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Five years of marriage, Mei thought as she stood in the open doorway of her apartment, face-to-face with her husband. Five years and it had come to them not knowing where they stood with each other.
Only a millisecond had passed since she'd heard his key in the lock. But it seemed so much longer as she took in every detail of him.
Tall and worked-tanned, with the well-defined muscles of a firefighter who had been honing his body daily ever since he'd decided to dedicate himself to the job. His hair was dark, clipped short, but still long enough to run her hands through. His face was strong-featured, with a chisled jaw and a cleft in his chin. His eyes, a clash of green and gray. His nose, crooked from the time he'd broken it while attempting to administer medical aid to a frantic man his crew had extracted from a burning building.
And a husband, too, even though Mei struggled with a terrible fear that battling blazes filled a void that her love couldn't.
"Mei," he said softly.
She was so tempted to run to him .
But he was the one who had decided to leave.
Travis turned around to close the door, then gestured toward it.
"I see my key still works ."
"I wasn't sure you'd be here to test it." Her mouth was so parched that the words barely got out. "I told you that if you left this time, you shouldn't come back."
Even though she was trying so hard to stay strong, her skin cried out for one touch, one warm moment of the contact she'd been craving this past month ever since he'd left home.
"And I didn't come back," he said. "At least not when I first returned to Placid Valley a few days ago. But you checked in with mybattalion chief, so you'd already know that."
She was glad he realized how concerned she'd been about him while he volunteered to fight a string of brush fires farther south. And she hoped it made him understand just how sick she'd been about leaving things in such an ugly state, after a confrontation that should've happened long before.
But she hadn't truly wanted him to stay away.
Not even if she had given him that last-stand ultimatum borne from all his overtime, extra shifts and nights away from home.
"California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection nearly had those fires contained," Mei said, "but you rushed out there, going from one to the other, as if you were the only force that could stop them."
"Travis, you know that I want you to make a difference. Lord knows I do. But there's an extreme side of you that takes it to the limit, and I'm afraid that side doesn't know when to stop." She fisted her hands, eyes filling with wet heat. "It's as if you can'tor refuseto see what's been happening to us since"
"Since ?" he asked. But then he held up a palm, clearly knowing the answer. "Since my mother died in that fire. Since I started crusading because of her death. You don't have to say it."
A haunted cloud filled his gaze, and once again, she didn't know how to chase it away.
"You've done so much good," she said instead, "but what would your mom think of how much time and effort you spend chasing these demons? What would she say if she saw them taking you over?"
A vein stood out in his tensed neck as he held back a response.
She could see he was taking every word to heart, and she only regretted that she'd waited so long to voice what had been coming between them.
"Your mom didn't die because of you," she added.
"I know. But her death changed everythingour new marriage, my outlook on life. You signed on for the responsible future CEO you exchanged vows with, not an ultimate firefighter."
True, Mei thought. They'd gotten married at twenty-two. So young. Too naive to realize what was happening while Travis began cutting back to part-time hours in the office and preparing himself, with schooling and volunteering, to earn a place as a firefighter/paramedic with the county.
So young that she had only seen Travis turning tragedy into bravery.
She'd had no idea it would consume himthem especially after Isabel had been born. And that's when Mei had gotten scared.
What if Travis got hurt? What if he ?
She couldn't ever bring herself to think about that.
"I just wish," Mei said, chest tight, "that our daughter and I could see a balance between the fighting and the husband and father we need."
He paused. When he finally spoke, emotion filled his voice.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of what happened to my mother, Mei. I just want to make sure the same thing won't happen to another son. Another family."
A family like theirs .
She wished this would all go away so she could just close the few steps between them, to hold him. But that wouldn't show him that she took her ultimatum seriously. Giving in would only put them right back where they'd startedwith a marriage falling to pieces.
"But," he added, "you already know all that. And I came back here to strike that balance. I came back to show you that I will do anything to fight for us."
Fight. The word conjured a clinging fear that Mei couldn't compete with Travis's demons anymore. That with his mother's death, he had changed and gone down a path leading him away from her and their little daughter.
He took a breath, and she saw the ghosts return to his gaze before she could stop them.
Why couldn't she stop them?
He put his keys on the entryway table, and she saw that he still wore his wedding band. She ran her thumb over her own bare ring finger, and that seemed to draw his attention.
But even though his expression grew dark, he didn't point out the painful symbolism.
"Is it Isabel's naptime?" he asked.
"Yes. She's been asking about you."
"And I've been thinking about her and you. During the breaks between each fire, I played and replayed in my mind what you said before I left."
Her ultimatum came back to her loud and clear. "I'm willing to do anything necessary to save us," she'd said. "And unless you feel the same way, there's no use in returning to our home to pretend we're happy with never seeing each other or that I'm happy with sitting home and worrying about you beyond your regular shifts. Think about what you're willing to do."
He continued. "You brought up every doubt I'd ever entertained about what was happening between us. Doubts I always tried to excuse as part of my imagination. But that just goes to show how zealous I've been." He met her gaze head-on. "I promised I'd make everything right when I got back if you'd let me. I love you and our life together, and I'm sorry that ever got away from me."
His confession pierced her. "I love you, too, Travis, but that was never the issue."
Silence tore between them, a wound that cried out to be mended.
Finally, he broke it. "Does Isabel know about "
"About our separation? No, she doesn't have the first idea."
"Don't" he made a wiping motion with his hand, as if to shove the word away "say that."
"What? 'Separation'? Travis, that's what happened. Otherwise, you would've come straight here after you got back into town."
"I stayed at Jed's for a few days." Jed was a buddy from the firehouse. "I was too on edge, tired, from the fires. That wasn't the condition I wanted to be in to talk with you. Then I heard you'd been calling in to check on me."
His gaze told her that this had probably given him enough reason to come through their apartment door again.
Her heart constricted. God, she'd wanted him here so badly, but even now, she kept expecting his phone to ring and he would rush out the door, responding to a summons to come in for more hours, just as he had so many times before.
His gaze hadn't changed from the affectionate tinge it'd taken on when he'd asked about Isabel. "So when's my little girl getting up?"
"Isabel's been down for an hour so far. She played really hard at the beachside park this morning when my mom took her there."
"No preschool today?"
Mei closed her eyes, then opened them. "She goes only three days a week. Which you would remember if you spent more time with her."
As if her comment had wrenched more than emotional space between them, Mei blew out a breath that she found she'd been holding. Her stomach was in knots and she felt dizzy, but that was par for the stressful course lately.
Travis took another step into what used to be their home.
"You seem tired," he said, running a gaze over her.
"Just a little run-down. That's all."
He shook his head. "Dammit, Mei, I'm sorry. This past month took its toll on you ."
She flinched at her tonethe anger she'd tried so hard to contain coming through, even if she was so happy to see him again.
At the resulting silence, she fidgeted, anxious. Her gaze flitted from him to somewhere elseanywhere elsethen landed on a second entry table, piled with photos she had run through her computer printer.
Chang family pictures from last weekend's extended-clan party. A cousin from Hong Kong, her former home, had been visiting, and Mei had played the part of historian.
Travis glanced at the photos, too, and their eyes locked, making her even dizzier. She wandered away, toward the kitchen counter, then grabbed on to it.
"Guess I missed another gathering," he said.
"They ask about you, my parents. And my brothers and cousins and all the rest."
"What do you tell them?"
What could she say?
I tell them that they shouldn't worry because you're gone so much. I tell them not to lecture me about how they were right about my marrying someone so far removed from my culture and their expectations, someone whom they believed was too hot-blooded to be a good husband in the first place.
Then again, his father was no fan of their relationship, either, and it had even taken his mom a while to come around before she'd passed away.
"The details of our marriage are no one's business but our own," she said.
"Damned straight. Now that I'm not a probie anymore, I even took some more vacation time to come home and see to those details."
"Time off?" she asked, surprised.
But he'd told her he was going to change, right?
He gave a pointed look to her naked ring finger, and neither of them commented further.
Travis walked away, over the hardwood floor, toward the hallway. Somehow, he looked lost amid the bright colors and burbling rock fountains she had positioned out of the reach of Isabel.
Even though the late September afternoon light filtered through the high windows and settled over him, there was still a darkness he hadn't shed.
Mei wondered if he ever would.
And if he would always be fighting it while leaving her and Isabel behind in the process.
"Do you think coming back has really changed anything?" she asked, her throat closing with heat, with an anguish so physical it was taking her over.
"Yes," he said.
He slowly met her gaze, holding it until she couldn't bear to look away.
Then he continued. "Before now, I've gone about everything all wrong, Mei, and from this point on, I'm going to do whatever it takes to make this marriage work."
Across the room, sorrow draped over Mei like a misty veil, making Travis all the more agonized.
Even now, he still felt the rush of first love from just looking at her almond eyes, delicate nose, high cheekbones and full lips. Her fall of black hair, contained in a ponytail, along with her long white T-shirt and jeans, told him that she'd spent most of the day working on her burgeoning Internet baby-clothing line and minding Isabel.
Every cell in his body collided in their haste to get him moving in her direction so he could take her in his arms, but he told himself to wait. To be patient. There were still too many hard feelings between them.
His hesitation even went deeper than respecting her feelings. His marriage was in trouble, and he was here to save it.
Just as you try to save everything, said a small voice that he suppressed.
"I realize," he said, "that I can't merely stroll in here and be your husband again, but I'm sure going to try to work up to that."
She stared at him for a long time and he could almost translate her doubts.
Could they save this dying marriage?
Yes. With all his soul, yes.
He added, "There has to be hope for two people who love each other so much that they'd withstand the disapproval of their families to be together. We've fought for each other before, and we can do it again."
She cocked her head, her ponytail shifting off her shoulder as she opened her mouth to speak. But a tentative voice calling "Mommy?" broke in.
Mei perked up, turning toward the hallway. "Right here, Izzy."
Travis's chest contracted at the thought of seeing their daughter.
With a glance at Meiwho nodded her head toward Isabel's bedroom, as if telling him to go aheadhe took off down the hall.
Never take them for granted again, he thought, wishing he had realized how necessary it was before Mei had needed to confront him.
Isabel's closed door beckoned with that Pocahontas name sign marking her territory.
That little signhe'd missed seeing it.
He opened the door, exposing a room busy with dark pink boas hanging from hooks, posters of laughing cartoon characters hanging on the walls and a bed piled high with colorful stuffed animals.
Isabel was sitting between a Bugs Bunny and a Shrek. For a second, she stared at him, blinking, and the irrational notion of her not recognizing him racked Travis. He hesitated.