The numbers on the screen were replaced with a name as the phone began to ring, and Travis’ eyes widened when he read the display. The phone was at his ear with a blurring movement.
“Trent?” A surprised laugh escaped his lips, and a smile broke out on his face as he looked at me, “It’s Trent!” I gasped and squeezed his arm as he spoke. “Where are you? What do you mean you’re at Morgan? I’ll be there in a second, don’t you fucking move!”
I surged forward, my feet struggling to keep up with Travis as he sprinted across the campus, dragging me behind him. When we reached Morgan, my lungs were screaming for air. Trent ran down the steps, crashing into both of us.
“Jesus H. Christ, brother! I thought you were toast!” Trent said, squeezing us so tightly I couldn’t breathe.
“You ASSHOLE!” Travis screamed, shoving his brother away. “I thought you were fucking dead! I’ve been waiting for the firefighters to carry your charred body from Keaton!”
Travis frowned at Trent for a moment, and then pulled him into a hug. His arm shot out, fumbling around until he felt my shirt, and then pulled me into a hug as well. After several moments, Travis released Trent, keeping me close beside him.
Trent looked at me with an apologetic frown. “I’m sorry, Abby. I panicked.”
I shook my head. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Me ? I would have been better off dead if Travis had seen me come out of that building without you. I tried to find you after you ran off, but then I got lost and had to find another way. I walked along the building looking for that window, but I ran into some cops and they made me leave. I’ve been flippin’ the fuck OUT over here!” he said, running his hand over his short hair.
Travis wiped my cheeks with his thumbs, and then pulled up his shirt, using it to wipe the soot from his face. “Let’s get out of here. The cops are going to be crawling all over the place soon.”
After hugging his brother once more, we walked to America’s Honda. Travis watched me buckle my seat belt and then frowned when I coughed.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital. Get you checked out.”
“I’m fine,” I said, interlacing my fingers in his. I looked down, seeing a deep cut across his knuckles. “Is that from the fight or the window?”
“The window,” he answered, frowning at my bloodied nails.
“You saved my life, you know.”
His eyebrows pulled together. “I wasn’t leaving without you.”
“I knew you’d come,” I smiled, squeezing his fingers between mine.
We held hands until we arrived at the apartment. I couldn’t tell whose blood was whose as I washed the crimson and ash from my skin in the shower. Falling into Travis’ bed, I could still smell the stench of smoke and smoldering skin.
“Here,” he said, handing me a short glass filled with amber liquid, “It’ll help you relax.”
“I’m not tired.”
He held out the glass again. His eyes were exhausted, blood shot and heavy. “Just try to get some rest, Pidge.”
“I’m almost afraid to close my eyes,” I said, taking the glass and gulping the liquid down.
He took the glass and set it on the night stand, sitting beside me. We sat in silence, letting the last hours sink in. I shut my eyes tight when the memories of the terrified cries of those trapped in the basement filled my mind. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to forget, or if I ever would.
Travis’ warm hand on my knee pulled me from my conscious nightmare. “A lot of people died tonight.”
“We won’t find out until tomorrow just how many.”
“Trent and I passed a group of kids on the way out. I wonder if they made it. They looked so scared….”
I felt the tears fill my eyes, but before they touched my cheeks, Travis’ solid arms were surrounding me. Immediately I felt protected, flush against his skin. Feeling so at home in his arms had once terrified me, but in that moment, I was grateful that I could feel so safe after experiencing something so horrific. There was only one reason I could ever feel that way with anyone.
I belonged to him.
It was then that I knew. Without a doubt in my mind, without worry of what others would think, and having no fear of mistakes or consequences, I smiled at the words I would say.
“Travis?” I said against his chest.
“What, Baby?” he whispered into my hair.
Our phones rang in unison, and I handed his to him as I answered mine. “Hello?”
“ABBY?” America shrieked.
“I’m okay, Mare. We’re all okay.”
“We just heard! It’s all over the news!”
I could hear Travis explaining to Shepley next to me, and I tried my best to reassure America. Fielding dozens of her questions, trying to keep my voice steady while recounting the scariest moments of my life, I relaxed the second Travis covered my hand with his.
It seemed I was telling someone else’s story, sitting in the comfort of Travis’ apartment, a million miles away from the nightmare that could have killed us. America wept when I finished, realizing how close we came to losing our lives.
“I’m going to start packing now. We’ll be home first thing in the morning,” America sniffed.
“Mare, don’t leave early. We’re fine.”
“I have to see you. I have to hug you so I’ll know you’re all right,” she cried.
“We’re fine. You can hug me on Friday.”
She sniffed again. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. Have a good time.”
Travis looked at me and then pressed the phone tight against his ear, “Better hug your girl, Shep. She sounds upset. I know man…me too. See you soon.”
I hung up seconds before Travis did, and we sat in silence for a moment, still processing what had happened. After several moments, Travis leaned back against his pillow, and then pulled me against his chest.
“America all right?” he asked, staring up at the ceiling.
“She’s upset. She’ll be okay.”
“I’m glad they weren’t there.”
I clenched my teeth. I hadn’t even thought about what might have happened had they not stayed with Shepley’s parents. My mind flashed to the terrified expressions of the girls in the basement, fighting against the men to escape. America’s frightened eyes replaced the nameless girls in that room. I felt nauseous thinking about her beautiful blonde hair soiled and singed along with the rest of the bodies laid out on the lawn.
“Me too,” I said with a shiver.
“I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot tonight. I don’t need to add anything else to your plate.”
“You were there, too, Trav.”
He was quiet for several moments, and just when I opened my mouth to speak again, he took a deep breath.
“I don’t get scared very often,” he said finally. “I was scared the first morning I woke up and you weren’t here. I was scared when you left me after Vegas. I was scared when I thought I was going to have to tell my dad that Trent had died in that building. But when I saw you across the flames in that basement…I was terrified. I made it to the door, was a few feet from the exit, and I couldn’t leave.”
“What do you mean? Are you crazy ?” I said, my head jerking up to look into his eyes.
“I’ve never been so clear about anything in my life. I turned around, made my way to that room you were in, and there you were. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t even know if we would make it out or not, I just wanted to be where you were, whatever that meant. The only thing I’m afraid of is a life without you, Pigeon.”
I leaned up, kissing his lips tenderly. When our mouths parted, I smiled. “Then you have nothing to be afraid of. We’re forever.”
He sighed. “I’d do it all over again, you know. I wouldn’t trade one second if it meant we were right here, in this moment.”
My eyes felt heavy, and I took in a deep breath. My lungs protested, still burning from the smoke. I coughed a bit, and then relaxed, feeling Travis’ warm lips against my forehead. His hand glided over my damp hair, and I could hear his heart beating steady in his chest.
“This is it,” he said with a sigh.
“The moment. When I watch you sleeping…that peace on your face? This is it. I haven’t had it since before my mom died, but I can feel it again.” He took another deep breath and pulled me closer. “I knew the second I met you that there was something about you I needed. Turns out it wasn’t something about you at all. It was just you.”
The corner of my mouth turned up as I buried my face into his chest. “It’s us , Trav. Nothing makes sense unless we’re together. Have you noticed that?”
“Noticed ? I’ve been telling you that all year!” he teased. “It’s official. Bimbos, fights, leaving, Parker, Vegas…even fires…our relationship can withstand anything.”
I lifted my head up once more, noticing the contentment in his eyes as he looked at me. It was similar to the peace I had seen on his face after I lost the bet to stay with him in the apartment, after I told him I loved him for the first time, and the morning after the Valentine’s dance. It was similar, but different. This was absolute — permanent. The cautious hope had vanished from his eyes, unqualified trust taking its place.
I recognized it only because his eyes mirrored what I was feeling.
“Vegas?” I asked.
His brow furrowed, unsure of where I was headed. “Yeah?”
“Have you thought about going back?”
His eyebrows shot up. “I don’t think that’s a good idea for me.”
“What if we just went for a night?”
He looked around the dark room, confused. “A night?”
“Marry me,” I said without hesitation. I was surprised at how quickly and easily the words came.
His mouth spread into a broad smile. “When?”
I shrugged. “We can book a flight tomorrow. It’s Spring Break. I don’t have anything going on tomorrow, do you?”
“I’m callin’ your bluff,” he said, reaching for his phone. “American Airlines,” he said, watching my reaction closely as he was connected. “I need two tickets to Vegas, please. Tomorrow. Hmmmm…,” he looked at me, waiting for me to change my mind. “Two days, round trip. Whatever you have.”
I rested my chin on his chest, waiting for him to book the tickets. The longer I let him stay on the phone, the wider his smile became.
“Yeah…uh, hold on a minute,” he said, pointing to his wallet. “Grab my card, would ya, Pidge?” He waited again for my reaction. I happily leaned over, pulled his credit card from his wallet and handed it to him.
Travis called out the numbers to the agent, glancing up at me after each set. When he gave the expiration date and saw my lack of protesting, he pressed his lips together. “Er, yes ma’m. We’ll just pick them up at the desk. Thank you.”
He handed me his phone and I sat it on the night table, waiting for him to speak.
“You just asked me to marry you,” he said, still waiting for me to admit some kind of trickery.
“That was the real deal, you know. I just booked two tickets to Vegas for noon tomorrow. So that means we’re getting married tomorrow night.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re going to be Mrs. Maddox when you start classes on Monday.”
“Oh,” I said, looking around.
Travis raised an eyebrow. “Second thoughts?”
“I’m going to have some serious paperwork to change next week.”
He nodded slowly, cautiously hopeful. “You’re going to marry me tomorrow?”
I smiled. “Uh huh.”
“I fucking love you!” He grabbed each side of my face, slamming his lips against mine. “I love you so much, Pigeon,” he said, kissing me over and over.
“Just remember that in fifty years when I’m still kicking your ass in poker,” I giggled.
He smiled, triumphant. “If it means sixty or seventy years with you, Baby…you have my full permission to do your worst.”
I raised one eyebrow, “You’re gonna regret that.”
“You wanna bet?”
I smiled with as much deviance as I could muster. “Are you confident enough to bet that shiny bike outside?”
He shook his head, a serious expression replacing the teasing smile he had just seconds before. “I’ll put in everything I have. I don’t regret a single second with you, Pidge, and I never will.”
I held out my hand and he took it without hesitation, shaking it once, and then bringing it to his mouth, pressing his lips tenderly against my knuckles. The room was quiet, his lips leaving my skin and the air escaping his lungs the only sound.
“Abby Maddox…,” he said, his smile beaming in the moonlight.
I pressed my cheek against his bare chest. “Travis and Abby Maddox. Has a nice ring to it.”
“Ring?” he said, frowning.
“We’ll worry about rings later, Baby. I sort of sprung this on you.”
“Uh…,” he trailed off, watching me for the reaction he expected.
“What?” I asked, feeling myself tense.
“Don’t freak out,” he said as he shifted nervously. His grip around me tightened. “I kind of…already took care of that part.”
“What part?” I said, my head craning to see his face.
He stared up at the ceiling and sighed. “You’re going to freak out.”
I frowned as he pulled one arm away from me, reaching for the drawer of his night stand. He felt around for a moment and I blew my damp bangs from my eyes.
“What? You bought condoms?”
He laughed once, “No, Baby.” His eyebrows pulled together as he made more of an effort, reaching farther into the drawer. Once he found what he was looking for, his focus changed, and he watched me as he pulled a small box from its hiding place.
I looked down as he placed the small velvet square on his chest, reaching behind him to rest his head on his arm.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“What does it look like?”
“Okay. Let me rephrase the question….when did you get that?”
Travis inhaled, and as he did, the box rose with his chest, and fell when he pushed the air from his lungs. “A while ago.”
“I just happened to see it one day…and I knew there was only one place it could belong…on your perfect little finger.”
“One day when?”
“Does it matter?” he rebutted. He squirmed a bit, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Can I see it?” I smiled, suddenly feeling a bit giddy.
His smile matched mine, and he looked to the box. “Open it.”
I touched it with one finger, feeling the lush velvet under my fingertip. I grasped the golden seal with both hands, slowly pulling the lid open. A glimmer caught my eye and I slammed the lid shut.
“TRAVIS!” I wailed.
“I knew you’d freak out!” he said, sitting up and cupping his hands over mine.
I could feel the box pressing against both of my palms, feeling like a prickly grenade that could detonate at any moment. I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Are you insane ?”
“I know. I know what you’re thinking, but I had to. It was The One. And I was right! I haven’t seen one since that was as perfect as this one!”
My eyes popped open and instead of the anxious pair of brown eyes I expected, he was beaming with pride. He gently peeled my hands from the case and pulled the lid open, pulling the ring from the tiny slit that held it in place. The large round diamond glittered even in the dim light, catching the moonlight in every facet.
“It’s….my God, it’s amazing,” I whispered as he took my left hand in his.
“Can I put it on your finger?” he asked, peering up at me. When I nodded, he pressed his lips together, sliding the silver band over my knuckle, holding it in place for a moment before letting go. “Now it’s amazing.”
We both stared at my hand for a moment, equally shocked at the contrast of the large diamond sitting atop my small, slender finger. The band spanned the bottom of my finger, splitting in two on each side as it reached the solitaire, smaller diamonds lining each sliver of white gold.
“You could have put a down payment on a car for this,” I said under my breath, unable to put any strength behind my voice.
My eyes followed my hand as Travis brought it up to his lips. “I’ve imagined what this would look like on your hand a million times. Now that it’s there….”
“What?” I smiled, watching him stare at my hand with an emotional grin.
He looked up at me. “I thought I was going to have to sweat five years before I’d feel like this.”
“I wanted it as much as you did. I’ve just got a hell of a poker face,” I smiled, pressing my lips against his.