In the whole three months, she’d only been able to call twice, because they were always so far away from any kind of civilization. Professor Patterson had taken a satellite phone with him but he could only let them use it on rare occasions, because it was so expensive. About a month and half after she left, Ellie, Emerson’s step-mom, got a call that they had been held at gunpoint while crossing the border of Uganda one night. They weren’t supposed to be traveling after dark, but they ended up having to wait at a gas station for three hours just to fill up. Eventually, everything cleared up when the Ugandan police force showed up, but the second I heard, I started searching for tickets online to get to Africa. I didn’t have a clue how to find her, but I was going to. My mom brought me down from that panic. That was the second time she had called. It was such a f**king relief to hear her voice. She said she knew I would do something crazy so she bribed everyone with candy to let her use the phone first. I had a hard time believing anyone could deny her beautiful face, even without the candy. She told me that when they realized what was happening, Micah made her lay on the floor of the bus and wouldn’t let her even attempt to get up until they were a mile away from the thieves. As much as I hated it, I was in serious debt to him. It’s now been a month and a half since I’ve heard her voice and three months since I dropped her beautiful, tear-stained face off at the airport. Jace called me a pu**y for crying when she left. Hell, I don’t care what he calls me, that girl drives me.

I tried to stay as busy as I possibly could this summer. I jumped on a plane back home with Cole and Jace immediately after Emerson’s plane took off. Quinn had spent the majority of her summer in Texas as well. Every time I went over to Cole’s to visit, Mrs. West, his mom, was treating Quinn like a princess and showering her in gifts. She looked like she was in heaven. I also noticed how Cole’s mom was teaching her how to make his favorite meals. I laughed at how she was already prepping Quinn to marry her son. It was always nice to see Quinn, but every time I did, I expected Emerson to come bouncing out of the room behind her. Sometimes I caught Quinn looking at me with a sad expression and knew she was thinking the same thing when I walked in.

On the plus side, the more Quinn enjoyed Texas, the easier it would be for Cole to get her to move out here after graduation, which would practically seal the deal for me getting Emerson to move out here. If she didn’t want Texas though, I’d go anywhere. Hell, send me to any shit hole as long as I’m by her side. I already had the rock that I would slide onto her finger one day. Although, I knew it would probably be at least another year until she was ready for something like that. In the meantime, I’ll be on pins and needles until I can get that on her gorgeous hand. Although, just in case the opportunity arose, I’d have it with me in California.

Jace helped me put a new roof and siding on the barn at mom’s this summer. She complained that we should just hire someone to do it. I knew we could afford it, but Jace and I had built this barn with dad when we were fourteen. If anyone was working on it, we were. It was tough work, and I admired my dad even more for dealing with the stress of building this thing from the ground up while having to teach two fourteen year-olds, who knew nothing about building and were more concerned with their raging hormones. Jace and I got into a couple of fistfights over this barn throughout the summer, but I think it brought us even closer.

When we finished fighting, mom would come out of the house with a tray of lemonade and look down at us, covered in dirt and lying on the ground panting. She would give each of us a glass, “You two done being idiots? Did you get it out of your systems? If not, feel free to keep at it, but make sure you make up afterward.” Then she would turn around and walk right back into the house, just like she did when we were eight years old.

After the first couple of fights, I noticed that Jace’s swings were getting weak. He used to be able to knock my damn lights out, although that never stopped me from f**king with him on a daily basis. He was too easy to rile up. One day, I brought it up to him and he shrugged uncomfortably. Dad and Jace used to box almost every day. While working on the Camaro was our time, boxing with dad was Jace’s. After a couple of weeks, I finally got him back into some gloves and we were duking it out daily until after the sun went down. I could see how exhilarated he was; boxing made him happy. I’d have to remember to help him find a gym when we got back to California.

The day before we were flying back, I found Jace in the garage, polishing the Camaro one more time before we headed out for a couple more months. I tossed him the keys and he caught them in the air.

“Want to go for a ride or something?” he asked.

“Nah, I think I’m done with her.” I rubbed the hood. “You should take her now.”

“Take her where?” He was still confused.

His eyes bugged out of his damn head and I couldn’t help but to laugh my ass off at him. “What are you talking about, Jax, this was you and dad’s thing.”

“Building it and fixing it up was our thing, but I’ve never appreciated it like you have,” I replied, thinking about that model car it took him all summer to make when he was sixteen.

“You’re f**king screwing with me, aren’t you?” When I shook my head, his mouth dropped open and his eyes filled with moisture.

I started walking out of the garage to give him a moment, but shouted over my shoulder on the way out, “Who’s the pu**y now?” I heard his chuckle from back inside the garage.

Now, I’m standing at the gate watching her plane taxi in, wearing her favorite black ball cap. The school had gotten all the family members and close friends security passes to wait at the gate for them to get off, since they had been gone so long. Charles, Ellie, Quinn and Cole were all waiting right outside of the gangway door so they could scoop her up the second she got off. I decided to stand further back past the crowd of other waiting families so that they could all have their moment with her. The second I got my hands on her, I didn’t want to have to share with anyone. Jace was bumming hard that he wouldn’t be here when she walked off, but he decided to drive the Camaro out to California. Mom convinced us to ship the motorcycle back to Texas, saying we didn’t need that many vehicles. I didn’t mind because it still freaked me out to take Emerson on it, no matter how f**king sexy she was in her leather, grabbing onto me from behind. Mom was also riding with Jace out here so she could see Emerson as well, and then she’d fly back next week. I quickly shot both of them a text to let them know she had landed safely and I’d have her call them as soon as I let her breathe. I’ve always thought I had the coolest mom, but never have I had a girlfriend that got along so well with her before. Emerson just meshed right into my life like she was made to be there.

Slowly, students started wandering off the plane. They all looked really tan and tired, but happy to be back. I started getting antsy at the prospect of seeing her again. No matter how happy I was to see her, I was extremely proud of her at the same time. One of their assignments while in Africa was to write an article that related to the trip. They already had to have them submitted to Professor Patterson a couple of weeks ago. Ellie called to tell me that the school was publishing her article in the school’s newspaper the first week classes resumed. The Dean had called to tell her about it and he also told Ellie that Emerson didn’t know about it yet, since communication was so limited. I was excited for her to find out, but I think I’ll try to hold off and surprise her with it the first week of school by showing her the actual newspaper. I had once told her that one day, we’d hear all about the great Emerson Moore: Humanitarian Journalist, and I wasn’t lying.

Another reason I was excited to get her home was because I’d taken the liberty to go ahead and get all of her textbooks that she needed this semester. I found a new way to hide notes in each one. Hopefully, I made it harder for her this time, but I have no doubt that she’ll be able to decode them. I hope she doesn’t think I’m just really lame and cheesy, but I guess love does that to a guy.

I spotted Micah first and recognized a girl from my Economics class hug him tightly around the waist; I think her name is Sophia. They started making out right in the middle of the crowd. He eventually began moving her out of the gate toward baggage claim. It made me feel ten times lighter that he had a girl; hopefully, it helped keep him away from mine.

As he was walking past me, oblivious to everyone around him except the girl on his arm, I intercepted him, “Hey man, welcome back.”

“I was wondering where you were at, she’s been talking our damn ears off about you. If I don’t hear your name for the rest of my life, it’ll be too soon.”

I couldn’t contain my cheesy-ass grin. I just pray I wasn’t f**king blushing. “I wanted to thank you for watching out for her, for me. She told me what you did that night. I don’t care how annoyed she was, I sure as hell owe you one.”

“I didn’t do it for you,” he replied.

“You still did it, so thanks man. Sorry for all the shit I put you through when you were just trying to be a friend to her.”

“No worries. I’m going to get my girl out of here now.” He nodded toward the exit. Sophia was still grinning up at him like he was Superman.

We bumped knuckles, but before he even finished his sentence, I sensed her walking out into the gate. She was even more beautiful than I remembered. Her hair had gotten longer and lighter from being in the sun all summer, and her skin had a golden hue that I was going to have fun running my hands all over later. She looked really tired as well. I just wanted to grab her and tuck her into my bed where she belonged and let her sleep for as long as she wanted, so long as she would let me lie next to her. Ellie and Quinn enfolded her in hugs the second she stepped out. I could tell she was happy to see her family, but it made me laugh when I saw her scanning the area for someone else over their shoulders. I pray to God it’s me.

After Charles and Cole had their chance to hug her, I watched as she turned and spoke to all four of them. They all rotated and pointed their fingers right at me. She whipped around and let her bags fall from her shoulders when she saw me. She took off in a dead sprint and hurtled herself into my arms. God, this was paradise. This is where she belonged always. I breathed in her unfamiliar soap and shampoo, but I could still smell her comforting scent as well… the one that was unique to her. Her legs were squeezing the life out of my waist and I never wanted her to stop.

I had never thought I would get this attached to a girl during college or even at all. I came out to California to get a degree so I could make my mom proud and to play football. Back home, I was in a fight every week with someone different, I stole guys’ girlfriends without care and I was about two seconds away from doing something that would land me in jail. I never imagined that on the morning that I met up with Cole outside of his frat house to get the key to our place, I would literally have my eyes bug out of my head at the most gorgeous girl I had ever laid eyes on. Clothed or not. The way she approached us like she was embarrassed about not having clothes on, but she didn’t want us to know, killed me.

I didn’t even know her and I almost grabbed her and threw her on my bike so no one else could have her. I wanted to beat my chest like a caveman, screaming that she was mine. To my utter dumb luck, she lived next door to me. Cole still gave me a hard time about how I made him ask some random sorority girls to sit next to him in class that first day, so that I could get her to sit next to me. I never imagined how she would rock my world off its axis just in that first hour and a half. Almost instantly, she made me a better person just by flashing that mischievous flirtatious smile at me, because I wanted to be worthy of her.

In class that first day, I grabbed her hand and wrote my number on it. The feel of her skin against mine shot electricity instantly throughout my body. I became completely aware of how beautiful she was inside and out. I’ve always tried to write on her palm because I enjoyed that moment of just touching her. I also liked having my mark on her in some way or another; I can’t help it, I’m possessive over her. I tried every opportunity I could to get next to her from then on, and I’ll never regret it.

We didn’t speak or move for what felt like hours, but I think it was only five minutes or so. I just wanted to absorb her heartbeat into mine and reassure myself that she was actually back here in my arms. I needed to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I rubbed my hands up and down her arms that were wrapped around my neck, just needing to feel her soft skin on my fingers. I slowly laced my fingers into her hair inhaling the scent more. If I could get my way, I would carry her out of this airport so I wouldn’t have to put her down. I knew I would eventually I would have to, so I enjoyed the moment as long as I could. Her face was buried in the nook of my neck and I could feel moisture on my skin.

When she finally pulled back slightly, seeing her eyes full of tears made my heart plummet to the floor. “No, no, no, baby, what’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy to see me,” I asked nervously.

“These are happy tears, Jax. I just can’t believe I’m finally back here with you. It’s been so long since I’ve talked to you… anything could have happened. I didn’t know if you would… be here,” she admitted, nervously.

When I realized that she actually thought that I would leave her while she was gone, I squeezed her in tighter. It’s hard for me to remember that she still has insecurity issues with people leaving. I’ll never forgive myself for the way I handled our relationship this past spring.

“Nothing could have kept me away from being here.”