken place.
“We have a special report tonight,” he said in a voice she’d been listening to for years and still found extremely sexy. He’d had a special report every night since American forces reached Baghdad days earlier. “Three U.S. soldiers will finally be coming home after going MIA in enemy territory during the first Gulf War in 1991. But unlike many in past conflicts, these three men won’t be in coffins draped with the American flag. No. Twelve years later, First Sergeant Richard Williamson, Specialist Justin Blackwood, and Corporal Zachary Collingsworth were found alive in an undisclosed location inside Iraq. Details are sketchy, but one correspondent embedded with troops on the front line tells us there’s plenty to celebrate in Baghdad following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime...”
The blade slipped and slashed into Erica’s thumb. She let out a yelp and dropped the knife, but her brain wasn’t on her wound. Justin Blackwood. The name echoed in her head as she ran for the living room. The frontline reporter was talking, but Erica didn’t hear what he said. On the screen was a picture of the three solders. And there, in the middle, was Justin.
Justin, her heart cried. Her Justin! He was alive.
Sinking to her knees in front of the television, she stared at him. He was older—God, it had been twelve years. His face was leaner than she’d ever seen it. He had lines bracketing his mouth and eyes, but it was her Justin. Her fiancé. Her lover. The man she’d thought was dead. She would know those midnight blue eyes anywhere.
The picture disappeared from the screen. She spun around, grabbed the remote from the coffee table, and flipped to another news channel.
“Unconfirmed reports say that the three United States Army soldiers were imprisoned in Baghdad. The Army is not releasing any confirmation other than their names and that they are in good health. Colonial Thompson plans to hold a press conference tomorrow, after more information is obtained from the rescued POWs.
“Once again, three United States Army soldiers, MIA since 1991, have been found...alive. First Sergeant Richard Williamson, Specialist Justin Blackwood, and Corporal Zachary Collingsworth.”
Erica raised her hand to her mouth as tears poured down her face. Teacup nudged her shoulder and grunted. Erica turned to her beloved pig and wrapped her arms around her neck, hugging her close. “Oh. My. God. Oh my God. Ohmygod. Justin... He’s alive.”
* * * * *
Clint Michaels pulled up in front of their ranch house and killed the engine of his F150. He gripped the wheel and dropped his head back on the seat. How the hell was he going to tell Erica? How in God’s name was he supposed to walk into their house on their anniversary and tell his wife bad news?
He swallowed hard and sucked in a deep breath. Pain throbbed behind his closed eyes. He’d thought they were migraines and had put off seeing a specialist for almost a year. Not that it would have done any good, the doctor assured him.
Maybe he should get a second opinion. Before telling Erica...
He rubbed his gloved hand over his face, pushed open the truck door, and stepped into the cold air. He let out a long breath, which puffed white in front of his face. No, he couldn’t tell her tonight. She was in there making a special dinner for him. He reached across the seat and picked up the gift he’d gotten for her. He needed to make this anniversary a special one—one she’d never forget.
He tried swallowing around the lump in his throat, but it was too big.
God. He couldn’t do this. They’d been through too much, struggled so hard to make their life and marriage work. It was finally coming together. They were closer than they’d ever been. This last year’s profits had turned everything around for them, and they were talking about having children, starting a family.
He leaned against the side of the truck, his legs too weak to carry him inside. His gut clenched, and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. His head throbbed. Oh, fuck. Bracing his hands against his knees, he tried to calm down. He hadn’t had a panic attack in years.
Calm down, Clint. Calm down. This is inevitable. Nothing you can do to change it. Period. End of story.
He breathed through the terror. He wasn’t that afraid for himself. He just didn’t know how Erica would deal with it.
When he thought he’d calmed enough to face his wife without her being able to tell something was wrong, he headed toward the porch. Pasting on a smile, he opened the front door. “Honey, I’m— Shit. What’s burning?”
First he saw Erica on the floor staring at the television, and then the smoke billowing out of the oven. He dropped the gift on the couch as he passed her on his way to the kitchen. “Erica, what the hell...?”
A blackened pile of tortilla chips was the reason for the smoke. Grabbing a potholder, he lifted the pan out of the oven and tossed them in the sink, and then he threw open the kitchen door and turned on the fan over the stove to clear out the smoke.
“Erica,” he said as he headed back into the living room. “What the hell is—”
“Look.” She pushed to her feet, pointed at the television, and grabbed his arm.
What he saw was her finger bleeding, the droplets falling to the floor. More blood was smeared on the neck of that walking pork chop; the ugly pig shouldn’t even be in the house. He grabbed her hand, lifted it above her head, and applied pressure to the cut.
“Erica, are you in shock?” Cutting herself had never made her loopy before.
“J-Justin,” she stammered, never taking her attention from the television. “Justin’s alive.”
“What?” He glanced at the television, paying attention to the program for the first time, and saw a picture of Justin. An older Justin, not the guy he knew. Not the one he’d last seen in Iraq over a decade earlier.
“Justin’s alive,” Erica said again. “He’s not dead. We have to go get him. We have to be there. He doesn’t know about his parents’ deaths. We’re all he’s got, Clint.” She looked up at him then and gripped his forearm with her uninjured hand. “He’s come back to us.”
* * * * *
The passengers on the plane remained seated and staring as Justin unbuckled his safety belt and stood. Even those in First Class with him stayed put and watched with excited, sympathetic expressions. As the plane had taxied to the gate in Helena, the lead flight attendant had asked them to wait so he could get his bags and disembark. But he had no real luggage, except for a small backpack he carried with some underwear and toiletries...and the new uniform he wore, given to him by the military, complete with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart presented to him by the President himself. The cold metal lay pinned to his chest along with other medals that didn’t mean nearly as much as the knowledge that he was back on American soil, and finally back in his home state.
He began the short walk—Thank you, God—down the aisle toward the exit. After the first step, the clapping began; by the time he reached the front exit, the passengers were cheering, the flight crew was all smiles, and he tried to nod his thanks, wave, and get his churning stomach under control so he didn’t embarrass himself.
He understood America’s need for the fanfare, but he hated being at the center of it. He’d had enough flashbulbs go off in his face, answered enough questions during the debriefings, or interrogations rather, to last a lifetime.
He paused briefly in the gangway and took a deep breath. The passengers would soon follow. He needed to keep moving. One more big breath and he squared his shoulders, prepared to face the onslaught of media that surely awaited him at the gate.
But when he walked out, there were no flashes. No crowd waiting for him or any of those from the plane. What the hell?
Confusion must have showed on his face, because an attendant at the gate smiled and waved a hand as if directing traffic. “This way, sir.”
“Where is everybody?” he asked, feeling a bit foolish for having to ask. He felt like Alice in Wonderland. Even the airport terminal looked so different from the way he remembered it.
The attendant’s smile never wavered. “Because of security since 9/11, only passengers can be at the gate.”
Oh. 9/11. He’d heard details of the attack on American soil when some hospital personnel in Germany, where they’d sent him first, explained the reason U.S. troops had returned to Iraq. He hadn’t even known there’d been a ceasefire, much less a war on terror that scattered soldiers along multiple fronts from Iraq to Afghanistan.
“I’m sure your family and friends await you near the luggage carousel,” she said with a tug on his arm, which pulled him out of the way as other passengers caught up and passed him.
“Thank you.” He nodded stiffly then followed the signs pointing the way to baggage claim, and almost staggered from the emotions that erupted inside him.
He had no family. Except for Erica and, technically, she was only his fiancée.
He stopped in the bathroom, startling another man as he slammed into a stall to find a moment of privacy.
Erica. Thoughts of her and his parents had kept him alive. That and the good fortune of having one Iraqi jailer, educated in the states, who’d somehow managed to persuade someone that he and the others were more valuable alive than dead.
Don’t think about that! It was over. The war, for him, was over. Twelve fucking years of it.
Fully clothed, he sat on the toilet, his head in his hands.
Time had ceased for him in 1991. He’d survived the tortures in the beginning, the long hours—Days? Months?—spent in dark, damp cells with no way to track the passage of the seasons. He’d lived despite the illnesses he suffered with little or no medical aid. He’d kept his sanity, his identity as an American, by thinking of home. Dreaming of Montana, his parents, and Erica.
He exited the stall, hearing its automatic albeit unnecessary flush, and took another moment to collect himself as he cleaned up at the sink.
Erica. She awaited him along with his best friend, Clint. Damn, he’d missed them—had all but given up hope of ever seeing them again. Their years spent together playing hooky from high school seemed like a lifetime ago.
He’d wanted more than anything to call his parents, but after a bit of stalling, military personnel had finally delivered the news about their deaths. It was a decisive blow he still wasn’t prepared to deal with, so his first contact back home was Erica. Getting to talk to her...hearing her say his name had been the sweetest sound he’d heard in more than a decade. And the phone conversation with Clint had been an added bonus. Just hearing familiar voices after all the years listening to Arabic—
He cut off that thought, focused on the here and now. The future, not the past.
With a renewed sense of excitement building inside, he made his way to baggage claim, scanning the faces of those in the crowd. The camera flashes began, nearly blinding him the moment he reentered the public area of the airport. Microphones and questions were tossed in his face as he tried to find...
Then he saw her, and everything else faded from view.
Muttering an obligatory apology, he plowed through the throng, dropped his backpack....
The second she was in his arms, he was home. “God, I’ve missed you,” he said, giving voice to volatile emotions in the only way he knew how. Despite a startled hesitation on her part, he claimed her mouth in a searing, passionate kiss that erased time. She might be skittish with the audience, but he didn’t care. She was warm. Soft. Familiar. And so damn right that he knew the world could explode around him and he wouldn’t give a shit.
He broke the kiss only long enough to whisper against her lips, “I love you. I’ve loved you forever,” then he kissed her again, holding her so close he expected their bodies to meld into one.
A hand landed on his shoulder, a familiar pat that sliced through his euphoric haze and brought him back to reality. Clint. His best friend since childhood, his comrade in boot camp, and the brother he’d never had.
Justin pulled back, gazed into Erica’s tear-streaked face, then released her to embrace his buddy amid a renewed shower of flashing lights and sounds.
“Welcome home, bro,” Clint said. “What say we blow this joint?”
Justin grinned at the familiar saying. How many times had he heard Clint say that at bars around town or near the base whenever they had liberty and met for some good-natured hell raising just for ol’ times’ sake? With a nod, he picked up his backpack.
“Not so fast,” came a female voice from nearby, authoritative but pleasant. White-haired and dressed in a sleek business suit, the stranger held out a hand as she approached with a warm smile.
“The governor,” Clint whispered, making Justin cast him a sideways glance.
Montana had a female governor? Justin shook her hand in a formal greeting that caused a renewed lightshow of flickers and flashes from the media.
“On behalf of the citizens of a grateful nation and the state of Montana, welcome home, Specialist Justin Blackwood.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“How was your flight?”
She leaned closer to him and lowered her voice. “As you can imagine, the news of your heroic survival has caused quite a stir in these parts. I think the whole state wants to give you a giant hug for all you’ve been through—”
“I appreciate that, ma’am, but—”
“I know. It’s all a big circus. But, if you can hang in there a bit longer, I’ll see what I can do to get you and your friends out of here. Okay?”
He smiled. “I’d like that, Governor.”
“Come with me, then.” She escorted him to a makeshift podium he hadn’t noticed before.
Since he’d taken Erica by the hand, she and Clint accompanied him. Seeing the banners, flags, and crowd of well-wishers, he gave an overwhelmed smile to his buddy. Clint’s answering look said he’d read the message easily. Can you believe all of this?
Before a bouquet of microphones, the governor announced today Justin Blackwood Day, much to his private amusement, and introduced the mayor of Helena who gave him the “key to the city”. The cheers forced Justin to the podium where he said thanks in a heart-felt, but brief, manner. Then, the governor wrapped the ceremony up with a few final words.
“I’ve ordered a police escort to help you through traffic,” she said with another handshake for him, Erica, and Clint. “Just tell the officer guarding your pickup outside which route you plan to take.”
“Thank you,” Clint said.
“Don’t mention it.” She faced him once more. “Have a happy life. And remember, if you ever need anything, just call me.”
The reporters and photographers shadowed them as they finally made their way out of the terminal. Justin answered some personal questions, deferring others to the military brass.
“I’m just glad to be home. I have a lot of time to make up for.... No, I’ve no comment about the current military campaign in Iraq.... Maybe some other time... I just want to get home and rest. Write a book? No, I haven’t thought about it.”
Arriving at the truck, Clint took his backpack, tossed it behind the seat, and then interrupted the next wave of questions. “Justin and we all appreciate the warm welcome you’ve given him, but now it’s time to let him have some privacy, so he can catch up on what’s happened during his absence and get back to his private life. If he wishes to discuss the matter further, I’m sure he’ll call you. Thank you.”
They scrambled into the pickup, with Erica in the middle and Clint behind the wheel, after he stopped to relay his planned route to the cop. The engine rumbled to life, and then, as they pulled away from the curb, they released a collective sigh, the simultaneous nature of which prompted chuckles. Even Justin gave in to the urge to laugh—something he hadn’t done in a very long time.
He draped an arm around Erica and thought of all the times in their carefree youth they’d ridden away from some near scrape or foolish adventure. The feelings were similar. Relief, joy, giddiness. So natural. As if no time had passed.
But it had. Clint wouldn’t be dropping him off at his parents’ house this time. He wouldn’t have to sneak in to avoid the grounding he knew would come for having missed curfew.
Justin settled into a contemplative silence as the scenery of Helena sped by the window. Erica and Clint remained quiet, for which he was grateful. He needed time to think, observe, and let the reality of all that had changed settle in his mind.
The city was the same, yet different. Some types of vehicles he recognized; others were foreign.
It was almost as if he’d been in a coma for a dozen years only to awaken to a new world, or died and been reborn to an alternative universe where some things remained the same and others were alien.
“Everything is so different,” he said, not bothering to hide the awe.
“A lot of things have change, Justin,” Erica said softly. “You were away a long time.”
He peered at her, met her gaze, and smiled. “You haven’t. You’re still as beautiful as you were the day Clint and I left.”
Her gaze dropped to her gloved hands, and a blush tinted her cheeks, almost hidden behind a curtain of straight auburn hair. He looked up to see Clint glance at Erica, then him, and back to the road.
“Once we’re out of the city, where would you like to go first?” Clint asked. “You hungry?”
“The cemetery,” he answered, ignoring the last question. “I want to see my folks.”