By Lisa Ingrassia
March 15, 2010 12:00 PM

Michael Emerson said a casual goodbye to his wife, actress Carrie Preston, when he landed a mysterious guest role on Lost in 2005 and boarded a flight from their New York City home to the show’s Hawaiian set. Then, like many of the characters on ABC’s enigmatic drama-poof!-he vanished. “It was ‘I’m shooting a couple of episodes in Hawaii; see you in a couple of weeks,'” says Emerson. “Then I never came home.” The good news was that his character-later found to be named Ben Linus-was so impressively haunting that producers hired him as a series regular. When he returned home to get his clothes, however, he had to leave his wife, who was performing in a Broadway play. Recalls Preston: “Hawaii was the place that stole my husband.”

Now she’s about to get him back. After four years of living primarily in rental homes on the island of Oahu, Emerson, 55, will be saying “aloha” to his castmates and Ben. He’ll settle into his Los Angeles home with Preston, 42, where they’ll reside during the months she films HBO’s hit vampire drama True Blood (she plays waitress Arlene Fowler). “The show has been one of the experiences of a lifetime,” says Emerson. “But it’s a relief to return to my life.”

Not that their time together has ever been sedentary. The couple met in 1994 when Preston was participating in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Ala., and saw Emerson, then studying for a master’s degree at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, playing several roles in A Christmas Carol. “I had a talent crush on him,” she recalls. “Within a month I was calling my mom saying, ‘I met the man I’m going to marry.'” The feeling was mutual, and they commuted between New York and Alabama before getting married at a theater in her native Macon, Ga., in 1998 and settling in New York City, which Emerson calls “Home with a capital H.”

Hawaii, on the other hand, was not a tropical paradise for them. “I’m not used to water sports,” says Emerson, an Iowa native. “I grew up on the plains!” For her part, Preston struggled to look for acting work from a distance. “I don’t like lying around on the beach,” she says. “I like to be busy.” Her wish was granted in 2007 when she was cast in True Blood, and the couple bought a home in Los Angeles where they happily host Lost and True Blood viewing parties whenever they’re both home.

Emerson is commuting between Hawaii and L.A. until he films Lost‘s finale, due to air May 23. “I think all of the big questions will get answered,” he says. No matter what lies in store for Ben, Emerson says post-Lost he’ll happily play househusband to Preston. “I’ll hang out and be her gardener, personal assistant and breakfast-maker,” he laughs, “as long as she’ll let me.”