He turned, shooting a glare in my direction, and then he pulled the truck over onto the shoulder of the highway, shoving the gearshift into park.
“You wind up on the filthy floor of a gas station bathroom. You kiss me goodbye, and then you just fucking disappear. I’ve been stuck on a mountain, worried sick, Ellison. I had no way to get to you, no way to call around to find out if you were even alive, and even then, I didn’t sleep because every phone call I made led nowhere.”
I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ve done a lot of selfish things, and I owe you more than one apology.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have left you at the apartment. I saw you struggling. You’ve been struggling for a while. I’ve taken you to a fucking bar, I pulled some strings to get you out of jail because you were drunk and looking for the fire, I’ve taken you to parties, and knew you were spiking your coffee at work … I’m your friend first, Ellie, and I’ve failed you on every level.”
Barb had explained to me the hurricane I would walk into when I was released from Passages. I wouldn’t only have to navigate my own guilt, but the guilt of everyone who loved me as well.
“Tyler, stop. We both know you couldn’t have stopped me if you wanted. I had to be the one to make the decision, and you loved me right up until I did.”
His warm brown eyes were glossed over, full of desperation. “We were both messed up the night we met, but the more time I spent with you, the more normal I felt.”
He paled, reaching for the glove box. He popped it open, clutching a small, dark red box. “Open it.”
The box creaked open, and I exhaled, searching for words that never came.
“You know what it’s like up on the mountain. Even when I’m digging ditches, there’s a lot of time to think. When Jojo told me you were coming home … I went straight to the jeweler’s. I can’t imagine anything else but being with you and coming home to you and … Ellie, will you—”
“This is a lot my first day back.”
He nodded a few times, and then snatched the box from me. He faced forward, hitting his steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “Goddamn it! I wasn’t going to say that. I told myself a hundred times on the way here not to tell you. You don’t need this right now. You just got home, and I’m throwing all this heavy shit at you.”
My chest felt tight. “I’ve put you through hell,” I said, sinking into guilt so deeply I wasn’t sure I could crawl out.
He looked up at me. “If you’re the fire, Ellie … I’ll burn.”
A tear tumbled over my cheek, and I could see him waiting for me to decide what my tears meant. I reached for him, and he pulled me over the console into his lap, wrapping his arms around me and planting tiny pecks on my neck and cheek until he reached my mouth.
His hands cupped each side of my jaw, and he kissed me deep and slow, telling me he loved me without saying anything at all.
He pulled back, touching his forehead to mine, his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling with every quick breath. He looked up at me, his eyebrows pulling in, but before he could ask, I blurted out the answer.
“But,” I began. His face fell, the hope in his eyes extinguished. “I have a lot of things I need to work on. I’m going to need a lot of time, and a lot of patience.”
He shook his head and sat up, ready to fight for me. He opened the box, plucking the small silver band with a single round solitaire diamond. “I know it’s not as big as Finley’s…”
“I don’t care about that. I just care about what this means.”
He slipped the band onto my finger and choked out a laugh. “Holy shit.”
I thought about his words, letting them bounce around in my mind along with everything I’d learned over the past two months. Returning to old relationships or starting new ones was a recipe for a relapse, and Tyler and I qualified as both. Knowing that, I knew no one could teach me how to love me better than him.
“Whatever you need, baby,” he said, holding my hand to his lips.
I settled back into my seat, and Tyler’s hand encompassed mine for the rest of the way back to Estes Park. I didn’t feel added stress or worry or anxious—quite the opposite. Everything had seemed to fall into place in the same day. The new Ellie was home, in love, engaged, and happy. I couldn’t imagine anything emotionally healthier than that. Not that I expected everything to be smooth sailing, but when I looked at Tyler, the only thing I felt was content.
Jojo poked her head around the corner, looking like she’d fallen asleep in a tanning bed. Her long blonde braid hung from the nape of her neck, swinging a bit in front of her shoulder. “Got a minute?”
“Sure,” I said. “Just let me finish up this…” I typed out a few more words, saved the document, and sat back in my office chair.
“How does it feel to be back?” she asked, collapsing into the love seat in front of my desk.
“And how do you like your new place?” she asked.
I nodded again. “That it’s not mine, nor anything that’s in it.”
“I know this is hard. It’d be harder without their help. Right now the focus is on getting well.”
“I know. Tyler says the same. He’s not even pushing me to move in with him, which is … weird.”
“But smart. Congratulations, by the way.” The synapses of Jojo’s mind were clearly firing, and I waited while she twisted the platinum strands hanging from the clear elastic band securing her braid. “Chief called today. He asked how you were doing.”
“Yes, that Chief. He asked a few questions about your recovery.”
“He wants to give you another chance.”
“They’re leaving for Colorado Springs in two days.”
“When they’re back, Chief asked me if you’d be ready.”
“Why would he want me to come back?” I asked, suspicious.
“He saw your latest feature on the forestry service. It’s getting great reception, and they would like to see it wrapped up on a positive note.”
“I guess the AP picking it up helped him make that decision?”
Jojo smiled. “I’m pretty sure Daddy would adopt you if he could. You put this magazine on the map. Ad space is booked up for six months. Subscription numbers set a new high every day. That was all you, Ellie. I can’t even take the credit for the last write-up. I used almost every word you wrote.”
“I noticed your name was absent.”
“With good reason,” she said, leaning forward. “Getting you well is our first priority. If you think it’s too much, too soon, we’ll push it back to next year’s fire season. Daddy wanted to make sure you knew that.”
I turned, seeing that Wick’s door was closed. It had been that way since I’d returned to a full-time desk job.