**As promised, here’s the final chapter of Cody’s story!**
The only lights were the Christmas tree, the fireplace, and dozens of flickering, electric flameless candles. I’d put them on every surface that could hold them, and it gave the living room a warm, homey glow. Friends and family sat on every available surface. Cindy was singing along with the carols playing through the Bluetooth speakers, and she had a lovely voice. The kids were shrieking with laughter. Papa Jim had gotten into the eggnog and was smiling goofily at his wife. Cole was being weird, but since he had confided he was going to propose to Marie tonight, I wasn’t surprised. The whole house was filled with the scent from the mulled cider I had warming on the stove, and laughter and conversation ebbed and flowed.
This was what Christmas was all about.
I couldn’t stop smiling, even if I wished Jake was here to enjoy it with me. But every time that thought crossed my mind, I only needed to look around and feel joy. Cole caught my eye and gave me a shaking grin. Knowing that was our sign, I flashed a thumbs up, and picked up the nearly empty cookie tray. I headed into the kitchen to fill it with Annabelle’s perfectly decorated confections. While I was there, I pulled out the bottle of champagne, and gathered up the flutes from the pantry where I’d set them earlier after I’d washed them. This way I’d be ready to pop the cork to celebrate my brother’s engagement.
Just as I was setting down the tray, Cindy wandered in. Her face was flushed, most likely equal parts wine and happiness, and I leaned over to kiss her cheek.
“How you doing, Cody?”
I smiled and moved away, then started removing the foil from the bottle.
“Okay. Good.” I sighed. “Happy and sad at the same time, you know?”
“I know. That’s the beauty of being human. We’re capable of feeling all sorts of emotions at the same time.”
I chuckled because she wanted me to. But in the back of my mind, I was wondering if I could put my foot down and insist that Jake resign his commission or somehow demand he never get deployed during the holidays again. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I dismissed it. I’d never do that to him. I’d just have to deal if it happened again. And in a few more years, it would not longer be an issue.
“You need any help with this?” Cindy asked.
“Nope.” I got the bottle open, the loud pop a satisfying sound, and offered her a huge grin. “I’m all set.”
“Okay.” She patted my arm and headed back into the other room, swaying a little with the music. She was too damn cute.
I’d just finished pouring all the glasses when Cole stuck his head through the doorway. I smiled wide.
“Sure am,” I responded. “You?”
“Yep,” he said. And he did look a hell of a lot calmer. I followed him out, and watched as he walked across the room. The dead silent room. When he stopped beside Marie, I expected him to clear his throat or drop onto one knee, but he did neither. In fact, his gaze slid across the room toward the front door.
Movement caught my attention, and then I was sure I was hallucinating. Because there stood a Marine in his service uniform, cover tucked under his arm. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. Because this could not be real. It couldn’t be.
“Hey, baby boy,” my husbands deep voice came out of the Marine mirage. The Marine that had his face and his smile. And was standing in our living room when he should be half a world away.
My knees gave out, but Jake was there before I hit the ground, saving me and holding me up, just as he always did. His touch jolted me back to reality, let me know that this was really happening and I threw myself at him. Literally threw myself into his arms and climbed up him, wrapping him tight with both arms and legs.
An eternity passed and I didn’t care that it was two days till Christmas and we had a room full of people staring at us. Jake was in my arms. And then he was kissing me. With all the power he possessed, all the longing he’d built up, and I was devouring him back with that same aching need.
Eventually he had to put me down, but he didn’t let me go. He kept me flush against him and I was crying, but the only reason that bothered me was because I couldn’t see his face clearly.
I shot a look at my brother who grinned sheepishly.
“Surprise?” Cole chuckled. Then he took Marie’s hand and held it up, and the light caught the diamond on her finger. “She already said yes.”
There were shouts, maybe of glee and congratulations, but I couldn’t process it at all. It was all just meaningless sound
Jake took hold of my chin to turn my attention back to him, then used his thumbs to wipe the tears from my cheeks. He smiled a watery smile of his own.
“How?” I managed to croak.
“I had leave, and I pulled some strings. But I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. Not when I was deployed. But I’m not a Staff Sergeant for nothing, right?” He kissed me again, quickly but full of so much heat. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get your hopes up if I couldn’t make it work. And then even when I knew it would, I decided it would be fun to surprise you.”
“Oh Christ,” I whispered, still not able get my brain online. “Jake.”
“Yeah, sweetheart. It’s me. And I’m here for two weeks.” He gave me a crooked grin. “God willing and the creek don’t rise. Merry Christmas, baby. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Merry Christmas indeed.