Alicia laid her head on the stiff white hospital sheet. It was over. According to the doctors, everything had gone perfectly, even better than they expected. Jon had come around enough in the recovery room for them to move him back to his room. Of course, the anesthetic still had effects. He had been out for much of the past couple of hours.
She had sent Hope home with Chris and Kacey. They had discussed the whole thing with their daughter, Mandy, and their friends. Even Mandy felt that their daughter would be better off in the waiting room with the adults than trying to fit in at school. So, the little girl had read or colored.
The surgery itself had been shockingly short. Less than two hours. Another couple in recovery. Jon had come around enough to kiss Hope and tell her that he loved her before Kacey and Chris whisked the child away to pick Amy up from school.
Alison was filling in for her at the diner for the next few days. They had hired another waitress, too. They had found the woman through a woman’s shelter. Kira upheld the pattern of the struggling single mother and was delighted to have found a job that allowed her son to come to the restaurant after school. The boy was a bit older than Hope and Amy, but he had taken up the role of big brother, helping the girls with homework.
By the time, DeShawn graduated and hopped on his bike in less than a month, the woman would be ready to take Alison’s place. Well, at least as a waitress. Alicia knew that no one would ever take the woman’s place in her heart. Ali had been her first adult friend, perhaps her first ‘real’ friend ever.
Everything was falling into place. It was all such an anti-climax after that disastrous wedding. After Jon had fled without a word on their wedding night, Alicia had finished putting Hope to bed. But the moment her daughter was asleep, she had collapsed into tears. Alison had overheard her and come into the bedroom. Her friend had been there for her once more when he had not been. Eventually, she had cried herself to sleep. Alone. On her wedding night.
She had awoken just before dawn. Jon sat silently on the side of the bed. At first, she had tried to pretend she was still asleep but eventually, the need to pee had won out. She would have gotten a shower and gone into the restaurant, but Alison was opening and managing the breakfast shift that morning. Reluctantly, she had decided it was probably best to get it all over with before they had to get Hope ready for school. She was determined that their daughter never witness them argue.
When she had finally found the courage to go back into the bedroom they had been sharing for weeks, Jon was still sitting there, toying with what looked like a plastic baggie. Something about the absolute defeated slump of his shoulders had deflated the anger that had raged through her since he walked out. On their wedding night.
She slumped to the bed next to him. They had sat like that for a couple of minutes before he passed that bag to her. Alicia had frowned when she saw what was inside. “I don’t understand. Where did you get this? I gave her one of the unopened adult ones and promised to get a new one today.”
When he looked at her with those blue eyes, her world shifted. “Marianne Buford Walker Tyler took it when she went to the bathroom yesterday. She intended to run the DNA test that I refused to agree to.”
She had shaken her head, “But I told you that’s okay. If your family needs proof Hope is your daughter, I understand.”
“No. I won’t begin our marriage based on distrust.”
“Jon, that’s not how I see it.”
“No, sweetheart, you don’t understand how ‘that’ woman works.”
“Oh, I think I got a mouthful yesterday.”
He had given her that quirky smile she loved so much and taken her hand in his. “Even if she did not fabricate the results, and she might. There would come a time when she would say or do something about that test to drive a wedge between us. Make it look like I doubted you or that the test was my idea. As bad as yesterday was, that was only a small taste of what Marianne Buford Walker Tyler is capable of.”
“And I don’t want any part of that or her coming between us or around Hope. I Hope you can forgive me. I should have never invited them to the wedding. I should have known by now that it would be more trouble than it was worth.”
Of course, she had forgiven him. And demonstrated just how much by taking him into her arms and body, doing all she could to soothe his pain. It had been everything that a wedding night should be. Even if it was a bit delayed. And in some trick of the early desert dawn light shining through the bedroom window, she had almost believed that she saw love shining in those bright blue eyes and felt it in every tender caress.
There had been plenty of repeats in the days leading up to this surgery. Ali had insisted this was their honeymoon and pushed Alicia out of the diner every chance she got. Jon had hung around too as if he could not stand to spend a moment away from her. Hell, she would have sworn he half-mumbled those sacred words as the drugs put him to sleep before the surgery.
She brushed a tender caress across the worst scarring on his cheek as tears coursed down hers. “Oh, Jon, what are we going to do now?”
When Jon usually woke from surgeries, the first thing to hit him was pain. Not this time. It was her sweet smell, gentle touch, and those words. He had made it. The doctors had assured him that he would. But some part of his fucked up psyche had feared he did not deserve a Happily Ever After. Was that the survivor’s guilt talking? Or his childhood and family traumas?
It did not matter now. He had made it. And hopefully, he would have another forty or fifty years. Because even a millennium with this woman would never be enough to show her. “I love you.”
Could she even hear him? He knew that his voice was always scratchier and muted after surgeries. Those damned tubes down your throat did a number on anyone’s vocal cords. But especially his mangled excuse for a voice box.
She gave him another of those tight, fake smiles. There had been a lot of those the past few days. “Hey, you’re awake. Can I get you something? The nurse said, you can have a few sips of water this time.” She reached for the ugly plastic cup at the side of his bed.
Jon shook his head, “No.” He was uncertain what to do now. Yes, perhaps she had not heard him or understood his slurred words. But what if she was ignoring him? After everything that had happened, he certainly did not deserve her. Did he try again? Did he have the courage?
It wasn’t like he’d had much success with love. Hell, if his first wife had not been bad enough, even his own mother had never really loved him. How could an amazing woman like this? But she was his wife now. And maybe he had convinced her to marry him for their daughter’s sake, but did that matter?
Sure, he remembered her words. That confession. But he had rejected her. Well, perhaps not rejected, but he had not had the courage then to share his true feelings. Besides, that was before she had seen his fucked up family, dealt with the illustrious Marianne Buford Walker Tyler. That woman could kill anyone’s love.
He wanted to reach for her, but he was practically as helpless as a baby at the moment. One hand was gone, nothing but white bandages above the elbow. And the other was tied to a damned board with a tube coming out of it. Hell, there was a clear plastic bag of pee on the side of the bed. Damn, he always hated this bit. It was humiliating, degrading, and dehumanizing.
And he hated her seeing him this way most of all. He wanted to be her hero. A man worthy of her. But he realized perhaps too late that he never had been. Even that first night, when his face was handsome, his soul had been as scarred as he was now.
So, what did he do? As she said, what now?
He studied her face for some hint, some vestige of that love she had professed, some Hope ‘that’ woman had not been able to extinguish.
Alicia gave another of those fake smiles then dropped her head. “You don’t have to say that.”
“Say what? That I love you?” She nodded her head but still would not look up. “Yes, yes, I do. I should have said it that night. When you first told me. But…”
He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He had no other choice. He had to go all-in with this one. “But I didn’t feel worthy. Hell, I still don’t. Between my fucked up family and survivor’s guilt, I might not ever.”
He felt frustration thrumming through him. He wanted to lift her chin and force her to look him in the eyes. Even if he wasn’t sure that he wanted to see the truth in her dark eyes. Maybe they should wait to have this conversation until he was out of the hospital? But that didn’t seem right. This moment felt special. Like it could be some fresh start for them. An opportunity that might not come again.
“Look at me, please.” His words were all he had right now. He Hoped they would be enough.
And they were. Though the tears glistening in her eyes ripped his gut apart. “I fell in love with you that night.”
She sniffled and brushed the back of her hand across her face, “When I told you how I felt?”
He shook his head, “No, in the diner, the night we met. When you refused to take the bait, didn’t offer me pity or sympathy. It scared me. And I ran. Until I couldn’t run anymore.”
“They say your whole life flashes before you. But all I saw was you. When that IED went off, you were the last thing I thought about, sweetheart. And when I woke up in that hospital bed, you were the first thing. Memories of that night were the only thing that kept me from…” Jon practiced those damned deep breathing exercises. Those were words she did not need to hear.
When he finally had himself back under control, he looked at her again. There were more tears. Was that a good thing or bad? But he had come this far. He had to finish.
“Every time I came to the VA, I thought about the diner. That last time, I just couldn’t resist. I was afraid it would be gone. An abandoned building, empty and alone like my life. I was so fucking relieved that it wasn’t. But I didn’t expect you to still be there. I thought you’d be a shrink somewhere. And I sure didn’t expect Hope. But there you both were.”
“I know I’m doing this all wrong. What’s new? At least according to ‘that’ woman, I never do anything right. I know we are already married and have a child together, but if you let me, sweetheart, I’d like to court you. Is that even a fucking word anymore? Whatever they call it, I want the chance to show you how much I love you. To prove that I can be the type of man you and Hope deserve. Will you let me, darling?”
Those tears were coming faster now, but the quick way she nodded her head gave him Hope. Hope for a future. And her words when they finally came sent his heart soaring.
“I fell in love with you that night, too. It was those memories and our daughter that got me through Abuelita’s death. Every time that door opened, and I saw a uniform, my heart skipped a beat. That day when I looked into your eyes, eyes I would know anywhere, it almost burst.”
“Part of me was scared. What if you discovered the truth about Hope? I worried you would take her away. And yes, you have changed our lives. But for the better. I was living in denial about how much our little girl needed her daddy. And Jon, you are an amazing one.”
She leaned down and kissed his scarred cheek, “If this is time to come clean, then you should know you’re going to be a daddy again.”
She nodded, “All those prayers Hope says every night must work.”
“Maybe. Or perhaps it has more to do with my insatiable lust for my wife? Two down and four to go?”
Alicia laughed, “Let’s see after this one. I’ll grant you that the Flores family has almost dwindled out, but…”
“Then let’s repopulate it.”
“What? I don’t understand. Even if we had that half dozen, wouldn’t they be Tylers?”
“Why? Who says? It’s not like I want those people anywhere near our children.”
“J. T. …”
“My brother has always been Marianne Buford Walker Tyler’s puppet. Yeah, he was half decent at the wedding. But he left with them…”
“You should know that J. T. has been calling and texting all day. Jon, he’s genuinely concerned about you. And he has been nothing but kind. He has repeatedly apologized for the things that George said and asked me to tell Hope how sorry he was, too. I know that things have not been good between you. Even he admits that, but please, don’t we all deserve second chances?”
“I don’t want to talk about J. T. now. I want to talk about us. Our family. Our future. But if it means that much to you, I promise to keep an open mind about the man.”
Her smile was radiant, “That’s all I ask. Now, what the heck are you talking about? Are you saying that Hope, this baby, and I should keep the name Flores? I mean, I guess that is common enough.”
“Maybe I am just too old-fashioned, but I always thought I would take my husband’s name when I got married. Although, to be fair, as you said, we haven’t done any of this in the ‘normal’ way. I don’t think we’ve ever even been on a date?”
“Then that’s the first order of business. The moment I get out of here, we’re going on a date.”
“Don’t be silly. We’d have to arrange babysitting and someone to cover the diner and…”
“I am going to romance my wife until I convince her that loving me is the smartest thing she’s ever done.”
Alicia leaned down until their foreheads touched, “I knew that the moment I turned the key that night, Jon. And never for a moment, not even during the hardest moments of my pregnancy when I felt all alone and scared, did I ever doubt that. You freed something inside of me. Changed me. Made me a better person.”
“Ditto, darling. I’ve never been any good with words, but those sound about right.” He was able to lift his head just that fraction of an inch. Just enough to capture her lips. He poured his heart and soul into that kiss. As he had with all those others. Trying to tell her with his touch what he had been too frightened to with words.
But all that was behind them now. This was a new day. A new beginning. He reluctantly broke the kiss and held her gaze once more as he spoke, “And yes, I want you and all the children we have to be Flores. I don’t want them shackled with the expectations that come with the Tyler name, at least in that woman’s mind.”
“But how would you feel if I took the name Flores too? I mean, Kaitlin is always talking about those matriarchal societies where the lineage is traced through the mother. What says we can’t do that?”
She drew back and stared at him for a long moment. Then Alicia laughed, and the melody sang to the core of his soul, “Not a damned thing, Jon Flores.”
Jon smiled at the sense of new Hope which burst in his heart. She might have said ‘no strings attached,’ but she had woven a tether of love around his heart that night which had withstood a bomb blast, despair, and depression. In the end, it had drawn him back. To that diner. To this woman. To Hope. And to a new and brighter future. And Jon was damned glad for that string.