WE BELONG TOGETHER
10 YEARS LATER
Luke stood behind his daughters. Like the others with him, they trained their eyes on the sky. It was the end of the Veterans Day parade, and the last day of the Trainer family road trip. For a week, he, his brothers, and their families had travelled around in camper vans sight-seeing. This was their last day before heading back to Ryker Falls for Luke’s birthday. Quinn had left them yesterday to come here and prepare for the celebrations. The day was sliding into late afternoon now, and the excitement among their group was climbing.
“Put your headphones on now,” he told his girls.
Zoe was his and Quinn’s eldest girl. Tall like him, she was all knees and elbows, and had yet to fill out at eleven. She had a serious attitude and thought everyone but her friends were uncool, including her parents. He pointed out to her more than once that surely the Chief of the fire department and a fighter pilot had to carry some coolness. She hadn’t agreed.
He heard the thunder of approaching jets and knew his girl would be here soon.
“Show time,” Joe leaned in to whisper in his ear.
Joe and Jack were here to watch Quinn, and Luke felt a brief pang at the knowledge that Nixon was not with them.
“Daddy, mommy is coming!”
Stella, his six-year-old, grabbed his hand as she shrieked because of the noise cancelling headphones now over her ears. At the moment, she was calmer, like her parents, but the fire was in there. She was just more controlled than Zoe, and could aggravate her older sister with a look.
Parenthood, Luke had quickly realized, was not like being an uncle. You couldn’t return the child when it was tired and cranky, or going through some phase of growth that pushed all your buttons. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Luke loved his girls. Aunt Jess told him he’d had two daughters with spirit because he and Quinn could cope with them. Sometimes he wasn’t so sure, but they were doing their best. She’d also said as long as there was love, the rest will follow, and that was something he had in abundance.
His girls were everything to him.
The roar reached them, and he raised his face to watch Quinn fly overhead in the F16. She was a part-time teacher now with the Air National Guard and loved every minute. Especially as it meant she wasn’t gone for weeks or months at a time.
“I can’t help it, she just impresses the hell out of me still,” Jack said from behind him. “I mean, what’s not to be impressed with?”
They flew by at speed, the noise loud and exhilarating. He was still impressed as hell with his wife, too. She was humble, sweet, and so badass just thinking about her made his chest ache.
He often looked at her standing in their kitchen attempting, yet again, to recreate the lemon and blueberry scones that were sold in Tea Total, and wondered how it was that she could navigate her way anywhere in a fighter jet, yet the basics of a simple recipe often seemed beyond her.
“That’s my girl,” he whispered.
Zoe lost her coolness and started jumping up and down, screaming, mummy, and waving her flag. With her were all her cousins chanting at Aunty Quinn.
Behind them were stands full of people, but he and his party were seated below, near to where the jets would eventually land.
“She said I would have made a kick ass pilot,” Jack said.
His brother had taken a bunch of lessons from Quinn and now could fly solo, and he loved it. So much so that he took out the Harper plane for charter trips now and again when Ivan was busy.
“Never in doubt,” Rory said.
He watched Quinn circle round and come back in to land. His chest was so full of pride he was fairly sure it was close to bursting as he watched her.
So much had happened since she’d said yes to becoming his wife. They’d bought the old Stringer place, and worked hard to get it where they wanted it. Life, for a man who didn’t want a family of his own, was right where he wanted it to be.
He was still the chief of the Ryker Falls fire department, which, with the population growth, had grown significantly. Stella and his nephew Benji were both adamant that one day they were going to be firefighters, and he had to say he was happy about that. Gracie was going to be a fighter pilot like her Aunty.
“Hey, Uncle Luke, do you think Aunty Quinn will let me sit in the cockpit?”
At fifteen Benji had turned into the boy they’d always known he’d become. Tall, like his daddy, and quiet.
“Not sure, Bud, but we can ask her when she lands.”
She brought the jet in behind the others and taxied to a stop. He watched minutes later as she got out of the cockpit after handing over her helmet. The woman was gorgeous anytime, but in that flight suit she was the meaning of the word.
She saluted people and talked to others as she made her way down the line of invited guests. His girl wasn’t a big smiler, but it was there. He knew her well now, knew that this was her professional face, not the one she wore at home. All business, he thought.
“Mommy!” Stella shrieked.
She looked up and saw them. Her expression changed, softened. Waving, she continued on down the line. When she was done, she made her way to them. The large group of friends and family that loved her.
“Hey, sweet girl,” he kissed her softly as she reached them. “You about deafened me.”
“Hey you.” Her arms went around his neck and squeezed before she released him to hug their girls.
“Captain Harper, you are one amazing lady.”
“Ha-ha,” she punched him in the arm when she’d straightened.
“How is it you think I can be joking when I just watched you fly that metal death trap over my head? You’re amazing, and what’s more, you’re my wife.”
She blushed, which always made him smile. For all she was a badass fighter pilot, she was still the sweet, small-town girl he loved.
“Cut it out.”
He leaned in for another kiss.
“I just need to do a few more official things, then we can head home, okay?”
“Home,” Luke smiled. “Sounds good.”
Two days after the parade, Quinn woke slowly, knowing who the heavy arm around her waist belonged to. She had always thought her happy place was in the air before she’d married Luke and they’d created a family together. She knew different now. Home with those she loved was where she was most happy. Home with him, her soul mate.
“How long do you think we’ve got?”
The deep words were spoken into the back of her neck. His arm tightened around her.
“My guess is ten minutes, tops.” Quinn squinted at the clock.
“I better make it count, then.”
She was flipped onto her back and his lips and weight settled on top of her.
“Happy birthday, my love,” she whispered against his lips
“Waking up with you in my arms is always my best birthday present.”
“After ten years, you’d think that would get old.”
His lips moved to her neck. “Maybe when I’m sixty.”
Quinn couldn’t hold back the shudder as his hands roamed her body. He knew just the right places to heat her up.
The sound of running feet had her laughing. Luke sighed and rolled off her.
“Tell me again why we had children?”
“Because they complete us.”
“Right,” Luke drawled.
“Because they are sweet natured and obedient.”
“Because they will look after us when we’re old and it will be payback for all the crap they give us now.”
“Okay, so that makes perfect sense,” he muttered. “I love you,” he said after a last kiss.
“Love you too.”
Their bedroom door flew open and in stomped Zoe. Still an early riser. She hadn’t hit those teenage years where she’d want to stay in bed all day, but Quinn knew they were coming.
“It’s for you.” She held out a phone.
“Good morning, eldest daughter. How did you sleep?” Luke asked her. Zoe rolled her eyes. “Come and give your daddy a big morning kiss and hug.”
“And say happy birthday to him,” Quinn said, giving her a pointed look.
“Happy birthday, Dad. Uncle Joe is on the phone.”
“No please, so much love and emotion from you at such an early hour. I’m not sure I can take it.”
Zoe rolled her eyes again.
Luke held out his hand, and she slapped the phone into his palm. She then climbed on the bed and slid down between them and under the covers.
“Hey, bro, what’s up?” Luke said into the phone. “He’s what?”
Quinn looked at her husband. He was now sitting upright, shock on his handsome face.
“When did he arrive?”
“What?” Quinn mouthed when he looked at her.
“Okay, we’ll be there soon.”
“Where are we going, Dad?” Zoe asked when he finished the call. She was now lounging on Luke’s pillow.
The girls loved their father, and he them. They played, laughed, and argued. But Quinn knew that like her, they knew he would move mountains for them if need be.
“Uncle Nixon is home.”
“No way?” Quinn said. “How? When?”
Nixon had been in France for the last two years studying at a culinary school. They’d missed him, and when he phoned or zoomed, she could tell he missed them, too.
“Apparently, he arrived this morning before the sun rose. Knocked on Joe’s door.” Luke’s smile was huge. “Damn, I missed that boy.”
He then scooped Zoe into his arms and hugged her hard. Running his beard over her cheek, he made revolting noises into her neck. Predictably, she squealed loud enough to pierce an eardrum.
“Why is she shrieking?”
Their youngest daughter stood in the doorway, hair tousled, looking annoyed. Unlike Zoe, Stella didn’t wake ready for anything. It took some time wrapped in a blanket with a hot chocolate before she was someone you’d want to talk to.
“Come here, baby.” Luke held out his other arm.
“No way am I going near her,” she pointed at her sister, before padding around the bed to climb into Quinn’s lap.
Cuddle time was the best, and she knew it would not last, but while it did, they would take it.
“Uncle Nixon came home this morning, Stella,” Luke said.
“Wow. Cool,” she muttered from under the blanket she’d pulled over her head.
“So that means we need to get moving. I promise to stop and get hot chocolate on the way,” Luke said.
“Blueberry and lemon scone for me,” Zoe said.
“Chocolate and raspberry pastry for me.” Stella’s words were muffled under the blanket.
Surprisingly, it only took thirty minutes before they were out of the house and into Luke’s SUV.
“Come on, Spot,” Stella said, holding open the door. “We’re going to see Aunty Jess and Uncle Goldy.”
Quinn still smiled when she thought about the nickname the kids had come up with for Mr. Goldhirsh. He loved it, and was still running whenever the opportunity presented itself, although he was slowing down now.
Spot, the white and black spaniel, leapt into the back seat and onto Stella.
“You seem pretty happy Nixon is home?”
Luke reached over to squeeze her hand with his. “You know me so well.”
“I know you love your people with that big heart of yours and worry when one of us leaves and you can’t reach them. I know I didn’t really understand what happy was until I became one of your people.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners as he shot her a smile.
“My main person,” he said.
She had a last look at their home as Luke drove out of the drive. A two story wooden bungalow that had been built with the help of friends and family, it suited them perfectly, as did the land it sat on.
Home, she thought.
They drove into the main street of Ryker Falls and stopped outside Tea Total. Miss Marla was still looking spritely, as was her sister, behind the counter. They ran, and walked with the Ryker Roadies often, and knew all the gossip that was taking place around town. They were, like so many in this town, part of what made it special.
“Nixon’s back,” Quinn said.
“No!” Miss Marla ran around the counter and hugged Luke.
People were always hugging him. Quinn completely understood why. Sure, they argued and debated, and when he left his towel after a shower on the bed every day, she wanted to throttle him, but she wouldn’t trade him for anyone.
He’d made her feel. Made her understand there was more to life than a career.
“Well, now, here’s your order, Zoe, and you go on and give that Uncle Nixon of yours a big hug from me when you see him.”
Zoe smiled sweetly, as she did to all the elders in this town.
“We don’t get those smiles,” Luke muttered.
“That’s because she can let her guard down with us.”
“Right, and I’m happy she feels that way, but sometimes a smile would be nice.”
As if she’d heard him, their eldest turned and smiled. “Thanks for the scone and hot chocolate, Dad.”
“It’s like she heard you,” Quinn laughed.
They visited Albert in The Chocolate Place. He’d recently had a new hip put in, so he was hobbling about behind the counter.
“Tell Nixon I need to see him,” Albert said when they had their orders.
“Will do,” Luke waved a hand.
Once again, back in the SUV, they headed out of town and toward the ranch.
“I wonder if he’s changed,” Luke said.
“I’m sure living alone in Paris would do that to a person,” Quinn said.
“Do you think he’s back for a while?”
She heard the hope in his voice.
“I guess we’ll find out. But for now, he’s home, and that’s enough.”
The girls ran ahead with spot, into the house. Aunt Jess and Uncle Goldy, Luke, would never quite get used to that, but it kinda suited Mr. Goldhirsh. He felt Quinn’s hand slip into his and squeeze. Closing his around it, they went inside.
Noise greeted them as they reached the lounge. The kitchen was no longer big enough for all of them. Stepping inside, they found people everywhere. Kids shrieking, dogs barking. Most yelled happy birthday to him. He found his little brother.
Nixon lowered Zoe to the floor and came toward Luke. He met him halfway and wrapped him in a bear hug.
“Hey, little brother.”
“Hey you. Happy birthday, bro.”
They held each other for long seconds, and then Luke released him, holding Nixon’s shoulders so he could look at him.
Jeans, worn at the knees, and a black sweater. Hair damp from a shower, he looked like Joe and Luke most of all, but even more so since he’d last see his brother.
“Good to see you, bro,” Luke said, feeling the swell of emotion that he was here again. Safe, where he wanted him to be.
Luke knew he was overprotective of pretty much everyone he cared about, but his brother was more so. He’d come into their lives late, but when he had, he’d made an impact. The change in him had been slow, but with the love and nurturing they’d shown him, he’d blossomed into a pretty awesome young man.
“Good to be seen, Luke.”
“Missed you too,” his brother said, moving in again for a one-armed hug.
“Quinn.” He released Luke and hugged her. “I hear your fly by was impressive, and Jack nearly fainted with the excitement of it.”
“I thought he’d have moved on by now,” she shrugged, “but what can you do?”
He greeted his family then, and friends. Fin and Maggie were there, and their kids. Others started to arrive.
“What’s this?” Luke said as Luna and Nash walked through the door.
“Your birthday party,” Joe said. “When I knew Nixon was home, I thought we’d add homecoming to it.”
“Good to see him,” Luke said, finding Nixon. He had kids hanging off him. He noticed his girls were there, too.
The cake, when it was brought out, held what looked to be a shit ton of candles, to Luke’s eyes. He smiled dutifully as Gracie placed it before him. Well into her obnoxious teenage years, she was driving her parents crazy with her crop tops and short shorts. Dylan got so worked up about one pair, he’d cut his down and insisted on walking down Ryker Falls in them until Grace, mortified, and humiliated, and told him she would throw the offensive shorts away.
“Thanks, baby girl,” he said when she moved to his side.
“Love you, Uncle Luke.”
“Love you too, Gracie.”
She may be a handful for her parents, but to him, she was always his sweet little niece.
They sang to him, and he blew out the candles. He then opened presents. The last was a white envelope. Opening it, he read the words on the card.
‘You’re invited to the grand opening of the Brothers' Bistro.’
He looked up and found Nixon before him.
“Is this from you?”
His brother nodded.
“You want me to fly to Paris for this?” Because he would if Nixon wanted it. He’d do pretty much anything for this guy, but his chest ached that he would be setting up a business away from Ryker Falls.
“Actually, you don’t need to go that far. I’m taking over the organic shop down by Artsy Fartsy.”
Luke couldn’t keep the smile on his face.
“Really. I missed this.” Nixon looked around him. “Missed you all. This is my life, here with you. I’m home here. I did what I needed in Paris, and I’ll never regret it, but I want to come home now.”
Christ, he was going to cry. Felt the tears well up in his eyes as he choked them back. An arm slid around his waist and Luke knew instantly who it belonged to.
“Ah,” Luke cleared his throat. “You need a silent partner?”
Nixon smiled. “I need plenty of help. That place needs a total refurb, and money will always come in handy.”
“I’m so happy for you, bud.” Luke held out this hand and Nixon gripped it. “And it’s a cool name.”
“I have cool big brothers. Thanks for bring me home, Luke.” The words were softly spoken, but he heard them. He then watched his little brother walk away.
“You okay there?”
He turned into Quinn’s arms, and held her close until he could talk again.
“I’m better than okay.”
READ THE COMPLETE RYKER FALLS SERIES