Chapter 5Keri woke up at two minutes after four the next morning, and stumbled down the stairs and toward the kitchen. The light was already on, a scent of coffee filling the air. As she walked into the kitchen, she saw Nick standing in front of the stove, mixing something.
"You're up already?"
He turned around. "Oh-four-hundred hours, right?"
She chuckled. "Yeah. Four o'clock."
He opened a cabinet and pulled out a mug, then filled it with coffee. "Cream? Sugar?"
"All of the above." She yawned. "How do you function at this time?"
He went to the refrigerator and got the cream and sugar. "I'm used to it. I get up before four every morning, to be at work by four-thirty."
"Wow. What time do you work till?"
He poured some cream and sugar into her mug and stirred it with a spoon. "Ten at night. I get breaks, sometimes, for meals."
"You work harder than I do. I bet you're exhausted."
"Not really. In the military, I have to be ready for things like that. I got used to it." He put the cream and sugar away, then handed her the coffee and kissed her forehead. "How are you today?" His gaze met her eyes, making her realize how special he really was.
She had to answer. "Fine, I guess. I'm really not awake yet."
"I see that." He turned around and searched in the cabinets, then grabbed a waffle iron. "Does your family like waffles?"
"They love them. I can help."
"No. The turkey's in the oven, on a medium-low heat." He poured the batter into the waffle iron, and closed it. "Have a seat and talk to me."
She didn't sit down, but sipped the coffee. "I want to help. What else did you want to make?"
"What would be good?"
She grinned. "Coffee cake or cinnamon rolls?"
"How about fried apples, too?"
"Yeah." He grinned. "You're good at this."
"I've done it a bit."
They got to work on the apples and coffee cake, talking about life the whole time. They grew up with similar backgrounds, where education and hard work got you to where you wanted to be.
Paula and Bill walked into the kitchen around seven, looking like they just woke up. "Thank you guys for taking care of these things," Paula said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Did they tell you to wrap your hand after a shower?" Nick asked, while setting the table.
"Yeah. I can do it."
"No, I'll do it," he said. "I want to make sure you're okay. I don't trust a lot of doctors."
They all sat down to eat waffles, apples, coffee cake, and mixed fruit with coffee and juice to drink.
"Keri, did you do all this?" Paula asked, looking at everything on the table.
"No. It was Nick. He got up before I did and took care of most of this and the turkey. I finally got a shower right before you guys came downstairs."
"Me, too," Nick said, while eating.
"Together?" Bill asked.
Keri just laughed. "No, Dad. We're just…friends." She glanced toward Nick.
"Kissing friends," Bill said with a smile. "I approve. Go ahead and date him. You need someone nice in your life, unlike Josh. I never liked him."
Keri glanced toward Nick's smile.
"Want to date?" he asked her.
"You're going back soon. Does that make sense?"
"Sure it does," Bill said, and glanced toward Paula. "We started dating the day before I had to ship out. I didn't think I'd come back alive. At least Nick's not on the front lines."
"No, sir, I'm not," Nick said. "But distances can be tough."
"You probably have tons of women falling at your feet over there, too," Keri said.
Nick shook his head. "Nope. I won't allow it. I'm there for the job, only. I had a girl back home when I first went over there, and decided it wasn't a good idea because I was trying to make a name for myself. I've done that now, and it's time to settle down a bit and have a friend. I have life goals, and it's almost time to move on from that job." He nudged Keri with his elbow. "Are you game?"
"Maybe. Let's just see where this goes."
Paula and Bill laughed, making both Keri and Nick stare at them.
"That's what I said when Bill shipped out," Paula said. "And thirty-four years later, we're still married."
They talked through breakfast and got lunch ready with the turkey and all the items just as Aunt Clara arrived. After eating too much and trying to be nice to her family, Keri grabbed her coat and walked out the back door. She needed space and since Nick was talking to Walter and Darryl, she had the time.
Keri cleared the snow off the porch swing and sat down. No sooner had she settled in and started to move the swing than the door opened and Nick walked beside her with his coat on. "Is this seat taken?" he asked, pointing toward the swing.
She smiled at him. "Nope. Have a seat. You took long enough."
He sat down with a laugh. "They drive you nuts, don't they?"
"You have no idea. I'm tired of hearing about Clara's aches and pains, and Mom telling her all about her burn and how you handled it. You walk on water in their mind."
"Are you mad at me?"
"Never. I just hate these sorts of things. I miss the heat of back home and I'm tired of the snow already."
He laughed at her and put his arm over her shoulder. "You don't have to mince words with me. Tell me what you're really thinking."
"Are Brittany and Darryl coming with you?"
"Yes. Both of them."
"I really don't want to deal with them. I say give them the keys then you fly back with me and stay at my place. Want to? It's my treat."
"I really have to get back overseas. They weren't happy that I wanted to come home at all. Why don't you come to see me over Christmas? I'll buy your ticket."
"I can't do that."
"I've never been overseas. I don't even have a passport."
He was quiet for a moment. "I'll figure something out, but really want to spend time with you."
They talked about some ideas, but nothing panned out. Before long, Karen walked out to the porch. "We're playing games again. Aunt Clara wants to play."
"Here we go," Keri said. "Now we get to hear about her bowel movements, I bet."
Nick just laughed and helped Keri stand up. "How are your arches now?"
"Much better. How much do I owe you for that?"
"Nothing. Ever. I love doing it for you and if you need another massage, just let me know."
They went inside, chuckling, and sat down to a very long but funny party game yet again. Keri had to admit, it was better with Nick around. He could even keep Clara from talking about her aches and pains.
The next morning, Keri dressed in the only dress she'd packed, and went with Nick to his father's funeral. There were a few taxi drivers there, but only about ten people stood at graveside after the funeral service. When it was over, Nick just stayed seated, staring at the casket with his hands clasped in front of him.
"Are you okay?" Keri asked.
"I miss him a lot. I need to talk to him about my life."
"Want to talk to my dad?"
Nick looked up at the blue sky. "I don't think he'd understand. Dad and I didn't see eye-to-eye much, but your dad talks to each of you. He understands a lot more than my father ever did. But when Dad did decide to talk to me, he'd have a lot of good advice."
"What did you want to talk to him about?"
He glanced at her before returning his gaze to the grave. "You wouldn't understand, either."
"Try me. You'd be surprised what I understand."
He put his arm over her shoulders. "I wish you could, but all emotion has to be out of it. Just know I miss my dad."
She pulled him in for a hug, wishing she could take all his pain away from him, just as his cell phone rang. He backed away and pulled his phone from his pocket, then looked at the identification screen. As soon he saw it, he sat up straight and put it to his ear. "Yes, sir, Colonel." He listened for a moment. "I'm at the funeral right now, sir. I'll get a flight out right away, sir." His glance to Keri looked very sad. "Yes, sir. I can get a flight out ASAP. Just keep them pain-free until I get there." He nodded and ended the call.
He turned toward Keri and stroked her cheek. "I have to go back. They have many wounded and need me. It's all hands on deck right now."
"I understand. I'll handle getting your car to your sister."
"No, let Darryl and Brittany take it. I'll put some cash in the dash so they can stay over a few nights and make it to Tampa. I'm just sorry we didn't get more time together." He leaned over and gave her a kiss. "I'm sorry I didn't get to talk more to you and to Dad."
"You can still talk to me, you know."
He grinned. "I intend to. Check your email and cell phone often." He took her hand and helped her to her feet. "Let's go. I need to get my stuff and get to the airport."
And the countdown was on for Keri to lose her friend. Long distance relationships didn't work and she knew that was the truth.