Chapter Twenty Eight

I got to the hospital and headed to the third floor. Callie was in a special ward. Not the Intensive Care Unit – she'd been in that last night – but not in a regular hospital room either.

I'd phoned Rob and told him I'd like to stop by. I didn't want to surprise him or Callie, didn't want to butt in where I wasn't welcome. Rob was more than gracious. He told me the whole family was at the hospital and I was welcome to visit Callie any time. That was certainly nice to hear. After all, he reminded me, I'd saved Callie's life. Yes, but I'd had help from him, Steven, and dad.

I got to Callie's room and found no one there. A nurse saw me peeking through the glass door. "Are you looking for Mrs. Christianson?"

I nodded.

"She's in the Day Room with her family. The Day Room's down the hall." The nurse pointed. "Third door on the right. You can't miss it."

I thanked the nurse and made my way down the hall. A big glass window came into view. Behind the glass was Callie, Rob, the kids – Evan and Leah – and both sets of grandparents. The Day Room was set up with a TV, sofas, chairs, books, and toys. A great place for families to meet with loved ones.

I focused on Callie. She wore a thick white robe and gauze covered her calves. If she was in pain, she didn't show it. She looked refreshed. Her hair was golden and shiny. Her eyes were bright with love and joy. Evan sat beside her on the sofa and Leah was on her lap. Callie was reading them a book.

Rob was off to the side, talking with the grandparents. He broke away from them, went over and kissed Callie on the head. It was as if he couldn't bear to be parted from her. He squeezed her shoulder then bent and ruffled Evan's dark hair. Rob's bliss at having his family together was abundant. No man could have looked happier. Rob was a lucky man and knew it.

I watched for a few minutes, not wanting to interrupt the happiness … the love. As I watched a new awareness washed over me. For the first time, I realized why Callie left me. Today, I saw with my heart and not my eyes. I saw what Callie had always wanted in life: a husband who worked nine to five, not unpredictable hours. She wanted a husband who worked Monday through Friday. Something you could depend on. Callie wanted a husband who came home every night, not someone who might suddenly be called away on an investigation.

Even out of the Army, I could not have given her that kind of stability. The detective life is unpredictable. Sometimes you were super busy chasing leads. Other times you were stuck in the office wondering if you'd have another case.

The detective's life was stressful and yes, even dangerous. Callie didn't want any of that. She wanted dependability; a husband with a nice, safe job. The money, how much her husband earned, wasn't important. The fact the income was reliable and constant was all that mattered. A set paycheck every two weeks. Something Callie could budget around.

Callie had found someone who fulfilled her wants and needs. Rob. He made her happy and loved her dearly. They had two wonderful children, a lovely home, and family nearby. It was everything Callie wanted and I was happy for her. Truly happy.

I pushed the door open and made my entrance. The grandmothers greeted me with hugs and kisses. The grandfathers shook my hand, thanked me, and asked how I was doing. Rob and Evan were next. Evan tugged on my pant leg and I got down on one knee in front of him. He hugged me round the neck and thanked me for "finding his mommy."

If this kept up, I might cry. I told Evan he was welcome and that I'd had a lot of help searching for his mommy. I didn't work alone. Evan said he wanted to be a detective when he grew up. I patted his head and said that was a long way's off he might change his mind.

"No, I won't." He looked at me and his small eyes gleamed.

Rob smiled. "He'll probably wind up in law enforcement of some kind. Before all this, he wanted to be a policeman."

What little boy didn't dream of being a policeman? I had. Joe had. Rob probably had, too.

To the crowd in general, I said, "I didn't mean to intrude. I just wanted to see how Callie was doing."

Callie was still seated on the sofa with Leah on her lap. I stepped closer and Leah squirmed. Unlike her brother who was bold and outgoing, Leah was shy and withdrawn. She snuggled into her mother's arms. Her little feet bounced about Callie's knees and calves.

"Careful, Leah," Rob said. "You don't want to hurt mommy's legs."

"That's why I'm here," I said to Callie. "I was wondering how your legs are."

Rob took Leah in his arms and carried her to the toys in the corner. I sat on the sofa next to Callie.

"All things considered, I'm doing fine." Callie lifted a leg and showed me the bandages. "Mostly first and second degree burns. I might need skin grafts later. The doctors will know more in a week. It all depends on how well I heal."

Rob came back and stood behind Callie. He gently laid his hands on her shoulders. "There may be some scarring, but we're not worried about that."

Callie reached a hand up and back. Rob took her hand in his and their fingers entwined. Callie turned her head slightly and smiled at Rob. "No, we're not. The important thing is, I'm home with my babies and husband."

# # # #

I stayed in Bayport for another week. Joe was doing a good job of handling our PI business in Illinois and I needed to unwind and relax. The stress of the case had worn me down. Mom and dad seemed happy to have me. Mom went all out on dinners and cooked most of my favorites.

In between surfing, swimming, and sunbathing; I touched base with Detective Dietz. Wilson Kingsley had been moved downstate to a maximum security prison. The psychiatrist had determined Wilson was not mentally stable. I could've told people that for free. Still, it was good to know Wilson was far away and couldn't harm anyone else.

Father Bob and his wife were still in prison and awaiting trial. The Seaside Retirement Home had filed Grand Larceny charges against both of them. If there's any justice in the Justice System, Father Bob and his wife would get prison time and plenty of it.

I checked on Steven, too. He was busying working a new case in another town. The police there had heard of Steven's success with the Callie Christianson case. I wished Steven luck on his new case.

I would have solved Callie's disappearance without Steven, but truthfully, he led me to Wilson Kingsley quicker than I would have gotten there on my own and in the end that was paramount. If I hadn't found Callie that night, it might have been too late and for that I thanked Steven.

# # # #

My last night in Bayport my feet took me to where this journey began. The beach. Night was coming on and the temperature was dropping. I welcomed the cold, the chill against my face. I sat on a large rock nestled between two pine trees. This was where Callie and I began – that first kiss on the beach. And this was where our story would end.

Callie was too good for me. It took me years to realize that. But now, I've made my peace with the knowledge. I'm happy to have known her and to have spent part of my life with her.

If I could go back in time, would I change anything? No. Every decision made, shaped me into the man I am and I'm proud of who I became.

I watched the afternoon sky give way to evening twilight. Small waves caressed the sand and brought the briny scent of ocean. I watched the molten, coppery sun melt into the water.

And then I saw her, walking along the shore, the waves lapping at her bare feet. She carried her sandals in her hand. A peasant skirt swished around her bandaged calves. Not so many bandages now. I watched her languid movements with longing.

She came up to me and leaned a hip on the rock. She dropped her shoes on the sand and looked out over the moonlit water. "I knew you'd be here."

I turned my head ever so slightly and an eyebrow rose. "You were looking for me?"

"I wanted to thank you for finding Evan. And for finding me. And for saving my life. I wanted to thank you for everything."

The moonlight shifted on her face and I saw the delicate curve of her lips. "You don't need to thank me. I … I'll always be there for you." My voice was rough, raw with emotion. I wanted to crush her to me, wanted to feel her cheek against my chest. I wanted desperately to relive a moment of our past.

She looked at her feet for a second, wiggled her toes in the sand. Then slowly brought her head up. "I still care about you, Frank. I always will. Nothing will ever change that." She reached over and slipped a hand into mine. "You're a good man, Frank."

There was a spark in our hand-to-hand contact and I felt a pang of longing for the past, for our once uncomplicated love. But now, she had a loving husband and two adorable children. I'd never do anything to destroy that. Never.

"Rob's a good man, too," I said. I saw her eyes go soft and watery.

She gave my fingers a light squeeze and released them. "I just wanted to thank you. I couldn't let you leave town without telling you personally. You deserve that. Rob and I owe you so much." A tear glistened on her cheek. She brushed it away with a thumb.

"You don't owe me anything."

She turned her head and our eyes met. I looked deep into hers and saw the love buried there, the love we had shared. "I have a special place in my heart for you."

She gave a watery smile. "The same is true for me." She picked up her shoes and played with the straps while she considered her next words. Finally, she said, "I'd like to keep in touch."

I was momentarily stunned, then came to my senses. "Yeah. I'd like that." Truthfully, I wasn't sure, but I was willing to give it a try.

She hugged me and my arms went around her like old times, as though we were teens again. "I have to go." Her head was on my chest. "I promised Rob I wouldn't be gone long." She rose on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. "Take care of yourself, Frank."

"I will."

I watched her go. Watched her get in her car and drive away. Her parting brought a dull ache to my heart. I had enjoyed the warmth of her body against mine and the kiss on the cheek. Fond memories crowded my mind. She was my first love. At one time, our bond had been deep and intense. Now, we were friends. Very good friends. I could live with that.

Callie had left an indelible mark on me. I couldn't erase my past and I didn't want to. To erase the past would erase Callie from my life. She was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. I never wanted to forget our time together … or our love.

And in the end, love is all that matters.

A/N: Thanks for reading and a special 'thank you' to everyone who left a review. The journey is complete and I hope you enjoyed the ride.